Author Archives: Richard Slaughter

EXIT – A ‘Drift Toward Disaster’ Installation

An item entitled Drift Towards Disaster in a recent issue of the Weekend Australian Review deserves wider attention (Allen, 2017). What makes it different from so many other treatments of ‘growth,’ ‘the environment’ and ‘human impacts’ is that it refers to an installation from the Fondation Cartier in Paris currently at the Art Gallery of UNSW. An introductory video by Paul Virilio deals with recent population upheavals (said to be 36 million in 2008 alone). This is followed by ‘a curved diorama on which changing projections convey some idea of the reasons for these vast population displacements.’ Further sections cover environmental changes such as global warming and sea level rise. The whole installation brings together a vast amount of information in visual form and, in so doing, provides a way of coming to grips with, and powerful critique of, our collective addiction to endless growth and development.

It’s been clear for some time that prevailing cultural values actively defocus vital concerns regarding the primary earth economy. The latter are routinely displaced by a near-exclusive focus on detailed analysis of the secondary human economy. This occurs daily when, for example, we observe how often news broadcasts conclude with ‘sports’ coverage or ‘business and finance’ as if these were the last words on the day. This installation demonstrates yet again that we have the technology – but apparently not the courage or insight – to provide the public with high quality, up-to-date, vital information about the shifting conditions of the primary Earth Economy. Since we depend on the latter for our very existence it is surely more central to our collective wellbeing than the latest footy scores or stock and share updates. Relevant ‘big picture’ information is available in abundance, but its value widely overlooked.

The world of art and design apparently has greater degrees of freedom than our current broadcast media – which helps explain why this installation was conceived as an art project called ‘Exit’ by New York designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Yet arguably it also has other uses. As a credible worked example we should learn from it, improve on it and start looking for places where others can create and appreciate this type of work, the better to digest its many implications. A review of the installation by Patrick Hartigan acknowledged the value of Virilio’s introduction and the information contained in the display. He also drew attention to the preponderance of ‘disembodied facts’ and the need to question assumptions lying ‘beyond the data stream’ (Hartigan, 2017). These are fair criticisms that can help inform future iterations of this high tech art form.

A university gallery is a good place to start but the applications are obviously wider. The underlying idea can take various forms and serve many different constituencies. Hopefully, therefore, it will not be too long before carefully curated variants begin to spring up in schools, town halls, community centers, libraries and the like. Perhaps the occasional slimmed-down version will even make it onto the evening news!

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Allen, C. Drift towards disaster, The Weekend Australian Review 4-5th February 2017, pp. 10-11.

Hartigan, P. Reflective surfaces, The Saturday Paper, 18th February 2017.

*Web: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/exit-from-fondation-cartier-paris-drifting-towards-disaster/news-story/43c25e9593eb0e0857e0ba34d89e7c8e

Masters of Strategic Foresight (MSF) Wake – Melbourne 25th November 2016

In late November some 150 people turned up at the Kelvin Club in Melbourne for a private function to celebrate the success and mark the imminent closure of the MSF program at Swinburne University. The original program was set up in 1999 at the invitation of the then VC, Iain Wallace, as the Australian Foresight Institute (AFI). With Barry Jones as its patron and an experienced and capable board, it soon acquired a distinctive national and international profile. As is well known I was appointed as Foundation Professor of Foresight and ran the AFI until 2004. At that time a new VC was appointed who pursued a very different agenda which, for reasons best known to himself, included closing all the university’s institutes. The foresight program was then absorbed into the Business School. Peter Hayward took over the directorship and ran the re-named MSF for the next decade. The program will close in 2017 after 17 years.

During that time perhaps 200 ‘mid-career professionals’ have taken the program or, in some cases, taken units of particular interest from it. Listening to those who undertook the course one hears many variations on a consistent theme. That is, how it changed lives, allowed people to see the world and themselves differently and, in the end, to discern new personal, organisational and social options. So while the program had its ups and downs it will be remembered as an outstanding success, and one of which all those involved can be proud. And more have been involved than can be named here. They know who they are and thanks are due to each and every one of them.

It was fitting that Joseph Voros, who’d taught in the program longer than anyone, was the MC for the evening. His enduring penchant for formal wear received expression during the evening with many choosing to emulate his spotless dinner suit. A space was also made to remember some of the colleagues who were no longer with us: John Batros, Frank Fisher, Richard Neville, Jan Lee Martin and, of course, Adolph Hanich. Adolph was, in many ways, the genial ‘godfather’ of the AFI / MSF. He’d not only provided the original suggestion that led to its establishment but also enduring support and encouragement throughout.

Yet this was by no means a heavy or solemn occasion as evidenced by the many vibrant conversations taking place between people who’d shared both the frustrations and joyfulness of the course. Peter Hayward, also in formal attire, was in high demand to be thanked and pose for photographs with appreciative students and others. The Sass and Vibe Quartet performed in a cappella (unaccompanied) mode, to the delight of all. Finally a brilliant dash of humour was added to the mix with the Foresight Foursome. This was the brainchild of Bec Mijat who worked with artist John Corba to produce delightfully witty caricatures of Joe Voros, Peter Hayward, Rowena Morrow and myself. These ‘luminaries’ were re-named as The Voroscope, Captain Foresight, Madam Tomorrow and, for myself, Richard A. Sorcerer! Hopefully this initial group will be expanded over time.

Sass and Vibe provided a farewell musical wind-down and the after-party moved downstairs to the bar where conversations continued well into the night. Overall, it was a highly successful event that all who were there are unlikely to forget.

Further Information

AFI history and program: http://foresightinternational.com.au/archive/afi-history-and-program/

AFI foresight monographs: http://foresightinternational.com.au/archive/afi-foresight-monographs/

Remembering: http://richardslaughter.com.au/?page_id=1230

 

Rights of Nature Tribunal

22nd October, 2016, Banco Court, Brisbane

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature is described as ‘a worldwide movement’ seeking to create ‘human communities that respect and defend the rights of nature.’ A founding member of this alliance is the AELA or Australian Earth Laws Alliance. Both organisations have held Rights of Nature (RON) tribunals, the most recent of which took place in the smart, modern surroundings of the Banco courtroom in Brisbane’s civil law precinct. Some 150 people were in attendance for this serious, yet inspiring and well-organised event. The day opened with a dance and welcome to Yuggera country by the Nunakal Yuggera Dancers. After brief opening remarks by the forum chair, Dr Michelle Maloney, the first of four sessions got under way. The program was as follows:

  • Session 1: Mardoowara / Fitzroy River (Western Australia) VS Federal and State Governments;
  • Session 2: Forests of Australia VS Federal and State Governments;
  • Session 3: Great Artesian Basin VS Federal and State Governments and the Unconventional Gas Industry; and
  • Session 4: Great Barrier Reef and Atmospheric Commons VS Federal and State Governments and Fossil Fuel Industries.

The format consisted of opening statements by representatives of each natural constituency. These were followed by questions / comments from the panel, and expert testimony from a variety of people with close knowledge of each area. Foremost among these were people of the land whose laws and practices to protect and sustain it go back thousands of years. Supporting them were other workers in those areas, including scientists and legal representatives. Each case concluded with a summing up phase during which details of specific actions, policies and recommended changes to laws and regulations were put forward. This deliberately formal structure proved much more effective than the usual lecture or panel since it brought into play a whole series of overlapping accounts, each representing a different aspect of the area and the issues it faces.

Some of the key points that emerged are as follows.

