The Technium

Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Technologies

When communication technologies become ubiquitous and employed by powerful institutions they can scare us because they appear to be technologies of control – of us. Global positioning information is very handy but might also be used to follow us at all times. Web cams are cool, but also permit constant eyes turned on us. Digital rights technology can prevent illegal rip-offs, but it can also capture everything we do.


What scares us is that the communication in these examples is asymmetrical. Each technology moves information about us to some entity that we have no knowledge of. They watch us; we can’t watch them. They know us, but we don’t know them. It makes it hard to ensure the knowledge is accurate and appropriate. And of course we gain little either economically or informational from it.

Asymmetry of knowledge is what drives hedge fund operators, real estate brokers, and intermediates of all kinds. They have more knowledge about what we want they we do. From this disequilibrium, they derive their profit, which we normally will pay as worth the cost.

But sometimes the asymmetry is baked not into an occupation, but into technology itself. Very large computers that can mine trivial everyday data for patterns is one example. Here the inherent imbalance between the level of knowledge available creates uncertainty, fear, and resentment. If asymmetrical technologies advance and spread, those less in-the-know will rebel, avoid it, sabotage, or subvert them. But symmetry can be restored with better technologies that embrace reciprocal information. We can watch the watchers and as we watch, others watch us.

To put it personally, I am comfortable with having my movements tracked, my habits databased in aggregate, and my tastes networked IF — BIG IF:

1) I know what information is being collected, where and why, and by whom
2) I assent to it either implicitly or explicitly, and I am aware of it
3) I have access to correct it, and can use the data myself
4) I get some benefit for doing so (recommendations, collaborative filtering, or economic payment)


Right now, I go along with a technology if I can get 3 out of 4 of these demands. If these four conditions are met I am happy to have my everything monitored. Throw in some payments, or freebies and you can watch my boring life all you want. But remove those conditions and I am outraged. I find governmental surveillance particularly wicked because it meets none of those conditions.

David Brin, who explored this theme much deeper than I have in his book Transparent Society, suggests that the symmetry I propose can also be thought of as reciprocal accountability (RA). We could even call it symmetrical accountability.

People find a small town a comfortable place to live in part because it has symmetrical accountability. Yes, the lady across the street is a nosey busybody, who monitors the guests who visit your apartment and when, but she also will pick up your mail when you are on vacation and turn off your hose if you inadvertently leave it on (she knows your schedule). Most importantly, you know she watches you so you can manger her if need be. In turn, you monitor her comings and goings, and you can temper her gossip by speaking to the neighbors she talks to yourself. It’s a two-way exchange. You don’t trust the guy upstairs, but he knows you’ll call the police if he gets too loud, or if someone tries to break into his flat. This reciprocal surveillance is tolerable, even desirable because the accountability is transparent. It feels good, while asymmetrical monitoring feels creepy and oppressive. Who is watching? What do they know? Why do they want it? Who else are they sharing it? What if they are wrong? The benefits to us of this one-way relationship appear to be zero. When it is restored by two-way exchanges we feel connected rather than spied upon – although topologically there is little difference in the action.

A first class butler is a first class spy of his master, monitoring every move in anticipation of what he’ll need. We’ll pay good money to be spied on by a butler because this relationship meets the four demands. As communication technologies seek to become our butlers, hoping to anticipate our needs and desires, they must adhere to reciprocal accountability and symmetrical knowledge. I find Amazon’s in-depth monitoring of my shopping behavior closer to butlering than spying because I know what they collect, why, I have a way to correct it, and because I derive great benefit from their service based on what they observe in me.

Potential surveillance technology is not the only place reciprocal knowledge is important. As more of the technium is dominated by the intangibles of communication and information, symmetrical knowledge will become essential. The uncertainty and fear of new technology can be relieved, in part, but restoring symmetrical knowledge between creators, makers and users.


The necessity of symmetry applies not only to easily-monitored technologies such as computer networks, cameras, and digital rights, but to all technologies. Technology in general benefits by being transparent. Every technology would be improved by these three guidelines:

1) Users should know as much about the technology as the creators do. It takes an enormous amount of knowledge to create a new innovation. Some of this know-how includes information about what does not work. In medical studies this is called negative results. Both negative results, known bugs, expected side-effects, and possible dangers should all be disclosed to users as soon as possible. In addition the mechanics and logic of how an innovation works should also be transparent. To our great benefit patents encourage this disclosure, but many technologies are hidden behind proprietary veils. This is one reason open-source technologies are in ascendancy – because they are transparent and symmetrical. Users have as much information about the technology as the creators do.
2) The knowledge about a technology should travel with the technology. This meta information includes the transparent information about its mechanics, and its negative results, but also should include such things as its origin, the sources of its parts, the supply line of its vendors, the environmental impact of its materials, and the necessary work needed to dispose or archive of it properly. This should always be accessible, either by embedded tags, or in such a way (like wireless bar codes) that the knowledge is fully present to anyone using even a portion of the technology. Anything more than one click away is too far.
3) Other technology should know everything about it too. More and more, technology interfaces with other technology and not humans. Inter-operability with other technological systems is essential. The meta-information must be machine readable, and the technology should adopt as many standard protocols as possible. This is not only good citizenship for technology, but it permits large complex systems to retain symmetrical knowledge. Any node can, in theory, know what other nodes do.

Transparency does not solve all the problems with new technologies, nor prohibit them from being abused, but it lessens this potential. Restoring symmetry to our creations can help us better evaluate and manage them.


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