Freedom vs. Security in a Surveillance Society

Plus Mars, AI, Nukes, and the Art of Cinema

Hello readers. This week's edition of the newsletter covers a variety of topics from surveillance technology to nuclear weapons, visual algorithms, Mars, and the art of cinema. Let's dive in.


Surveillance Society

Current trends in technology are stimulating a debate that will define the next decade, the value of privacy and freedom versus the importance of security in an ever-growing complex society. In this question of politics and philosophy, society will analyze the growing use of surveillance technology with a critical and watchful eye.

One such application of this is facial recognition technology, which has come under scrutiny due to its breach of citizen privacy. A recent study shows that over time, "...researchers, driven by the exploding data requirements of deep learning, gradually abandoned asking for people's consent." Do you remember the short life of Google Glass? If so, you may recall the momentary panic about losing our sense of privacy, being filmed, of our faces becoming public property. Despite Glass's death years ago, the big brother dream of scanning and identifying people out in the world has only grown. And yet, this is only the beginning.

In a Wired piece by Arthur Holland Michel, we get a glimpse into the consequences of "fusion technology," algorithms that combine different surveillance datasets into one system that can analyze and predict human behavior. Michel gives a brief history of the military's initial development of this system, adding tours through the NYPD and private companies, showcasing the range of influential organizations working on this technology. With fusion surveillance, the internet, and future products like Apple's AR glasses, it seems we are coming to another moment of reckoning, a glimpse at a potential variation of Orwell's vision.

It may seem easy to say the answer to the question of freedom versus security is "security up to a certain point," that our freedom is a value of the highest moral order, that without it, what it means to be a human is fundamentally lost. The philosopher Nick Bostrom, famous for continuously bending our minds to unappealing future scenarios—see Simulation Argument, Final Filter, his work on AI—shares "The Vulnerable World Hypothesis" in a recent essay in Aeon Magazine. In it, Bostrom explains how the advancement of technology may inevitably lead to a scenario where a specific one, such as nukes, becomes so easy to create that just one individual can bring the world to civilizational collapse. Artificial intelligence or human-made pandemics are possible scenarios in this vein. Bostrom discusses potential solutions to this problem and how we can prevent it, because once the tech is out of the box, there is no going back. He describes a "global governance" or "system of total surveillance" as ways of defending against this danger. Consider the surveillance system, where he imagines every person wearing a "freedom tag" that monitors their every move, ensuring that nobody can create the weapon. The raging objections to the loss of privacy and freedom would be fervent. Still, as Bostrom says, once people see the damage that could be done, it becomes more politically possible to enact these solutions, like the Patriot Act after 9/11.

This all goes to show that the debate is not easily solved. The balancing of personal freedom and the survival of our species is impossible to weigh. How much are we willing to sacrifice to ensure the future of humanity? Would you be continuously monitored if it guaranteed the extended existence of billions of more human lives, including your direct descendants? Utilitarians may be forced to answer yes. Or would you choose the same freedoms you have today, even if there was an increasingly constant chance of global annihilation? 

In an essay titled Dreaming Big, Christopher Butler uses the example of alien civilizations in Star Trek to lament our inability to stretch toward a more simple society. He describes these alien species as "post-post scarcity," those as technologically advanced as the Federation, but choosing instead to live a simpler life. This result is one mentioned by Bostrom in his essay, choosing to essentially halt progress. If we do this, though, we run into questions of resource allocation and the moral imperative of expanding our species' longevity (i.e., creating the technology that makes us multi-planetary).

The conflict between the future and its path toward prosperity or collapse, is essential to the core of this newsletter. I encourage you to check out our previous essays on the topic: (Part One, Part Two).


A New Nuke

Speaking of nukes, Elisabeth Eaves writes an informative essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, providing an overview of the political and economic incentives behind the production of the GBSD (ground-based strategic deterrent), a new missile that is "20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima." She drills deep into the silos of the American plains, showing how the missile construction brings jobs to small local communities and billions to the weapon manufacturer. Eaves also writes about moral questions raised by these weapons, asking if "mutually assured destruction" is an effective geopolitical strategy, and how the continued production of these missiles means there will continue to be a risk of a mistake that could cost millions of lives.


A Trip to Mars

This week NASA landed its Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars, the latest in a line of Martian-bound explorers. An interview in Futurism with the new head of the agency, Steve Jurczyk, shares some interesting insights into NASA's operations and the agency's future. It's going to be an exciting decade for our expansion into space, with moon bases and a human journey to Mars in the docket.


The Art of Cinema

This week Marin Scorsese wrote an essay about the art of cinema, longing for a time when the quality of a film's artistic merit was of higher cultural importance, in contrast to today, which is overrun with "content": a plethora of TikTok videos, Twitter memes, and streaming TV. I sympathize with Scorsese's points, despite his well-known criticism of superhero movies—one of my favorite genres which I believe holds artistic merit—but I disagree with his central thesis, which seems to be the death of true art. The democratization of creation has led to a surge of artistic "content," even in short form social formats. I'm no philosopher of aesthetics, but it seems that the primary purpose of art is to move the mind, body, or soul of another human being. Cinema, like that described by Scorsese, is one of the highest forms of human creativity, being able to dispel complex ideas and emotions in imaginative ways. But what is to say that a YouTube video can’t hold the same inherent value if it impacts people in a similar way. It all comes down to your choice of value. 

Although Scorsese mentions theater crowds several times in his piece, I wish he shared more of his perspective on the broader cinema experience, especially in a post-pandemic world, a topic I wrote about a few weeks ago. I believe that what happens on the screen is only half the story; what happens with those gathered in a theater is just as critical. 


AI Vision

Algorithms seem to be a key theme of this newsletter in 2021, following our recent essay covering OpenAI's GPT-3 and our brief summary of DALL-E. Jacob Jackson just released a visual search engine called Same.Energy, which uses a deep-learning algorithm to serve you images related to the one you click on. The result is a very cool, stylish example of how powerful these algorithms are getting. 


Unimaginable Loss

Julie Bosman writes a striking picture of the unimaginable loss from the coronavirus, with deaths in the United States nearing 500,000: "More Americans have perished from Covid-19 than on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined." In the article, she shares stories of families still mourning the loss of friends and family. The soldiers of this war—the doctors, nurses, frontline workers—remain on the battlefield, yet many refuse to believe we are even fighting a war. If this country is to come out of this crisis with any semblance of normalcy, we must truly grasp the magnitude of this loss and do everything in our power to prevent more by continuing to do things like wear masks and get vaccines.


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