  • Instead of using the broad-brush term ‘environment’ which is arguably too static, we could usefully refer to our ‘life-support system.’
  • Terms like ‘Gaia’, ‘Mother Earth,’ ‘nature spirits’ may be too amorphous to have sufficient impact. We could perhaps ascribe to certain natural features the status of ‘a living person.’ This would help us to recognise the living, systemic qualities of, for example, the Great Artesian Basin, the Great Barrier Reef and what remains of Australia’s ancient forests. There’s an ironic precedent here in that companies were provided with this very status by a US court many years ago, with predictably disastrous results. Yet, if it’s good for companies…
  • In the Bunya Mountains near Brisbane there’s an interpretive sign that explains how clearing the forest replaces biotic volume with mere area. During the second session a similar point was made – the older forests are far richer in terms of species requirements, services, niches for life, carbon uptake, resistance to fire and so on. Current embedded policies, however, are to progressively replace old forests with new ones that are essentially monocultures set out in rows (for easier harvesting). There’s thus a double loss of volume and rich diversity that city dwellers are unlikely to appreciate.
  • For native peoples their law is the only law that matters because it is based on caring for, and protection of, the land. Post-colonial laws have proven inadequate. They represent special interests and deal mainly with how the land and its resources are to be harvested, dug up or otherwise exploited.
  • Even though laws, regulations and legally binding agreements exist, they are routinely ignored by federal and state governments. (Hence the need for such forums.) In the case of forests, for example, existing laws provide triggers and referral options that are devolved to the states. But they are seldom applied or enforced because the latter have unresolved conflicts of interest between development and protection. De facto exemptions that circumvent attempts to protect natural features are also regularly provided to large-scale, commercial operators. This is another legal failing that can, in principle, be corrected.
  • The overall lack of interest in such matters by the Federal government is demonstrated by the fact that the Forestry Act currently in use dates back to 1959.

Toward the end of the third session one of the panel members identified what is possibly the central issue underlying much of the detail. The point was made that the multiple failures of law and administration noted throughout were ‘not accidental.’ They were and are direct consequences of a system that’s primarily evolved to serve the rich and powerful. The worldview, values and practices of the latter could not be more different to that of native peoples.

Post-colonial law is a law for the rich as defined by Western Colonial interests. It is founded on Judeo-Christian culture that embodies an injunction to ‘subdue’ the Earth and its creatures for human use. We now know that the utilitarian principles that emerged from this culture and permeate its worldview are utterly unsuitable for our present world, its natural features, the people who are alive today and their descendants. It follows that the laws, rules and practices of the world’s native peoples should be respected and given new legal standing. A combination of science, rights of nature law reform and the leadership of native peoples are needed to make this happen. In order for these changes to take place the explicit and sustained support of the wider general public is required.

Further Reading and Information

A Tribunal for Earth: Why it Matters by Cormac Cullinan (excerpt)

Imagine how different the world would be if courts decided on the legitimacy – or otherwise – of human conduct on the basis of whether or it was in the best interests of the whole community of life. Imagine if there were an international tribunal that concerned itself with the fundamental rights of all beings, including humans, and decided matters on the basis of what was best for the Earth community as a whole, regardless of politics; an Earth Tribunal of respected individuals that drew on the wisdom of humanity as whole, respected the laws of Nature and was not beholden to governments or corporations. The establishment of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature is intended to give effect to this dream.

This and many other items can be found on the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature Website: http://therightsofnature.org Also see the Australian Earth Laws Alliance: http://www.earthlaws.org.au

 

 

The Internet of Things – How Useful? How Dangerous?

By now you will have heard of some ‘next big things’ such as ‘augmented reality,’ ‘self-driving cars’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). Yet chances are that you won’t have heard about them from neighbours, friends, relatives or workmates since claims for their alleged benefits don’t usually come from them. Rather, they are one of many similar campaigns that reach us from elsewhere – that is, from a handful of the world’s most powerful organisations and their excitable associates. So we find ourselves being regularly ‘softened up’ and prepared for new unasked-for miracle services. As Morozov and others have pointed out ‘the Internet’ is a domain where numerous ‘solutions’ are offered for problems that currently do not exist – a phenomenon he calls ‘solutionism.’ So here, as in many other cases, there’s not much credible evidence of any real ‘demand’ for an IoT. But it’s coming anyway, and promoters seem to think that we should be grateful. Or should we?

It’s vital to acknowledge up-front that well-designed devices installed in a network with appropriate technical and safety standards would indeed have a variety of uses. There’d be a host of specialised applications in education, surgery, disaster management and so on. The elderly, disabled and sick could gain greater autonomy and enhanced capability to run their own lives. Such potentially positive uses may well be unlimited. But that’s not where we seem to be headed. The dangers and costs of the IoT as currently envisaged may well outweigh the possible benefits. To appreciate why we need to set aside the heavy-handed merchandising, dig a little deeper and start asking questions such as: who is promoting the IoT? Who stands to gain and who will lose? Can we be sure that it will protect privacy and enhance human wellbeing or will it further erode both? Answering the ‘who’ question is straightforward. The main drivers and beneficiaries of this particular ‘radically transformative innovation’ are the corporate tech giants from Silicon Valley and their like-minded associates. They share a peculiar worldview that’s arguably cost humanity dearly and yet continues virtually unchallenged. Central to it is an assumption that equates ‘progress’ with single-minded technical innovation and development. This view received powerful support during the Neo-Con ascendancy but it’s also grounded in long-standing cultural preoccupations. These, in turn, rest on category errors and inadequate views of culture, human identity and human autonomy.[1]

Inventing the future backwards

The high-tech sector simply cannot resist. Given that existing product categories are close to being saturated, these companies are driven to continually invent new ones. But the rest of us should take pause because what’s good for Internet oligarchs and high-tech giants falls a very long way short of what’s good for everyone else. Long before the IT revolution began informed observers such as C.S. Lewis, Ivan Illich, E.F. Schumacher and many others understood that the conquest of nature readily ends up on our own backs by diminishing our humanity as well. The entire high-tech sector has expanded rapidly over recent decades and, as a result, many of the organisations involved have become very rich indeed. Rich, that is in money terms; not rich in humanity, not rich in perceptiveness and not rich in the ability to sustain people or cultures. The consequences are showing up everywhere. Apart from continuing to make truly obscene amounts of money, the high-tech sector exhibits a dangerous and thus-far unquenchable obsession with ‘inventing the future backwards.’ That’s to say, it pours millions into speculative technical diversions of all kinds without a thought as to whether the outputs are more broadly necessary or helpful. There’s an abiding preoccupation with beating the immediate competition (other high-tech behemoths) regardless of other considerations. Many of their favourite innovations are often termed ‘disruptive.’ Which is true for pre-existing workers, social formations and professions, yet it also understates the case. Some innovations are contributing a vicious new twist to our current civilisational trajectory toward decline and collapse. To see why this is so we need to take a step back.

