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“Zones of Domination”

In 2000, science fiction author Neal Stephenson gave an inspiring talk at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference. He entitled it “Zones of Domination.”  In the talk, he told the story of a whistleblower at the Hanford Nuclear Reactor. In the “big brother” model of authority, there is one entity and it is irredeemably evil. In Stephenson’s story, he followed our heroic whistleblower as forces from one federal government agency tried to frighten and falsely entrap him, but then the police and courts (local and federal) helped him resist and prevail. Stephenson’s point is that there is not one authority, but many. None are irredeemably evil. And the interesting activity is in the areas of overlap.

Roger Clarke posted some notes on the talk. He summarizes:

Big Brother Threat Model	The Domination Systems Threat Model

one threat			many threats
all-encompassing		has edges
personalised			impersonal
abstract			concrete
rare				ubiquitous
fictional			empirical
centralised			networked
20th century			21st century
irredeemable			redeemable
apocalyptic			realistic

(Roger Clarke, http://www.rogerclarke.com/DV/NotesCFP2K.html#Steph, 2000)

In much of the rhetoric about the Wikileaks incident, it seems to me that people are using a naive “Big Brother” model of government. The Government is one thing, and it is irredeemably evil. We can come to a more nuanced understanding of the situation by adopting a Zones of Domination model. There is not one univocal government–there are many interacting entities. None are irredeemable. The enemy is bureaucracy and opacity. The key to achieving just ends is increasing accountability and transparency within and between branches of government.

In the end, what we have is the hardest research problem in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) one could imagine. And the most important. How do we increase transparency within and between branches of government? How do we do that and at the same time keep sensitive information secure? The presence of the Bradley Manning’s of the world makes this critical problem orders of magnitude harder.

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Categories: CSCW, ethics, privacy
  1. December 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Isn’t it possible, though, that both models are idealized, and that the actual situation on any given day lies somewhere in the middle, with elements of both models in effect. And… it constantly changes, contingent upon actual decisions by various actors. But it matters where we are on any given day! If the government starts to act too much like the Big Brother model, you have a big problem, whereas to the extent that it acts more like the “interacting entities” model, then we as democratic citizens have some agency.

    The problem is that people in actual positions of power take shortcuts… they lie, they break the rules, and they hide behind official secrecy in order to get things done easier/quicker/cheaper. If we allow the people in positions of power to get away with that, the more government acts like Big Brother. But if we demand transparency (sometimes dramatically, as Clay Shirky’s recent piece suggests) we have a better chance of maintaining our agency as democratic citizens.

    It’s not possible to take a firm stance on “working within the system” vs “working outside of it” because the boundaries of “the system” are one of the very things at issue.

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