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Little Brother: Towards a Civil, Free Society March 30, 2012

Posted by federalist in Open Questions, Uncategorized.
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Dystopian fantasies often revolve around a “Big Brother:” An authoritative regime with excessive powers of observation and punishment that are invariably abused by its leaders. After all, as James Madison said, men are not angels, and so we cannot trust men with unchecked power. Benjamin Franklin concurs: If we surrender our liberty in exchange for security — or any other moral good — we are bound to end up with neither. In some incarnations the Big Brother dystopia is instead a machine which, though incorruptible, is blind to the nuances of the human condition. Though it does not abuse its power it applies it mercilessly. Such dystopian fiction warns that human nature is incompatible with Big Brother authorities.

But as an information age libertarian I wonder if we couldn’t benefit from a “Little Brother:” A social medium for establishing positive norms and nudging individuals away from less harmonious behavior. I envision a non-authoritative “Little Brother” social network: a database where anyone can report and comment on behavior, positive or negative. People are free to use Little Brother as they see fit. As with all social networks norms will evolve for its use. Will an open and non-authoritative Little Brother be a positive social force, or can it somehow be twisted or abused to anti-social ends?

Let me provide an example — free for the taking — of a Little Brother system called “Road Rage.” This is simply a public database of user-submitted reports on drivers they observe in public. There’s a “Road Rage App” that makes it easy for anyone with a smartphone to submit “incidents.” Perhaps a user just takes a picture of a car (which is geo-tagged and date-stamped). Before uploading the incident the user enters some details: At least a plate number, perhaps a description of the car and driver if possible. The user can then tag the incident. Common tags would probably include the following:

Incompetent drivers:

  • On cell phone, oblivious
  • Impeding the flow in the passing lane
  • Doesn’t know how to merge
  • Didn’t go when they had the right of way
  • Slowing/Stopping for no reason
  • Driving under the speed limit for no reason
  • Lights off at night
  • High beams on
  • Unnecessarily blocked right-hand lane of multi-lane road when not turning right
  • Didn’t signal turn or lane change

Aggressive drivers:

  • Didn’t let me merge
  • Cut me off
  • Didn’t yield when they didn’t have right of way
  • Tailgating (when I wasn’t blocking a passing lane or driving under speed limit)

It doesn’t have to be all bad. Users may want to enter positive or “good Samaritan” incidents. E.g.,

  • Let me merge
  • Stopped to make sure I was OK
  • Let me turn when I didn’t have right of way

What good is this database? Well, for one thing, the next time your mother-in-law says she’s a good driver you can login to RoadRage.com, search under her car’s plate, and show her how many complaints of incompetence she has! People who don’t intend to be jerks might learn that they’re really bad drivers. Parents might learn that their child drivers need some remediation. Friends and family might begin to shame a driver with large numbers of negative reports

Why would anybody trust this database? Like all social networks it’s subject to spam, spoofing, and all sorts of mischief. Somebody with a grudge could flood it with negative reports on your car. But this is actually a feature: It preserves deniability, and thereby prevents its use by authorities. Meanwhile, only the subjects of a report can be certain whether a report is truly accurate: Whether their car was in the reported place at the reported time, and who was driving it.

Well then what good is it? Like most functional social networks its value arises from what might be called “attributional and reputational transparency:” The database also knows something about its users, which means users can build a reputation for reliability. Each incident is as authoritative as the user submitting it wants it to be. If you want complete anonymity fine, but you may be hard to distinguish from spam. If you establish an account then, even providing no other information, it will be possible to look at your submissions to see if, for example, you have it out for somebody in particular. If you agree to a verifiable Email address that might be considered by many a step up in accountability.

If you submit a photo of the incident at the time and place from a phone the system can verify is unique then your report gets even more credibility (which also accrues to you as a user). You could provide real-world verifiable information for yourself, and in the limit offer to swear an affidavit to a report.

The key characteristic of Little Brother is that it’s up to each user to decide how much information on himself he wants to trade for reputation, and how much credit he attributes to any other user based on the information that user has submitted.

A standard caveat would be, “Keep in mind: All means of electronic attribution can be hacked. And there’s nothing to keep a gang of individuals from collaborating to defame someone.”

So what do you think? Could Little Brother be a positive tool for fostering a civil but free society? Or could it be twisted into a tool that undermines civility and liberty?

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