The Future of the Internet: Everything, Everyone, Everywhere

Kaczynski typewriter

“amplified connectivity will influence nearly everything, nearly everyone, nearly everywhere.” (26)

“we can think of each person as a plug and each part of life as a socket…the transition will be relatively seamless and accompanied by little resistance” (26)

1. The Next Unabombers

A recent article appearing on the website of the UK newspaper The Telegraph was titled “As Technology Swamps Our Lives, the Next Unabombers Are Waiting for Their Moment”.  In a sense, to borrow a tech phrase, Ted Kaczynski may have been an “early adopter”; an early adopter, that is, of a violent methodology to resist all-encompassing totalitarian technological development.  Early adopters always pay an inflated cost but they also attract followers and help create trends.

Following Kaczynski’s arrest, it was alleged by some that he selected his targets from a zine titled Live Wild or Die or possibly from the Earth First! Journal.  Such suggestions are probably best understood as calculated attempts to link Kaczynski with such entities as a means of discrediting them; an attempt to blame the violence of one individual on a host of political enemies.  It’s guilt by association except that the association is completely contrived. In fact, Kaczynski deliberately sought isolation and didn’t have access to much more than a local public library—it’s beyond unlikely that he was attending zine fairs or relying on hand circulated photocopies from radical environmentalists as a means of identifying potential targets.  After all, targets can easily be found in mainstream news coverage  by anyone who is interested in looking.

2. “The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025”

For example, there is a new document that the “Next Unabombers” may be keen to read.  It’s not the pages of a radical zine.  It is a report that was just released last week on May 14 by the Pew Research Center focusing on the so-called Internet of Things.  It is a survey of experts, analysts, academics, journalists, trend trackers, futurists, and other self-styled gurus who offer their opinions and predictions on the future of the Internet of Things.  The title of the report—“The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025”—presents the opinions of those surveyed as being generally optimistic.

1,606 people responded to the following question (providing both a “yes” or “no” as well as an elaboration of their point of view):

The evolution of embedded devices and the Internet/Cloud of Things—As billions of devices, artifacts and accessories are networked, will the Internet of Things have widespread and beneficial effects on the everday lives of the public by 2025?

83% responded affirmatively.

And while more than 4 out of 5 indicated that they expect “widespread and benefiical effects” there is no shortage of warnings being sounded in the report…or, at least what sound like warnings to my ears (for it is sometimes difficult to ascertain if someone is horrified, ambivalent, or enthusiastic about their own predictions and it is all to easy to assume that something that sounds horrible to oneself was intended to sound that way).

Consider the following excerpts from the survey responses:

 “People will engage with information using all of their senses: touch and feel, sight, sound, smell, and taste” (7)

“Every part of our life will be quantifiable, and eternal, and we will answer to the community for our decisions” (8)

“There will be absolutely no privacy, not even in the jungle, away from civilization” (9)

“The effect will be widespread but pernicious…The Internet of Things will demand—and we will willingly give—our souls.” (10)

“the workplace plugged into the Internet of Things will be more productive and more prison-like” (10)

“A major global megatrend here is de-skilling—our children will learn less and achieve more” (19)

“Finally, my toothbrush will tell my dentist if it detects something that needs fixing.”  (19)

“The biggest effect will be government-sanctioned spyware in every aspect of our lives.”  (44)

“effects will be primarily to increase the level of control and monitoring of citizens to further de-skill jobs. It could be more dystopian than the Borg.” (50)

“The Internet of Things could be a major threat to society as we know it, and possibly, to our continued existence as a species on this planet” (50)

Many of these would not be out a place in a communique taking credit for some act of industrial sabotage.

3. Reading Past the Headline

How is the prevalence of such seemingly negative opinions consistent with the fact that over 80% of survey responders answered the overarching question about “widespread and beneficial effects” affirmatively?

At least a few survey responders provide an explanation themselves.

Stuart Chittenden: “My main concern is that the question asks about beneficial effects, which I can see with such devices, though the diminuation of the human experience, our uniqueness, and interaction with the world around us, may be at risk, too” (30)

The other difficulty with the question is that it is really two questions.

Internet law and policy expert Robert Cannon explains: “Will it have beneficial effects? Certainly. Will it be beneficial on balance when weighing the negatives—that’s another question.” (26)

The survey is worded in such a way as to guarantee a highly favorable headline with an overwhelming majority of experts successfully identifying possible “beneficial” effects; only the pathologically uncreative would be unable to imagine any benefit whatsoever.

Karl Fogel of Open Tech Strategies said: “we don’t need this, and most people aren’t asking for it. I’ve never been quite clear on where the demand is supposedly coming from.” Certainly Fogel realizes that sometimes demand simply needs to be manufactured.

