To understand how much commerce has changed in recent years, consider a simple trip to the grocery store. When you drive to the store now, your movements are recorded by your cellphone provider, your car’s GPS, your smartphone apps and police license-plate scanners. At the store, a sensor system recognizes your phone and notes that this is your first visit in several weeks — which spurs a piece of software at the chain’s Midwestern headquarters to send you more coupons for your favorite items. CCTV cameras log your movements and may read your facial expressions so as to gauge your reactions to certain products. Your frequent-shopper card and credit card ensure that your purchase is recorded permanently. As you drive home, the store already may be selling your personal information to data brokers. From there it potentially goes anywhere.
I reviewed Julia Angwin’s book about surveillance for the LA Times.
A kid walked by and knocked over the walking stick of the man sitting next to me. I picked up the stick, returned it to his place, and the man thanked me. “I’m not totally blind,” he said, almost cheerfully, like it’s information he’s just happy to be able to convey. “Only legally blind.”
Okay, I said. When I sat down I had seen him hunched over, staring deep into an iPhone, the rectangle nearly touching his face.
He started working at a quart of ice cream he’d produced from a plastic bag. He fumbled with it a little but got on top of it, opened it up, and soon was digging at it with his spoon.
His right eye was closed, and around the eye, on his right temple and cheek, was discolored skin, looking like some liquid burned him, forming a puddle that wouldn’t wash off. But I don’t know about this sort of thing. I wondered if he’s a veteran — he might be 30 — and about IEDs. For some reason I thought of “splash damage,” a video game term.
After a few minutes he turned to me and asked, “If my grandmother has dementia, and my uncle has power of attorney” — a train started coming into the station, and suddenly he began to talk much louder — “and if he signs the deed over to someone else, is that legally binding?”
I told him yes, I think so. He nodded like he already knew that, and we stepped, almost in unison, onto the train.
There’s an emergent feeling, at least among the people I talk to, that Twitter has become too much of an ordeal, a Kabuki theater of outrage, radical posturing, and other well-worn, performative acts that we know all too well. Unlike Kabuki, there’s little pleasure in the costumes and gestures and pageantry. They’ve become too familiar, not to mention threadbare. The culture’s strictures have crowded out room for play, much less dissent or refusal to participate. (The journalist who isn’t on Twitter is either an elder statesman or playing some other kind of game.)
Perhaps you’re familiar with this argument — all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again, etc. But I do wonder if there’s some point at which Media Twitter will eat itself, when the gravity well turns into a black hole. It’ll be a time when we acknowledge that most of us are acting out the same bitter tropes, that we expend such intense, passionate focus on items that won’t be remembered in a day or two, and that, in the final analysis, it’s tiring. The jockeying for attention — a currency more valuable and ephemeral than peak-Bitcoin — is demeaning and can’t be rescued by meta humor or conventional irony.
You can still “do well” on Twitter if you want. Undoubtedly there are people who find voices or avenues of expression there who otherwise might struggle for a foothold or be shut out entirely. But it’s impossible to gain any security or to “win” at Twitter, despite the Internet parlance. Visibility requires constant maintenance, vigilance even. You can be more on point, funnier, more tied into the news cycle, a better curator, more radical, more aggrieved, but you will inevitably be usurped by someone who has judged you not angry/outraged/radical/sharp enough. They flank from the left, propelled by the confidence of youth.
In some circles now, the most effective rhetorical act is to accuse someone else of bad faith or hypocrisy (perhaps by digging up a year-old tweet and trying to re-contextualize it for the debate of the day). These are extraordinarily effective moves because they’re easy and cheap and difficult to counter. To reply that an accusation of bad faith is itself in bad faith — a disingenuous bit of sleight-of-hand designed to mask its own empty meaning — seems like a grown-up version of “I know what you are but what am I?” How can you debate someone like this? Why would you bother? And yet these petty skirmishes have been mistaken for sincere political engagement. They are how reputations are made.