Remember the ‘information superhighway?’ I certainly do. It evoked images of openness, safety, productivity and social benefits spread far and wide. But what actually happened? Few will question that we acquired some new tools. These days information is available almost instantly.[2] Yet, at the same time, we’ve also acquired the Dark Net, Internet scams, widespread identity theft and of course, the looming threat of utterly unwinnable cyber wars. Let me be clear. None of this can be sheeted back to Internet pioneers and the good-hearted people who built these systems in the first place. They pretty much all believed that what they were doing was useful and constructive. The problem was, and remains that once these powerful new tools are released into wide use the aims, ambitions, values and so on of the pioneers count for little. Once the genie is out of the proverbial bottle it becomes anyone’s to command. That’s not just you and me. Pick your own list of global nasties and you can be sure that they’re working overtime at projects that, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really care to know about. At this very point the world shifts, and shifts again on its axis. You can feel it happening. New world-shaping forces are in play. Questionable motives have emerged and linked with inadequate values. The whole ensemble is nurtured within limited worldviews that privilege ‘having’ over ‘being’ and ‘me’ or ‘my organisation’ against any wider collective descriptor. That’s when mobile phones – iconic products of high-tech individual freedom – started becoming instruments of terrible carnage and wanton destruction.

Disjointed incrementalism

So, fundamentally, while the technologies may be complex, the central issues are straightforward. It’s naïve to imagine that new waves of high-tech innovation won’t result in similarly polarised consequences. It doesn’t really matter what the high-tech gurus and the Internet oligarchs like to claim at any particular time. It doesn’t matter how glossy the marketing, how many times their TED talks are viewed on YouTube or how enticing their promises appear. The very last people to trust about anything at all are precisely those who are using their ever-expanding toolkit for selling. The results are the same. Some stuff you pay for, some you seem – at first sight – to get for free. Either way, when your metadata and social media traces are sold off wholesale you remain the product. William Blake understood this skewed view of reality when he wrote that ‘reason alone leads to despair.’ How hard is it to come to a society-wide realisation that high-tech promises based on inadequate values cannot create heaven on Earth? This is one of many reasons why Dystopian imagery and themes in virtually all media won’t be going away any time soon.

Proponents of the IoT are trying to convince us that it’s useful right now to everyone. You can to set up your home to respond to your every need, whim and requirement. You don’t even need to be physically present since you can communicate remotely with your dedicated IT matrix. What could possibly go wrong? Well the honest answer is: just about everything. The greatest weakness and enduring flaw in the IoT is this: connecting devices together is one thing, but securing them is quite another. As one well-qualified observer put it ‘IoT devices are coming in with security flaws which were out-of-date ten years ago.’[3] Another acknowledges that ‘there’s a lot to be said for a properly networked world.’ He adds ‘what we’ve got at the moment, however, is something very different – the disjointed incrementalism of an entrepreneurial marketplace.’ He adds that:

There are thousands of insecure IoT products already out there. If our networked future is built on such dodgy foundations, current levels of chronic online insecurity will come to look like a golden age. The looming Dystopia can be avoided, but only by concerted action by governments, major companies and technical standards bodies.[4]

So, is your e-mail secure? Hardly. One slip, one accidental click on a nasty link and you’re toast. What makes you think that your wired-up electronic cocoon will be any different? Consider this:

Two years after it was revealed that a creepy Russian website was allowing users to watch more than 73,000 live streams from unsecure baby monitors, the UK’s data watchdog has warned that manufacturers still aren’t doing enough to keep their devices safe from hackers. Incidents involving parents stumbling upon pictures of their kids online … continue to occur, with images clearly being snaffled from Internet-enabled cameras that have been set up in people’s homes.[5]

In the absence of careful and effective system-wide redesign what remains of your privacy will disappear. You’ll be enmeshed in the classic unwinnable dialectic of an offensive / defensive arms race that will cost far more than the fee you thought you paid to enter the game in the first place. As things are, few will understand this with sufficient clarity. Hence many, many people will sign up for this compelling new, interconnected fantasy world with no idea of the precautions required.

Signals of change

For those paying attention, high-tech nightmares can be seen as useful reminders not to proceed too far too fast with powerful, seductively networked technologies. H.G. Wells attempted an early expression of this concern in his 1895 novel The Time Machine in the contrasts he drew between the effete and vulnerable Eloi and the savage Morlocks.[6] In 1909 E.M. Forster made an even more deliberate attempt to identify the likely effects of becoming over-dependent on technology in his novella The Machine Stops.[7] More than a century later it still carries a forceful message that is both credible and explicit. Then, in the early 1970s, J.G. Ballard began his decades-long explorations of ennui and decay in the ruins of high-tech environments – the abandoned high-rise, the empty swimming pool. One of the most evocative is a short story in his 1973 collection Vermillion Sands.[8] ‘The thousand dreams of stellavista’ portrays a house constructed to exquisitely mirror the needs of its inhabitants in real time. Unfortunately it turns out that a previous occupant was insane. Over time the house begins to exhibit similar symptoms – which places later owners in peril of their lives. This is obviously not merely a metaphor. Finally Dave Eggars’ prescient 2014 novel The Circle, brings the story up to date in a highly relevant and insightful critique of the digital utopianism that arguably characterises so much current thinking and practice. It’s a salutary tale in which human ideals become subordinated to the ever more powerful technical infrastructure. Such references are, of course, familiar to readers of SF. For others this is ‘only fiction’ and, as such, easily dismissed.

Futurists and foresight practitioners earn their living in part by paying careful attention to many things, including ‘signals of change.’ The art and science of ‘environmental scanning’ is, however, far more advanced in theory than it is in broad, commonly accepted, practice. In terms of social governance, this is a serious oversight. The absence of high quality foresight places entire societies at significantly greater risk than they need be. So, to conclude, here are a couple of recent ‘scanning hits’ on surveillance and the IoT.

Surveillance is central to the construction of consumers and markets. … Many contemporary markets … rely on the collection, analysis and application of consumer data to place advertising, define market segments and nudge consumer behaviours. Consumer surveillance is also an enactment of corporate power, attempting to align individual preferences with corporate goals.[9]

And again,

The Internet of Things is the household system, already well advanced, that will integrate all your domestic electrical goods into a single app-controlled matrix. Your fridge will order your groceries online, your fuse box will call a sparky, your coffee machine will buy more Vittoria. To do any of these things, your devices will have to tell those on the other end who you are, where you live and how you’re going to pay. It will be a two-way street. Internet of Things transactions linked to the same identifier are traceable, and ultimately make people also traceable, hence their privacy is threatened.[10]

The article from which these two quotes originated deals primarily with the increasingly widespread practice of customer surveillance in stores (and other points of sale) when people unwittingly accept offers such as ‘free Wi-Fi.’ In so doing they agree to ‘terms of use’ that they neither read, nor understand. This is clearly analogous to where entire societies now stand in relation to the IoT – the true ‘terms of use’ remain out of sight and unavailable to all but the most technically adept.

Conclusion: where from here?

During these dangerous and uncertain times much is at stake – not least of which is how to manage a world severely out of balance. We badly need more competent, imaginative and far-sighted leadership. We also need to develop society-wide resistance to the values and, indeed many of the products, of the tech giants. We need a thorough re-appraisal of multiple pathways to viable futures. Those of us who are living in still-affluent areas are being asked to go along for the ride, to distract ourselves, to still our growing fears for the future with this new generation of technological toys. But it’s time to push back and seek answers to questions such as the following:

  • Are we prepared to accept the current, deeply flawed, version of the IoT that promises so much but ticks so few essential boxes, especially in relation to privacy and security?
  • Are we really prepared to passively submit to a technical and economic order that can be so easily subverted that it grows more dangerous and Dystopian with each passing year?
  • To what extent can we re-focus time, resources and attention on solutions? For example developing the personal and cultural resources that, over time, nourish legitimate and collective aspirations for a more human and humanised world?[11]

As the system begins to misbehave, to be hacked, to be militarised, to break down and stop working just when it needed to work perfectly; at that point domestic users will start backing out and returning to old-style analogue solutions. Although far simpler and less flexible, they will gain new appeal since they lack the ability to turn peoples’ lives into a living nightmare. Some will opt wholesale for a simpler life. Early adopters of the IoT are, however, not restricted to householders. They also include businesses, government agencies and public utilities. Given the overall lack of effective social foresight, as well as the parlous state of government oversight in general, IoT implementation will proceed unabated. Security breaches on an unprecedented scale will take place, disruptions to essential services will occur and privacy for many will all-but vanish.[12] The costs will be so great as to constitute a series of ‘social learning experiences’ par excellence. At that point serious efforts to raise standards and secure the IoT will become unavoidable.

