Photo of an amphiteatre ruin; captioned "How does technology change relationships between people and with authority, on the scale of centuries?"

Photo: Tom Kelly

Eleanor Saitta: Today we want to talk to you about the role of tech­nol­o­gy and soci­ety in the longer arc of human his­to­ry. We’d like you all to take a cou­ple things away from this talk. The inter­ac­tion between a piece of tech­nol­o­gy and soci­ety is rarely set­tled in two or three years, or ten years. We’re still as a soci­ety just bare­ly learn­ing how to use email. If you think, even in the past five or ten years, the way email’s used in pro­fes­sion­al con­texts has changed rad­i­cal­ly. We don’t real­ly know what it means yet. We think we have a rea­son­able under­stand­ing of how you use an audi­to­ri­um. We’ve fig­ured that one out. Mostly.

A list of available wireless networks on an iPhone screen; captioned "Every action you take and every piece of code you write has political effects"

The oth­er thing we’d like to talk about here and that we’d like you to take away from here is that while geek cul­ture kind of grew up as an out­sider cul­ture, that changed. It’s at the heart of pol­i­tics and the heart of social move­ments now because it’s the heart of how we com­mu­ni­cate now. Geek cul­ture and hack­er cul­ture used to be rel­a­tive­ly apo­lit­i­cal, but now every action that you take and every piece of code that you write has polit­i­cal effects. You may may intend some of these effects, you may not intend most of these effects, but they’re there and we need to start think­ing about and under­stand­ing these changes. And this is a change that’s hap­pened in our life­times.

Quinn is most­ly a kind of inco­her­ent blend of anti-capitalist anar­chism and California Libertarianism…

Quinn Norton: …and Ella is a Marxist Syndicalist, pre­sum­ably with blood on her hands. But since she likes me a lot she’s promised me six min­utes’ notice on the purge before it hap­pens, so I can get a head start.

Kranzbergs First Law: Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral

Despite the polit­i­cal parts of this talk, this talk is not about our pol­i­tics, not about what Ella or I want you to do. It’s about what we’ve learned from exam­in­ing the net­work effects that we live with now. Because fun­da­men­tal­ly (many of you will rec­og­nize this) archi­tec­ture has a pol­i­tics and it has a cul­ture. And while we were all kind of sit­ting around in our cul­ture in Usenet in the 90s or wher­ev­er we got our start, being—like Ella said—outsiders, the world piv­ot­ed. It changed and sur­round­ed us and put us at the heart of these mat­ters. And so what­ev­er you want to do polit­i­cal­ly, what we’re going to be talk­ing about is the frame­work of the pol­i­tics that tech­nol­o­gy is cre­at­ing around the world right now.

Eleanor: One of the real­ly inter­est­ing struc­tures in the world right now that we spend a lot of time deal­ing with are states. States have a cou­ple of very basic things that they require to be able to inter­act with the world. They need to be able to see their ter­ri­to­ry, and the peo­ple who live in that ter­ri­to­ry, if they’re going to be able to inter­act with them. And this is sim­ply a truth that applies to any­thing, to any time where some­one needs to inter­act with a thing. If you can’t per­ceive a thing, you can’t inter­act with it.

This map here is the planned city of Brasília, which is a city that was built to be leg­i­ble, to be under­stand­able to the state. The notion that a state should, if noth­ing else, even if it can’t under­stand all of the rest of its ter­ri­to­ry, all of its oth­er cities, it should be able to under­stand the city from which it gov­erns. Of course, I don’t know how many of you are famil­iar with the actu­al city of Brasília, but it does­n’t look much like what’s indi­cat­ed on that map. Reality has come back in and got­ten a lot messier again.

Caption: Sometimes this is a good thing.

Image: Wikipedia

A lot of the time, the abil­i­ty of a state to see its cit­i­zens and to see its ter­rain is actu­al­ly a very very good thing. This is the Snow Map which found­ed mod­ern epi­demi­ol­o­gy. It’s a map of cholera deaths in London around a par­tic­u­lar well when they did­n’t under­stand that cholera was spread through water. This map told us things about human dis­ease trans­mis­sion that have saved at least tens of mil­lions of lives, and this is a form of sur­veil­lance.

Caption: "Sometimes it's not."

Sometimes this is a bad thing. This is a map that the city of Amsterdam pre­pared from their very com­plete cen­sus records of where all the Jews were in Amsterdam, for the Nazis.

