There is a story by sci-fi author Greg Bear called Strength of Stones. In the far future, humankind has built Cities that are beautiful feats of engineering, that can move themselves to where they are most needed, governed by artificial intelligences seeking to maintain order and peace. The Cities monitor everything about their people, and mildly and consistently punish infractions of the city codes with exile. Within two generations, the Cities have exiled the whole human race. Actual human beings, in their messiness and irrationality and wilful sense of mischief, will never be able to be rationalized into a system of uniformly enforced algorithmic regulation, and without human beings to sustain them, the Cities themselves eventually began to die.
It can look, from this side of it, as if surveillance, criminalization and punishment will only increase; that there is an unstoppable drive toward a union of oppressors – corporations, police, intelligence services and the bureaucracy – that really deserves the name of fascism. On the morning after the Ferguson non-indictment, it seems especially legitimate to question whether we can achieve anything that looks like justice.
But looking ahead, I don’t imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever. I view our 17 surveillance agencies, like the Cities, as containing the seeds of their own destruction. They depend on us; we don’t depend on them, but on each other.