Don’t Be Evil!

Panopticon Prisoner kneeling

However interesting a work it is, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age is one of those books where if you come to it as a blank slate you’ll walk away from it with a very distorted chalk drawing of what the world actually looks like. Above all, you’ll walk away with the idea that intrusive and questionable surveillance was something those other guys did, the bad guys, not the American government, or US corporations, and certainly not Google where Schmidt sits as executive chairman . Much ink is spilt on explaining the egregious abuses of Internet freedom by the likes of countries like China and Iran, or what in the vast majority of cited cases, are abuses by non-Western companies,  but when it comes to the US itself or any of its corporations engaging in similar practices the book is eerily silent.

I may not know what a mote is, but I do know I am supposed to pluck my own out of my eye first. Only then can I get seriously down to the business of pointing out the other guy’s mote, or even helping him yank it out.

The New Digital Age (I’ll call it the NDA from here on on to shorten things up), is full of the most reasonable and vanilla sort of advice on the need to balance our conflicting needs for security and privacy, but given its silence on the question of what the actual security/surveillance system in the US actually is, we’re left without the information needed to make such judgements. Let me put that silence in context.

The publication date for the NDA was April, 23 2013. The smoke screen of conspicuous- for- their- absence facts that are never discussed extends not only forward in time- something to be expected given the Edward Snowden revelations were one month out (May, 20 2013)- but, more disturbingly backward in time as well.  That is, Schmidt and Cohen couldn’t really be expected, legally if not morally, to discuss the revelations Snowden would later bring to light. Still, they should be expected to have addressed serious claims about the relationship between American technology companies and the US security state which were already public knowledge.

There had been extensive reporting on the intersection of technology and US government spying since at least 2010. These weren’t stories by Montana survivalists or persons camped out at Area 51, but hard hitting journalists with decades covering national security; namely, the work of Dana Priest and the Washington Post. If my memory and the book’s index serves me, neither Priest nor the Post are mentioned in the NDA.

Over a year before NDA was published Wired’s James Bamford had written a stunning piece on the NSA’s construction of its huge data center in Bluffdale, Utah, the goal of which was to suck up and store indefinitely the electronic records of all of us- which is the main thing we are arguing about. The main debate is over whether the government has a right to force private companies to provide all the digital data on their customers which the government will then synthesize, organize and store. If you’re an American you’re lucky enough to have the government require a warrant to look at your records. (Although the court in change of this-the FISA court- is not really known for turning such requests down). If you’re unlucky enough to not be an American then the government can peruse your records whenever the hell it wants to- thank you very much.

The NSA gets two pages devoted to it in the NDA’s 257 pages both of which are about how open minded and clever the agency is for hiring pimply- faced hackers. Say, what?

The more I think about what had to be the deliberate silence that runs throughout the whole of the NDA the more infuriating it becomes, but at least now Google et al have gotten religion- or at least I hope. On December, 9 2013 Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and AOL sent an open letter to the White House urging new restrictions on the government’s ability to seize, use and store information gleaned from them. This is a hopeful sign, but I am not sure we be handing out Liberty Medals just yet.

For one, this move against the government was not inspired by civil libertarians or even robust reporting, but by threats to the very business model upon which the companies who signed the document are based. As The Economist puts its:

The entire business model of firms like Google, FaceBook and Twitter relies on harvesting intimate information provided by users and then selling that data on to advertisers.

It was private firms that persuaded people to give up lists of their friends, their most sensitive personal communications, and to constantly broadcast their location in real-time. If you had told even the noisiest spook in 1983, that within 30 years, much of the populace would be carrying around a tracking device that kept a permanent record of everywhere they had ever visited, he’d have thought you mad.”

Let’s say you’re completely comfortable with the US government keeping such records on you. Perhaps the majority of Americans are unconcerned about this and think it the price of safety. But I doubt Americans would feel as blaise if it was the Chinese or the Russians or heaven forbid the French or any other government whose apparatchiks could go through their online personal and financial records at will. Therein lies the threat to American companies whose ultimate aspirations are global.  Companies that are seen, rightly or wrongly, as a tool of the US government will lose the trust not mainly of US citizens but of international customers. An ensuing race to the exits and nationalization of the Internet would most likely be driven not by Iranian Mullahs or a testosterone- charged Vladimir Putin paddling around in a submersible like a Bond villain,  but by Western Europeans and other democratic societies who were already uncomfortable with the idea that corporations should be trusted by individuals who had made themselves as transparent as the Utah sky.

