Friday, June 12, 2015

Robert Heinlein, Cell Phones, and Police

Somewhere, Heinlein comments that predicting the direct effects of technological change is relatively easy. What is harder is predicting indirect effects. His example was the automobile. He argued that it had a substantial effect on sexual behavior by giving couples a place to make love out of sight of parents.

I am not sure how convincing that example is, but it occurs to me that we have another and clearer one. Did it occur to anyone, ten or fifteen years ago, that one effect of the development of cell phone technology would be, by providing practically everyone with a pocket video camera, to greatly increase public opposition to police beating people up? 

The closest I can think of is in David Brin's Transparent Society, where he argued that, in a future where everything is subject to surveillance, the transparency ought to go in both directions: The police can watch us, but we can also watch them.  I do not think it occurred to him how we would get there or that the essential change would be not in what you could see but in what you could record and offer for public view.

P.S. Judging by comments, I may have been unfair to Brin, working off my memory of one book, not all of his writing.

13 Comments:

At 12:04 PM, June 12, 2015, Anonymous Douglas Knight said...

A lot of people saw the video of Rodney King and the riots and predicted that would be more common. But maybe they promptly forgot it, while Brin wrote a book elaborating on it:

We can illustrate how tools of accountability may offer most citizens increased confidence and control by applying those tools to the gritty world of crime and law enforcement.

In July 1997, as a portent of bigger steps to come, the San Diego County Sheriffʼs Department began equipping all deputies with pocket tape recorders, requiring them to turn on the devices during encounters with the public. Meanwhile, in some ethnic neighborhoods of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, small bands of activists have set up ad hoc surveillance committees, using inexpensive video cameras to drive out local criminals—and to keep an eye on the police. Any modern citizen would have to be catatonic to miss this particular trend. Ever since the infamous Rodney King case, when out-of-control cops were videotaped beating a suspect after an adrenaline-drenched, high-speed chase, law enforcement personnel have grown ever more aware of this yin-yang situation: cameras can point both ways. Almost nightly, the public sees examples of transparency at work, either helping public officials track down perpetrators, or else catching misbehavior by the officials themselves.


Brin and others predicted that video cameras would lead to accountability and thus less police brutality. But maybe you are saying something else, that videos of the police beating up some people make the public less trusting of police claims in other, unrecorded incidents. The highest profile recent events were not recorded. The putative rough ride of Freddie Gray was not recorded, although other parts of his arrest were.

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Brin predicted that public spaces would become super-public, that everyone could see everything, including the past. The part that was uncertain and might be asymmetric was privacy at home. The powerful would see into ordinary homes, but might be able to make decisions in private, which he proposed they ought not.

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But first we should see the present. I think you are failing to see the present and thus unable to assess the accuracy of past predictions.

 
At 12:10 PM, June 12, 2015, Blogger Walter Guyll said...

Brin also riffed on the moderating effects of sousveillance in his 1990 novel Earth.

 
At 12:52 PM, June 12, 2015, Anonymous LH said...

Not related to police or the state, but related to issues of evidence (or lack thereof) and prevalence of cell phone cameras:

http://xkcd.com/1235/

 
At 1:45 PM, June 12, 2015, Blogger Grant said...

I think its the interactions between technology which are hard to predict, for the same reasons why its generally easier to explore the state space in a chess match as you eliminate pieces.

e.g., the effects of cheaper LCD screens were easy to predict: better TVs and monitors. The effects of better batteries were too: longer-lasting mobile devices. Find someone who predicted all this and touch screens and they might have predicted smartphones.

 
At 1:06 PM, June 13, 2015, Blogger max den said...

Amazing post.

 
At 12:15 PM, June 15, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

The issue is not whether indirect outcomes are easy or hard to predict, but in who believes it is or isn't their job to at least put in some effort considering what these might be. I feel a lot better when practitioners in the field of X are involved in deep discussions about the potential ramifications of X on society, and on the society their grandkids will inherit.

 
At 10:00 PM, June 15, 2015, Blogger bruce said...

UFO stories went away a little earlier than police brutality videos caught on- videocameras were a middle class thing, while phone cameras are prole.

 
At 10:01 AM, June 28, 2015, Blogger John Vandivier said...

I agree entirely that the direct effects of technical change are easier to anticipate than their indirect effects and I think it would be strange for anyone to disagree.

Importantly, I think the unforeseeable nature of technical change and innovation amounts to a 'wicked problem' from a policy perspective.

I think this is a beautiful thing as it suggests that eventually the regulatory power of central government will be outpaced by technology.

 
At 10:08 AM, June 28, 2015, Blogger John Vandivier said...

I also agree that cell phone cameras leading to reductions in police brutality are a better illustration of the noted concept.

We can also easily deduce that the unforeseeable indirect effects of innovation could lead to some disastrous accident of innovation wherein, for example, AI, nuclear, or other energy technology leads to human harm through an unintended or indirect mechanism.

However, I think history maintains rather strongly that the benefits of innovation are greater than harms of innovation.

 
At 8:28 AM, June 29, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

@John Vandivier:

We can also easily deduce that the unforeseeable indirect effects of innovation could lead to some disastrous accident of innovation wherein, for example, AI, nuclear, or other energy technology leads to human harm through an unintended or indirect mechanism.

But it needn't be in some area like AI or energy, where the technology is sexy and the risks are existential. Many innovations simply contribute to the gradual Idiocracizing of society. Facebook and Twitter, for example.

I think history maintains rather strongly that the benefits of innovation are greater than harms of innovation.

I disagree. See previous comment.

 
At 10:04 AM, July 12, 2015, Anonymous Dain said...

"Many innovations simply contribute to the gradual Idiocracizing of society. Facebook and Twitter, for example."

But dumb people have always been there, it's just that now they're more visible. Does your point above actually turn would-be smart people into dummies?

Kids today have a vocabulary that would put their grandparents to shame (and in some cases shame their grandparents). And the games they like to play are far more clever than hopscotch.

I dunno, I'm torn on this stuff.

 
At 2:01 PM, August 18, 2015, Blogger Atanu Dey said...

@Dain:

Technology enters the production function multiplicatively. It amplifies smart as much as it amplifies stupidity. It makes more enlarges and makes more visible what there already is.

I believe that overall this is a good thing. Smart people become more visible and therefore the non-smart have the opportunity to learn (provided they are not too stupid.) The converse -- smart people becoming stupid by the greater visibility of stupidity -- does not happen.

 
At 6:39 PM, August 26, 2015, Blogger Sciencebzzt said...

"A good science fiction author, writing in 1900, would be able to predict the automobile. A great science fiction author would predict the traffic jam."
-John Campbell

 

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