WIRED Advises We Submit to Tech’s Embrace

In two recent opinion pieces appearing in WIRED (March 10, 2014), the publication’s tech enthusiasts have seemingly taken on the tone of rape apologists or perhaps the tone of rapists and abusers themselves. The articles are titled: 

“Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It” 

“Tech That Tracks Your Every Move Can Be Convenient, Not Creepy” 

Kevin Kelly, author of the first article mentioned above as well as the book What Technology Wants, explains that “ubiquitous monitoring and surveillance will be the norm” and “there’s no stopping it”. There’s no stopping it so we might as well try to relax and enjoy it?

He assures the reader that “a massively surveilled world is not a world [he] would design” but also that “mass surveillance is coming either way.”  It’s coming either way, resisting would simply make things worse for us.

In a surprisingly honest assessment, Kelly explains that mass surveillance is inevitable because it “is the bias of digital technology”. This is a departure from the usual line offered by tech enthusiasts/apologists that technology is neutral and that its consequences—good or bad—hinge entirely on how people choose to use it. So for Kelly to explain that digital technology is biased toward mass surveillance and not really humor the idea that a free choice is being made therefore has the sound of an admission or confession.

Kelly argues that such mass surveillance would be preferable if it was reshaped into what he calls coveilance: a situation where everyone is watching everyone else as opposed to surveillance where one group monitors another.  Coveillance is mutual (but presumably not consensual) and consequently less onerous; it means we all keep each other in check.  Without trying to write satire, he defends coveillance by pointing out that “for eons humans have lived in tribes and clans where every act was open and visible and there were no secrets” and so consequently “there wouldn’t be a backlash against a circular world where we constantly spy on each other because we lived like this for a million years”. Mass surveillance is apparently just like band society!  And so if it’s done properly “it can feel comfortable.”

Moving on to Sean Madden’s article “Tech That Tracks Your Every Move Can Be Convenient, Not Creepy”.  Madden may indeed be less outwardly creepy than Kevin Kelly.  His article, on the surface, encourages tech designers to pay greater attention to consumer desires; there is less emphasis on the fact that we lack choices.  It’s a softer, savvier approach toward a similar end.

Madden rightly points out that in many contexts a high level of control can be perceived as creepy and thus alienating; the danger being that this might potentially cause consumers to withdraw.  In his example, current technology allows visitors to Disney World to share information so that costumed characters can greet children by name. But at least for the moment, this level of pseudo-familiarity may not be welcomed on city streets. What’s magical at Disney World is creepy elsewhere.

But Madden tips his hand when explaining that this is “just as much a design problem as it is an ethical one”.  I can’t help but read that as an attempt to reduce an ethical problem to a design problem; the technoculture consistently seeks technical answers to what are fundamentally not technical problems.

If this sounds like a less than charitable interpretation of Madden’s perspective, there is additional support for such an interpretation later in his article as he explains that “designers will have to make opt-in the norm, rather than opt-out. Designing to nudge patrons towards a behavior means demonstrating its value, not removing or stripping away alternatives.”

Designers therefore need to create an environment, set the mood, and cue the music in just the right way so as to “nudge patrons towards a [desired] behavior”.  The sophisticated Madden realizes that to get a “Yes” it is most important to give the impression that one is free to say “No” and that this is to be done “not just in words, but in visual elements, user experience, and more.”

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The Infrastructure of Totalitarianism

“People like [Anthony] Levandowski are gentrifying neighborhoods, flooding the market with noxious commodotities, and creating the infrastructure for an unimaginable totalitarianism.”
–The Counterforce [
1,2]

A group referring to themselves as The Counterforce has escalated tactics by staging a home demo at the Berkeley home of Google employee Anthony Levandowski and leafletting his neighborhood.  Initially the dispute that Counterforce has dramatically entered focused on two things: (1) private luxury buses operated by Google and other tech companies are making illegal use of public bus stops, effectively appropriating a public good; and (2) the gentrifying effect that the tech industry’s workforce has on the city of San Francisco.  Activists have been physically blocking Google buses at public bus stops as a means of registering their complaint.