During the process of the soci­etal adjust­ments fol­low­ing the rev­o­lu­tion in France (and this was actu­al­ly one of the demands lead­ing up to the rev­o­lu­tion from cer­tain sec­tors of soci­ety) the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment as con­tin­ued under Napoleon stan­dard­ized on the met­ric sys­tem. One of the things that this did was that it eased a lot of the bur­dens on farm­ers who were hav­ing to deal with incom­pat­i­ble local unit sys­tems being used to basi­cal­ly rip them off from what they should’ve earned on their prof­its. But it also laid the ground­work for tax stan­dard­iza­tion and for cen­tral con­trol.

To para­phrase Chateaubriand, what he said at the time, You know if some­one’s using the met­ric sys­tem, that they’re a narc.” In oth­er words you know that if some­one is using the met­ric sys­tem they work for the gov­ern­ment, they work for the order that is attempt­ing to impose leg­i­bil­i­ty on soci­ety.

In the state of Qin in the 4th cen­tu­ry BC (no rela­tion), the emper­or decid­ed that impos­ing sur­names on the pop­u­la­tion was a good idea. They need­ed to be able to con­script peo­ple for labor and for the mil­i­tary, they need­ed to be able to tax peo­ple, and they need to be able to apply laws to fam­i­lies. Now, many of the rul­ing fam­i­lies (and this is true through­out the world in places where names have been put into force and have been imposed on peo­ple) already had sur­names that were fre­quent­ly attached to where they lived or where they ruled. But com­mon peo­ple had all sorts of dif­fer­ent ways of being known. And if you imag­ine you’ve got a dozen dif­fer­ent ways that you can be named, and you might have some rea­sons to not want to be leg­i­ble to the state, this is very very con­ve­nient for you. So assign­ing patronyms was a way of chang­ing that pow­er struc­ture. And along the way it may have also changed some of the pow­er struc­tures in the fam­i­ly. It’s not clear, but one of the things that they attempt­ed to do was to make the head of the fam­i­ly respon­si­ble for all the actions of the rest of the fam­i­ly, which you could rea­son­ably see might have some cul­tur­al shifts.

This is real­ly inter­est­ing because it shows that the vision of the state has con­se­quences. When the state looks at the world, it makes things fall into the box­es that it’s mea­sur­ing even if they did­n’t before. In oth­er words, net­works weird leg­i­bil­i­ty.

Quinn: This is I think kind of a con­tro­ver­sial state­ment in this room right now, but I think that sur­veil­lance is actu­al­ly a form human atten­tion and human con­cern. And sur­veil­lance is what we do when we care about some­thing, and some­times that care takes pos­i­tive forms, com­ing back to the cholera map. Sometimes it allows us to build infra­struc­ture that works for a lot of peo­ple. Sometimes it allows us to pre­vent dis­ease and feed chil­dren and so on and so forth. And some­times it’s used for polit­i­cal con­trol, but it’s always used in some way of con­cern. And like tech­nol­o­gy and many polit­i­cal qual­i­ties, it is nei­ther good nor bad, nor is it neu­tral.

And I think that’s one of the things we have to bear in mind in this par­tic­u­lar age of sur­veil­lance, that in many ways sur­veil­lance is the small touch­es that we do on each oth­er. Surveillance is when we check up on each oth­er and stuff like that. So find­ing a way to cast that where we can reclaim the pos­i­tive and sup­press the neg­a­tive is I think much more the task than to fight all sur­veil­lance. It’s a much more sub­tle ques­tion than it would seem right now.

But when we talk about this kind of vision of the state, the state as watch­er, the state as arbiter of mon­ey, for instance, the news cycle we have right now if we want to take it back all the way to 4th cen­tu­ry BC China, this all makes more sense. It makes sense that nations are try­ing to get all the infor­ma­tion they can because they’re try­ing, again, to make their world leg­i­bil­i­ty. And when they get all that infor­ma­tion, they’re putting it into the cat­e­gories that they per­ceive are mean­ing­ful. And that means destroy­ing by ignor­ing the ones that aren’t. I think one of the things that’s real­ly use­ful about read­ing this his­to­ry is it gives you a mea­sure of pre­dic­tion on what states are going to want to do with tech­nol­o­gy. They want to keep tabs on their peo­ple, for good and bad rea­sons, and there’s always both good and bad rea­sons. They want to take the pow­er that they get by being the state and use it to mold the coun­try that they’re in.