The Germans, to take one example, were already freaked out by Google Street View of all things and managed to have the company abandon that service there. Revulsion at the Snowden revelations is perhaps the one thing that unites the otherwise bickering nationalities of the EU. TED, an event that began as a Silicon Valley lovefest looked a lot different when it was held in Brussels in October, with Mikko Hypponen urging the secession of Europeans from the American Internet infrastructure and the creation of their own open-sourced platforms. It’s the fear of being thought of as downright Orwellian that seems most likely to have inspired Google’s move to abandon facial recognition on Google Glass.

With the Silicon Valley Letter we might think we’re in the home stretch of this struggle to re-establish the right to privacy, but the sad fact is this fight’s just beginning. As the Economist pointed out none of the giants that provide the hardware and “plumbing” for the Internet, such as Cisco, and AT&T signed the open letter, less afraid, it seems, of losing customers because these are national brick-and-mortar companies in a way the eight signatories of the open letter to the Obama Administration are not.  For civil libertarians to win this fight Americans have to not only get those hardware companies on board, but compel the government to deconstruct a massive amount of spying infrastructure.

That is, we need to get the broader American public to care enough to exert sustained pressure on the government and some of the richest companies in the country to reverse course. Otherwise, the NSA facility at Bluffdale will continue sucking up its petabytes of overwhelmingly useless information like some obsessive Mormon genealogist until the mechanical levithan lurches to obsolescence or is felled by the sheppard’s stone of better encryption.

The NSA facility that stands today in the Utah desert may offer a treasure trove for the historian of the far future, a kind of massive junkyard of collective memory filled with all our sense and non-sense. If we don’t get our act straight, what it will also be is a historical monument to the failure of our two centuries and some old experiment with freedom.

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Maps:how the physical world conquered the virtual

World map 1600

If we look back to the early days when the Internet was first exploding into public consciousness, in the 1980’s, and even more so in the boom years of the 90’s, what we often find is a kind of utopian sentiment around this new form of “space”. It wasn’t only that a whole new plane of human interaction seemed to be unfolding into existence almost overnight, it was that “cyberspace” seemed poised to swallow the real world- a prospect which some viewed with hopeful anticipation and others with doom.

Things have not turned out that way.

The person who invented the term “cyberspace”, William Gibson, the science fiction author of the classic- Neuromancer- himself thinks that when people look back on the era when the Internet emerged what will strike them as odd is how we could have confused ourselves into thinking that the virtual world and our work-a-day one were somehow distinct. Gibson characterizes this as the conquest of the real by the virtual. Yet, one can see how what has happened is better thought of as the reverse by taking even a cursory glance at our early experience and understanding of cyberspace.

Think back, if you are old enough, and you can remember, when the online world was supposed to be one where a person could shed their necessarily limited real identity for a virtual one. There were plenty of anecdotes, not all of them insidious, of people faking their way through a contrived identity the unsuspecting thought was real: men coming across as women, women as men, the homely as the beautiful. Cyberspace seemed to level traditional categories and the limits of geography. A poor adolescent could hobnob with the rich and powerful. As long as one had an Internet connection, country of origin and geographical location seemed irrelevant.

It should not come as any surprise, then, that  an early digital reality advocate such as Nicole Stenger could end her 1991 essay Mind is a leaking rainbow with the utopian flourish:

According to Satre, the atomic bomb was what humanity had found to commit collective suicide. It seems, by contrast, that cyberspace, though born of a war technology, opens up a space for collective restoration, and for peace. As screens are dissolving, our future can only take on a luminous dimension! / Welcome to the New World! (58)

Ah, if only.

Even utopian rhetoric was sometimes tempered with dystopian fears. Here is Mark Pesce the inventor of VRML code in his 1997 essay Ignition:

The power over this realm has been given to you. You are weaving the fabric of perception in information perceptualized. You could – if you choose – turn our world into a final panopticon – a prison where all can been seen and heard and judged by a single jailer. Or you could aim for its inverse, an asylum run by the inmates. The esoteric promise of cyberspace is of a rule where you do as you will; this ontology – already present in the complex system know as Internet – stands a good chance of being passed along to its organ of perception.

