Gradualism (and its discontents)

What I want to talk about is some­thing that has plagued me and con­cerned me for a long time now, which I guess one tech­ni­cal term for it is grad­u­al­ism,” how much worse things have got­ten very slow­ly. And I think it’s real­ly true in the privacy/security area. It’s true in a lot of places that have to do with tech­nol­o­gy because nor­mal peo­ple are a lit­tle intim­i­dat­ed by it and they don’t know enough to know what they should be watch­ing out for. So I found this—I know, before any­body cor­rects me that the frog in the water thing has been dis­proved. Nobody has ever done that, it’s not a real thing. But, it’s a great anal­o­gy, so I’m using it anyhow. 

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)

So this talk is nom­i­nal­ly about grad­u­al­ism. (We’ll see.) One of the things that came to mind when I was start­ing to put this togeth­er was a book that was very impor­tant to me back in the late 80s, ear­ly 90s when I start­ed work­ing in the dig­i­tal media space. How many of you have read this book? [looks around room] Excellent. This is Neil Postman’s med­i­ta­tion on the com­par­i­son between Orwell and Huxley, and his con­clu­sion, or what he pro­pos­es, is that Huxley was right. So I was pok­ing around online. One of the things I was try­ing to do in this sort of grad­u­al­ism vein was to see how bad was it, and how bad has it got­ten, and what have peo­ple come to believe about this. So I found this amaz­ing 1987 BBC series called Secret Society, and you should watch it, it’s like—for one thing the clothes are hilar­i­ous. But it’s kind of remarkable. 

This reporter was doing this expose, the episode was called We’re all Data Now.” Little did they know. There was a com­put­er, with a CRT that was like five miles long, deep. And they were look­ing up people’s names off the street. We want to show you, we want to see what’s avail­able to the pub­lic about you.” So they brought peo­ple in and I real­ly wish I could show you the video cuz it was amaz­ing, but for some rea­son this one amused me more than any­thing. These data came from vot­er rolls, so this is I guess where it start­ed in the UK, was these councils—we’d call them bor­oughs or cities or whatever—would sell their vot­er rolls to who­ev­er want­ed them. And didn’t tell any­body about it, but they just did it. 

Walter Smith's voter roll information

Walter Smith’s vot­er roll information

So he looks up this guy, Walter Smith. This was the sum total of what was online about Walter Smith, and his wife Edith. You should’ve seen the guy’s face, he’s like, Oh, this is quite dis­tress­ing.” And peo­ple were very adamant about how they felt about it, so What do you think of gov­ern­ment sell­ing the vot­er rolls?” Huge major­i­ty against it. Do you approve of this infor­ma­tion being sold to nation­al data banks?” Even more: no, no no no. 

Big Brother is the least of your problems, Inside Silicon Valley, Sept. 3, 1989

Big Brother is the least of your prob­lems, Inside Silicon Valley, Sept. 31989

This was a col­umn that I wrote in 1989 in San Francisco about this new breed of entre­pre­neur who’s get­ting access to all of this infor­ma­tion and sell­ing it whether you like it or not. And I actu­al­ly cut out the quote in there; it was a con­sul­tant who was on Compuserve. Which half of you prob­a­bly don’t even know what that is, but it was a very old old old online ser­vice, so I thought wow, okay.” 

Walter Smith's information, 2014

Walter Smith’s infor­ma­tion, 2014

So then I just thought Well okay, I’m going to look up Walter Smith” now. And he would have a heart attack if he saw all this stuff now. I think this is PeopleSearch or some­thing like that. It just piles up all this stuff. Credit card, court records, address­es, prop­er­ty records, crim­i­nal records. Some of them even give social secu­ri­ty num­bers, as you know. So it’s real­ly a big change just for less than thir­ty years. That’s a lot of data.

I didn’t include this because there’s already too much text on these slides but the Pew Internet peo­ple did a report on pri­va­cy and the num­bers were actu­al­ly low­er than in the Gallup poll that the BBC took for things. Everybody’s infor­ma­tion is sold now. Nobody even thinks about that being a prob­lem, but the per­cent­ages are even less, like 61% or some­thing of peo­ple said, You know, there should be a law against some­one fal­si­fy­ing your records” or some­thing like that. It’s you know, frog in the pot.