That has been a tremen­dous­ly pro­gres­sive force in his­to­ry, and a tremen­dous­ly destruc­tive one. But it still comes from the same fun­da­men­tal impulse. And this is why it’s real­ly easy for me to stand up and say a state will always spy on its peo­ple as much as it pos­si­bly can. Because states always have. Not just to main­tain their pow­er, but just to main­tain the abil­i­ty to con­trol con­se­quences, which is a point that we’ll return to lat­er.

So we’re in an odd time of his­to­ry, and I want to actu­al­ly roll back to anoth­er moment in his­to­ry and intro­duce you to William Tyndale from the 16th cen­tu­ry. Tyndale had to flee one day from his native England, and he nev­er set foot in England again. He died out­side of England because he decid­ed what he want­ed to do was trans­late the Bible into English. Now, cen­turies before this, this was always a con­tentious issue, trans­lat­ing the Bible into the local lan­guage. It was gen­er­al­ly in Latin. Centuries before this, Pope Innocent III had essen­tial­ly sen­tenced to death peo­ple that would try to do some­thing like this. The laity was nev­er even to touch the Bible. It was to be inter­pret­ed and hand­ed down from on high by the Church because the Church were the peo­ple who had the knowl­edge to under­stand it. It was a top-down pic­ture. And Tyndale was part of a move­ment that want­ed peo­ple to be able to take con­trol of their own Christianity.

He was opposed by Sir Thomas More, now St. Thomas More, who believed that the Church was nec­es­sary to keep order. If this is sound­ing a bit Hobbesian that’s because it is a Hobbesian debate, and it is one that we’re still kind of—I’d say we’re in the third act of this. I used to think this was a good metaphor for where we are now, but actu­al­ly I think this is just the same thing going on. So More and Tyndale got into a huge fight, and Tyndale was on the run, More was sit­ting with King Henry VIII, and they got into a big argu­ment, and this argu­ment spanned the con­ti­nent at var­i­ous points, about whether or not the Bible should be in English and peo­ple should be able to inter­pret their own reli­gion.

Statue of Martin Luther

Photo: ff137

And of course that got start­ed because of this guy, Martin Luther, who cre­at­ed a bunch of Theses and sta­pled them to a door and then sent them all around the con­ti­nent. Again, noth­ing on this list of church reforms that Luther and Tyndale and that whole crew want­ed were new. Not a thing was new. What was new was that if you were Martin Luther and you want­ed to say the Church needs to reform and you got on a horse to go tell peo­ple that that’s what you believed, the Church would burn you. But some­thing had changed. And this is also how Tyndale and… The state­ment Tyndale ran away and then they had a fight for years” does­n’t make any sense to most peo­ple in that era, and it just sounds assumed to us because of a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy and in this case that com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy is the print­ing press.

Luther was able to put out his 95 Theses, sit safe­ly with a patron in Germany and say the Church need­ed to reform. And the Church [was] occa­sion­al­ly like, Could you send him for a meet­ing?” and he’s like, No, I’ll stay here in Germany. It’s fine.” Originally, though, the print­ing press had been a huge tool of the Church. They were the biggest cus­tomers of print­ing. Not just to print Bibles but to also stan­dard­ize the inter­pre­ta­tion of the reli­gion every­where. They could print things out, send them out to all of Europe, and gain con­trol and again, leg­i­bil­i­ty on their reli­gion. Make sure that every­body had the right mate­ri­als, that there was no cor­rup­tion in them, and spread them every­where. That went on for a few years and then the dis­si­dents got a hold of this tech­nol­o­gy, and it turned out they could do the same thing the Church could do. So the big ques­tion hang­ing over the 16th cen­tu­ry was was the print­ing press going to reform the Catholic Church?

Well, in fact the print­ing press reformed every­thing on the plan­et and pos­si­bly a few things off the plan­et. They did­n’t even have a lan­guage to ask the right ques­tion for the under­tak­ing that they were embark­ing on.

Cat looking down from a hole in the ceiling; captioned "There are many kinds of power in the world."

Eleanor: Tyndale and More were two threads inside one insti­tu­tion­al pow­er, but there are a lot of kinds of pow­er in soci­ety, not just one. The Church has waned in author­i­ty, Capitalism was in many ways just get­ting start­ed. This was the birth of the East India Company. This was the birth of mer­can­til­ism in that same era. But the pow­er of guns and pow­er of mon­ey and the pow­er of God are just three dif­fer­ent kinds of pow­er, and they all let you do dif­fer­ent kinds of things. They’re com­men­su­rable with each oth­er, they don’t act on each oth­er, they don’t act on them­selves.

