The Danger of Using Science as a God Killing Machine

Gravitational Waves

Big news this year for those interested in big questions, or potentially big news, as long as the findings hold up. Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics may have come as close as we have ever ever to seeing the beginning of time in our universe.  They may have breached our former boundary in peering backwards into the depth of time, beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background, the light echo of the Big Bang- taking us within an intimate distance of the very breath of creation.

Up until now we have not been able to peer any closer to the birth of our universe than 300,000 or so years distance from the Big Bang. One of the more amazing things about our universe, to me at least, is that given its scale and the finite speed of light,  looking outward also means looking backward in time. If you want to travel into the past stand underneath a starry sky on a clear night and look up.  We rely on light and radiation for this kind of time travel, but get too close to beginning of the universe and the scene becomes blindingly opaque. Scientists need a whole new way of seeing to look back further, and they may just have proven that one of these new ways of seeing actually works.

What the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists hope they have seen isn’t light or radiation, but the lensing effect of  gravitational waves predicted by the controversial Inflationary Model of the Big Bang, which claims that the Big Bang was followed by a quick burst in which the universe expanded incredibly fast. One prediction of the Inflationary Model is that this rapid expansion would have created ripples in spacetime- gravitational waves, the waves whose indirect effect scientist hope they have observed.

If they’re right, in one fell swoop, they may have given an evidential boost to a major theory on how our universe was born, and given us a way of peering deeper than we ever have into the strobiloid of time, a fertile territory, we should hope, for testing, revising and creating theories about the origin of our cosmos, its nature, and ultimate destiny. Even more tentatively, the discovery might also allow physicists to move closer to understanding how to unify gravity with quantum mechanics the holy grail of physics since the early 20th century.

Science writer George Johnson may, therefore, have been a little premature when he recently asked:

As the effort to understand the world has advanced, the low-hanging fruits (like Newton’s apple) have been plucked. Scientists are reaching higher and deeper into the tree. But with finite arms in an infinite universe, are there limits — physical and mental — to how far they can go?

The answer is almost definitely yes, but, it seems, not today, although our very discovery may ironically take us closer to Johnson’s limits. The reason being that, one of the many hopes for gravitational lensing is that it might allow us to discover experimental evidence for theories that we live in a multiverse- ours just one of perhaps an infinite number of universes. Yet, with no way to actually access these universes, we might find ourselves, in some sense,  stuck in the root-cap of our “local” spacetime and the tree of knowledge rather than grasping towards the canopy. But for now, let’s hope, the scientists at Harvard/Smithsonian have helped us jump up to an even deeper branch.
For human beings in general, but for Americans and American scientists in particular, this potential discovery should have resulted in almost universal celebration and pride. If the discovery holds, we are very near to being able to “see” the very beginning of our universe. American science had taken it on the chin when Europeans using their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were able to discover the Higgs Boson a fundamental particle that had been dubbed in the popular imagination with the most inaccurate name in the history of science as “the God particle”. Americans would very likely have gotten there first had their own and even more massive particle collider the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) not been canceled back in the 1990’s under a regime of shortsighted public investments and fiscal misallocation that continues to this day.

Harvard and even more so the Smithsonian are venerable American institutions. Indeed, the Smithsonian is in many ways a uniquely American hybrid not only in terms of its mix of public and private support but in its general devotion to the preservation, expansion and popularization of all human knowledge, a place where science and the humanities exist side- by- side and in partnership and which serves as an institution of collective memory for all Americans.

As is so often the case, any recognition of the potential for the discovery by the scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics being something that should be shared across the plurality of society was blown almost immediately, for right out of the gate, it became yet another weapon in the current atheists vs religious iteration of the culture war. It was the brilliant physicist and grating atheists Lawrence Krauss who took this route in his summary of the discovery for the New Yorker. I didn’t have any problem with his physics- the man is a great physicist and science writer, but he of course took the opportunity to get in a dig at the religious.

For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.

What should have been a profound discovery for all of us, and a source of conversations between the wonderstruck is treated here instead as another notch on the New Atheists’ belt, another opportunity to get into the same stupid fight, with not so much the same ignorant people, as caricatures of those people. Sometimes I swear a lot of this rhetoric, on both sides of the theists and atheist debate, is just an advertising ploy to sell more books, TV shows, and speaking events.  

For God’s sake, the Catholic Church has held the Big Bang to be consistent with Church doctrine since 1951. Pat Robertson openly professes belief in evolution and the Big Bang. Scientists should be booking spots on EWTN and the 700 Club to present this amazing discovery for the real enemy of science isn’t religion it’s ignorance. It’s not some theist Christian, Muslim or Jew who holds God ultimately responsible, somehow, for the Big Bang, but the members of the public, religious or not, who think the Big Bang is just a funny name for an even funnier TV show.

Science will always possess a gap in its knowledge into which those so inclined will attempt to stuff their version of a creator. If George Johnson is right we may reach a place where that gap, rather than moving with scientific theories that every generation probe ever deeper into the mysteries of nature may stabilize as we come up against the limits of our knowledge. God, for those who need a creating intelligence, will live there.

There is no doubt something forced and artificial in this “God of the gaps”, but theologians of the theistic religions have found it a game they need to play clinging as they do to the need for God to be a kind of demiurge and ultimate architect of all existence. Other versions of God where “he” is not such an engineer in the sky, God as perhaps love, or relationship, or process, or metaphor, or the ineffable would better fit with the version of  reality given us by science, and thus, be more truthful, but the game of the gaps is one theologians may ultimately win in any case.

Religions and the persons who belong to them will either reconcile their faith with the findings of science or they will not, and though I wish they would reconcile, so that religions would hold within them our comprehensive wisdom and acquired knowledge as they have done in the past, their doing so is not necessary for religions to survive or even for their believers to be “rational.”

For the majority of religious people, for the non-theologians, it simply does not matter if the Big Bang was inflationary or not, or even if there was a Big Bang at all. What matters is that they are able to deal with loss and grief, can orient themselves morally to others, that they are surrounded by a mutually supportive community that acts in the world in the same way, that is, that they can negotiate our human world.

Krauss, Dawkins et al often take the position that they are administering hard truths and that people who cling to something else need to be snapped out of their child-like illusions. Hard truths, however, are a relative thing. Some people can actually draw comfort from the “meaninglessness” of their life, which science seems to show them. As fiction author Jennifer Percy wrote of her astronomy loving father:

This brand of science terrified me—but my dad found comfort in going to the stars. He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

Percy felt something to be missing in her father’s outlook, which was as much as a shield against the adversity of human life as any religion, but one that she felt only did so by being blind to the actual world around him. Percy found this missing human element in literature which drew her away from a science career and towards the craft of fiction.

The choice of fiction rather than religion or spirituality may seem odd at first blush, but it makes perfect sense to me. Both are ways of compressing reality by telling stories which allow us to make sense of our experience, something that despite our idiosyncrasies,  is always part of the universal human experience. Religion, philosophy, art, music, literature, and sometimes science itself, are all means of grappling with the questions, dilemmas and challenges life throws at us.

In his book Wired for CultureMark Pagel points out how the benefits of religion and art to our survival must be much greater than they are in Dawkins’ terms “a virus of the mind” that uses us for its purposes and to our detriment. Had religion been predominantly harmful or even indifferent to human welfare it’s very hard to explain why it is so universal across human societies. We have had religion and art around for so long because they work.

Unlike the religious, Percy’s beloved fiction is largely free from the critique of New Atheists who demand that science be the sole method of obtaining truth. This is because fiction, by its very nature, makes no truth claims on the physical world, nor does it ask us to do anything much in response to it. Religion comes in for criticism by the New Atheists wherever it seems or appears to make truth claims on material existence, including its influence on our actions, but religion does other things as well which are best seen by looking at two forms of fiction that most resemble religion’s purposeful storytelling, that is, fairy tales and myths.

My girls love fairy tales and I love reading them to them. What surprised me when I re-encountered these stories as a parent was just how powerful they were, while at the same time being so simple. I hadn’t really had a way of understanding this until I picked up Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales As long as one can get through  Bettelheim’ dated Freudian psychology his book shows why fairy tales hit us like they do, why their simplification of life is important, and why, as adults we need to outgrow their black and white thinking.

Fairy tales establish the foundation for our moral psychology. They teach us the difference between good and evil, between aiming to be a good person and aiming to do others harm. They teach us to see our own often chaotic emotional lives as a normal expression of the human condition, and also, and somewhat falsely, teach us to never surrender our hope.

Myths are a whole different animal from fairy tales. They are the stories of once living religions that have become detached and now float freely from the practices and rituals that once made them, in a sense, real. The stories alone, however, remain deep with meaning and much of this meaning, especially when it comes to the Greek myths, has to do with the tragic nature of human existence. What you learn from myths is that even the best of intentions can result in something we would not have chosen- think Pandora who freed the ills of the world from the trap of their jar out of compassion- or that sometimes even the good can be unjustly punished- as in Prometheus the fire bringer chained to his rock.