4. Kaczynski’s Ideological Descendants

There are signs that the violent tactics employed by Ted Kaczynski may be catching on.  Groups in Mexico such as Individualists Tending Toward the Wild (ITS) and Obsidian Point have, perhaps even more recklessly than Kaczynski, adopted violent tactics to resist imposed technological development.  They have not needed to seek out targets in obscure places for targets are “nearly everywhere”. Triumphant news reports in mainstream publications announcing “breakthroughs” provide more than enough targets.

But it is important to read past the healdine to differentate friend from foe from bystander.  The apparent momentum of the technological juggernaut is not without weak links and self-doubt. There is no uniformity of opinion about a coming technological nirvana; even the so-called experts see the possibility of a future consisting of a technological boot stomping on a human face.  In fact, many of these experts are strategically positioned to best see the boot coming down, many of them are apparently ready to start sounding alarms.   They may not always be prepared to offer much in the way of tangible resistance but others clearly are—sometimes violently, sometimes recklessly.

The opinions expressed in the Pew report suggests that gleeful futurists like Ray “Live Long Enough to Live Forever” Kurzweill may be at least as far from the mainstream as Ted Kaczynski.  Perhaps Kurzweill and his ilk will be remembered as monsters while Kaczynski and his ideological descendants such as ITS and Obsidian Point will be remembered as astute, well-meaning, even if somewhat reckless.   History can be surprisingly willing to forgive excesses when they are excesses in pursuit of a more sane world.

Kaczynski

Note: All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in the original Pew report.

Advertisements

Of Mice and Monsters

A recent study published in Nature Methods found that laboratory-confined mice and rats experience significantly elevated stress levels in the presence of male animal experimenters.  The study was authored by Jeffrey S. Mogil the head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University and experiments were led by colleague Robert E. Sorge .  Mogil described the amount of stress experienced as “massive” and compared it to what the animals might feel when they are stuffed “in a very small tube so the mouse can’t move for 15 minutes”. In an article in Nature, he described it as “shockingly stressful”.

mouse tube restraint

It is yet one more unexpected variable that experimenters have failed to capture and that likely contributes to the overall lack of reliability of animal experiments.  The study itself concludes by saying:

“stress caused by male experimenters may represent a confound of much existing animal research, extending even to nonbehavioral studies in which tissues were obtained from live rodents euthanized by either male or female personnel.”

Mogil has said that it’s:

“More than just a curiosity, this stress response can throw a curveball into study results.”

The McGill University press release announcing the study’s findings stated that:

“Scientists inability to replicate research findings using mice and rats has contributed to mounting concern over the reliability of such studies”

and specifically with respect to this particular experiment stated that the

“reaction may skew research findings.”

Douglas Wahlsten of the University of Alberta was quoted as saying:

“It’s the kind of result a lot of people wish wouldn’t happen,”

Co-author of the study Robert Sorge summarized by saying:

“Our findings suggest that one major reason for lack of replication of animal studies is the gender of the experimenter”

These quotes are not from animal advocates or committed critics of animal experimentation but are from the experimenters themselves.  At the conclusion of the New York Times article on the study, Mogil suggests that male experimenters could potentially mitigate this factor by “sit[ting] in the room with the rodents for 30 to 60 minutes before conducting experiments.” But he says “no one is going to do that” and settles for suggesting that the gender of the experimenter be included in the Methods section of future publications.

What’s (not really) amazing is that the experimenters in this case don’t even seem to be pretending to take their efforts as seriously as their rhetoric would suggest.  If the fate of humanity hinges on animal experimentation, if countless human lives hang in the balance, then spending 30 to 60 minutes allowing an animal’s stress level to subside before performing an experiment would seem worthwhile if it increased the likelihood of reliable results.  But “no one is going to do that”.

As the name of Pain Genetics Laboratory suggests, Mogil and his colleagues are no strangers to inflicting pain on animals.  Indeed, it is their speciality.

In fact, Mogil’s laboratory has developed a so-called Mouse Grimace Scale so as to better quantify the degree of pain being inflicted on the animals in their laboratory (the Mouse Grimace Scale was of use for this recent study).  In developing the Mouse Grimace Scale, experimenters injected animals with acetic acid and filmed their reactions so that video footage of painful expressions could be studied frame and frame and then categorized.

Mogil explained that:Mouse_grimace_scale__95402a

“Grimaces were most pronounced for pain that lasted for a matter of minutes or hours, and for discomfort in joints and internal organs.”

Mogil has both been an active participant in painful experiments on animals and has argued for the continued use of animals in such experiments. In 2010, Mogil co-authored a review article in the journal Pain titled “The Necessity of Animal Models in Pain Research.This dual role of being an active experimenter as well as an advocate for continued experimentation makes Mogil a highly appropriate target for criticism by those who recognize the moral value of animal lives.

