On Technocracy and Revolutionary Anachronism

Tucked away deep in the heart of McGill University’s student ghetto near the corner of Milton and Aylmer in downtown Montreal, is The Word, a secondhand bookstore of semi-legendary local stature. Blackwell’s in Oxford may be more impressive in scale and scope, but it has all the backing of one of the world’s finest universities. Housman’s Radical Bookshop near King’s Cross Station in London may have a more dramatic history, but it’s more of a political collective than a true bookstore. Nicholas Hoare here in Canada may have been a slicker operation, but like so many other independent bookstores it wasn’t, in the end, sustainable in this era of Indigo, Amazon, and Kindle. Yet for the moment, through all the fireworks of creative destruction, The Word continues to stock a truly mind-boggling array of used classic texts from the various canons of world literature for very reasonable prices. It is a book lover’s bookstore, understated, antiquarian, fusty and traditional. You can’t even pay with a credit card.

I can think of no more intrinsically revolutionary place in the world.

We live in an age of simulation. Electronics and computers have, by this point, succeeded in insinuating themselves into every single aspect of our lives, thereby transforming them completely.  We don’t have to go to the library or the bookstore if we want to read a book. We can download it instantly from our desk. We don’t have to buy a record to hear music we love, or wait till a certain time of day to watch a TV show we’re engrossed in. We don’t have to go to bars or look through the classified ads of newspapers to find potential lovers. There’s a handy app for that. In fact, depending on your individual tastes, quirks and proclivities, there’s actually quite a few. Life can be, and for some people already is, conducted from bed.

And we celebrate it. The culture of convenience. The culture of comfort. Above all else, the culture of the new.

We fetishize technological advance to a degree that we’re unable to consider it rationally. We don’t stop to think about the implications of a new app, a new social network, a new website, a new gadget. We immediately assume that because it is newer, it must therefore be better. Like the adrenalin rush that seizes us when we finally get our hands on the latest Iphone, our overwhelming need for the fix clouds our rational senses. It’s the same kind of demented fixation that drug addicts experience when their minds zero in on their next hit. Nothing matters but acquisition. It wears off, sure. But there’s always another one coming along. This crazed compulsion to innovate, to rush headlong into the twenty-first century, doesn’t just seize individuals, it can seize whole institutions, even whole societies. It’s the impulse that drives an ancient school to throw out its meticulously collected library in two years, or a government to set fire to its paper records because everything is going digital now. The work and meticulous effort of centuries obliterated in minutes to satiate the ever-hungry idol of ‘progress.’

It’s the culture of waste, planned obsolescence and creative destruction that Aldous Huxley so presciently predicted in Brave New World. In his dystopia, where Henry Ford is worshipped as a prophet, waste isn’t just celebrated, it’s considered a quasi-religious duty. Children have forgotten the old sports that required nothing but a ball or a bat. They must play new, expensive games that demand mountains of disposable materiel each time they’re played. Even human aging has been outlawed. Artificially incubated humans are given sixty years of perpetual youth and pleasure, then die and are unceremoniously cremated for energy. Sex, drugs and unquestioning deference. Less brutal a world than Orwell’s, yet far more seductive and alluring. And in many ways closer to being realized today. A dead-souled world of pure pleasure, driven only by the technocratic will to control.

Our technocracy is head-quartered, for the most part, in Southern California. They don’t call themselves technocrats; they have much sexier buzzwords for themselves. But technocrat is the accurate term. Their discourse is private, and none of their decisions are regulated by any outside body. Some governments pretend to try, but 60-something bureaucrats are, and will forever be, hopelessly ill-equipped even to understand most of the companies and products they presume to ‘regulate.’ It is impossible to regulate something that you don’t even understand. And the technocrats of silicon-valley, fifty-somethings at the absolute outside, will always understand it better than the humanities-majors of the world’s governments. How could they? The language that these technologies are created with is fundamentally exclusive and elite. And it is so by design, not by accident. Hyper-specialized programming languages aside, it is impossible to read technical, or even non-technical documents from any of these firms unless one is a long-standing initiate in the Eleusinian mysteries of computer programming and web development.  Thus, they are a law unto themselves. And the fountains of money they earn allow them to smooth over any other inconvenient bumps along the road to ‘progress.’