The problem, at its root, might be that Twitter actually matters too much to journalists and media outlets right now, along with anyone who aspires to be part of this world (“community” is too kind a term). It’s too central to how news is crafted and distributed and, more personally and immediately, how we craft and distribute ourselves — our public identities, our relationships, our incessant-but-seemingly-essential attempts at self-promotion and advancement. We must insert ourselves into the morass, we must relentlessly personalize everything, or else we risk being overlooked. Particularly in a time of precarity, when if you aren’t one of the legions of poverty-wage freelancers then you are likely on the lookout for your next job (everyone wants to be poached!), you are always selling. You have to: the benefits are meager but they’re real. We’ve all watched the banal spectacle of a mediocre writer noisily tweeting his way into a staff job through a steady output of congratulatory messages, judicious retweets, unearned hyperbole (best lede ever! best correction ever!), and savvy cultivation of his betters. It’s a strange alchemy — the ingredients themselves are poisonous, they’ll hollow you out — but the recipe is known.
Attention and connections have always been powerful tools for a journalist; it’s just more enervating to see them collected in the always-on Twittersphere rather than at the occasional book or cocktail party. Sure, it’s never been only about the work. But I wonder if it’s ever been less about the work than it is now.
I interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz about The Wherewithal, his new novel in verse. Topics discussed: the Shoah, Vietnam, being down and out in 1967 San Francisco, welfare, the poor as a minority, the specter of the Zodiac killer, failure, and using Wittgenstein as armor. Read it here.
For the latest issue of Pacific Standard, I wrote about big data, “culturomics,” Google Ngram Viewer, and the new book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture. The review is here and in the print edition of the mag.
Over at Al Jazeera America, I wrote about the data trade, how data brokers manipulate consumer information, corporate surveillance, and the need to regulate data brokers.
"Networking into the Abyss," my article about SXSW Interactive and Silicon Valley techno-utopianism, is now up at The Baffler (it came out in print in the magazine’s summer issue). In it, I try to go beyond the conventional complaints about commercialism and shameless networking to get at why SXSW is so pernicious, particularly in its fusion of masculinist corporatism and cyber-libertarianism. Besides being the tech industry’s preeminent festival of ideas, SXSW is in many ways a microcosm of Silicon Valley itself. Once a bastion of DIY, indie culture (it began as a small music festival), it’s since wholly given itself over to inflated myths of the glories of entrepreneurship, “disruption,” and the world-changing capabilities of the latest wearable gadget. Like Steve Jobs, it put away its drugs and learned how to marry corporate success and ruthless business acumen with vague nods towards the counterculture. (The recent influx of tech-industry moguls into Burning Man is the latest iteration of this phenomenon.)
And while the products and companies celebrated at SXSW often have important political and social consequences, the festival and its attendees present themselves as stylishly apolitical. That helps them to maintain a certain purity of purpose, an irrational self-belief, in the sense now common to Silicon Valley, that what they are doing is inherently important, that one can “save the world” by building a “great” company — even if it’s just a company that, like so many of its peers, collects user data en masse and sells it to advertisers. This is where libertarianism comes in, disguising itself as insouciant rebelliousness. “The traditional rules don’t apply to us,” these technological elites tell one another. Except they’re not doing graffiti or playing folk songs or marching in the streets; they’re ignoring workers’ rights and municipal regulations, because Uber is just that cool and the sharing economy should be brought to everyone.
SXSW has changed Austin, its longtime home, a great deal. It’s now by far the biggest event in the city and a year-round operation, with festivals about education, music, film, the environment, and venture capital (that one, naturally, held in Las Vegas). During April, when most of SXSW’s events take place, downtown Austin resembles a privatized company town, a series of fiefdoms apportioned between Pepsi, Google, Samsung, and Doritos.
