Friday, June 16, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: The Surveillance State

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

CNET reports that the Chinese government is now using surveillance cameras, facial recognition and smart glasses to score people on their social behavior.

Tom: Mariel Myers says, “China plans to give all of its 1.4 billion citizens a personal score, based on how they behave.” Not ten years down the road, or even five, but next year. The technology is already up and running. Get a low enough score, and you could be publicly shamed or denied all sorts of privileges.

Easier Here Than There

Anyway, my thought upon reading this, Immanuel Can, was not Oh, those terrible Chinese! It was Hey, they could do that here even more easily. These days, with everybody in the West carrying cell phones, with so little pushback against the intrusions of the NSA and other government organizations, with everyone voluntarily coughing up their personal information to omniscient and unregulated social media in order to have the privilege of posting cute cat videos, and with online merchants and service providers already data-mining you to death to advertise to you, the very same sort of technological infrastructure already exists even within Western democracies.

Immanuel Can: Yes. I think the big incentive to give up our personal information is that it’s both entertaining and convenient to do it. It’s entertaining for us to register a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to things we read on the Internet, or post our comments on political issues, or note our discontent or pleasure with this or that commercial item; and it’s vastly entertaining to post our personal activities on social websites, and link them to all our friends who are also posting all of theirs. And it’s convenient to shop, bank and perform registration functions online, and increasingly hard to do things in person or by means of cash. So we’re gladly donating a vast quantity of highly personal data to the centralized power of the Internet.

Tom: And the Chinese, by virtue of their innate efficiency and their system’s centralized control, are ahead of the curve on this. But only by a bit. It’s absolutely coming, if it’s not already here. Currently, we are already shaming violators of the narrative, but only on social media. So far the government is not visibly involved.

You Can Check Out Anytime You Like …

What’s not obvious here in the Land of the Free is that once the new system is fully in place and the political climate right, this level of personal scrutiny will no longer be something we enter into optionally. An algorithm will search to see whether we are subjecting ourselves to orthodoxy checks at the appropriate rate. Our pulses will be checked to confirm we are not lying. Our recorded statements will be crosschecked to determine if they are appropriately inconsistent. Jobs will depend on it; even access to our pensions and government credits, perhaps.

I like this line from the article:

“Trying to clear your name or fight your score is nearly impossible, since there is no real due process.”

Can you picture this? I can.

IC: Sure. I can see the day coming when nobody will be able to buy or sell without a number. That day is almost here already anyway.

Tom: Absolutely. What’s interesting to me is how all the pieces are falling into place for that, not just here but all over the world. If you look at Revelation 13, which you just referenced, the beast that will come out of the sea is to be given authority over “every tribe and people and language and nation”. Fifty years ago we might have wondered how that could possibly happen given the differences in political ideology from East to West, but you can already see that so-called democracies and republics are just as susceptible to technological tyranny — and voluntarily, which is amazing to me — as any communist dictatorship.


IC: I call this attitude “technodeterminism”. It’s the belief that whatever technology has produced we humans are obligated to accept as inevitable and to integrate into our society. Anyone who protests is seen as being “backward” or “against progress”, and, in any case, is assumed to be fighting a battle that simply cannot be won.

Tom: I’m not sure it can be. Not by us anyway. I mean, some of the snooping and data mining could be regulated and rolled back in a more alert society, but there doesn’t seem to be the will out there to make much noise about the current level of intrusion into our privacy. At first, there was always the option simply not to participate, but the Chinese are showing that won’t work. In order to have a completely surveilled and docile society, you’ve got to have everyone fully participating, providing the required data. There’s a little bit of that already going on in the West. Certain big companies check your social media profile for political correctness, among other things, when you interview for a job. They disqualify applicants for having a negative online presence. That’s been happening for a few years now. More recently they have begun to exclude applicants for not having a social media presence at all.

IC: I would think everybody has some “online presence” even if it’s composed of only a few facts. I wonder how big a presence one has to have in order to be regarded as sufficiently “present”.

Tom: Oh, what they’re looking for is not just the existence of accounts, but expressions of conformity with the narrative in your own social media spaces. Only governments and sophisticated hackers could go beyond that to find an applicant’s comments on other websites, unless that person has a very identifiable name or leaves a trail to follow by logging in with their Google ID. I believe Google does these kinds of searches when hiring, maybe Patreon now, and certainly Twitter does. If you don’t Facebook or Instagram or Twitter and upvote the “right” things and comment the “right” way — diversity, tolerance, inclusivity and so on — they quietly move to the next candidate. You will never know why you were disqualified. So the loss is minor in one sense, but there is definitely a sort of screening process already occurring.