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I want to thank my son, Rohan Slaughter for some of the sources used here and also for his valuable comments on an earlier draft of this piece. Also my wife Laurie for proof reading. Mistakes and omissions are, however, entirely my own.

Notes

[1] Best expressed, perhaps, by Lewis Mumford in The Pentagon of Power, Secker & Warburg, London, 1971. In a brief Foreword he declares that ‘I have taken life itself to be the primary phenomenon, and creativity, rather than the ‘conquest of nature,’ as the ultimate criterion of man’s biological and cultural success.’ He would, of course, be unemployable in Silicon Valley.

[2] Knowledge can obviously be developed from it but we are surely lagging in wisdom – the scarcest resource of all.

[3] Palmer, D. The first big Internet of Things security breach is just around the corner, ZDNet, 1st July 2016. http://www.zdnet.com/article/the-first-big-internet-of-things-security-breach-is-just-around-the-corner/ Retrieved 4th July 2016.

[4] Naughton, J. The internet needs better-made things, Observer 10th July, 2016.

[5] Mendelsohn, T. Baby monitor hackers still rocking cradles across the UK, data watchdog warns. http://arstechnica.co.uk/tech-policy/2016/07/baby-monitor-hackers-ico-warning/ Retrieved 19th July 2016

[6] Wells, H.G. The Time Machine, Heinemann, London, 1895.

[7] Forster, E.M. The Machine Stops, Oxford and Cambridge Review, 1909.

[8] Ballard, J.G. The thousand dreams of stellavista, in Vermillion Sands, Cape, London, 1973.

[9] Ball, K. St Andrews University School of Management. Quoted in Masterson, A. Feel like you’re being watched? Sun-Herald, 26th June, 2016, p. 23 & 26.

[10] Attributed to a ‘Deakin University, Melbourne and Raboud University team, 2016. Quoted in Masterson, A. op cit, note 9, above.

[11] I’ve attempted to set out part of the answer in a number of publications. One of most recent is ‘Integral futures and the search for clarity,’ World Future Review, Vol. 7, 2-3, 2015, pp. 239-252. Also see Solnit, R. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/15/rebecca-solnit-hope-in-the-dark-new-essay-embrace-unknown Retrieved 17th July 2016

[12] Palmer, D. op cit.

 

The IT Revolution Reassessed: Part Three

Interrogating net delusions

The works that have been considered thus far have each tackled aspects of the IT revolution in fairly straightforward ways. They amount to what I am going to call a ‘first wave’ of critique in that they deal with fairly obvious topics and employ quite straightforward thinking and analysis. Few or none have related IT and its many extensions to other existing frameworks of knowledge and meaning making in any depth. Nor have they accessed wider and deeper narratives that bring into focus the wider threats to our over-extended and over-heated civilisation outlined above. Morozov is a relatively new voice in the conversation and qualifies as perhaps the beginning of a ‘second wave’ contribution. His two books The Net Delusion (Morozov, 2011) and To Save Everything Click Here (Morozov, 2013) set new critical standards, break new ground and bring into play an impressive range of cultural and linguistic resources. In this brief overview we concentrate on the second and most recent of these. It goes without saying that there’s a great deal more in the original works that repay careful attention.

What immediately sets Morozov apart from most other observers is that, rather than pick off this or that particular target, he ‘interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cybertheorists.’ Thus, according to a Guardian review he finds that ‘often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields’ (Poole, 2013). Morozov is critical not only of the means employed by the Internet oligarchs and Silicon Valley but also of their ends. The premise of To Save Everything… is that:

Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude, and perfection – and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity and imperfection – will be prohibitively expensive in the long run. (Moreover) this high cost remains hidden from public view and will remain so as long as we, in our mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden, fail to radically question our infatuation with a set of technologies that are often lumped together under the deceptive label of “the internet.”’

‘Radical questioning’ is the method employed and the author has a formidable grasp of what it takes to do so methodically and authoritatively. It’s not helpful to reproduce his arguments in detail as they need to be read in the original. But I suggest that it’s useful to summarise some of the language and specific conceptualisations employed as these are powerfully enabling resources in their own right.

The main themes of Morozov’s work address a number of long neglected topics including:

  • Questioning the means and the ends (or purposes) of Silicon Valley’s quest.
  • Rejecting what he calls ‘Internet centricism’ along with the ‘modern day Talorism’ that it promotes.
  • Opposing the rise of pervasive ‘information reductionism’ in many areas of life, culture, economic activity and so on.
  • Questioning the fact that many apparently innovative procedures that are being promoted provide pseudo ‘solutions’ to problems that may not exist.
  • Questioning the tendency of IT to reduce the viability of many socially grounded functions and activities – for example, making entire professions and types of work (both repetitive and creative) redundant.
  • Asserting the value of some of the human and social capacities that are undermined by IT. These include ambivalence, the capacity to make mistakes, the need for deliberative spaces and so on.

Morozov supports Taylor in reminding us that the dynamic that has shaped and is continuing to drive the Internet’s rapid growth and over-reach derives from the never-ending search for profit rather than any concern for human rights. In this view such rights are everywhere being extinguished by profit. The underlying dynamic appears in many different guises. It shows up in the supposed ‘neutrality’ of algorithms that, while ubiquitous, are hidden and inaccessible so far as most people and organisations are concerned. It also shows up in the vastly expanding realm of ‘apps,’ many of which have hidden costs in terms of privacy, dependency and the promotion of questionable notions such as that of the ‘quantifiable self.’ (That is, a ‘self’ that can be tracked, measured, located, directed and ‘enhanced’ in real time.) Also involved here is a ‘quantification fetish’ – the idea that more data is always better, always ‘objective’. This is not a new problem but it is taking on quite new dimensions now.

What this amounts to is a vast collective set of pressures on how people understand their world and how they operate within it. Already there’s a costly ‘narrowing of vision’ and the a decline in the ‘narrative imagination.’ Morozov quotes Clay Johnson that ‘much as a poor diet gives us a variety of diseases, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance’ (p. 282). Having done so he also critiques this view for portraying citizens as being too passive and hence unable to ‘dabble in complex matters of media reform and government policy’ (p. 284). Instead Morozov prefers Lippmann’s formulation of ‘multiple publics.’ These are seen as being ‘fluid, dynamic, and potentially fragile entities that don’t just discover issues of concern out ‘in nature’ but negotiate how such issues are to be defined and articulated; issues create publics as much as publics create issues’ (p. 287).

Morozov’s work confirms what some have suspected for some time – namely that that the apparent ‘success’ of Silicon Valley, its entrepreneurs and, of course, the Internet oligarchs, has arisen out of a deeply flawed – and we can now say with confidence, highly dangerous – foundation. That ‘success’ for example depends on:

  • Profoundly inadequate understandings of human identity and life;
  • Thin and unhelpful notions of how private and public realms arise, exist and remain viable;
  • Equally thin and unhelpful views of core concepts such as ‘communication’ and ‘progress.’
  • An overwhelming tendency to elevate ‘technology’ to a far higher ontological status than it deserves or can support.
  • A profound ignorance of how the drivers of this process are heading down pathways that have already proved dangerous and diminishing of the human enterprise.

