Author Archives: Richard Slaughter

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. https://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.

 

 

The Poisoned Chalice – Another Casino for Brisbane

When the state government under Campbell Newman announced that there would be a ‘competition’ to select a design for a new casino it neglected to enquire if the people of Brisbane actually wanted one – especially on a prime riverside site in the heart of the CBD. Then, when a ‘winner’ emerged, the community was faced with a ‘done deal.’ Since then the in-coming Labor regime has been preoccupied with the need to create a working government with a new and inexperienced team. A slick multi-media campaign on behalf of the successful bidder ensued and mainstream commercial interests predictably gave their enthusiastic support. According to the current Lord Mayor, Brisbane is on track to become a new ‘world city’ and growth is very much regarded as a ‘good thing.’ Apart from some muted dissenting voices little more has been heard about the proposed new casino and its associated mega-resort. So it’s worth taking a closer look.

What strikes one immediately is that the project is not about Brisbane’s present, its future nor indeed those of its citizens. The primary drivers are corporate interests in Australia and overseas driven by all-too-familiar motives. The Chinese partners, for example, are not involved because they care about the city but because Chinese capital desperately needs to flee the mainland turbulence (including a crackdown on corruption) for safer overseas havens. Brisbane and Sydney are basically two prime sites of convenience where ‘colonisation by capital’ can occur through over-scale projects that include new and enlarged casinos. In a standard past-to-future view the business-related advantages of these locations are obvious. But since the promoters can’t afford to reveal their real motives they disseminate compelling fantasies. Thus far, it must be said, local authorities seem to have swallowed the bait. There have been no organised protests and few or no expression of outrage. Brisbane needs to wake up and take stock of what is being planned while there’s still time to do so.

What casino operators crave – but which is forever out of their reach – is an impression of respectability. Since the normal operation of any casino is little more than disguised theft and single-minded exploitation of human weakness, they try to claim a range of purported social and economic benefits. Chief among these is the promise of jobs – which, of course, is music to the ears of governments and mainstream economists. Yet few appear to be asking questions such as: what kind of jobs, how valuable or secure are they and how appropriate will this kind of infrastructure be in Queensland over time? Equally, what are the opportunity costs of low-level service employment at this particular time and what other options are being overlooked? This is where casino operators never tread and also where they are vulnerable.

Much effort has also gone into portraying this huge and disfiguring development as in some way ‘desirable.’ An expensively produced video depicting a mock fly-over of the completed project made it onto the Channel Nine News. Six pages of the Courier Mail’s weekend magazine were devoted to similarly idealised ‘artist’s impressions.’ Not quite everyone, however, was persuaded. In October 2015 Journalist Katherine Noonan wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece in the same local tabloid drawing attention to the way that Paul Keating had somewhat ruthlessly ‘stared down the developers’ in Sydney a while back and asked ‘Where’s our bastard?’ A ‘visionary bastard’ able to pose the hard questions would not come from the local state government which was ‘terrified of the business community calling them ‘anti-growth.’ Noonan nailed the core of what she called ‘mystifying nonsense’ as demonstrated by the proposed architecture itself: ‘oversized shiny buildings with potted palms on top, infinity pools and indoor atriums are a dime a dozen. Check out the artist’s impression of the development of Brisbane. Looks like something I saw in Hong Kong 10 years ago.’ She added, ‘every casino looks the same. Sky decks are so 2005. You visit cities, stay in these resorts and are bored by them, hungry for a bit of history, soul, grit, texture, authenticity.’

Since the developer’s aims obviously don’t encompass any of these qualities a narrative littered with positives simply cannot ring true. The new casino is not seen as an outrageous and costly deception; rather it is portrayed as a social and economic asset. It will not only benefit the locals but also attract large numbers of Chinese tourists to the area. (The fact that they are already flooding in being conveniently ignored.) Then there are the ‘high rollers’ – wealthy punters whose activities have become increasingly constrained in Macao courtesy of the Chinese government. Perhaps they will come to Brisbane and, then again, perhaps not. What can be stated with confidence, however, is that regardless of what the operators of casinos may wish us to believe they all have a dark secret – the enduring bond between casinos and organised crime.

When people bet and lose they may well become disenchanted so one can appreciate that a certain proportion will try to avoid paying up. That’s unfortunate for the casinos because in order to maintain their façade they must try to avoid dirtying their hands in public. Which is where criminals who specialise in stand-over tactics and other forms of illegal persuasion and money laundering come in. An ABC Four Corners program in 2014 called High Rollers, High Risk explored this issue in relation to Australia and concluded that while Australia is not Macao there are serious unresolved issues about regulation and crime. A more recent documentary aired on the ABC in 2015 called Ka-Ching: Pokie Nation looked at the social impacts of problem gambling at the lower end of the scale. Suffice it to say here that they are sufficiently serious for a well-known legal firm in Australia to begin work on an initiative to ban poker machines. Or, at the very least, to de-legitimise the various ways that they cajole and deceive those who can least afford them. The social costs of gambling are well understood and are known to have pervasive effects throughout society.

