The Emerging Counter-Culture in Mobile Apps (Parts 1–4)

Part 1: Definition

“There’s an app for that” is the new kitsch. Of course there’s an app for that; it’s 2017.

The American Dialect Society saw fit to recognize “App” as the word of the year back in 2010. Smartphone use has permeated all levels of society and apps show consistent increases in use and utility. The ubiquity and inseparability of devices from our modern life creates a fertile ground for exploits in our society as technology advances

We all contribute in the crawl toward our shared future. Change is inevitable and accepted passively for most. We routinely ignore lessons from history and every few generations we witness a great upheaval when a mass of people come to realize that they are at odds with the way things have become. Those in positions of power are commonly exposed for taking advantage, neglecting or mis-representing what people stand for.

Counterculture originated in the 1960s describing a generation of youth disaffected by almost everything their forebearers created: social mores, popular icons and political leaders. This phenomenon of counter-culturalism has been retroactively attributed to such movements as Romanticism, Wandervogelism, and Bohemianism to name a few.

What is the counter-culture today is more often than not the dominant culture of the future. In our status quo we are beginning to see new forms of exploitation and corruption infecting the roots of our shared human values. “Business-as-usual” has come under fire. Pressure is building on institutions, building the case for action.


Part 2: History

Use of the internet itself has been defined as a countercultural movement. Fred Turner said.

“the world was a series of interlocking information systems, all of which were working to corrode the bureaucracies of the industrial era…and those that built their lives around the net…would bring about cultural revolution.”

Thanks in large part to the internet we now see and experience countercultural expressions daily. At base, a countercultural movement is simply a controversial idea that becomes appreciated by a broad swath of the population while challenging social norms.


Near the turn of the century Marcel Duchamp challenged the commonly held idea that capital ‘A’ Art needed to be created by the hand of the artist. Furthermore, his work “Fountain, 1917” challenged the idea that Art must be serious, beautiful or conventional. These head on challenges forever changed the Art world and created new lanes for creatives to operate.

Not all countercultural instances have been so benign. Speakeasies and violent organized crime were commonplace during the United States prohibition era. While common folk went along with idea that a dry society was what the law permitted, those who imbibed alcohol were labeled deviant and the national government freely spent untold billions of dollars fighting bootleggers and gangsters that imported or distilled alcohol. The once considered ‘deviant’ culture became the dominant culture and the unpopular constitutional prohibition of alcohol came to an end in 1933.

The second half of the 20th century saw peace and equality become the countercultural movements creating direct action and opposition to war and political oppression throughout the world. From the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests in the US to the Tiananmen Square student uprising in China, the June Struggle in Korea and the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia.


As politics were forced to become more inclusive throughout the world, the ‘ruling class’ migrated into the private sector where exploitation could be written off as good business practice. Counterculture became a commodity and advertisers sought to use its energy and engagement to sell products and to captivate the youth.

Corporations were primed and aligned to take a hold of and exploit each succeeding countercultural movement as is demonstrated by the major cultural shift created by Hip Hop music. What began as method of expression for the young and underprivileged was quickly turned into an exploitative money machine for the entertainment industrial giants. Progressive voices like KRS-ONE and Public Enemy were eclipsed by commercially inoffensive performers like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice.


100 years after Marcel Duchamp flipped the Art world on its head, we again embark on a countercultural movement to challenge the commonly held idea that to engage with the internet is to concede your right to privacy. The world’s largest corporations are heavily invested in personally invasive Big Data exploits despite the fact that 91% of adults agree or strongly agree that users have lost control of how personal information is collected and used by these corporations.

Our social networks are their data mines, exploited to sell our personal information and activities to advertisers, authorities and insurers, feeding rampant consumerism and putting our freedoms at risk.

A tide is turning, people are once again banding together and facing these giants head on. Those aligned with the shifting cultural identity are beginning to speak for the silent majority.


Part 3: The Contemporary Fight

The ‘post-information revolution’ era has begun. For better or for worse people are now players in a game where information has value and people are the source of that information.

Tech giants like Facebook, Instagram and Google make their records into data mines. All of our web searches, interactions with websites, hours of activity, conversations, interests, purchases, complaints, and conflicts are catalogued and fed to algorithms; in turn, producing models, categorizing us users.

Patterns in the data, containing shadows of our digital selves, are packaged and sold to other companies or given up at the request of the authorities. These algorithmic byproducts can determine whether a bank grants you a loan, whether a single mom gets health insurance, or if a student gets a call back for a job offer. Worse, they can determine the severity of our punishment should we get into trouble with the law.

If this all sounds alarmingly dystopian, that’s because it is.


Beyond consuming our social media, Big Data is growing all around us with the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Just about anything with a battery or that can be plugged in is now more of more value if rigged to capture and broadcast data. More often than not, the data is transmitted back to the manufacturer or to a third party and sold, in turn, to anyone willing to buy. All of this with near zero oversight.

Tracking the number of steps a single New Yorker walks each day isn’t that valuable an insight, but when coupled with data aggregated across millions of New Yorkers and tourists, a new picture of the city’s inhabitants takes shape. Tracking interactions, mentions, and conversations during discrete times of day, what people wear or eat during outings, etcetera creates the illusion of depth forming a picture of individuals in a city. These aggregated insights enable advertisers to sharpen their focus on any individual and give authorities virtual tools attempting to predicting behavior.

