‘We are witnessing the rise of global totalitarianism on the back of Big Data and its delivery system, the Internet’
I’m a Socrates man myself; like his giddy gaddy style, his ‘show me the money’ approach to belief; and I think maybe I understand his hemlock manoeuvre all too well. ‘After all, democracy’s not for everyone, right?’
But Diogenes! Now there’s a man who’d a handled this digital age rather effortlessly. Don’t get me wrong: Socrates and his relentless deconstructions were a hoot, but Diogenes had gumption and attitude.
Debasing his Daddy’s dollars; strutting around with his daytime lamp looking for an honest man; homeless and sleeping in a ceramic jar (I once spent a winter’s night in a Goodwill box reading the Portable Nietzsche–does that count?); and generally reveling in his counter-culture ribaldry; he was a jester with a gesture the Romans later called digitus impudicus.
O, one wakes up smiling at his antics and wanting to crow, “Up yours, too, Diogenes!” Brothers in arms, as it were.
While Socrates found democracy a little too Orwellian for his tastes and fell into a doubt pout, Diogenes goosed the rooster. He’d have been perfect for an age of Big Data and its appeal to pseudo-scientific analysis (for political purposes, of course) and the way people eat it up like manna, believing in the magic of its authorial voice.
Indeed, we are fat with over-trusting authority – call it our collective obeis-ity. Too many people seem to accept that with Big Data we have reached the point of Singularity, where humans and machines may merge in a digital stream that makes dialectical materialism obsolete and ushers in the Final Paradigm of humanity.
As Diogenes would say (and here I’m translating), “I got your paradigm. I got your paradigm right here,” followed by his own digital stream into the River Heraclitus.
He’d have known that what we’re witnessing with Big Data is just the latest gimmick for exploiting human desire that is so infused –even after millennia of civilizing influences – with fear and insecurity.
We are witnessing the rise of global totalitarianism on the back of Big Data and its delivery system, the Internet – a central information system we plug into together that replaces our central nervous system. But it won’t matter.
Men will always play with the latest flint hammer and will still buy more beer if you sex up the suds. Women will struggle with being in the world — with and without the need for men. Little will change for the masses, with their not-so-quiet desperation, and the eggheads who thought it all up will crack into omelettes at the first sign of ‘research’ cash and/or ego octane boosting. We may be a-dicted to da g’rithm, but Big Data is just one more system that will fail us for a number of reasons.
First, ‘data’ is not God, or, rather, it is. Powerful in its stim and absence of certainty, an absence necessitating oracles, gatekeepers and messiahs to fathom for us (see Voltaire). Data itself is meaningless without interpretation; and every system is built around an agenda that serves to constrain the interpretation.
But also, a datum is not a fact, and a fact does not in itself indicate the presence of a truth. Life is in color, full of semiotic kaleidoscoping, no matter how much the controlling neocon symbolists see things in black and white.
This brings up the main problem with Big Data and its analysis – who controls the mode of production? The rise of Big Data is itself part of the process of normalizing the all-intrusive surveillance regime. The space between the ears of We the People is the final frontier and ripe for singular exploitation. Our brains are colonies, electrical storms of desire keened for exploitation.
The problem is not with Big Data, per se, which offers some astounding new ‘takes’ on the human experience (and I’m actually a Singularity fan-boy), but that, as always, the wrong people are in charge of the system.
By and large, conservatives, back in the day, and neocons in the now, have used the system to force their agenda on the public, which has largely been in the role of world cop and interventionist (read: neoliberal expansionist) since about the time the US began developing their waterboarding techniques in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.
Thus, today, when you hear expressions from politicians that begin with, “The data tell us…,” you might want to scratch your bum and walk away. The data don’t tell us diddly: the filters do.
There are already plenty of examples of how data can be abused by the wrong people in charge. Take, for instance, the Florida debacle of the 2000 presidential election. Choicepoint, the database company that provided false felony indicators which illegally eliminated thousands of Democrat-leaning voters, was a company run by conservatives (old Cold Warrior and PNACker Richard Armitage was on its board until a few months before the election).