Christ-likeness in Hostile Surroundings

IC: Okay, we’re already living with some consequences for having views different from certain power factions in the surrounding world. What’s our response?

Tom: Well, funnily enough, I’ve been looking a little at the life of Christ thinking about just that subject. He too lived in a society that was actively hostile to his point of view. John tracks its hostility beginning in chapter 5: “the Jews were persecuting Jesus”, then later, they were “seeking all the more to kill him”. In John 7, he goes up to the Feast of Booths incognito because the Jews are still seeking to kill him. You might even say he uses a little disinformation there if you read it carefully. In chapter 10 they try to stone him, and John says, “he escaped from their hands”. In chapter 11 John says, “he no longer walked openly among the Jews”.

So if we get the idea that the noble “Christian” thing to do in a hostile society is confront it directly and vocally, get martyred and die, we ought to take into account that the Lord didn’t allow himself to be taken by the Jews until it suited him. He took the necessary precautions to ensure nothing happened on the schedule of the authorities. Maybe there’s something in that.

Careless Whispers

IC: So don’t be careless about where you offer your opinions and information? That’s got to be good advice, in any case.

Tom: Well, it is prudent, but that’s not precisely what I’m considering. It wasn’t that Jesus self-censored; I don’t think we have evidence of that at all. He kept right on saying things that inflamed the Jews the whole time. But he did it in places where they could not easily grab him and haul him away without his followers noticing. It would have looked bad, and they knew it. He took sensible precautions not to get caught alone, where he could be easily “disappeared”, including not disclosing to his brothers that he was going up to Jerusalem, when he was in fact going up to Jerusalem.

Do you get my drift? I’m trying to be careful what I draw from that by way of example for us, but it is clear Jesus did not exactly hurl himself into the arms of hostile Pharisees. Neither did Paul, for that matter, until he deemed the moment right.

Declining to Volunteer

IC: So you’re suggesting that if they’re going to take you, make them take you in public and for the right reasons?

Tom: Yes, and that I don’t think it’s unchristian to take sensible precautions to avoid being taken at all if you can help it. Despite our efforts, if we are ultimately shamed, deplatformed, disemployed or even jailed for our opinions … well, then, at least they are opinions worth being persecuted for. But I don’t see from the Lord’s example that we have any pressing obligation to volunteer for that sort of treatment either.

IC: Who would want to?

Peter reminds us not to “suffer as an evildoer”, but if we suffer as Christians, to glorify God by this means. We’re not looking for trouble; but if trouble finds us, we need to take it on in the right spirit. Meanwhile, I’d be encouraging folks not to invite any opportunity for abuse, because eventually it will come of its own volition. We want to remain free of any fair accusation that we’ve created our own problems. And maybe until then we should be really careful about what we put online. At least we should be thinking about what uses could be made of what we post.


  1. This is clearly bad if applied in a totalitarian context for propping gangsters up to acquire and retain power. But, I have also thought along lines with possibly beneficial outcomes with that type of approach. E.g., in my opinion societal problems nowadays are mainly (and perhaps have always been) caused by the lack of respect that personal conduct deserves when it involves accepting personal responsibility in all aspects of your life. Personal responsibility is no longer taught, exercised and taken seriously in depth by a large segment of our youth and society in general with dire consequences. We are all impacted in serious ways by this attitude because it results in all kinds of damage to society with the most obvious being trenendous expenses. E.g., if you never excercised responsibility to your body resulting in gluttony with resulting huge weight gain with resulting morbid diseases like diabetes, loss of mobility, etc., and now society is paying for you to receive tremendously expensive dialysis three times a week and pays for your nursing home care when you should have been up and about had you taken care of yourselve. That (actual case) is simply not fair. And this is only one type of irresponsibility, others involving drinking, pot and drug use, unwillingness to work, gambling, criminality, deception, depravity, exploitation, and so on. One of the main irresponsibilities is that people with economic power exploit many of these conditions for financial personal gain (like gambling casinos) or businesses promoting licentiousness and unhealthy practices and products. The cost to society is tremendous.

    The only way out of this is to bring about a curriculum for our young that stresses personal responsibility in all phases of life simply out of respect of not intruding and stepping on the rights of your neighbor. Now, if you can not abide by that and you insist on causing bad financial and other consequences for society, then there should be a remedy.

    So the difference between what China is attempting and what should be done is that the fox cannot guard the henhouse. But, in my opinion, someone must guard it or things are going to come apart more and more so that we will eventually all turn out to be living in a coercive China.

  2. "... the fox cannot guard the henhouse."

    Exactly. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?