Religion is yet something different from either fairy tales or myths. The “truth” of a religion is not to be found or sought in its cosmology but in its reflection on the human condition and the way it asks us to orient ourselves to the world and guides our actions in it. The truth of a faith becomes real through its practice- a Christian washing the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ makes the truth of Christianity in some sense real and a part of our world, just as Jews who ask for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, make the covenant real.

Some atheists, the philosopher Alain Botton most notably have taken notice that the atheists accusation against religion- that it’s a fairy tale adults are suckered into believing in- is a conversation so exhausted it is no longer interesting. In his book Religion for Atheists he tries to show what atheists and secular persons can learn from religion, things like a sense of community and compassion, religion’s realistic, and therefore pessimistic, view of human nature, religions’ command of architectural space and holistic approach to education, which is especially focused on improving the moral character of the young.

Yet Botton’s suggestion of how secular groups and persons might mimic the practices of religion such as his “stations of life” rather than “stations of the cross” fell flat with me.There is something in the enchantment of religion which resembles the enchantment of fairy tales that fails rather than succeeds by running too close to reality- though it can not go too far from reality either. There is a genius in organic things which emerge from collective effort, unplanned, and over long stretches of time that can not be recreated deliberately without resulting in a cartoonish and disneyfied, version of reality or conversely something so true to life and uncompressed we can not view it without instinctively turning away in horror or falling into boredom.

I personally do not have the constitution to practice any religion and look instead for meaning to literature, poetry, and philosophy, though I look at religion as a rich source of all three.  I also sometimes look to science, and do indeed, like Jennifer Percy’s father, find some strange comfort in my own insignificance in light of the vastness of it all.

The dangers of me, or Krauss, or Dawkins or anyone else trying to turn this taste for insignificance into the only truth, the one shown to us by science is that we turn what is really a universal human endeavor, the quest to know our origins, into a means of stopping rather than starting a conversation we should all be parties to, and threaten the broad social support needed to fund and see through our quest to understand our world and how it came to be. For, the majority of people (outside of Europe) continue to turn to religion to give their lives meaning, which might mean that if we persist in treating science as a God killing machine, or better, a meaning killing machine, we run the risk of those who need such forms of meaning in order to live turning around and killing science.

Waiting for World War III

The Consequences of War Paul Rubens

Everyone alive today owes their life to a man most of us have never heard of, and that I didn’t even know existed until last week. On September, 26 1983, just past mid-night, Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was alerted by his satellite early warning system that an attack from an American ICBM was underway. Normal protocol should have resulted in Petrov giving the order to fire Russian missiles at the US in response. Petrov instead did nothing, unable to explain to himself why the US would launch only one missile rather than a massive first strike in the hope of knocking out Russia’s capacity to retaliate. Then, something that made greater sense- more missiles appeared on Petrov’s radar screen, yet he continued to do nothing. And then more. He refused to give the order to fire, and he waited, and waited.

No news ever came in that night of the devastation of Soviet cities and military installations due to the detonation of American nuclear warheads, because, as we know, there never was such an attack. What Petrov had seen was a computer error, an electronic mirage, and we are here, thank God, because he believed in the feelings in his gut over the data illusion on his screen.

That is the story as told by Christopher Coker in his book Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War. More on that book another time, but now to myself. During the same time Petrov was saving us through morally induced paralysis I was a budding cold warrior, a passionate supporter of Ronald Reagan and his massive defense buildup. I had drawn up detailed war scenarios calculating precisely the relative strengths of the two opposing power blocs, was a resident expert in Soviet history and geography. I sincerely thought World War Three was inevitable in my lifetime. I was 11 years old.

Anyone even slightly younger than me has no memory of living in a world where you went to sleep never certain we wouldn’t blow the whole thing up over night. I was a weird kid, as I am a weird adult, and no doubt hypersensitive to the panic induced by too close a relationship with modern media. Yet, if the conversations I have had with people in my age group over the course of my lifetime are any indication, I was not totally alone in my weirdness. Other kids too would hear jets rumbling overhead at night and wonder if the sounds were missiles coming to put an end to us all, were haunted by movies like The Day After or inspired by Red Dawn. Other kids staged wars in their neighborhoods fighting against “robot”like Russians.

During the early 1980’s world war wasn’t something stuck in a black and white movie, but a brutal and epic thing our grandfathers told us about, that some of our teachers had fought in. A reality that, with the end of detente and in light of the heated rhetoric of the Reagan years, felt as much part of the future as part of the past. It was not just a future of our imaginations, and being saved by Stanislav Petrov wasn’t the only time we dodged the bullet in those tense years.

Whatever the fear brought on by 9-11, this anxiety that we might just be fool enough to completely blow up our own world is long gone. The last twenty three years since the fall of the Soviet Union have been, in this sense, some of the most blessed in human history, a time when the prospect of the big powers pulverizing each other to death has receded from the realm of possibility. I am starting to fear its absence cannot last.

Perhaps it’s Russian aggression against Ukraine that has revived my pre-teen anxieties, it’s seizure of Crimea, veiled threats to conquer the Russophone eastern regions of the country, Putin’s jingoistic speech before the Kremlin. Of course, of course, I don’t think world war will come from the crisis in Ukraine now matter how bad it gets there. Rather, I am afraid we were wrong to write the possibility of war between the big powers out of human history permanently. That one of these times, and when we do not expect it, 10 years or 20 years or 100 years from now one of these dust ups will result in actual clashes between the armed forces of the big powers, a dangerous game that the longer we played it would hold the real risk of ending in the very nightmare we had avoided the night Petrov refused to fire.

Disputes over which the big powers might come to blows are not hard to come up with. There is China’s dispute with Japan, the Philippines, other, and ultimately the United States, over islands in the Pacific, there is the lingering desire for China to incorporate Taiwan, there is the legacy conflict on the Korean peninsula, clashes between India and China, disputes over resources and trade routes through an arctic opened up by global warming, or possible future fights over unilateral geoengineering. Then there are frictions largely unanticipated , as we now see, Russia’s panic induced aggression against Ukraine which brings it back into collision with NATO.

Still, precise predictions about the future is a game for fools. Hell, I can still remember when “experts” in all seriousness predicted a coming American war with Japan. I am aiming, rather, for something more general.   The danger I see is that the big powers start to engage in increasingly risky behavior precisely because they think world war is now impossible. That all of us will have concluded that limited and lukewarm retaliation is the only rational response to aggression given that the existential stakes are gone. As a foolish eleven year old I saw the risk of global catastrophe worth taking if the alternative was totalitarian chains. I am an adult now, hopefully much wiser, and with children of my own, whose lives I would not risk to save Ukraine from dismemberment along ethnic/linguistic lines or to stop China from asserting its rising power in the Pacific. I am certainly not alone in this, but fear such sanity will make me party to an avalanche. That the decline of the fear that states may go too far in aggressive action may lead them to go so far they accidentally spark a scale of war we have deemed inconceivable.

My current war pessimism over the long term might also stem from the year I am in, 2014, a solemn centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Back when I was in high school, World War I was presented with an air of tragic determinism. It was preordained, or so we were taught, the product of an unstable system alliance system, growing nationalism and imperialism. It was a war that was in some sense “wanted” by those who had fought it. Historians today have called this determinism into question. Christopher Clark in his massive The Sleepwalkers details just how important human mistakes and misperceptions were to the outbreak of the war, the degree to which opportunities to escape the tragedy were squandered because no one knew just how enormous the tragedy they were unleashing would become.

Another historian, Holger Afflerbach, in his essay The Topos of Improbable War in Europe Before 1914 shows how few were the voices in Europe that expected a continental or world war. Even the German military that wanted conflict was more afraid until the war broke out, and did not end quickly, that conflict would be averted at the last minute rather than stopped. The very certainty that a world war could not be fought, it part because of the belief that modern weapons had become too terrible, led to risk taking and refusal to compromise, which made such a war more likely as the crisis that began with the assassination of Archduke Fransferdinad unfolded.

If World War II can be considered an attempt by the aggrieved side to re-fight the First World War, what followed  Japan’s surrender was very different, a difference perhaps largely due to one element- the presence of nuclear weapons. What dissuaded big states in the Cold War era from directly fighting one another was likelihood that the potential costs of doing so were too high relative to the benefits that would accrue from any victory. The cost in a nuclear age was destruction itself.

Yet, for those costs to be an effective deterrent the threat of their use had to be real. Both sides justified their possible suicide in a nuclear holocaust on the grounds that they were engaged in a Manichean struggle where the total victory of the opposing side was presented as being in some sense worse than the destruction of the world itself. Yes, I know this was crazy, yet, by some miracle, we’re still here, and whether largely despite of or because of this insanity we cannot truly know.