And by, in essence, upholding the efficacy of the false data, the US Supreme Court decided the data didn’t matter, as it did not support the desired outcome (i.e., a Bush victory). Because they got away with it, similar voting data scandals have become more prevalent, as investigative Greg Palast recently exposed in an award-winning piece.
Another case of skewed data, with important public interest implications, was that cited by the Boston-based data analyst company, Recorded Future, which told Dina Temple-Raston of NPR, who uncritically passed the ‘analysis’ along to her drive-time constituency, that, based on their analysis of the data, Edward Snowden’s leaks were tantamount to treason and had ‘put lives at risk’.
And while Glenn Greenwald was quick to take Dina to task for being a privileged sycophant of power, more emphasis should have been placed on the source of the analysis – Recorded Future, which specializes in predictive analysis of the type consistent with disposition matrices – was a Google-CIA start-up, with current contracts to national security interests. Presumably, this is an algorithmic detail.
However, it is the deleterious effect on privacy and creativity that make the Big Data phenomenon so existentially threatening to so many individuals around the world. While the neoliberals conquer what’s left of the free market economies of the world with tax underwritten derivative gambles and growing debt slavery for a growing percentage of the expanding population, the neocons have declared the Internet a battle zone, and democracies can’t exist on the battleground.
There was a time when the American Exceptionalist message had real traction, and, for a while, perhaps, for good reason, but those days are gone. Now the message to the world is: We don’t need congresses or parliaments or diets, when a more effective and expeditious means to getting things done is by Executive fiat based on ‘careful data analyses’. The message is the Supreme Court will ignore data that grinds against a partisan agenda. The message is its okay and necessary to spy on others as intrusively as possible, and as more spy apps hit the market our complicity in our own demise will soon be complete. The message is democracy is over.
As I ride closer and closer to the sunset, more like Sancho Panza than Quixote, frankly, it is with a sense of release from a phenomenal world that has proven to be largely beyond my ken. Actually, not like Sancho or the Don at all, but rather like Edgward G. Robinson in those final moments of his last screen role in Soylent Green.
If I depart with some sorrow, it is for those loved ones left behind who must face a world unnecessarily torn apart by dark and malevolent forces, by people you can no longer trust. I don’t envy the future; and maybe the most tragic twist of humankind is that the very people in control, who have worked so hard to destroy it all, will most likely be the world’s survivors, overseers of the molten Hell of their own creation.
There’s no use decrying Socrates’ hemlock. In the end, we all pick our own poison. And some sinking into soma will want to recall their roads not taken and their lover’s quarrel with world. But, me, I pray to Diogenes for the strength as I go under Beethoven’s 7th or Keith Jarrett’s Arbour Zena to raise my finger and take succour in its erectile diss function one last time.
Failed States of Conscience
Last year saw the publication of the first sizable waves of what promises to be a coming tsunami of ‘data driven’ apocalyptic narratives detailing the accomplished ravages of latter day technology and shouting out the horrors to come, perhaps no matter how humanity responds now. Some stand-out examples include, Thomas P. Keenan’s Technocreep, which describes the all-pervasive penetration of the technological into every facet of our lives and posits that we may have already reached the point of no return in the symbiotic dialectic between man and machine; and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction paints a similarly abysmal future, arguing that we may have so fouled our own nest that humans are now irredeemably on the path to extinction. Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer, while certainly dire in its analysis and outlook, does at least offer up a token hope and point to solutions, even if they are unconvincing.
Keen’s thesis really can be neatly summed up by laying out the Question and then expanding on its implications. He asks: “What can help us create a better world in the digital age?” Originally, he says the answer was the Internet. Citing New York Times columnists and assorted economists, Keen describes an almost-idyllic late 20th century American middle class, citing what New York Times columnist George Packer calls a period noted for “state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly, credible news organization,” as well as publicly funded research; in short, a system that the Internet might have helped tweak and fine tune. But now, Keen sees that all as an exploded dream, and cites innumerable examples of how the Internet has been usurped by the usual greedy, unregulated controllers of our collective destiny.
It’ll come at you on a quiet wind one evening, you laying there drifting on some dream floe, at peace. Suddenly, you’ll hear a disembodied voice croak, “He knows.” You’ll recoil at its strange tenor then let it go. Then, day by day, more of the same comes your way: “We got him;” “That’s it;” “No more lies;” “He’s a maniac;” “We have to get him out of here;” and then, one day, repeated like a mantra, “Take him!”