If you have a pile of mon­ey, that does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly let you direct­ly influ­ence what some­one else who has a pile of mon­ey wants to do. You can maybe take away their mon­ey or force them to do some­thing else because you’ve bought the thing that they were try­ing to buy first, but there’s a lot of sub­tle­ty here in terms of how pow­er acts, and this is one of the things that seems to be occa­sion­al­ly get­ting missed while we talk about, Oh we need to force states to do such and such, we need to stop states from doing such and such.” There’s this, Oh, cor­po­rate sur­veil­lance is the worst thing. Oh, state sur­veil­lance is the worst thing.” No, they’re dif­fer­ent things, and they may be prob­lem­at­ic in dif­fer­ent ways. All pow­er needs to be able to see the world in order to act. Whether you are a state or a cor­po­ra­tion or a church, you need your own kind of leg­i­bil­i­ty and your own kind of sur­veil­lance, whether that means fig­ur­ing out if the peo­ple in all of the vil­lages are show­ing up in church on Sundays and whether or not they’re doing any of these things that might be indica­tive of any of these var­i­ous here­sies that you keep hear­ing about. Well let’s go burn some peo­ple and find out. Or whether it just means that I need to be able to set cook­ies in your brows­er and fig­ure out what kind of porn you like. That’s the same oper­a­tion but for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

States are pan­ick­ing right now. They’re act­ing the way they are because they’re pan­icked. There’s a thing that Quinn calls the con­se­quence fairy and it used to be that the con­se­quence fairy was a very staid crea­ture, and it would sort of float slow­ly around the room and alight on the shoul­ders of heads of state and popes and bish­ops and cap­i­tal­ists and say, Your actions mat­ter in the world. You’re an impor­tant per­son.”

And at some point in the last twen­ty or so years, the con­se­quence fairy got drunk. And now the con­se­quence fairy is kind of flit­ting around the room going, You mat­ter and you mat­ter and you mat­ter!” and every­body else is like, What the fuck? How do we even deal with this because we don’t know how.” Because our legibility…you know, the world has­n’t changed, the stuff that we pull in is still the same thing but it does­n’t mean what it used to mean. We can’t inter­pret it any­more.

So one of the things we’re see­ing right now is we’re see­ing states des­per­ate­ly try­ing to hang on to not their abil­i­ty to sur­veil but their abil­i­ty to under­stand, but those don’t look dif­fer­ent from the out­side.

Rule of law was nev­er intend­ed to oper­ate in a state of excep­tion, and this is one of the things which is very inter­est­ing if we talk about rule of law as a response to unre­strict­ed sur­veil­lance or to any oth­er of the prob­lems in the world right now. A state of excep­tion and a state of rule of law are defined oppo­sites. We now live in a state of per­ma­nent, but nei­ther per­va­sive nor com­plete, excep­tion, and this com­pli­cates all respons­es with­in sys­tems.

Walter White holding stacks of money; captioned "Positional Ethics"

Image: GQ

On a per­son­al lev­el things have got­ten weird, too. Positional ethics is basi­cal­ly what hap­pens when you join an insti­tu­tion, when you join an orga­ni­za­tion, when you join a net­work. That net­work, or that insti­tu­tion, has a set of ethics that are attached to it. And when you oper­ate with­in that insti­tu­tion, you take on some of those ethics. You become the per­son that does the thing that the insti­tu­tion needs to do in the world.

This is not com­plete. This is def­i­nite­ly not total. Infrastructure does this too, and this is a real­ly inter­est­ing thing for all of us who build com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture in the world. Infrastructure has an ethics. In a lot of cas­es right now, that ethics is active­ly sui­ci­dal. We are deal­ing with sui­ci­dal infra­struc­ture that we’re embed­ded inside, and we can­not become non-suicidal our­selves entire­ly because we’re still tied into that infra­struc­ture. We can only become in some ways sen­si­ble or human or humane again if we get out­side of that infra­struc­ture, but we can’t because that’s what runs soci­ety.

Things in our lives can some­times over­ride posi­tion­al ethics, and this is where our friend Walter [White] real­ly comes in, right? If you have kids, all of a sud­den you real­ize, Oh, I will do any­thing to feed these kids. It does­n’t mat­ter what I thought my world used to be. My world is now dif­fer­ent.” And one of the things that’s real­ly inter­est­ing about life in a net­work soci­ety is that we don’t just have a sin­gle set of ethics, we don’t just have a sin­gle con­text any­more. We may find that we wake up in the morn­ing and we go to work and we work on sys­tems of state or cor­po­rate con­trol all day and then we go home and we do oth­er work to under­mine the exact same sys­tems of con­trol that we were work­ing to build all day, and we are lit­er­al­ly fight­ing our­selves. That is one of the con­di­tions of the next cen­tu­ry.