Still, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps I should not be so uncertain over the reason why there have been no wars between the big powers in the modern era, perhaps my anxiety that the real threat of nuclear annihilation might have been responsible is just my eleven year old self coming back to haunt me. It’s just possible that nuclear weapons had nothing to do with the long peace between great powers. Some have argued that there were other reasons big states have seemingly stopped fighting other big states since the end of World War II, that what changed were not so much weapons but norms regarding war. Steven Pinker most famously makes this case in his Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

Sadly, I have my doubts regarding Pinker’s argument. Here’s me from an earlier piece:

His evidence against the “nuclear peace” is that more nations have abandoned nuclear weapons programs than have developed such weapons. The fact is perhaps surprising but nonetheless accurate. It becomes a little less surprising, and a little less encouraging in Pinker’s sense, when you actually look at the list of countries who have abandoned them and why. Three of them: Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are former Soviet republics and were under enormous Russian and US pressure- not to mention financial incentives- to give up their weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of them- South Africa and Libya- were attempting to escape the condition of being international pariahs. Another two- Iraq and Syria had their nuclear programs derailed by foreign powers. Three of them: Argentina, Brazil, and Algeria faced no external existential threat that would justify the expense and isolation that would come as a consequence of  their development of nuclear weapons and five others: Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany were woven tightly into the US security umbrella.

I am sure you have noticed that Ukraine is on that list. Had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons it is almost certain that it would not have seen Crimea seized by the Russians, or find itself facing the threat by Moscow to split the country in two.

A little more on Pinker: he spends a good part of his over 800 page book showing us just how savagely violent human societies were in the past. Tribal societies had homicide rates that rival or exceed the worst inner cities. Human are natural Hobbesians given to “a war of all against all”, but, in his view we have been socialized out of such violence, and not just as individuals, but in terms of states.

Pinker’s idea of original human societies being so violent and civilization as a kind of domestication of mankind away from this violence left me with many unanswered questions. If we were indeed so naturally violent how or why did we establish societies in the first place? Contrary to his claim, didn’t the institutionalization of violence in the form of war between states actually make our situation worse? How could so many of us cringe from violence at even a very early age, if we were naturally wired to be killers?

I couldn’t resolve any of these questions until I had read Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture. What Pagel showed is that most of us are indeed naturally “wired” to be repulsed by violence the problem is this repulsion has a very sensitive off switch. The way it can be turned off is when our community is threatened either by those who had violated community norms, so-called moral anger, or when violence is directed towards rival groups outside of the community. In such cases we can be far more savage than the most vicious of animals with our creativity and inventiveness turned to the expression of cruelty.

Modern society is one that has cordoned off violence. We don’t have public hangings anymore and cringe at the death of civilians at the hands of our military (when we are told about them.) Yet this attitude towards violence is so new we can not reasonably expect it has become permanent.

I have no intention of picking on the Russians, and Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech would have done just as well or better here, but to keep things current: Putin in his bellicose oration before the Kremlin pressed multiple sides of the Pagel’s violence “off switch”:

He presented his opponents as an evil rival “tribe”:

However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.

And called for the defense of the community and the innocent:

Let me say one other thing too. Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means. But it should be above all in Ukraine’s own interest to ensure that these people’s rights and interests are fully protected. This is the guarantee of Ukraine’s state stability and territorial integrity.

What this should show us, and Americans certainly shouldn’t need a lesson in here, is that norms against violence (though violence in Ukraine has so far, thankfully been low), can be easily turned off given the right circumstance. Putin, by demonizing his Ukrainian opponents, and claiming that Russia would stand in defense of the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine was rallying the Russian population for a possible escalation of violence should his conditions not be met. His speech was met with a standing ovation. It is this ease by which our instincts for violence can be turned on that suggests Pinker may have been too optimistic in thinking war was becoming a thing of the past if we are depending  on a change in norms alone.

Then there is sheer chance. Pinker’s theory of the decline of violence in general relies on Gaussian bell curves, averages over long stretches of time, but if we should have learned anything from Nassim Taleb and his black swans and the financial crisis, its the fat tails that should worry us most. The occurrence of a highly improbable event that flips our model of the world and the world itself on its head and collapses the Gaussian curve. Had Stanislav Petrov decided to fire his ICBMS rather than sit on his hands, Pinker’s decline of violence, up to that point, would have looked like statistical noise masking the movement towards the real event- an unprecedented expression of human violence that would have killed the majority of the human race.

Like major financial crises that happen once in a century, or natural disasters that appear over longer stretches of time, anything we’ve once experienced can happen again with the probability of recurrence often growing over time.  If human decision making is the primary factor involved, as it is in economic crises and war, the probability of such occurrences may increase as the generation whose errors in judgement brought on the economic crisis or war recedes from the scene taking their acquired wisdom and caution with them.

And we are losing sight of this possibility. Among military theorists rather than defense contractors, Colin S. Grey is one of an extreme minority trying to remind us the war between the big powers is not impossible as he writes in Another Bloody Century

If we, grant with some reservations, that there is a trend away from interstate warfare, there hovers in the background the thought that this is a trend that might be reversed abruptly. No country that is a significant player in international security, not least the United States, has yet reorganized and transformed its regular military establishment to reflect the apparent demise  of ‘old’ (interstate wars and the rise of new ones.

Grey, for one, does not think that we’ll see a replay of 20th century world wars with massive, industrial armies fighting it out on land and sea. The technology today is simply far too different than it was in the first half of the last century. War has evolved and is evolving into something very different, but interstate war will likely return.

We might not see the recurrence of world war but merely skirmishes between the big powers. This would be more of a return to normalcy than anything else. World wars, involving the whole of society, especially civilians, are a very modern phenomenon dating perhaps no earlier than the French Revolution. In itself a return to direct clashes between the big powers would be very bad, but not so bad as slippage into something much worse, something that might happen because escalation had gone beyond the point of control.

The evolution of 21st century war may make such great power skirmishes more likely. Cyber-attacks have, so far at least, come with little real world consequences for the attacking country. As was the case with the German officer corps in World War I, professional soldiers, who have replaced draftees and individuals seeking a way out of poverty as the basis of modern militaries seem likely more eager to fight so as to display their skills, and may in time be neurologically re-engineered so as to deal with the stresses of combat. It is at least conceivable that professional soldiers might be the first class to have full legal access to technological and biological enhancements being made possible by advances in prosthetics, mind-computer interfaces and neuroscience.

Governments as well as publics may become more willing to engage in direct conflict as relatively inexpensive and expendable drones and robots replace airmen and soldiers. Ever more of warfighting might come to resemble a videogame with soldiers located far from the battlefield.  Both war and the international environment in which wars are waged has evolved and is evolving into something very unlike that which we have experienced since the end of the Cold War. The father out it comes the more likely that the next big war will be a transhumanist or post-human version of war, and there are things we can do now that might help us avoid it- subjects I will turn to in the near future.

How the Web Will Implode

Jeff Stibel is either a genius when it comes to titles, or has one hell of an editor. The name of his recent book Breakpoint: Why the web will implode, search will be obsolete, and everything you need to know about technology is in your brain was about as intriguing as I had found a title, at least since The Joys of X. In many ways, the book delivers on the promise of its title, making an incredibly compelling argument for how we should be looking at the trend lines in technology, a book which is chalk full of surprising and original observations. The problem is that the book then turns round to come up with almost the opposite conclusions one would expect. It wasn’t the Internet that imploded but my head.

Stibel’s argument in Breakpoint is that all throughout nature and neurology, economics and technology we see this common pattern of slow growth rising quickly to an exponential pace followed by a rapid plateau, a “breakpoint” at which the rate of increase collapses, or even a sharp decline occurs, and future growth slows to a snail’s pace. One might think such breakpoints were a bad thing for whatever it is undergoing them, and when they are followed by a crash they usually are, but in many cases it just ain’t so. When ant colonies undergo a breakpoint they are keeping themselves within a size that their pheromonal communication systems can handle. The human brain grows rapidly in connections between birth and five after which it loses a great deal of those connections through pruning- a process that allows the brain to discard useless information and solidify the types of knowledge it needs- such as the common language being spoken in its environment.

His thesis leads Stibel to all sorts of fascinating observations. Here are just a few: Precision takes a huge amount of energy, and human brains are error prone because they are trading this precision for efficiency. The example is mine, not Stibel’s, but it captures his point: if I did the math right, IBM’s Watson consumed about 4,000 times as much energy as its human opponents, and the machine, as impressive as it was, it couldn’t drive itself there, or get its kids to school that morning, or compose a love poem about Alex Trebek. It could only answer trivia questions.

Stibel points out how the energy consumption of computers and the web are approaching what are likely hard energy ceilings. Continuing on its current trajectory the Internet will consume, in relatively short order, 20% of the world energy, about as much as the percentage of calories that are needed to run the human brain. A prospect that makes the Internet’s growth  rate under current conditions ultimately unsustainable runless we really are determined to fry ourselves with global warming.