The voices come from your neighborhood, and their repetition and urgency carve a frequency channel into your brain, so that what once passed by unnoted on a breeze is pre-tuned for your ears. Until one day, after many months, maybe years, a judgment declaration is made and you hear a shrill ancient voice caw, “He’s evil!”
Rapt now, you wonder who the referent is, and then it comes like the shower scene– someone drawls yourname, like an aural pointing finger. Terrified, you look out the window into the dark and there comes a slow accretion of pitchforks and torches gathering on your lawn. Voices hidden within hoods repeat, “You’re evil. Take himmmmm.”
You won’t even see it coming.
By now most everyone paying attention at all knows that President Obama holds Drone Tuesday sessions at the White House with key counter-terrorist advisors at which he shuffles through playing card targets for elimination by his weapon of choice, the soft-spoken, big-stick-toutin’ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), AKA, the drone.
To date, thousands of foreign “terrorists” have been eliminated this way, including heaps of women and children, mistakenly identified baddies – sometimes whole wedding parties in mid-dance have been sent to Kingdom Comeuppance in a cluster bomb moment of joystick bliss.
Even American citizens have seen their playing cards retired in a flurry of statistical elision. No bubble gum with these playing cards.
Just as many now know of the horrors of Guantanamo, the black hoods, the orange suits, the deprivations, and the waterboards. A lot of Americans know but don’t remark upon the torture regimens and complete lack of due process done in the dark in their names, people held without charges for years, their lives shuffled unilaterally by Executive office hands. James Risen and others have by now detailed the medieval doings of Guantanamo. But this piece is not about drone strikes or waterboarding, per se, but about what they share in common, and what they share with the unnamed stalkee that opens our gambit above: The Disposition Matrix.
At last count there were 1.5 million Americans (and who knows how many globally) who are currently on one Watch List or another, ostensibly for their intrinsic threat to the regime. A million and a half citizens regarded by the government as potential terrorists or their supporters.
It would be impossible, even with an enormous army of watchers, to track all of them without profiling, which acts a database filter during queries. Analysts and psychologists put together these profile streams, not only for jihadists abroad, who will need droning or near-drowning, but also at home for dissidents and free-thinkers.
That’s the Disposition Matrix. It might help to regard it as a kind of astrological chart that keeps track of characteristics, influences, and other data dot connections.
Our “Evil” one above turns out to be a writer. Evil is the local version of “terrorist”. Our writer has crossed too many invisible Rubicons and now must pay. A whole panoply of tools will be put into play to neutralize him. His computer will be cloned through a wireless backdoor program, and “evidence” of moral turpitude will be added to the clone, which at the right time will be called “his” computer. His computer and iPhone will be fitted with keyloggers and rootkits.
He will be surveilled 24/7 using thermal imaging and infrared devices that track not only his movements but his family’s as well. He will be dehumanized and observed like a paramecium, his every movement and expression judged and analyzed.
All of his work will be called into question by innuendo and pettiness and absurd assertions in an effort to discredit. And all of it will happen behind his back so that no defense can be mounted – indeed, so that stalkers remain anonymous. A catalog of the tools involved can be seen in the handbook The Hidden Evil.
Recently I touched upon this paranoid world in my review of Robert Guffey’s Chameleo, which details the disappearance of government invisibility technology from a US military base and the mind-altering and clandestine means they employ to regain their assets. But in a follow-up interview Guffey says such means are just the tip of the iceberg to what is taking place covertly in America and probably the world.
“The Edward Snowden revelations pale in comparison,” he says. In a long essay entitled, “Nation of Stalkers,” Guffey argues that gangstalking is on its way to becoming the primary means for dealing with non-conformists and especially pesky dissidents, particularly if they have loose binds with others. Due process has been suspended; ‘justice’ has been contracted out.
Guffey makes an intriguing allusion to Marshall McLuhan, who, he notes once wrote of the human self in our age: “[since 1946 or 1947]…there [has been] no human life on this planet. Since then human beings have been grown inside programmed media-environments that are essentially like test tubes.
