Towards a twenty-first century society of control?

These highly complex systems literally disintegrate the spatial and geographical unity of political subjects, that is citizens, into streams of rights-less digital bits of data flow. No democratic system can survive and thrive in this context. But there is no going back.

Giovanni Navarria
25 November 2013

Since last June, thanks to the confidential information disclosed by Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor turned whistle-blower, a troubling truth has come to light: the Internet (and with it in fact the entire gamut of new communication technologies) have become the centre-piece of a gigantic, secret and complex system of mass surveillance used by the NSA (and also by the British Intelligence Service) to spy on citizens, on allies and enemies.

Not surprisingly, the latest edition of the Web Index, a report published annually by the World Wide Web Consortium, has remarked that the rising tide of online censorship and surveillance casts a long and threatening shadow on the future of the Internet.

It is indeed a quite ironic turn of events for the most talked about technology of freedom of the last fifty years, but, nevertheless, we should have seen it coming. We have been paving the way to it for a long time.

The intergalactic network

The Internet, not many remember, is to some extent a by-product of the Space Race which began with the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957. In the same year, a brilliant scientist, J. C. R. Licklider – whose ideas were highly influential in the subsequent development of the Internet – conducted an experiment entirely focused on his own working routine. The results showed that about 85 percent of his thinking time was absorbed in activities that had nothing of the intellectual about them, that were instead purely clerical or mechanical. Much more time, Licklider found out, ‘went into finding or obtaining information than into digesting it’. If science could find a suitable, more reliable, and faster substitute of human being for those clerical activities, Licklider theorised, this would result in an unprecedented improvement in the quality and depths of our thinking processes. In fact, individuals freed by that unnecessary burden would have more time and energy to dedicate to ‘thinking’, to ‘imagining’. In short, if machines could take care of those ‘clerical’ activities, humans would have extra time to be more creative, to interact with each other. Licklider’s ideas went beyond the era’s traditional approach that considered computers mere calculators. He envisaged a much more interactive and complex environment in which computers played the role of a natural extension of humans.

In his seminal paper Man–Computer Symbiosis published in 1960, Licklider wrote, in the near future ‘human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly’[1]. The resulting symbiosis, he postulated, will ‘think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.’  Already in the early Sixties it was clear to Licklider that computers were destined to become an integral part of human life. Licklider was thinking of what he later called, with a certain emphasis, ‘the intergalactic network.’ Such a network was intended to represent the perfect symbiosis between computers and humans, which ultimately would improve significantly the quality of our lives. That future is now here, all around us. The Internet has become a global system of computer networks, which arguably makes life easier for over two billion people worldwide. We use it for a wide range of activities: from chatting with friends to working; from shopping to learning; from leisure to politics, from sinning to praying, from stealing to spying, and so on and so forth.

Expanding the galaxy

In recent years the invention of social media and smartphones have expanded the reach and potentials of the galactic network beyond Licklider’s imagination. The plethora of social media that surround us (many of which have come and gone before we even learned their names) are less than ten years old and yet they have already become the preferred prism through which an increasing number of people experiences the world today. Among the most celebrated are the usual suspects: Facebook (date of birth is 2004, it currently has over 1 billion active users); YouTube (2005, 6 billion hours of video are watched each month; 100 hours of video are uploaded every minute); Twitter (2006, more than half a billion users and on average 58 million tweets per day).

Social media have had the merit of turning the Internet, essentially a network of machines, into a true interactive network of people, continuously sharing information and interacting with each other. The arrival of the iPhone, on the other end, has helped us break free from the shackles that for many years confined our experience of the network to within secluded spaces: our office, our home, cybercafés.

Launched by Apple in 2007, the iPhone was not the first smartphone to reach the market, but it was certainly the most successful. It revolutionised the way in which we use the Internet. Owning an iPhone not only quickly became a status symbol but it also meant freedom of movement: we no longer need to be sitting at a desk in front of a monitor to surf cyberspace. We surf on the go, wherever we are, whenever we need it. Apple’s extraordinary marketing power brought us into a new era of mobile Internet, with the same customer experience or an even better one than we had used thus far. The number of mobile-broadband subscriptions in the world today is close to 2 billion, the number of smartphones surpassed 1 billion in 2012 and it is poised to double by 2015.

The ubiquity of smartphones and social media in our lives today has arguably enhanced the way in which we experience the Internet. It has made it an important political space through which we form and share opinions and organise public contestation of power. As Clay Shirky puts it: ‘As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action.’ And, despite some recent ups and down ‘social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world's political movements’

Yet this new development did not come without cost. It had two important consequences one direct and one more subtle.

The first impacted on our independence as users: to some extent we use these media and new toys, we own them, but we no longer posses them. We require our interaction with them to be as seamless as possible. We don’t want to remember how, most of the times, in fact, we want our ‘toy’ to understand our needs and assist us as quickly as possible. ‘Siri’, Apple’s renowned voice-recognition software is a perfect example of this trend: we don’t have to type anything, we don’t have to remember complicated strings of commands, we simply say: ‘Siri find me the best Italian restaurant in a mile radius from here’. And in a fraction of a second, almost magically, Siri will do it.

