Good science fiction bends expectations in a way that encourages us to reexamine the way we think about things. This morning, I finished Zero History, a noire thriller from science fiction great William Gibson (inventor of the term “cyberspace”). While primarily focused on the tension between cutting edge and mainstream culture in an age of instant information, the book’s noire backdrop is a society under constant surveillance. The following passage describing one of the main characters’ trip through London struck a rather resonant chord with me:
Next he’d take the first train to Leicester Square, the shortest journey in the entire system. Then back, without exiting, having assured himself he wasn’t being followed. He knew how to do that, but then there were all these cameras, in their smoked acrylic spheres, like knockoff Courrèges light fixtures. There were cameras literally everywhere, in London. So far, he’d managed not to think about them. He remembered Bigend saying they were a symptom of autoimmune disease, the state’s protective mechanisms ‘roiding up into something actively destructive, chronic; watchful eyes, eroding the healthy function of that which they ostensibly protected.
Did anyone protect him now?
Gibson’s description of aggrandized police power is easy to see where the mechanism is something as obvious as the 500,000 closed circuit cameras monitoring every person in London. Other exercises of police power may be less obvious or less dramatic, but they are no less “actively destructive, chronic.” Consider, for example, a regulation that forces you to give up any private use of a significant portion of your land, and subjects your land to random inspection and monitoring to make sure that you aren’t using your property for anything other than a government purpose. Unfortunately, that example is not science fiction. It is the PLF case, Kitsap Alliance for Property Owners v. Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board, which is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.