Us, the ordinary users, are mere data clusters, to be harvested for what we provide that is profitable while using the service that lures us in. Like flies into a pitcher plant, we don’t realize what’s being taken from us as we lick up the honey. Why would we? It’s ever so delicious and convenient.

And the inescapable, undeniable fact of our modern digital existence is that when we’re hunched over our laptops surveying our screens, in humble obeisance at a billion little altars all around the world, everything we do is quantifiable, and as such, easily measured, analyzed, and even predicted. The all-seeing algorithms are still a lot slower than we are at the moment, prone to amusing mistakes, but they’re closing in.

The best way to be free of them? Walk away.

It’s still possible. Though it may not be forever. As a good general rule of thumb, assume that if you’re doing it on a device that can be connected to the internet, then it isn’t private. But thankfully, most of the rest of human technology allows you to be.

Want to be sure the NSA doesn’t know what you’ve been reading or thinking? Read a book. Or buy a physical newspaper.

Want to support a musician you like so that he or she doesn’t have to moonlight as a barista anymore? Turn off the streaming service and go buy their vinyl record. And a turntable. Records can’t be wiped out in a computer crash, and turntables will only ever need electricity to play them.

Want to have a private conversation with a friend? Arrange to meet them in person. It’s hard to spy on two people on a park bench without being noticed. It’s incredibly easy to spy on a Facebook chat. Or a Skype call.

See how the branding has started to infiltrate our very language? It’s not that long until everything is trademarked. The hashtag will be ready in advance long before anyone bothers to dream up the thought.

This isn’t to say that computers aren’t useful, and that they don’t have a place in our future. If I was advocating that it would make me a luddite; a word that gets thrown around a lot these days by idiots as a sort of generalized slur aimed at people who even vaguely question our technocratic utopian future. The Luddites were a group of nineteenth century English religious fanatics who smashed up factories in the early decades of the industrial revolution to take a stand against the machines that were driving them out of work. It’s easy to sneer at their backward provinciality. But then you remember that many of their children would lose their limbs, eyes or lives to machines in those factories at ages like six or seven, and if you have a spark of a human soul, you learn to at least use the word with a bit of sympathy. They weren’t wrong. They just lost.

We’ll probably lose too. Humanity’s techno-dystopia probably isn’t stoppable. But we can disengage from it as individuals when and where we can. It’s easy to be a revolutionary in the digital age. Just don’t throw out your books just yet, and read them from time to time. If you really want to, buy a typewriter. That was the German secret service’s response to the NSA hacking revelations. If something really needs to be secret these days, put it on paper.

And maybe put a sticker over your laptop’s webcam. You already would have by now if you knew how easy it is to hack.

3D Printing and who actually owns the Means of Production.

Karl Marx

It’s really quite surprising how little attention 3D printing gets from the media, given the true scale of the extent to which it is about to change your life.

Admittedly, the technology is in its infancy, and we will no doubt look back on these early efforts, like the Makerbot line or the Cube as clumsy, awkward things, like the supercomputers that once filled whole rooms, but it is reaching some important milestones. Milestones that, once crossed, can’t be uncrossed.

To start with, the price point of the machines themselves is reaching the point where it is not unthinkable for the average consumer to already have one in their home. Makerbot’s top of the line models go for a little over 2000 dollars. And 3D scanners capable of immediately scanning an object and rendering it infinitely reproducible are getting infinitely cheaper. Some go for around 445 pounds. Alas, I can’t find the link to the particular example I have in mind, but if you can help out in the comments with links, please do.

Plus the software will eventually be, if it isn’t already, as easy to operate as Itunes.

I should concede that I’m writing from a place of ignorance about the actual technological processes by which this is done. I’m a historian. I’m totally blinkered when it comes to understanding science. (I’d also really appreciate being told where I’m wrong in the comments, as any knowledge is helpful.)

But if I’m right, and I suspect I am, you’ll soon think no more of printing things in three dimensions than you now think of printing in two. Probably within the decade.

When this technology reaches the point where the devices are simply household appliances, all manner of things will become possible.

There remain drawbacks. Most printers, as far as I know, only create models in certain substances, such as PVC plastic, or vinyl. Some substances can be cleverly imitated, like wood, but it is not yet possible to 3D print in gold, say, or stone, or rare earth metals, or any of the things you’d need to print off truly sophisticated electronics.

But a future where you can is not that far away. As I’ll explain in a follow-up post about asteroid mining.