Indeed, this 20% mark seems to be a kind of boundary for intelligence, at least if the human brain is any indication. As always with, for me at least, new and surprising observations, Stibel points out how the human brain has been steadily shrinking and losing connections over time. Pound for pound, our modern brain is actually “dumber” than our cave man ancestors. (Not sure how this gels with the Flynn effect.) Big brains are expensive for bodies to maintain, and its caloric ravenousness relative to other essential bodily functions must not be favored by evolution otherwise we’d see more of our lopsided brain to body ratio in nature.  As we’ve been able to offload functions to our tools and to our cultures, evolution has been shedding some of this cost in raw thinking prowess and slowly moving us back towards a more “natural” ratio.             

If the Internet is going to survive it’s going to have to become more energy efficient as well.  Stibel sees this already happening. Mobile has allowed targeted apps rather than websites to be the primary way we get information. Cloud computing allows computational prowess and memory to be distributed and brought together as needed. The need for increased efficiency, Stibel believes, will continue to change the nature of search too. Increasing personalization will allow for ever more targeted information, so that the individual can find just what they are looking for. This becoming “brainlike”, he speculates may actually result in the emergence of something like consciousness from the web.

It is on these last two points, on personalization, and the emergence of consciousness from the Internet that he lost me. Indeed, had Stibel held fast to his idea of the importance of breakpoints he may have seen both personalization and emergent consciousness from the Internet in a much different light.

The quote below captures Steibel’s view of personalization:

We’re moving towards search becoming a kind of personal assistant that knows an awful lot about you. As a side note, some of you may be feeling quite uncomfortable at this point with your new virtual friend. My advice: get used to it. The benefits will be worth it. As Kevin Kelly has said: “Total personalization in this new world will require total transparency. That is going to be the price. If you want to have total personalization, you have to be totally transparent. “ (93)

I suppose the question one should ask of Steibel is transparent to whom and for what? The answer, can be seen in the example of he gives of transparency in action:

Imagine that the Internet can read your thoughts. Your personal computer, now a personal assistant, knows you skipped breakfast, just as your brain knows you skipped breakfast. She also knows that you have back to back meetings, but that your schedule just cleared. So she offers the suggestion “It’s 11:00am and you should really eat before your next meeting. D’Amore’s Pizza Express can deliver to you within 25 minutes. Shall I order your favorite, a large thin crust pizza, light on the cheese with extra red pepper flakes on the side?” (97)

The answer, as Stibel’s example makes apparent, is that one is transparent to advertisers and for them. In the example of D’Amore’s”, what is presented as something that works for you is actually a device on loan to a restaurant- it is their “personal assistant”.

Transparent individuals become a kind of territory mined for resources by those capable of performing the data mining. For the individual being “mined” such extraction can be good or bad, and part of our problem, now and in the future, will be to give the individual the ability to control this mining and refract it in directions that better suit our interest. To decide for ourselves when it is good and we want its benefits ,and are therefore are willing to pay its costs, and when it is bad and we are not.

Stibel thinks personalization is part of the coming “obsolescence of search” and a response of the web to the need for increased efficiency as a way to avoid, for a time, reaching its breakpoint. Yet, looking at our digital data as a sort of contested territory gives us a different version of the web’s breakpoint than the one that Stibel gives us even if it flows naturally from his logic. The fact that corporations and other groups are attempting to court individuals on the basis of having gathered and analysed a host of intimate and not so intimate details on those individuals sparks all kinds of efforts to limit, protect, monopolize, subvert, or steal such information. This is the real “implosion” of the web.

We would do well to remember that the Internet really got its public start as a means of open exchange between scientists and academics, a community of common interest and mutual trust. Trust essentially entails the free flow of information- transparency- and as human beings we probably agree that transparency exists along a spectrum with more information provided to those closest to you and less the further out you go.

Reflecting its origins, the culture of the Internet in its initial years had this sense of widespread transparency and trust baked  into our understanding of it. This period in Eden, even if it just imagined, could not last forever. It has been a long time since the Internet was a community of trust, and it can’t be, it’s just too damned big, even if it took a long time for us to realize this.

The scales have now fallen from our eyes, and we all know that the web has been a boon for all sorts of cyber-criminals and creeps and spooks, a theater of war between states. Recent events surrounding mass surveillance by state security services have amplified this cynicism and decline of trust. Trust, for humans, is like pheromones in Seibel’s ants- it gives the limits of how large a human community can be before breaking off to form a new one, unless some other way of keeping a community together is applied. So far, human societies have discovered three means of keeping societies that have grown beyond the capacity of circles of trust intact: ethnicity, religion and law.

Signs that trust has unraveled are not hard to find. There has been an incredible spike in interest in anti-transparent technologies with “crypto-parties” now being a phenomenon in tech circles. A lot of this interest is coming from private citizens, and sometimes, yes, criminals. Technologies that offer a bubble of protection for individuals against government and corporate snooping seem to be all the rage. Yet even more interest is coming from governments and businesses themselves. Some now seem to want exclusive powers to a “mining territory”- to spy on, and sometimes protect, their own citizens and customers in a domain with established borders. There are, in other words,  splintering pressures building against the Internet, or, as Steven Levy stated there are increased rumblings of:

… a movement to balkanize the Internet—a long-standing effort that would potentially destroy the web itself. The basic notion is that the personal data of a nation’s citizens should be stored on servers within its borders. For some proponents of the idea it’s a form of protectionism, a prod for nationals to use local IT services. For others it’s a way to make it easier for a country to snoop on its own citizens. The idea never posed much of a threat, until the NSA leaks—and the fears of foreign surveillance they sparked—caused some countries to seriously pursue it. After learning that the NSA had bugged her, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff began pushing a law requiring that the personal data of Brazilians be stored inside the country. Malaysia recently enacted a similar law, and India is also pursuing data protectionism.

As John Schinasi points out in his paper Practicing Privacy Online: Examining Data Protection Regulations Through Google’s Global Expansion, even before the Snowden revelations, which sparked the widespread breakdown of public trust, or even just heated public debate regarding such trust, there were huge differences between different regimes of trust on the Internet, with the US being an area where information was exchanged most freely and privacy against corporations considered contrary to the spirit of American capitalism.

Europe, on the other had, on account of its history, had in the early years of the Internet taken a different stand adhering to an EU directive that was deeply cognizant of the dangers of too much trust being granted to corporations and the state. The problem was this directive is so antiquated, dating from 1995, it not only failed to reflect the Internet as it has evolved, but severely compromised the way the Internet in Europe now works. The way the directive was implemented turned Europe into a patchwork quilt of privacy laws, which was onerous for American companies, but which they were able to often circumvent being largely self-policing in any case under the so-called Safe Harbor provisions.

Then there is the whole different ball game of China, which  Schinasi characterizes as a place where the Internet is seen without apology or sense of limits by officialdom as a tool of for monitoring its own citizens placing huge restrictions on the extension of trust to entities beyond its borders. China under its current regime seems dedicated to carving out its own highly controlled space on the Internet a partnership between its Internet giants and its control freak government , something which we can hope the desire of such companies to go global might help eventually temper.

The US and Europe, in a process largely sparked by the Snowden revelations appear to be drifting apart. Just last week, on March 12, 2014 the European parliament by an overwhelming majority of 621 to 10 (I didn’t forget a zero), passed a law that aims at bringing some uniformity to the chaos of European privacy laws and that would severely restrict the way personal data is used and collected, essentially upending the American transparency model. (Snowden himself testified to the parliament by video link). The Safe Harbor provisions, while not yet abandoned ,as that would take a decision of the European Council rather than the parliament, have not been nixed, but given the broad support for the other changes are clearly in jeopardy. If these trends continue they would constitute something of a breaking apart and consolidation of the Internet- a sad end to the utopian hopes of a global and transparent society that sprung from the Internet’s birth.

Yet, if Steibel’s thesis about breakpoints is correct, it may also be part of a “natural” process.  Where Steibel was really good was when it came to, well… ants. As he repeatedly shows, ants have this amazing capacity to know when their colony, their network, has grown too large and when it’s time to split up and send out a new queen. Human beings are really good at this formation into separate groups too. In fact as Mark Pagel points out in his Wired for Culture its one of the two things human beings are naturally wired to do: to form groups which breakup once they have exceeded the number of people that any one individual can know on a deep level- a number that remains even in the era of FaceBook “friends” right around where it was when we were setting out from Africa 60,000 years ago- about 150.

If we go by the example of ants and human beings the natural breakpoint(s) for the Internet is where bonds of trust become too loose. Where trust is absent, such as in large scale human societies, we have, as mentioned, come up with three major solutions of which only law, rather than ethnicity or religion, is applicable to the Internet.

