NONZERO  THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY  By  ROBERT WRIGHT
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE

PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt from

Chapter Sixteen

DEGREES OF FREEDOM

No one can be perfectly happy till all are happy. —Herbert Spencer

[SNIP]

THE LIVES OF A CELL

There is one other inevitability that will shape future life: the growing ability to document people's day-to-day behavior--via Web-browser footprints, credit card records, and other forms of digital data. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on your perspective.

On the plus side, it is a weapon against "superempowered angry men." The World Trade Center bombers [of 1993] left damning evidence on, among other things, a bank's computers and their own desktop computer. In future cases, expect to see evidence from EZ Pass highway toll booths and those rapidly multiplying security cameras. (After the bombing, a number of New York landmarks, including Rockefeller Center, installed cameras that capture the face and license plate of every driver entering the parking garage.)

All to the good--except for one thing: those surveillance cameras and electronic toll booths chronicle the movements not just of terrorists, but of you. Of course, we could always subdue this data gathering by passing laws. And you could dodge some of the data gathering by avoiding places with security cameras. But you may feel safer parking in a camera-equipped garage. And you may be happy for toll booths to save records of your passage, if that will help catch any terrorist who should plant a bomb in some highway tunnel. This could well be the core threat to future privacy--not its unwanted invasion by Big Brother, but the voluntary surrender of it in the name of security. And, depending on how insecure we feel, we might decide to grant police--national, maybe international police--lots of leeway in using such data as grounds for search. This may seem implausible now, but, as I've already suggested, a single act of biological terrorism in a big city could redraw the contours of plausibility.

Hence a creepy irony of the coming world: even though information technology's basic drift in recent centuries has been to expand freedom--to bring political pluralism to more and more nations--it can, at another level, shrink freedom. As the world comes to resemble a giant superorganism, with a fiber-optic nervous system, we could identify with Winston Smith, who, in Orwell's 1984, is asked by a totalitarian goon: "Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell?" But, unlike Smith, we'll have chosen the life of a cell.

The trade-off between liberty and privacy on the one hand, and order and security on the other, is a hardy perennial. What is new are two things: the growing technological ease of invading privacy, and the growing technological ease of disrupting order. These are what threaten to cast the trade-off in new and severe terms.

 

[SNIP]

An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts are available at www.nonzero.org