Silicon Valley heavyweight Steve Leibson postulated that after the recent expansion of IP addresses we could, “assign an IPv6 address to every atom on the surface of the earth, and still have enough addresses left to do another 100+ Earths.” Every ‘thing’ on the planet could be monitored, creating a matrix of information and a system of control in an attempt to predict possible futures.

The internet of things is so omnipresent that we don’t know when, how or even what we’re transmitting. We are treated like ‘things’.

But people are not things. Our ‘things’: phones, televisions, toys, heart-monitors and the like, are currently encouraged to treat us as ‘things’. Facebook, Google and the expanding tech sector are mining us for data valuable to them and their partners. This is where we must draw a line in the sand and declare that we are not ‘things’ to be tagged or tracked.

We must demand that our right to privacy be of paramount concern to corporate CEOs, advertisers, publications, and businesses all the way down to developers, testers and reviewers. We need to create a culture of awareness regarding our state of privacy: a counterculture to the exploitative behemoth we currently face.


Part 4 Finale: I am not your data mine

Corporations are not people, as such they don’t ever learn about you for mutually beneficial reasons. The reasoning of a corporation is one-sided and favors only the corporation. Would you willingly exchange all of this data for a modicum of improved search results?

Tech companies hoard our information to better advertise to us. To imagine their endgame, picture yourself walking by a wall sized mirror, though your reflection is wearing an entirely different outfit. Your digital double breaks stride and says in your voice, “Nevermind all these fab clothes I’m wearing, check out these shoes! All on sale at Harry’s on the 3rd floor, try them on”.

They want to pull Jedi mind tricks on us, if you will.

The argument for Big Data would suggest that standing in opposition to the wanton collection of our personal data is in effect standing in the way of progress.

The position that data collection benefits machine learning and will ultimately make for greater conveniences is undeniable. Where we, the counter culture, stand in opposition to the status quo is clear:

a) Users should be able to engage with online services without the assumption that their data is up for grabs.

b) Users deserve to be given clear and ample opportunity to opt out of these profitable data collection schemes.

Cartoon by ROBERT ARIAIL

Many emerging companies agree that contemporary practices are a sort of digital hoarding and that they will take no part in it. The new wave of apps seek to follow the tenets of Privacy By Design, an ethical code of conduct for companies to abide by protecting the identities of their users from the outset and not retroactively, as an afterthought, or in reaction to public pressure to do so.


Here’s a shortlist of emerging companies to keep an eye on and established companies that consider your data security a core business principle:

Startups

Brave Browser

A free and open source web browser in beta for desktop desktop and currently available for iOS and Android mobile devices Brave rapidly blocks ads and trackers minimizing what’s shared with advertisers that slow device performance and sap users data limits.

Developed by the co-founder of Mozilla and creator of JavaScript Brendan Eich to contend with the current dynamic online which he described as a “primal threat” where free content is exchanged for unfettered data exploitation.

Groundhog AR

A freemium Augmented Reality application that bundles map points, image and file sharing into a truly public network. Currently in beta for iOS Groundhog AR is “The Map of What’s Happening” where points appear and disappear without a trace.

Co-founded by frequent traveling Canadians Sean and Kevin Chambers Groundhog AR encourages users not to fear engaging with personal location services fully confident that their personal information is being protected.


Browsers

Epic Privacy Browser

Built by Alok Bhardwaj out of Washington DC using the Chromium source for performance Epic encrypts every individual tab in your session. Always in ‘Private Mode’ Epic deletes all search history upon closing and keeps as little data as possible while browsing. Epic’s comprehensive ad blocking stops Google among hundreds of other companies from following your tracks online. Epic Privacy Browser is arguably the most secure browser available outside of using TOR.

TOR

An anonymous web browser that uses several thousand volunteer relays around the world to make tracking the origin its web communications very difficult. Like the internet itself, TOR was originally developed by US Federal Government but its further development and support has come from both government and NGOs. In addition to protecting its users TOR lists websites that are not listed by common web browsers. The “Dark Web” awaits.


Instant Messaging

Signal

An Open Source and secure platform developed with end-to-end encryption, options for dissapearing messages and more. Edward Snowden is a vocal advocate of the Open Whisper Systems team in San Francisco with their storied history of having provided communication abilities for swaths people living under oppressive regimes.

Telegram

A rapidly expanding platform that boasts “heavy encryption”, self-destruct messages and a huge 1.5 GB file sharing capability. Run by a secretive team led by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov; Russian expats who refuse to identify an operational headquarters in order to protect its users from government data requests.


Social Networking

MeWe

Started by friends Jonathan Wolfe and Mark Weinstein over a dinner in Albuquerque, New Mexico this app adheres to the standards of Privacy by Design. Spurred to action by the abuses they witnessed in Facebook and other major tech companies “treating us like commodities” this platform focuses on its privacy. Also, MeWe does not claim any rights to the content you post.

Diaspora

A non-centralized social networking platform that allows users to interact in an ad-free and secure environment. Started by four students at New York University Diaspora’s unique architecture runs on independently owned servers around the world giving users a choice of where they want their content stored. Diaspora does not discourage the use of pseudonyms and vows never to sell your information to third parties.


Location Services

Open Street Maps

Inspired by the success of Wikipedia, in 2004 Steve Coast developed OSM to be a free, publicly owned and open-source mapping community. Supported and published by the Open Street Maps Foundation, OSM it is entirely controlled, updated by public contributors. No data generated by OSM is ever sold.

Maps.me

Using OSM data, Maps.me is an offline functioning app for iOS, Android and Blackberry. Map data is downloaded to your device through the app and stored in a custom compressed format. This way, with a little foresight you can experience digital location services totally offline.