While still pressing these grievances, Counterforce has added a third, more ambitious, objection.  It is Google’s vision of the future—exemplified in the work of Anthony Levandowski—and the company’s collaboration with the government’s military and surveillance efforts.  They have shifted from the micro to the macro.  The conversation is deliberately being shifted from whether to Google should pay a small fee for use of public infrastructure to their role in “creating the infrastructure for an unimaginable totalitarianism.”

Why Levandowski?

Critics of the Counterforce action have correctly pointed out that Google’s future prospects do not hinge in any real way on Levandowski.  He is a high level employee who has played the lead role in the company’s driverless car program but is certainly not critical in any sense.  He is not the CEO and even if he was the same criticism would apply: CEOs are no less disposable.

A fine grade division of labor and the notion of corporate personhood serves to dilute personal responsibility to its vanishing point.  In some sense, no one at Google is responsible for what Google does.  Activists are therefore confronted with a rigged shell game.  To pick someone out of the crowd may seem unfair and yet this particular crowd is a real danger.  Hannah Arendt explains that “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him…terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Consequently one might be tempted to ask: “Why Eichmann?”

Levandowski may have appeared on Counterforce’s radar due to a lengthy profile that appeared in The New Yorker last November detailing his efforts to bring Google’s driver-less car to market.  Indeed, the flyer Counterforce distributed in Levandowski’s neighborhood is prefaced with a quote from Levandowski that appears in The New Yorker article: “My fiancee is a dancer in her soul. I am a robot.”

The generally praiseworthy article describes Levandowski as “equal parts idealist and venture capitalist.  He wants to fix the world and make a fortune doing it”.  He is described as someone who “just has more faith in robots than most of us do” with a “gift for seeing through a machine’s eyes”

It is not likely that Levandowski was targeted because he is unique amongst his Google colleagues; on the contrary, he was likely targeted because he is emblematic.  Many of his colleagues will not be able to help but realize that they could have just as easily been selected and exposed and shamed.  For activists to pick somebody out of the crowd and detail their role, connect that particular set of dots, is effectively to indict every person in a similar role.

As an added incentive for selecting Levandowski is the fact that he has ambitions to build luxury condos and therefore contributes to the gentrification of San Francisco in a significant way.  This makes Counterforce’s choice relevant to all three grievances currently being fought over.

Furthermore, Levandowski has been financially rewarded for his contributions to realizing a fully-automated future; there is no reason why he should not also experience some negative social feedback from those who disapprove of his Google endorsed worldview.

Why Home Demos?

Home demos have been employed by activists committed to various causes including animal liberation as well as anti-abortion efforts.  They are disparaged by many but have often produced results.

A 2011 article in Society & Animals quotes an activist with experience participating in home demos who explains that not only is it an effective tactic but “it doesn’t take a lot of resources and it doesn’t take a lot of people”.   Reports are not entirely clear but the demo at Levandowski’s residence may have been carried out by as few as ten people and lasted less than an hour in duration yet it has already garnered media attention in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and a host of publications that specifically cover the tech industry.  Silicon Beat wrote that “[a]ll this controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time for tech” which is another way of saying it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Ironically, one of Levandowski’s neighbors complained about the demo saying that “homes are supposed to be a safe place.”  Ironic because part of the impetus for the demo was the gentrification of San Francisco caused by people like Levandowski which will result in many less financially well off individuals being displaced from the homes altogether.  In fact, for those without money, homes have never been such a safe space.  Failing to pay one’s rent or mortgage means that a person may be evicted as gunpoint if need be.  If the state finds one guilty of committing a crime, home is not a safe space, again a person will be dragged out.

It would be more accurate to say that those with money such as Levandowski are able to use private property—be it their homes or other property—to maintain a buffer between them and the consequences of their actions.  Activists staging home demos are working to breach that buffer and bring the harm of their actions to their neighborhood.

