Act 2: The Surveillance State as Public Utility

A friend confides in me that they don’t feel as if their job is a ‘career’, because they didn’t need a degree for the career path they’ve been on for nearly 15 years. No degree, not management, not ‘career’.

I respond that if a career means endless promotion resulting in management positions, then I never want to have a career.

Early 2003.

I’ve recently broken up with a long time girlfriend, feeling as if I’ve been asleep for the previous four years of life – missing everything important. I sit in a daze, watching our country invade the middle east with non-stop televised live footage of the war at hand, this is a first. “Shock and Awe”, indeed.

I’ve been listening to a lot of the Matthew Good solo album Avalanche, and his band’s previous release, Audio of Being.

The albums strike me as a soundtrack for a future dystopia I am far too naive to realize already exists. One song in particular ingrains itself in the forever memory store:

Here’s a quarter for the phone
why don’t you call someone and find out
how it is we can all belong
to something that no one
wants any part of
one day you’ll wake up and there’ll be
advertising on police cars
and your death will sell you out
as someone smart,
somewhat smart

Baby don’t get out out of bed,
just lay back down your pretty head
and they’re advertising on police cars

Days or months later, the hundredth article on the up and coming surveillance state in the UK pops up on slashdot. The tin-foil hat crazies go on and on about how one day the entire world will be this way, cameras on every street corner, state-sponsored cyber warfare, and so on.


One comment on the slashdot UK surveillance state story catches my eye, a slashdotter recommends we read The Light Of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter.

Arthur C Clarke? I love the movie 2001, on to the amazon “books to read” list the novel goes.

It’s 1999. I’m a high school junior sitting in a Barnes N Noble reading a book about the world before 9/11, before patriot acts, before twitter and selfies.

I’m reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

The atom bomb book is a massive book. I determine to finish it by the end of the summer, always forcing myself to go read bits of it at the store – an excuse to get out of the house and feel social in one of those weird ways introverts feel social without talking to anyone at all; also an excuse to not pay $25 for the book.

Rhodes starts his book talking about Leo Szilard, one of a few top scientists who made the atomic bomb a reality. Rhodes recounts how many scientists involved with the project had typical scientist delusional fantasies: this new, bigger weapon will cause world peace somehow, because of course it will.

In the book, Rhodes mentions Szilard in particular was incredibly influenced by a book H.G. Wells had written before World War I entitled The World Set Free.

Wells’ vision of utopia in The World Set Free entails the invention of an atomic weapon that renders a major world city a nuclear wasteland, uninhabitable for eons of time to come – after this unimaginable event takes place, all world powers unite and become peaceful – free of war.

How crazy it must have been for Szilard to read these sci-fi books about a future that in part came true just as predicted.

I didn’t finish the atomic bomb book. Instead I lost myself in H.G. Wells stories, finding his short story The Country of the Blind a perfect summary of every argument with the ignorant and dogmatic, ever. Idiots rule.


A local theatre shows 2001 : A Space Oddyssey on 35mm. My wife endures 3+ hours of amazing, and never lets me forget about her sacrifice whenever the movie comes up in the future.

The screening pushes me back into another Arthur C Clarke habit, reading the entire 2001 series of books again. Unsatisfied, I browse my amazon wishlist of books to read and find The Light Of Other Days, the book the tin-foil-hat slashdotter recommended several years ago in response to the UK becoming a surveillance state.

I read the book, finding it both fascinating and terrifying all at once. The plot supposes a brilliant technologist invents a machine that can instantly recall or ‘see’ any point in time anywhere on earth, all-encompassing youtube with instant recall for any GPS coordinate you wish.

In the book, the masses are terrified by this all seeing machine – it shouldn’t exist, or it should be highly regulated, or at the very least it shouldn’t be controlled by a single company. Like the machine gun, and the atom bomb before it – the machine exists, it cannot be taken back or wished out of existence. The work’s been done, and now the world must deal with the consequences.

That’s Act 1.

2012. George Zimmerman kills an unarmed 17 year old African American boy. He’s acquitted.

Say what you will about a country divided, at least in the case of Zimmerman, we’re fairly united in our outrage.


Edward Snowden blows the whistle on the NSA, revealing a world-wide surveillance state that dwarfs the early 2000s UK stories the slashdot tin-foil hats were so upset about.

Haunting echoes of The Light of Other Days Act 1, indeed, the all-seeing machine already exists.

The Light Of Other Days: Act 2.

After the initial shock of the all-seeing machine wears off. The world settles into a steady-state. Life as an ordinary citizen is not the same as before, because the all-seeing machine has eradicated privacy – but at least it’s a controlled beast – it’s not like your neighbor has access to the machine.

Turns out, the brilliant technologist who invented the thing is a benevolent type – he doesn’t want the all-seeing machine to fall into the wrong hands, so he sets it free – the all-seeing eye becomes public utility, accessible by all – another cultural atom bomb, just after the first had settled.

Chaos. A billion divorces. A million crimes solved on day one.

Remember when they shut down that town near boston for a day looking for the boston bomber and found nothing with thousands of police officers? Remember how one hour after lockdown was released an ordinary citizen found the kid?

You know how Microsoft spends 500 man years with 10,000 QA people testing windows before it’s released, but then on day 1 after the release a million bugs pop up anyway because 500 man years of time is just one hour for every 1 million users that use the thing?

Like that, but sci-fi style.

All over again, world-wide outcry – the machine was terrible for existing before, and now it was even more terrible with public access – the final crushing blow to privacy. Privacy eradicated forever.

2014. A Ferguson Police Officer kills an 18 year old African American boy. He’s not indicted. Riots ensue.

More Snowden documents leak through the year. Huge tech firms form alliances to lobby the government, begging them to cut it out. The US Government responds with ideas about surveillance security holes becoming law.

Meanwhile, security becomes a hot topic – and it seems things are accelerating.

Slashdot stories abound about security issues being found everywhere. Nevermind Microsoft’s patch tuesday – now our ten year old wifi routers with firmware that’ll never be updated have security holes being disclosed almost weekly. Remember when the TJMaxx credit card breach seemed like a big deal, then in 2014 it seemed every major retailer had the same? Heartbleed? Truecrypt developers saying don’t use the product?

In reaction to Ferguson, cameras-on-cops becomes a relevant social topic. If there’s going to be a surveillance state, why can’t an ordinary citizen tune in too?


Social media carries stories of the surveillance war being fought in the streets – police officers smashing phones and/or harassing citizens for recording police actions on video.

A friend of mine mentions how the police in Fort Worth Texas have had dash cams and cop-cams for the past half-decade and it’s done a world of good.

My friend’s statement reminds me of my earlier conversation, about career ideally being anything other than management. My theory being that a manager isn’t there for the all-stars, managers exist to keep the screw-ups in line. A manager in my line of work spends perhaps one hour a month one-on-one with their all star reports. The very same manager spends half an hour per day per screw-up who needs to be micro managed – the manager’s job is not awesome, the manager is a babysitter.

The manager is necessary because not everyone’s a model employee.

Riots break out in Baltimore, in reaction to a 25 year old African American Male suspiciously dying while in police custody.

One wonders if Freddie Gray would still be alive if the all-seeing machine were on Freddie’s side that day he took a ride with the officers. Perhaps it’s time for a manager, or babysitter, perhaps an all-seeing machine that’s above the control of local law enforcement CYA politics.

The all-seeing machine exists – it cannot be undone. Perhaps this is Act 2, the point when the surveillance state becomes a public utility – openly embraced, rather than feared.

See also: Pandora’s Box.