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Big Brother and the next 50 years

Science fiction author and technology critic Bruce Sterling weighs in on the dangers of a future in which data mining puts a new wrinkle in the societal definition of personal privacy.

Bruce Sterling calls himself an author, a journalist and an editor--and all that is true. But Sterling, who wrote "The Hacker Crackdown," is also a contrarian and a leading cultural critic of modern technology.

From his home in Austin, Texas, Sterling has written popular science fiction novels such as "Islands in the Net," "Distraction," "Heavy Weather" and, with co-author William Gibson, "The Difference Engine." In technology circles, Sterling is almost as known for his droll conference speeches through which he dispatches politicians and corporate titans alike with Mark Twain-like wit and precision.

A longtime inhabitant of The Well, one of the Internet's oldest and most successful online communities, Sterling recently has returned to nonfiction ("The Hacker Crackdown" was a true story of the electronic underground's struggles against law enforcement).

Sterling's latest book is a survey of different forms of futurism called "Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years" (Random House, Dec. 2002). CNET recently caught up with Sterling to capture his thoughts about the future.

Q: We've been hearing a lot about the Pentagon's plans for a Total Information Awareness data-mining system. What's going to happen a few years down the road?
A: I don't think that Poindexter's nutty scheme has much real-world traction. I think the question's badly formulated, really. I don't think there's much distinction between surveillance and media in general. Better media means better surveillance. Cams are everywhere. A security cam is one small part of a much larger universe of cams. The much larger effect, socially, politically and economically, is going to come from a much larger trend.

I noticed that people are doing a lot of "googling" before a first date nowadays--this represents the real trend. Poindexter's doing this and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) allowed him to do it for the propaganda that someone's serious about cyberwar someplace. Googling is international. It's not just restricted to cranky Republicans who couldn't erase e-mail in their PROFS (Professional Office System). That's going to have more of an effect. It's difficult to escape a tragedy in your life that's not your own fault.

Years ago, if your husband died in a house fire, you could get a covered wagon and go to Oregon. Now, as soon as you arrive in Oregon, someone could google you. "Oh, well, widow Simpson. Really sorry to hear about the house fire."

You don't get to cut that chain of evidence and start over. You're always going to be pursued by your data shadow, which is forming from thousands and thousands of little leaks and tributaries of information.

Why not use pseudonyms?
That's baloney. I happen to do that myself. I do have two data identities. I have my name, Bruce Sterling, which is my public name under which I write novels. I also have my other name, which is my legal name under which I own property and vote.

So what's the name of your other identity?
It would take you all of 10 seconds to figure it out on Google.

But you're not anticipating what David Brin would call a transparent society?
David thinks this is great. David is a technological determinist. He thinks that we understand the trend and we need to hop on it. I don't have any such illusions. Just because it's the space age, it doesn't mean we're all going to end up in space.

You have more privacy if everyone's illiterate, but you wouldn't really call that privacy. That's ignorance.
Just because it's the atom age, it doesn't mean we'll all have a private atom-powered helicopter. Just because it's the information age, it doesn't mean we're all going to profit or be made happier. It has secondary and tertiary effects that cannot be predicted. You don't envision a phone answering machine and predict the Lewinsky scandal--even though one is impossible without the other.

And the secondary or tertiary effects of TIA or other data-mining systems, assuming they ever worked?
I'll tell you what will happen if it were an effective TIA. There would immediately be a series of coups inside the Republican Party as the people who owned the KGB survival mechanism were systemically outed and "Trent Lotted"...It would be profoundly destabilizing. Their sexual affairs would be public. They'd be "Lewinskied." They'd be "Whitewatered."

The common population would stand aghast as these people did one another in. It would not stop once the surveillance mechanism was there. It would eat generation after generation of KGB members until it decapitated and lobotomized the entire population.

There are plenty of Republican senators now who know what happened to Trent Lott--how can they not? They have street smarts. They're aware that he was nailed because people happened to record something that was at the practical funeral of a centenarian.

You seem to relish this.
It's a destabilizing threat to democracy. In "Tomorrow Now," the chapter on politics talks about media toxicity--the outbirth of opposition research where nobody can ever be clean.

So, what's the solution?
Why is there a solution, Declan?

Okay, is there any hope of maintaining what we used to think of as a practical sphere of privacy?
I don't really accept that formulation.

Who the hell wants to live in a USA with a TIA in it?
Privacy under what circumstance? Privacy at home under what circumstances? You have more privacy if everyone's illiterate, but you wouldn't really call that privacy. That's ignorance. The level of ignorance is declining, and the ability to accumulate data and manipulate it for various ends is increasing.

And if the Bush administration overcame congressional objections and got a deep data-mining system working?
An insane information-hungry KGB or a relatively open and decent government? Vote with your feet. Get the hell away from those lunatics. Who the hell wants to live in a USA with a TIA in it? Why would you want to invest it that country? The currency would crash. The political elite would annihilate one another.

In your novel "Distraction," you wrote about a maliciously programmed spam bot driving unstable people to commit crimes. Is that a prediction?
That's just a cool notion. That's just science fiction. It's a cool thing. It's interesting to think about. I never saw it actually done. It actually would be pretty destabilizing. But one of the points about distractions is that everything that they do is destabilizing. My hero keeps coming up with these elaborately justified schemes. He's delusional. He does redouble his efforts when he loses sight of his aims.

But he never really solves the problems.
Political people don't solve stuff--not really. Political people are like guys in pop music. Saying you have a political solution is like saying you can write a pop song that's going to stay at the top of the list forever. I don't have many illusions about this, but I'm not cynical about it.