For as long as consumer technology has existed, efforts have been made to counter it. In many technological demographics, this creates a kind of "arms race" in which a consumer convenience that annoys some is impeded by another consumer convenience designed explicitly to be an impedance.
When Caller ID was offered to telephone users, it wasn't long before Caller ID Blocking was also offered. Caller ID Blocking Blocking wasn't far behind; you can now purchase a feature that denies calls to your phone from blocked numbers.
When the first radar detectors were introduced, the speed-detection industry responded by introducing "pulse" radar technology – which, sometimes, was as simple as Smoky switching on his radar gun only when he was ready to clock you. Radar detector detectors and even no-way-were-they-ever-legal radar jammers came along somewhere during all of that. Laser speed detectors were introduced after that, making the old radar detectors obsolete, whereupon the radar detection companies introduced detectors that, using line-of-sight sensors, could supposedly detect laser signals in time for you to slow down and avoid a ticket. (Whether that's true depends on how many tickets you've gotten using such gadgets, as I have.) Laser jammers have since been introduced.
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Not surprisingly, the technology arms race has become more personal. It is now less about legal issues such as caller identification and speed detection, and much more about what simply annoys individuals. Take wireless phone technology, for example. All of us are familiar with the service announcements at the beginning of movies shown in theaters, in which we the audience are urged (sometimes through very clever means) to turn off our wireless phones rather than annoy fellow moviegoers during the film. The latest PSAs even discourage texting during the movie, which one would think is a silent alternative to taking a phone call while the movie is playing.
Not content simply with hectoring you to turn off your phone, some governmental entities employ jamming devices to prevent you from using your wireless phone at all. When done by anyone but the government, this is supposed to be illegal. What if that changes? What happens when you're sitting in a jammer-equipped movie theater (though this isn't, for the moment, permitted) and your child or spouse tries to call or text you because he or she has an emergency of some kind? And just who is your government – or, if regulations on public use of such technology are relaxed, any random individual – to decide that you cannot use your personal electronics or communications devices?
Good manners and common decency are not behaviors that can or should be enforced by law; they are the responsibility of individuals, who either exhibit these qualities or do not. A society that attempts to enforce these behaviors by force of law – essentially at gunpoint, for all use of government power is ultimately backed by the threat of violence – is not a free society at all. But a society that permits individuals to become vigilantes for polite behavior, using technology to force others to comply with their ideas of what, where and when certain entirely legal behaviors are appropriate or desirable, devolves into an anarchic Dodge City. When battery-powered gunslingers hurl electrons at one another out of any perceived slight or offense, society has failed to protect individual rights. It has failed to perform the only legitimate function of government in a free society.
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In a remarkably clear example of just this phenomenon, technology and news sites were abuzz this week with the story that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich has equipped his fabulously expensive luxury yacht with a "laser shield" of camera detection devices. If I understand correctly, these gadgets, when they sense a camera lens directed at the yacht, fire off a beam of light that destroys the photograph or video being taken. This raises very important issues of individual rights. Specifically, does a man with enough money to shoot your camera with a laser have the right to stop you from taking a picture of his boat? Does his altering of the photograph you are taking constitute a violation of your rights? Does his shooting a laser at your camera violate your property right to that camera, in the same way that his punching out a camera-wielding paparazzo, Sean Penn style, surely would?
Where is the dividing line between consumer technology that is your property and consumer technology used to interfere with that property? At what point is a man violating your rights when he uses technology to impede your actions in a way that would surely earn him a beating were he to lay hands on you and attempt it directly? Already, RFID-blocking wallets are on the market, their purpose being to prevent technology from being used to pick your pocket. Where once thieves had to have the dexterity and courage to lift your wallet by hand, they may now steal your bank cards without ever touching you. Do we want to see this trend repeated across multiple technology platforms, with the result that your individual rights will be violated repeatedly through the ether, across the airwaves and in virtual reality? Do we dare allow these violations to creep inexorably, invisibly and instantaneously into the many parts of our lives dominated by consumer electronics, computers and software applications?
Individuals, you see, may violate your rights using technology as readily as can your government. You may ask me to turn off my phone or computer. You may not jam either without violating my rights. You may attempt to enforce your notions of what is polite or acceptable – but you must remember that your opinions are not shared by all. This is the foundation of any truly free society: a mutual respect for individual sovereignty, technological or otherwise.
If we forget this, we are as bad as an invasive government that uses technology to bend us implacably to its will. If we forget this, we become individual tyrants.