The imagery of a “final panopticon” is doubtless too morbid for us at this current stage whatever the dark trends. What is clear though is that cyberspace is a dead metaphor for what the Internet has become- we need a new one. I think we could do worse than the metaphor of the map. For, what the online world has ended up being is less an alternative landscape than a series of cartographies by which we organize our relationship with the world outside of our computer screens, a development with both liberating and troubling consequences.

Maps have always been reflections of culture and power rather than reflections of reality. The fact that medieval maps in the West had Jerusalem in their centers wasn’t expressing a geologic but a spiritual truth although few understood the difference. During the Age of Exploration what we might think of as realistic maps were really navigational aids for maritime trading states, a latent fact present in what the mapmakers found important to display and explain.

The number and detail of maps along with the science of cartography rose in tandem with the territorial anchoring of the nation-state. As James C. Scott points out in his Seeing Like a State maps were one of the primary tools of the modern state whose ambition was to make what it aimed to control “legible” and thus open to understanding by bureaucrats in far off capitals and their administration.

What all of this has to do with the fate of cyberspace, the world where we live today, is that the Internet, rather than offering us an alternative version of physical space and an escape hatch from its problems has instead evolved into a tool of legibility. What is made legible in this case is us. Our own selves and the micro-world’s we inhabit have become legible to outsiders. Most of the time these outsiders are advertisers who target us based on our “profile”, but sometimes this quest to make individuals legible is by the state- not just in the form of standardized numbers and universal paperwork but in terms of the kinds of information a state could only once obtain by interrogation- the state’s first crack at making individuals legible.      

A recent book by Google CEO Eric Schmitt co-authored with foreign policy analyst Jared Cohen- The New Digital Age is chalk full of examples of corporate advertisers’ and states’ new powers of legibility. They write:

The key advance ahead is personalization. You’ll be able to customize your devices- indeed much of the technology around you- to fit your needs, so that the environment reflects your preferences.

At your fingertips will be an entire world’s worth of digital content, constantly updated, ranked and categorized to help you find the music, movies, shows, books, magazines, blogs and art you like. (23)

Or as journalist Farhad Manjoo quotes Amit Singhal of Google:

I can imagine a world where I don’t even need to search. I am just somewhere outside at noon, and my search engine immediately recommends to me the nearby restaurants that I’d like because they serve spicy food.

There is a very good reason why I did not use the world “individuals” in place of “corporate advertisers” above- a question of intent. Whose interest does the use of such algorithms to make the individual legible ultimately serve? If it my interest then search algorithms might tell me where I can get a free or even pirated copy of the music, video etc I will like so much. It might remind me of my debts, and how much I would save if I skip dinner at the local restaurant and cook my quesadillas at home. Google and all its great services, along with similar tech giants aiming to map the individual such as FaceBook aren’t really “free”. While using them I am renting myself to advertisers. All maps are ultimately political.

With the emergence mobile technology and augmented reality the physical world has wrestled the virtual one to the ground like Jacob did to the angel. Virtual reality is now repurposed to ensconce all of us in our own customized micro-world. Like history? Then maybe your smartphone or Google Glasses will bring everything historical around you out into relief. Same if you like cupcakes and pastry or strip clubs. These customized maps already existed in our own heads, but now we have the tools for our individualized cartography- the only price being constant advertisements.

There’s even a burgeoning movement among the avant garde, if there can still be said to be such a thing, against this kind of subjection of the individual to corporate dictated algorithms and logic. Inspired by mid-20 century leftists such as Guy Debord with his Society of the Spectacle practitioners of what is called psychogeography are creating and using apps such as Drift  that lead the individual on unplanned walks around their own neighborhoods, or Random GPS that have your car’s navigation system remind you of the joys of getting lost.

My hope is that we will see other versions of these algorithm inverters and breakers and not just when it comes to geography. How about similar things for book recommendations or music or even dating? We are creatures that sometimes like novelty and surprise, and part of the wonder of life is fortuna–  its serendipitous accidents.

Yet, I think these tools will most likely ramp up the social and conformist aspects of our nature. We shouldn’t think they will be limited to corporate persuaders. I can imagine “Catholic apps” that allow one to monitor one’s sins, and a whole host of funny and not so funny ways groups will use the new methods of making the individual legible to tie her even closer to the norms of the group.

