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Total Government Awareness, Software and Ethics

Posted by n_alex on August 20, 2003 at 11:02 AM PDT

Several years ago I was working on a system for modelling and simulating social pressure. The idea was that actions have repercussions and that I could build dynamic ecosystems staffed with characters of differing social power. The pressure system would stimulate social interaction between criminals, the wealthy corporate elite, impoverished citizens and various authorities in a cyberpunk RPG setting.

I was discussing my ideas with a professor and friend of mine over lunch one day, when he posed a difficut question to me. "What do you think would happen if a totalitarian government got ahold of and modified your software, Norm?" We discussed it for some time, and I abandoned my ideas for the project because of its potential social repercussions.

My caution at the time was inspired by fear. After a few years have passed, I think the fear was justified.

Earlier this summer the Computing Culture Group at MIT's Media Lab announced a project titled "Open Government Information Awareness" project. It is an effort to turn the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) inspired "Total Information Awareness" project on its heels and point it back at the US government. In this information-inspired age the idea of a "Civilian Information Agency" which conducts espionage on its own government is a chapter right out a Neal Stephenson novel.

The Computing Culture Group is doing with technology something which, in my mind, definitely needs to be done. They're using it in an open manner to address social and ethical concerns in their community. This project has nothing to do with entertainment or the enterprise. It is "Not Economically Viable". It generates no wealth, per se. But well-being extends so far beyond wealth.

Especially when it comes to the well-being of a society, or a group of societies, for that matter. Some argue that a person's economic freedom will always lead them to greater liberty. That's a fine argument, supported by many scholars and successful people throughout the centuries. But economic freedom is a symptom of, not the reason for this liberty.

There's an underlying pattern here. The concentration of social power has an inverse relationship to liberty. What does that mean? It means that social power--the ability to effect social change--has a natural tendency to concentrate and grow at the expense of freedom. That assertion deserves its own expanded essay, but this is just a blog entry, so I'll get to the point.

Whether it concentrates as totalitarian authority in the hands of a government, as capital (social power) in the hands of private industry, as money in the control of a private monopolistic financier class or as societal dominance by institutions of religion, the effects are always the same. Poverty, disease and warfare.

Capital, money and authority (whether the authority be mentally or physically coercive) are all forms of social power--they enable people to effect social change. Social power works to the detriment of liberty when it is concentrated into the hands of a few people.

So, what does this have to do with Open Source software or the Total Government Awareness project?

Because knowledge is also social power. The dissemination of knowledge hinders the concentration of social power. It enables a larger number of people to effect change in their society. It helps them recognize patterns of deception and corruption in their governments, their businesses, their institutions of faith. Because knowledge is social power, it too tends to concentrate and aggregate.

Google News is a perfect example of this. So is the Total Government Awareness project. They have created "Cathedral" style software pinnacles which are vulnerable to corruption. Google has already assisted the Chinese government in filtering its search results to prevent Chinese citizens from reaching certain information resources on the internet.

The question or study of ethics is not usually well recieved in any field. Throughout the twentieth century people have reviled and mistrusted any use of the term ethics. It has taken on a coercive role and the suspicion of many free thinkers.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham in his essay "Ethics", writes a particulary chilling explanation of the return of ethics to the world of literary criticism; one which prompts one to reconsider the role of ethics in software:

"virtually all the leading voices of the Theoretical Era (an era conspicuous for its deification of 'leading voices') organized their critiques of humanism as expos

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