Part 2 The Brave New World of 1984 Shrugged
In case you missed part one – The Internet of Things and Big Data
We are in some strange, strange times everyone. The exponential growth of technology is both a beautiful and scary phenomenon. It’s a double-edged sword as they say. I have to necessarily look at the dark edge in this part of the series because it’s very important for us all to understand what we’re up against. We cannot blindly move forward in to the future expecting everything to be alright. When we look at the Web objectively, does it really improve our lives fundamentally? In what ways can it actually lower the quality of our lives and threaten our future?
Much of the great dystopian and science fiction literature of the 20th century warned us of potential scenarios involving prevailing trends in technology, centralization of corporate and state power, and so on. We are in the midst of that. Fortunately, the seeds of that literature have been sewn in the minds of the various intellectuals who wish to make a difference in the world, and I have faith that we CAN and WILL design a better tomorrow. Just as an individual can imagine various possible scenarios and choose the best one to move towards, so too can we as a society, and as a species.
This part will talk about some issues that may not seem related to the web, but most certainly are, because the web is beginning to completely permeate our lives, our organizations, our institutions, the economy, our government, everything.
The Destruction of the Middle Class
First of all stop blaming Republicans or Democrats for the widening income gap. Many of the problems we currently face are outside of the misguided political game and are in fact of a technological nature (along with greed). We are fast becoming a vastly more efficient species, but we’re not using that efficiency the right way.
I’m a huge fan of a guy named Jaron Lanier. He is a brilliant thinker and virtual reality pioneer, and in his latest book Who Owns the Future, he outlines the nature of the problem perfectly. It is the “Siren Server”, a central server that is fed data from millions of people and becomes a highly efficient wealth-sucking, job-destroying monster. An allusion to the sirens of The Odyssey, they are enticing because they offer “free” services. Almost every Web 2.0 technology has some elements of a Siren Server.
Let me explain. On the internet today you are inundated with free services. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. This “Free Information” model of the internet had good intentions, but we are now beginning to realize the problems it creates – Centralized power and wealth in few hands and very little job growth for middle class people. In the words of HCI pioneer Bill Buxton, our addiction to technology is like an addiction to cracker jacks. (Yes, he actually said that in a lecture I attended) And we can’t stop eating them – Not realizing that in the grand scheme of things we are reducing our future job prospects, for ourselves and our children.
A commonly cited example of how Web 2.0 technologies tend to destroy more jobs than they create is Kodak vs Instagram – Kodak was a company that employed nearly 150,000 employees worldwide and empowered people to inexpensively take photos and share them with others. Compare that to the Web 2.0 service Instagram – a company that employed a mere 13 people when it was bought by Facebook in 2012. Everyone has cameras in their pockets now and they just want a simple service for sharing photos with others.
Yes companies come and go, but in this age it’s different. There are huge boosts in efficiency happening in which human labor is becoming unnecessary. This is a beautiful thing in principle, something philosophers pondered about millennia ago – But Siren Servers and the corporations that run them are capitalizing on it and hollowing out the middle class.
Am I suggesting forced redistribution of wealth to compensate? Not at all. Nobody supports free enterprise more than I do, but the system has to be in favor of individuals trying to make an honest living and form a strong middle-class. Else we are going towards a future where haves and have-nots are taken to an EXTREME level. This is basically stepping backwards as far as progress goes.
We will explore some possible solutions to this problem in Part 3.
Consider this – Every piece of information you freely give away to corporations dehumanizes you. It turns you into a piece of data to be fed into a Siren Server. This is the price we will pay for personalized marketing. We may see each other as wonderfully complex, beautiful, spiritual beings but Siren Servers (and the corporations that control them) will always see us as nothing more than data. And data is the new oil.
This may seem harmless now, but rest-assured it won’t be in the not-too-distant future. Consider the upcoming revolution in health informatics. It’s one thing to give away our hobbies and interests to corporations, it’s another thing entirely to give away our health information. A product or service that allows you to keep track of your health vitals for free may sound great – But consider that they will own that information and could potentially manipulate it to influence your behavior. This behavior could in turn make them more profit. This is the hidden cost that many people may not foresee.
Take it even farther and we literally become like cogs in a machine. In the movie The Matrix, humans become so dehumanized that they are quite literally fuel for the machines – Having no other purpose than to live artificial, simulated lives in which their free will is entirely an illusion. That brings up my next point.