One of the ‘strands’ of this multi-themed critique is the tendency of Internet promoters to forget that the kind of ‘theory-free’ approaches to knowledge and action that they’ve unconsciously adopted has a long and chequered history. It also reflects the tendency so powerfully inscribed in American culture of setting theory and reflection aside in favour of action and innovation. This is certainly one of the most credible drivers of the ‘GFC’ meltdown. The fact is that many of those driving the ‘Internet explosion’ appear to be ‘venerating a God of their own creation and living in denial’ of that fact (p. 357).

What Morozov seeks supports some of the suggestions put forward by observers such as Taylor and Glenny but also goes a good way beyond them. He seeks a broad-based oppositional movement that calls into question both the methods and the purposes of Silicon Valley. Part of this is the conscious design and use of products that he calls ‘transformational.’ That is, products that, instead of hiding and obscuring relationships, dependencies, costs and the like, reveal them as a condition of use. An example would be an electronic device that provides tangible feedback about the sources, types and costs of the energy being used. Some of these examples are reminiscent of Tony Fry’s attempts to counter what he calls ‘de-futuring’ by re-directing the evolution of the design professions (Fry, 2009). Such ‘post-Internet’ initiatives will encourage people to ‘trace how these technologies are produced, what voices and ideologies are silenced in their production and dissemination, and how the marketing literature surrounding these technologies taps into the zeitgeist to make them look inevitable’ (p. 356).

A further characteristic of this approach, it is suggested, is that ‘it deflates the shallow and historically illiterate accounts that dominate so much of our technology debate and opens them to much more varied, rich and historically important experiences’ (p. 357). Finally, Morozov is at pains to remind us that ‘technology is not the enemy,’ rather, ‘our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who lives within’ (p. 358). This neatly turns the discussion back onto the broader underlying question of the constitution of human needs, wants etc. This ‘take away’ message is strikingly similar to that set out by others who have reflected on the character of our present and the diminished futures it implies. We are walking en masse into a world that is being created (or, more accurately, undermined) by remote individuals and organisations that have, by and large, lost any authentic connection with, or concern for, our shared humanity and the world that sustains us.

Conclusion

Substituting profit for rights is not smart. Chewing up natural capital and transforming it into abstract and unstable human currencies is not much better since it can only continue for a limited time. Failing to acknowledge the need to integrate history and foresight in credible and useful ways is, in fact, quite stupid. Much as Lewis Mumford saw several decades ago, a set of technical arrangements is being assembled that inscribes ever more deeply a worldview and set of values that exacerbates our existential and historical situation. Far from preparing to change course and support humanity’s fledgling efforts to strike out in constructive and sustaining new directions, we are being sold illusion over reality, convenience over truth, toys and trifles over compassion, instant gratification over far-sighted vision.

In order to protect the wellsprings of life, culture and meaning we need to get serious about limiting the power and reach of Silicon Valley and the Internet oligarchs. We need strategies that allow us to free the ubiquitous algorithm from their grasp and, in so doing, gather collective courage to re-design ‘the Internet’ and re-frame its multiple uses. It needs to be ‘liberated’ for more respectful and constructive uses. This is quite obviously not a case of rejecting ‘technology’ wholesale but of locating it within a broader frame of understanding and value. The latter will include ‘the market’ but not be dominated by its current reductive and out-dated framework. These are all topics that cannot be pursued further here. But they do, however, bring to mind worlds in which these very concerns figure large.

One of the best of these alternative worlds concerns the culture of the Kesh, richly evoked by Ursula le Guin in Always Coming Home (le Guin, 1986). Here the uses of high technology are certainly acknowledged but they are also known to be dangerous. The solution adopted by the Kesh is that they are partitioned off into specific locations where they can be used as needed but their influence is kept in check. Rather than pursue technical power wherever its owners and inherent tendencies may lead, the Kesh decided to bring ritual and meaning into the heart of their culture. We would do well to remember examples of this kind and to draw inspiration from them. Although embodied in fiction they carry vital messages to our own time and culture. The question is – are we listening?

Note

This concludes the three-part feature on the IT revolution as originally envisaged. The following post will, however consider a closely related topic: the so-called ‘Internet of things.’

References

Glenny, M. (2009), McMafia, Vintage, London.

Glenny, M. (2011), Dark Market, Bodley Head, London.

Le Guin, U. (1986), Always Coming Home, Gollancz, London.

Morozov, E. (2011), The Net Delusion, Penguin, London.

Morozov, E. (2013), To Save Everything Click Here, Penguin, London.

Mumford, L (1971), The Pentagon of Power, Secker & Warburg, London.

Poole, S. (2013) Review of To Save Everything Click Here, Guardian, 20th March.

Taylor, A. (2014), The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate, London.

The IT Revolution Reassessed – Part Two

Part two of this series summarises suggestions for ‘reform and renewal’ offered by Astra Taylor, a New York based writer, filmmaker and activist. It’s a ‘middle-of-the-road’ approach that’s well worth taking seriously (and augmenting with other accounts). We then draw on Misha Glenny’s analysis of the ‘dark market’ to show how the Internet has created vast new opportunities for criminal activity at every level. 

Reform and renewal

Taylor’s The People’s Platform (Taylor, 2014) is a true breath of fresh air in a difficult and often demanding debate – one that you could argue is often obscured by the overwhelming self-interest of some of the most powerful entities in the world. With the subtitle ‘taking back power and culture in the digital age’ the reader knows at the outset that this will not be another banal enumeration of the purported ‘wonders of IT.’ For her, the mantra of ‘open markets’ is far from an unalloyed ‘good’ because ‘the more open people’s lives are, the more easily they can be tracked and exploited by private interests’ (P. 23). At the outset I welcomed the author’s clear acknowledgement of the way conventional discourse about IT is framed. It ‘tends to make technology too central, granting agency to tools while sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded’ (p. 6). She adds ‘first and foremost, we need to rethink how power operates in the post-broadcast era’ and ‘technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it’ (p. 9 & 10). The issues could not be put more plainly than that. The language and intent here also echo those of the STS discourse mentioned above. Grounded approaches of this kind are essential for ‘clearing the fog’ and making sense of what is happening around us.

Later she points out how, far from promoting competition, monopolies prosper online bringing about a new kind of ‘vertical integration’ and power over people. A major contradiction, in her view is that ‘the more customised and user friendly our computers and mobile devices are, the more connected we are to an extensive and opaque circuit of machines that coordinate and keep tabs on our activities’ (p. 32). There are, of course, many other aspects of this informed and detailed critique. One of the most striking conclusions is simply that the future currently being fashioned, far from being innovative and ‘new,’ is in fact deeply conservative, even regressive. That is, it ‘perpetuates and expands upon the defects of the earlier system instead of forging a new path’ (p. 34). This is particularly the case with advertising. During earlier times it was little more than a kind of visual adjunct to shopping that simply drew attention to what was for sale. A century or so later it has become a vastly inflated, turbo-charged public nuisance – a true curse on civilisation. It not only embodies crass and indefensible conceptions of human existence (‘shop ‘til you drop’) but also imposes incalculable costs on individuals, societies and cultures in part through misdirecting them wholesale and undermining useful (i.e. less self-focused) values. It constructs a glitzy screen of lies and enticements that distract and disorient entire populations to the point where perceiving even the basics of the human and civilisational predicament are pushed ever further out of reach.

