Favour The Bold Afterword


Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

-Benjamin Franklin


What would you do if you knew you were being watched all the time?


It’s a question that sits ill with me, for a number of reasons.  One of them is that I have known a number of extremely religious people (Christians and Muslims) who were constantly on edge, because they believed that God was watching them and judging them every hour of every day.  They could not allow themselves to slack, not even for a moment.  It wasn’t that they wanted to fall into sin - ‘sin,’ as they defined it - but that they were terrified of being found unworthy.  They could not let things slide.  They had to invite people to their faith, they had to observe every rule, they had to enforce them on their dependents (children), they had ... because they feared the consequences if they did not. 


And this does tend to be mirrored in the workplace.  People who think, rightly or wrongly, that they’re being watched all the time tend to resent it.  They feel naked, they feel that they have no freedom, no room to make mistakes.  The increasing number of open offices, with everyone in one big chamber, has actually led to a fall in actual productivity.  There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the lack of privacy.  You can’t hold a meeting between lower-ranking staff in an open office without everyone overhearing and injecting their comments into the conversation.  Nor can you listen to music or scratch your rear without someone making a fuss about it.  No, you have to look busy even when its counterproductive. 


Indeed, there was - only a couple of weeks or so ago, at the time of writing - an amusing incident on the set of Star Trek Discovery that illustrates my point.  Walter Mosley, who is black, penned an op-ed explaining that he quit writing for the show after being harassed by human resources for using the N-word in the writing room.  He didn’t deny using it, but - as he explained - he wasn’t using it to insult anyone (which HR could have reasonably objected to) or even purely for dramatic effect.  He was using it to explain something that had happened to him, which caused someone to make an anonymous complaint.    As he asks:


How can I exercise [both the freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness] when my place of employment tells me that my job is on the line if I say a word that makes somebody, an unknown person, uncomfortable?


The concept of being permanently watched is one that does make people uncomfortable, for obvious reasons.  We are schooled to believe in privacy, even when we should know better.  We are outraged when we learn that perverts have hidden cameras in changing rooms; we are worried when we discover that AIRBNB has a hidden camera problem, when hosts set up cameras and film guests.  Indeed, the secrecy is part of the problem.  One cannot reasonably object to a declared camera filming people who go in and out of the door.  But one can object to one placed in the bathroom, or the bedroom, and if there is one undeclared camera how can the guest be sure there aren’t more? 


Grappling with the consequences of social change (that which was acceptable five years ago is now verboten) and new technology (which isn’t always covered by previous laws) is difficult enough.  It’s difficult to accept, on some level, that your customers might also loathe you and will happily abandon you, if they discover an alternative.  (The music industry was practically crippled by pirated music because it was blatantly obvious that they were exploiting their former customers, who accordingly had no qualms about depriving the big companies of their revenues.)  However, it is something that we should all bear in mind.  The seemingly endless series of data protection scandals are a clear warning that our data is already out there, that it may fall into the hands of people with shadowy motives.  And the effects of this can be quite serious.


One simple example, perhaps, would be telling Facebook that you’re going on holiday.  This seems harmless, right?  Not so much if you’re being followed by people who want to burgle your house.  You’ve just told them the building will be empty for the next week or so.  And then there are the more complex examples, the problems that arise from large-scale data mining.  If you have a habit of buying groceries online, a monitoring program can note what you buy and use it to tailor what you’re shown.  You might be given offers they think will interest you, because you’ve shown an interest in it, or you might not be shown certain offers because they think you’ll buy the items at full price anyway.  Some of the online supermarkets are really quite cunning.  At least two of the supermarkets I’ve used have a policy that urges you to sign in first, on the grounds you’ll be shown stuff you can buy.  If you don’t sign in, you might discover that you can’t actually buy some of the stuff in your shopping basket when you checkout.  But if you do sign in, they know who you are and can tailor what you see.  The prospects for manipulation are staggering.