After my article went to press, SXSW announced a new sports festival, SXsports, to be held next year. Its metastasis is nearing stage four. It’s become a perpetual motion machine, growing because it has to, because the money and celebrities and corporate sponsorships (which are truly as insane and lavish and tone-deaf as you have heard) have become their own self-sustaining machine. But when so many people are getting rich and there’s such good feeling in the air, who’s to tell them to stop?
“Smarter Than You Think," the first book by technology journalist Clive Thompson, is an admiring letter to the digital tools that increasingly chronicle and guide our daily lives. Thompson, a contributor to Wired and the New York Times Magazine, has taken stock of our present moment and found that digital technologies are making us "smarter," with access to greater stores of memory, teaching tools, methods of collaboration and always-on communication. Together with our devices, we can accomplish great feats: organize protests, become chess grandmasters, learn calculus in elementary school. We can even record our entire lives, so that rather than learning how to remember, "we’ll learn how to forget.”—My latest is a review of Clive Thompson’s ‘Smarter Than You Think’ in the LA Times.
My short story “The Phage” is in the latest issue of The Orphan, a magazine of the bizarre and rejected. This issue also has stories from Tim Maughan, Kio Stark, and Ian Sales, and a sentence from Tim Harkaway.
They say that a full demolition may be necessary; the debris will be burned at two thousand degrees, then the ashes doused with corrosive lime and stored in heavy barrels. I worry what might be lost.
The Informational Appetite, Citizenship, and Suspicionless Surveillance
For the New Yorker’s Elements blog, I wrote about a panel, organized by Triple Canopy and hosted at PS1, about surveillance. The panel featured NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, artist Trevor Paglen, and DoJ whistleblower Jesselyn Radack. It was a great panel, and you can read my report here.
Below are some more thoughts — cuttings from the editing room floor and other ruminations. (Some of this, particularly the concept of an insatiable “informational appetite,” relates to some ideas I’m working on for my book.)
There are two notions which I find myself returning to: intelligence agencies’ endless appetite for data, and how widespread, institutionalized surveillance changes the citizen’s relationship with the state.
As Drake paints it, the surveillance apparatus is constituted so as to need to increasingly expand its power and reach, sucking up as much information as it can and finding ways to access that which it can’t yet. Drake referred to his time working on programs targeting East Germany: “The Stasi had a model — it was to know everything.”
As has been pointed out elsewhere, many Internet firms share a similar appetite — why else would Google, for example, allow its StreetView cars to hoover up data from open Wi-Fi networks? It seems totally incidental, right? Except it happened in a couple dozen countries. Because if you are pouring millions of dollars into mapping streets, social graphs, or terrorist networks; if you believe that predictive powers increase in tandem with the amount of information mined, then every data point is potentially useful. The CIA’s chief technology officer said as much at a technology conference in March: “We fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.”
Different programs (“there are many programs,” Drake said, darkly), agencies, and rubber-stamp courts may parcel out the authority and scope of data collection. But it’s difficult not to think that, in aggregate, the surveillance state gets what it wants, which, if you’re tapping into Internet backbones and installing equipment at the offices of major telcos, is: everything. Former NSA official Bill Binney, also now a whistleblower, has said that he once wanted to “map the world.” The worldview is totalizing and the system’s reach global.
The ambitions are so vast not only because of the political imperative of using any measures necessary to counter terrorism (or to impart the image that everything is being done, no matter the cost to the treasury or civil liberties or posterity), but also because current technology makes it possible. Or at least, the technology, and those selling it to the security establishment, promise that anything is possible.
Technologists and theorists often speak of “affordances” or “capacities” — i.e. what can a piece of technology allow you to do? What is it capable of? The two-billion dollar Utah Data Center that the NSA is scheduled to open later this year has storage capacity that outstrips annual global Internet traffic by orders of magnitude. What are this facility’s potential affordances? Why would you build such a place?
"The only thing you would need this amount of storage for is if you had direct access to cables or large amounts of data coming from everywhere," Allen Friedman, a technology-policy specialist from the Brookings Institution, said to the Salt Lake Tribune.