A world where I am surrounded by a swirl of constant spam, or helpful and not so helpful suggestions, the minute I am connected, indeed, a barrage that never ends except when I am sleeping because I am always connected, may be annoying, but it isn’t all that scary. It’s when we put these legibility tools in the hands of the state that I get a little nervous.

As Schmitt and Cohen point out one of the most advanced forms of such efforts at mapping the individual is an entity called Platforma Mexico which is essentially a huge database that is able to identify any individual and tie them to their criminal record.

Housed in an underground bunker in the Secretariat of Public Security compound in Mexico City, this large database integrates intelligence, crime reports and real time data from surveillance cameras and other inputs from across the country. Specialized algorithms can extract patterns, project social graphs and monitor restive areas for violence and crime as well as for natural disasters and other emergencies.  (174)

The problem I have here is the blurring of the line between the methods used for domestic crime and those used for more existential threats, namely- war. Given that crime in the form of the drug war is an existential threat for Mexico this might make sense, but the same types of tools are being perfected by authoritarian states such as China, which is faced not with an existential threat but with growing pressures for reform, and also in what are supposed to be free societies like the United States where a non-existential threat in the form of terrorism- however already and potentially horrific- is met with similar efforts by the state to map individuals.

Schmitt and Cohen point out how there is a burgeoning trade between autocratic countries and their companies which are busy perfecting the world’s best spyware. An Egyptian firm Orascom owns a 25 percent share of the panopticonic sole Internet provider in North Korea. (96) Western companies are in the game as well with the British Gamma Group’s sale of spyware technology to Mubarak’s Egypt being just one recent example.

Yet, if corporations and the state are busy making us legible there has also been a democratization of the capacity for such mapmaking, which is perhaps the one of the reasons why states are finding governance so difficult. Real communities have become almost as easy to create as virtual ones because all such communities are merely a matter of making and sustaining human relationships and understanding their maps.

Schmitt and Cohen imagine virtual governments in exile waiting in the wings to strike at the precipitous moment. Political movements can be created off the shelf supported by their own ready made media entities and the authors picture socially conscious celebrities and wealthy individuals running with this model in response to crises. Every side in a conflict can now have its own media wing whose primary goal is to shape and own the narrative. Even whole bureaucracies could be preserved from destruction by keeping its map and functions in the cloud.

Sometimes virtual worlds remain limited to the way they affect the lives of individuals but are politically silent. A popular mass multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft may have as much influence on an individual’s life as other invisible kingdoms such as those of religion. An imagined online world becomes real the moment its map is taken as a prescription for the physical world.  Are things like the Hizb ut-Tahrir which aims at the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate or The League of the South which promotes a second secession of American states “real” political organizations or fictional worlds masking themselves as political movements? I suppose only time will tell.

Whatever the case, society seems torn between the mapmakers of the state who want to use the tools of the virtual world to impose order on the physical and an almost chaotic proliferation using the same tools by groups of all kinds creating communities seemingly out of thin air.

All this puts me in mind of nothing so much as China Mieville’s classic of New Weird fiction City and the City. It’s a crime novel with the twist that it takes place in two cities- Beszel  and Ul Qoma that exist in the same physical space and are superimposed on top of one another. No doubt Mieville was interested in telling a good story, and getting us thinking about the questions of borders and norms, but it’s a pretty good example of the mapping I’ve been talking about- even if it is an imagined one.

In City and the City an inhabitant of Beszel  isn’t allowed to see or interact with what’s going on in Ul Qoma and vice versa otherwise they commit a crime called “breach” and there’s a whole secretive bi-city agency called Breach that monitors and prosecutes those infractions. There’s even an imaginary (we are led to believe) third city “Orciny” that exist on-top of Beszel and Ul Qoma and secretly controls the other two.

This idea of multiple identities- consumer, political- overlaying the same geographical space seems a perfect description of our current condition. What is missing here, though, is the sharp borders imposed by Breach. Such borders might appear quicker and in different countries than one might have supposed thanks to the recent revelations that the United States has been treating the Internet and its major American companies like satraps. Only now has Silicon Valley woken up to the fact that its close relationship with the American security state threatens its “transparency” based business- model with suicide. The re-imposition of state sovereignty over the Internet would mean a territorialization of the virtual world- a development that would truly constitute its conquest by the physical. To those possibilities I will turn next time…