Protest against mass surveillance in Washington DC, October 2013. Shuttershock/Rena Schild. All rights reservedIt’s Monday morning and you’re preparing your first cup of coffee when the tanks roll into your neighborhood. Phone lines are cut, curfew is activated, and doors are broken down.
You sigh. It’s another “cleanout day” in the not too distant future.
The War On Terror has infiltrated every layer of society. Internet sites track the spread of extremism like the CDC tracks a lethal virus. The threat is pandemic and online news sources agree: In order to keep you safe, weekly cleanout campaigns must ramp up all across the nation – yet again.
Today you just happen to be in the red zone.
The main annoyance about being in a red zone is usually the loss of your phone signal. But today is different. A close friend has gone missing – along with his past. Online he is linked to terrorist affiliations. The rest of his life has been erased.
You post a “WTF” remark on social media and 60 minutes later you hear a loud bang as the front door crashes in.
Dystopia as a recurring theme
The dystopian reality where everyone is a suspect and the war is an ongoing battle to “keep you safe” is a recurring theme in literature, sci-fi, movies, and historical reality - from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.
Dystopia is an archetypal projection of the future because it’s a repetitive construct of our past.
From the rise of the Hellenic tyranny to the 20th century dictators, tyrants have maintained power by waging clandestine wars against the citizens who doubt their legitimacy. It’s the perfect self-perpetuating machine. Enemies feed the totalitarian society with a purpose while the economy is fed with a permanent war.
It would be overly buoyant to expect that we’ve learned enough from our past to avoid a recurrence. Looking at the current fundamentals, you could argue that the table is set. We live in the midst of a burgeoning military industrial complex that Roosevelt warned us about 50 years ago. Forty percent of every U.S. income tax dollar is spent on defense. Out of 162 countries studied by the Institute For Economics and Peace in 2014, only 11 were not in a conflict.
To build a tyranny, you first have to set the Reichstag on fire.
Meanwhile we’re still in the honeymoon phase of the internet’s promise. Cyberspace makes life more convenient, transparent, and in some ways a bit safer. Citizen surveillance catches racist cops and serial pedophiles. Even Arab Spring launched online. Unjust systems watch out for tweets. Only a few regimes remain immune, like North Korea where the internet is used exclusively by the government.
(North Korea is a gift to mankind because it provides a lucid example of how directly proportional the proliferation of alternate viewpoints is to the level of cultural evolution. Having a conversation with a North Korean is about as inspiring as having a conversation with a 19th century gramophone.)
Despite all the obvious advantages of total connectivity, the technological upside of digital tyranny is almost too sweet to pass up.
The internet is an open system that already contains enough individual metrics to predict and alter your future behavior. Done right, digital totalitarianism doesn’t have to become apparent. It can layer up snugly with a seemingly normal society, growing innocently along with customer service quality.
Facebook can already predict your personality type, length of your relationship and job performance and use them to target you with products, content and activity. A British MP recently called for a parliamentary investigation of Facebook after finding out about their experimentation with “massive-scale emotional contagion” (a psychological technique to “converge” group emotions). More than two million American voters were influenced by a Facebook psychology experiment in the 2012 presidential election, and a similar, more massive campaign was executed on Election Day 2014 - with a Republican landslide.
For Facebook, it’s a way to improve conversion rates, but imagine these algorithms in the wrong hands. “Soft attacks” that erode your life by manipulating your social circle, credit record, career opportunities, and financial records. “Hard attacks” that erase your digital identity overnight and leave the vestiges for the cleanout crew.
Digital dystopia starts with the best of intentions. It can end up as a game changer for our species – by altering our evolutionary course.
The evolution factor
Evolution is driven by a simple principle that has both a purpose and a direction, proposes Robert Wright, a Princeton scholar and pioneer in the study of Evolutionary Psychology, in his book Non-Zero: The Logic Of Human Destiny.
The principle is communication – communication that leads to co-operation between increasingly complex entities, like cells or humans.
