Surrendering to big brother might be the least bad option

We’re probably approaching a point where blue-collar crime could be eradicated, one way or the other. But the way does matter: we could eradicate crime through ubiquitous surveillance, or through drug treatments/targeted lobotomies to remove the urges to criminality, or through effective early identification of potential criminals and preemptive measures against them, or through skilled large scale social manipulation of attitudes, or even through reducing all human interactions to tele-presence.

All these methods are unpleasant and undermine our current notions of democracy, but persistent fear of crime (despite the persistent reduction in actual crime) means that politicians will find it extraordinarily difficult not to implement one of these measures, were it to work. Humanity will likely find itself in a crime-free society; the question is how.

To my mind, ubiquitous surveillance is the least unpleasant of the possibilities – it’s non-discriminatory, doesn’t interfere with people’s inner motivations, doesn’t involve sinister manipulations of social norms or loss of human interactions. Assuming we can’t hold the line, that’s where I would want it to be broken.

But we might have more influence if we surrender early. Saying “we’ll allow surveillance, but fight you tooth and nail and claw on the other methods” would make it much easier to ensure those other methods were not implemented. In exchange for cooperation, we could also push the surveillance state into more positive implementations of the policy – maybe achieving 360 degree transparency (we watch the rulers watching us) or treating recording akin to electronic medical records, only allowing them to viewed in specific circumstances.

We ARE lords of the planet – that’s the problem

The lord of the manor is not a typical peasant, and doesn’t have the same responsibilities. Nowadays, it is quite fashionable to see humans as part of the natural world, part of a cycle of life, dependent on a nature that could eradicate us in an instant if it chose to. The truth is far less comforting.

We are the lords of the planet. Some have made the entertaining claim that we are not even a very successful species, that technological intelligence isn’t evolutionarily very useful. Yes, viruses and bacteria are wildly successful, cockroaches and beetles have the numbers and the resilience, and all our client species – species that profit from human existence, such as dogs, rats, cattle, wheat and rice – are doing well. We are not the Earth’s only evolutionary success story. But we are a success; we have a population of over 7 billion, dwarfing that of any other wild large mammal. We are reshaping the world on ever larger scales, changing the appearance of the whole planet (rarely for the better, of course). We’ve depopulated the oceans and lit up the sky at night. We’ve put men on the moon, and already have started building space stations, thus claiming an empty but huge ecological niche.

Yes, of course, if the whole natural system turned against us, if our agriculture collapsed or the Earth’s climate disintegrated, we couldn’t ride that out (though some day soon, we could probably even survive that). But the fact that the lord of the manor couldn’t survive if all the peasants revolted at once didn’t make him any less a lord, and them more than peasants.

I understand why people would wish for us to be part of the natural cycle; for if that were the case, then conservation and sustainability would be in our enlightened self-interest. And we could certainly make great improvements in how we log, mine and fish, thinking for the long term rather than the short. But a world in which humans followed their selfish but enlightened self interest, kept their own resources sustainable, their air breathable and their water drinkable, is still a world in which most natural species would be annihilated, and anything of not explicit worth for humans was destroyed. Human self-interest won’t save much of the planet.

Instead, we are the lord of the manor, with no possibility of shrugging that off or of calling a council of villagers to devolve power and decision-making. We need to explicitly decide what gets saved and what dies, what the limits of our exploitation will be, and what costs we are prepared to pay for that. Nature is now our responsibility.