Finally, Mogil’s own experiments have provided more than adequate grounds for him to realize that inflicting pain on mice is wrong. In 2013 he gave a talk at the American Pain Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting with the title “Mice are People Too” in which he stressed that mice have social lives.  One can only conclude that Mogil’s sees them as the kind of people that one can breed, manipulate, experiment on, and kill.

—————————–

The website for Jeffrey Mogil’s Pain Genetics Laboratory is most helpful in providing the following contact information for both the laboratory itself and for Jeffrey Mogil specifically:

MogilDepartment of Psychology
McGill University
1205 Dr. Penfield Avenue, Rm. N7/42
Montreal, QC  H3A 1B1
Canada

jeffrey.mogil@mcgill.ca
Tel.  514.398.6085
Fax.  514.398.4896
Lab.  514.398.2742

Speaking for Animals…or Why You’re Not the Lorax

loraxRodents despise animal experimenters and would welcome targeted property destruction aimed at securing their own freedom; a significant number would purportedly even support physical violence directed at experimenters.  Rats lean toward escalating tactics while mice are generally more concerned that such actions may provide a pretext for increased government repression.

Giraffes condemn violence in all its forms and prefer we aim to raise awareness and gradually shift paradigms.  Elephants have yet to formulate a clear opinion regarding attacks on zoo trainers and circus ringmasters; they consistently (some may say tactfully) avoid the issue but are strongly suspected to tacitly support aggressive actions such the recent trampling to death of a hunter in Zimbabwe.

Cows are evenly divided on the question of welfare campaigns versus Francione-style abolitionist campaigns.  Chickens are overwhelmingly abolitionists and loathe single-issue campaigns. Turkeys are woefully pessimistic about the prospects for change and offer no suggestions on a realistic path forward for themselves or other animals.

  1. I Am the Lorax

The Lorax famosly “speaks for the trees” but he is also “in charge of the Brown Bar-ba-loots who played in the shade in their Bar-ba loot suits” not to mention the Swomee Swans and the Humming-fish.  The Lorax speaks for the trees “for the trees have no tongues” and while Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee Swans, and Humming-fish presumably do have tongues, they seemingly have no voice and are reliant on the “shortish”, “oldish”, “brownish”, and “mossy” figure of the Lorax to speak for them.

The less whimsical animals outside the confines of Dr. Seuss’ books also lack a voice (at least a readily understandable human voice) and are consequently in the unfortunate position of relying on others to speak for them. It should be remembered that the Lorax wasn’t all that successful in defending those in his charge—even the Truffula trees were all chopped down!

So often positioning ourselves as the “voice of the voiceless”, animal rights activists regularly plead that we must put our internal squabbles and ideological differences aside and simply do what “the animals” would want.  Campaigns and tactics may be justified by suggesting that they are what animals would want.

But to assume that one has special access to the minds of animals and knows with a great level of detail and certainty what they would want is—to put it mildly—a morally precarious position. It is akin to assuming the role of a (plastic) shaman purporting to occupy the space and serving as an intermediary between animals and human beings.  Of course, it is a charade.

Just as clergy may purport to have special access to the mind of God so as to elevate their status and secure their own power, there are those in the animal rights movement who (perhaps not explicitly) purport to have special access to the minds of animals thereby gaining unquestioning support.  It is often unclear as to whether those who claim to know the desires of animals are simply deceiving others or if they are deceiving themselves as well…but very little hinges on that particular detail.

  1. So What Then?

And yet, an animal liberation movement that is not “for animals” is absurd on its face. Consequently, there is no alternative but to attempt to discern the preferences of animals and to act accordingly; to put the interests of animals at the forefront (keeping in mind that “interests” and “preferences” are not interchangeable). But it’s important to recognize that no one has special access and that pleas of “for the animals” and “what the animals would want” are insufficient.

We can, of course, be reasonably certain that social animals won’t fare well in isolation and that no one cares to have their throat cut.  We know that animals have certain basic biological needs and that denying them represents a harm.  We know that cigarettes are dangerous and consequently forcing monkeys to smoke is wrong; forcibly addicting animals to dangerous drugs is wrong.

We don’t know if dolphins would have us circulate online petitions or if zebras would cringe at any of PETA’s billboards.

We can spend time with particular animals and learn about their preferences as individuals but even this clearly has its limits; your dog cannot stand in for all canines.  We can look to the scientific work done by individuals such as Marc Bekoff, Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall and others.  These things can inform our decisions about how to work on behalf of animals but no matter what, we cannot legitimately shift the responsibility for our decisions onto the backs of animals.