Cells formed because molecules began communicating with each other via chemical interaction through trial and error. The successful exchanges became the building blocks of life, after an infinite number of mistakes. The cells communicated with each other to form organisms and the organisms eventually united into a multi-organism known as human.
Life seems so incredibly precious because we’re the result of a series of infinitesimally improbable communication successes. Biological evolution takes billions of years because it takes a generation to pass on a gene. Cultural evolution can take a quantum leap within years, weeks, or even hours – because it spreads via memes (ideas) that can combine, mutate and propagate instantly – if not hindered.
The modern human brain doesn’t differ from the caveman brain in terms of processing capacity. What sets us apart from the Cro-Magnon is our ability to exchange ideas faster.
Modern civilization started the day we invented the alphabet. It accelerated logarithmically the day we built the printing press. The next quantum steps came with electronic communication. As a result, the last century became a fury of cultural evolution. The bulk of what we have achieved and destroyed has unfolded in the last 100 years. The planet is a mess, alas, but meanwhile we’ve developed the tools to become truly powerful communicators (a trait that can also be used to save the planet).
With the internet, the next evolution phase is going to be fury to the power of three.
Only by controlling the principal infrastructure for communication can we hinder the inevitable progress of our species, which in our case will increasingly be the internet.
In the past when tyrants built ruling systems that limited the free exchange of ideas, a revolution eventually dismantled their regime. But what if the communication architecture was controlled by the tyrant?
The only way to stop the dystopian future is to spot the early symptoms, before it gets deep into our circuitry.
The numbness factor
We already know that the major portals and telecommunications companies are forced to co-operate with the NSA. That PRISM siphons the bulk of our communications and personal data. That 12,000 lobbyists in Washington are making sure the government is an extension of corporate policy, including portal policy. Google has become one of the biggest lobbying spenders in Washington D.C.
Yet we’re numb to it all. We live in an age of information glut where it’s difficult to distinguish between caliber journalism and conspiratorial garbage. And we don’t want to risk being associated with the latter. Investigative jewels, like Julian Assange’s recent Google Is Not What It Seems, risk getting lost in the noise.
Julian’s piece outlines how two Google executives, in particular CEO Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, have been getting cozy with the State Department, especially Hillary Clinton. Schmidt takes trips to Afghanistan and sets up think tanks that support US foreign policy. He hangs out with Kissinger, joins the Council on Foreign Relations as the “terrorism expert”, and states in his own book that information companies are the future “Lockheed Martins” in the fight against terrorism. Schmidt also enters into “formal information-sharing” agreements with the NSA, develops applications co-funded with the CIA, and launches spy satellites into space with the Pentagon.
Knock knock, anyone? Google already controls two thirds of the information we access on the internet. A top-level affiliation between the dominant Internet engine, the military, the spy system, and the government is not just Bolognese.
Schmidt is most likely an incredibly brilliant guy who is following his conscience about what’s right. He may be thinking that American foreign policy may need a digital nudge to make the world a safer place. But he is facilitating an unholy alliance. What Schmidt doesn’t know is which power players may be controlling the algorithms tomorrow and with what intent.
Google hanging out with State Department may seem insignificant in the bigger scope of things. The problem is that it’s not an isolated event. It’s a drop in a flood.
Robert Wright finishes Non-Zero with a prediction about our destiny. But first he makes certain that we understand that evolution has nothing to do with the concept of ethics. The future is neither good nor bad.
Wright believes that evolution has a clear direction, an endgame that all cellular life tends to move towards – and it’s a benevolent one. As long as human societies are allowed to evolve without an interfering force, like a tyranny or a totalitarian structure, we move toward it.
It’s called consciousness.
Not only individual consciousness but it’s the whole enchilada. A planetary-wide blooming that erases distinctions between organisms, fauna and flora, and creates one happy ball of light, before it goes intergalactic.
It sounds more like Philip K. Dick, and could take another billion years, but Wright is a scientist. He’s simply been observing how we roll.
That’s what we risk if we interfere with the internet.
A happy ball of light.