The following insights are excerpted from a brief but engaging NPR piece that traces the cultural arc from Vint Cerf (the “inventor of the Internet”) and his early naive optimism about this new technology, to William Gibson’s uncanny prescience in forecasting exactly where the Internet would really take us (to a corporate-controlled cyberdystopia with sharply curtailed human relationships), to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s ongoing exploration of the darkest corners of the whole thing:
Initially, Cerf was trying to create an Internet through which scientists and academics from all over the world could share data and research. Then, one day in 1988, Cerf says he went to a conference for commercial vendors where they were selling products for the Internet. “I just stood there thinking, ‘My God! Somebody thinks they’re going to make money out of the Internet.’ ” Cerf was surprised and happy. “I was a big proponent of that. My friends in the community thought I was nuts. ‘Why would you let the unwashed masses get access to the Internet?’ And I said, ‘Because I want everybody to take advantage of its capability.’ ”
Clearly, Cerf is an optimist. That is what allowed him to dream big. But, in retrospect, some of the decisions his team made seem hopelessly naive, especially for a bunch of geniuses. They made it possible to surf the Internet anonymously — unlike a telephone, you don’t have a unique number that announces who you are. We know how that turned out. People with less lofty ambitions than Cerf used that loophole for cybercrime, international espionage and online harassment.
Cerf admits all that dark stuff never crossed his mind. “And we have to cope with that — I mean, welcome to the real world,” he says. . . .
Somehow [William] Gibson was able to imagine the potential scale of it — all those computers connected together. . . . But, it isn’t just the Internet that Gibson saw coming. In Neuromancer, the Internet has become dominated by huge multinational corporations fighting off hackers. The main character is a washed-up criminal hacker who goes to work for an ex-military officer to regain his glory. And get this: The ex-military guy is deeply involved in cyber-espionage between the U.S. and Russia.
Gibson says he didn’t need to try a computer or see the Internet to imagine this future. “The first people to embrace a technology are the first to lose the ability to see it objectively,” he says. He says he’s more interested in how people behave around new technologies. He likes to tell a story about how TV changed New York City neighborhoods in the 1940s. “Fewer people sat out on the stoops at night and talked to their neighbors, and it was because everyone was inside watching television,” he says. “No one really noticed it at the time as a kind of epochal event, which I think it was” . . . .
Brooker has a certain amount of frustration with the leaders in tech. “It’s felt like tech companies have for years just put this stuff out there,” he says. “And they distance themselves from the effects of their product effectively by saying, ‘Oh, we’re just offering a service.’ ” Brooker sees each new technology more like an untested drug waiting to launch us on a very bad trip. Each episode of Black Mirror is like its own laboratory testing a technology that is already out, but pushing it by mixing in common human behaviors and desires.
The following paragraphs are from a talk delivered by Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski at the recent Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference in Philadelphia. Citing as Exhibit A the colossal train wreck that was the 2016 American presidential election, Cegłowski basically explains how, in the current version of the Internet that has emerged over the past decade-plus, we have collectively created a technology that is perfectly calibrated for undermining Western democratic societies and ideals.
But as incisive as his analysis is, I seriously doubt that his (equally incisive) proposed solutions, described later in the piece, will ever be implemented to any meaningful extent. I mean, if we’re going to employ the explicitly Frankensteinian metaphor of “building a monster,” then it’s important to bear in mind that Victor Frankenstein and his wretched creation did not find their way to anything resembling a happy ending. (And note that Cegłowski himself acknowledges as much at the end of his piece when he closes his discussion of proposed solutions by asserting that “even though we’re likely to fail, all we can do is try.”)
This year especially there’s an uncomfortable feeling in the tech industry that we did something wrong, that in following our credo of “move fast and break things,” some of what we knocked down were the load-bearing walls of our democracy. . . .
A question few are asking is whether the tools of mass surveillance and social control we spent the last decade building could have had anything to do with the debacle of the 2017 [sic] election, or whether destroying local journalism and making national journalism so dependent on our platforms was, in retrospect, a good idea. . . .
We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it? . . .
The economic basis of the Internet is surveillance. Every interaction with a computing device leaves a data trail, and whole industries exist to consume this data. Unlike dystopian visions from the past, this surveillance is not just being conducted by governments or faceless corporations. Instead, it’s the work of a small number of sympathetic tech companies with likable founders, whose real dream is to build robots and Mars rockets and do cool things that make the world better. Surveillance just pays the bills. . . .
