Escape Pod 350: Observer Effects

Observer Effects

By Tim Pratt

“Ubiquitous surveillance isn’t the problem. Asymmetrical ubiquitous surveillance is the problem.” The Liberator was playing Chinese checkers against himself and talking, talking, talking, like always. “Who watches the watchmen, after all?”

We were superheroes then. Celebrities, back when there were such things. It was a slow night at orbital headquarters, and Eye-Oh was sitting at the big screen, watching a couple of people fuck — consensually, or we would have done something about it — in an alleyway. The screen was green with night-vision enhancements, and Eye-Oh’s strange complicated face was perfectly placid and empty as he observed.

“The problem is that we can watch ordinary people, and they can’t watch us,” the Liberator went on. He looked at me longingly, searchingly, and I thought it might be nice to tweak the inside of his brain and get rid of his earnestness, give him a little taste of what infamous brain-damage victim Phineas Gage got when that iron bar slammed through his frontal lobe, a total personality turnaround, from nice guy to sociopath. Let the Liberator be selfish and impulsive and violent and mercurial for a while, so he could appreciate the way normal avaricious sneaky hungry desperate needy people felt.

But that was supervillain thinking, and I’d gone straight and narrow. In those days I cured neurological damage instead of inflicting it. I fixed people. (Except bad people. Those, I was sometimes still allowed to play with with.) I’d refused to give up my supervillain name though. The Liberator had wanted to call me “Dr. Neuro” when I joined his little boys’ club, but I’d insisted on keeping my maiden name, as it were. Doctor. Please. I was a high-school dropout.

“Do you see?” the Liberator said. “If ordinary people could see us, if everyone could see everyone else, it wouldn’t matter if there were no privacy.”

“Mmm,” I said, and tried to keep reading my book, a physics textbook. I was deep into a chapter on Heisenberg. His big achievement was the uncertainty principle, which says you can’t know both the position and the momentum of a given particle at the same time. (I know, you know that. But like I said, I didn’t do much school. I had a lot of catching up to do if I was going to hang with the super-science
types.) I always thought the uncertainty principle had something to do with observing, how just the act of looking at something changed its nature, but apparently that’s a whole different thing, called the observer effect. That’s the kind of confusion you get when your grasp of physics comes from made-for-TV science fiction movies named after the monster that eats the boyfriend in the second act. I wasn’t too clear on the implications of the uncertainty principle, but I understood the observer effect. Me and the boys observed things all the time — Eye-Oh observed _everything_ all the time — and we sure as hell changed what we saw if we thought it needed changing.

“In cultures where many people live in the same house, or otherwise in close quarters, they develop coping mechanisms to deal with the lack of privacy,” the Liberator said. “They are capable not just of ignoring one another, but of genuinely _not noticing_ certain actions or behaviors of a personal and intimate nature. If everyone in the world could see everyone else, at will, we would all surely develop those same skills, do you see? Selective blindness for the greater social good.”

“Sure, sure,” I said, and turned a page.

“But for now it’s one-way. We can watch ordinary people, and see them commit crimes, yes, of course, and stop them, but we can also watch them masturbate. Cross-dress. Auto-asphyxiate. Read stolen library books in the bath. Drink too much. Ingest recreational drugs. Curl up into a ball in the shower and cry. Walk around naked scratching themselves. Despite its benefits, our program of super-surveillance is a gross invasion of privacy.”

“So tell Eye-Oh to stop looking,” I said. Eye-Oh didn’t turn to look at me, but I could feel his attention. He could see everything — not just into your bedroom, but into your bank account and your safety deposit boxes and your web browser history, too, and he could project whatever he saw as visual information on a screen. (He was one of those freaks born with weird brain powers — like me — but there was some super-science involved, too, boosting his natural abilities.) Eye-Oh wasn’t all-knowing — he couldn’t see into your mind, or your heart — but he was all-seeing.

If I’d had power like that, I might have kept on being a supervillain.