What we are seeing- the Internet moving towards splitting itself off into rival spheres of trust, deception, protection and control. The only thing that could keep it together as a universal entity would be the adoption of global international law, as opposed to mere law within and between a limited number of countries, which regulated how the Internet is used, limited states from using the tools of cyber-espionage and what often amounts to the same thing cyber-war, international agreements on how exactly corporations could use customer information, and how citizens should be informed regarding the use of their data by companies and the state would all allow the universal promise of the Internet to survive. This would be the kind of “Magna Carta for the Internet” that Sir Tim Berners-Lee the man who wrote the first draft of the first proposal for what would become the world wide web” is calling for with his Web We Want initiative.

If we get to the destination proposed by Berners-Lee our arrival might have been as much from the push of self-interest from multinational corporations as from the pull of noble efforts by defenders of the world’s civil liberties. For, it plausible that to the desire of Internet giants to be global companies may lead help spur the adoption of higher limits against government spying in the name of corporate protections against “industrial” espionage, protections that might intersect with the desire to protect global civil society as seen in the efforts of Berners-Lee and others and that will help establish a firmer ground for the protection of political freedom for individual citizens everywhere. We’ll probably need both push and pull to stem, let alone rollback, the current regime of mass surveillance we have allowed to be built around us.

Thus, those interested in political freedom should throw their support behind Berners-Lee’s efforts. The erection of a “territory” in which higher standards of data protection prevail, as seen in the current moves of the EU, at this juncture, isn’t contrary to a data regime such as that which Berners-Lee proposed where “Bill of Rights for the Internet” is adhered to, but helps this process along. By creating an alternative to the current transparency model being promoted by American corporations and abused by its security services, one which is embraced by Chinese state capitalism as a tool of the authoritarian state, the EU’s efforts, if successful, would offer a region where the privacy (including corporate privacy) necessary for political freedom continues to be held sacred and protected.

Even if efforts such as those of Berners-Lee to globalize these protections should fail, which sadly appears ultimately most likely, efforts such as those of the EU would create a bubble of  protection- a 21st century version of the medieval fortress and city walls.  We would do well to remember that underneath our definition of the law lies an understanding of law as a type of wall hence the fact that we can speak of both being “breached”. Law, like the rules of a sports game are simply a set of rules that are agreed to within a certain defined arena. The more bound the arena the easier it is to establish a set of clear defined and adhered to rules.

To return to Stiebel, all this has implications for the other idea he explored and about which I also have doubts- the emergence of consciousness from the Internet. As he states:

It took millions of years for human to gain intelligence, but it may only take a century for the Internet. The convergence of computer networks and neural networks is the key to creating real intelligence from artificial machines.

I largely agree with Steibel, especially when he echoes Dan Dennett in saying that artificial intelligence will be about as much like our human consciousness as the airplane is to a bird. Some similarities in terms of underlying principle, but huge differences in engineering and manifestation.  Meaning the path to machine intelligence probably doesn’t lie in brute computational force tried since the 1950’s or the current obsession with reverse engineering the brain, but in networks. Thing is, I just wishes he had said “internets” as in the plural rather than “Internet” singular, or just “networks”, again plural. For my taste, Stiebel has a tone when he’s talking about the emergence of intelligence from the Internet that leans a little too closely to Teilhard de Chardin and his Noosphere or Kevin Kelly and his Technium, all of which could have been avoided had Steibel just stuck with the logic of his breakpoints.

Indeed, given the amount of space he had given to showing how anomalous our human intelligence was and how networks (ants and others) could show intelligent behavior without human type consciousness at all, I was left to wonder why our networks would ever become conscious in the way we are in the first place. If intelligence could emerge from networked computers as Stibel suggests it seems more likely to emerge from well bounded constellations of such computers rather than the network as a global whole- as in our current Internet. If the emergence of AI resembles, which is not the same as replicates, the evolution and principles of the brain it will probably require the same sorts of sharp boundaries we have, the pruning that takes place as we individualize, similar sorts of self-referential goals to ourselves, and some degree of opacity visa-vi other similar entities.

To be fair to Stibel, he admits that we may have already undergone the singularity in something like this sense. What he does not see is that ants or immune systems or economies give us alternative models of how something can be incredibly intelligent and complex but not conscious in the human sense- perhaps human type consciousness is a very strange anomaly rather than an almost pre-determined evolutionary path once the rising complexity train gains enough momentum. AI in this understanding would merely entail truly purposeful coordinated action and goal seeking by complex units, a dangerous situation indeed given that these large units will often be rivals, but one not existentially distinct from what human beings have known since we were advanced enough technologically to live in large cities or fight with massive armies or produce and trade with continent and world straddling corporations.

 Be all that as it may, Stibel’s Breakpoint was still a fascinating read. He not only left me with lots of cool and bizarre tidbits about the world I had not known before, he gave me a new way to think about the old problem of whither our society was headed and if in fact we might be approaching limits to the development of civilization which the scientific and industrial revolution had seemed to suggest we had freed ourselves eternally from. Stibel’s breakpoints were another way for me to understand Joseph A. Tainter’s idea of how and why complex societies collapse and why such collapse should not of necessity fill us with pessimism and doom. Here’s me on Tainter:

The only long lasting solution Tainter sees for  increasing marginal utility is for a society to become less complex that is less integrated more based on what can be provided locally than on sprawling networks and specialization. Tainter wanted to move us away from seeing the evolution of the Roman Empire into the feudal system as the “death” of a civilization. Rather, he sees the societies human beings have built to be extremely adaptable and resilient. When the problem of increasing complexity becomes impossible to solve societies move towards less complexity.

Exponential trends might not be leading us to a stark choice between global society and singularity or our own destruction. We might just be approaching some of Stibel’s breakpoints, and as long as we can keep your wits about us, and not act out of a heightened fear of losing dwindling advantages for us and ours, breakpoints aren’t all necessarily bad- and can even sometimes- be good.

Privacy Strikes Back, Dave Eggers’ The Circle and a Response to David Brin

I believe that we have turned a corner: we have finally attained Peak Indifference to Surveillance. We have reached the moment after which the number of people who give a damn about their privacy will only increase. The number of people who are so unaware of their privilege or blind to their risk that they think “nothing to hide/nothing to fear” is a viable way to run a civilization will only decline from here on in.  Cory Doctorow

If I was lucky enough to be teaching a media studies class right now I would assign two books to be read in tandem. The first of these books, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shocka book I have written about before, gives one the view of our communications landscape from 10,000 feet. Asking how can we best understand what is going on, with not just Internet and mobile technologies, but all forms of modern communication including that precious antique, the narrative book or novel.

Perspectives from “above” have the strength that they give you a comprehensive view, but human meaning often requires another level, an on-the-ground emotional level, that good novels, perhaps still more than any other medium, succeed at brilliantly. Thus, the second book I would assign in my imaginary media studies course would be Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle where one is taken into a world right on the verge of our own, which because it seems so close, and at the same time so creepy, makes us conscious of changes in human communication less through philosophy, although the book has plenty of that too, as through our almost inarticulable discomfort. Let me explain:

The Circle tells the story of a 20 something young woman, Mae Holland, who through a friend lands her dream job at the world’s top corporation, named, you guessed it, the Circle. To picture Circle, imagine some near future where Google swallowed FaceBook and Twitter and the resulting behemoth went on to feed on and absorb all the companies and algorithms that now structure our lives: the algorithm that suggests movies for you at NetFlix, or books and products on Amazon, in addition to all the other Internet services you use like online banking. This monster of a company is then able integrate all of your online identities into one account, they call it “TruYou”.

Having escaped a dead end job in a nowhere small town utility company, Mae finds herself working at the most powerful, most innovative, most socially conscious and worker friendly company on the planet. “Who else but utopians could make utopia. “ (30) she muses, but there are, of course, problems on the horizon.

The Circle is the creation of a group called the “3 Wise men”. One of these young wise men, Bailey, is the philosopher of the group. Here he is musing about the creation of small, cheap, ubiquitous and high definition video cameras that the company is placing anywhere and everywhere in a program called SeeChange:

Folks, we’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment. And I am not talking about a new building on campus. I am talking about an era where we don’t allow the vast majority of human thought and action and achievement to escape as if from a leaky bucket. We did that once before. It was called the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages. If not for the monks, everything the world had ever learned would have been lost. Well, we live in a similar time and we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not with these cameras, and not with the mission of the Circle. (67)

The philosophy of the company is summed up, in what the reader can only take as echoes of Orwell, in slogans such as “all that happens must be known” , “privacy is theft”, “secrets are lies”, and “to heal we must know, to know we must share”.

Our protagonist, Mae, has no difficulty with this philosophy. She is working for what she believes is the best company in the world, and it is certainly a company that on the surface all of us would likely want to work for: there are non-stop social events which include bringing in world class speakers, free cultural and sporting events and concerts. The company supports the relief of a whole host of social problems. Above all, there are amazing benefits which include the company covering the healthcare costs of Mae’s father who is stricken with an otherwise bankrupting multiple sclerosis.

