You are walking along the road when you reach a fork, where you see two guards chatting with each other. You approach them to ask which way you should go, but you notice a peculiar sign that says: “One of us always tells the truth, one of us always lies”. There is no way for you to know who tells the truth and who tells lies. If you could only ask one question to help you walk down the right path, what would you ask the guards?
The solution is simple: all you have to do is ask “If I asked the other guard which road is the right one, which road would he tell me to take?” then go to the opposite road. The reason being, no matter who you ask – truth-teller or liar – they will tell you the wrong answer. If you asked the truth-teller, he would honestly reply with what the liar would say, which is the wrong answer. If you asked the liar, he would tell you the opposite of what the truth-teller would say, which would ultimately be the wrong answer.
One of the most basic instincts of a human being is to doubt. We do not easily extend our trust to strangers. This is a natural response that is very beneficial for your survival from an evolutionary perspective (consider the overfriendly dodos that were wiped out by humans). As civilisation has progressed and the size of societies grew, people devised legal systems to lower their vigilance against each other. This was because instead of wasting time being suspicious of others, we devised specialist roles who would do that for us, allowing us to live in peace with each other. These specialists who stay alert and guard us enforce the law and stabilise our society. However, what would happen if the people that protect us from evil become evil? Is it not a scary thought to think that there is no one that watches the watchmen?
Emperor Qin Shi Huang who united China to form the Qin dynasty divided up his people, setting up a mutual guard system to enforce his rule. Informing became a civil obligation. To not report illegal activities was illegal in itself. The system of informing was as follows: five families form a group with each group being watched by an official warden who reports on them. This official warden is carefully observed by an unofficial surveillant. Five groups come together to form a tribe. If it is found that at any level something was not reported, the blame was turned on every member of the group. Thus, a circle of surveillance is formed.
This method was extremely effective and Emperor Qin’s rule of terror was unstoppable. Crime rates plummeted while productivity rose. The problem was that the people’s quality of life was pathetic. Emperor Qin’s system of watching was later adopted by Nazi Germany. The people under the rule of the Nazis had to live in fear of being reported by their neighbours. This method is also seen being used by Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Is this truly the best system to keep peace? Laws are put in place for the happiness and safety of the people, yet over-surveillance is an ironic concept that exists for those who hold power rather than the people.
How much should we trust another person? And who will watch the watchmen?