Manipulated photo of huge airplanes in place of the World Trade Center towers, with the towers themselves flying toward them on collision course; captioned "We reject your reality and substitute our own"

Quinn: One of the rea­sons that insti­tu­tions are freak­ing out right now is because this net­work that we’re on makes peo­ple weird. And actu­al­ly I like this par­tic­u­lar net­works weird peo­ple” in almost the high medieval sense. They almost make peo­ple have a fey mag­ic to them. And all of a sud­den one per­son can become many peo­ple on the net­work. And that leg­i­bil­i­ty, that sev­er­al thou­sand years of get­ting a last name on you peo­ple, is sud­den­ly gone because you’ve just invent­ed fif­teen new peo­ple, today. And ten thou­sand if you wrote a script to do it. And all of a sud­den the thing that pow­er has a grip on has weird­ed in that classic—it’s total­ly full of a fey and uncon­trol­lable mag­ic, and that’s what you are right now. That’s what you are becom­ing. That’s what peo­ple on the net­work have become.

And the net­work has its own log­ic, or pos­si­bly this, I’m not sure I want to apply that word here. But it’s real­ly true that the net­work rejects your real­i­ty and sub­sti­tutes their own. Those cat­e­gories, those safe and under­stand­able and pre­dictable cat­e­gories, those get weird­ed out, too. And we’re all kind of liv­ing through this process. This is all still with­in our life­time. And we don’t have a social struc­ture or even a lan­guage to describe the net­works that we’re liv­ing in right now.

And it’s doing real­ly real­ly strange things to insti­tu­tions. The Internet in par­tic­u­lar turns con­duits into bar­ri­ers, and I do mean that the RIAA used to be the good guys. Their job from the 1950s was to stan­dard­ize all the record play­ers, to make sure that all the record play­ers would play all the records, so that any­one could get music, and to set up dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems so that any­one around the coun­try could get any­one else’s music. And this was actu­al­ly a real­ly inter­est­ing and mag­i­cal thing they did, because if you were liv­ing in a Louisiana bay­ou in 1950, you did­n’t hear music from New York until they fixed this sys­tem. And they’re one of the enti­ties that allowed this com­mon cul­ture to grow up and these oth­er options to enter peo­ple’s lives all over America.

And they did­n’t actu­al­ly real­ly change what they did for the next fifty years. But the world did that piv­ot, the same one that put you at the heart of the mat­ter, took this con­duit of infor­ma­tion and turned it into a bar­ri­er. And the peo­ple who are work­ing these jobs, the peo­ple who lived through this whole cycle with the RIAA, I got­ta say as a jour­nal­ist who’s had to call them for inter­views, it’s like call­ing crazy peo­ple. I have a lot of sym­pa­thy for them these days because they did­n’t do any­thing wrong. The whole world just went cuck­oo, from their per­spec­tive. And they’re grab­bing at real­i­ty as best they can. In fact, so many of the things that would’ve been the awe­some geeky things to do in the 50s and 60s have turned from con­duits and gen­er­ous ways of shar­ing infor­ma­tion into the bar­ri­ers try­ing to stop the net­work from doing their job bet­ter, because they’ve got those kids to feed. And they’ve got a mort­gage, and damnit they were doing the right thing all their lives, why did it have to change now?

So what does it look like on a grand scale when these weird­ings go on with insti­tu­tions and peo­ple? Well, some of you have been famil­iar with this kind of graph. This is from 1979 to the present, lev­el of glob­al protests. And part of this I think we all know is fed by the fact that coor­di­nat­ing protests is now piss easy com­pared to what it was pri­or to this. It’s like sign­ing up for a mass-tweeting and then going some­where, and it’s some­thing peo­ple can do in a few min­utes. The peo­ple who set up the ACTA protest in Poland that brought down that leg­is­la­tion even­tu­al­ly weren’t peo­ple who had been work­ing on it for years and build­ing net­works and doing train­ings and so on and so forth. They were just like, I’m gonna start a Facebook group.” And pret­ty soon there was 200,000 peo­ple in 300 cities crash­ing a treaty that was nev­er even sup­posed to face any seri­ous oppo­si­tion. That came out of nowhere. That’s the one with the Polish par­lia­ment masked up. Talk about weird­ing iden­ti­ty and insti­tu­tions right there.