What Eggers is excellent at is taking a person who is in complete agreement with the philosophy around her and making her humanity become present in her unintended friction with it. It’s really impossible to convey without pasting in large parts of the book just how effective Eggers is at presenting the claustrophobia that comes from a too intense use of social technology. The shame Mae is made to feel from missing out on a coworker’s party, the endless rush to keep pace with everyone’s updates, and the information overload and data exhaustion that results, the pressure of always being observed and “measured”, both on the job and off, the need to always present oneself in the best light, to “connect” with others who share the same views, passions and experiences,the anxiety that people will share something, such as intimate or embarrassing pictures one would not like shared, the confusion of “liking” and “disliking” with actually doing something, with the consequence that not sharing one’s opinion begins to feel like moral irresponsibility.

Mae desperately wants to fit into the culture of transparency found at the Circle, but her humanity keeps getting in the way. She has to make a herculean effort to keep up with the social world of the company, mistakenly misses key social events, throws herself into sexual experiences and relationships she would prefer not be shared, keeps the pain she is experiencing because of her father’s illness private.

She also has a taste for solitude, real solitude, without any expectation that she bring something out of it- photos or writing to be shared. Mae has a habit of going on solo kayaking excursions, and it is in these that her real friction with the culture of the Circle begins. She relies on an old fashioned brochure to identify wildlife and fails to document and share her experiences. As an HR representative who berates her for this “selfish” practice states it:

You look at your paper brochure, and that’s where it ends. It ends with you. (186)

The Circle is a social company built on the philosophy of transparency and anyone who fails to share, it is assumed, must not really buy into that worldview. The “wise man” Bailey, as part of the best argument against keeping secrets I have ever read captures the ultimate goal of this philosophy:

A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it,  nothing can improve upon it.  And that’s what we want to be: perfect. So any information that eludes us, anything that’s not accessible, prevents us from being perfect.  (287)

The growing power of the Circle, the way it is swallowing everything and anything, does eventually come in for scrutiny by a small group of largely powerless politicians, but as was the case with the real world Julian Assange, transparency, or the illusion of it, can be used as a weapon against the weak as much as one against the strong. Suddenly all sorts of scandalous ilk becomes known to exist on these politicians computers and their careers are destroyed. Under “encouragement” from the Circle politicians “go transparent” their every move recorded so as to be free from the charge of corruption as the Circle itself takes over the foundational mechanism of democracy- voting.

The transparency that the Circle seeks is to contain everyone, and Mae herself, after committing the “crime” of temporarily taking a kayak for one of her trips and being caught by a SeeChange camera, at the insistence of Bailey, becomes one of only two private citizens to go transparent, with almost her every move tracked and recorded.

If Mae actually believes in the philosophy of transparency and feels the flaw is with her, despite almost epiphanies that would have freed her from its grip, there are voices of solid opposition. There is Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who snaps at her while at dinner with her parents, and had it been Eggers’ intention would have offered an excellent summation of Rushkoff’s Present Shock.

Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication cues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom you know and are trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen searching for strangers in Dubai.  (260)

There is also another of the 3 wise men, Ty, who fears where the company he helped create is leading and plots to destroy it. He cries to Mae:

This is it. This is the moment where history pivots. Imagine you could have been there before Hitler became chancellor. Before Stalin annexed Eastern Europe. We’re on the verge of having another very hungry, very evil empire on our hands, Mae. Do you understand? (401)

Ty says of his co-creator Bailey:

This is the moment he has been waiting for, the moment when all souls are connected. This is his rapture, Mae! Don’t you see how extreme this view is? His idea is radical, and in another era would have been a fringe notion espoused by an eccentric adjunct professor somewhere: that all information, personal or not, should be shared by all.  (485)

If any quote defines what I mean by radical transparency it is that one immediately above. It is, no doubt, a caricature and the individuals who adhere to something like it in the real world do so in shades, along a spectrum. One of the thinkers who does so, and whose thought might therefore shed light on what non-fictional proponents of transparency are like is the science fiction author, David Brin, who took some umbrage over at the IEET in response to my last post.

In that post itself I did not really have Brin in mind, partly because, like Julian Assange, his views have always seemed to me more cognizant of the deep human need for personal privacy, in a way the figures I mentioned there; Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Kelly and Jeff Stibel; have not, and thus his ideas were not directly relevant to where I originally intended to go in the second part of my post, which was to focus on precisely this need. Given his sharp criticism, it now seems important that I address his views directly and thus swerve for a moment away from my main narrative.

Way back in 1997, Brin had written a quite prescient work The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? which accurately gauged the way technology and culture were moving on the questions of surveillance and transparency. In a vastly simplified form, Brin’s argument was that given the pace of technological change, which makes surveillance increasingly easier and cheaper, our best protection against elite or any other form of surveillance, is not to put limits on or stop that surveillance, but our capacity to look back, to watch the watchers, and make as much as possible of what they do transparent.

Brin’s view that transparency is the answer for surveillance leads him to be skeptical of traditional approaches, such as those of the ACLU, that think laws are the primary means to protect us because technology, in Brin’s perspective, will always any outrun any legal limitations on the capacities to surveil.

While I respect Brin as a fellow progressive and admire his early prescience, I simply have never found his argument compelling, and think in fact his and similar sentiments held by early figures at the dawn of the Internet age have led us down a cul de sac.

Given the speed at which technologies of surveillance have been and are being developed it has always been the law and its ability to give long lasting boundaries to the permissible and non-permissible that is our primary protection against them. Indeed, the very fall in cost and rise in capacity of surveillance technologies, a reality which Brin believes make legal constraints largely unworkable, in fact make law, one of our oldest technologies, and which no man should be above or below, our best weapon in privacy’s defense.

The same logic of the deterrent threat of legal penalties that we will need for, say, preventing a woman from being tracked and stalked by a jealous ex boyfriend using digital technology, will be necessary to restrain corporations and the state. It does not help a stalked woman just to know she is being stalked, to be able to “watch her watcher”, rather, she needs to be able to halt the stalking. Perhaps she can digitally hide, but she especially needs the protection of the force of law which can impose limitations and penalties on anyone who uses technological capacities for socially unacceptable ends, and in the same way, citizens are best protected not by being able to see into government prying, but by prohibiting that prying under penalty of law in the first place.We already do this effectively, the problem is that the law has lagged behind technology.

Admittedly, part of the issue is that technology has moved incredibly fast, but a great deal of law’s slowness has come from a culture that saw no problem with citizens being monitored and tracked 24/7- a culture which Brin helped create.

The law effectively prohibits authorities from searching your home without a warrant and probable cause, something authorities have been “technologically” able to do since we started living in shelters. Phone tapping, again, without a warrant and probable cause, has been prohibited to authorities in the US since the late 1960’s- authorities had been tapping phones since shortly after the phone was invented in the 1890’s. Part of the problem today is that no warrant is required for the government to get your “meta-data” who you called  or where you were as indicated by GPS. When your email exists in the “cloud” and not on your personal device those emails can in some cases be read without any oversight from a judge. These gaps in Fourth Amendment protections exist because the bulk of US privacy law that was meant to deal with electronic communications was written before even email, existed, indeed, before most of us knew what the Internet was. The law can be slow, but it shouldn’t be that slow, email, after all, is pretty damned old.  

There’s a pattern here in that egregious government behavior or abuse of technological capacities – British abuses in the American colonies, the American government and law enforcement’s egregious behavior and utilization of wiretapping/recording capacities in the 1960’s, results in the passing of restrictions on the use of such techniques and technological capacities. Knowing about those abuses is only a necessary condition of restricting or putting a stop to them.

I find no reason to believe the pattern will not repeat itself again and that we will soon push for and achieve restrictions on the surveillance power of government and others which will work until the powers- that- be find ways to get around them and new technology will allow those who wish to surveil in an abusive way allow them to do so. Then we’ll be back at this table again in the endless cat and mouse game that we of necessity must play if we wish to retain our freedom.

Brin seems to think that the fact that “elites” always find ways to get around such restrictions is a reason for not having such restrictions in the first place, which is a little like asking why should you clean your house when it just gets dirty again. As I see it, our freedom is always in a state of oscillation between having been secured and being at risk. We preserve it by asserting our rights during times of danger, and, sadly, this is one of those times.

I agree with Brin that the development of surveillance technologies are such that they themselves cannot directly be stopped, and spying technologies that would have once been the envy of the CIA or KGB, such as remote controlled drones with cameras, or personal tracking and bugging devices, are now available off the shelf to almost everyone an area in which Brin was eerily prescient in this. Yet, as with another widespread technology that can be misused, such as the automobile, their use needs to be licensed, regulated, and where necessary, prohibited. The development of even more sophisticated and intrusive surveillance technologies may not be preventable, but it can certainly be slowed, and tracked into directions that better square with long standing norms regarding privacy or even human nature itself.