Orwell imagined a world in which the state could shamelessly rewrite the past. The Internet has taught us that people are happy to do this work themselves, provided they have their peer group with them, and a common enemy to unite against. They will happily construct alternative realities for themselves, and adjust them as necessary to fit the changing facts . . . .
A lot of what we call “disruption” in the tech industry has just been killing flawed but established institutions, and mining them for parts. When we do this, we make a dangerous assumption about our ability to undo our own bad decisions, or the time span required to build institutions that match the needs of new realities.
Right now, a small caste of programmers is in charge of the surveillance economy, and has broad latitude to change it. But this situation will not last for long. The kinds of black-box machine learning that have been so successful in the age of mass surveillance are going to become commoditized and will no longer require skilled artisans to deploy. . . .
Unless something happens to mobilize the tech workforce, or unless the advertising bubble finally bursts, we can expect the weird, topsy-turvy status quo of 2017 to solidify into the new reality.
After several months of deliberation and development, I have just launched a brand new version of my author site, www.mattcardin.com. The layout and structure are completely new, with easy navigation, a modern look, and an overall sleeker design. Have a look and let me know what you think.
In the past I have both 1) praised Jeff Bezos for displaying what looks like a true love of books and reading, and 2) highlighted Amazon’s bullying and heavy-handedness in the publishing industry by linking to Steve Wasserman’s damning 2012 article “The Amazon Effect,” in which Wasserman, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Books Review, explains how his early positive view of Bezos and Amazon soured over time as it became evident that the company is intent on “bulldozing any real or perceived obstacles to its single-minded pursuit of maximum clout” by imposing “increasingly harsh terms on both its competitors and its clients.”
Recently it’s looking like the scale has tipped definitively in favor of the negative judgment on both Bezos and his company. Or at least that’s my take, which is based on the fact, revealed just last week, that Amazon is now flat-out blackmailing publishers and authors into complying with their draconian demands by charging higher prices and delaying shipments for products from companies that resist them. Various other tactics are also involved, such as removing entire promotion pages for some books. What’s more, Amazon isn’t afraid to play this kind of hardball with books by big-name authors. Titles by J. K. Rowling, Anne River Siddons, and James Patterson are among those that have been affected.
Says The New York Times‘ David Streitfield and Melissa Eddy:
Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before. Seeking ever-higher payments from publishers to bolster its anemic bottom line, Amazon is holding books and authors hostage on two continents by delaying shipments and raising prices. The literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention. . . . No firm in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m personally fed up with this kind of crap, and this feeling applies to more than just the Amazon situation. Amazon is emblematic of a major cultural shift that has taken place in the Internet era as megacorporations representing various sectors of the business world and cultural life at large have attempted to hold us all hostage by playing an egregiously monopolistic game. And it all seems doubly sinister in a way that’s distinct from the monopolies of a past age, since this time the imperialistic and totalitarian business practices are hitched to, and also — or so the corporate titans hope — enabled and sweetened by, the digital-populist tone of “personal freedom and empowerment” that still attends the Internet like a lingering morning mist at midday.
This kind of thing makes me remember all over again why I ditched Facebook and Twitter. Among other reasons, I just got sick of being a willing pawn in the war of the Digital Overlords, where my personal data and decisions are used as leverage and ammunition. I’ve been thinking for many months that it may be time to ditch Amazon as well, and this recent revelation adds some serious weight to that consideration. This would of course mean going back and removing all of the Amazon affiliate links here at The Teeming Brain. I also own a Kindle and subscribe to Prime, so, you know, I’m pretty deeply entangled. And don’t think for a minute that I’m not aware of the tarry syrup of irony that automatically coats every word I type here, on a blog, using a computer that’s running a Windows operating system, thus reinforcing the basic thrust of the entire digital economy and cultural technopoly that I’m ostensibly criticizing.
I would be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on this issue. Is Amazon really a tyrant? Would a personal boycott be advisable? Would it even be meaningful? More broadly, is the future just a giant playing field for megacorporations where the role of us peasants is simply to be trampled underfoot while saying thank you for it?