That’s why I say the kids today live mythically.” In a sense, baby-boomers, and beyond, have been tabla rasi stick-figures waiting for digitalization to animate their mythological dispositions. The medium is the message alright.
I found this interesting in relation to another book I reviewed recently, The Internet Is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen, who observes that one important thing the Internet has achieved is to turn most people on the planet into writers.
We spend our days clicking-and-clacking, hunting-and-pecking our way through narratives undreamed of before. We are busy, as McCluhan suggests, and as the Internet giants already know, writing our own mythical selves into databases controlled not by privacy and deep spaces of quietude and blank canvasses between works, but always switched on, interactive and reacting to endless beams of stimulation that actually ends up excluding our authentic selves.
And all of this mythmaking takes place in the Disposition Matrix, which becomes an omnibus of myths, collected and owned by the Googles, Facebooks and Amazons, leeched from by government agents, with all storylines approved or disapproved by corporates with fascist notions of the individual’s place in the narrative of digital being, where all must now reside, or be Watch-Listed and ‘removed’.
And literally, as digital beings, the day is approaching, if not already here, when anonymous global elites and their gangstalking enforcers, like the Homeric gods and their demigod hench-creatures decide who gets to have to have a voice, who gets to shine in the firmament, and, indeed, who lives and who dies.
We are coming to the day when ‘attitude’ and ‘personality type’ will determine where you fit in the hierarchy of social being, and those qualities will be decided upon and judged by myriad gargoyles of pedantry gazing down with fixed stares from the high-flying buttresses of Das Kapital cathedrals.
Oh, dear reader, provide your IP address in the comments section below, and watch how quickly your life can be turned into lugubrious mud by the organ-grinding 1%-er Dr. Phibes.
While there can be little question of the transparency value of all those primary documents that Julian Assange splashed out to the public through Wikileaks a few years ago now, nor of the immense importance of the Snowden revelations in coming to grips with the staggering implications that the Five Eyes global secrets stalking represents for democracy and privacy, an aspect often under-appreciated is the gatekeeper crisis that all these startling eye-openers have brought with them.
Fact is, while the hidden gods are having their merry way with Words, it’s virtually impossible to know which oracle to trust any more.
And there are all kinds of oracles these days. There’s the mainstream media, which includes what’s left of the Press; there’s the Assange prototype of open media based on posting sensitive documents; there’s the Glenn Greenwald selective leak method; there’s Google’s Erich Schmidt calling for a kind of committee to oversee leak distribution. It’s worth briefly considering the pros and cons of each method.
It seems more evident all the time that the mainstream media has lost its way in the frontier wilderness of the digital age. There was a time when media were deeply respected as the so-called Fourth Estate, which took serious the public interest, and advocated on its behalf by aggressive reporting and adversarial coverage of government policies. Or, at least, that’s what we told ourselves.
But those days are largely gone, more and more people are looking to alternate sources for information about government operations because they don’t sense that the MSM is independent of corporate ownership or telling everything it should in its championing of transparency.
Where the MSM has failed most miserably is in the reporting of foreign affairs, the War on Terror, and the rise of the national security state, which has engulfed every American — not just ‘terrorists’— with its all-pervasive surveillance system, like a Stasi erotic dream. It hasn’t been much better chasing down the howling wolves of Wall Street. Unfortunately, for the MSM, these issues are the most pressing of our time.
But there have been many low points. One could argue that the coverage of the 2000 presidential election debacle was downright craven, for instance. But perhaps the nadir is the 2004 presidential pre-election suppression by the New York Times, at the Bush White House’s request, of evidence that the NSA was wiretapping Americans illegally. The disappointment here was palpable, the trust forever gone.
Enter Julian Assange whose wicked leaks were a welcome shock to a system built on suppression and spying, and served to remind all intelligent adults of the significant gulf between real politik propaganda and real knowledge of political processes at work. I actually favor the publication of these primary documents that detail operations, as they are often disillusioning in the best possible way.
However, as much as one admires Assange’s chutzpah, his editorialized version of the Collateral Murder video, with its intentional manipulation of viewer response, points up the peril of a having someone with an anarchic disposition in charge of a totally ‘open’ system.
