On the Vast Machine

We are being watched, but who is in charge of the watching? Although some of us freely offer up our private lives to the Vast Machine, we have no knowledge of how the information is being used and who is using it. Criminals can duplicate our identities. Corporations can manipulate our spending behavior [sic]. Governments can manufacture opinions and crush dissent. We are seen, but they are faceless. We are asked to live in a transparent house, while the forces of power are concealed.

John Twelve Hawks, The Golden City

I could have done this as a book review, either of this volume or (more likely) of the whole Fourth Realm trilogy (The Traveller, The Black River, and The Golden City, in case you don’t know). Instead I thought I’d pick out one of the major themes of that trilogy for discussion. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t read the books – they’re terrific, fast-paced, and contain plenty of other interesting things.

The Vast Machine is also referred to in the books as the Panopticon. The original Panopticon, whose name is the Greek for “everything [being] seen” was a design for a prison – never built – devised by the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The idea behind the design of the Panopticon is that a single guard stationed in a central tower can potentially observe any inmate at any time, without that inmate’s knowledge. Bentham’s key insight is that from the inmate’s point of view, this is effectively the same thing as 24/7 monitoring, because they can never be sure that they are not under observation at any given moment. Therefore all the inmates will be well-behaved all the time. If you’re running a prison, this is pretty much the perfect outcome, especially as you only need one member of staff on duty – say three guards working eight-hour shifts – plus, presumably, a few goons on hand to punish any infractions, at least until the inmates get the message.

By the Vast Machine, a.k.a. the Panopticon, the author means the immense network of (mostly automated) systems which monitor the lucky denizens of industrial civilisation in every aspect of our lives. On a literal level, there are numberless cameras watching our public spaces, especially in the UK. Some of those cameras are connected to various artificial intelligences, such as the ANPR systems which track vehicles by their registration numbers (license plates, for US readers). But of course there are even more watchers in the cyber realm: whenever you pay on your card, visit a website, post on social media, or even move around while carrying a mobile phone, you leave a digital trail that is stored and analysed by entities which you cannot even put a name to, let alone control. And that data will persist indefinitely, and is even a traded commodity.

Utilitarianism, which was more or less the intellectual creation of Bentham and his good friend James Mill, is an ethical system whose influence is still very pervasive. We don’t think of it that way, any more than fish think of water as being very pervasive, but it is. It is often characterised as seeking “the greatest good of the greatest number,” which, like a lot of formulae, sounds terrific until you think about it.

The huge question this formula begs is, of course, what is good? There are plenty of answers to that, but the “easy” answer is simply material well-being. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of that to people who want to sell you things. After all, in order to be happy, don’t you need this season’s must-have eyebrow pencil? It also isn’t hard to see the appeal to people who simply want to control you. And there has never been any shortage of people like that. Even in a social group as small and innocuous as a bridge club or a scout troop one can usually spot a potential Pol Pot.

Now it is true that living in a village is not unlike living in a Panopticon, except that the prison guards are your neighbours, The sanctions are likely to be less drastic, though, and the rules are on the whole less arbitrary. You may even have some input into them yourself. Communities based around survival – and that’s what a village is, when you get down to it – have two sets of norms: one set which lays down the kind of behaviour needed to go on surviving, and another set which, in the finest traditions of social primates, determines whether you are One Of Us – that is, the sort of person likely to go along with the first set.

But a lot of the time this is going to come down to basic common sense. If you live in a fishing community, you can expect to get the cold shoulder if you devote your life to developing an effective torpedo, and rightly so. Even a Utilitarian could see the sense in that. And the rules of the average village are likely to be somewhat more liberal than those of the average prison. Plus it’s usually possible to leave a village and go and live somewhere else, a practice that prisons typically frown upon.