But if somebody made him stop looking… what would that be like for Eye-Oh? He’d probably go crazy. More crazy. It would be like going
blind, times a million. Plus our super-team would lose all the money we made leasing Eye-Oh’s data-mining skills to big business and the
government, and from the occasional under-the-table spy job. That cash kept us in body armor and jumpjets and energy drinks.

The Liberator shook his head. “The benefits of watching are too great for us to stop the program. Terrorism and violent crime are finally under control, since Eye-Oh joined our team. But the drawbacks…” The Liberator’s big earnest face looked troubled. He’d been a farmboy or something, apparently, before his powers manifested, and he wrestled with moral and ethical questions the way only someone who’d never missed a meal could afford to.

He went on. “If every person on Earth could watch any cop, or
politician, or soldier, or CEO at will, it would be _fair_. The police
wouldn’t bother you about your bondage porn collection or make fun of
your taste in sappy romance movies, because you’d have access to their
private peccadilloes, too, and everyone would learn to be forgiving and turn a blind eye, to truly respect privacy. Ubiquitous surveillance is a fact, now. We are the guards watching prisoners in our Panopticon. The genie is out of the bottle. The opportunity for abuses of power are vast, profound, staggering. But if we could turn the cameras around-… It wouldn’t matter if your employer could see what you did on your time off if you could also see what he did in the privacy of his gated mansion. The police cannot so freely abuse you when everyone can witness their abuses, too.”

“What are you suggesting?” Eye-Oh spoke mildly, but blinked a couple of his eyes, the ones on top, which I thought betrayed some irritation.

“I’m suggesting we open our services to the public,” the Liberator said. “To anyone, at will. I’m suggesting we set up kiosks at the mall and post offices, so anyone can see anyone else, at the press of a button.”

Eye-Oh shook his head. “Ordinary people can’t afford our services.”

“We’ll charge a sliding scale,” the Liberator said. “We know how much money everyone really has, after all, so we don’t have to worry about anyone cheating. It’s not an invasion of privacy if it’s universal. It’s the _end_ of privacy, and good riddance.”

“What do you think about our leader’s idea, Lesion?” Eye-Oh asked me.

I sucked my teeth and mulled it over. “I don’t want people seeing me when I’m alone,” I said finally. I was thinking about all the things I’d done in the past, and all the things I thought I was still capable of doing. “I don’t care about being able to see what other people do, either. I hate reality TV anyway, and peeping toms are creepy.”

“Agreed,” Eye-Oh said. He paused. “Not about the reality TV, obviously. But about not wanting people to watch me.”

The Liberator sighed. “Alas, as you all know, I was chosen as leader of our group, because I was the only one deemed immune to bribery, intimidation, or influence. I do not require your approval. In fact, I’ve already set the plan into motion.”

“I’ll quit,” Eye-Oh said. “You can’t do it without me. You think I can’t make a good living in the private sector? Don’t get me wrong, I love the cape and all, but I won’t be used. At the very lease we have to be excluded from surveillance –”

“No exclusions.” The Liberator rolled a Chinese checker back and forth across the table. The tension between the big guy and Eye-Oh was thicker than the walls of our space station. I prepared to use my power, to lance into their brains and make microscopic telekinetic changes, to forestall any sudden violence. The Liberator was basically just an unstoppable killing machine shackled to a hyperactive conscience, but if I messed up his sense of proprioception and he couldn’t tell where his arms and legs were, he’d have a hard time doing anything physically drastic. Apart from falling down.

But he took another tactic. “Eye-Oh, you know a great many state secrets. Without my protection, every government on this planet would seek your immediate death. I repel assassination attempts daily. I don’t bother to tell you about it, because it’s just part of my job. But if you’d like to leave…”

Eye-Oh blinked a few more eyes. “Right. So. Kiosks? Okay.”

We enacted the plan. It was popular. Every person on Earth had chafed at the knowledge that their every move could be monitored by superheroes in the sky, but they leapt at the chance to wield that power on their own. Oh, people complained, from governments to civil liberties groups, but our space station was a sovereign nation — long story, happened after we saved the world one time — unbound by any other country’s laws. We cut businesses and municipalities in on the profits, and eventually, greed won, like usual.