As suggested above new technologies don’t emerge in a cultural vacuum without social, political and economic influences. It follows that, ‘if we want to see the fruits of technological innovation widely shared, it will require conscious effort and political struggle’ p. 54). What is also refreshing here is that the author is under no illusion that the main beneficiaries of IT innovations have indeed been American corporations. Given the worldview that these share it is obvious that something needs to give. For example, it becomes increasingly vital to contest the power of what Taylor calls ‘the overlords of monopoly journalism’ and the ways that they’ve become ‘disconnected from the communities they were supposed to serve’ p. 78).

A great deal has been written and said about the rise and rise of ‘social networks’. But few examine the ways that they quietly ‘shuffle hierarchies’ and produce ‘new mechanisms of exclusion’ (p. 108). Such media, it turns out, are by no means immune to what has been called the ‘iron law of oligarchy.’ Thus ‘the web is not actually unstructured, despite the fact that it is open. (It) has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture’ (p. 121). Thus ‘the topology of our cultural landscape has long been twisted by an ever-shrinking number of corporations’ (p. 129). She adds that ‘powerful hierarchies have come to define the medium.’ Moreover ‘online spaces are … contrived with specific outcomes in mind: they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want a return on investment, and advertisers who want to sell us things’ (p. 139). The smoothness and ease of use of the technology belies an appalling ‘structural greed’ such that ‘the cultural commons have become little more than a radically discounted shopping mall (p. 166).

Some of the solutions – or at least necessities for creating positive change – that emerge from Taylor’s well-founded critique include the following.

  • The need for new social protocols that include ‘ethical guidelines for engagement and exchange, restrictions on privatising and freeloading, fair compensation and the fostering of an ethos of stewardship.
  • An explicit recognition of the need to acknowledge the people and resources of all kinds upon which IT systems rest. These include, rare minerals, mines, data centres, toxic waste, low paid factory workers and the growing mountains of e-waste that turn up in poor countries.
  • A serious attempt to define just how IT systems could be re-designed to better serve the public and also ensure that they are sustainable.
  • A strategy to withdraw from the current practice of commodifying and monetising the attention of IT users and expropriating their personal information for profit. That is ending ‘a new form of discrimination … led by companies you can’t see, using data you didn’t give them permission to access, dictating what you are exposed to and on what terms’ (p. 191).
  • Defining and enacting new national policies to rein in the worst excesses of the IT industry and, at the same time, protect people and cultural spaces where creativity, art and innovation occur for non-instrumental purposes.
  • Reducing the colossal amount of resources expended on advertising (over US$700 billion a year in the US alone) which is ‘something that has virtually no social value and that most people despise.’

As a way of bringing these ideas together, Taylor proposes a ‘manifesto for a sustainable culture’; one in which ‘ new and old media are not separate provinces but part of a hybrid cultural ecosystem that includes the tradition and digital composites of the two’ (p. 215). In her view such a culture will possibly include the following features.

  • It will balance a preoccupation with ‘nowness’ with encouragements to think long term. As such it will include building archives ‘to allow people to explore their cultural heritage for years to come.’
  • It will ‘harness new communications tools to shift the conversation from ‘free’ culture to ‘fair’ culture.
  • It will re-draw the boundaries for subsidies that currently go to the powerful and make them more widely available for genuine useful civic purposes.
  • Current Internet oligarchs will give way to new civic organisations such as a ‘digital public library.’ The former would, at the same time, be required to pay their fair share of tax.
  • Service providers and popular IT platforms will be regulated as public utilities. As part of this new ‘firewalls’ would be created to separate those entities that create information from those that transport In other words, the ‘vertical integration’ of the oligarchs would be reduced and eliminated over time.
  • Similarly, meaningful government oversight of digital media will be re-established.
  • New investment in non-commercial enterprises will be evaluated and encouraged.
  • Overall, art, culture and commerce will be freed from being monetised, commodified and relentlessly exploited.

These are clearly the kinds of suggestions that will in some places generate familiar accusations of ‘Socialism’ and the like. Yet without taking such proposals seriously it is difficult to imagine how the present invasive, wasteful and destructive trajectory of global civilisation can be turned around.

The dark side

Thus far we’ve considered sources dealing with some of the social and commercial uses or misuses of advanced IT. But there’s an even darker and yet more challenging side to this story – the military and criminal uses of IT that have emerged over the last couple of decades. The questions they pose are of the utmost significance to humanity and its possible futures but, again, too few appear currently willing or able to grapple with the issues, let alone provide satisfying answers. Given the secrecy and obscurity that characterises the area, reliable sources are few and far between. An exception is Misha Glenny’s 2009 book McMafia (Glenny, 2009) which provides a detailed overview of organised crime around the world. In that book he made the point very clearly that the Internet had been a boon for criminals since it made their activities easier and that of governments and other civil authorities much harder. This is because the Internet provides an ever-growing number of ways to hide, launder money and pursue a vast range of criminal activities in ways that are difficult to detect or deter.

Fortunately Glenny did not stop there but spent the next two years researching and writing a book on cybercrime called Dark Market (Glenny, 2011). Here he concentrates on the emergence of individuals and groups who were all-too-ready to capitalise on the new opportunities to steal from unsuspecting organisations and individuals. For example he describes how the emergence of ‘carding’ began when hackers discovered how to access personal information and use it to withdraw funds from unsuspecting banks. This rapidly morphed into the development and online sale of card skimming devices, the duplication of credit cards and so on. An online presence called CarderPlanet facilitated this underground trade for some time by operating out of the ‘Dark Net’ of hidden sites that require special software for access. Nowadays its successors facilitate a vast range of illegal transactions that appear to cover the entire gamut of criminal activity around the world. Glenny follows some of the individuals who developed and pursued this parasitic underground trade and found that many of them came from Ukraine and other parts of the Russian Federation. But, of course, it did not stop there.

As all Internet uses know to their cost the rise of spam quickly began to infest email communications. It was spewed out in vast quantities that required very few hits to make the exercise worthwhile. The Nigerian 419 up-front or money transfer scam was one of many that began to separate the naïve and vulnerable from their hard-earned cash. This, unfortunately, is a game that continues to grow and for which there are no simple or easy solutions. The rise of ‘phishing’ and the exploitation of human weaknesses continue to degrade the web and take it ever further away from the idealism expressed by many of its early promoters. It is also the case that certain well-meaning groups (sometimes referred to as ‘white hat hackers’) trawl the Internet continuously to detect ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that support such illegal activities. But, as Glenny notes, it is an unequal struggle since ‘there are tens of thousands of active cyber criminals out in the ether, and only a tiny fraction of them are every likely to get caught’ (p. 151). At the same time, nasty as these criminal operations undoubtedly are, they are still relatively minor when compared to the growing use of the Internet for industrial espionage and military-style action. Often cited here is the well-known case of the Stuxnet virus that was specifically designed to destroy centrifuges used by Iran for uranium enrichment. The virus is widely thought to have been a collaborative project carried out by the USA and Israel. The immediate end of disrupting the enrichment process for a period of time was apparently achieved. But informed observers also point out that this dangerous piece of military software has many other uses and potentially unlimited targets. Here the two-edged sword aspect of new technology is once again clearly revealed. What was originally touted as a ‘solution’ to a particular ‘problem’ becomes a vastly magnified ‘problem’ (if that is the appropriate word) in its own right with consequences that are, to a considerable degree, unknowable.