Staying on topic though, what seems most exciting to me about the potential of 3D printing is that ultimately it democratizes the means of production.

Karl Marx probably correctly pointed to the relationship between organized capital and the means of production, or the ability to make things to sell, use, what have you. Because manufacturing has historically been expensive, huge amounts of capital are required to do it. Meaning, in effect, that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.

But Marx may, at last, no longer be relevant.

If we’re entering a world in which most household items can be manufactured quickly and easily at home, then industry as we’ve known it is kind of dead. It will no longer require prohibitive amounts of capital to be an economic player. Brilliance, speed, and efficiency will matter more. Entrenched wealth will become increasingly difficult to maintain.

It still feels reasonable, at the moment, for people to continue to own and control the algorithms that allow people to reproduce their creations. But effectively, if you can download an IPhone, say, what do you really care if you’re downloading the official Apple product? People have proven themselves to be unscrupulous in this regard.

How do we deal with this? I have no idea. But I’m looking forward to seeing the ramifications of this technology unfold as they happen.

It looks like the future is finally arriving.

Why I disconnected from social media, and why I’m now back.

Last week, I disconnected from social media. Today is the day I was supposed to disconnect from e-mail. Next week, I was supposed to disconnect from the internet completely.

I reconnected last night.

I feel compelled to set out my reasons for having done this, as well as for going back on my public declaration last week. Partly I feel a need to justify myself, partly I feel a need to tell you some things you should probably be aware of that the experience has taught me.

I should begin by saying that I never felt the internet to be evil in any way. I consider it a tool. An immensely large and sophisticated tool, to be sure, and one that makes things possible that simply can’t be achieved without it, but a tool nonetheless. There to be used, or not, by people.

I made the decision to abstain for a number of reasons, some entirely personal, others academic. The personal issues I shall set down elsewhere, privately, as they’re really no one’s concern but mine. The academic ones I here briefly outline. And in the spirit of doing things academically, even though you can hardly call this an academic piece of writing, I can tell you that I disconnected because I was beginning to find Social Media degrading, dehumanizing, and exploitative. Because I disagreed with some of the fundamental premises at its heart. And I’m only back because I quite simply have no choice but to be so.

And neither do you.

I am a member of the last human generation with any knowledge of what life was like before the internet. Odds are, if you’re reading this, you too are one of the last humans who will ever remember what that was like.

When I was four years old, my parents, being good and insightful people, signed me up for a program called Future Kids. I don’t think it exists any longer, but I have happy memories of being sent for lessons on the huge, yet somehow friendly behemoths that we were being told how to use at the time. Remember that this is in the age of the floppy disk.

Thanks to Moore’s law, a great many of the things that those computers could do, and a great deal more they could never possibly have attempted, are now possible through the handheld devices most of us own. I mention this simply to illustrate that that shift has occurred in much less than one human lifetime.

We don’t think about what this means, for the simple reason that we can’t really comprehend it. Nothing like this has ever happened before. To anyone.

Seriously. There is no parallel for this in all of human history. And I’ve looked.

There is a useful distinction to be made, and I can’t seem to be able to search who initially made it, between cyberspace and ‘meatspace’. The former representing the internet, and the latter being a somewhat pejorative sounding word for the real world. For existence as it happens to you. For life as God gave it to us.

Our lives now occur in both places. We exist in both the physical realm, and in this new one we’ve created for ourselves. We have our lives in the real world, and we have the lives that we’ve projected onto webpages and websites around the world.

Our physical life happens to us whether we like it or not, but to maintain our existence in cyberspace, at least a portion of our day in the physical world has to be spent in obesiance to our machines. Heads bowed over mobile phones or laptops, we service the new versions of ourselves that we’ve created, not, I once thought, because we want to, but because on a very fundamental level we feel compelled to. And indeed, because we have very few choices left open to us if we don’t.

This is because ultimately the internet is nothing but an extension of space. We feel obliged to fill it because we are each unique beings that occupy space, and space needs to be filled.

You generate millions of lines of programmable data every day. We all do. And that data is unique. No one else’s is like yours. It is not possible for another person to have your exact web history.

By data, throughout this article, you should read you.

And you are being bought and sold.

Your data is used, bought, sold, resold, and then repackaged to you in exchange for money, probably thousands of times a second.

