Posts about dystopia

In this crisis, God bless the net

Imagine, just try to imagine what it would be like to weather this very real-world crisis without the internet. Then imagine all the ways it can help even more. And stop, please stop claiming the net is broken and makes the world worse. It doesn’t. In this moment, be grateful for it.

What we need most right now is expertise. Thanks to the net, it’s not at all hard to find. I spent a few hours putting together a COVID Twitter list of more than 200 experts: doctors, epidemiologists, academics, policymakers, and journalists. It is already invaluable to me, giving me and anyone who cares to follow it news, facts, data, education, context, answers. Between social and search, good information is easy to find — and disinformation easy to deflate and ignore.

Through that list and elsewhere on the net, I am heartened to see how generously and quickly experts are sharing information with each other: asking for data on presenting symptoms, or emergency room experience in Italy and China, or information on how long the virus stays active on various surfaces. The net will help them do their jobs more effectively and that will benefit us all.

On social media, I have watched citizens connect, gather, and mobilize to press authorities and companies to act responsibly (well, except the ones who are never responsible). CUNY students used hashtags and petitions to hold a virtual protest or march — or very nearly riot — to insist that our classes go online. It worked.

Online, we can thus see the shaping of public policy occur in public, with the public, in full view, and with complete accountability. On social media, we the people get to lobby for what matters most urgently to us in this crisis: availability of free testing, help for workers over companies, paid sick leave. I am confident that without the collective voice of the concerned public online, the powerful would have been much slower to act.

In the coming weeks — months?— of social distancing, we will feel isolated, anxious, bored, stir-crazy; we will need to reach out to the people we cannot touch. The net — yes, Facebook and Twitter — will enable us to socialize, to connect with friends and family, to find and offer help, to stay connected with each other, to stay sane. How invaluable is that! Imagine having only the telephone. Imagine a crisis without the relief of humor, without silly social memes.*

Of course, it is the net and all its tools that empower us to work at home, to keep the economy moving in spite of shutting the physical presences of most every business, to keep many — if too few — people employed. Imagine the value of the economy during a pandemic without the net.

It is the net that also allows us to buy from Amazon — even if we go overboard with everything good and use this power to hoard toilet paper.

The internet is doing just what it should do: connect people with information, people with people, information with information. It enables us to speak, listen, assemble, and act from anywhere. It is just what we need today.

I have been upset lately with some people claiming that the net is broken. This often comes from technologists who helped build the net we have, who go through some sort of Damascene conversion, who then claim that the net is breaking society, and who ultimately argue that they are the ones to fix it — fix what they helped break in the first place. What boundless, self-serving, privileged hubris.

I was going to write a screed about the damage these dystopians can do to the freedoms the net brings us, and I probably still will. But then news overtook my attention and I decided instead that this is the moment to remind us of the gift the net is, how much we depend upon it, and how grateful we should be for it. So much attention in media and government lately goes to what is wrong on and about the net, blaming it for our human shortcomings. But I repeat: It is wonderfully easy to find good information from experts in this moment and it is easy to ignore the idiots. What’s been wrong is that we have been paying too much attention to those idiots. Hell, we elected one president. No, I don’t blame the net for that. I blame old, mass media: Fox News and talk radio. You want to hold someone responsible for the mess we are in? Start there.

So now let us turn our attention to how to improve — not fix — the net and, more to the point, how we use it. We need more mechanisms to find and listen to expertise and authority. We need better means to listen to communities in need and communities too long ignored by Gutenberg’s old, mass media. We need to develop models for supporting sharing of reliable information and continually educating people. There is much work to do.

Is the net perfect? Of course, it is not. I’ll remind you that when movable type was introduced, it was used to print lies and hate, to bring the corruption of indulgences to scale, to seed nationalism, and to fuel peasant uprisings and massacres, the Thirty Years War, and perhaps every Western war since. Did print break society? No, it let society be what society would be. Did we ever perfect print? Of course not. Could we imagine life without it? No.

Martin Luther called printing “the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.” Well, I’d say God outdid herself with her next act.

* Favorite meme so far:

‘Decomputerize?’ Over My Dead Laptop!

This week, I wrote a dystopia of the dystopians, an extrapolation of current wishes among the anti-tech among us about dangers and regulation of technology, data, and the net. I tried to be detailed and in that I feared I may have gone too far. But now The Guardian shows me I wasn’t nearly dystopian enough, for a columnist there has beaten me to hell.

“To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution,” declares the headline over Ben Tarnoff’s screed.

He essentially makes the argument that computers use a lot of energy; consumption of energy is killing the planet; ergo we should destroy the computers to save the planet.

But that is a smokescreen for his true argument against his real devil, data. And that frightens me. For to argue against data overall — its creation, its gathering, its analysis, its use — is to argue against information and knowledge. Tarnoff isn’t just trying to reverse the Digital Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. He’s trying to roll back the fucking Enlightenment.

That he is doing this in the pages of The Guardian, a paper I admire and love (and have worked and written for) saddens me doubly, for this is a news organization that once explored the opportunities — and risks — of technology with open eyes and curiosity in its reporting and with daring in its own strategy. Now its writers cry doom at every turn:

Digitization is a climate disaster: if corporations and governments succeed in making vastly more of our world into data, there will be less of a world left for us to live in.

It’s all digitization’s fault. That is textbook moral panic. To call on Ashley Crossman’s definition: “A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fuelled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.”

The Bogeyman, in Tarnoff’s nightmare, is machine learning, for it creates an endless hunger for data to learn from. He acknowledges that computer scientists are working to run more of their machines off renewable energy rather than fossil fuel — see today’s announcement by Jeff Bezos. But again, computers consuming electricity isn’t Tarnoff’s real target.

But it’s clear that confronting the climate crisis will require something more radical than just making data greener. That’s why we should put another tactic on the table: making less data. We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives.

To decarbonize, we need to decomputerize.

This proposal will no doubt be met with charges of Luddism. Good: Luddism is a label to embrace. The Luddites were heroic figures and acute technological thinkers.

Tarnoff admires the Luddites because they didn’t care about improvement in the future but fought to hold off that future because of their present complaints. They smashed looms. He wants to “destroy machinery hurtful to the common good.” He wants to smash computers. He wants to control and curtail data. He wants to reduce information .

No. Controlling information — call it data or call it knowledge — is never the solution, not in a free and enlightened society (not especially at the call of a journalist). If regulate you must, then regulate information’s use: You are free to know that I am 65 years old but you are not free to discriminate against me on the basis of that knowledge. Don’t outlaw facial recognition for police — as Bernie Sanders now proposes — instead, police how they use it. Don’t turn “machine learning” into a scare word and forbid it — when it can save lives — and be specific, bringing real evidence of the harms you anticipate, before cutting off the benefits. On this particular topic, I recommend Benedict Evans’ wise piece comparing today’s issues with facial recognition to those we had with databases at their introduction.

Here is where Tarnoff ends. Am I the only one who sees the irony in the greatest progressive newspaper of the English-speaking world coming out against progress?

The zero-carbon commonwealth of the future must empower people to decide not just how technologies are built and implemented, but whether they’re built and implemented. Progress is an abstraction that has done a lot of damage over the centuries. Luddism urges us to consider: progress towards what and progress for whom? Sometimes a technology shouldn’t exist. Sometimes the best thing to do with a machine is to break it.

Save us from the doomsayers.