Utopias and innovations between hope and horror

In 1900, X-rays were a spectacular new technology. It enabled a fantasy from the land of utopias: Suddenly it was possible to make the previously invisible visible. This innovation was so extraordinary and fascinating that numerous myths and rumours about these electromagnetic waves quickly spread.

The utopia of being safe from crime was inspired by this technology, as can be seen in this picture.

More monitoring creates more security

That is a widespread belief. Here, the dystopia of the surveillance state, as vividly described in Orwell’s 1984, and the utopia of the security of all citizens from crime face each other.

Surveillance is a controversial topic today. In contrast to X-rays, with which police officers never saw through walls, the complex technologies of our time offer incredible possibilities for surveillance.

Some hope for security, others fear total citizen control.

Proponents of surveillance systems like to argue with serious crimes that could have been prevented: For example, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 or the massacre on the island of Utøya in Olso in July 2011, like the attack on the Berlin Christmas Market in 2016, they appeal to people’s fears and their need to protect themselves from disaster.

It is also often emphasised that criminals also make use of new technical innovations and that this can only be countered by the same means. The latter reminds us a little of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.

But it has long since ceased to be about security from crime and war. The means of monitoring today provide completely different possibilities. Today it is all about the behaviour of people and how to influence it. Nudging – manipulation is on everyone’s lips.

Video surveillance, data control, electronic eavesdropping: companies have long since started to practice what the state has put before them. While for the state the object of desire is the criminal, for the economy it is the customer. More precisely: His consumer behaviour. For a long time now, privacy has no longer been a secret – it is not safe from the state or the economy.

How do we do it ourselves? Do we give away our private life voluntarily or involuntarily – or do we even earn money with it?

The horror vision of total control

The complete surveillance of citizens and consumers – is this a paranoid fantasy or real danger? The digital and transparent person who exchanges his personal freedom for the promise of security or luxury and only realizes too late that he has no more freedom – that is the horror vision.

The question as to whether surveillance is useful has so far only been related to the threat of crime and terror

Must this question today be extended to include those who ask for the sense of a meticulous documentation of the purchasing and social behaviour of all consuming citizens? With our behaviour on the net, we may be opening the door for commercial enterprises to spy on us and to disadvantage us.

Can we protect ourselves against technically superior opponents?

Even if we rely on encryption procedures, there is a risk that someone will crack them. Even modern cryptology has its limits.

One of the most famous systems of encryption, RSA – named after its creator, Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman – is based on the assumption that it is difficult to break down a very large number into its large prime factors. A modern computer can’t do that either. But the quantum computer, it probably could.

As soon as someone with criminal energy puts the first quantum computer into operation, this system is no longer safe from crime

This is good evidence that the fight for security and against crime is actually a fight for technical progress. Namely, who can use it first. And – of course – with which intention new technology is used.

This is the essence of the poodle: the fight for security is actually a competition about the intention with which the technology is used.

So, the social nature of man and his behavior

But even human behaviour can be influenced today. The new technologies and the Internet are not only changing our environment, they are changing people themselves.

One method of influencing people digitally is called nudging. If this happens on a large scale, for example with the huge amounts of data from social media – the Big Data – it is called – Big Nudging – the manipulation of the masses.

Just as X-rays once fired people’s imagination, so today the possibility of manipulating and spying on the masses does. How good is espionage, how transparent are we? What can be seen and what should we hide? Many questions and many speculations are circulating about this.

The hope of getting a large number of people – with Big Nudging – to behave better and create a secure future for the benefit of all is contrasted by the horror vision of total control and transparency, which few could take advantage of to commit crimes of a completely new kind.

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