Sometimes, to be fair, the results are mixed.  I’ve used Amazon for over fifteen years.  I keep getting emails and search results listing books Amazon thinks I will like.  However, only a third of them are good results, in the sense they’re books I might actually buy.  The remainder include a number of suggestions that simply don’t make much sense, ranging from books that might be connected to my purchases if one uses a great deal of imagination to books that have no connection whatsoever.  (And that’s not getting into the issue of Amazon trying to sell me books by some bloke called Christopher Nuttall.)  At other times, however, the results of data-mining are frighteningly accurate.  You can build up a terrifyingly accurate picture of someone by tracking their electronic footprint.


It’s not easy to see how the big social media companies can really rein this in, even if they wanted to.  Facebook is free to the average user because the real money is in advertising.  They want - they need - to collect accurate data and sell it, regardless of what you think about it.  (This is why it’s a good idea to limit what you tell them.)  To cut down on data-mining would be to cut down their revenues, particularly since it would be difficult to monetise the basic service.  A chunk of their users wouldn’t be able to pay for it, I think, and another chunk would only pay in exchange for ironclad guarantees the company wouldn’t play games with their accounts. 


The prospects for abuse are staggering - and already here.  Forget tailored adverts and offers, think politics.  It’s quite easy, if you have a position of power, to slant things in the direction you want them to go, by doing everything from promoting posts you like to actively impeding people who disagree with you.  Merely shadow-banning posters can cause all sorts of problems, particularly when it’s difficult to be sure it’s happening.  Worse, threatening producers with being kicked off if they refuse to toe the line can force them into resentful compliance.  Facebook is riding for a fall, in my opinion, because - like the music industry - it has built up a deep well of hatred from vast numbers of ordinary people.  When a replacement takes off, Facebook may collapse as quickly as MySpace.


Indeed, if you want to stay up at night, just think about how many of your gadgets betray your every move?  How do you know someone isn’t looking at you through your computer’s camera?  How do you know you turned the Wi-Fi off?  (Funny, isn’t it, how modern laptops don’t come with a physical on-off internet switch.)  How do you know Siri or Alexa aren’t listening to - and recording - everything you say?  (There has already been a scandal with workers listening to people having sex through their voice-activated devices.)  How do you know your mobile phone isn’t spying on you?  Anyone could be watching you, right now.


And this is in the West.  It is much worse in China, behind the Great Firewall; it is far - far - worse in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other repressive regimes where the internet can be turned on and off at will.  China has already started building up a social credit system that can be used to keep its citizens under control, a level of intrusion that is right out of 1984.  We should be concerned, very concerned, about this spreading to the West.  What could someone do with that level of access and bad intentions?   They could tear your life apart, easily.  George Orwell was a prophet of the dark side of modern technology.


Every so often, I come across people urging that constitutional and/or legal safeguards should be put aside for the Greater Good.  They are opposed to a Really Bad Thing - extremists online, for example - and insist, loudly, that anyone who opposes dismantling such safeguards, in this one incident, is a supporter of Really Bad Thing.  It’s a maddening argument because it puts anyone who disagrees on the defensive right from the start.  And, from a subjective point of view, they might be right.  Really Bad Thing is a Really Bad Thing.


But here’s the problem.  It’s never just one thing.  It’s never just the need to stop terrorists or extremists or People Who Dare To Disagree With Me.  Once the precedent is set, once those safeguards have been put aside, they don’t work any longer.  Someone will say “you banned this, now you can ban that.”  You’re heading down the slippery slope, picking up speed as you fall into tyranny.  And anyone who dismisses the concept of the slippery slope has more faith in humanity than I do.  Once you start making exceptions, you can’t stop.


And once you’re at the bottom of that slope, do you know you’ll be at the top of whatever remains?


The problem with a lot of people who advocate such measures is that it never occurs to them that the measures might, in turn, be used against them.  Whatever your motives, you have to remember that your enemy will feel free to turn your own weapon against you.  Once you cross the line, your enemy will consider it permission to cross it too.  Or your former supporters will decide you’re not pure enough and turn on you.  You really need to be careful what precedents you set when you’re in power.  They can be turned against you.


Personally?  I say “Make 1984 fiction again!”


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2019




And now you’ve read the book, I have a favour to ask.


It’s getting harder to earn a living through indie writing these days, for a number of reasons (my health is one of them, unfortunately).  If you liked this book, please post a review wherever you bought it; the more reviews a book gets, the more promotion.