I thought it would be fun to look at some of the com­par­isons between Orwell and Huxley based on some of the stuff that I have found around. So Orwell thought we were going to be deprived of infor­ma­tion, and Huxley feared that we’d have so much that we would just be floun­der­ing around in our own juices not able to do any­thing about it. This is a head­line from last December [2013] that I called every­thing that’s wrong with the world on one screen. What do you do when you read some­thing like that, it’s like oh my God I’m going to go back to bed.” Orwell thought that the truth would be con­cealed. Huxley said no, it’s just going to get drowned. This is a Google News Page:

Screenshot of Google News

Screenshot of Google News

Weather, sports scores!, Comets did not bring water to Earth, Home Depot. It’s just too much. And Orwell also said we would be cap­tive, but Huxley said we would become a triv­ial cul­ture pre-occupied with some equiv­a­lent of the feelies: 

I mean who cares?

The oth­er thing that Huxley said was that peo­ple would come to love their oppres­sion, and the tech­nolo­gies that would undo their capac­i­ties to think. I pulled this off of iTunes’ App Store today. Positions for the last four hours” for pret­ty much any­one whose phone num­ber you have, which is fol­lowed by this real­ly creepy but true sit­u­a­tion. And it just seems like peo­ple don’t real­ly put those things together. 

And then in terms of undo­ing our capac­i­ties to think… This may be a lit­tle bit con­tro­ver­sial here but I feel like Google has, although I use it four bil­lion times a day, it’s real­ly kind of flat­tened infor­ma­tion. One of the cours­es that I teach has to do with research meth­ods, and if it’s not on Google Scholar nobody looks any­where else. I couldn’t find a num­ber to show how many jour­nals are not online ver­sus how many are, but there’s a ton of infor­ma­tion that will nev­er make it to Google because it’ll just be too hard to get it there. But it’s stuff that’s part of our sci­en­tif­ic and cul­tur­al record.

The oth­er thing that’s inter­est­ing to me about this was back in the day when I used to be on this TV show called The Site” (That should date it for you right there.) MSNBC did this show about the Internet and a guy that I knew for years and years, he had been part of the pro­gram­ming, tech­nol­o­gy, cypher­punk, every­thing kind of com­mu­ni­ty in San Francisco for ever said, This is evil. People don’t have any idea what goes on under­neath that. How are they going to fig­ure out how to find stuff if they don’t know what’s involved in doing that kind of a search?” And I thought, Oh for God’s sake.” But it’s the same kind of com­plaint that peo­ple who are very very nerdy in the com­put­er sense can be very prej­u­diced against Macintosh, because it hides the com­plex­i­ty. And I feel that. I don’t know that I would advo­cate hav­ing to teach every­body how to pro­gram, but I will say this: Being in this room for this week with all of these amaz­ing women who know how to pro­gram, it’s kind of a life-changing thing. It would be a good thing for peo­ple to know how to program.

So undo­ing our capac­i­ty to think. This is anoth­er one that I think is real­ly inter­est­ing. This all might be evo­lu­tion stuff, I don’t know. Maybe we’re evolv­ing out of our abil­i­ty to hunt and find, and what we’re doing instead is fig­ur­ing out how to look for things on the hori­zon, but this is inter­est­ing, that com­pre­hen­sion is dif­fer­ent when you read on paper; bet­ter than when read on screen. And the oth­er recent sto­ry that was inter­est­ing to me along those lines was that when you write notes by hand, you remem­ber them more than if you take notes on your com­put­er, which explains a lot about why I can’t remem­ber anything.

So all of this I feel like there’s just been this gradual…nobody real­ly asks the hard ques­tions, if you do ask the hard ques­tions you’re a Luddite, which I find real­ly offen­sive because I am so not a Luddite but I real­ly also think that these are legit­i­mate ques­tions to be ask­ing. Are we amus­ing our­selves to death, basi­cal­ly, with all of this stuff? And I told these guys when we start­ed on Monday that I was going to call my talk I Blame Television” cuz I do kind of blame tele­vi­sion for every­thing. And I don’t think I’m real­ly ter­ri­bly wrong about that, which I’ll get to in a minute. But one of the things that’s real­ly inter­est­ing to me about TV is that if you look at any­thing that has to do with pri­va­cy, not even just from a gov­ern­ment per­spec­tive. If you watch the most pop­u­lar show on tele­vi­sion, NCIS, every episode Tim’s hack­ing into some data­base or anoth­er, or cloning your phone. It’s just become part of the air that we breathe that we assume that A this is pos­si­ble, B that it will be done, and there’s no hoopla about it. 

