For years I’ve posted about various kinds of government oppression on Hacker News, and for years I’ve heard the same thing: This is all political bullshit. I want to hear things that are more important, like tech news or information about how to program better.
And it’s not just online boards. Many founders of popular internet sites all say the same thing: We’re here making the world a better place. You’re really going to like it! (We know this because we’re A/B testing every little thing we do). All that politics stuff is for politicians and loser political types. Come and make a better world so that information and freedom can connect all of us together. It’s going to be a beautiful future. We’re the good guys.”
Indeed. It seems that as long as you can wave your arms around, vaguely describe some super cool future with flying cars and borg-like clothing, everything is going to work out fine. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Pay no attention to how things are actually turning out.
Take a look at “The New Digital Age”, a book full of such baloney. Evgeny Morozov tears the book apart (as opposed to most of the tech media, which seems to still be buying it)
The original concepts introduced in The New Digital Age derive their novelty from what might be described as the two-world hypothesis: that there is an analog world out there—where, say, people buy books by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen—and a matching virtual world, where all sorts of weird, dangerous, and subversive things might happen. Or, as the authors themselves put it, “one [world] is physical and has developed over thousands of years, and the other [world] is virtual and is still very much in formation.“ As “the vast majority of us will increasingly find ourselves living, working and being governed in two worlds at once,” new problems will emerge and demand original solutions.
Cohen and Schmidt argue—without a hint of irony—that “the printing press, the landline, the radio, the television, and the fax machine all represent technological revolutions, but [they] all required intermediaries. … [The digital revolution] is the first that will make it possible for almost everybody to own, develop and disseminate real-time content without having to rely on intermediaries.” Presumably we will disseminate “real-time content” brain to brain, because that is the only way to avoid intermediaries. Coming from senior executives of the world’s most powerful intermediary—the one that shapes how we find information (not to mention Google’s expansion into fields like fiber networks)—all this talk about the disappearance of intermediaries is truly bizarre and disingenuous. This may have been more accurate in the 1990s, when everyone was encouraged to run their own e-mail server—but the authors appear to have missed the advent of cloud computing and the subsequent empowerment of a handful of information intermediaries (Google, Facebook, Amazon). Not surprisingly, Cohen and Schmidt contradict their own gospel of disintermediation when they mention just how easy it was to weaken WikiLeaks by going after companies such as Amazon and PayPal.
…Why do so many of the trivial claims in this book appear to have gravitas? It’s quite simple: the two-world hypothesis endows claims, trends, and objects with importance—regardless of how inconsequential they really are—based solely on their membership in the new revolutionary world, which itself exists only because it has been posited by the hypothesis. Consider another claim from Schmidt and Cohen’s book: that “governments … may go to war in cyberspace but maintain the peace in the physical world.” Something clearly isn’t right here. If governments are at war—a condition well-described in international law—then they are at war everywhere; as with pregnancy, one cannot be just a little bit “at war.” If governments engage in skirmishes that do not amount to war—a condition that is also well known to students of international law and politics—then they are not at war. It is certainly the case that increased connectivity has made it easier to engage in new skirmishes, but we are not dealing with anything even remotely revolutionary here. The banal truth buried in Schmidt and Cohen’s hyperbole is something like: governments can now mess up each other’s networks in much the same way that they mess up each other’s embassies. A revolution in global affairs it isn’t.
…When someone writes a sentence that begins “if the causes of radicalization are similar everywhere,” you know that their understanding of politics is at best rudimentary. Do Cohen and Schmidt really believe that all these young people are alienated because they are simply misinformed? That their grievances can be cured with statistics? That “we” can just change this by finding the digital equivalent of “dropping propaganda flyers from an airplane”? That if we can just get those young people to talk to each other, they will figure it all out? “Outsiders don’t have to develop the content; they just need to create the space,” Schmidt and Cohen smugly remark. “Wire up the city, give people basic tools and they’ll do most of the work themselves.” Now it’s clear: the voice of the “we” is actually the voice of venture capital.
Apologies for the extended quote. You really should read the entire article.
The rules for polite discussion in the tech community have been fairly clear: gossip and technical talk is okay. Better still is wild-eyed, empty-headed pandering with vauge statements about some utopian future that if we only keep writing more code and developing more products, will appear. The rest of the talk, about oppression and government intrusion of our lives, is “political bullshit”
Well the political bullshit chickens have come home to roost, and it’s time to start looking at our role in all of this.
Somewhere in the last 20 years a hacker created a hardware device that government law enforcement agencies can use to intercept and monitor cellular calls. Somewhere in the last 10 years a programmer wrote code that is being used to identify and kill dissidents. Somebody right now is creating and maintaining a portal that allows security agencies potentially unfettered access to all of our details.
The commercial sector creates things. We — programmers, hackers, and other technologists — are not creating a utopia. We are giving the rest of the world power tools to do bad things to each other and then washing our hands of it because trying to deal with the ramifications of what we’ve done is just too much for us.
I grew up with computers. In 1973, if you could have sat down with most anybody in the western world and described the amazing future technology of 2013, they would have been incredibly impressed. Connect to anybody world-wide for free? Have the world’s knowledge at your fingertips? Auto-drive cars? What an incredible future!
But then if you had explained to them the way these tools are used, their response would be much different. Controlling what people can learn, say, hear, or talk about? The ability to constantly track each person on the planet to a location within 50 meters or so? Automatically monitoring who talks to whom, what time, for how long, and so forth? Real-time information about purchases? Automatic computation of all of a person’s friends, with the ability to dive into exacting detail about their lives as well?
This is not the stuff of an incredible future. This is the stuff of a horrific science fiction movie. Nobody in their right mind would have traded all these cool gadgets for this kind of micro-cataloging of all of our lives. In fact, if the public had known exactly what was in store for them, and had they believed it, computers may well have been outlawed a long time ago.
This is not an argument against progress, or computers, or a rant on how the world is going to hell. I’m not saying that technology is the root of all evil. The world has a lot of problems that have nothing to do with technology. We’ve just help make them all worse.
This is a plea for us technologists to get our heads out of our collective asses and take a look around at what we are doing. It’s time to grow up, and it’s time to take responsibility for the surveillance states we’ve helped create. I don’t know the answer — I suspect that the best policy would be that anything the government can know, the average citizen should be able to know as well — but I do know we need to start talking about it. Not every now and then when a major story comes out, but on an ongoing basis. The impact of our work should be as important to us as the work itself.
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