The Dark Underpinnings of Our Digital Technology
“When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” ― Cory Doctorow
For more and more of us, we are waking up to the fact that Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple might not have our best interest in mind(understatement of the century). The problem is that these companies have tremendous ability to shape the way that we think, the way that we filter the world, the way that we absorb culture.
In the digital universe, our personal history and its sense of narrative is succeeded by our social networking profile — a snapshot of the current moment. The information itself — our social graph of friends and likes — is a product being sold to market researchers in order to better predict and guide our futures. -Douglas Rushkoff
And it’s not just the size of these companies that we should be worried about. Journalist Franklin Foer and author of new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, worries that we’re all losing our minds as big tech companies infiltrate every aspect of our lives.
In an Interview on PBS Newshour with Economics correspondent Paul Solman, Franklin declares:
Their ambitions are to essentially control the entirety of human existence.
And I know that sounds outrageous, but it’s true. They’re trying to stay with us from the moment that we wake up in the morning until the moment that we go to bed at night. They want to become our personal assistants. They want to become the vehicles to deliver us news, entertainment, to track our health. They want to obey our every beck and call through Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
He hasn’t been the only one worried about this. Douglas Rushkoff and Cory Doctorow have been for years running around in circles, screaming and shouting.
“ We Facebook users have been building a treasure lode of big data that government and corporate researchers have been mining to predict and influence what we buy and for whom we vote. We have been handing over to them vast quantities of information about ourselves and our friends, loved ones and acquaintances.” -Douglas Rushkoff
In a Locus column, “Demon-Haunted World,” Cory Doctorow propose that the Internet of Cheating Things — gadgets that try to trick us into arranging our affairs to the benefit of corporate shareholders— is bringing us back to the Dark Ages, when alchemists believed that the universe rearranged itself to prevent them from knowing the divine secrets of its workings.
We are increasingly colonized by demon-haunted things controlled by nonhuman life-forms (corporations) that try to trick, coerce or scare us into acting against our own best interests. These devices go to great length to hide their workings from us, making them the ideal host organisms for opportunistic malware infections.
Alchemists — like all humans — are mediocre lab-technicians. Without peer reviewers around to point out the flaws in their experiments, alchemists compounded their human frailty with bad experimental design. As a result, an alchemist might find that the same experiment would produce a ‘‘different outcome’’ every time.
In reality, the experiments lacked sufficient controls. But again, in the absence of a peer reviewer, alchemists were doomed to think up their own explanations for this mysterious variability in the natural world, and doomed again to have the self-serving logic of hubris infect these explanations.
That’s how alchemists came to believe that the world was haunted, that God, or the Devil, didn’t want them to understand the world. That the world actually rearranged itself when they weren’t looking to hide its workings from them. Angels punished them for trying to fly to the Sun. Devils tricked them when they tried to know the glory of God — indeed, Marcelo Rinesi from The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies called modern computer science ‘‘applied demonology.’’
In the 21st century, we have come full circle. Non-human life forms — limited liability corporations — are infecting the underpinnings of our ‘‘smart’’ homes and cities with devices that obey a different physics depending on who is using them and what they believe to be true about their surroundings.
“This is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go,” -Jonathan Albright.
On how tech companies’ algorithms are divine secret and not impartial
All these algorithms are constructed by human beings to serve human purposes. They’re systems, and these systems are devised in order to create certain outcomes. And so the fact that they’re so invisible, I think actually enhances their power because most people have the dimmest awareness, if any awareness at all, that Facebook is being patterned to try to give them some information above others.
In an Interview on PBS Newshour with Paul Solman, Franklin express this:
FOER: And so I think we accept these platforms as being neutral. They pose as neutral even if you look at their looks. A search engine seems like it’s a mechanical thing, but it’s not a mechanical thing. It imposes the economic interests of these companies on the platform, and it imposes their values on the platform as well.
SHAPIRO: Part of the underlying challenge seems to be that all of these companies — Amazon, Google, Facebook — use algorithms to decide what to show us. And we don’t know what those algorithms are.
SHAPIRO: And if we don’t think about those algorithms, we can assume that this is some kind of impartial, objective analysis when really it’s not.
FOER: Right. All these algorithms are constructed by human beings to serve human purposes. They’re systems. And these systems are devised in order to create certain outcomes. And so the fact that they’re so invisible I think actually enhances their power because most people have the dimmest awareness, if any awareness at all, that Facebook is being patterned to try to give them some information above others. Right now Facebook is obsessed with promoting video because that’s where money is to be had. So right now Facebook is loading up your news feed in order to give you much more video.
Worst of all, the law puts its thumb on the scales in favor of nonhuman life-forms (corporations), and against humans. It might be a steady crawl to The Digital Age of Enlightenment.
In his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Foer compares the way we feel about technology now to the way people felt about pre-made foods, like TV dinners, when they were first invented.
And we thought that they were brilliant because they did away with pots and pans — we didn’t have to go to the store to go shopping every day — and then we woke up 50 years later and realize that these products had been basically engineered to make us fat. And I worry that the same thing is happening now to the things that we ingest through our mind.
How did our most idealistic dreams for technology turn into the dark underpinnings of present? Franklin Foer and Paul Solman explore this topic:
PAUL SOLMAN: In your book, you say this all began with hippies, basically, a hippy, Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog.
FRANKLIN FOER: Yes.
So, one of the fantastic things about Silicon Valley is that it’s both the birthplace of technology and it was one of the birthplaces of the counterculture. The Internet and the personal computer were going to be like the communes, where we would all be networked together, and we would be able to achieve this state of global consciousness.
PAUL SOLMAN: And it was utterly benign. It was a benign vision, right?
FRANKLIN FOER: It was a beautiful vision. And so, the idea of this network in one context could be this hippy dream, but in another context could be the basis for the biggest monopolies in human history.
PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s what we have got?
FRANKLIN FOER: That’s what we have got.
Even though these companies have tremendous ability to shape the way that we think, the way that we filter the world, the way that we absorb reality. We as the zen koan goes, are the ones that make the grass green.
Maybe its time to reflect again on the warning Rushkoff gives in his Introduction to Program or Be Programmed:
In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.
For while digital technologies are in many ways a natural outgrowth of what went before, they are also markedly different. Computers and networks are more than mere tools: They are like living things, themselves. Unlike a rake, a pen, or even a jackhammer, a digital technology is programmed. This means it comes with instructions not just for its use, but also for itself. And as such technologies come to characterize the future of the way we live and work, the people programming them take on an increasingly important role in shaping our world and how it works. After that, it’s the digital technologies themselves that will be shaping our world, both with and without our explicit cooperation.
That’s why this moment matters. We are creating a blueprint together — a design for our collective future. The possibilities for social, economic, practical, artistic, and even spiritual progress are tremendous. Just as words gave people the ability to pass on knowledge for what we now call civilization, networked activity could soon off er us access to shared thinking — an extension of consciousness still inconceivable to most of us today. The operating principles of commerce and culture — from supply and demand to command and control — could conceivably give way to an entirely more engaged, connected, and collaborative mode of participation.