Journal: Do You Know Who I Am?

I want to capture some notions about identity, surveillance, and privacy in Arisa. I want to start by telling you a story that is very far removed from the Arisa. I was in the Merchant Marine. This was before I was shipping out on the George S. Merton. We had delivered a cargo to Plymouth, England. We would have normally picked up a new cargo at Plymouth and returned back to the United States, but for some reason (I was just a general seaman at that point and not privy to all the high-level workings of the ship), we were to pick up a cargo at Tilbury just outside of London. And, of course, when we got there, part of the cargo we were to carry was there and part of it was not. Even below decks we could hear the captain screaming. The owner of the cargo said that it was all or nothing and I gathered from the gossip that was going around the ship that the captain could ill afford to make a crossing of the Atlantic without cargo in his hold. The upshot of all this was that a good part of the crew got four days of leave while we were waiting for the rest of the cargo to show up. I got dressed in my best clothes and headed for London to see the Tate Gallery.

I had gotten an early start and had arrived at the museum just after it opened. There was a special exhibit and as a result there was a queue of people waiting to get tickets to enter the museum. I joined the queue, paid the vendor roaming up and down the queue for a copy of the museum program, and settled into reading as the queue advanced toward the ticket office. A short while later an extremely well-dressed English gentleman accompanied by a very attractive woman marched passed all the people in the queue up to the ticket office and demanded two tickets. People nearest the ticket office that had been waiting in the queue for some time made their displeasure known. The man in the ticket office and another gentleman who came up politely told the gentleman that he would have to wait on queue like everyone else. His response was to say, “Do you know who I am?” I assumed that he was somebody important, at least in his own mind, but I had no way of knowing. Apparently the two people managing the sale of the tickets had no knowledge either. There were raised voices, demonstrations of haughtiness, and eventually some senior person arrived, recognized the importance of the individual, and escorted him and his companion inside without having to buy tickets. Their passage was accompanied by the sound of catcalls and hoots from the crowd waiting patiently on queue.

Such a scene could never occur in Arisa. No one, of high or low station, would ever ask the question, “Do you know who I am?” Every individual has an identity built into them as part of their implants. Those implants are constantly broadcasting the relevant parts of that identity to the machines and individuals in the immediate environment. Each new person that I met would trigger a variety of inputs that would communicate the identity of this new person.

Each person in Arisa has options as to how that input is provided to them. Some people hear voices in their head reading off of the information. Some see little tags floating in the air around the individual that provide the information. It was even possible for the information to show up as a memory just recently recalled. I tried all of these inputs, alone and in combination at one time or another and found them to be distracting or in the case of recalled memories just too spooky to accept. For me the information would be displayed on the various surfaces in environment. If I was looking at a wall, I would see writing and images on that wall conveying information. If I looked at a table or at the floor, I would see the same. The same thing would happen if I looked at a piece of equipment.

For any given individual or piece of equipment, there would be an enormous amount of information available. If I picked up something as simple as a screwdriver, I could find out where the screwdriver had been manufactured, who or what had inspected the screwdriver, every geographical location that the screwdriver had ever occupied, and every use that had been made of that screwdriver. There was nothing about that screwdriver that I could ask for that I could not find out if I were foolish enough to ask. How do I know that? Because early on I asked such questions and got a torrent of information. After I settled in, my implants and the surrounding machines learned what the context of my inquiry was and provided me with only the information that was relevant to the context. It was a very effective system. Perhaps once or twice a year I would have to ask for additional information. Every other time, the machines knew exactly what I wanted and gave it to me.

One of the questions I asked very early on was, how do I know that this information I am receiving is the truth? How do I know that I can rely upon this information? I came from a skeptical age in which counterfeit credentials were common. This was another case where I got a torrent of data, the vast majority of which I did not understand in the least. The short, summarized answer that I got was that every individual and every piece of equipment and virtually everything else that existed in Arisa, had a unique identifier which was “impossible to counterfeit”. My screwdriver had such an identifier. When I received information from about the screwdriver, my implants and the screwdriver exchanged information in such a way that was dependent upon my unique identifier and the screwdriver’s unique Identifier. The screwdriver would make queries of the machines that were in charge of tracking where I was. My implants would make queries of the machines that were tracking where the screwdriver was. If we were both in the same place at the same time, that increased the credibility of the communication. There were dozens of such checks that were handled so fast that I never noticed. The nice thing about this was that it was impossible to lose a screwdriver. I would do no more than think, “where is my screwdriver?” and the answer would pop up that it was on the workbench against the north wall. Of course, that meant that anybody who asked where I was would get a similarly detailed answer.

