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The Next Vegas Will Be A City That Lets You Truly Disappear – If Only For A While

By - April 21, 2014

sayminority(image) My daily reading took me to two places today – to Compton, California, well-known for its crime to anyone who grew up in LA (as I did), and to this NYT piece, which muses that the city, once the place we went to disappear, is likely to be the first place where anonymity is no longer guaranteed. (Not coincidentally, Pell found both pieces as well in his excellent NextDraft).

The Compton story informs us that for one month in 2012, the LA police department – not exactly a bastion of trustworthy behavior – surveilled the troubled district of Compton from the air, creating a 24-7 record of everything that was “publicly” viewable from the air. This piece chills me on a number of fronts: average citizens do not presume they are being watched from above, first of all. Secondly, do we want a society where such surveillance is presumed (read a bit of science fiction if your answer is yes)? And thirdly, this “wide net” of proactively collected data creates a record of actions that can be “rewound” and used as evidence after the fact – opening a raft of unsettling questions. It reminds me of one of Eric Schmidt’s creepier utterances (also known as the “nothing to hide” argument): “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The debate around privacy is nuanced and complex, I don’t intend to litigate it here. But as I read the Compton piece, it struck me that this particular genie is fast escaping the bottle. The Compton experiment was conducted using an airplane, but if you think police departments in major cities aren’t adopting far less expensive drone-based programs, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you…

Anyway, the NYT piece picks up where Compton left off, musing that cities offer the economies of data scale that make all public actions knowable well beyond their initial realm of physical expression. You may run that red light thinking no one is looking, but increasingly, the state is in fact looking, and will issue a ticket regardless of whether or not you were trying to rush a sick child to the hospital.  Not to mention the density of well-intentioned information-seeking marketers eager to connect your public presence to location-based offers (and that same data is, of course, available to law enforcement).

Which got me thinking. If big cities, once the refuge of anyone looking for namelessness, anonymity, or a new beginning, if those same cities become instead places where you can’t escape surveillance, it strikes me that our culture will respond by creating cities that promise exactly the opposite of that experience. Vegas has famously adopted “What happens in Vegas, Stays In Vegas” as its motto. But I find Vegas one-dimensional and depressing (save what Tony is up to). Instead I see Amsterdam as a model. I imagine vacationers of the future will want a far broader promise – they’ll be drawn to cities that have adopted a “no surveillance” policy – and in this way, the new Amsterdams of the world will be cities where visitors and residents are guaranteed there are no drones circling the skies, and no electronic, connected surveillance on the streets as well, beyond the time honored cop walking his or her beat.

Now that sounds interesting. I know I’d visit such a place on a regular basis, especially if the art (and the beer) was good…

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8 thoughts on “The Next Vegas Will Be A City That Lets You Truly Disappear – If Only For A While

  1. Tirpstil says:

    An interesting counterpoint, because optimistic. It strikes me that, whatever people endlessly say, our society does *not* look like the proverbial 1984. Perhaps that is simply because there has always been a small but critical mass of noisy idealists to stop it from doing so.

    • johnbattelle says:

      Yes, however, the idea of “pinpoint authoritarianism” – where it isn’t scary till you’re the one they pinpoint – strikes me as nearly already here.

  2. Storewars News says:

    Interesting
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  3. Drew Meyers says:

    Gotta love Amsterdam…

    which other cities are in the running?

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  5. smwatson says:

    While “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” is a nice hook for imagining a place where things don’t have consequences outside the confines of that place, Vegas is one of the most tracked places in the world. So “What happens in Vegas” should end with “is recorded in Vegas.” See Addiction by Design and What Happens in Vegas (forthcoming). http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9156.html http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/book/hardcover/what-stays-in-vegas/9781610394185

  6. FireBlogger says:

    Carmel. You can disappear there. Got the ‘art’ covered but they like wine a lot more than beer…