Fighting The Inevitable: Surveillance Capitalism & The Decline of Civilisation

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I read a lot of books. But there’s one that I’ve had on pre-order for a long time that I can’t wait to delve into when it finally gets released at the end of the month.

So far, the indications are excellent that Shosana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ has all the markings of a classic text and required reading for anyone who’s online in any capacity in this modern age. Zuboff is the academic who first coined the term ‘surveillance capitalism’  a number of years ago and this book, her first in many years, is already being talked about as having an impact on contemporary socio-economics that is comparable to that of Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ all those years before.

Once I’ve managed to finally get my hands on the book, I’ll dig into it in far greater depth and share a few more detailed thoughts. But in the meantime, as a taster during her pre-release book publicity tour, I urge everyone to read her interview from The Guardian yesterday (‘The Goal Is to Automate Us’).

The backdrop of course is a story that is becoming more well-known – particularly within the last 12 months. Billions of us are using ‘free’ digital services without any clear understanding of how our data on that platform is actually being used elsewhere. And what’s more, for purposes that often run counter to our explicit consent. With the result that with every passing day, vast powers are accumulating unfettered to such an extent that we are now facing a hugely dangerous period for the way in which humans interact with each other in modern society.

“The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. But whereas most democratic societies have at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of its privatised counterpart. This is intolerable.”

As she points out, we even use the unfortunate term ‘digital natives’ today. Ignoring the lessons of history, the well-known story is playing out all over again. The lives of the ignorant natives are being slaughtered by those wielding power that today exceeds in reach anything that mankind has seen before.

“Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.”

As technology has increasingly provided us with new capabilities, we’ve ignored a far more perfidious problem. It’s a challenge that naturally follows from the fact that every digital activity leaves information in its wake. And that information is likely to be far more valuable – in aggregate – for the surveillance capitalist than the benefit that accrues to one user who’s happy at getting to use that ‘free’ service’ in the first place.

As this vast sea of personal data continues to grow inexorably with every passing day, we need to start asking some difficult questions about the knowledge that’s being created as a result. Who owns that knowledge today? The individual or, as it is today, the company? Who makes the decision about who should be allowed to use that knowledge moving forwards? And how does everyone else catch up if it’s all being sucked up by companies that are getting bigger and bigger?

Only a few know the origin story I suspect. Because it’s easy to forget that Google wasn’t originally that interested in advertising as a business model. Until it realised that it could trawl this information for knowledge about what specific users were likely to do and suddenly start predicting just how successful adverts would be in front of certain users (as measured by click-through rates). The dawn of a new world that prayed to this new god, targeted advertising, had arrived. After all, who was really being harmed if companies simply used information that users never intended to share, quietly, secretly – if the result was that that user ended up with better, more successful advertising (defined as being ‘more profitable for Google’)…

Zuboff raises a crucial point here. Today, of those individuals who can see the scale of the issue that we’re collectively facing, most live under a shared illusion that the benefits of modern technology are entirely inseparable from surveillance capitalism. In other words, whilst people may understand on some basic level that they are the product, there’s an insidious belief that this is the essential price of entry in the modern world. But that’s simply not the case:-

“The tech leaders desperately want us to believe that technology is the inevitable force here, and their hands are tied. But there is a rich history of digital applications before surveillance capitalism that really were empowering and consistent with democratic values. Technology is the puppet, but surveillance capitalism is the puppet master.”

This is a real live issue that we live with every day at MaidSafe as we’re building the SAFE Network. Doing nothing and simply letting the current digital inequality continue is not an option. Choosing to simply collectively sit on our hands today and do nothing would be disastrous. We will continue see our democracies shot through and pulled down as the information asymmetries grow ever wider between citizens and massive multinational technology behemoths who are today wielding more power – without ever having been elected – than many nation states. Yet it’s hard to believe (even if you are in the minority who argue that democracy isn’t the optimal state for civilisation) that people are simply content to sit back and have their lives increasingly governed by the decisions of  leaders of large technology companies.

At the same time, the surveillance and tracking has become so insidious that it is increasingly encroaching and permanently damaging the personal and private lives that every human should be entitled to as a fundamental human right. If the real rules and laws of the world are increasingly being set by companies for whom surveillance consolidates their power base, why are we passively accepting that the commercial interests of these organisations double up as the  best possible alternative we have to organise an inclusive human society around the globe?

“On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. Paradoxically, this coup is celebrated as “personalisation”, although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.”

There’s no doubt that this is a story is approaching the end game – but it’s not a result that any but a tiny minority of the world can be in favour of. Yet it’s a world that will only be visible, for most, in the rear view mirror, after the options have been closed down. We need to work together to act in our collective best interests. We either all make a decision to make these changes now before the cost of making such changes becomes a price that exceeds any of our abilities to meet it. Today’s the day – or digital inequality will continue to accelerate at a pace that won’t be recoverable within either our lifetimes or that of our children’s.

If nothing else, the first step might be reading Zuboff’s book when it comes out in a week or so. Then let’s have this conversation again. And again. Until everyone knows just how high the stakes are.

The Power of Myth

I’ve just finished reading a great little (155-page) book by Karen Armstrong called ‘A Short History Of Myth’.

Mythology is one of these areas that fascinates me but that I always seem to push back from digging into any greater detail – hence the bookshelves filled with a few classics (such as my namesake-but-no-relation Joseph Campbell). I think that attitude is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of myth in society over the millennia. And loathe as I am to say it, perhaps it shows a bit of snobbishness towards stories that are clearly untrue, when there’s so much raw factual ‘knowledge’ out there just waiting to be hoovered up.