This one’s a lit­tle bit more sub­tle, but actu­al­ly I think ulti­mate­ly more impor­tant. Something that’s hap­pened since the 90s, it cer­tain­ly took off by the year 2000, and actu­al­ly inter­est­ing­ly maps pret­ty well to that glob­al protest graph (By pret­ty well I mean in a rough sense that it has risen on a sim­i­lar plane.) which is that this bot­tom line is for­eign aid from 1970 to the present. And that top line is inter­na­tion­al remit­tance. International remit­tance is the fancy-pants term for send­ing mon­ey home to your fam­i­ly.” So what’s hap­pened here is that near­ly three times as much mon­ey is sent by immi­grants back to their fam­i­lies as is sent to coun­tries via for­eign aid from gov­ern­ments, and pos­si­bly oth­er fundrais­ing insti­tu­tions.

Why is that impor­tant? Because that’s a sys­tem of mutu­al care. It is again large­ly illeg­i­ble or step­ping out of the state. The num­ber is prob­a­bly high­er than this because it is very very hard to count remit­tances that go through infor­mal economies—a lim­i­ta­tion that the peo­ple who stud­ied this recognized—but by their very nature they are illeg­i­ble, and they are often use for remit­tance by peo­ple who are try­ing to avoid tax­es or avoid gov­ern­ments that are try­ing to skim off the top of the remit­tance econ­o­my. So again, the net­work is mak­ing things pret­ty weird.

A baby sitting at a laptop; captioned "Geeks didn't change, we just live in an eternal September now."

Eleanor: I first got online in August of 1994, just before the Internet sud­den­ly became a very dif­fer­ent place for the first of prob­a­bly the dozen or two dozen times that that’s hap­pened since then. And that cul­ture that I first came in on was a cul­ture where we were kind of off in a cor­ner doing our own thing. And that September, when all the col­lege kids came online, and then every­one else start­ed com­ing online, all of a sud­den we don’t live some­where off in a cor­ner now. All of a sud­den we live right in the mid­dle of every­thing, and every­thing that we’re doing is going to keep echo­ing through his­to­ry no mat­ter what we want to do.

One of the things that means is that we need to learn his­to­ry. It means we need to learn our own his­to­ry. If we con­tin­ue to ignore the shap­ing effect that we have on the world, we miss a lot of things. It means we’re going to keep repeat­ing the same mis­takes, it means we’re not going to under­stand the vic­to­ries that we won in the past. It means we’re not going to under­stand the vic­to­ries that oth­er peo­ple won and see the sim­i­lar­i­ties between the sit­u­a­tions that we’re in now and that some French peas­ant was in 700 years ago, or some Chinese peas­ant was in 2000 years ago. That social change is real­ly real­ly crit­i­cal. We keep hear­ing, Oh, code is law, law is code.” There’s this equiv­a­len­cy now. I think there’s some­thing deep­er there as well. I think that code becomes, giv­en 100 years, cul­ture. And that’s a lot hard­er to pre­dict, in some ways. We can look at a piece of law and make some guess­es about what effect it’s going to have on the world. It’s a lot hard­er to make the same set of guess­es about what a cul­tur­al object or a thing that will influ­ence a cul­tur­al object is going to have on the world. But if we don’t start think­ing about it we’re def­i­nite­ly not going to get there.

Quinn: One of the things that we’re talk­ing about is try­ing to stretch out our minds, stretch out our con­cep­tions of his­to­ry, while liv­ing, while those insti­tu­tions and those insti­tu­tion­al ethics that we’re talk­ing about push you towards think­ing in quar­ters. Most of cul­ture is cur­rent­ly con­duct­ed on quar­ters or maybe an annu­al cycle. But some­body point­ed out to me recent­ly that they can’t right now find any arti­cles that are mak­ing pre­dic­tions for 2014. Our time hori­zons have got­ten so short that we are too scared to pre­dict next month.

But we can look back, we can look back at dif­fer­ent points and take lessons from them. Some of the things that we face right now are unprece­dent­ed, as all his­to­ry has been, and some of it is pat­terns that we can learn from. And when we step back and look at not just things like Tyndale and More and the path they traced up to the Enlightenment, and again, inter­est­ing­ly, we can also look at things like the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of paper mon­ey in China. All these things are things that can help inform us and make us under­stand the tech­nolo­gies that we face today. But of course there are lim­its, because every moment is unprece­dent­ed. And right now there are so many frickin’ peo­ple out there. That’s what’s so strange about this moment. Every sec­ond, 217 years of human expe­ri­ence pass on this plan­et. Since we’ve been talk­ing, it’s some­thing close to 500,000 years, in the course of this talk. That’s the human atten­tion that has passed from sev­en bil­lion peo­ple while we’ve been stand­ing here.