It seems naïve then, or perhaps disingenuous, to respond to each drip of disclosure, each new revelation of PRISM or TEMPORA or NSA hacking in Hong Kong, mainland China, EU offices, the UN, and elsewhere, that such programs can be limited. They work in concert, because they have to; these vast data sets are only more powerful and useful when combined.
And again: there’s no question that everything is considered useful — needles need haystacks — which is why those who pray at the altar of Big Data will suck up anything in range (and even much ostensibly out of range). From phone records to plane tickets purchased, it all goes into the soup.
These bits of digital exhaust, the leavings of networked digital capitalism, provide the raw material for what scholars like Helen Nissenbaum call “dataveillance.” In Privacy in Context, Nissenbaum writes that often dataveillance is “not the direct aim but an inadvertent consequence of some other goal for which a given system was originally designed.” When so much is digitized, unexpected capabilities appear. Cell phone towers help you make phone calls; they can also provide a record of your movements. (Jacob Appelbaum has described cell phones as “tracking devices that make phone calls.”)
In a surveillance state, predicated on massive data collection, storage, and data-mining, dataveillance helps establish baselines of normative behavior. Anything that tips off an algorithm, that strays from accepted patterns for an individual or population, gets flagged. In this scenario, privacy measures like encryption are considered suspicious by default. Recent reporting indicates that the NSA is allowed to retain “all communications that are enciphered or reasonably believed to contain secret meaning.” A reasonable analogy might be the police searching someone’s house because they learned that the doors were locked.
What kind of environment is this, where we don’t even know what authorities our elected government has arrogated to itself? What does it mean to live knowing that your behaviors — your purchases, who you email, who your friends are, the things you say online — are silently, distantly, and through secret, mysterious processes, being scanned and judged? What does that do to individuals — self-censorship seems like a natural, inevitable consequence — and what does it do to how we think of ourselves and one another as U.S. citizens?
Do you feel safe because you are a white, middle class, politically apathetic professional? Or do you feel unsafe, and, because you are embodied in the system by this “acceptable” data set, do you suddenly feel guilty of some act of solipsism? i.e. “I’m not important enough.” Or: “I’m not Muslim.” But perhaps you do know that you don’t want to live in this kind of society; that this is wrong; that the last twelve years have taught you that our government rarely asks for forgiveness, much less permission, and that it’s capable of monstrous, deadly errors and crimes, especially in the name of freedom and safety. (But you don’t need the whole litany, you know it well enough. You skip over the links to Gitmo force feedings and drone strikes in somewhere-stan because look there’s a Mad Men recap that your roommate, while scrolling through your DVR, turned to you excitedly and said you had to read. Just get through it already.)
Occasionally, an illustrative story appears, showing us how, in a world of institutionalized surveillance, citizens become flotsam in the eddies of power. Consider Rehan Motiwala, the 29-year-old American medical student recently prevented from traveling home from Bangkok. Motiwala thinks he was placed on a no-fly list, but the list is secret. All he knows is that for 10 days he was confined, without explanation, to a detention center in the Bangkok airport, where he was mistreated, not least by representatives of his own government who apparently did little to help him. As Evgeny Morozov recently argued, Big Data doesn’t ask “why”; it only declares connections — in this case, a very consequential one.
This is the kind of surveillance-produced alienation that Daniel Solove, the privacy scholar, talks about — the vast chasm between the citizen and the state. What does it mean to be a citizen of a democracy when such things can be done to people? It’s not that you’re not told why; you’re not told at all. One day you simply can’t fly home. And the people who you thought would help you, who would just clear up this little mistake please because it’s all rather frightening and it’s time for this vacation to end, laugh and let you molder in a Thai holding cell.