Assange was benign with his political version of Collateral Murder, and I respect what he was hoping to achieve, but not every future hacktivist will be as scrupled or have all his oars in the water. A totally open system seems rife for disturbing levels of mischief.
A more problematical gatekeeper is Glenn Greenwald and his selective leaking. This wasn’t much of a problem before Edward Snowden came along and dramatically altered the public’s understanding of the scope and unbridled power of the Five Eyes at work.
But many people who admired Greenwald’s blogs were disillusioned when, following the sensation of his Snowden write-ups, he suddenly jumped ship from the mainstream Guardian, where he was reaching just the kinds of people needing consciousness-raising, to sideline himself for months in order to build a new journalism venture.
But more at issue was the Snowden leaks treasure trough, which he brought with him to First Media, and his decision to leak selectively, rather than in a Wikileaks splash fashion.
In effect, he became the Master Gatekeeper for confidential intelligence whose revelations have so far have proven to be of extraordinary public interest. For many people, this meant that the public was right back to where it was when it gave up on the MSM – not knowing what Greenwald was leaving out (although it’s hard to imagine how it could get much more revelatory than the Prism and XKeyscore programs) and having to implicitly trust in Greenwald’s good will and judgment.
But that was exactly the problem some people had with the arrangement; trusting Greenwald’s judgment; not everyone adores him. When he sent his lover, David Miranda, with an encrypted thumb drive containing Snowden materials, through GCHQ-infested Heathrow, after having written in the Guardian a couple weeks before about the NSA’s ability to crack encryption, on ehad to wonder if he’s lost his marbles. Further astonishment came when it was discovered that Miranda had passwords in his pocket.
Another, more troubling example was the “special offer” that accompanied Greenwald’s sale of Nowhere to Hide, which leverages his Snowden encounters, which enticed readers to apply for a credit card, vetted by JP Morgan Chase, a financial monster Greenwald has railed against in the past, but more importantly giving them personal data of his readers, a database any number of intelligence agencies would covet. And, jeez, what would happen if that data got lost or stolen?
Admirable writer and fierce advocate of the rule of law though he may be, it’ difficult to trust the judgment of someone’s data leak decisions when their own personal handling of data leaves something to be desired.
Another form of gatekeeping is that advocated by Google’s Erich Schmidt, who has called for a kind of oversight committee to review whistleblower leaks with a view to making sure they are ‘responsible’ leaks that dock rock the ship of State too much. Of course, Schmidt has in mind elite corporate overseers like himself with all his algorithms of power.
The problem with this idea, if it’s not immediately obvious, is that would be akin to Henry Kissinger overseeing the 9/11 Commission, which nearly happened – except he was chased out of town with the torches-and-pitchfork roars of public outrage. Ditto for Schmidtty.
There is no question that when the Fourth Estate abrogated its implicit authority to act as advocate for the people, and, through adversarial posturing, force government to behave with the highest degree of transparency that a healthy democracy requires, it not only helped foment the present crisis of trust, but shot itself in the foot and has accelerated the demise of the Press, whose relevancy in the digital age was already underway.
Probably, as some observers have suggested, we are in for a prolonged period of news fragmentation and decentralization, with people choosing their favorite oracles to receive revelations from, leading to an eventual ‘failed state’ confusion that, naturally, will find the masses looking to the State propagandists for soothing themes, memes, and metaphors: Gatekeepers at the barbed wire fence.
Hell, we may already be there. I can hear the vicious dogmas barking and fighting over some old bone of contention.
It’s all out of the bag now, as they say and say: America tortures. Of course, this news has been evident for quite some time. Who was in doubt of the implications lurking in Dick Cheney’s 2001 mumble-snark, “Time to take the gloves off”? In any case, in 2011, OR Books released The Torture Report, which details the deranged doings at Guantanamo, where hundreds of humans have been detained without trial for many years now.
And a couple of years ago, ex-CIA interrogator John Kiriakou belatedly blew the whistle on the Agency, at one point relating how one terrorist suspect was waterboarded so thoroughly that he ended up writing poems to the wife of his tormentor. “They hate us more than they love life,” quoth Kiriakou, and there can be no doubt why – our freedoms – or, at least, our license. (Oops, shouldn’t have said that.)