Is it possible, though, to leave the Vast Machine? It gets harder all the time. There are suggestions, for example, that we should move to a cashless society – that is to say, a society in which every single transaction can be monitored and recorded and assessed in real time. (That will be the last time you chuck a few coins into a busker’s hat.) There is endless scrutiny of travel. I remember reading somewhere in Bertrand Russell that when he was young it was considered a mark of how oppressive Tsarist Russian was that in order to go there you had to get a passport. Today there are few international boundaries where a passport (or other officially-recognised ID) is not the minimum requirement to enter; certainly none that I know of amongst the soi-disant developed nations – by which we mean the industrialised nations.

This trick has been tried before. It is, indeed, as old as civilisation, if by civilisation we mean the practice of living in, or under the domination of, cities. It was tried all the way back in the third millennium BC by the Third Dynasty of Ur; over in China, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang gave it the old college try in the third century BC; “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1) – and so it goes on.

Will it work this time? After all, Qin Shi Huang didn’t have computers or CCTV. For myself, much of my hope rests on my first-hand knowledge of how fragile and chaotic a lot of this stuff is; those who have not peered behind the curtain, as most of us have not, probably imagine things are much better-organised than they in fact are.

But the mere fact that an immense amount of effort and expense would be required to turn today’s rather Heath Robinson IT infrastructure into the smooth glowing thing of techno-fantasy is no guarantee that it will never happen. Certainly the motivation to make it happen is there. Consider that the Great Pyramid was built, so far as we know, by people without iron tools, let alone sophisticated. machinery. And their motivation is far less obvious.

If you don’t want to be chipped and barcoded as if you were a box of paperclips, what are your options? Well, there are plenty of things you can do, although you should be prepared to be treated as a weirdo by many of your family and friends and also to find that your life will become slightly more difficult in small and mysterious ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get off social media, in all of its forms. All of those sites exists primarily in order to harvest your personal data; that’s why they don’t need to charge money. (As the saying goes, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”) As a side benefit, you won’t waste any more of your time and energy being swept up in the Two Minutes Hate du jour, and you might even find something useful outside your echo-chamber.
  • While you’re at it, ditch your smartphone. By all means have a phone; I’m not suggesting you should stop speaking to people, quite the reverse. But smartphones have become the Telescreens of the21st century. They do not exist primarily for the benefit of the person holding them in their hand. If you need one to find your way around, learn to read a map. It isn’t hard; people have been doing it for centuries. Or maybe even ask an actual person for directions.
  • Pay cash. There’s nothing wrong with paying cash. Businesses pay a fee to accept credit or debit card payments; you’re actually doing them a favour by paying cash. If the payee decides not to put that payment through the books, that’s between them, God, and the tax authorities. You’re just paying for your stuff.
  • And make sure you pay some of that cash to local food producers. After all, you’re going to have to deal with these people sooner or later, so you may as well make friends while times are relatively good, You’ll get to eat fresh, healthy food, and if you end up learning to cook from scratch that’s a bonus. After all, skills are better than money in the bank: they can freeze your bank account, but they can’t confiscate your recipe for chili con carne.
  • Read things printed on paper – books, newspapers, magazines – rather than the on-line equivalents. The battery won’t go flat, and you aren’t reliant on wi-fi. Nobody is tracking your eye movements while you’re reading a book, which they may be if you’re reading a website. And you are much less likely to end up on a list of Bad People. By the way, don’t fall for any guilt-trip about “dead trees” – the amount of ecological damage caused by data centres is untold, and you can easily compost a newspaper.
  • While I’m on the subject of reading, read widely, both in space and in time. By which I mean, read writers from other times and places. Stephen King says in his book On Writing that writing is like telepathy. We can access the thoughts of other people in other times: the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, has been pushing up the daises for the thick end of two millennia, but we can still read his Meditations, without even having to master the classical Greek in which he wrote them. Give it a go. You might get some perspective on your current circumstances, or even learn something new.

None of these things will cost you much money; some of them will even save you money. All of them will, in different ways, give you a bit more autonomy as an individual. Moreover, they’ll make it a bit harder for the guard in the central tower to see exactly what you’re up to.

Of course, if you’ve read this far they’ll already know about it. Welcome to the Vast Machine.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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