This kind of pain-free user experience that makes gadgets like smartphones and more recently, tablets, preferable to the old desktops or laptops, means that most of the applications we run on these devices often do it in the background.  The amount of information these cool gadgets send out - a process which is more often than not the necessary condition for reaping most of the benefits associated with smartphones and social media - are way beyond the grasp of the average user. We use these advanced tools every day, all the time, but, most of us, struggle (or worse: don’t care?) to understand how all of it works, or what is going on. And after all, why should we? The average user needs only to be certain that his phone is always able to deliver the service requested as quickly as possible, that is, find the quickest route to the cinema, or quickly post the latest picture on Facebook. How the phone achieves such a technological feat is a matter of a surely completely uninteresting mix of sophisticated mechanics and complex algorithms.

The surveillance state

The second consequence was indeed more subtle and radically changed our relationship with governmental power.

The technological progress of the past decades has not been only about improved user-experience, but it has also created a windfall of new opportunities to gain unprecedented access to an increasingly large wealth of data exchanged constantly through a growingly complex communication galaxy. The main beneficiaries of these newfound opportunities are governments and big corporations.

Using powerful computers and software (and thanks to the cooperation provided by private Internet-service companies), many governments worldwide can nowadays easily (and simultaneously) scan and make sense of Web traffic; telephone conversations, email texts; video and images exchanged by users. Progressively, especially after the 2001 terrorist attack in New York and Washington, many governments of countries have introduced numerous new laws or tweaked existing ones to give themselves some legal basis to access these newly acquired powers. From this perspective, technology seems to have become the essential infrastructure of emerging and more elaborate variants of the notorious Oceania, the fictional surveillance state depicted by George Orwell in his 1949 dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Cutting-edge cases are plentiful in so called authoritarian regimes, but well-established democracies unfortunately are not immune from this trend. The Snowden files are, in this respect, quite revealing of the shifting role of communication technologies in democratic societies. According to Edward Snowden’s on-going revelations, Obama’s America, more than others, seems to have become the 800 pound gorilla in the room: the world’s most important democratic power has taken one or two steps too far towards blurring further the line that marks the difference between authoritarian power and democracy.

Evidences show that American Intelligence agents are using hackers’ tools to infect users’ machines and acquire the information they need. Reportedly the NSA has used specifically designed malware software to infect more than 50,000 computer networks worldwide to steal sensitive information.

One of Snowden’s latest leaks is a NSA memo named ‘SIGINT [Signals Intelligence] Strategy 2012-2016’. It shows that the Agency priority for the future is to ‘aggressively pursue legal authorities and a policy framework mapped more fully to the information age’ in order to be able to track the online activities of ‘anyone, anywhere, anytime’. The document also makes clear that the Agency needs to ‘revolutionize data analysis’ and for this it needs to increase its influence over ‘the global commercial encryption market through commercial relationships’, spies and other intelligence partners.

More worryingly, according to other documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA is able to collect each day data from ‘between 30 million and 50 million unique Internet provider addresses’. These are real-time data that provide the agency with crucial information to name, localise and map the movements of the owner of the device connected to any of those IP addresses. Showing a certain penchant for irony, the NSA calls the program the Treasure Map.

Have we gone too far?

Ideally, democratic power should always be accountable and open to scrutiny, however the secretiveness and pervasiveness of the many surveillance systems that surround us (both at state and corporate level, within and across borders) shatter the idyllic image of democracy we have cultivated for decades. These highly complex systems literally disintegrate the spatial and geographical unity of political subjects, that is citizens, into streams of rights-less digital bits of data flow. No democratic system can survive and thrive in this context.

It is worth pondering whether or not we have gone too far in our quest to become a fully functional cybernetic society, the sort of living environment in which our technological selves are increasingly considered as (or even more) important than our physical and political ones. This is a quest that carries with it a great danger of displacement: technology evolves, but society – that is, both the institutions that constitute it and the people that live within it – seem to lag dangerously behind.

But going back to a low-tech analogue world is not an option either. We have come a long way since the inception of the intergalactic network and we are now irreversibly part of the system. Our lives are continuously and necessarily immersed in a cacophony of data streams that are essential to our way of life, even though most of this data is beyond our ability to make sense or even be aware of – at least at the individual level (software and machines, as the NSA PRISM system shows us, certainly have an edge compared to what we as individuals can do).

So if we cannot go back, we must then try to re-think anew the Internet and our entire relationship with it, because what is at stake here is much bigger than an espionage scandal.

The fire that burns

In many respects technology is the defining element of the organising process of human life on this planet, it makes us unique in the animal kingdom. Our relationship with it dates back to the dawn of civilization, at least to the Middle Palaeolithic with our ancestor, Homo Erectus, in Africa. Greek mythology, however, tells us a more fascinating story: it all started with a rebellious Titan, Prometheus, who tired of seeing mankind struggling in the darkness, decided to give us the first powerful technology: fire.

