How do you call something dystopic when dystopia keeps upgrading itself to something worse?

Posted on Dec 3, 2016 by Rick Falkvinge
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Civil rights activists have a PR problem. When calling a bad development out as the worst seen in a democracy, that’s the strongest you can condemn something. The development thus called out may legitimately be the worst ever seen, and be rightfully called out as such, as a dystopia coming true. But next week, another law proposal appears which is even worse, and so you say again that this is the worst ever seen, again correctly. But when people just hear you saying that everything is the worst, all the time, it becomes a big communications problem and needs to be reframed.

Every time you think the surveillance hawks have hit rock bottom and can’t possibly sink any lower, they surprise you with new levels of shamelessness. The problem here is the rapidly shifting window of normality.

In 2002, you could withdraw money from the bank if you were known and recognized by the teller.
In 2006, you needed to show ID in order to withdraw money from your account in the bank.
In 2010, you needed to show ID in order to deposit money to your own account in the bank.
In 2014, you needed to show ID and explain yourself in order to deposit money into your own account in the bank.

The window of normality is shifting as rapidly as it probably can without a full scale rebellion. And it’s not just banks – it’s everywhere and everything.

We’ve been claiming the sky is falling for the past 25 years and the people we need to reach just can’t relate to things being catastrophic for 25 years straight.

In the 1990s, it became known that the United States is illegally listening to communications and transactions of European civilians and business, using a network known as Echelon. It was dismissed as unrealistic, dystopic tinfoil hat fantasies at first: of course nobody was listening to all phone calls, doing so would be illegal not to mention utterly immoral.
In the 2000s, the practice was admitted to, and made legal.
In the 2010s, the practice was not just legal, but expanded heavily to include all forms of communication, including monitoring people’s real-time locations, and expanded to break into your device to read unsent messages too.

The list goes on, in field after field:

In the 1990s, you had presumption of innocence and the right to due process.
In the 2000s, you had presumption of innocence unless you were suspected of a terrorist crime.
In the 2010s, protesting peacefully or safeguarding your privacy can be terrorist crimes, negating your right to anything at all in any conceivable circumstance, and a law was passed in the United States (the NDAA) that allowed indefinite detention for any reason or no reason.

An erosion of rights that was absolutely inconceivable is rapidly coming true. And how can you look credible when calling something out as really really bad, when it’s tomorrow’s bad normality and much worse things are already being proposed, and you need to call those things out using the same strongest words you just reserved for the previous development?

“The things this generation puts up with as temporary bullshit will be considered the normal state of things by the next generation.” This has held true for everything from car license plates (because automobiles were originally only used by criminals, at least according to law enforcement and courts, so registration was required) to capital controls to the existence of passports (which didn’t exist before World War 1).

The things this generation puts up with as temporary bullshit will be considered the normal state of things by the next generation.

We’ve been claiming the sky is falling for the past 25 years and the people we need to reach just can’t relate to things being catastrophic for 25 years straight. Calling things out as the worst possible scenario in the here and now, when each event seems to be that, isn’t a message that sticks – it hasn’t worked and it doesn’t work, except as preaching to the choir.

I would suggest a new approach: “Do you remember? Wasn’t that reasonable?”. Consider this:

Do you remember when you could expect privacy on an ordinary phonecall? Wasn’t that reasonable?
Do you remember when letters weren’t read in transit and logged? Wasn’t that reasonable?
Do you remember the time when your every footstep wasn’t tracked? Wasn’t that reasonable?
Do you remember when you didn’t need to explain where money came from when you wanted to deposit it into the bank? Wasn’t that more reasonable than today?
Do you remember when the government didn’t log what newspapers you were reading, what articles, and for how long? Wasn’t that reasonable?
Do you remember when the copyright industry didn’t have more power than the police force? Wasn’t that reasonable?
Do you remember when single mothers didn’t need to pay the record industry a private tax for buying a game console? Wasn’t that more reasonable?
Do you remember when the government couldn’t hold you accountable for how you most probably voted? Wasn’t that reasonable?

We need to put things in perspective. Because the perspective is bad, really bad.

Privacy remains your own responsibility.

About Rick Falkvinge

Rick is Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access. He is also the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. Additionally, he has a tech entrepreneur background and loves good whisky and fast motorcycles.

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  1. Jilles van Gurp

    The flip side is that privacy works both ways; it’s a bit of a double edged sword. A lot of politicians find it hard to get away with things that used to be considered private affairs. Their every move is monitored and the smallest digressions (professionally and privately) lead to scandals. This is changing the way important people conduct themselves and is the key to what could happen in the next few decades.

    We tend to think about the topic of surveillance in simplistic Orwellian terms: there are citizens and there is the evil state oppressing them using technology. From that point of view, what’s happening in the US and elsewhere is scary. However, the world isn’t that simple. Regimes change, political alliances change, and technology becomes commodity. What that means in practical terms for all of us is ubiquitous and global surveillance and monitoring by about just about everyone with an interest in doing so. Some of it will be legal, some of it will be highly illegal or controversial but it will be unescapable. This is going to create a world where the powers that be are going to be on a very tight leash because just like everybody else, their every move is monitored by potentially very unfriendly parties that don’t trust each other. Keeping secrets is going to be hard in such a world; including very dark secrets.

    My guess is that the current generation of politicians will be finding that out the hard way. The same tools they are wielding against us will be wielded against them as well. So their ability to misbehave is going to be impacted as well. And when things go bad, their misbehavior will be well documented and used against them.

    3 years ago
  2. Antimon555

    My limited experience says that “things were better in the past” doesn’t sit well with most people today. What it usually yields is either a more or less lengthy explanation of how things are better now than before, or an either honestly given up, or secretly propagandistic, “this development is the future, we can’t stop the future”.

    That said, it might make people think, more than “this is worse than ever”, since it’s a new approach. And choosing between people agreeing and instantly forgetting, or disagreeing and thinking, the latter is better even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment – a few might change their minds. Possibly.

    3 years ago