This struck me as fundamentally dehumanizing. Because it is. A lot of the assumptions embedded at the heart of privacy policies are more than a little degrading.

Take Facebook’s, for instance. And here, I cut and paste, because the following principle is at the heart of their entire approach to how they use your data. You can find this yourself unless they radically change their terms of service between now and the moment you read this, which I suspect they won’t.

“We always appreciate your feedback or other suggestions about Facebook, but you understand that we may use them without any obligation to compensate you for them (just as you have no obligation to offer them).”

By feedback or suggestions read data. Because the principle applies throughout everything they do. They are not obliged to compensate you for anything you give them voluntarily.

I find this a fundamentally unsettling principle to have embedded at the heart of what is, at the moment, one of the most important legal documents in the world. Up there with most written constitutions. If for no other reason than over one billion people have clicked a button saying they’ve read it. Most of the time, I suspect, they haven’t.

Similar principles are at the heart of many, but not all, terms of service and use. Of which there are a great deal. There are sites that treat your data with respect and consideration. Many, and I suspect most, though I have no way of knowing for sure, do not.

If you take anything away from this blog, if you’ve read this far, I want you to remember that you are being exploited. In a very real way. The people doing the exploiting are, for the most part, people you’ve never met, and many of them may be infinitely smarter than you.

We live in a capitalist, aggressively meritocratic world. In life, one either exploits or is exploited.

I can accept that this is a fact of life. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, nor does that mean that people should have the right to decide how it’s done privately. And by this I mean we no longer force six year-olds to push barrels of coal for pennies a day. Somebody stops that. Somebody made sure you didn’t have to do that. Because you have rights.

But in the cold, mechanistic, digital world we’ve created, you don’t yet have any rights. Not really. No one has specifically said that you do with any clarity. Indeed, the terms of service we blindly click through every day are going to be a large part of the precedent that lawyers are going to have to work with when these issues start coming up.

Lawyers work from precedent, but when it comes to the law, at this moment, to quote Aldous Huxley, history is bunk. There are simply no precedents for this kind of thing in the human past. People are just going to have to make it up as they go along.

It’ll be interesting to see what states do. As far as I’m concerned, the state exists for one purpose and one purpose only. And that is to guarantee its citizens rights, liberties, and responsibilities. If it doesn’t do that. If we delegate that power to the extent that we’re increasingly doing, there is really no reason for it to exist at all.

Some of the most exciting places in the world in these coming years are going to be legal faculties and courtrooms. People will wrestle with these problems in a wold in which everything that happens online, and everything that people are online, can be bought and sold.

Though I hesitate to quote the trailer for a video game, I’m afraid I will anyway. “You are no longer an individual. You are a data cluster on a vast global network.” A network that you had no hand in building, don’t really understand, but yet are expected to use daily.

Because if you really do want to know why I reconnected to social media, it was because I had no choice. It is simply not professionally possible. People will give you funny looks, and you will be fit for manual labor or academia.

I disconnected because I didn’t want to be ensnared in other people’s webs anymore. Because I wanted my freedom. My freedom from the Pavlovian compulsion to use a service that, apparently, I’m under no obligation to use.

I disconnected because I wanted to disengage from a process I didn’t yet fully understand. Because I wanted to stop feeding the machines that are busily churning away in Silicon Valley and countless other places around the word, driving the global economy. Reducing humanity to strings of code, there for computers to churn into dollars.

An academic I spoke to at the university of Toronto likened the project to something that might have come from the mind of Ted Kaczynski, more popularly known as the Unabomber. Naturally, I found this comparison rather unsettling and unflattering

I had preferred the analogy to Thoreau. I wanted to disconnect in the spirit of social and civil disobedience. I didn’t want to participate in a system I couldn’t fully understand or support. I wanted to be true to my own moral self

I’m reconnecting in large part because I have no choice. Because I can’t uninvent the internet. It isn’t going to go away. It is, in a very real sense, an extension of the world. An undiscovered continent. I can’t make it go away, or pretend it isn’t there. I can only do my part to make it better.

And I am more than the sum of my data. So are you. The truly amazing thing about the vast, global, dehumanizing network we all now inhabit, is that every single one of those data clusters remains unique. They have their own needs, their own desires, and their own rights.

We shouldn’t forget that. To paraphrase one of the best shows ever broadcast, we shouldn’t be distracted by what’s fashionable.