Neotyranny (was Re: MEME: History, Nazis, and )

Charlie Stross (
Mon, 6 Dec 1999 12:53:09 +0000

On Sun, Dec 05, 1999 at 09:15:02PM -0600, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:
> For myself, I am not foolish enough to participate in the cosmic joke of
> regarding Nazi Germany as being peculiarly German, or Hitler as being
> "inhuman". I believe I can claim a passing familiarity with cognitive
> science, and particularly what it means to be human. Hitler and the
> Nazis strike me as being human, almost archetypally human. The Nazi
> memes mesh with the built-in human mindware, which is how they took over
> the whole country. There hasn't been any point in reading _Rise and
> Fall_ where I said: "But how could people do that?" It isn't a very
> pleasant experience, but it does reaffirm one's faith in transhumanism.


(My father, who was 13 at the time, was due to go and spend a couple of months with some relatives in the "old country" -- Poland -- in autumn, 1939. Luckily he caught a bad case of 'flu and was bedridden in August. Nobody ever heard from that branch of the family again ...)

However, I'm deeply disturbed by some current social trends that I see as being potentially much more dangerous than goons in jackboots trying to set the world to right (as they see it) at gunpoint.

Here in the UK, we're building the infrastructure of a very efficient panopticon surveillance society. 600,000 CCTV cameras went up in public places last year, if I remember correctly; now they're talking about networking them. One police force in London is ahead of the game; they're testing neural network based face recognition systems that will alert them if certain suspects are seen in public -- suspects believed to be professional shoplifters. (The idea is to alert shops when they appear, so that staff can keep them under observation at all times.) There's also promised deployment of GATSO mobile camera units with numberplate recognition software in the near future, and the likelihood that within another couple of years _all_ movements, everywhere, may be subject to traffic analysis or actual surveillance.

Of course, nobody is doing this because they woke up one morning and said "hey, guys, let's see if that cool 1984 idea is workable!" They're doing it because individual bits and pieces of the picture make sense. The numberplate recognition systems replace current-day speed traps that regularly run out of expensive film. They can also be used for tracking the movement of suspected terrorists (and now the emphasis is off the IRA and onto the animal rights crowd -- enemy du jour). The street surveillance cameras with the face recognition stuff is intended to cut down on a crime problem plaguing one particular high street -- but as we know, the exponential development rate of these technologies means that it could well be ubiquitous within a few years.

As Vernor Vinge commented in "A deepness in the sky", nothing is so deadly to a high-tech civilization as the technology of omniscient policing. While the intentions are good and the government enlightened it might not be too onerous -- but imagine what a utilitarian romantic like Hitler would make of it, or a government of radical greens. Once we've installed the infrastructure we can't easily de-install it.

To make matters worse, this stuff is coming up as a side-effect of a wave of technological innovation unprecedented in human history. The rate of change is accelerating. Most people don't _like_ change -- their day to day preoccupations are with things like paying off the mortgage, raising their children, and so on, long-term projects that are fundamentally threatened by the kind of social instability that follows in the wake of massive technological (and concommittant occumpational) change. People who feel threatened are more likely to vote for reassuring authority figures who promise to protect them. So not only are we getting the machineries of tyranny, we're getting the mind-set that will vote for the tyrants.

Please don't get me wrong: I'd like to be able to augment my intelligence and grow beyond the limits of my humanity as much as anyone else on this list. But I have grave misgivings about the way interim technologies will be deployed by those who have not transcended their basic humanity.

Whatever you think of Hitler or Stalin or Mao, the worst dictatorships of human history probably haven't happened yet -- and when they do happen, they will wear a very different face.

What innovative openings for tyranny do _you_ see appearing, prior to, say, 2025?