The Only Winning Move

To date we have written about the Panopticon in a mostly figurative sense. Clear Eyes today means seeing it in a literal sense as well. Here’s your top of the Zeitgeist piece, a Financial Times feature on the death of privacy – and more importantly, the arguments being made in favor of its demise.

Is Privacy Dead? [Financial Times]

This is rather obviously an argument for the inevitability (if not explicitly in support) of the literal Panopticon. Indeed, there are few nudges more powerful than those which compel us to believe that we are already engaged in a contest of mutually assured destruction. How does the Nudge work?

It tells you that you aren’t protecting your family if you don’t participate in the ritual of collective surveillance.

If tells you that you aren’t a functioning, right-thinking member of society if you don’t do your part to aid the herd immunity of mutually assured surveillance.

We killed our web-based ads this week. We did it for a few reasons. First, in all candor, we did it because the revenues from it were good (you’re an audience advertisers desperately want to reach), but not life-changing. Second, we did it because no matter how hard we worked with our partners, ads we didn’t feel good about kept slipping through the net (and while we’re not judging you, please bear in mind that some of the example ads you sent to me and Ben were, shall we say, uh, the result of your own browsing histories). Third, we did it because the technologies required to serve up the most valuable ads put us in the position of asking you to give up control of some of your data in ways that we found it hard to justify.

I don’t want to make this some kind of big deal, because it isn’t. We still have to collect information about you to accept payments – although even there, we are in the process of exploring the integration of btcpay through a self-hosted node to reduce even that requirement for those who are so inclined. And we are not communists: if we can find ways to serve non-subscribers advertisements that don’t effectively treat your data as if it were our own, we will put up the most obnoxious banner ads you can imagine – and smile doing it.

But no, the Big Deal is when all of us choose to act with reciprocity – acting in ways that are likely to promote cooperative gameplay. And friends, mutually assured surveillance is the ultimate competitive game, a massively sized and massively failed stag hunt that is part of the transformation of all of our social engagements into games with bad equilibrial outcomes for everyone. The nudges that can be summoned to secure our compliance are many:

We will hear that what we can do with others’ data can make us (and our shareholders) wealthier.

We will hear that it will make us safer.

We will hear that it will make our neighbors and communities safer.

Every last one of those things will be 100% true. Clear eyes.

Every last one of those things will also be 100% wrong. Full Hearts.


  1. I get why the gov’t and, maybe, many corporations see the panopticon as attractive, but why does any individual, acting as an individual, like science fiction writer David Brin want it?

    He’d be giving up his privacy in return for what? What is the benefit he sees? Even corporations have to know that they, too, would be giving up their privacy (and most company’s are pretty secretive) - so why?

  2. Safety, ease, comfort, fear. That and the assumption of inevitability can do a lot to create an incentive to want to see the upside. (Although to be fair I’m not sure how much David is bought in vs. Simply observing)

  3. I wonder what Brin thinks of his observations now? That might have made for some interesting reading. Meanwhile the stats on the PRC “leading the world” in putting everyone in the Panopticon speaks for itself. A totalitarian government, where they collate such varied things as electricity usage, purchases of materials and other habits allow them to form a sort of “pre-crime” unit to control the population. If you use an unusual amount of electricity and have been buying fertilizer and metal you might be making bombs. The list is almost endless. Clear eyes: See the nudging oligarchy pushing us into thinking that all of this data gathering and analysis is for our “good” prevents clime, makes us safe, heightens our buying pleasure. Instead it can be used in a Black Mirror way of total domination by the government or the FAANG,XOM, T, VZ,TW,MSFT combine. Full hearts: Know we are well on the road to serfdom and slavery. Can’t Lose: Take our info back and stop being willing to trade a cheek swab for a free taco.

  4. Part of the challenge is that we all plant our flag differently around the ideas of individual right vs. community rights. One persons panopticon is another persons dream.

  5. sounds like Nazi germany

  6. “‘It was fun while it lasted, living on these city streets amid countless, nameless fellow beings,’ Brin wrote[…] ‘It was also lonely.’”

    This is new! Waving surveillance as a cure for loneliness. No, loneliness is only cured when we have a real community, when, among other things, everyone truly cares about making our public institutions work. Real community was lost when we graduated from small hunting tribes to large agricultural nation-states, and then the loss became almost total when the Industrial Revolution atomized individual lives.

    What I think surveillance will do is to greatly enhance ‘awareness arbitrage.’ The elites take advantage of the lack of public awareness, for example, of how money really works. It used to be, the elites had awareness but not enough knowledge of individuals, while individuals lacked awareness but knew the public bits of the elites’ actions. Surveillance will help even the playing field on the knowledge front, making the advantage in awareness more decisive.

  7. agree…seems to be what the Chinese say about their Social Credit system…although how much is actual Chinese people saying stuff and how much is just propaganda …? In Xi’s China these days nobody actually says what they think in any official forum…

  8. Hell yes.

  9. I would submit that whoever dreams of anything another would consider a panopticon is a kind of tyrant. A petty tyrant, perhaps, depending on their authority, but what’s yours is yours, no matter what I may think my rights to it are or ought to be.

  10. Really shrewd observations here, Bob, and really well put. (Have you considered submitting something for ET to publish?) There is a gross sophistry to the characterization of surveillance as a cure for loneliness, but that IS, in effect, the trade of ALL of our online convenience, isn’t it?

    I have to give thought to your awareness point. It’s a nuance I hadn’t considered, although it rings true to me.

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