Power is by nature capricious, but this kind of power is something else. It has its own gravity. It works beyond the systems of due process and law, the systems which even as traditionally constituted can be far from humane, and exerts it own peculiar, haunting authority. You can’t challenge it because it doesn’t officially exist. Secrecy absolves that which it doesn’t already obscure. There are reasons for all this, you see, secret laws and courts and DoJ memos and basements full of classified reports saying that there are good reasons to be afraid. There is Dianne Feinstein talking about flying over the World Trade Center on her way to Frank Lautenberg’s funeral, and she remembers. Do you?
Here in 2013, the state is opaque, but before its eyes, you are totally transparent. It knows everything about you. Or it doesn’t “know” exactly, but it can, if someone with the right authorities or access wants to. The data is just sitting in a vast reservoir in Utah or Texas or Georgia or wherever else. It merely needs to be called upon, to be put through the analytical and bureaucratic mill. This, I think, is what Edward Snowden meant when he said that Laura Poitras had been “selected.” Her data had been selected, and now she is too — stopped at every border, her equipment at risk of being seized. Not quite a brand perhaps, but some kind of marking. And as always, the fear that more could come, with no recourse and no reason why.
I’m reading tomorrow at Community Bookstore alongside Michelle Orange, Alexander Chee, Porochista Khakpour, and Michael Robbins. Come listen, chat, stare deeply into the warm glow of your smartphone’s screen.
Cause of Great Rececession, acc. to Jaron Lanier (hereafter: JL): ”the poor use of digital networks”
Role of fraud, subprime lending, trillion-dollar wars in Great Recession acc. to JL: negligible
Reason why U.S. and China have not gone to war, acc. to JL: Wal-Mart
JL’s past relationship with Wal-Mart (disclosed in WOtF): consultant
Representative quote about Wal-Mart: “Overall, Wal-Mart has brought about much good.”
No. of Silicon Valley personages and executives who JL, often considered Silicon Valley’s house critic, criticizes by name: 0
Research projects JL has recently engaged with: space elevators; gluing together faults to prevent/shift earthquakes
Consequence of possible decline of Facebook, in view of JL: “a global emergency”
Qualities JL ascribes to advertising: “romantic”; “heroic”
Main goal of WOtF: to argue that users should be paid for all “useful” information they produce
Neologism to describe this arrangement: humanistic information economy
Method to achieve this state: unclear, though a conference-room meeting of Silicon Valley CEOs is proposed
Ways in which payments to users would be regulated/managed to encourage compliance, prevent abuse: unknown
Reasons why this arrangement wouldn’t simply encourage users to produce as much data as possible and companies to continue widespread spying/collection of user data: unknown
Representative quote re: humanistic information economy: “An actual implementation of these ideas would require sorting out a lot of details, which would be wildly premature to attempt at this stage.”
Predicted consequence of development of humanistic information economy: “The economy will grow spectacularly. A golf resort will be financed on the moon for the next meeting of the CEOs.”
(In short: Lanier’s first book was messy but had some worthwhile ideas and was a useful poke in the eye of Silicon Valley orthodoxy. This second book is a disaster. Lanier can write sentences, but he can’t write paragraphs or arguments (c.f. the length of the table of contents; the book is endlessly subdivided into terribly unorganized, rambling riffs). He appears to have done little genuine research. His book of “nonnarrative science fiction” does a disservice to those who would like to see rigorous, useful, and genuinely critical treatments of the tech industry.)
“"Bough Down," the first book by artist Karen Green, arrives trailing a train of sorrow. Green was married to writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in September 2008. He was 46. Green has surfaced intermittently since then, giving few interviews. In 2009, at an exhibit in South Pasadena, she showed a piece called "The Forgiveness Machine," a 7-foot-long device into which one placed a piece of paper inscribed with what you wanted forgiven; the paper emerged, shredded, from the other end of the machine. The exhibition, one of her first public appearances since her husband’s death, was draining for Green, and she told an interviewer that she struggled to make it through. She never used the machine herself.”—For the LAT, I reviewed “Bough Down,” Karen Green’s book about life and death with DFW. I thought it was pretty remarkable.