‘Technocreep’ provides a compelling look into secret surveillance

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In a world connected by wires and wi-fi signals, perhaps it’s no surprise that supposed “outsiders” are sometimes more in-tune with current affairs than those who live inside U.S. borders. Thomas P. Keenan, fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute proves in his first book “Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy” that cultural distance is often politically illuminating.

Keenan, who helped write the computer crime laws for the Canadian government in 1983, introduces readers to his worldview by relaying information you didn’t know before — about artificial intelligence, surveillance and the Internet. The book begins with Keenan’s thesis that “technocreep,” or any form of secret surveillance, is everywhere and will only continue to further invade our lives. The introduction, in an attempt to grip its readers, tries to instil mass paranoia, coming off a bit sensationalist.

Regardless of its beginnings, however, “Technocreep” strives to prove to readers that our 21st-century world of computer technology is undeniably creepy — and it succeeds on all accounts. From describing BINA48, a startlingly real humanoid robot made of “Frubber,” to the U.S. government-backed Biometric Optical Surveillance System that can scan faces in crowds and match them against watch-list databases, science fiction becomes scientifically real.

Although the technologies described in “Technocreep” are indeed real, a few fictional extrapolations of current technology trends are also included. While certainly entertaining, the inclusion of fictional theoreticals distracts from reality. For example, Keenan cites an academic paper published by Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars of the Victoria Management School in Wellington, New Zealand, that uses real statistics on the growing human interest in the possibilities of using robots to replace prostitution and pornography to create the “Yub-Yum,” a theoretical, robo-erotic massage parlor that offers “a range of sexual gods and goddesses.” As Keenan muses over the possibility with genuine concern, one can’t help but notice the “Yub-Yum”’s distinct, Atwoodian flavor.

What is most compelling about “Technocreep” is not its vague stories of secret operations, but Keenan’s occasional moments of truly compelling, quotable prose. He writes in a colloquial, unfettered tone that brings the reader’s guard down and presents him as a likeable, trustworthy narrator. Lines such as “Your smartphones and computer almost certainly pay a distinctive sonic tribute to their maker every time they start up” offer a new perception of technology for those of us who have grown up so accustomed to and comfortable with all of it.

Throughout the book, Keenan tries desperately to coin the word “technocreep” but is often awkward in his use of the term. While the notion of “technocreep” sounds cool, it provides little insight. The word establishes and enforces an association between technological surveillance and epidemic disease, but “technocreep”’s negative connotations leave little room for the benefits of technology.

Toward the end of the book, Keenan addresses counterarguments to his concerns about government surveillance and corporate data collection. While his responses are understandable, it seems a little too late to expect readers to wait until the very end of the lecture to have the FAQ session. Perhaps if Keenan had integrated these into earlier arguments, the body of text as a whole would pull more weight.

“Technocreep” forces one to dissociate from society in order to understand it. Over the course of 17 funnily named chapters, “Technocreep” covers a range of terrifying material — from a Justin Bieber sex toy made with a 3-D printer to Taco Bell’s supposed exploitation of human psychobiology — in a way that makes discovering the underbelly of technology darkly exciting.

Contact Kate Irwin at [email protected].

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