Free Will vs Determinism
Beth brought up some interesting points about the future of search in her recent post. The move towards more contextual search means search engines like Google will be able to make predictions about what you’re searching for and give you highly contextual and personalized results. But what are the implications of that from the perspective of free will?
There’s no conspiracy theory here. It’s simply the battle of free-will versus determinism that has been going on since the beginning of civilization. How much free will are we willing to give away to reap the benefits of our technology? At what point does it stop becoming worth it? At what point do our lives become so predetermined and templated that they become essentially meaningless? For most of human history, people’s lives were predetermined and meaningless. The vast majority of people were poor, ignorant, and had very little social or economic freedom. In the modern world, and especially the United States, we enjoy the most free will human beings have ever had – And yet we are in danger of throwing it all away.
Consider that the “choices” you’d be making would be completely predetermined by computer algorithms, making you less in control of your destiny. You would be classified and put in various groups such that you and people like you would be led like blind sheep towards certain products or services – All while having the illusion that you are the one in control!
Granted, we can’t really prove or disprove whether or not we have free will even now. It very well could be an illusion, regardless of technology. However, it is the BELIEF in free will that allows people to do great things.
In Cardinal Nick Mahoney’s recent post he brought up an interesting topic which is the privacy of our information. Are we entering an era of virtually no privacy due to the internet? Possibly. And it’s not just about what we do on websites. A recent 60 minutes story showed how some companies are considering adding cameras to their storefronts with facial recognition software, much like Minority Report – Allowing them to personalize experiences to those individuals based on what they know about them. Of course, there are pros and cons to this reduced privacy.
It could be a a world in which there are no kidnappings, rapes, or murders (or at least none that will go without justice) due to the myriad of cameras and tracking devices that will permeate our designed and built environment.
There will be greater transparency in both corporations and the government. There will be fewer secrets and greater accountability for CEOs, politicians, and Wall Street. This would hopefully lead to having leaders of greater character than we have currently.
Less secrets in general would lead to greater honesty and truth in our society – Certainly a good thing considering deception is the very nature of evil and the basis of corruption.
A police state not unlike 1984 in which every move you make or thing you say can be held against you. Conspiracy theories aside, it’s really not that far-fetched and we’ve been slowly moving towards it rather we like it or not.
All things considered we have to realize that there will undoubtedly be less privacy in the future – In fact it may be something people pay a premium for one day. Don’t take it for granted and enjoy it while it lasts. Get all of the skeletons out of the closet now. Fess up about those hookers you payed for at your bachelor party – Or your wife will find the video footage… or the audio … or the texts…or the Facebook post… or the Instagram post… or the payment history from online bank statements… Or the Xbox One recorded video… or the webcam video from your laptop… or the Google Glass video…
Should I Lose Hope???
Not at all! To end on a positive note, there have been proposals for a “Digital Bill of Rights” protecting people’s information on the web. This is a MUST in order for the internet to keep our society open, and to support a middle class of individuals trying to make a living. I would argue that it is just as important as the United States Bill of Rights, perhaps even more so because it actually involves everyone that uses the internet, regardless of nationality – And that’s BILLIONS of people.
1. Freedom – digital citizens have a right to a free, uncensored internet
2. Openness – digital citizens have a right to an open, unobstructed internet
3. Equality – all digital citizens are created equal on the internet
4. Participation – digital citizens have a right to peaceably participate where and how they choose on the internet
5. Creativity – digital citizens have a right to create, grow and collaborate on the internet, and be held accountable for what they create
6. Sharing – digital citizens have a right to freely share their ideas, lawful discoveries and opinions on the internet
7. Accessibility – digital citizens have a right to access the internet equally, regardless of who they are or where they are
8. Association – digital citizens have a right to freely associate on the internet
9. Privacy – digital citizens have a right to privacy on the internet
10. Property – digital citizens have a right to benefit from what they create, and be secure in their intellectual property on the internet
Just keep this in mind – The future of the web is very closely tied to the future of modern civilization. If you don’t see that yet, you soon will – But in the last and final part of this series we will explore the more distant future and just what the web can become ULTIMATELY. I can promise you the climax will blow your mind. Stay tuned.