Tomasz Kaye, Pt. 3: Omniveillance | Who Shaves the Barber? #20

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The last 250 years have created an explosion in technological progress that has fundamentally changed human society. Can we expect the rate of technological improvement to accelerate even further? If so, how might those developments transform humanity? Might some of the changes be so fundamental as to render our ideas about social and political ethics moot?

After some musings on possible transhumanist developments, Tomasz and I zero in on one in particular: omniveillance. Omniveillance refers to a society in which everything is recorded and everyone has the ability to check what anyone else is doing. This would be the end of privacy as we know it. As scary as this outcome sounds, Tomasz explains the reasons we can expect it to happen even if no one wants it. We also discuss reasons it may not be as horrible as it initially sounds. We conclude with some thoughts on how the omniveillent society might exercise horizontal social control, in potentially good and bad ways.

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Next week: Why (I) Do Philosophy
Special thanks to Jackie Blum for the podcast art, and The Tin Box for the theme music.

Topics discussed

0:40 – Implications of transhumanism on political philosophy
7:35 – Introduction to omniveillance
12:45 – How omniveillance will happen (assassination markets and collective action problems)
19:47 – Horizontal social control: good or bad?
23:32 – Could privacy survive?
26:26 – Deviance
27:07 – Reaction to omniveillance as inkblot test
31:45 – The end of individuality?…

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The “Think for Yourself” Script

See track 5

Here’s a perfectly simple sentence: “You should think for yourself”.

Here’s another fairly straightforward sentence (put aside whether you agree with it or not): Thinking that you should think for yourself is just thinking what the people who think that you should think for yourself think you should think.

How do we get from the first sentence to the second? Well, the second sentence applies a general principle to a specific instance. The general principle is that for any belief x you might hold, holding it amounts to thinking what those who think x think you ought to think.

The second sentence is cute because it sets as the x a sentence that seems to contradict the spirit of the general principle.

An aside: this principle is true if you take out the word “just”. But, then, if you take out the word “just”, it becomes trivial. Keeping the “just”, the principle is obviously false. We sometimes think things for other reasons than agreeing with those who also think them.

What happens if we take the second sentence and take is as the x for a new application of the principle? You get this:

Thinking that thinking that you should think for yourself is just thinking what the people who think that you should think for yourself think you should think, is just thinking what the people who think that thinking that you should think for yourself is just thinking what the people who think that you should think for yourself think you should think, think you should think.…

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Collective Agency and the Pretense of Ethics

There’s a problem about political discourse that’s been bugging me for a while and I think I finally understand what it is.

Ethics presumes agency. It makes no sense to make an ethical demand of an entity that is not an agent. It’s why we don’t demand of the Earth that it stop producing hurricanes. We can wish things were one way or another, but we can only add a “should” if we’re talking about something an agent can make a choice about.

I see no reason to imagine there is such a thing as “collective agency”. Indeed, there are powerful reasons not to believe in agency of any sort, even individual. But individual agency also has a lot going for it, not least of which is the visceral experience of having choice over personal actions. In the case of “collective” actors, there is no corresponding experience of agency that needs to be accounted for. This seems like good enough reason to regard collective agency as a useful fiction.

So when we say, for example, “war is wrong”, whose action are we talking about? War is not an action individuals take, only groups. So it is not subject to ethical evaluation. As something caused by an entity with no moral agency, war is more like a hurricane than like a murder.

Of course, that’s not the end of ethics and war. It’s plausible to argue that individual participation in war is wrong. And it’s important to note that if each moral actor acted ethically, the non-ethical but still very unfortunate events we call wars would no longer happen.…

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