We couldn’t install the kiosks fast enough, and our house geek, the Solder Soldier, was kept busy building more day and night. Everyone
wanted to see what their spouses, kids, cousins, employees, bosses, mother-in-laws, elected officials, and babysitters were doing. They
wanted to watch movie stars have sex with each other in private. They wanted to see their high school sweethearts naked in the shower. They wanted to see what great chefs ate at home. And those were the relatively harmless desires. In addition to the public surveillance
kiosks, the Liberator sold private home consoles, too, with a monthly subscription fee for unlimited use. Those were far more popular.
People liked to watch their neighbors in private, even knowing they, too, could be watched.

It wasn’t exactly the kind of unfettered clairvoyance Eye-Oh possessed, since home voyeurs had to specify a specific location they
wanted to watch, but between GPS coordinates and the personal information about most people you could find on the Internet, few people could live in true privacy, and a hardcore distributed network of hackers and web-junkies went through the world one set of coordinates at a time and published websites detailing what they saw.

Needless to say, Utopia did not ensue. People did _not_ go through a period of acting weird and repressed in private and then just forgetting about the fact that anyone could watch them anytime, adopting a live-and-let-live mentality. It didn’t go anything like the Liberator expected. He may be an impossibly powerful immortal, but despite his best efforts, he just doesn’t understand human nature. He used to wear these stupid disguises — all wigs and fake mustaches and false noses — and go walking among the common people, observing them, trying to figure out what made him different from ordinary humans, besides his godlike powers. I tried to explain to him once that it’s easy to be altruistic when you have everything, when you can do anything — that being generous means less when you have infinite riches to give, and you won’t even miss the goodies you hand out — but he never seemed to get it.

After the kiosks debuted, the world went from having the lowest crime rate since the first hominid picked up a rock with murder in mind to a chaos of wartime proportions, but the war was among families, friends, acquaintances, citizens. It wasn’t just people killing because they’d seen wrongs committed against them — it was people killing to prevent others from seeing the wrongs they’d committed, and killing out of shame, and out of frustration, and pretty much any other motivation you could think of. Suicides skyrocketed. Everything was fucked.

“Turn it off,” the Liberator said finally, as we watched cities burn from our orbital headquarters.

“Can’t,” Eye-Oh said. “The open-source movement hacked our consoles ages ago, so most of them can’t be turned off remotely anymore, and people are making their own kiosks now. It’s out of our control. All the surveillance capabilities are wirelessly connected directly into my nervous system. As long as I’m alive, people will be able to use this technology, and we can’t do anything to stop them.”

I sidled up to the Liberator. I whispered in his ear. “If you were a supervillain, the solution would be obvious.” I made a pistol of my thumb and forefinger and pointed at the back of Eye-Oh’s head, and saw him tense.

The Liberator tensed, too, then shook his head. “No, Lesion. That’s not our way. But it gives me an idea.” He took me to the super-science lab.

“Prosopagnosia,” the Liberator said. “Can you cause it?”

“Face blindness? Sure. If I screw around with the old fusiform gyrus in the frontal lobe, and I can make it so people don’t recognize faces anymore. They can’t tell their wife from their dog walker, the president from a grocery clerk. They can _see_ fine, their brain just doesn’t make the connection that this face belongs with that person.” It’s great for hiding your identity. I used to do it with bank tellers and other witnesses when my crew robbed banks, but I didn’t mention that.

“I want you to induce face blindness in every person on Earth,” the Liberator said.

0I frowned. “Uh. What? So nobody will be able to recognize the people they’re spying on?”

“Yes. Even if they know they’re spying on the right person, I think the… emotional element… will be largely reduced if can’t recognize their faces. It should reduce the violence. Once people calm down, we can give them back their senses.”

“Okay,” I said. Moral qualms were never much of an issue with me. “But doing that to six billion people is gonna take a little time, boss. Like, most of the rest of eternity. I’m good, but I’m not that good.”