And what I real­ly want to start push­ing on you, push­ing you towards, is try­ing to look at that long time. Try to look at what the world was like a few hun­dred years ago, and try to imag­ine what you want the world to look like in a hun­dred years. Because that’s a ques­tion very few of us can answer at this point. Not what do you think it will look like. What do you want it to look like? What do you think is right for peo­ple in a hun­dred years? How do you hope peo­ple that you will nev­er meet will live?

Screenshot of a FaceTime session, with a young boy in the main view and an older man in the smaller window; captioned "Software can be love at a distance."

Image: Gigaom

People are dif­fer­ent because of this net­work that we’ve built over the last thir­ty years, but they’re hav­ing to do it on brains that haven’t had a chance to change. Normally we have decades and even gen­er­a­tions to adjust to these kinds of change. Currently we’re liv­ing through an age where we’re hav­ing to adjust to these changes in a biologically-challenging peri­od of time. Billions of peo­ple, a num­ber that none of us can con­ceive, not just the ones on the net­work but those touched by the net­work, touched by the pres­ence of the net­work, are affect­ed by what we as a com­mu­ni­ty have built. Yes, we built a tech­nol­o­gy that lets gov­ern­ments mon­i­tor and con­trol their peo­ple. We also built a tech­nol­o­gy that lets peo­ple escape the fates that their rulers and cul­tures had for them. And some­times we built those things in the same appli­ca­tions.

You have let mil­lions, and per­haps hun­dreds of mil­lions, of chil­dren know the moth­ers and fathers who had to leave them in order to feed them and care for them, a tra­di­tion that goes back many gen­er­a­tions into social iso­la­tion and loss. You’ve tak­en away the pow­er of eco­nom­ics and dis­tance to make strangers of fam­i­lies. This is what’s buried in those dry remit­tance fig­ures: People. Families. Families of ori­gin, fam­i­lies that we cre­ate.

Distance no longer has the same pow­er of our lives because of the things that we all built in the last thir­ty years. This is what mutu­al care looks like. It looks like the faces of peo­ple. It looks like their blood and their flesh. And this is what our tech­nol­o­gy affects, con­trols, and enables. You made mil­lions of peo­ple care about mil­lions of peo­ple they did­n’t know exist­ed. You made not just dis­tance but the depth of time, the human record, all of a record­ed his­to­ry, you made it so present that we can pluck it out of the air at any moment. That’s what you did in the last thir­ty years. That’s what you gave close to two bil­lion peo­ple on this plan­et in the last thir­ty years. That’s what you’re respon­si­ble for.

I know that you did­n’t ask for this job. You did­n’t ask for this role in soci­ety. None of you, not one of you, wants to think about the many peo­ple that can be affect­ed by one fuck­ing per­fect­ly nor­mal bug or mis­take in the tech­nol­o­gy that you built. And this is one of the rea­sons we keep our heads down. No one became a geek because they want­ed to be the cen­ter of polit­i­cal atten­tion.

That just hap­pened.

You don’t get to choose. You don’t get to choose what era of his­to­ry you live in and what that era wants to do with you. And this is a moment when it’s all up for grabs. That’s what it means to say we’re on a burn­ing plan­et. And what it means to say that we don’t have neu­tral ground is that you’re at the cen­ter of that fire. You set it. You’re one of the peo­ple that set it. You’re one of the peo­ple that tend it. And every­thing you do, the changes you make over the next months and years are going to chime down decades and cen­turies and shape the lives of peo­ple you will nev­er know, but they will know you. For one thing, your lives are very well-recorded.

At this point, this is where we are in his­to­ry, but we’re stand­ing at a con­fer­ence where we still have to remind peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty to eat and bathe them­selves. It is time for us to up our game.

Quinn: I believe we will be tak­ing ques­tions at the mics. And pos­si­bly from the Internet, I’m not sure.

By the way, many of the cita­tions that we used, not all but many of the cita­tions that we used in the talk are con­tained with­in these books and essays and so on and so forth, and togeth­er they make a pret­ty inter­est­ing follow-on cur­ricu­lum, as it were, for the con­cepts we’ve been talk­ing about.


Audience 1: Thank you for the presentation. After the printing technology came, we saw emancipation of the human being, human rights, end of slavery. Do you think there could be something similar happening with new man, which is enhanced man, and also going through emancipation and of digital slavery and new human rights?

