Right to Remember, Right to Repeat

 Posted by Bob the Hamster on April 14th, 2005

Current mood: Verbose

I read an interesting article about reverse-surveilance, or Sousveillance. It resonates with things I have been thinking about.

Do we have a natural human right to remember things? Do we have a natural human right to repeat what we remember? It seems like both of these would be logical extensions of simple freedom… but are they going to stay that way?

There are a lot of places that you aren’t allowed to take a camera. There are a lot of things that you are not permitted to record… but what if you had a photographic memory? Photographic memory, as you may have read about it in some spy novel, does not exist outside of fiction, but imagine if you will, a camera embedded in a contact lens, capable of recording a full lifetime of video, and playing it back to the wearer at will. Such a think would be like an artificial photographic memory. I think it would be awesome to have such capabilities. The advantages are limitless… but wouldn’t there be places and times where recording everything would be inappropriate? If an artificial photographic memory existed, when and where would you be obligated to “turn it off”? How is being asked to turn off your camera different from being asked to stop remembering things?

It would seem the obvious difference is that memory is something you are born with, and a camera is technology, but why is that such an important distinction? I was not born with my glasses, but they are an essential part of me. What about clothing? Even setting aside modesty and fashion, clothing is essential to humankind for the simple reason that we would suffer from exposure to the elements without it. Humans can’t really function without adding to ourselves additional technology that we were not born with. Our ability to use tools as if they were extensions of our own bodies is an essential part of what makes us human.

Back to sousveillance. People don’t like to be spied on, so if I suggest that we should all wear cameras, and effectively spy on ourselves, and spy on our friends, that seems like a horrible concept… But what if you are being watched no matter what we do? Clue: too late. Surveillance is all over the place. We aren’t yet to the point where everybody is being watched all the time, but the amount of time the average person spends on-camera in an average day is astonishing. Just pay attention next time you leave the house, and think about it. How many of those traffic lights are watching you? What stores did you go into? Did they record you? What about other forms of tracking besides video? Do you have one of those discount cards for your supermarket? Do you buy gasoline with your credit card? Privacy is doomed in the long run. Surveillance is getting easier and easier. I remember a High School teacher of mine once saying that a Big Brother is Watching You society like the one in George Orwell’s 1984 was impossible in real life because of the scaling problem of “Who watches the watchers?” That argument is invalid because a computer can easily sort and filter surveilance, making it possible for an extremely small number of people to keep track of a very large number of people.

How do we prevent those in power (government, business) from destroying our privacy? I am inclined to think that it cannot be done. Total loss of privacy seems inevitable to me, but I do think that the harm of loss of privacy could be greatly reduced if we do it on our own terms, rather than waiting for it to happen to us… which leads me back to the idea of an artificial photographic memory… even an artificial shared photographic memory, one where I share my artifical memories in exchaange for other peoples. it would be cool to be able to remember things that other people did. Very cool. But also, the idea of letting other people remember everything I have done is a little scary.

I’m not saying I’m ready to strap a web-cam to my glasses. It’s just something I have been thinking about.

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