Eye-opening: The Panopticon Is Already Here

Yesterday in a Hacker News discussion I encountered the long, but very chilling article “The Panopticon Is Already Here”. For all of you interested in Humane Technology this should be a must-read as it brings together many of the harms we have discussed in the last 2 years, and shows how technology can be applied today and in the near future to severely suppress our freedoms.

Don’t be mistaken: Though this article details the situation in China as it evolves, what is described in the article is what is coming to all of us if we sit back and wait!

This article fits well with @borja’s discussion topics, and I encourage you to add your insights and opinions there:


@aschrijver, thanks for sharing this article. I haven’t had time to read HN comments, but the article was good.

I have to say, though, that I can’t stop thinking about this “arms race” mentality that’s escalating quite fast.

If we don’t do it, they’ll do it. And if someone has to do it, we should do it — we’re the good guys.

And we know by experience how this usually ends up.

That’s precisely the point here. There’s no good side in this digital arms race. Yes, China is way worse than the US (for the moment). But deep down both the US and China are fighting for the same model: data colonialism. What’s at stake here is the power to rule the 21st century and the ones to follow.

Edit: I wrote an entire book about this. If anyone is interested, it’s available for free here.


I think it might not a good idea to think about this as a race. Nor as 2 way. Because to me it seems any interested country has the potential to use this tech mainly for its own internal issues such as crime prevention or allowing an incumbant party or person to maintain control by eliminating opposition. Also if the tech ends up being sold commercially, and is installed inside the purchasing country, it’s not going to always communicate back to the country where the company that sold it is based. If some parts work that way now, well the dictators that bought it got a bad deal because then that dictator’s own privacy and security is also violated. I am sure the worst uses of this tech are the ones we don’t know about, such as Russia quietly killing Russian people who don’t support the Russian dictator.

Also was offended by the racist term “Western standards” being used by the Atlantic. They should know better than to be promoting the nonsense ideas of white supremacy and American exceptionalism. Obviously there are many places which are in the so-called-West that don’t have high standards, and many places outside of whiteness that do.


I think that if we analyze this by looking at the bigger picture, we’re indeed in an arms race right now.

The key here is to see what’s at the other end of this. And this has been said so many times that it seems like a clique, but data is the raw materialization of power in the 21st century. And financing these surveillance states makes the perfect sense if you want to gather data.

The big picture here is that we’re seeing a shift in history. It’s the same shift that was used in the past with colonialism that opened up capitalism. Today we’re seeing a new form of capitalism: we can call it data colonialism.

A new breed of world order is opening up. And what we’ll see in the following years (I don’t even dare to say decade) is how this will look like. Now, whether that’s a new kind of dictatorship is up to us. But the clock is ticking faster than we think.

I think you could speak of an arms race. But it is a race on many fronts. China vs US is just one aspect of it in the geopolitical space (i.e. who will be the dominant world power). But it is also between enterprises, oligarchs and basically any party that holds significant power.

On the whole I think you could describe it as a fight for data supremacy. Just like ever increasing wealth inequality we get ever increasing information assymetry and less control how that data is used for or against us.

Data colonialism, yes. One thing I find unfortunate in that terminology, is its connotation with past forms of colonization, which may lead people to ignore it as some kind of new geopolitical trend or in any case not touching them directly.

From the definition in “The Cost of Connection” by Professor Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejías (emphasis mine):

If historical colonialism annexed territories, their resources, and the bodies that worked on them, data colonialism’s power grab is both simpler and deeper: the capture and control of human life itself through appropriating the data that can be extracted from it for profit.

Copied from Colonising ourselves? An introduction to data colonialism. Maybe data domination would be a better term?

1 Like

You’re absolutely right. Now it’s corporations that are at war.

I think semantics matter a lot and right now it’s not yet clear the kind of terminology we should use.

In my book I described the current situation as a new Cold War. And being honest, now I’m hesitant to call it that way. Calling the current situation as a Cold War implies too many things. While it’s useful to quickly get everybody on the same page, it doesn’t grasp the intricacies of the problem we’re facing. Problems like there’s not just two players.

But in this case I believe colonialism is very appropriate. Using the term Cold War might be more detrimental than helpful since it’s useful to quickly explain something but it goes as far as it goes. However using the term colonialism presents a different challenge: People misunderstand what colonialism was about and ignore the direct links to capitalism. But the key here is that it’s quite accurate to explain the “behind the scenes” of what’s happening now. Or let’s call it the “logic”.

By the way, I might not be right. And this is what makes this situation so unique: There’s so much stuff happening behind the scenes that sometimes it’s hard to understand the full picture. But that’s why problem definition has become more critical than ever. Without it, we can’t find the right solutions.

Agree that you should avoid Cold War. The connotation is too much that of an ideological struggle that is waged above the level of the individual. Furthermore the war is hardly cold… it is cyberwar. It is new and it is ongoing (it is not all-out war, but still, maybe cyberconflict).

As for data colonialism. While it may technically have perfect coverage, and it may be correct terminology in professional circles, the combination of ‘data’ + ‘colonialism’ doesn’t speak to me. Hearing the words it is hard to form a direct clear image of what it entails. And I am way more informed than many others on what’s going on.

‘Data domination’ may not be better, but with just some background info, it makes it clear that “data is being used to dominate your life”, which is an easy concept and feels more personal. “Data is being used to colonize you / your life” is much more abstract.

I love a healthy discussion and that’s my main motive, as I certainly don’t know a great deal about this issue. But when you speak about it as a capitalist race, then it makes sense. You’re right to imply that colonialism was started very often by private for-profit companies. I think it’s important to make it clear that it’s about companies expanding outside of the mother country but also the government getting what it wants, its cut. In that way it’s similar to overseas natural resource extraction, or colonialism, or the military industrial complex. In some ways it’s part of the the military-industrial complex, the part that does spying. It’s complicated. Is it about political control of people inside one country? Or of the world? Is it about military capability? Profit? Crime?

It’s weird to think, that systems created to spy on people for the purposes of advertising (such as Android, Chrome and so on) are being used for many of these things. At what point does it become a misuse of data? Is there really anybody there to judge what is a good or bad use? Is there really any line, for example what’s the difference between “protecting the government” and (selectively) violating the rights of protestors (with a particular view or of a particular group)? We can easily see how this can slip into censorship and oppression.

I think it’s a classic model of historical power in a way. We like to think of some countries that got power and then used it for good, and others who used it for bad, and most probably somewhere in between, but the only thing that’s pretty certain is that power will probably used for selfish reasons.

I think in many ways we’re already there as the article title suggests. So the US, China and others too already have access to information about people using tech devices all over the world. Maybe they already have a high percentage of the data that would be useful to them, or maybe not. So if we’re there already, we don’t really need to speculate about what the uses of this data might be when we can just look at the present. But I think the current tech will continue to evolve, not in leaps but gradually as it has done, the software and hardware will get better than now and also be used more and more. So we can expect more of what’s happening in the present, and the possibility of things getting much worse if usage of this stuff is expanded.

1 Like

This article about the United State of America holds many truths. It’s not easy reading, but thought it would be relevant to see what some people in that country are saying about their own country.

“phones come pre-installed with a long list of always-on, always-listening, always-tracking features that quietly surveil customers’ smartphone habits and locations: data increasingly handed over to police, and, as always, leveraged for targeted advertising by a mind-boggling range of companies.”

1 Like