Glenny’s book was written out of a concern that ‘in humanity’s relentless drive for convenience and economic growth, we have developed a dangerous level of dependency on networked systems in a very short space of time’ (p. 1). Yet none of the above appears to be deterring the corporates and Internet oligarchs from pressing onward and promoting new digital capabilities – including what is now being called the ‘Internet of Things’. In essence, this is a vision of a world in which everything from cars to refrigerators is interconnected in a vast world wide web. This is supposed to achieve new levels of convenience and control. But two things should be noted. First, no one I know is actually asking to be drawn into this ever-tighter embrace with an ever-expanding range of technological devices. The push factors from business and commerce are vastly more powerful and dominant than any detectable pull factors. Second, the risks from criminality and cyber warfare are already well known. So the question arises why would anyone choose to go further along this already compromised path?

At the end of his book Glenny refrains from suggesting solutions because, frankly, he does not see many emerging. He notes, for example, that the resources being poured into ‘cyber security’ are, by and large, being invested in technology. Here is another reflection of the structural bias outlined above. By contrast, ‘there is virtually no investment in trying to ascertain who is hacking and why.’ He adds that ‘nobody differentiates between the hackers from Wikileaks, from the American or Chinese military, from criminal syndicates and from the simply curious’ (p.268). It’s important, in his view to develop a much more detailed and sophisticated understanding of the hackers themselves. A thumbnail sketch suggests that most of them are male, bright (often in possession of advanced degrees), socially withdrawn and have had problems with family, especially parents. These attributes bring to mind those attributed by Joel Bakan and others to the corporation itself some years ago. That work concluded that the behaviour of some corporations could legitimately be considered psychotic (Bakan, 2003).

Glenny’s works provide a valuable source of knowledge and understanding about the widespread criminality of our times and also the extent to which it is supported and facilitated by IT in general and the Internet in particular. These are positive gains. But he is relatively silent on the larger problem that we face. It is an issue that I described in The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, namely the fact that, as currently constituted, our global civilisation is heading directly into what the model builders have ‘overshoot and collapse’ territory (Slaughter, 2010; Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2013). It is past due that our instrumentally powerful, but myopic and over-extended species wakes up to the metaphorical ‘cracks’ or systemic defects in the world it has created and also to the vastly diminished futures that lie in store for our descendants. So in part three of this review I will turn to an author who, I suggest, has seen more deeply and clearly into the IT revolution than anyone else – Evgeny Morozov.

References

Bakan, J. (2003), The Corporation, Random House, London. http://www.joelbakan.com/thecorporationbook.htm

Ehrlich, P. & A. (2013), Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biol Sciences, 280, 20122845, 9 January.http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1754/20122845.full.pdf

Glenny, M. (2009), McMafia, Vintage, London.

Glenny, M. (2011), Dark Market, Bodley Head, London.

Slaughter, R. (2010) The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Foresight International, Brisbane. http://richardslaughter.com.au/?page_id=232

Taylor, A. (2014), The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate, London.

The IT Revolution Reassessed – Part One

Mass surveillance is fundamental threat to human rights says European report (Harding, 2015).

Millions stolen as hackers hit banks (Yadron & Glazer, 2015).

Spyware and smartphones: how abusive men track their partners (Williams, 2015).

Introduction

This short essay began as a series of reviews for the UK journal Futures. By the time I’d finished, however, it was too long for a reviews section and too uneven to qualify as an essay. So I’ve decided to publish a re-worked version here in three parts. The first takes the view that there’s more to ‘technology’ than a focus on mere ‘stuff.’ Equally, technical innovations are being actively ‘pushed’ and marketed to us, with little evidence of any ‘pull’ or real demand factors. It then considers two books that, for very different reasons, failed to impress: Big Data, and Who Owns the Future? These act as a prologue to sections two and three that explore more interesting and productive territory.

Headlines such as those given above suggest that all is not well in the exploding digital realm. In fact the idealistic hopes of early pioneers and freedom loving ‘netizens’ have largely dissipated along with anodyne visions such as the majestic ‘information superhighway.’ In place of these over-optimistic projections there’s a growing sense of uncertainty and even of disillusion. The reasons are not hard to find – but then neither are they particularly obvious. The digital realm is not easily grasped or understood. For most people it is a powerful but obscure realm – a kind of ‘nowhere’ or ‘shadow place’ – that lies somewhere beyond direct human sense or control. Yet those with privileged access appear to have almost unlimited influence both for good and ill. Unknown, intangible entities can reach out and destroy centrifuges in a distant country, disrupt civil infrastructure, threaten a Hollywood studio with bankruptcy and empty anyone’s bank account apparently at will. Women have been harmed by ex-partners who’ve tracked their movements, their conversations, via smart phones. And this leaves aside a host of phishing attempts, scams, identity theft and other on-line abuses.

From an everyday point of view the complex of technical arrangements called ‘the Internet’ now seems to offer both dangers and opportunities in equal measure. So what responses can or should be undertaken? Quite obviously there is huge and growing literature. So any such overview can only sample this vast, complex and evolving area of concern. Yet that’s surely better than not making the attempt at all since it’s clear that society has become enmeshed in a challenging situation that requires focused attention and a range of carefully crafted responses.

Technology – not merely ‘stuff’

One place to begin is with a key insight that emerged several decades ago from an STS (Science, Technology & Society) perspective – namely that is that it’s not helpful to think, speak or write about ‘technology’ as it were merely comprised of physical objects. It is, of course, the material existence of a technology that presents itself to our most obvious and external senses. But taken alone such a view reifies what ‘technology’ actually is – the product of long-term social, cultural and economic processes. Hence, many of the most significant characteristics of any particular technology are effectively invisible – both to the naked eye and the unprepared mind. They are not found by examining the ‘things’ that stand before us but by teasing out the patterns inherent in the causative relationships that brought them into being and maintain them over time. Thus to say anything of value about ‘the IT revolution’ or ‘the Internet’ suggests that we consider particular items, or suites of technology, in relation the wider contexts that produced them. That’s where the fun begins because as soon as you look ‘beneath the surface’ of social reality you find powerfully contested dynamics just about everywhere.

It’s no accident that the dozen or so powerful IT-based mega-corporations, whose economic power and reach exceeds that of many nations, all sprang from a very specific cultural milieu now known as Silicon Valley. As such they are emergent from a particular worldview and express the values contained within it. It’s here that a critique of technology can begin. It soon becomes clear that the present forms of neoliberal techno-capitalism embody certain inherent features that need to be acknowledged. They are essential to its operation despite being widely obscured, denied or minimised by promoters and beneficiaries. Nevertheless, such characteristics actively shape and condition everything that’s designed, marketed and sold. These hidden ‘drivers’ include the need to ‘free’ markets from effective oversight and government regulation, the pursuit of growth as an unquestioned goal, viewing the natural world as merely an set of resources for human use, promoting diminished views of human beings (as mere consumers or unthinking pawns) and, finally, the concentration of wealth into the hands of ever fewer individuals and groups. This constellation of values and beliefs helps to sustain an economic system fraught with danger and dysfunction that makes less sense with each passing year (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2013; Klein, 2014).

