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Jun
23
2009

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I have just returned from a fascinating conference at MIT on Security and Human Behaviour and am now preparing for the EU Green Week conference in Brussels.  This post explores an issue common to both conferences: paranoia.

The “security” of central interest to the MIT conference was that of people using the Internet. The titles of some of the sessions indicate the main security issues with which the conference was preoccupied: deception, privacy, fraud and terror. How might, the conference inquired, deception and invasion of the privacy of Internet users be used by “bad guys” (a term frequently deployed) to commit malicious acts – ranging from the spreading of viruses, misuse of medical records, and phishing to vote rigging, Facebook bullying, money laundering and acts of terrorism?

The final session was entitled “How do we fix the world?” It was I fear inconclusive. How might we good guys (obviously) frustrate or catch and punish the bad guys? Identification of the good guys was not as straightforward as one might have hoped. Law-abiding individuals with home computers do not pose a categorisation problem. But companies and institutions that collect personal data for legitimate purposes, but who are insufficiently aware of its sensitivity and insufficiently careful about protecting it fell into a gray area. And the Orwellian Big Brother state intent on imposing ID cards on its citizens and tracking all their phone calls, emails and Internet activity was, in the eyes of most (all?) at the conference not good at all.

Complaints about Big Brother were of two sorts. He was incompetent; he would lose sensitive data and/or fail to make effective use of it. Alternatively, were he to make it work, his surveillance agency would be indistinguishable from the Stasi. The problem is an ancient one: Juvenal asked “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – who will guard the guards themselves.

The session to which I have been invited to contribute in the Green Week Conference in Brussels is entitled “2050 Vision: Transport and spatial planning in a decarbonised world”. I have been invited to discuss “the social issues involved”. In my 20 minutes I will invite people to imagine a future in which science and technology have solved all problems of climate change and energy supply, freeing the world to indulge its appetite for ever-increasing mobility. Feeding this appetite is the objective of most current EU transport policies, as indicated by plans to increase airport capacity and subsidise the car industry to help it through the credit crunch.

What kind of world would such policies produce? I conclude that one of its most salient features will be paranoia. In the hypermobile world that current policies are creating people will spend most of their time in “communities of interest”. As levels of mobility – physical and electronic – increase, people have less time for social interaction with neighbours in old-fashioned geographical communities. The idea of communities of interest was popularized in 1963 by Melvin Webber in an essay entitled “Order in Diversity: Community without Propinquity”.
Webber was enthusing about the freedoms provided by the new California freeway system. They were enticing. Freed from burdensome relationships with geographical neighbours of all ages and with divers interests, people could spend their waking hours in the congenial company of people who thought like them. These freedoms have been hugely expanded by the global development of what Al Gore dubbed the “Information Superhighway”.

It is now apparent that the freedoms are being purchased at a cost. In geographical communities in which people know their neighbours and recognize people they pass in the street, people trust each other, or know why they don’t. In a world consisting of aspatial communities of interest people know each other much less well. They may know about others’ interests, but they don’t know other members of their “community” as complete people. They do not know whom to trust. Much of the MIT conference was devoted to the problem of negotiating transactions under conditions of low trust.

Low trust creates a particular problem for governments. Governments rule over geographically demarcated parts of the world. Few communities of interest pledge allegiance to geographically defined areas. There is now a globe-spanning community of interest focused on a man who may, or may not, live in a cave in Waziristan. Fear of this man and the atrocities that might be committed by members of his community of interest now justify the inconveniencing of millions of air travelers and the intrusive surveillance of billions of people world-wide. The default assumption by governments is that everyone is a potential threat and should, therefore, be kept under surveillance. Despite the fact that no air passenger, anywhere, ever has been killed by a shoe bomb we are all required to take off our shoes when passing through airport security.

The hope that electronic mobility would substitute for physical mobility has been disappointed. Despite enormous increases in the time spent online we are travelling more than ever. The amount of time we spend in communities of interest, assuming we are not spending less time sleeping, must be time not spent in geographical communites. A Stanford Study has revealed a strong negative correlation between time spent on line and time spent interacting with family and friends.

As geographical communities are displaced by communities of interest we are increasingly likely to find ourselves living in propinquity (to use Webber’s word) to members of communities whose cultures we find incomprehensible and sometimes threatening. One of the presentations at the MIT conference was by John Mueller who briefly summarized the message of his excellent book Overblown. Overblown is his one-word label for the paranoid response of the US Department of Homeland Security to the threat posed by the man in the cave. His description of the paranoia that has transformed “the home of the brave” into a nation sufficiently spooked to acquiesce in the sacrifice of cherished freedoms was vivid and convincing. But he held out little hope of his evidence and arguments prevailing.  The world’s most mobile nation – physically and electronically – seems to have lost its nerve.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  In our paranoid world of communities of interest it appears that the millions off air travellers obediently removing their shoes are less interested in guarding the guards than in the protection they purport to provide.

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  1. Rubia Gaissler says:

    Dear Dr. Adams,

    I am a new follower of your website and I must say I am loving to read your articles. I was accepted in the MSc Globalisation at UCL and I am happy to certify that this is the kind of academics I will be surrounded by, and that this are the discussions that will be held during my formation.
    I am looking forward to meeting you in September.

    Best wishes

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