Sunday, June 09, 2013

Visions of our high-tech future: Julian Assange, Jaron Lanier, et al. on Google, Siren servers and the banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’

The book by Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, "The New Digital Age" is a rosy scenario of our high-tech future that many have found a bit creepy and chilling. Since our techie surround will anticipate and take care of our every movement, it seems like we can just sign off and go along for the ride (turning in mental vegetables in the process? …and letting the rule of 'use it or lose it' do it's work on our poor brains?). Also, is it more than a coincidence that at roughly the same time as Schmidt's messianic book is appearing, the movie “The Internship,” a two-hour commercial for GoogleWorld masquerading as an aspirational buddy comedy, also appears in the movie theaters? (You might note this caustic review of the movie.)

Trying to set aside my bias, generated by extensive negative press comments on the behaviors of Wiki-Leaks' Julian Assange, I found his piece in the New York Times on the Schmidt and Cohen book to have some savory and choice screeds. A partial sampling:
“The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?” It is not surprising that a respectable cast of the world’s most famous warmongers has been trotted out to give its stamp of approval to this enticement to Western soft power. The acknowledgments give pride of place to Henry Kissinger, who along with Tony Blair and the former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden provided advance praise for the book.
…“Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.
This book is a balefully seminal work in which neither author has the language to see, much less to express, the titanic centralizing evil they are constructing. “What Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century,” they tell us, “technology and cybersecurity companies will be to the 21st.” Without even understanding how, they have updated and seamlessly implemented George Orwell’s prophecy. If you want a vision of the future, imagine Washington-backed Google Glasses strapped onto vacant human faces — forever. Zealots of the cult of consumer technology will find little to inspire them here, not that they ever seem to need it. But this is essential reading for anyone caught up in the struggle for the future, in view of one simple imperative: Know your enemy.
If you want to read what I think is one of the best articles I have seen so far on the unfortunate consequences of our digital universe and possible cures, check out Jaron Lanier's article "Fixing the Digital Economy." It describes the concentration of power and income in the small sliver of the population that designs and runs the massive servers (Siren servers) that analyze different sectors of our lives to minimize their risk and maximize their profits.
Even friendly, consumer-facing Siren Servers ultimately depend on spreading costs to the larger society. Siren Servers can function profitably only if people aren’t paid for the data that is used to calculate their statistical schemes.
Siren Servers drive apart our identities as consumers and workers. In some cases, causality is apparent: free music downloads are great but throw musicians out of work. Free college courses are all the fad, but tenured professorships are disappearing. Free news proliferates, but money for investigative and foreign reporting is drying up. One can easily see this trend extending to the industries of the future, like 3-D printing and renewable energy.
Lanier suggests that we need to nurture a middle class that can thrive even in a highly automated society. One approach:
Institute a universal micropayment system. Keep track of where information came from. Pay people when information that exists because they exist turns out to be valuable, no matter what kind of information is involved or whether a person intended to provide it or not. Let the price be determined by markets.
Person-to-person information markets might lead to a simpler and clearer online world. Because our information systems are designed to initially forget who provided information, services like Google and Bing must constantly scrape the global network to reconstitute the context of data. Siren Servers know who links to your data, but you don’t.
EVEN today’s titanic Siren Servers would benefit from a more monetized information economy, because it would be a healthier-growing economy. The information economy cannot exhibit the long-term growth it ought to if information coming from ordinary people is forever declared to be off the books.
Skeptics sometimes reveal hidden and unfounded wells of elitism. These surface in comments like: “Most people wouldn’t contribute very much.” But there are already empirical hints to counter such pessimism.
In networks with a central point of control, like YouTube or the Apple Store, we do see a Horatio Alger pattern in the distribution of outcomes, where there are very few viable winners and an unbounded number of hopefuls. But in more directly and thickly connected networks like Facebook, we see people typically exposed to a large number of other people, rather than just a few stars. Therefore, if Facebook users paid one another, they would see a less elite distribution of economic benefits.
Another potential benefit of monetized information is to balance the power of government. When information is free, there is no cost to gathering information about citizens. I would like the government, or anyone else, to pay each person each time that person is tracked by a camera. The government should be able to use cameras for security purposes, but in a limited, not unbounded way. Similarly, candidates should not be able to win elections by having the best Siren Servers, but that’s only a problem if the information is free. Citizens should not lose the power of the purse.
As a final note, this Douthat piece regarding the recently revealed NSA snooping on citizens mentions the fact that the problem isn’t that the Internet has been penetrated by the surveillance state; it’s that the Internet, in effect, is a surveillance state.

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