Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
Eben likes to say "The Machine is a Behaviorist." Behaviorism and related theories of mind may provide an answer to what the perfect despotism he fears actually looks like on a certain important level: the level of its interactions with individual human minds. When I first watched Eben's 2012 re:publica talk last year, I thought the line "They gave us a box, and we put our dreams in it" was very poignant, but I wasn't quite clear on what happened when the other foot dropped. What is the end result if they possess a box containing our dreams? Why does that makes us so vulnerable to systems of despotism, like secret police and intelligence agencies? At one level of analysis, I think the correct answer is found through understanding the theory of behaviorism and the implications of a sufficiently sophisticated technology of behaviorism actually existing in the world.

What is Behaviorism?

"As an empirical psychological theory, behaviorism holds that the behavior of humans (and other animals) can be explained by appealing solely to behavioral dispositions, that is, to the lawlike tendencies of organisms to behave in certain ways, given certain environmental stimulations. Behavioral dispositions, unlike thoughts, feelings, and other internal states that can be directly observed only by introspection, are objectively observable and are indisputably part of the natural world. Thus they seemed to be fit entities to figure centrally in the emerging science of psychology."(1)

Behaviorism models the human being like a mathematical function: provide input X, observe output Y. Two refinements to this model keep behaviorism from being trivially false, given the complexity of human beings. First, any given human being occupies distinct dispositions at various times, which change the behavior that results from a given input. Second, the function does not operate strictly, but rather probabilistically: Input X given mental state Z creates a probability space of possible behaviors Y1, Y2, Y3, et cetera, with estimated likelihoods.

Why is Behaviorism related to Perfect Despotism?

The prospect of true knowledge of the behavioral dispositions of human beings has terrified humans and been the object of much science fiction(2) for two primary reasons: Firstly, with such knowledge, all undesirable behavior may be predicted and prevented, enabling perfect despotism. Secondly, desired behavior may be facilitated through controlled stimulus, enabling self-sustenance of the system. The Latin root for "Perfect" is "Perfectus", perfected, finished, or completed. A despotism that can eliminate or prevent all undesired behavior which threaten its continued existence and produce a sufficient amount of desired behavior to sustain the system can be said to be complete - at least internally, it is both self-sustaining due to producing the desired behavior to sustain it, and it is unthreatened because it eliminates any behavior which threatens it.

An objection may be raised that either the human mind, or the universe itself, is too unpredictable or complex for such a system to exist. However, a difficulty arises if, as behaviorists theorized, the system is capable of reasoning probabilistically and possesses adequate failsafes. Even if the machine predicts wrongly sometimes, as long as failures stay within established tolerances, the machine can persist. And if the cultivation of desirable behavior generally functions well enough, human individuals can be compelled enough to intervene to stop undesired behavior. Furthermore, as time goes on, as long as the system survives, the system can be improved to reason more accurately and learn from a larger set of data. And, as the size of the dataset and the capacity and sophistication of the technology increase over time, the amount of other resources needed to implement despotism decreases, perhaps even decreasing exponentially.

What is The Model of Resisting a Perfect Despotic System?

The more information a perfect despotic system has on you, the more it can accurately predict how to effectively influence you to force desired behavior and eliminate undesired behavior on your part. Divulging no true information about yourself is an effective strategy, then, for two reasons: First, it causes the system to need to be more overt and crude if it wishes to influence you. Second, if the system fails to predict undesired behavior on your part due to a lack of knowledge, it may not know it needs to influence you. Privacy, then, is a very strong protection, and the strengthening of the system is directly tied to the weakening of privacy.

Many pieces of dystopian fiction that involve dealing with such a system involve either the destruction of the core machine or the destruction of a person administering the system at its climax. But this is problematic because, from an engineering perspective, any given piece of the machine can be made redundant, and from a Marxist perspective, a social system can be constructed so that even the people running it are not free of it or outside of its influence and control. So, in the worst case scenario, one must assume any given person or machine in the system is redundant.

Extricating oneself would be difficult. It already is difficult. Almost nobody wants to. Not really, but at least nobody thinks it is practical or convenient. Of course, it is possible to imagine a system that maintains homeostasis by ejecting the non-compliant minority to go live elsewhere. But the danger posed by their outside, unmonitored activity mean the rationality of the machine will prefer not to do this, given its established preference for self-preservation.

Aside from waiting for outside intervention, the question is how to live while free within unfreedom until a large enough resistance congeals to allow the overturning of the system. It will require the eradication of both ignorance and negligence on the part of a large enough number of people to be disruptive. And they would have to be extremely courageous.

-- JoeBruner - 22 Mar 2018



1 : Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2 : See, e.g., Minority Report, Psycho-Pass, A Clockwork Orange, Black Mirror, Equilibrium. Or Oedipus.


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r2 - 22 Mar 2018 - 22:41:04 - JoeBruner
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