This all mattered because there were restrictions, both institutional and natural, that existed about how various objects and people could behave and interact. There were places in the Arisa complex that I could not go. This was not a matter of places where I shouldn’t go. It was that I couldn’t physically open the door because of who I was and who the door “was”. The door knew who I was, knew the identities of the people who were permitted to pass through the door, and I wasn’t one of those people. Absent some way to physically pry the door out of the wall that it was attached to, I was locked out. Similar restrictions existed on information in some rare cases. The same set of restrictions made it difficult to misuse equipment. For example, I was preparing for one visit to the past and as part of that visit, I had to learn how to deal with some electrical equipment from that period. I started to use a device to measure something but the measuring device refused to work in that mode because it was unsafe.

This was very frustrating for me at the beginning. I had knocked about quite a bit in my youth. A lot of the jobs that I had held before I joined the Merchant Marine involved operating as some kind of half-baked mechanic. During that time I misused tools and related objects on a regular basis. I pounded nails with a wrench. I tightened and loosened screws with the edge of a knife. I connected objects together with bailing wire. This was the way of the world. I took what was at hand and did what was needed to accomplish what needed to be done. This, however, was just not the way one did things in Arisa. One used the proper tool and one used that tool in the proper way.

I recall a discussion that I had very early on when I started working with Terry. I forget exactly what I was trying to do, but I was frustrated because the tools I had at hand wouldn’t cooperate with me. I said something pungent and inappropriate. Terry raised an eyebrow.

I said, “How can I get anything done if the tools will not cooperate with me?”

Terry asked, “Why don’t you use the proper tool then?”

I responded, “But I don’t have the “proper tool” for the job.”

Terry asked, with some puzzlement, “Why don’t you get the proper tool?”

I responded, with some more heat than I should have, “I looked all over the lab and cannot find the tools that I need.”

Terry responded, very calmly, “Did you ask the laboratory where the tools were?”

I asked, “I can do that?”

Terry smiled, “Of course!”

I asked, “But what if the lab doesn’t have that tool?”

Terry smiled again, “The lab will make you the tool or search around the complex to find the tool and have it delivered to you. Why do you make things so hard for yourself, Eric?”

After a few months, it became second nature to simply query the lab for the tools I needed. And, as the lab gained experience with me, it began to anticipate what tools I might need and made sure that they were close at hand.

I mentioned above that I could find out almost anything that I wanted to about my screwdriver. That was equally true of every piece of equipment in the laboratory. When I first understood that, it was a curiosity, mildly interesting. When I realized that the same level of detail applied to people, particularly one Eric Stapleton, it was somewhat upsetting. I had been told again and again that the one thing that I did not and would not ever have in Arisa was privacy. That was one of the prices that I had to pay to go on living.

Another story, again from early days in Arisa: I had led a visit into the past to the late 21st century. There was a scholar who had accompanied me on the visit. While this was his third visit to the past, he was, in my view, not sufficiently cautious about what he could and could not do in the past. Everything had worked quite well during the visit until the point where he decided that he wanted to go to a bar that he had researched. While that particular bar was not explicitly off-limits, my instincts from my time in the Merchant Marine told me to stay as far away from it as possible. I said as much, as was my right as the leader of the visit, but he continued to walk toward the bar. I then physically blocked him from going in. After the visit was completed, the scholar complained that I had obstructed his investigations unnecessarily. I was told that there would be a review of what happened during the visit. I expected that they would take testimony and review the reports that we had both filed.

It was nothing like that.

What the reviewers did was to replay the visit as a three-dimensional simulation. The playback included every step that we took. The reviewers examined my heart rate, the dilation of my pupils, my respiration. They displayed the position of objects and people relative to our immediate environment. They then went back and did the whole thing again but now at half speed. They stopped the simulation at one point. Pointing at the displays of heart rate, respiration and eye dilation, one of the reviewers said, “You appear to be seeing something that makes you very uncomfortable. What was it?” The simulation display clearly showed that I was looking at a couple of men lounging next to the entrance to the bar that the scholar wanted to visit. It took me seconds to recognize that each man had a knife stuck in his boot and had an air of anticipation. I turned the reviewers and said, “My judgment is that these two men were waiting to rob somebody. We were too well-dressed to go into that bar. In their eyes, that meant that we had expensive gadgets. They were ready to rob us at the point of a knife.”

The scholar exploded, how could I possibly know that? We went back and forth for a few minutes. My response was that I had been hundreds of bars like this one in several dozen different cities and ports. There was no question in my mind, that these two individuals were bad news and that there were probably others inside of the bar, working with these two individuals. There was almost no way that we could go into that bar and not expect trouble.

