Beware Trivial Fears

by Stabilizer 1 min read4th Feb 201440 comments


Does the surveillance state affect us? It has affected me, and I didn't realize that it was affecting me until recently. I give a few examples of how it has affected me:

  1. I was once engaged in a discussion on Facebook about Obama's foreign policy. Around that time, I was going to apply for a US visa. I stopped the discussion early. Semi-consciously, I was worried that what I was writing would be checked by US visa officials and would lead to my visa being denied.
  2. I was once really interested in reading up on the Unabomber and his manifesto, because somebody mentioned that he had some interesting ideas, and though fundamentally misguided, he might have been onto something. I didn't explore much because I was worried---again semi-consciously---that my traffic history would be logged on some NSA computer somewhere, and that I'd pattern match to the Unabomber (I'm a physics grad student, the Unabomber was a mathematician).
  3. I didn't visit Silk Road as I was worried that my visits would be traced, even though I had no plans of buying anything.
  4. Just generally, I try to not search for some really weird stuff that I want to search for (I'm a curious guy!). 
  5. I was almost not going to write this post. 
And these are just the ones that I became conscious of. I wonder how many more have slipped under the radar.

Yes, I know these fears are silly. In fact, writing them out makes them feel even more silly. But they still affected my behavior. Now, I may be atypical. But I'm sure I'm not that atypical. I'm sure many, many people refrain from visiting and exploring parts of the Internet and writing things on different forums and blogs because of the fear of being recorded and the data being used against them. Especially susceptible to this fear are immigrants.

In Beware Trivial Inconveniences, Yvain points out that the Great Firewall of China is very easy to bypass but the vast majority of Chinese people don't bypass it because it's a trivial inconvenience.

I would like to introduce the analogous and very related concept of a trivial fear: fear of low probability events that affects behavior in a major way, especially over a large population. Much more insidiously, the people experiencing these fears don't even realize they're experiencing it: because the fear is of small magnitude, it can be rationalized away easily.

In this particular case, the fear acts in a way so as to restrict the desire for information and free speech.

In a recent conversation, a friend mentioned that calling the modern surveillance state 'Orwellian' is hyperbole. Maybe so. I don't know if the surveillance state is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. I'm not an economist or a political scientist or a moral philosopher. I simply want to point out that the main lesson from 1984 is not the exact details of the dystopia, but the fact that the people living in the dystopia weren't even remotely aware that they were living in one.