Posts tagged technodeterminism

The Joys of Deletion

It’s been twenty-one years since I followed a Microsoft Frontpage Express tutorial in some British computer magazine and built a personal website. I practiced my high school English writing about my city, about the music and the films I liked, and, as I was turning eighteen, some bad poetry. I also followed instructions on using a FTP client and uploaded the site to the meagre megabyte of space my ISP offered, marvelling at the fact that the site — my stuff — continued accessible even when my computer was turned off. I would check my website at my friends’ computers, at libraries, at cyber-cafés, just to confirm it was indeed an independent entity, and no further action was needed from me for my site to be available to everyone, always.

Over the next few years I would iterate my site obsessively, experimenting with form, structure, content, while building spin-off sites at the same time — photo manipulation exercises hosted over at Geocities, Sensible Soccer at Tripod, tracker music playlists at some other short-lived free webhosting company. Later I would start to blog, in both solo and group form. Early enough that I became one of those “blogging before it was cool” curmodgeons while enduring the Blogger age. Later still, I enthusiastically took up Tumblr, and eleven years later I keep using its still open API as a jury-rigged blogging backend. In this age of Medium, I can’t but feel that having your own personal blog became an eccentric hobby like model railroads or birdwatching.

During these years I migrated everything over domains and platforms. If you’re at the right place, this particular blog you’re reading was started April 21st, 2001. Even though I took stuff offline as I went along, deleting what I found embarrassing or no longer interesting from my online sites (always keeping offline copies, though), between the Wayback Machine and Google’s caches, I never trully know what is still accessible and what isn’t.

You can see where I’m getting at. I’ve consciously and willingly put a lot of stuff online on the web, as my professional path took me from amateur to pro and back to amateur, and then possibly to eccentric hobbyist. I formed an habit of not considering my preferences and opinions as private, so I possibly drew the privacy line further back than most people my age. Although I am careful not to give my exact whereabouts to prying eyes via Instagram or other networks, always posting stuff well after the fact, nearly all of my posts on Facebook are public and automated — from Instagram, from Twitter, itself a public repository of my public Pocket favourites. In fact, most things I ever posted on Facebook exists in some way in this website, and vice-versa. My threat model has been parochial: I might have felt a small amount of concern about a prospective client, employer, or date ending up reading something they find disagreeable, but… open book and all that. I’ve always took ‘online’ to mean 'public’.

So, Facebook. I won’t say that Cambridge Analytica business is okay. But an unexpected breach of trust? No: fully expected. Or further still: what trust? Did you expect that when you give information to a private entity they wouldn’t use that information as they privately see fit? Do you imagine your ISP, which you actually pay for, to behave any differently from the postal service of a totalitatian state, peering inside every envelope and package? Or for that matter, your paid VPN provider, which you use for 'security’? 

Let’s not forget the net is war technology, and computers were invented because spies — indeed, codebreakers — needed them. Digital technology is spyware at its core, and for all of Facebook’s abuses, I don’t think the problem lies with a few companies, or even with a Silicon Valley ‘culture’. The problem is a deeper, way deeper, capital-P Political problem, of how we as a society look at information technology. Facebook harvesting an admittedly alarming amount of information about our preferences and opinions, and then selling it to the highest bidder, is not that different from YouTube being the house the unpaid labor of a large mass of video producers built, or AirBnB being a machine for subsidizing tourists, landlords, and housing developers with money stolen from the monthly paychecks of tenants and lenders.

Now, as with regarding Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, I’ll happily argue for executive jailtime and some kind of 'death penalty’ for unethical companies (say, forced nationalization or redistribution of institutional shareholders’ stock to the workers, which would be something nasty and also leftist enough to get shareholders’ skin deep in the game). But again, that’s Political. As much as I watch Facebook’s stock plummet with some glee, and as much as I imagine that, as I mass delete old posts and likes, sirens are going off in Zuck’s volcano lair control room, henchmen screaming “our assets! are being deleted!”, and the Falcon Heavy fails its launch to Mars and explodes the whole island… will I delete my account?

No.

Will I keep using it as before? Well, almost. Yes, I did delete a lot of stuff I had on Facebook and other platforms belonging to private corporations. Digital spring cleaning: deleting content, unliking and unsubscribing pages no longer active or interesting, unfollowing and unfriending followees and ‘friends’ no longer known or trusted. I deleted chats from long ago, chats no longer going, chats with ghosters, thus also sparing myself the cognitive grief of illusory availability and trust. And yet, Facebook has become, alongside Google, an essential communication utility. Facebook group chats have became, at least for me — a single, middle-aging person who works from home —, an essential tool for socializing with a loosely-knit group of friends. #deletefacebook is great if your socializing doesn’t require it. But unless I can convert a large group of very different friends and acquaintances into cypherpunks using Mastodon and Signal (and surely I don’t want to be that kind of guy), I just can’t.

Multiply this by the troubles of 2 billion persons: Facebook is an utility, like your electrical company, like your water and sewage company, like your ISP or the postal service — the German Democratic Republic’s, in this case. Furthermore, Facebook is a monopolistic utility (just think that Instagram and Whatsapp are theirs) to be dealt with in the realm of Politics. Dealing with it perhaps requires a whole other model of society, as I don’t think Facebook should be a private company, but I don’t think it should belong to a government either.

I don’t really have any ideas about what to do with Facebook or Google. Political intervention seems a fever dream, and the same for 2 billion people simultaneously changing habits. It may be that something actually better comes along and disrupts the disruptors — who knows if the blockchain is actually good for more than growing tomatos? Or we may find ourselves in a VR Facegoolazon hellhole, reminiscing about the present day as we reminisce of the 1990s.

Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda is an oldie but goodie. Just earlier I saw this mass of people by a downtown square, all peering into their phones trying to catch Pokémon, like asocial angler fishermen or, if one chooses more terrifying metaphors, like extras in a Black Mirror episode or future Matrix human batteries.

I’m not saying Pokémon Go is a harbinger of the End of Times. Not only there are far better candidates for that, but I also think one shouldn’t actually give a fuck about how others spend their afternoons and choose to enjoy the sunset. Still, I think Pokémon Go highlights just how powerful software developers are and how it’d be perhaps wise to reason about software companies as some kind of Fifth Estate. Just imagine, as I was talking to friends yesterday, if Pokémon Go had some kind of scarcity game mechanic in which rare monsters could only be caught by one player (I actually thought the game worked like that so I wondered aloud why there were no reports of street fights breaking out, among all the news of people crashing into police cars or walking themselves off cliffs).

Thing is, someone may well create such a game. I mean, just watch old concept demos of what became today’s technology, and then look at Microsoft explaining how Augmented Reality assists scientists in exploring Mars, designers in designing motorbikes or dads in playing Minecraft with their kids. And then consider the actual history of the web, from banner ads to ransomware, from Flash to government sites that only work in Internet Explorer 6. And then rewatch Matsuda’s video. Just rewatch it and try to debunk it.

And then ponder whether software should be regulated, like cars or houses or public infrastructure are. Ponder whether such regulation is feasible, or desirable (for it would be the death of general-purpose computer, thus the ultimate authoritarian wet dream). And wonder: are we fucked? Even if we escape authoritarianism, climate change, terrorism, cyberwar (meaning the large scale use of malevolent software)… can we also handle plain ill-considered, misdesigned software?

Noya and Bill Brandt with Self Portrait (Although They Were Watching This Picture Being Made), by David Hockney (1982). A fascinating pience on its own merits, discussed as metaphor in Frank Chimero’s great speech about responsive web design and technological determinism The Web’s Grain. Go read it, now.