Tales of the Algorithm: The Transparent Man


Scene: An airport. A few years from now.

"I'm sorry sir, we can't let you on the flight until you visit the rest-room."

I'll admit that it caught me off-guard. Surely the woman at the airline gate was joking?

"Sir, two of the plane's toilets are out-of-order. At this time we're requesting all passengers void themselves before entry."

"Look, I'm a grown man. I've been responsible for my own piss for several years now. Pretty sure I'll be fine."

She gave me a sceptical look and prodded her Android tablet.

"Company policy is to request all flyers should have less than 25% occupancy in their bladder. You're at 35% sir. Please kindly make your way to the indicated area."

That's crazy, I thought. How did we get into a state where it's possible to examine a stranger's insides?

After making sure I was as empty as possible, I walked through the mandatory heat-vision screening. Ostensibly it was to make sure no passenger was too ill to travel.

The goons running the airports had decided that securing the images produced by the machines was futile - leakers would always find a way - so they just put up big display screens showing the body-heat images to everyone. Pay an extra dollar and you could get your "thermo-selfie" emailed to you.

Most people didn't consider it an invasion of privacy by then. Besides, it was always a great laugh seeing which of the travellers was sexually aroused in public. I'm sure they put the prettiest employees at the scanning desk on purpose!

I mean, I ought to feel a pang of fear - but everyone has a Thermal Imaging Phone these days, so what's the point of complaining? After the brief craze of hot-crotch-shots of politicians, it just became the new normal.

The TV screens were running election footage. The networks' latest gimmick was displaying the candidates' heart-rates as they spoke. Pretty easy to see who was lying. It was the same tech they used on me as I completed security screening. Yes, I packed these bags myself. No, I wasn't involved in war crimes.

People had taken to wearing thick make-up in order to hide their biological traitors. That had worked for a bit, but as lip-reading software reached 95% accuracy the more the more paranoid people had started wearing full face masks to hide away from everyone.

Whereas once wearing the veil was seen as a sign of piety - it was now standard to see people walking around in flowing cloaks, masking their heat signatures, lip movement, and their walking style.

I boarded the plane and slipped on my portable brainwave monitor. It wasn't a requirement - but the airlines like to make sure everyone is calm on the flight. It's a security thing - but it also let me collect loyalty points for watching the in-flight movie. Studios love to know how their films perform.

My EEG spiked! I hadn't checked on the pilot! I quickly opened up a live stream to the cockpit camera and switched on the eye-movement detectors to check how tired she was. She was wide awake, what a relief. And the way her pupils dilated when talking to the Chief Flight Attendant...!

Sure, I felt a little guilty peering into her vital statistics - but we're all naked now.


Everything in this blog post is true. All the technology is there - we're just waiting for it to become widespread.

Legendary science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of a science fiction writer was to notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution.

I love that quote, because it highlights the key role of SF in examining the social consequences of technology – and because it shows how limited our social imaginations are.

Today, we might ask the SF writer to also predict how convincing the nation’s teenagers to carry a piece of government-issued photo ID (a driver’s license) as a precondition for participating in the sexual revolution set the stage for the database nation, the idea that people are the sort of thing that you count and account for, with the kind of precision that the NSA is now understood to bring to the problem.
Cory Doctorow: Cold Equations and Moral Hazard

Here's a child who will grow up thinking it is normal for a parent to know exactly how full their bladder is.

We might (reluctantly) accept airport staff staring at our naked outlines, but infrared phones only cost £500 - that puts them firmly in the same affordability range as most modern phones.

Why wouldn't you run biometric analytics on a first date with a new boyfriend? Surely better to make sure they're not lying, that there is mutual attraction, that their eyes aren't wandering.

What happens to society when we're trained to control or hide our emotions? Do psychopaths prosper? Will radical transparency become the way people cope?

Is wearing a spy-proof burqa a rational response to the incoming privacy invasion?

The future is about to get weird.

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