Russia and Global Security Risks
Optimum Society 2: The Remote Watcher

How much will the presence of the remote ruler remain in our society after the end of the pandemic? How much it will become part of our civic and political life? This depends largely on us. The paradox is that free will is quite compatible with the device, but only if the latter has not replaced the free will, writes Arkady Nedel, Russian and French philosopher and writer.

Perhaps today more than ever, we are faced with a choice: either to remain free citizens with free will, or to turn into controlled “organisms” with a more or less comfortable life. The current technological trends are more likely to lead us to the second option. For example, on March 26, 2020, Microsoft proposed to patent a product, an unintended consequence of which could be another step towards the complete restriction of freedom. The product description, in particular, reads as follows: “The cryptocurrency system communicatively coupled to the device of the user may verify if the body activity data satisfies one or more conditions set by the cryptocurrency system, and award cryptocurrency to the user whose body activity data is verified.” The expression “communicatively coupled to the device of the user” literally means tighter control over the individual, including body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, etc. If, over the centuries, Buddhism has tried to solve the problem of how to free a person from the illusory “Me”, then modern business solves it quickly and cheaply: instead of “Me”, we use a device.

It must be understood that such a “capitalisation” of the body is different from a transparent medical record, which can be accessed if necessary. It differs from a bank account and barcodes which make purchases visible. In the case of a medical card or purchase, a person has a choice: to not go to the doctor, to find a remedy yourself, or go to the doctor when he or she considers it necessary. When it comes to purchases, they may or may not buy certain goods; they may pay in cash or ask a neighbour to make a purchase for them. In other words, there is freedom of choice, and therefore – time, which still belongs to the individual. In the situation that new technologies offer, there is no such choice. If the “observed person” has the wrong temperature, pressure, pulse, etc., this data is instantly transferred to the system, which deprives them of not only private space, but also time. In fact, the system involves direct contact with the body, with its language bypassing free will – one of the main differences between a person and an animal, or a free citizen and a slave.

In the 21st century, power may well pass to the “remote watcher”, finally ending the era of Samson Vyrin (the main character of Alexander Pushkin’s novel “The Stationmaster”). The “Remote Watcher” not only seeks to manage our time, distributing moral values and assessments, but also our location; self-isolation is an ideal mode in which the public space is actually reduced. The public sphere is shifted online, and this means that for the government, regardless of the type of regime or nationality, the threat factor that lurks in undesirable physical crowds pining for certain interests is eliminated.

Keeping control of society online is incomparably simpler; for this, a “remote watcher” is sufficient to control the algorithms of the main platforms and the resourcing of digital publicity, which is essentially no publicity at all. With a remote service, the state itself turns into a digital platform, which instead of a social contract offers a different model – temporary use. From a citizen, a person turns into a user whose time is always limited, approximately as if you purchase a certain number of minutes from a telephone company or subscribe to an entertainment site on the Internet. The user differs from the citizen in that he is a priori removed from the resource and is not part of it, in Greek terms, he is a barbarian (βάρβαρος) who does not have the right to participate in the life of the resource – his state.

In the era of the “remote watcher”, the middle class is the first to fail – teachers, doctors, and employees whom it is becoming easier to replace with semi-artificial intelligence or a programme, web page, or “smart” navigator, which will provide tasks in the form of CMM (control and measuring materials) and check lessons through online tests. Also, if desired, you can receive medical treatment (if it is not coronavirus, of course) and even confess your sins via Skype or  Zoom. By the way, Canadian experts from Citizen Lab (Toronto), founded by political scientist Ronald Deibert, discovered a curious fact: Zoom, located in China, is able to generate encryption and decryption keys and send them to Chinese servers, even if the video session takes place in another country, for example, in the USA. Attempts to safeguard privacy amid such conditions are all but doomed.

Privacy is a distant memory in the financial sector. Secret bank deposits, like those which existed in the twentieth century, have ceased to be a secret. Today, the assets of any investor can be verified and their source traced, assuming that he or she hasn’t set up a network of offshore entities, which only a small minority is capable of. For example, tax regulators shine through us like x-rays: all goods, without exception, as well as the receipts that we receive when making purchases, include a barcode (QR code) connecting the goods with the cashier and us with the goods – and through them we are connected with the “remote watcher”, the tax service. A payment by credit card or mobile phone is instantly reflected in our credit history, in the account – it is in many ways similar to a medical card, but only with a much more detailed description of the “state of health”.

The barcode functions according to the Reed – Solomon algorithm, which was invented back in the 1960s, and is a variant of a non-binary cyclic code that works with blocks of information. When compared to the previous UPC code, a barcode allows you to track and identify a product much faster and more efficiently, track the time of its appearance and purchase, manage documentation and engage in marketing. The barcode reduces the time it takes to purchase or acquire goods, and allows a system for tracking customers – “new barbarians” to be built. The state can take the time that has been freed up, and use it as invaluable social capital. Indeed, money can be devalued, gold can lose its value if the equivalent of its exchange disappears, but time remains the usual life resource of society itself. In modern societies, time generates information. Let’s say without exaggeration: we are the generation of the barcode, related, or rather infected with it no worse economically than COVID-19 infects its victims biologically. The more we make purchases, the more we become infected with them and the more transparent and vulnerable we become to an external “remote watcher”.

Today, organising a regime based on universal suspicion is not very difficult. Millions of video recording devices can track almost every step we make. Developed and developing countries, without any difficulties, have converted the built environment of the city into Bentham’s panopticon, where everyone is visible at a glance. Moreover, a man is visible not only from the outside, but also from the inside. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, the authorities showed their capabilities by tracking people on smartphones and requesting their body temperature. There are already mobile applications that can warn about the proximity of infected people. And tomorrow, for example, nothing will stop the authorities from obliging everyone to have such an application on their phone that will read their body temperature. And if the temperature is lower or higher than normal, a person runs the risk of being shunted into the next risk category and compelled to endure the corresponding social and civil restrictions.

The question is, how much will the presence of the remote ruler remain in our society after the end of the pandemic? How much it will become part of our civic and political life? This depends largely on us. The paradox is that free will is quite compatible with the device, but only if the latter has not replaced the free will.

It is important to understand: the task is not to declare war on modern technology, smash computers and print texts on old typewriters. Technology should evolve, and trying to stop this process is pointless. It has always happened that way. During the English Industrial Revolution, the Luddites smashed looms, viewing them as a threat to their profession and economic situation. They lost. Any modern form of Luddism will be similarly doomed to failure.

The main challenge is that civil society must control the application of these technologies. Their introduction into public life should under no circumstances lead to the abolition of individual free will, even if they are rejected by only one specific individual. For example, if a person wants to give up his freedom and entrust his life to the chip or “system” referred to in the Patent, he must have this right to surrender. This is a manifestation of his free will. But in the same way, other people should have the full right to not be connected to the system if they do not want to. The only way to prevent technological slavery is to preserve the natural right of choice in society.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.