Ideas tend to crop up in pop culture over and over, as fast as they become irrelevant, can just as quickly they become relevant once more. Vampires can represent a repressed Victorian sexuality, or the roiling power of young adulthood. Robots can be the cold, inhuman force of communism, or combined personification of wanted functionality and fear of power. Even dystopias can represent what happens when civilizations fail, or when they reach their peak efficiency. But sometimes more abstract themes and and transient creations are brought up again and again. So what happens when a method of change is the monster that reflects us? I’m about to look at is a dual-take on networked humanity, and how it shows trust in technology has shifted in the last ten years or so, by way of a 15-year-old comic and a TV show that has yet to premier.
Back in the early aughts there was a comic book by the title Global Frequency. Created by Warren Ellis (with covers by Brian Wood), it was about a secret intelligence organization run by two women: Miranda Zero, who headed the operation, and Aleph, who ran the tech and dispatched field operatives. These two had unprecedented access into information and surveillance, and when a situation arose that needed their action, they would call upon experts in the area to become temporary agents.
The comic ran from 2002-2004 with 12 issues. It was actually turned into a pilot in 2005, though it was never picked up (although it can be found online). Each issue was a single problem that had to be dealt with, with different agents being tapped each time. The comic’s format was very episodic, and the first issue was spun out into the pilot episode. Whether the show would have featured the same near-total cast turnover each episode, as the comic did each issue, will never be known. There a strange optimism and pessimism at war within this comic, which is a trend of Warren Ellis. There’s the grim feeling that just around every corner is something dark, that every person has a horrible secret. But there’s also a touch of light in the fact that there are people actually making a difference, no matter how far into the extreme the need to go in order to accomplish it.
CBS just premiered a show called Wisdom of the Crowd. (Did you I watch it? No. Did you? No. Nobody did.) It’s based on an Israeli show and is about a tech executive who creates a network for collecting data from around the world in order to solve his daughter’s murder, as well as other crimes. The system in this show, Sophie, allows people to upload their own data, optimistically referred to as evidence, and sift through other people’s uploads. They also reach out to utilize users’ phones for surveillance. So, much like Global Frequency, you have a small team set up with massive surveillance, tapping people already positioned in the real world to act as agents. Sounds pretty similar.
There’s a huge difference, though, and that’s the fact that Global Frequency taps the smallest number of people with the greatest amount of expertise, while Wisdom of the Crowd taps the largest number of people for the largest data set. Issues of signal-to-noise ratio and efficiency aside, WotC invites everyone to participate while GF works on precision. It’s interesting that in 2002 the premise was used to show that intelligence had to be accurate and effective, while in 2017 the same premise puts value in sheer quantity of data.
Perhaps the most foreboding part of WotC’s preview is a scene in which a man is identified as being of interest, and is hounded by large crowds following him with cell phones and cameras wherever he goes. According to the Sophie system you essentially have a large group of people with less than trustworthy information declaring “this is a bad guy”, and then the same group choosing to hound said bad guy because their source (themselves) told them to. This brings to mind the less than illustrious history of Anonymous targeting the wrong people in their own crowd-sourced intelligence operations. The self-ascribed trustworthiness also brings to mind Wikileaks, and how its lofty mission statement allowed it to be trusted far longer than any intelligence source should have been once its data dumps were used to aid specific political campaigns, whether this was done knowingly or unwittingly.
The Global Frequency model is not perfect either, but it’s certainly not the same. There’s little to no oversight. It’s hinted at some of their funding comes from G8 governments who are being extorted with secrets. That alone shows that there’s violation of privacy, as well as a willingness to let certain crimes slide as long as the GF benefits. However, their intelligence was vetted by a small number of people (mainly Aleph and Miranda Zero), and their agents in the field were vetted experts in their own right. The team behind WotC’s Sophia seem taken aback when people (acting as agents) begin to take things into their own hands. On the Global Frequency, it’s the specific people’s expertise and judgement that’s been sought out, and so their behavior is exactly what they’ve been chosen for. WotC seems to trust that if they throw enough people and data together, justice and order will emerge naturally. GF sees the status quo as what is holding back precise and effective action, wielding a small amount of chaos as a scalpel.
As far as ideas of privacy, surveillance, and the idea of technology’s place in our lives, Person of Interest feels just a bit closer to Global Frequency than anything else. And yet that even leans a bit into naiveté, with people supplicating themselves to technology rather than wielding it themselves. Perhaps if Global Frequency were created today the concept of artificial intelligence might have eventually worked its way into the story. But Ellis doesn’t touch on that, staying instead to a much more human story.
These two iterations of a temporary, transient, global intelligence network, one that can be summoned at a moments notice and disbanded back into the crowd, are fifteen years apart but their values seem separated by oceans or decades. Trust versus paranoia, expertise versus crowd-sourcing, entropy versus order. Watching these two takes on a similar idea might be interesting to see play out, if it weren’t for the fact that Wisdom of the Crowd seems so green and guileless. Both the new show and the older comic embrace technology, and even invasion of privacy to an extent, but the current version appears to be so eager to give up on civil liberties, it almost seems a bit exhibitionist. But maybe that’s part of its point. Privacy is no longer a right, it’s an impediment to being seen.