The crucial thing to note is that this particular worldview flourished over the very years when it became crystal clear that humanity needed to strike out in a completely different direction. We know this because the evidence is finally in that the present system is on a no-win collision course with humanity and, indeed, the planet itself (Higgs, 2014). It’s no longer possible to deny that the direction we should be collectively pursuing is one that moves decisively away from the diminished rationality of ‘the market’ and its impossible addiction to endless growth as defined during the industrial period. This is not to deny that genuinely innovative, useful and worthwhile uses of IT have emerged. Rather, the view here is that the ‘IT revolution’ has to a large extent been undermined and misdirected by corporatist ideology such that, instead of leading to a ‘better world’ it further inscribes our collective slide toward civilisational collapse and the Dystopian futures they imply (Floyd & Slaughter, 2014).

‘Push’ (not ‘pull’) with ambiguous results

Two other aspects of technical change need to be briefly mentioned. One is that new technologies are, on the whole, seldom sought by anyone representing the general public. Rather, ‘demand’ is created and imposed by these powerful organisations through pervasive and relentless marketing along with their sheer financial and economic power. One is reminded here of the aphorism credited to Donella Meadows who suggested that ‘you don’t have to spend millions of dollars advertising something unless its worth is in doubt.’ Few stand back to question the fact that corporate interests assume that they know what’s best for everyone. They are, for example, currently working to persuade us that an ‘Internet of things’ is a ‘really good idea.’ Yet, in the conditions outlined above, any new technology, or suite of them, cannot but be fundamentally ambiguous. So while they are introduced with positive – even showy – fanfares and the repeated enumeration of benefits there are always hidden dangers and unexpected costs. The latter tend to appear, however, through the social experience of using and applying the new means over time. Most parents of teenage children know very well what this means, as do the ‘lonely hearts’ who look for love on the Internet and end up losing their reputation, their savings or even their life. The Achilles Heel of the ‘internet of things’ is simply that it’s one thing to connect millions of devices together but another entirely to secure them.

In a sane and genuinely open world all new technologies would be subjected to rigorous questioning and testing before they were widely applied. Indeed, that was a central purpose of the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that, in its brief lifetime, was established to advise Congress on exactly these matters (Blair, 2013). Nowadays the all-powerful ‘private sector’ in the US has comprehensively seen off this kind of initiative. Yet this has not occurred without cost. We can imagine, for example, what might have occurred if, instead of repealing the Glass-Steagal Act (to abolish the separation of high street backing and high-risk speculative gaming) the US government had put in place a high-powered group to investigate the implications of high-risk speculative credit-default swops and the like. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) would certainly have been less serious or possibly averted altogether. But no such attempt was made. Warnings were ignored and taxpayers around the world ended up footing an outrageously expensive bill. While other attempts to institutionalise technology assessment have occurred in a few places, such arrangements unfortunately still remain uncommon (Schlove, 2010).

The upshot is that societies continue to be reinvented wholesale as waves of change (including those generated by new technologies) continue to impact upon them. The right questions about what this means and what needs to be done are neither being asked widely enough nor taken seriously by decision makers at any level. Consequently the resulting distortions and dangers of this ever more risky trajectory remain opaque and poorly appreciated by most people. The following review of recent sources in this and the following sections addresses the IT revolution considers how some thoughtful people have responded to these issues.

Big data, small vision

Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier’s book Big Data (Mayer-Schonberger & Cukier, 2013), is sub-titled ‘A revolution that will transform have we live, work and think.’ But the irony – to say nothing of the threat – in this escapes them entirely. The bulk of the book is devoted to arguing how ‘big data’ provides new insights into many otherwise elusive phenomena and in so doing creating new sources of value. The authors demolish some fantasies (for example that the emergence of IT can be equated with the ‘end of theory’) but concentrate on positive uses of big data. These include the ability to predict the emergence of epidemics and the prevention of aircraft breakdowns due to real time engine monitoring. But they consistently fail to separate what they consider to be ‘good for business’ from what may or may not be good for everyone else. Hence, the underlying theme, perhaps, can be summarised as ‘jump aboard or be left behind.’

While some limited acknowledgements are given of ways that previous long-standing occupations and professions have been undermined, the wider social and economic costs are overlooked. There’s a brief section on risks and strategies to minimise them. Yet no attention whatsoever is given to evaluating the culture and worldview from which these changes spring. Nor is there any attempt to consider or evaluate their future implications. Rather these powerful background factors are taken as given and hence remain invisible throughout. As such the book demonstrates a familiar preoccupation with how ‘technology’ will help us to ‘create the future’ along with a strong sense of blinkered optimism.

Missed opportunity?

Lanier’s Who Owns The Future? (Lanier, 2012), is a very different matter. It is a sometimes brilliant, often idiosyncratic but finally a disappointing work, which I currently regard as a missed opportunity. As a long time inhabitant of Silicon Valley Lanier was involved in some the early stages of the IT revolution. Yet over time he became uncomfortable with the growing power of a few powerful actors and growing social inequality. He coined the resonant term ‘siren servers’ to draw attention to a humiliating new reality. That is, the process whereby everyone using the new systems is forced to yield personal information of inherent value in a one-way flow to those who own and operate them. So far; so good.

His solution, in part, was to establish what he calls the principle of ‘provenance.’ That is, to monetise flows of micro-value that would enable individuals to share in the new wealth. Yet this notion is put forward without carefully examining some serious drawbacks – such as the perverse incentives (e.g. ‘badging’, ‘nudging’ and ‘gamification’ – see Morozov 2013, in part three) that are already evident in this fast moving domain. Then, while there’s a good deal of knowledge and passion driving the book, the pro-technology bias vitiates what might have been a more penetrating analysis. The author’s close association with Silicon Valley is clearly evident, as is his inability to tease out some of the ideological ramifications. Such oversights made the book less helpful than it might otherwise have been and I had to put it aside several times. This was less due to inherent difficulty than to the fact that it was so idiosyncratic – brilliant one page, obscure the next. In the end, I was unable to finish it. It didn’t help that I was reading it as an eBook on a tablet. Despite considerable effort I found it impossible to sustain a ‘conversation’ with a book that I could not touch, inscribe or question as I went. Thus one of the costs of eBooks is the distance they create between the reader and the work. So this might be an item to re-visit in future by way of a hard copy edition!

Note

Part two of this series looks at ‘reform and renewal’ and ‘the dark side’ (criminal uses of the Internet) and will appear in a couple of week’s time. Part three is called ‘interrogating net delusions.’ It focuses on Yvgeny Morozov and his masterly work To Save Everything Click here. Comments via email are welcome.

References

Blair, P, D. (2013), Congress’s Own Think Tank: Learning from the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995), New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ehrlich, P. & A. (2013), Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biol Sciences, 280, 20122845, 9 January.

http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1754/20122845.full.pdf

Floyd, J. & Slaughter, R. Eds’, (2014) Descent Pathways, Guest Editorial, Foresight, 16, 6, pp. 485-495. http://foresightinternational.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/FloydSlaughter-Descent-Pathways-editorial-Final_011014.pdf

Harding, L. (2015), Mass surveillance is fundamental threat to human rights, says European report, Guardian, 27th January.

Higgs, K. (2014), Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA.

Lanier, J. (2012), Who Owns the Future? Simon & Schuster, New York.

Mayer-Schonberger, V. & Cukier, K. (2013), Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, John Murray, London.

Morozov, E. (2013), To Save Everything Click Here, Penguin, London.

Sclove, R. (2010), Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model Washington, DC: Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Williams, R. (2015), Spyware and smartphones: how abusive men track their partners, Guardian, 26th January.

Yadron, D. & Glazer, E. (2015), Millions stolen as hackers hit banks, The Australian, 17th February.