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Source: Stephanie Mann, age 6, via Wikipedia

Periodically I check out the web site of David Brin, a science fiction writer and futurist, to see what’s on his mind. Brin is the author of the brilliant and classic Startide Rising (1983), which won both the Nebula and Hugo awards the year it was published. But, smart as Brin is, I find that I usually disagree with him. This is because I put him in the unpleasant category of techno-utopians — people who think that technology will solve all our problems, including our energy problems and even our political problems. I think that is bunk, and dangerous bunk.

Brin had linked to a piece he wrote in “The European” in which he argues that the solution to growing surveillance and invasion of privacy is “sousveillance.” The word “sousveillance” is a made-up word and is the opposite of surveillance. It means spying up at elites the same way they spy down on us. The prefix “sur” of course comes from a French word meaning over, or above; and “sous” is another French word meaning under, or beneath.

This notion that sousveillance is an effective antidote to surveillance seems to me to be so obviously silly that I’m inclined to think that the techno-utopians are even more deluded than I had thought. Just give everyone a Google glass and we’ll fix the world’s surveillance problem!

First of all, there is a straw man fallacy: “… [F]or the illusory fantasy of absolute privacy has to come to an end.” Who said anything about absolute privacy? There has never been such a thing as absolute privacy in American society or American law. The law and the Constitution are almost silent on the issue of privacy. But there have been lots of lawsuits having to do with privacy, and as far as the courts are concerned the issue is pretty settled.

But the second and biggest point of silliness is the notion that we small people have the same power to spy on elites that they have to spy on us. Yes, sometimes it happens. The photo of the cop pepper-spraying a group of already restrained protesters held our national attention for weeks. That was a fine example of sousveillance — someone had a camera ready at the right time. Another brilliant lick of sousveillance was when a waiter (or someone) at a Romney fund-raising event for rich people secretly made a tape of Romney trashing 47 percent of the American people as “takers.” It helped expose Romney as a servant of the rich, and it helped him lose the election.

Edward Snowden’s spying on the spies, then releasing the evidence to the media and to Wikileaks, is the all-time best example of sousveillance. Because of the actions of one very clever nerd, the elites caught red-handed are still squawking and trying to lie their way out it. We got some very useful information on how elites’ surveillance systems operate, though that information will soon enough be obsolete.

But as brilliant as these coups of sousveillance were, such things are always going to be rare and accidental. That is because elites have systems for secrecy that we little people will never have. They are rich, they are ruthless, and they are spending hundreds of billions of dollars (most of it our own tax money) to build walls of secrecy around themselves while monitoring everything we do. The idea that the little cameras in our phones, or built into our glasses, can fix this is seriously dumb. Nevertheless, we need to always keep our cameras handy, and we must be creative in coming up with new ways to spy on elites.

Dumb cop: Nailed by the camera!

Dumb politician: Nailed by the camera!

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