In the meanwhile, the future is already taking hold.  Levandowski says that to his three year old child, Adam, “everything’s a robot”.

From the flyer distributed by Counterforce in the neighborhood of Anthony Levandowski.

From the flyer distributed by Counterforce in the neighborhood of Anthony Levandowski.

An Anti-Tech Perspective on Edward Snowden

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We cannot develop and maintain the infrastructure that makes the surveillance state possible, combine it with a hierarchical political system, and then expect that those in power will restrain themselves from making use of these tools for less than noble purposes.   It is a naïve but pervasive notion that technologies are neutral (“Guns don’t kill people—people do.” “Surveillance technologies don’t snoop…”).

Furthermore, we cannot rely entirely on a steady stream of heroic disclosures such as those of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning in order to consistently rectify wrongs.  Manning has already been tortured and is now a character in a show trial. Snowden is intelligent enough to know that he will be pursued and may very well suffer a similar fate (“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end,”  Source)  And yet, will these self-sacrificing efforts suffice to bring down the surveillance state?  They may briefly pull back the curtain allowing those who take the time to look up from the screens on their phones to glimpse what is happening but then what?

Note that this is not intended to discount the importance of people like Manning and Snowden; rather, it’s simply to note that whistleblowers provide information at great cost to themselves in hopes that the public will then take action.  They cannot right wrongs single handedly.

The technology that makes global spying possible cannot exist alongside personal privacy.  The presence of policy, guidelines, laws, whistleblowers, and even Constitutional amendments does not change this fact.

The potentially uncomfortable aspect of this is that there is significant overlap between the technology that makes the surveillance state possible and the technology that makes the average Western consumer lifestyle possible.  The amount of overlap is almost certainly a matter of speculation given that the capabilities of the surveillance state are by their nature not clearly understood.  But it does not seem to be unreasonable conjecture to suggest that any society with technology sufficiently advanced to produce iPhones and Google Glasses will be a surveillance state.

Ross Douthat—paraphrasing security expert Bruce Schneier—wrote that “it isn’t that the Internet has been penetrated by the surveillance state; it’s that the Internet, in effect, is a surveillance state.”  But neither Douthat nor Schneier follow this important point to its logical conclusion.

Douthat suggests that likening our current surveillance state to totalitarian states of the 20th century is: “useful for teasing out how authoritarian regimes will try to harness the Internet’s surveillance capabilities, but America isn’t about to turn into East Germany with Facebook pages.”

Douthat’s concern about the surveillance state is decidedly mixed.  He acknowledges that “radicalism and protest will seem riskier, paranoia will be more reasonable, and conspiracy theories will proliferate.” But continues by saying that since “genuinely dangerous people will often be pre-empted or more swiftly caught, the privacy-for-security swap will seem like a reasonable trade-off to many Americans — especially when there is no obvious alternative short of disconnecting from the Internet entirely.”  He does not explicitly state whether or not he finds this to be a “reasonable trade-off”.

Schneier recognizes that these concerns cannot be addressed by the free market but suggests that instead “strong government will” is necessary (even while he knows it’s lacking) and he laments that “no one is agitating for better privacy laws.”  But a state that is willing to torture whistleblowers is unlikely to feel constrained by privacy laws.  As Edward Snowden has said of his co-workers at the NSA: “they do not defend due process – they defend decisive action. They say it is better to kick someone out of a plane than let these people have a day in court. It is an authoritarian mindset in general.”

The crux of what I am saying that is we cannot legislate our way out of this mess.  Passing policy cannot square circles and it cannot create a society that has both surveillance state technologies and personal privacy. The information provided by whistleblowers is incredibly valuable but if it only results in new guidelines and perhaps a congressional investigation then its importance has been squandered.  Literal dismantling is required and not simply symbolic tinkering.  So long as the technology exists, it will be employed for the ends that it is currently being employed.