February 13, 2014

Episode Sixteen: Feynman and Adams, Surveillance

1. Feynman and Adams

Growing up, there were probably two people who were idols of mine: Richard Feynman, ever since as a young boy a copy of Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, had fallen into my possession and I had devoured it, and Douglas Adams, when a visiting uncle had left a dog-eared copy of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy behind for me. In a fantasy alternate universe solely existing in my head, Feynman and Adams are a detective team who cruise around the world solving crime and explaining science. I'm sad that neither of them are alive anymore.

I mention this because both of them had an uncanny knack of explaining and translating complicated concepts into something easily understandable. They did so with wonder and delight at the intricacy of the universe, and even on the written page you there was a palpable sense of opportunity and potential. They were not, by any measure, the kind of people you would characterise as using science or reasoning to take away from the beauty of existence.

It strikes me that there are so many complicated things in our world now that are out of the grasp of understanding, never mind learning how to code or how technology is (and always has been) fundamentally shaping our culture and existence. We've never needed people capable of being able to look at systems, interrogate them, and present them in a human context in the way that Feynman was able to do, for example, with the Rogers Commission Report into the Challenger disaster[1].

Adams, in his own way, was a particularly British kind of techno-utopian. One who could simultaneously see the absurdly sublime implications of computing with organisations like the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, but at the same time, who could excite you about the potential of hypermedia in an inspiring documentary like Hyperland[2] that again was far ahead of its time. We may not have software agents that are as explicit as those envisaged and imagined by Adams, but they're behind the scenes, ploughing through the clickstream of our intent and wandering through a web that isn't confined to desks anymore, recommending movies and books, booking our travel and connecting us with the rest of the planet in ways that we have never been able to do before.

In a time of technological libertarianism, in the belief of the depth of data that's being collected whether we like it or not, either implicitly or explicitly, it's people like James Bridle who are doing the work to bring to life what's hidden underneath the designed exteriors of the artefacts that we're interacting with each day in a way that is grounded in context for what we are: essentially, and still, hairless apes engineering increasingly complicated systems. We need more of them, and for those of us who work in designing those systems that push and pull at the warp and weft of data and interactions, where every touch leaves a trace, we have a responsibility to make sure that what we do is understandable and accessible.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogers_Commission_Report
[2] https://vimeo.com/72501076

2. Surveillance

Medium has an interesting reputation for being a repository of, and if you'll forgive me the diving into slang, whitesplaining, mediumsplaning and general privilege reeking of better-than-thou, from on high communication. If only, wail the invariably male, white, educated and middle class designers and technocrats, people would listen to me and implement my solution, would the world be a better place and I would be able to operate my washing machine without calling my mother[1].

Well Sturgeon's law applies on Medium as well as anywhere else, which means that for the purposes of this, I'm letting you know that I took the time to read Zeynep Tufecki's essay[2] about the nature of the internet and surveillance in the twenty first century and what it means for us.

Tufecki has simply, strongly clarified why the current state of big data and drawing algorithmic inferences from the morass of data we create each day can't easily be compared to 1984 or the Panopticon. Because this is a future that we have chosen for ourselves, where we do indeed have freedom and happiness (although tied to consumption) and that, ultimately, Certain Inalienable Rights have, more or less (modulo, as Tufecki points out, if you're poor or non-white or female) have been recognised as Inalienable and are slowly but surely spreading out through society.

The risk and danger is in what we can't see, and in the implication of the data that does surround us. All of it can be used more easily than ever before, and it can be as right, or as wrong, as you need it to be. Much of it is unknown and in the service of objectives that are either opaque to us or blindingly obvious. In any case, the reduction of people to data, a construct with variables and rows in a database lazily linked with a JOIN to countless others raises questions about what we want to achieve with all of this, and whether we want to achieve that in the first place.

Tefucki says that we need to update our nightmares. As ever, they are both more mundane (brands like Target wanting to ensnare us in their shopping embrace as we approach parenthood) and simultaneously more sinister (the potential micro-manipulation of voter messages as a high-tech version of jerrymandering).

In a way, you can see the data in the cloud around us as a set of field lines that can be massaged to points, forcing toward certain directions or away from others. The Unix philosophy of many pieces, loosely joined, has been extended to our selves, as simulacra and models are created from our detritus. 

So this is the deal: Tefucki says, to the question, Is the Internet good or bad: Yes. It is. As it has ever been, it is a tool that has wrought massive, genuine, democratic change because it has connected people to people. And the result of connecting people to people, now that we have spammed the planet with our Turing machines and their infinite tape, is that we have written ourselves onto that infinite tape without realising who can read it, and what they might do with it.

[1] https://medium.com/ux-ui-readings/b6f927bbb538
[2] https://medium.com/matter/76d9913c6011

I have a terrible cold and an impeding first birthday party. Let's see what I come out with tomorrow. As ever, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Dan