Sharp regulatory and legal limits on the use of surveillance technologies would likely derail a good deal innovation and investment in the technologies of surveillance, which is exactly the point. Right now billions of dollars are flowing in the direction of empowering what only a few decades ago we would have clearly labeled creeps, people watching other people in ways they shouldn’t be, and these creeps can be found at the level of the state, the corporation and the individual.

On the level of individuals, transparency is not a solution for creepiness, because, let’s face it, the social opprobrium of being known as a creep (because everyone is transparent) is unlikely to make them less creepy- it is their very insensitivity to such social rules that make them creeps in the first place. All transparency would have done would be to open the “shades” of the victim’s “window”. Two-way transparency is only really helpful, as opposed to inducing a state of fear in the watched,  if the perception of intrusive watching allows the victim to immediately turn such watching off, whether by being able to make themselves “invisible”, or, when the unwanted watching has gone too far, to bring down the force of the law upon it.

Transparency is a step in the solution to this problem, as in, we need to somehow require tracking apps or surveillance apps in private hands to notify the person being tracked, but it is only a first step. Once a person knows they are being watched by another person they need ways to protect themselves, to hide, and the backup of authorities to stop harassment.

In the economic sphere, the path out of the dead end we’ve driven ourselves into might lie in the recognition that the commodity for sale in the transaction between Internet companies and advertisers, the very reason they have and continue pushing to make us transparent and surveilling us in the first place, is us. We would do well to remember, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her book The Human Condition, that the root of our conception of privacy lies in private property. The ownership of property, “one’s own private place in the world” was once considered the minimum prerequisite for the possession of political rights.

Later, property as in land was exchanged for the portable property of our labor, which stemmed from our own body, and capital. We have in a sense surrendered control over the “property” of ourselves and become what Jaron Lanier calls digital peasants. Part of the struggle to maintain our freedoms will mean reasserting control over this property- which means our digital data and genetic information. How exactly this might be done is not clear to me, but I can see outlines. For example, it is at least possible to imagine something like digital “strikes” in which tracked consumers deliberately make themselves opaque to compel better terms.

In terms of political power, the use of law, as opposed to mere openness or transparency, to constrain the abuse of surveillance powers by elites would square better with our history. For the base of the Western democratic tradition (at least in its modern incantation) is not primarily elites’ openness to public scrutiny, or their competition with one another, as Brin argues is the case in The Transparent Society, (though admittedly the first especially is very important) but the constraints on power of the state, elites, the mob, or nefarious individuals provided by the rule of law which sets clear limits on how power, technologically enabled or otherwise, can be used.

The argument that prohibition, or even just regulation, never works and comparisons to the failed drug war I find too selective to be useful when discussing surveillance technologies. Society has prohibitions on all sorts of things that are extremely effective if never universally so.

In the American system, as mentioned, police and government are severely constrained in how they are able to obtain evidence against suspects or targets. Past prohibitions against unreasonable searches and surveillance have actually worked. Consumer protection laws dissuade corporations from abusing, putting customers at risk, or even just misusing consumer’s information. Environmental protection laws ban certain practices or place sharp boundaries on their use. Individuals are constrained in how they can engage with one another socially or how they can use certain technologies without their privilege (e.g driving) to use such technologies being revoked.

Drug and alcohol prohibitions, both having to push against the force of highly addictive substances, are exceptions the general rule that thoughtful prohibition and regulation works. The ethical argument is over what we should prohibit and what we should permit and how. It is ultimately a debate over what kind of society we want to live in based on our technological capacities, which should not be confused with a society determined by those capacities.

The idea that laws, regulations, and prohibitions under certain circumstances is well.., boring  shouldn’t be an indication that it is also wrong. The Transparent Society was a product of its time, the 1990’s, a prime example of the idea that as long as the playing field was leveled spontaneous order would emerge and that government “interference” through regulation and law (and in a democracy that is working the government is us) would distort this natural balance. It was the same logic that got us into the financial crisis and a species of an eternal human illusion that this time is different. Sometimes the solution to a problem is merely a matter of knowing your history and applying common sense, and the solution to the problem of mass surveillance is to exert our power as citizens of a democracy to regulate and prohibit it where we see fit. Or to sum it all up-we need updated surveillance laws.

It would be very unfair to Brin to say his views are as radical as the Circle’s philosopher Bailey, for, as mentioned, Brin is very cognizant and articulate regarding the human need for privacy at the level of individual intimacy. Eggers’ fictional entrepreneur-philosopher’s vision is a much more frightening version of radical transparency entailing the complete loss of private life. Such total transparency is victorious over privacy at the conclusion of The Circle. For, despite Mae’s love for Ty, he is unable to convince her to help him to destroy the company, and she betrays him.

We are left with the impression that the Circle, as a consequence of Mae’s allegiance to its transparency project, has been able as Lee Billings said in a different context,” to sublime and compress our small isolated world into an even more infinitesimal, less substantial state”  that our world is about to be enveloped in a dark sphere.

Yet, it would be wrong to view even Bailey in the novel as somehow “evil”, something that might make the philosophy of the Circle in some sense even more disturbing. The leadership of the Circle (with the exception of the Judas Ty) doesn’t view what they are building as somehow creepy or dangerous, they see it as a sort of paradise. In many ways they are actually helping people and want to help them. Mae in the beginning of Eggers’ novel is right- the builders of the Circle are utopians as were those who thought and continue to think radical transparency would prove the path to an inevitably better world.

As drunks are known for speaking the truth, an inebriated circler makes the connection between the aspirations of the Circle and those of religion:

….you’re gonna save all the souls. You’re gonna get everyone in the same place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. Imagine! (395)

The kinds of religious longings lying behind the mission of the Circle is even better understood by comparison to that first utopian, Plato, and his character Glaucon’s myth of the Ring of Gyges in The Republic. The ring makes its possessor invisible and the question it is used to explore is what human beings might do were there no chance they might get caught. The logic of the Circle is like a reverse Ring of Gyges making everyone perfectly visible. Bailey, thinks Mae had stolen the kayak because she thought she couldn’t be seen, couldn’t get caught:

All because you were being enabled by ,what, some cloak of invisibility? (296)

If not being able to watch people would make them worse, being able to fully and completely watch them, so the logic goes, would inevitably make them better.

In making this utopian assumption proponents of radical transparency both fictional and real needed to jettison some basic truths about the human condition we are only now relearning. A pattern that has, sadly, happened many times before.

Utopia does not feel like utopia if upon crossing the border you can’t go back home.  And upon reaching utopia we almost always want to return home because every utopia is built on a denial of or oversimplification regarding our multidimensional and stubbornly imperfectable human nature, and this would be the case whether or not our utopia was free of truly bad actors, creeps or otherwise.

The problem one runs into, in the transparency version of utopia, as in any other, is that given none of us are complete, or are less complete than we wish others to understand us to be, the push for us to be complete in an absolute sense often leads to its opposite. On social networks, we end up showcasing not reality, but a highly edited and redacted version of it: not the temper tantrums, but our kids at their cutest, not vacation disasters, but their picture perfect moments.

Pushing us, imperfect creatures that we are, towards total transparency leads almost inevitably to hypocrisy and towards exhausting and ultimately futile efforts at image management. All this becomes even more apparent when asymmetries in power between the watched and watcher are introduced. Employees are with reason less inclined to share that drunk binge over the weekend if they are “friends” with their boss on FaceBook. I have had fellow bloggers tell me they are afraid to express their opinions because of risks to their employment prospects. No one any longer knows whether the image one can find of a person on a social network is the “real” one or a carefully crafted public facade.

These information wars ,where every side is attempting to see as deeply as possible into the other while at the same time presenting an image of itself which best conforms to its own interest, is found up and down the line from individuals to corporations and all the way up to states. The quest for transparency, even when those on the quest mean no harm, is less about making oneself known than eliminating the uncertainty of others who are, despite all our efforts, not fully knowable. As Mae reflects:

It occurred to her, in a sudden moment of clarity, that what had always caused her anxiety, or stress, or worry, was not any one force, nothing independent and external- it wasn’t danger to herself or the calamity of other people and their problems. It was internal: it was subjective: it was not knowing. (194)

And again:

It was not knowing that was the seed of madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear. But there were ways to solve all this. Clarity had made her knowable to the world, and had made her better, had brought her close, she hoped., to perfection. Now the world would follow. Full transparency would bring full access and there would be no more not knowing. (465)

Yet, this version of eliminating uncertainty is an illusion. In fact, the more information we collect the more uncertainty increases, a point made brilliantly by another young author, who is also a scientist, Pippa Goldschmidt in her novel, The Falling Sky. To a talk show host who defines science as the search for answers she replies “That’s exactly what science isn’t about…. it’s about quantifying uncertainty.