“This should speed things up.” He showed me the power-boosting helmet the organization’s former psychic used to wear, back before he blew his brains out from reading too many horrible innermost thoughts. (That whole situation should’ve been a warning for the Liberator, if you ask me, but the flying boy scout has his limitations.) “With this, you can change the brains of everyone at once.”

“Everyone? Like, Eye-Oh? Solder Soldier? You, too?”

“All of us. It’s only fair.”

“Right.” So I did it. Put on the helmet — tight, and smelled like a dead guy’s sweat, but it made me thrum with power. Then it was just tweak, tweak, tweak, and for the people of Earth, every face became impossible to recognize. “That’s it,” I said, and took off the helmet, my head pounding.

He squinted at me. “Your face… Well. It worked.”

The Liberator put his hand on my shoulder and called me a good girl, and I wanted to give him aphasia and lots of other nasty brain glitches. Instead I just smiled at his face — which I could still recognize, because I don’t hack my own brain, that’s rule one — and said, “No problem, boss.” He couldn’t understand that I was smiling, of course, so I made it an especially nasty smile.

Three days later Eye-Oh jettisoned himself out an airlock into the hard vacuum of space, probably because obsessive voyeurism is a lot less fun when you can only tell people apart based on the clothes they’re wearing. All the ubiquitous surveillance consoles quit working as soon as Eye-Oh was dead. The Liberator wanted me to fix everyone’s brain after that, but by then I’d slipped into my civilian clothes and taken a teleport beam back to Earth. Why stay? Superheroing wasn’t much different from supervillaining, it turned out, except it was more boring and my co-workers were more self-righteous.

Life is really easy when you’re the only person who can identify individuals on sight. Sure, most folks started wearing particular clothes or jewelry or decorations so their loved ones could identify them, but there are lots of deception and falsehood and con games the bad guys play along those lines, too. I never wear the same outfit twice, and I change my hair and go through hats like most people go through toilet paper, so I’m basically invisible. The new children being born don’t have the face-blindness flaw — though I tweak the brains of any kids I encounter, to eventually freak people out into thinking the condition is hereditary, just for kicks — but it’ll be interesting to see how the young ones grow up when their parents can’t even recognize them.

Screw physics. I was always more interested in sociology anyway. Social upheaval is all around now, and it’s fascinating. Celebrity culture’s a thing of the past. Advertising is totally weird now. Mirrors are out of style. One-night stands are on the rise. I might write a book about it all.

The Liberator, of course, was declared an enemy of the world for conspiring to alter the brains of everyone on Earth without consent, and to this day they shoot missiles at him whenever he flies across the sky. He’s easy to recognize, because he still wears the same colorful suit whenever he flies. And, you know — he’s the only guy flying. But at least he doesn’t have to bother much with disguises anymore.

He can just change out of his costume and walk around at will, taking a long look at the faceless world he made. I ran into him, once, on a crowded winter street, and he still had that same earnest expression, like the world is a problem he’s just about figured out how to solve.

I took comfort in the fact that I’m the only one left who could recognize the look. I whispered “I _see_ you” in his ear, and if he’d caught me, it would have been bad — he could have forced me to undo my work.

But as fast as he is, I was faster. I just slipped off my jacket and took off my hat and disappeared into the crowd.

About the Author

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of over 20 novels, most recently Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars. As T.A. Pratt he wrote ten novels in the Marla Mason urban fantasy series. His stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, and other nice places. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He’s a senior editor at Locus magazine, and lives in Berkeley CA with his family. Every month he writes a new story for his Patreon supporters at

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Tim Pratt

About the Narrator

A Kovacs

A Kovacs is a co-founder of Dark Øverlord Media, along with Scott Sigler. A operates as the “publisher,” scheduling the fiction projects, coordinating editing, print publication and eBook production, and also manages strategic partnerships. In short, if a task doesn’t involve fiction writing or being loud and obnoxious, it probably falls to A. A is a rabid movie geek, Doctor Who fan, and science nerd. She volunteers in several women-forward and science-oriented organizations in San Diego where she lives.

Find more by A Kovacs