During the public comments segment of the last city council meeting, former city councilman and small business owner Tom Wiknich, spoke up about the city’s use of Placer.ai. Now that the use of this company’s AI data mining technology has been approved, he asked ten questions about the privacy of the data being gathered and the transparency of the city’s use of it. Even though the city leaders believe this technology will be of great benefit to the city, he was concerned about the justice of this invisible power. In essence, all ten of Wiknich’s questions could be reduced to one: “Who will wear the ring of Gyges?”
Wiknich’s concerns are certainly not new. In fact, they date back to at least 300 years before Christ by an ancient Greek philosopher in Athens. Plato introduces this thought experiment in his Republic. In Book II, Socrates and Glaucon explore what justice is, both in a man’s soul and in a city. Socrates holds the position that a man can actually possess this virtue as a static character quality, and that he would consistently practice justice to others no matter the consequences. He thinks that in this case justice is good in and of itself. But Glaucon, who is a cynic, believes men only practice justice because of its good consequences. By being a just man, he will gain respect socially as a “good” person or he will avoid punishment by not harming others. Glaucon gives this as the genesis of social contracts, compacts, and constitutions. Justice is obeying the law and the laws are created out of a combination of self-interests. “You will not do injustice against me, and I will not do injustice against you in this community we create.” In a sense, society is this mutual agreement of not doing harm to one another. Therefore, justice is not something good in and of itself. Instead, it is obeying the laws that come out of this compact. Justice is good because of its consequences: it prevents people from harming one another.
With this reasoning in mind, Glaucon concludes there is no difference between a just and an unjust man. With no consequences as motivation, each kind of man would do what would benefit him in every situation. In order to prove his point, Glaucon tells the “Myth of Gyges” which is the story of a shepherd that is toiling in the service of a king ruling Lydia. As he is tending the sheep, he is hit with a severe thunderstorm, and then the rumbling of an earthquake causes a great chasm to open where he is pasturing. He wanders down inside and “sees quite wonderful things about which men tell tales.” Among them, he sees a hollow bronze horse with a large corpse inside wearing nothing but a gold ring. The shepherd takes the ring and eventually finds that when he turns it toward himself, people around him no longer see him. He has a cloak of invisibility which gives him tremendous power. Realizing he will no longer suffer consequences for his actions, he enters the queen’s bedchamber and seduces her. He then kills the king and takes over the whole kingdom.
Using this story’s idea, Glaucon contemplates if there were two of these rings, each placed on the fingers of both the just and the unjust men, would either act differently? With no people looking on and no lawful consequences, what would each man do with this access to invisible power? The idea of this ring has the power to show a man his own soul. Glaucon is certain they would both behave the same because no one behaves justly without reason. He claims, “give each, the just man and the unjust, license to do whatever he wants, while we follow and watch where his desire will lead each.” He says that if we follow even the just man, he would be caught “red-handed going the same way as the unjust man out of a desire to get the better.”
Currently, our city leaders have access to this ring of Gyges. They have the power of invisibility to geofence any area in town in order to learn information about the people entering and exiting with their cell phones. Who will have that power, and will he be just or unjust? This is what Wiknich is asking. “Who will have access to Placer.ai’s research?” and “What other unnamed individuals will be able to request a report without the city manager’s approval?” Understandably concerned about his competition, Wiknich inquired, “Will any businesses or private organizations get a report?” He wanted to know, “Who sets the surveillance criteria? Will the general public have access to this newly acquired technology? How about the city staff? Will the citizens of Ridgecrest know when they are being surveilled? Will the council establish a public record of all the results?” And then, finally, he asked the clincher: “Will this surveillance also be used for any political campaigns or other political reasons?”
Now that three council members voted for access to this powerful ring of invisibility, Wiknich is asking for answers. He wants to know who will wear the ring of Gyges and what sort of justice will this ring-wearer wield?
By Helen Tomlin
News Review Staff Writer