Microchip of Obedience

For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky is possibly my favorite title of all the Star Trek TOS eps, harkening back to long odd phrases from the fifties and sixties era of raygun gothic and social (soft) science fiction (e.g. Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, —And He Built a Crooked House—, The Mote In God’s Eye)

Hollow features a microchip of obedience, one of the more fascinating futurist tropes, and one we will eventually have to confront. Essentially any unremovable device (this one was small and subdermal) that monitors its subject’s behavior and administers corrections (or justice) as corresponds to law. It is both an elegant and terrible solution to the problem of crime and punishment in society.

The devices instilled in the Hollow world of Yonada (also the hollow world of Yonada) are a version of the cruelest kind: There are no warnings and no efforts of correction, making it more of a device of imprisonment or slavery: you do something wrong and blam, you’re dead. It’s made worse in that a man is executed via device for saying forbidden words. No free speech for Yonadans.

Instadeath shackles are almost a trope of themselves, appearing in The Running Man (the 1987 Schwarzenegger vehicle) and mentioned in The Phantom Menace as the device by which Tatooine slaves are held captive.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are mind-control modules as per The Tripods series by John Christopher. The device just blocks the possibility of considering incorrect thought.

In Fleet-&-Federation* I took a devil’s advocate position, partially because we mostly see cautionary tales in the microchip of obedience dialogue. Even in Minority Report (The Dick story or the film) Intercepted murders resulted in incarceration, not mere intervention, and not rehabilitation. What would happen if your microchip didn’t just end your life (or freedom) but a) informed you in advance (probably via enhanced reality interface) that you were in danger of misbehaving, and b) merely interrupted your misbehavior? Maybe it scheduled you for counseling and rehab only after repeated attempts.

When juxtaposed against our current system of post-crime detection, trial and imprisonment…wow. Sign me the fuck up.

Google has already shown us some of the useful aspects of our lives being monitored. With my location data alone, I get weather and traffic conditions between my current location and home. Also directions to where I’m going (by whatever means) and estimated time.

Add a system that monitors vital signs, and conditions can be tracked (and addressed if necessary) while they’re still minute. Conditions that indicate a pending crisis can be responded to automatically and quickly, before death is imminent. Such a system could advance medical science by retroactively looking at the histories of people with conditions to trace common indicators. As early conditions that indicate risks are monitored, such a system could incite people to make better choices, or address early indicator conditions medically if not through healthy living. This is our current system of medical treatment and advancement, but turbocharged with huge amounts of general data.

But there’s a catch: Google already faces moral hazards from their massive databases. No-one is supposed to look directly at the data, but sometimes technicians misbehave. And then various state agencies demand access to it for law-enforcement purposes, often contrary to the spirit of the people’s right to privacy. A continuous monitoring system would turbocharge this sort of abuse as well.

Privacy is important to human societies because individuals are quick to judge anyone not close to them, and so long as we have humans making those decisions, they will impose their will on others not necessarily in the best interests of the individual, or of the society as a whole. The NSA tracks people moving large amounts of money through private means and alerts the police when they’re vulnerable so they can be targeted for civil forfeiture, from which the precinct directly profits. Monitoring that allegedly is to protect us from terrorists is instead being used to rob small-business enterprisers of their capital. Today. In the United States.

Then there’s disagreement regarding what behaviors should be controled, which is where the whole microchip of obedience program falls apart. It would be too easy to restrict (say) gay sex, or sex at all, or practice of certain religions, or to associate religious practices with vital activities, like disallowing eating until prayer is completed.

This is why the NSA monitoring ordinary people is a bad thing: bad actors within the system, whether voyeuristic and stalkery technicians or moralizing and bigoted officials can choose to target individuals just for their faith or ethnicity or sexual preferences or lifestyle choices — things we’d expect to be legal in a pluralistic liberty-minded state — and then destroy the lives of these people for personal gratification. Some agents and officials do this very thing. Today. In the United States.

And thus we’re back to the cruel monitoring of Hollow, where the judgement of the watchers is arbitrary, and the only response is punishment, and there is no benefit, either to the people being monitored or the society at large.

No free speech for Americans.

It’s not to say microchips of obedience are inevitably bad, but such a system would have to be designed to compensate for the potential for abuse, which is, itself, a technology just as beyond us today as the chip itself.

* Fleet & Federation is a card game I have been developing (off and on) since 2005. The basic game is complete and playable (though needs testing and balancing), but I’m still making cards for an expansion, Strange New Words. It’s a parody of Star Trek (and similar Wagon Train to the stars! millieus like Space 1999 and Lost In Space), though I’ve taken enough time to develop the milieu that it deviates significantly from the franchises I intended to parody. You can see some of the cards and design art here.


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