Posts Tagged ‘ internet ’

Edward Snowden Made Me Sick

“It’s the police, let us in.”

I didn’t expect that when I answered the buzzer. I’ve rarely attracted the attention of the police. They had never been to my door before. At first, I imagined from the plain clothes of the two officers that they must be CID. They were both men with London accents, and both wearing trenchcoats. One was middle aged, and clearly used to getting his way. The other was younger, black with crew cut hair, and surprisingly nervous.

Rather than coming to their point, they asked me several roundabout questions about plans for protests against the G8, which was to be held at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland later that year. Slowly, it dawned on me that they were not from CID, that these police officers were interested in my politics. As an activist who was brought up in the Gleneagles area, I had tried to arrange a meeting between protesters and locals.

I asked “Is this about the email I sent to Blackford community council, asking for a public meeting?” The older police officer turned to his colleague and said, theatrically, “Oh, is it that Alistair Davidson?”, as though he had no idea whose door he had come to. They asked me to inform on my friends and fellow protesters. I refused. They left.

I now know that at least one of the protesters I had met, Mark Stone, was a police officer himself.

I’m relating this story now because that was the day that I learned that as a result of peaceful political activity, I was on a government list. Somewhere in the security service’s database there is a file with my name. Five years ago, it would be very small and very boring, the story of a young man who had been to a few protests, sat on a few committees, and occasionally wrote articles.

I’m sickened by what my file might contain today. The sickness came upon me last night, as I spoke to a friend on Facebook. I realised that our conversation, and every similar conversation, was being recorded. How notorious would I have to be for it to be kept forever, just in case? Hard drives are very cheap. I expect not that notorious at all.

Then I started to consider all the emails in my inbox. Love letters. Breakup letters. Chats with my sister about our childhoods and futures. Medical information about my family. I realised that if men in trenchcoats ever come to my door again, they will first rummage through all of that, looking for a lever, something to tempt or threaten me. Maybe, I realised, that has already happened.

I’ve felt ill ever since.

Trillions of Tiny Flowcharts

Trillions of tiny flowcharts, in everything we touch. Whirling around in decision-making circles, deciding what we can and cannot do, deciding who owns and who does not, deciding what can be said and what must be censored – lists of instructions enacting law itself. Lists of instructions in our cars, our fridges, our televisions. Instructions in our books and notepads and telephones. Trillions of automated ironclad laws, ruling every aspect of our lives with the inflexible precision of a machine. That is our future.

Computers can seem mysterious and magical, but they need not be – they are simply machines that perform a given list of instructions and make either/or decisions, just like a person reading a flowchart. They are not magical, but they seem so because the same computer can read and enact any flowchart we give it. The chart’s boxes could contain a huge series of either/or decisions based on joystick movements and instructions to display a fantastic fantasy world, or they could tell a washing machine’s drum to fill with water before beginning the spin cycle.

It is flowcharts that matter, not computers. In China, internet traffic passes through computers instructed to silently censor web pages containing forbidden words. Recently, Amazon pressed a button that brought a set of instructions to life in every Kindle e-book reader in America, remotely deleting illicit copies of 1984 and Animal Farm.

All we need to understand about computers is that they operate like the familiar flowchart. As more and more objects come to contain microchips, more and more objects are operated by lists of instructions and simple binary decisions. We are accelerating towards a pervasive computing future where every tool we touch and even our bodies contain microchips, all controlled by mindlessly-executed lists of instructions: a future of trillions of tiny flowcharts in everything we touch.

We will interact with these charts through user interfaces. User interfaces are form divorced from function. Word has no need to look like a printer’s typesetting equipment; twitter has no physical object to imitate at all. Interfaces encourage some behaviours, and discourage others. Together these things mean that interfaces are objects of pure ideology. Slavoj Zizek argues that the truest ideology is one you obey while denying it. We all share our lives on Facebook, even though we decry its centralisation and poor privacy controls.

Interfaces, and the instructions to be found under the hood, can be owned in two different ways. Some are owned by private companies and individuals, Microsoft Word is a good example. You may only buy copies of Word from Microsoft, and the copy they sell has a confusing flowchart that few humans can read. Microsoft keeps the human-readable copies secret, so only Microsoft can set what the flowcharts inside Word do – you, or your friendly neighbourhood programmer, cannot change their behaviour. Among other things, this allows Microsoft to make it difficult for word processors made by other companies to edit Word documents.

Facebook don’t even let you have an obfuscated copy of the instructions – instead they keep the diagrams locked away at Facebook HQ, along with all your personal information and photographs. The Facebook webpage is a user interface that gives us an illusion of control over instruction lists belonging to somebody else. Facebook’s interface has been deliberately designed by behavioural psychologists to encourage users to share more information more publicly, because users posting private details publicly is in Facebook’s financial interests. This is the replication of concrete ideology reduced to a mathematical science.

Interfaces and flowcharts can also be held in common. Software held in common is called Open Source, Free Software or Software Libre. Android phones are just one example. On the web, you can download hundreds of alternative versions of Google Android made by people who wanted their phone to behave differently from the norm. If our phones were ever changed to censor our conversations, Android users could turn off the behaviour. iPhone users could not.

In the near future we will not have personal computers. Instead, computers will pervade everything. Every tool will execute lists of instructions, flowcharts, laws. The network will be totalitarian. We are the generation who must answer an epochal question: who will control these new automated laws?

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