Ubiquitous cameras are our future, and the only real question is whether or not the camera network will be usable by the general public, or only the "secret police" who will monitor our every move.

Consider City Number One. In this place, all the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image-processors to scan for infractions against the public order -- or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.

Now let's skip across space and time.

At first sight, things seem quite similar in City Number Two. Again, there are ubiquitous cameras, perched on every vantage point. Only here we soon find a crucial difference. These devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can lift his or her wristwatch/TV and call up images from any camera in town.

Here a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn.

Over there a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still waits for him by a city fountain.

A block away, an anxious parent scans the area and finds which way her child wandered off.

Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest her neutral professionalism lapse.

In City Two, such micro cameras are banned from some indoor places... but not Police Headquarters! There, any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only crime.

Despite their initial similarity, these are very different cities, disparate ways of life, representing completely opposite relationships between citizens and their civic guardians. The reader may find both situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable. But can there be any doubt which city we'd rather live in, if these two make up our only choice?

I pick City Two, and I think it would be preferable to what we've got now, if only because we could monitor our government much more efficiently.

(HT: Bernardo.)

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