Mae, at one point in the novel is on the verge of understanding this:

That the volume of information, of data, of judgments of measurement was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too much pain of too many people, and having it all constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if it was tidy and manageable- it was too much.  (410)

Sometimes one can end up in the exact opposite destination of where one wants to go if one is confused about the direction to follow to get there. Many of the early advocates of radical transparency thought our openness would make Orwellian nightmares of intrusive and controlling states less likely. Yet, by being blissfully unconcerned about our fundamental right to privacy, by promoting corporate monitoring and tracking of our every behavior, we have not created a society that is more open and humane but given spooks tools, democratic states would never have been able to openly construct, to spy upon us in ways that would have brought smiles to the faces of the totalitarian dictators and J Edgar Hoovers of the 20th century. We have given criminals and creeps the capability to violate the intimate sphere of our lives, and provided real authoritarian dictatorships the template and technologies to make Orwell’s warnings a reality.

Eggers, whose novel was released shortly after the first Snowden revelations was certainly capturing a change in public perception regarding the whole transparency project. It is the sense that we have been headed in the wrong direction an unease that signals the revival of our internal sense of orientation, that the course we are headed on does not feel right, and in fact somehow hints at grave dangers.

It was an unease captured equally well and around the same time by Vienna Teng’s hauntingly beautiful song Hymn of Axicom (brought to my attention by reader, Gregory Maus). Teng’s heavenly music and metalized voice- meant to be the voice of the world largest private database-  make the threshold we are at risk of crossing identified by Eggers to be somehow beautiful yet ultimately terrifying.

Giving voice to this unease and questioning the ultimate destination of the radical transparency project has done and will likely continue to do us well.  At a minimum, as the quote from Cory Doctorow with which this post began indicates, a wall between citizens and even greater mass surveillance, at least by the state, may have been established by recent events.

Yet, even if the historical pattern of our democracy repeats itself, that we are able to acknowledge and turn into law protections against a new mutation in the war of power against freedom, if privacy is indeed able to “strike back”, the proponents of radical transparency were certainly right about one thing, we can never put the genie fully back in the bottle, even if we are still free enough to restrain him with the chains of norms, law, regulation and market competition.

The technologies of transparency may not have affected a permanent change in the human condition in our relationship to the corporation and the state, criminals and the mob and the just plain creepy, unless, that is, we continue to permit it, but they have likely permanently affected the social world much closer to our daily concerns- our relationship with our family and friends our community and tribe. They have upended our relationship with one of the most precious of human ways of being, with solitude, though not our experience of loneliness, a subject that will have to wait until another time…

Cracks in the Cult of Radical Transparency

MC Escher Eye Reflection

FaceBook turns ten this year, yes only ten, which means if the company were a person she wouldn’t even remember when Friends was a hit TV show- a reference meant to jolt anyone over 24 with the recognition of just how new the whole transparency culture, which FaceBook is the poster child for, is. Nothing so young can be considered a permanent addition to the human condition, but mere epiphenomenon, like the fads and fashions we foolishly embraced, a mullet and tidied jeans, we have now left behind, lost in the haze of the stupidities and mistakes in judgement of our youth.

The idea behind the cult of radical transparency was that “sharing” would make the world a better place. Private-life was now passe, our photos, our experiences, our thoughts, our opinions were to be endlessly shared not just with an ever expanding group of “friends” but with the world. Transparency would lead to individual authenticity, an end to hypocrisy, to open and accountable government. It would even allow us to re- stitch together our divided selves our work- self with our family-self with our social-self or as Mark Zuckerberg himself stated it:

The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”

Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

Yet, radical transparency has come in for a thumping lately. We can largely thank Edward Snowden ,whose revelations of how the US government used the ubiquitous sharing and monitoring technologies used by FaceBook, Google et al to spy on foreign and American citizens alike, has cast a pall over the whole transparency project. Still, both the Silicon Valley giants and much of the technorati appear to be treating the whole transparency question as a public relations problem or an issue of government surveillance alone. They continue to vigorously pursue their business model which is based on developing the tools for personalization.

A technorati semi-royalty like Kevin Kelly put the matter this way in Jeff Stibel’s book , Breakpoint:

Total personalization in this new world will require total transparency. That is going to be the price. If you want total personalization, you have to be totally transparent (93)

Or as Kelly put it over at The Edge:

I don’t see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I’m trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched.

It’s suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can’t stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there’s no tracking in a temporary basis. I don’t know, but this is the question I’m asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?

The problem with this, of course, is that technology in and of itself doesn’t “want” anything. Self- tracking as in the “quantified-self” or surveillance of individuals by corporations and governments is not just an avenue being opened up by technological developments, it is a goal being pursued actively by both private sector companies, and the security state who are in light of that goal pushing technological evolution further in that direction. Indeed, Silicon Valley companies are so mesmerized with their ideal of a personalized economy that they are doubling down on forcing the transparency upon the public it requires even as cracks are beginning to show in the model’s foundation.

Let’s look at the cracks: people under 30, who have never lived in a world where the private and public had sharp boundaries might be more interested in privacy than their elders, many of whom are old enough to remember Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover and should, therefore, know better. Europeans, who were never as comfortable with corporate snooping as their American counterparts (Germany gave Google Street View the boot) are even less comfortable now that they know these companies were willing to act as spying tools for the US Government. There is an increasing desire among Europeans to build their own Internet with their own (higher) privacy standards.

The biggest market in the world, China, has already pressured Google to such an extent that it left country. It has its own public/private spying infrastructure in the form of front companies that work with US firms such as Microsoft, along with it own companies like Baidu, persons with sensitive information to hide; namely, criminals or terrorists are onto the fact that they are being watched and are embracing technologies to hide their data, including developing technologies that are anti-transparent. If technology wants anything here, in Kelly’s phraseology, it is an arms race between the watched and the watcher.

Fans of transparency, who are at the same time defenders of civil liberties, sometimes make the case that everything would be alright if the field was leveled and everyone: individual, corporation and government alike was made transparent.  Yet, even if the powers unleashed by transparency were totally taken out of the hands of government and put in the hands of corporations and citizens, there would still be problems because there are issues of asymmetry that universal transparency does not address. We can already see what our government is really like: want to understand D.C. ? Read This Townand yet such knowledge seems to change nothing. It is still the big-wigs who go on as usual and call the shots. And even if we could wave a magic wand and rid ourselves of all invasive government snooping  private-sector transparency has the same asymmetries.

Personalization, as imagined by Silicon Valley would work something like this example, which I’ve essentially ripped and twisted from Stibel’s Breakpoint. I wake up in the morning and haven’t had time for breakfast which is known by my health monitoring system.  This fact is integrated with my tracking system which knows that in my morning commute I pass The Donut Shop which has a two for one special on my favorite doughnut the Boston Cream. Facts known by my purchase tracking or perhaps gleaned from the fact that I once “liked” a comment by a “friend” on FaceBook who had posted about eating said donut. All this information is integrated, and I am pinged before passing The Donut Shop. Me being me, and lacking any self control, I stop and buy my donuts on the way to work.


What personalization means is constant bombardment by whatever advertiser has paid enough for my information at the moment to suggest for me what I should buy. The fruit and vegetable vender down the street is likely invisible to me in such a scenario if he hasn’t paid for such suggestions, which is unlikely because he is, well… Amish. This is the first asymmetry. The second asymmetry is between me and The Donut Shop. What possible piece of information could they share with me that would make the relationship more equal? Pictures of people made obese by their obsession with the Boston Cream? Nobody advertises to destroy their own business. The information “shared” with me is partial and distorted.

The biggest danger of the cult of radical transparency is not, I think, in Western countries where traditions of civil liberty and market competition (meaning as ubiquitous surveillance gets more “creepy” there will be a rising number of alternative businesses that offer “non-creepy” services), although this does not mean that things will work themselves out- we have to push back. Rather, the bigger danger lies in authoritarian countries, especially China, where radical transparency could be pursued to its logical limit both by companies and the security state or, most disturbing of all, the collusion of the two.

Yet, even there, I tend to have a faith that, over the long run, the more ornery aspects of human nature will ultimately rule the day, that people will find ways to tune out, to ignore, to play tricks on and be subversive against anything that tries to assert control over individual decisions.

The question of transparency is thus political, cultural, and psychological rather than technological. A great example of the push against it is Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, which not only gives a first hand account of absurdity of the cult of radical transparency, but brings into relief questions which I believe will prove deeper and more long lasting for the human condition than current debates over FaceBook privacy settings, or the NSA’s spy-a-thon.

These other, deeper and more existential questions deal with the boundary between self and community, the tension between solitude and togetherness. They are questions that have been with us from our very beginning on the African savanna, and will likely never be fully resolved until our species is no more. These questions along with The Circle itself is where I will turn next time…