The unavoidable truth about casinos is that they are social ‘black holes.’ They sustain forms of ‘rough trading’ that drain health, wealth and well being from any individual or society foolish enough to tolerate them. But there is one further issue that has thus far received remarkably little attention. It emerges from the fact that casino-type developments arise from a worldview whose systemic errors and oversights have become ever more obvious. They include the notion that the earth is merely a set of resources for human use, that economic growth is the main goal of society, that well-being can be measured through GNP, that the human economy takes precedence over the primary earth economy and, finally, that humans are the owners and masters of the world. The hubris, narcissism, greed and short-term thinking that support such commitments are seldom acknowledged but very common and influential. Projected upon the emerging future they become ever more toxic and dangerous.

The worldview commitments that have helped to drive our civilisation to the edge of collapse are, generally speaking, still not widely seen for what they are. Indeed they continue to be pursued by a minority of very rich people and associated corporate interests. Yet what they offer is a poisoned chalice. Rather than offering viable ways forward they further inscribe our collective fall toward diminished Dystopian futures. How can we be so sure? You only have only to take a clear-eyed look at the accumulating evidence of human impacts on the global system to appreciate the emerging dilemmas before us. It is not ‘merely’ a question of coming to grips with global warming – serious as that is – as of acknowledging that humanity is walking into a self-created trap. Solutions will not emerge from denial, evasion or by repeating the mistakes that brought us to this point.

It follows that social, political and economic responses to developments of the kind outlined here must include an emphatic ‘No.’ Australia does not need redundant high-end fantasies that degrade the common good. We don’t need insecure third-rate jobs when time, money and human energy are all needed elsewhere for vastly more constructive purposes. We don’t need ‘high-rollers’ (or their equivalents) in Brisbane, money laundering made ‘respectable’ through retail agencies or sanitised versions of the Asian triads. Australia is so much more than an investment opportunity for the hyper-rich, a retail colony, a casino and a beach. It’s time to renew viable future visions, to get serious about designing and implementing strategies to address the challenging overshoot-and-collapse period before us. It’s time to begin work on the foundations of a more sane and sustainable world. The name of this game is ‘transition’ and the sooner this becomes a broad, multi-threaded social, cultural and economic project, the better. The nature and quality of the changes required have, perhaps, best been summarised by Naomi Klein who suggests that:

Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. … In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilisation and barbarism. (Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, 2014, p. 462.)

Global Integrity Summit

Day One: The Big Picture, Griffith University, Brisbane, 13th October 2015

It’s rare to attend an event such as this one that ticks nearly all the boxes. When my wife and I decided to register it was simply on the basis that it offered three consecutive sessions on issues of major significance. They were:

  • Free speech, freedom of the press and integrity in journalism
  • Big data, privacy and surveillance, and
  • Climate change and climate justice.

The event was held at the impressive Brisbane Conservatorium on South Bank. The auditorium was full, in part due to the welcome presence of a large contingent of senior school students. Prior to the event an essay competition had been held with the winner receiving a cheque for $1,000 on the day. The organisation was impeccable. That’s to say, the staff and volunteers all carried out their roles effectively with a minimum of fuss. The sessions kept to time and the catering was well handled. There was a healthy ‘buzz’ of conversation between sessions and it was obvious that interest levels were high.

Madonna King chaired two of the sessions and Steve Cannane one. Their mastery of content and process added a great deal to the whole process. Moreover questions from the audience were welcomed. This time, however, the use of clunky mikes was discontinued. The audience was provided with a Twitter ‘handle’ for the event, allowing moderators to receive questions in real time and to pass them on to their guests. A large on-stage screen meant that speakers were clearly visible throughout the auditorium.

The quality of the speakers and panel members was, with one exception, very high. The otherwise brilliant Michael Leunig was clearly nervous, tentative and ill-at-ease. He delighted the audience with a shaky cartoon sketch but then woodenly read the rest of his address from a prepared text. I am not going to attempt to outline the rest of the proceedings as this would require a much longer piece. Instead I am going to hope that Griffith will make the videos of each session available for wider viewing. If and when that happens I will post the link(s) here. In the meantime the general link to the event page can be found below.

Integrity Summit: Day One

Governance for the Future

There’s no doubt that the new-look government announced today by Malcolm Turnbull will transform what had become a moribund and unpopular government under Tony Abbot. A younger cabinet, more women and a fresh agenda all signal a fundamental shift in focus and perspective. This, we are being told, is a 21st Century government and, indeed, one for ‘the future.’ If that is indeed the case then the country may discover new possibilities for informed optimism. Read more…

Centre for the Future (Summary) Read more…