Quinn: Interestingly, we saw slavery as an explicit condition abolished but we saw it as an implicit condition expanded. So we have various people who end up essentially living in slave-like conditions. They can't be bought or sold (well, in some cases they almost can be) but it's interesting to watch how that institution changed and I think actually it's a really really important point. Because this kind of modified human being (we're all basically cyborgs of some sort or another at this point) living on a cyborg planet. If you look at this planet, this is not what the planet naturally looks like; this is what we have now. And I think that the job of our generation especially, and the next generation, is going to be to try and end the slavery without instantiating a new, subtler form of slavery like we did last time.

So this is coming. These enhancements are coming. There's nothing we can do about it except make it positive. I see ways in which emergent structures can make this world a much better place, but I also see ways in which emergent structures, fighting state power, turning violent, could make a completely gray, featureless, terrible planet where anyone who was different was instantly destroyed. I think that's what our network could do in the worst case. I'd rather it didn't do that.

Audience 2: Not so much a question as a comment. I would like to encourage in addition to reading those books that we need to learn and remember more about our own history, including our very recent history. It disturbs me that there are books about cryptographic algorithms, there are books about early days of hacking, but I talk to people younger than myself who are in their teens and twenties, and from the people I've talked to there is an astounding lack of awareness of say, the first crypto war. Nobody that I know of who is significantly younger than me knows about the Clipper chip, or Fortezza, or how we got open crypto with the combination of the expiration of patents and some of the other free software that developed. The period of 1988 to 1992 as a collected history seems to be blank.

Quinn: So let me actually build on that real quick—

Audience 2: I find that profoundly disturbing.

Quinn: Can everybody in the room who has some sort of computer science degree or related degree put up your hand? Keep your hands up. Now, everyone who read Claude Shannon in school put your hands down. So all of you are people with CS degrees who didn't read Claude Shannon, one of the most fundamental voices in everything you do. And that kind of goes to this interesting point about understanding our history. I think one of the great things you can do is talk to old people. Ask them what life used to be like.

Audience 2: I will talk your ear off about this because I have friends [inaudible] to it

Quinn: But let's make sure other people can actually talk.

Audience 3: So you talked about the view of the states while the state itself is just some sort of technology to keep society or humankind working. I really enjoyed your talk. I was thinking whether you had thought about the possibility that some sort of new technologies we are inventing, building, may even supersede state structure and even more fundamental[ly] change how humans interact on the global level.

Eleanor: While we could and may replace the state, I really like roads. One of the things that we often end up doing, and especially in the geek community, we will end up building technologies which, well they sort of mostly work. That doesn't cut it for water systems. That doesn't cut it for a lot of the stuff that keeps us alive. I don't think it is unreasonable to start the project of trying to replace the state. I definitely don't. But we need to make sure that we get it right, because if you fuck that one up too badly things get really really horrific.

Audience 3: I completely agree, but I was just, I thought this talk was a bit focused on the state while the state for me is just another technology, and—

Eleanor: The state is the technology that has kept most humans alive for most of recorded history. So it's reasonable to spend a certain amount of time on it.

Audience 4: Thank you for a brilliant talk. Basically for me it boils down to this, so instead of a question: People don't be scared, be prepared, don't be predictable.

Presider: Questions are short sentences with a question mark, and could you please quiet down some. The people who are watching the stream are complaining about the audio quality because of the noise of people entering and leaving. So either come and take a seat, be quiet, or just leave. Thank you. And the next question, we have one last question.

Audience 5: So actually, I am afraid, I'm very very afraid. Because I feel like we're walking on a very very thin line, because the actions that we take could easily tip whatever will happen in the favor of what we want or what we don't want. And I feel like even when I look backwards in history it's never been like this, that I basically when I try to create something I might later wake up in a scene of a dystopian movie where all I have created ends up destroying all that I love. So how can I not be afraid?

Eleanor: I think that was always true. But you were going to be dead before it happened.

Audience 5: That's awesome.

Quinn: I want to tell you quickly about Fritz Haber. Fritz Haber is a guy who dedicated his life to inventing as many horrific chemical weapons as he could, and along the way he worked out nitrogen fixing. Which is why we have all these people. And what's really interesting about that to me… Things like Fritz Haber is one of the people I keep in mind when I think to some degree we have to let go of the fear because I think we will never actually control the good or ill we do in the world. We can nudge, we can push, we can hope, but at the end if the most amazing boon to human life came from a guy who was trying to invent chemical weapons, no one's driving this crazy train.


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