And you say well it’s just TV” but TV is an extreme­ly influ­en­tial medi­um, as you know. That’s kind of obvi­ous. But it changes the way peo­ple think about things. So I have thought for a long time that it would be real­ly fun (and impos­si­ble to find out) who actu­al­ly advis­es all these TV shows. And my per­son­al belief is that for the CIA, for exam­ple, I mean come on: 

We have 1971, huge uproar about the CIA con­duct­ing these oper­a­tions, and nobody knows, and it’s ter­ri­ble. We hat­ed the CIA, right? But not now that we’ve got Annie. And you have to think what hap­pens when peo­ple watch. It’s like Oh, the CIA’s not to bad; she’s cute.” And she runs fast and she knows how to fight. It’s great.

I real­ly want­ed to show the open­ing sequence on a show called Person of Interest. Does any­body watch that? Has any­body seen that? Oh my God it’s so para­noid. It’s about a guy who builds this machine that sees every­thing. So it’s tapped into all the cam­eras, it’s tapped into all the phones, it’s tapped into every­thing, and it can track indi­vid­u­als down to that lev­el. And I just keep think­ing wow.”

The oth­er book that has been real­ly impor­tant to me along these lines and is a nice fit with Amusing Ourselves to Death is this book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television Has any­body read that? Yay! Thank you. 

I got inter­est­ed in this book in the late 80s, ear­ly 90s when I’d start­ed a newslet­ter called Digital Media”, and the asso­ci­at­ed con­fer­ence was called Digital World and it was basi­cal­ly before any­body knew what was going on at all. So peo­ple would come togeth­er from all these dif­fer­ent indus­tries and they would try to fig­ure out how they were going to do busi­ness in this new dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment. And what it end­ed up being was, there’s a great illus­tra­tion in one of my Times columns about all these old white farts sit­ting around a table, and they all had octo­pus heads and all their ten­ta­cles were in each other’s pock­ets. Which was basi­cal­ly how the busi­ness turned out. 

I had read this book and I thought you know, inter­ac­tive media is like tele­vi­sion on steroids, and if we’re going to be invent­ing this new medi­um should we think about what this one has been and done. So his four argu­ments why you should elim­i­nate tele­vi­sion are: One is the medi­a­tion of expe­ri­ence, that humans don’t have direct expe­ri­ences with things. That you see a tele­vi­sion screen and you see the frame and you don’t know what’s going on out­side the frame. Then there’s the col­o­niza­tion of expe­ri­ence, which has to do with adver­tis­ing and how prod­ucts become more alive than peo­ple do. And then the third one is… Well the fourth one is the bias­es of TV, the inher­ent bias­es. And the third one is how tele­vi­sion changes us phys­i­cal­ly, how we inter­act with things physically.

I thought it would be very inter­est­ing to just you know, I bought about a dozen of these books and I seed­ed all these indus­try peo­ple to try and have a con­ver­sa­tion about this. And it was very inter­est­ing to me because they were like, angry about it. How dare you ques­tion this dom­i­nant medi­um?” And I thought that what Jerry Mander (which is his real name) what he had to say about this was very inter­est­ing. And I think that this, it’s at the end of the book, he said the ques­tion he always got asked by every­body was, Well okay we don’t like tele­vi­sion that much either but it’s impos­si­ble to elim­i­nate it.” And it was an inter­est­ing med­i­ta­tion for me to think about what kind of fil­ter would you have to put on issues around tech­nol­o­gy to be able to change some­thing that’s so deeply entrenched. And I thought it was real­ly inter­est­ing. He real­ly based it in democ­ra­cy, and look­ing to see what kinds of tech­nolo­gies actu­al­ly sub­vert democ­ra­cy. And so that cen­ter para­graph kind of goes back to what I said about Google. If it’s too com­plex for a nor­mal per­son to fig­ure out how to either dis­man­tle it, or in the case of pri­va­cy fig­ure out how to not get trapped, then there is no demo­c­ra­t­ic control. 

So I just think these things are impor­tant to think about, and I don’t see how we get our hands under­neath this stuff unless we think about things real­ly out of the box. So, thank you. That’s it.

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