Beijing’s ‘autocracy as a service’ is becoming the top choice for governments that want to control the internet

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Photo: VCG/Getty Images

In 2010, Uganda passed a law that expanded the legal justifications for intercepting citizens’ communications. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had begun to see the internet as a real threat, and after the 2016 election and protests the following year, he turned to foreign companies like Germany’s FinFisher to monitor the devices of his opponents. When the Israeli firm NSO failed to decrypt the communications of Museveni’s U.S.-backed political rival in 2018, Chinese firm Huawei stepped in. Huawei was already the biggest communication supplier in Uganda, an unremarkable fact given that Huawei — like other Chinese companies — has been building infrastructure and relationships across Africa since 1998. …

If Big Tech becomes synonymous with the internet, we could lose free choice, democracy, and even the ability to imagine a different world

A closeup of the reaction icons on Facebook statuses.
A closeup of the reaction icons on Facebook statuses.
Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

Big Tech wants to be the totality of what we see and do online. From Apple’s carefully curated user experience to the sprawling empires of Google/Alphabet and Facebook, the tech firms’ ultimate goal is to own everything we do up and down the technological stack. And if they win, we’ll be living in a globe-spanning Truman Show, a tiny subset of possibility that we’ve been convinced to think is reality. We won’t notice we live in someone else’s stack any more than a farmed fish can taste tank water.

Thinking any big tech firm is the internet makes as much sense as thinking that the Salesforce Tower is San Francisco, or Heinz is the food chain, or that Disney World is Florida. But when a company’s dreams of domination come true, we all stand to lose things we can’t replace. To make active choices about which tech-future we want to live in, we need to understand that the interface is not the internet. The internet is deeper and richer than the theme park version many of us think is the real thing. It sounds counterintuitive, but to see the internet more fully, we need better ways to imagine it. …

The simple deception of Big Tech’s aspirations

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Photo by Josh Couch

Bringing people together.

Changing the world.

Making the world a better place.

There’s a reason so many tech company slogans sound similar. It’s not just that they’re all trying to do the same thing — commodify human experience, sell it back to us, and pipe the tax-free profits offshore. It’s that the smooth straplines all work so hard to draw our attention away from that. But Big Tech’s cheery slogans reveal more than they mean to.

It’s late 2018. We’ve all reread our Hannah Arendt. We know organizations with totalizing worldviews love slogans that contain their own opposites. It’s all part of the wacky hall of disinformation mirrors we live in now, laughing knowingly at our own manipulation. So, sure, work will set you free. (And “never again” will we use corporate data-gathering to help states fatally abuse their power. Except we already are.) The world’s information can and should be “organized.” Go ahead and “broadcast yourself”; it’s not like we need reporters or actual facts. And just because its mission to “bring the world closer together” helps drive inequality and extremism, why panic at the chilling claim on Facebook’s office posters that “this journey is 1% finished”? …

Writers are the key to creating a frictionless future worth having

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The brainphone. Image credit: Elizabeth Mahoney.

My dog loves to play with his toy snake by repeatedly breaking its neck. He prefers traveling on the top of London buses so he can see what’s happening in the world, and he obsessively checks pee-mails and sex-messages from other dogs as we walk around the neighborhood.

His seriousness about all these deeply silly things makes me imagine how a superior intelligence might patronize pet humans, keeping us entertained in a captivity we were barely even aware of while chuckling at our antics.

There are three main ways we imagine encountering a truly novel intelligence: another known species in a different genus or kingdom (dolphin, octopus); alien intelligence; or native, sentient artificial intelligence. And while we worry and invent nightmares about killer machines, predatory aliens, and creatures turning on humans, we also dream of bridging the cosmic loneliness as the only entities we know of who can hold a proper conversation. “No one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved,” but in some of our imaginings, A.I. …

The worst thing we can do is collectively lose faith in our future

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Photo by Clinton Naik on Unsplash

I’m writing this on a train. Looking out the window, I reflexively scout for raised, defensible structures away from main roads. I’ve done this since I was 10, planning for when the time came. I thought a lot, then, about when the time came. I planned how, when the nuclear strike began, my parents, five siblings, and I would initially squeeze into the only room in the house two doors away from the outside, how long we’d last with a bathtub full of water to drink, and how soon we should strike out for somewhere safer.

Imagining the apocalypse is something agreeably drastic and cleansing to do with your fear. But it doesn’t survive contact with reality. When my school closed for a couple of days because of Chernobyl, we treated the potential wind-borne radiation as a snow day and spent much of it playing in the fields. …

It only takes 10% of your time to inspire change

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The year I turned 10, Ireland had two general elections. Every day after school, a bunch of us walked the town, leafleting and running errands for canvassers. We were fearless. We owned the place. Think Lyra Belacqua racing round an Oxford no adult even suspects exists. No one who’s been awarded the official freedom of a city has ever felt daily liberty as we did.

A few years later, canvassing with my mum in an outlying village, a door was opened by someone I’d last seen leading a cackle of girls who stood jeering as I lay on the schoolyard. I’d only fallen over—they were toughs, not bullies. But when those girls hadn’t returned to school the summer they turned 15, nobody wept. On the doorstep, we clocked each other instantly. I hesitated. She grinned. We peeled off for a chat, like we’d always been friends. Turns out her family were in the same political party as mine. …

Here’s how we defeat economic inequality and political alienation

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Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

French economist Thomas Piketty used a century’s worth of data to show two terrifying things:

  1. The return on capital is higher than overall economic growth, so the rich tend to get richer and society becomes increasingly unequal over time.
  2. Only one thing quickly and reliably reduces inequality: war (or its near-relative and frequent progenitor, revolution).

Can our finance-driven, globalized hypercapitalism be tamed enough to make it compatible with democracy? Maybe. If we don’t figure out how, we’ll lose our comfortable Western democracies and the already shaky international liberal order they both model and support. …

Lessons from history’s most intractable challenges

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There’s a point at which disasters compound and multiply, when the worse it gets, the worse it gets.

Motivations thicken. Events accelerate. The gunman’s shadow looms in the doorway as children hide uselessly under desks. The din of drones whining around the windowless apartment block kicks up half an octave and you look for a weight-bearing wall to get behind. Or you see in your male friend’s eye the metallic glint of predation and only now register that you’re alone with him.

You wonder at what point it was too late to avoid this and puzzle at how it will now always have been too late, and instead of planning your escape, your brain whirs madly at the question “How did it come to this?” …

We need to fix what we can and set fire to the rest — without a revolution.

What if we were to look right in the eye of the scary truth that even if most of us survive 2018, human civilization as we know it is about to squeeze through a decisive couple of decades and may not make it?

What if we looked our potential extinction right in the face and stopped jokily saying, “I hope I perish in the first wave,” and instead said, “This could really happen. This is the urgency that demands action, and here is what we are going to do.”

And what if instead of being shut down by that fear, we were opened up by joy? …


Maria Farrell

Irish writer based in London. Tech policy, possible futures, politics. @mariafarrell

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