In the end, the sensor data confirmed my judgment that each of the two men was armed with a knife. The scholar demanded that a sensor be sent back to survey of the interior of the bar to show that there was no danger. Even I knew this was not going to happen. The lead reviewer looked at the scholar in amazement, “Did you pay no attention, Scholar, to the briefings that we gave you before this visit? Did you pay no attention, Scholar, to the record that we have just reviewed? That record clearly shows the existence and position of every probe used for this visit. That record clearly shows that we did not send a probe back to survey of the interior of that bar. That means we are never going to send an additional probe back for any reason whatsoever. As you should clearly know, Scholar, to do so would very likely cause a paradox and cause a new time branch. I am astonished that you, Scholar, would not understand this immediately.”

Since I was the Shepherd and was in complete control of the visit and the scholar was a pompous idiot, the review team held that there was no basis to the complaint. To my knowledge, the scholar in question never traveled in time again

Even though I was vindicated, the whole experience really shook me up. I hadn’t realized the extent to which my privacy had been nonexistent. The review team pulled up the data about my every move during the visit without the slightest sense that they were violating anything about me. Everybody in Arisa had this trail of data following them. Any time there was a question about what had happened or whether actions were justified, it was an automatic and natural action to pull up all the data and go over it with a fine tooth comb. It just had never occurred to me that there’d be that much data.

I had several conversations with Cora, who was overseeing my introduction into Arisan society. The lesson that came out of those discussions was that my identity included everything about me. I just hadn’t realized how extensive that “everything” was. It took me years to get comfortable with that. What I came to realize was that, even though there was all this data being collected, only a few people cared to look at it and then only when there was some exceptional situation that need the details in order to analyze it. After a while, I just stopped thinking about all that data. Intellectually I knew was there, but in terms of my day-to-day thoughts and behavior, I just thought of this data as being about someone else. Somewhere the phrase, “privacy through obscurity” stuck in my mind. In other words I had privacy until I didn’t have privacy. I learned to live with it.

I said that nobody was interested in the extensive data that was collected about me that became part of my overall identity. That is not exactly true. The reality was that there were machines assigned to look at everything that happened to me and to figure out what my preferences were.

Why is this important? Well, these preferences became part of my identity. When I went someplace or did something, I inevitably had to interact with several machines. The first thing each of these machines would do would be to query my implants about my preferences in this particular context and use that knowledge to alter their behavior. This all happened automatically without it ever being visible to me. In a thousand different ways each day, those preferences would shape the experiences that I had. How warm should the room be when I was in it? The machines knew and made sure that the room was that temperature. What did I like to eat for breakfast or lunch or dinner? The machines knew and didn’t bother asking if I wanted something which the preferences showed that I never ate. Did I like particular kinds of information displayed in a particular way? The machines knew and they made sure that when I asked for information it was displayed that way. Did I prefer images of great art or did I prefer real-time displays of the outdoors? The machines knew. The machines knew and adjusted all manner of environmental factors to make me more comfortable.

The first four or five years that I was in Arisa, I resisted this “cocoon of comfort.” I had grown up in a world in which one had to struggle. In Arisa very few people struggled. When I visited the past, it was of course quite different. There, I was the one making the adjustments. I could not help but feel a sense of satisfaction when I was able to navigate the difficulties presented by the past. This was a sense of accomplishment that was missing from Arisa. Cora and I talked about this on several occasions. She was one of the few people that I encountered in Arisa that had even the slightest idea about why I was irritated by this cocoon of comfort. Whenever I tried to bring this up with someone else, the response was something along lines of, “You are uncomfortable because you’re too comfortable. How strange!” Cora at least understood the discomfort of someone who took legitimate pride in being to cope, suddenly living a life that had no need for such skills.

Cora was wise enough and experienced enough with other Shepherds to understand that the real problem was that these adjustments all happened without any semblance of my being in control. She pointed out that I could instruct the machines that were making me comfortable to be explicit about what rules they were following and allow me to modify or even veto those rules. I could even tell the machines to make me uncomfortable in minor ways from time to time, to suggest new things or things that I appeared not to want and allow me to explicitly decide. I followed that regimen for about 10 years until I realized that the machines were doing just fine. I did not have to explicitly approve the rules. I did keep the periodic, “let’s try something new” rules. More than a few of these instances led to tell the most enjoyable adventures that I had in Arisa, other than my trips my visits to the past.

Previous Journal Entry: An Introduction to Time Travel Next Journal Entry: The Strange Case of Branching Time

One thought on “Journal: Do You Know Who I Am?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s