Fire showed us the way out of the eternal night, while our hero Prometheus ended up strapped up onto a rock with a vicious giant eagle feeding daily on his liver. It was a particular cruel and enduring punishment, for Prometheus’ liver would magically grow back again the next day.

The history of our civilization is greatly indebted to that first fire and the many that followed. The Internet can be considered a sort of new fire, at least seen from the perspective of Licklider’s Intergalactic Network. But with any fire there is always a risk of losing control of it and reducing everything to ashes. If there is one thing our history has taught us it is that any type of technology can be exploited for the profit of the few, against the rights of the many. The Internet has not escaped such a fate. And like our mythological hero, Prometheus has found itself enslaved to a rock of its own with a different kind of giant eagle feeding savagely on its very soul.

The road ahead

To protect ourselves and build a better future, we need to devise new effective ways to keep the fire in check and get rid of the eagle. But this is a very intricate matter, more so than many seem to understand. Thus, though the Americans might have played a crucial role in giving us the Internet, the solution to this problem cannot be single-handled. It must be both a national and an international effort, an open process involving all stakeholders.

Laws must be rewritten (within and across borders) to define adequate safeguards for the users and restrain the excessive legal powers with which many governments nowadays can request access to their citizens’ data.

In this year of Web Index, only five countries out of 81 surveyed were found to follow ‘best practice standards for privacy of electronic communications, meaning both an order from an independent court and substantive justification must be provided before law enforcement or intelligence agencies can intercept electronic communications. Information on the granting of such orders must be made public’. In several countries (12 including the UK) ‘a non-particularised warrant (a 'certificated warrant') is sufficient for relevant agencies to intercept evidence’, in others (14, among these the USA) ‘there is provision for a weak form of court oversight’. This trend must change, or our future will be rather bleak.

The role of whistleblowers in our increasingly complex and secretive society has become of great importance, yet we still attach a certain stigma to them, we often call them traitors. In these troubled times, it is the wrong approach. Because, as Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) rightly put it: ‘at the end of the day when systems for checks and balances break down we have to rely on the whistleblowers – [hence] we must protect them and respect them.’

From the outset, the reality seem quite hopeless for, as Robert Hansen, a technology expert at WhiteHat Security, put it, ‘most of the things that would otherwise secure the user have historically been controlled by groups that have close ties to the government.’ At the same time, Parliamentary oversight has proven itself inadequate to respond efficiently to the task of protecting citizens’ privacy in a growingly complex information society. Many politicians have no idea how the Internet works, as Alan Rusbridger the editor of the Guardian recently reminded us from the pages of the New York Review of Books. Nevertheless things are slowly changing and there is certainly room for improvement.

The recent scandals have thrust Internet Service Providers and social media companies in the eye of the storm. Many of these firms have a lot to lose if they don’t change direction; competition is fierce in this market and users’ trust is key to success. Not surprisingly, in the last few months, some companies like Yahoo and Google have started working to upgrade their encryption system to a higher level of security. Others are moving their data storage centres out of the legal reach of certain governments. Yet much more must be done.

The shape of things to come

We need to devise new mechanisms to control the controllers. We need properly to employ and empower the Internet community as a watchdog over the system’s integrity. The power of crowdsourcing is one of the most important gifts of the Internet. There is a vital lesson to be learned from the experience of open systems like Wikipedia and open-source software like Linux: to be open to scrutiny is a key element in strengthening and improving a complex information system.  

Moreover, Information Technology companies should create external non-partisan ethical committees to oversee some of their policies and assess the real efficacy of their encryption protocols. For instance, bodies like the Worldwide Internet Consortium or the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) should be an integral part of this process. Parliaments should make extensive use of crowdsourcing to craft important pieces of legislation concerning the Internet. Brazil, in this respect, has proven to be a step ahead of many with its Bill of Rights for the Internet (Marco Civil da Internet.) Although, admittedly, the process has not been without hiccups and the text of the proposed law is still far from perfect.  

The technological environment that envelops our lives today is, from a certain perspective, the full realization of that perfect man-computer symbiosis imagined by Licklider fifty years ago. We should be proud of our achievement, yet, when we look at it more closely, especially after the deluge of information released by Snowden, what we see is quite discomforting: our future increasingly resembles that of the tragic figure of Faust rather than the promising one of the humans freed by Prometheus.

To change the trajectory of our future, it is crucial for us to understand that the communication technology evolution of the last fifty years has widened to unprecedented levels the scope (both in terms of quantity and quality) of governmental power; that the reach of this kind of power goes beyond national space as typically understood, while these abuses of power (like in the case of the NSA scandal) often lie in the grey area of no-man’s land, both legally and politically speaking.

And thus, if not adequately dealt with, the NSA pervasive system of mass surveillance may well represent the shape of things to come: a twenty-first century society of control whose sophisticated exercise of power will be invisible to most of us, while all we will be left with is a sort of phantom version of the democratic life we thought we knew.


[1] Man-Computer Symbiosis, J. C. R. Licklider, IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, volume HFE-1, pages 4-11, March 1960 

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