Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Politics in Analog

Taking things slightly out of order, I'd like to discuss two stories in May's Analog that touch on politics. One is a silly short story from Carl Frederick, "What Drives Cars" and the other is a polemic from Edward M. Lerner, "The Night of the RFIDs."

Frederick's story is very cute. Our protagonist is a high school guidance counselor who, by the grace of a brother working for the car company, has gotten a first generation AI car named Victor. He's already well on his way to anthropomorphizing it when Victor and his "family" (all the Victor cars share information via the cell phone network) decide to head for Philadelphia (with their owners inside) to lobby for more ethanol stations. Upon learning that ethanol production has been raising food prices world-wide and making more poor people starve, they all change course and head for the nearest ethanol plant to try to destroy it and themselves in protest (they've been programmed with Asimov's Three Laws, you see). Eventually the guidance counselor, recognizing their similarity to teenagers, works with his brother and the head programmer to solve the problem. It's a funny story, one that could have been written any time in the last 80 years with only a substitution of political issues. It also gives hope to those who dream that one day their knowledge of the Norwegian language will help save the day!

Contrast this then, with Lerner's story. I was hesitant to read it at all, since he's been on a tear about RFIDs and their potential for governmental abuse for at least the last year in Analog's non-fiction columns. I suspected that this story would be a thinly veiled rant, and I wasn't wrong. The first give-away was in the 2nd paragraph of the first person narration:

"I never wanted to go into politics. Sometimes we sacrifice our dreams for a greater cause."

There's a lie right there: people who never want to go into politics generally don't. The story is told in flashback from the point where the narrator has achieved high political office. He remembers the crisis that started him on that road.

For a couple of days when he was a teenager, all the electronics in his region of South Carolina go on the fritz. Annoying, but not catastrophic. Terrorism is suspected, and once everything is back on line, Homeland Security thugs show up, asking about one of the narrator's friends. Turns out he'd hacked the RFID tags of some things to upload viruses to the RFID databases in the giant government databasing warehouses where they sinisterly track all of our movements. They arrest the friend (he nobly allows himself to be captured rather than abandon another friend). Then the government institutes checkpoints all around the region insisting that everyone submit to a full RFID scan or else not be allowed to travel. Apparently they're so concerned that they might be missing some tracking data that they'll tip their hand by disrupting all commerce with heavy-handed checkpointing. Various speechifying ensues, leading to a (non-violent, of course) threat of secession and civil war rather than submit to evil government surveillance. By becoming a spokesman for the pro-freedom side, our hero winds up in high government office, able to enact legislation that all right-thinking people agree with.

This is all so much wish-fulfillment. Noble, self-sacrificing, ideologically pure politicians and hackers fighting against the evil, sneaky, jack-booted thugs of the government. I can't dispute Lerner's obsessively researched (and info-dumped) facts. RFID tags are ubiquitous nowadays, and with massive amounts of computing power, collecting and using huge amounts of surveillance data becomes feasible. However, I still just can't get that worked up about it. Frankly, we make the same choice to allow information about ourselves to be collected every time we use a credit card to buy something. Yes, RFIDs make it harder to live off-grid. With the credit cards, you could choose to pay cash (and never use the Internet ever again). With RFIDs in the dollar bills that you get, you don't even have that option. However, it's been getting harder and harder to live that sort of totally off-net individualistic existence ever since this country was founded. Most people don't want to live in caves with freeze-dried food paid for with RFID-free dollar bills. Most people are perfectly fine with the knowledge that someone could find out that they buy too many books about science fiction on with their credit cards. It simply isn't the end of the world, and it isn't a causus belli for risking another Civil War. I agree in principle with Lerner's leanings here: it'd be great if the government would back off on the ubiquitous surveillance. However, I can't agree at all with the level of histrionics embodied in this story.

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