Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Gnomon": the ethics of benign total surveillance

Amazon link

In the previous post I described the setting for Nick Harkaway's new novel, "Gnomon". He has some interesting ideas about the architecture of an AI total surveillance system for London, and the authentication required to protect said system's integrity.

But that's a techy-take on the novel; let's listen in to The Guardian review:
"In post-Brexit Britain of the late 21st century, ambient electronic surveillance is total, for the good of the people. An omniscient AI called the Witness knows and sees all, ensuring the success of the System as a whole: a society of permanent direct democracy, in which everyone votes on everything all the time. Everyone is fitter, happier, more productive. What’s not to like?

Regrettably, of course, some sub-optimal citizens will occasionally be obliged to undergo involuntary interrogations by the Witness police, who use mind-reading technology. But this is rare and benign – until one woman, a refusenik called Diana Hunter who somehow lives off-grid, dies during her police interview. That’s not supposed to happen. Enter Witness inspector Mielikki Neith, a true believer in the panopticon utopia. She plays back the recording of the interrogation, to experience Hunter’s own feelings and to try to understand what happened.

What Neith finds inside the dead woman’s head, however, is not supposed to be there. She finds the vivid experiences of a host of other people. There is a Greek finance wizard who can somehow foresee the movements of the stock market and is stalked in his head by a shark. There is an old Ethiopian painter living in London, whose daughter produces a bestselling video game. There is a fourth-century alchemist searching for a mythical chamber that exists outside time, to resurrect her dead son, fathered by St Augustine. Meanwhile, it begins to look as though someone doesn’t want Inspector Neith to conclude her investigation successfully. ...

Of all the characters, though, the most interesting is actually the least human, and the one after whom the novel is named. Gnomon lives in a future where people can spread their minds across many bodies, thus handily averting death. He is what humans have become, a collective consciousness of tens of thousands of souls, so he finds it darkly difficult to understand being a human with only one body: “It seems too irresponsible to put all of oneself in one place, and so macabre to insist on being inside it as it breaks.”

More importantly, Gnomon has decided, like a starman Hamlet, that something is rotten in the state of the universe. “I don’t like it and I’m going to kill it,” he decides – and, as it turns out, he has a point. He is angry and funny, and a really interesting effort at portraying a consciousness that at some level is irreducibly alien. As the novel itself rather too insistently hopes, it is Gnomon’s voice you remember most clearly after the end."

This is a novel where, Inception-like,  it's unclear for long periods what ontological status characters and entities have. There is, just to take one example, something important called 'Firespine' which occupies its own occluded and allegorical role in every character's disparate world. The reader is invited to deduce what this multifaceted entity really represents, why it's important and where it might fit in the plot. And that's true of pretty much everything.

The book is interesting and smart and erudite and complex and I, for one, kept reading with growing engagement. The Guardian reviewer, by contrast, only did so because he was being paid.
"Had I not been professionally obliged to finish it, I doubt I would have trudged further than a fifth of the way through the novel, because ars longa vita brevis and all that."
The big, big issue for Harkaway is that of liberal ideology itself. Does it blueprint a desired end-state, our modern, western version of 'soviet man'? And are we entitled, SJW-like, to use a certain amount of hand-wringing coercion to get us there?

Many liberals toy with this idea. Iain M. Banks had Special Circumstances to do the dirty work that high-minded liberals didn't want to think about - it's a common trope.

Harkaway eventually comes off the fence, but not in a very profound way. His style of writing is very assimilative, very magpie-like, hoovering up cultural references. One reads with Wikipedia to hand. An author needs to balance such cultural cosmopolitanism with an equal depth of grand synthesis. Why exactly is it wrong to enforce political correctness? Why does God permit evil?

The answer surely lies in a naturalistic human psychology which - in its full evolutionary competence - is too complex to squeeze into the narrow mould of PC. The world of doves is not evolutionarily stable. Power corrupts, and those constrained to become doves are transformed rapidly into victims.

That is a critique of liberalism, by the way, which Harkaway senses but never quite grasps.

Nevertheless, the book is really quite gripping, it's a tour-de-force of ideas and seems to hover - even for the author - at the outer limits of human comprehension.


Many 'new AI problems' are really 'old human problems'. The US Constitution is both enduring and well-regarded because it has such a world-weary and jaundiced view of human nature. The Founders knew us, and knew that all institutions and individuals were corruptible (which really means inclined to work in their own interests (family and friends), not that of the broader polity - the principal-agent problem).

Their solution was 'checks and balances'. Nick Harroway's 'System/Witness' has utterly inadequate checks and balances, which is why it's unstable .. and why it fails.

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