"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.
I reviewed Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza for this Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.
"Parental love is the sacrifice made in silence," says Jorgen Hofmeester, the protagonist of "Tirza," Arnon Grunberg’s latest translated novel. In "Tirza," the quiet martyrdom of parenthood rubs up against the banality of bourgeois life. Sacrifices go un-repaid and parents struggle as their children begin to spin beyond their orbit and their own carefully tended lives are revealed as hollow.
The year’s most accomplished, and most important, films about war, terrorism, and geopolitics aren’t Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. They’re two modestly budgeted films from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And, unlike their American counterparts, they’re not drawing on true stories for blockbuster entertainment. No, they are the thing itself: blistering documentaries about life and death, violence and oppression, and the struggle to remain human in unbearable conditions. 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers are morality tales, as much of a warning for gung-ho Americans of the potential costs of their military adventures as they are stark indictments of the Israeli occupation and its effects on Palestinian life.
I reviewed David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life for The Daily Beast:
David Shields is done with fiction, at least as you and I probably know it. After beginning his career as a novelist, the 56-year-old Shields, over the last decade and a half, has drifted toward loose, essayistic forms that tear down the walls between fact and fiction. (In fact, he claims that those walls never existed in the first place.) This “project”—a favored Shields word—crested in 2010 with Reality Hunger, a book-length collection of quotations and aphorisms cobbled together to argue that contemporary fiction should embrace hybrid genres, the instability of truth and memory, the essential falsity of the novel, appropriation, and so on.
Shields has been a worthwhile polemicist (Reality Hunger was subtitled A Manifesto) for the sometimes buttoned-up world of literary fiction. But what began as a matter of taste and then matriculated to an argument over aesthetics has now become ideology. In his latest book, How Literature Saved My Life, he recapitulates much of Reality Hunger’s argument while falling into a deep, mawkish solipsism, one that leaves him unable to recognize why anyone may have an interest in the vast range of fiction that centuries of literary culture have produced. More troubling is, he has become so convinced of his own beliefs that he seems to have little desire to convince others of them; they have instead ossified into dogma.
For the Los Angeles Review of Books, I wrote about Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s Jews and Words.
Perhaps no religion has as much existential uncertainty baked into the product as Judaism. Who, or what, is a Jew? The question remains Jewishness’s most persistent quandary. In modern times, this has not only been a theological or anthropological question but also a political and military one: leaders as diverse as Adolf Hitler and David Ben-Gurion have sought to develop criteria that may nail down Jewishness as something discrete, distinctive, and susceptible to legislation. But still some confusion persists, some hazy aura around the edges of Jewish identity, evident in the thousand and one sects and offshoots and private credos that, collectively, constitute “the Jewish people.”
Last month, I sold a proposal to HarperCollins for a book about social media and its role in online identity, privacy, self-expression, and Internet culture. All this began with my "Against Enthusiasm" essay in Slate, but I’m now looking more broadly at the attention and sharing economies; how (for some people) life becomes reconstituted around the ways in which we can broadcast it online; how the wall between online and “real” life has largely collapsed; the values engineered into social networks (which include incessant liking and favoriting); and so forth.
If you’re interested in talking to me about the book, want to send me something to read, or you think there’s someone I should be talking to, please feel free to get in touch. I’ll still be doing some freelancing and book reviewing, though I’ll be focusing more on social media and the culture of technology. But for now, it’s time to get to work. The book will be out sometime in 2014 (release date TK). Thanks for reading.
I wrote about the obsession with historical accuracy in this season’s holiday movies.
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, text flashes onto the screen: “1858. Two years before the Civil War.” Tarantino has not only given us the year, but also added its relation to an monumentally important event in American history. He assumed, perhaps correctly, that this chronological hand-holding was necessary to adequately situate the film for viewers. Of course, it’s appropriate that it’s Tarantino, whose fidelity to history is nonexistent, who offers this curiously didactic moment.