But what the book has shown is that this is the common mistake that people make towards myths – particularly over the last century or so, as learning and technology has accelerated.

For me, the key point of the book is this:-

“Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative.

“We must disabuse ourselves of the nineteenth century fallacy that myth is false or that it represents an inferior mode of thought. We cannot complete recreate ourselves, cancel out the rational bias of our education and return to a pre-modern sensibility. But we can acquire a more educated attitude to mythology. We are myth-making creatures”

The approach towards the origin stories of religion is also fascinating. Part of the problem, as Armstrong views it, is that from the time of the Enlightenment in the Eighteenth Century, the rational approach to the world took hold. This was a huge improvement in many ways. But as she says:-

“By this time, people were reading the cosmogonies of Genesis as though they were factual….Creation stories had never [in the past] been regarded as historically accurate; their purpose was therapeutic. But once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion”.

In many ways, the problem is becoming even more acute today. Practical improvements that have been based on research have revolutionised lives – but they overwhelmingly fail to give humans the sense of significance that they require. Or to put it another way:

logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was discredited”.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. But on a rational level, it’s always been slightly mystifying why he is just as successful as he is. Literally everything he touches, across every genre – novels, screenplays, audiobooks, graphic novels etc – wins awards. Pretty much without exception. His book signings go on for hours upon end – I know, because I’ve been to a couple of them.

But it’s clear what the attraction is. Each of his stories is heavily based in a mash-up of mythologies, modern but informed by the hundreds of years of the very best stories that have come before and been successfully taken in and shared by many thousands if not millions of people across the ages.

“Before the modern period, it was generally taken for granted that there was no ‘official’ version of a myth. People had always felt free to develop a new myth or a radical interpretation of an old mythical narrative”.

That is, I believe, exactly what’s happening with Gaiman, amongst many others. There’s a human yearning to learn the lessons of humanity via the method of mythology. So I can’t imagine that fan base disappearing any time soon.

The (Many) Senses

Always love starting the day with a run and learning something new. Today’s instalment came courtesy of a recommendation – Professor Barry Smith on Russell Brand’s ‘Under The Skin’ Podcast.

What did I learn? Things like:

  • We commonly think of five senses (sight, sound, taste, feel, smell). It turns out we’ve slightly underestimated that one…..in fact it’s between 20-30 (depending on different viewpoints). For example, the sense of balance.
  • Heavier dishes will make the creamy pudding within it taste better and more luxurious. At the same time, sugar water tinged with red colouring will taste sweet, whereas green colouring will taste sour – i.e. our visual sense overrides our tastebuds.
  • Experiments have shown that the sound your shoes make when walking can change your posture – the less you hear, the less bouncy and energetic your posture (which made me wonder, running as I was with earphones on, exactly how much impact that has had on my running gait over the years). They built special shoes for this experiment – but it’s a similar thing to the sensory deprivation chambers that some people have these days.
  • Washing your hair with shampoo that has the smell of apple will actually make your hair feel softer to touch (!)

The interview is full of nuggets like that. I’ve not watched the video of the interview but if that’s easier, here’s the link.

Linux and the Open Source Software Movement

I’ve just finished reading ‘Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary’ by Linus Torvalds. If you don’t know anything about Linus, it’s worth finding out. Or at least learning about the impact that the software project that he started in his bedroom has had on the world.

Put simply, Linux, his operating system, is now ubiquitous – wherever you are in the world, it’s likely you’re using it on a daily basis. The book was published in 2002. And today, the Linux project has only grown in influence, and become the foundation of some of the most valuable technology in the world – not bad for ‘free’ open source software…

Open source software is an approach that had many scratching their heads in the early days. Many commercial companies just couldn’t believe that a genuine business could be built on the foundations of software that others had developed for free and that they didn’t own. But, as history has proved, that belief has only shown them to have vastly underestimated the power of the open source philosophy.

So, what’s open source? Put simply, it’s software development where anyone can participate in either the development of the project or its commercial exploitation. And it brings with it one huge benefit: the more people that can review the code, the higher the chances are that any bugs will be squashed.

It’s an alien philosophy to much of the commercial landscape in different sectors, even today. But it’s not difficult to understand. There are different variations but in essence, anyone is entitled to change, improve or exploit the software’s source code (i.e. the fundamental programming instructions that underpin the software). But every change that they make has to be made available for everyone else at the same time.

You often hear the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”. It’s a statement that is most commonly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton in 1675 which is apt, because it relates to scientific research. And what is computer programming but an extension, the evolution of modern science? In the same way as researchers made new discoveries in science thanks to the discoveries of those who came before them, the same applies to open source software: instead of barring access to the best and brightest minds on the planet to your project, you open the doors to everyone from day one. The reward? Everybody is then able to collectively benefit from each incremental step forward – result in a vastly accelerated pace of innovation.

If you don’t work in technology, perhaps you’re wondering – why would people work for free? In most cases, open source software development is a collaborative project that’s driven by the efforts of volunteers. It’s not as if they are being directly remunerated for their hard work.

Note: we’re now potentially starting to see this change with some fascinating cryptocurrency experiments whereby the incentives are weighted in such a way that developers can earn a token for early work carried out on a protocol will potentially appreciate greatly in value over the coming years. Indeed, in many ways, cryptocurrency is exactly the way in which you bootstrap development of such projects that were, until now, pretty much unfundable.

But it’s this drive to contribute that is the source of the magic itself. As an individual coder, open source projects are where you have the opportunity to make your mark, regardless of background, location or training. And you have the opportunity to work alongside the brightest minds on the planet in the areas that truly fascinate you.

And the result? Most rational people around the world would choose to use the ‘best’ software (however that is defined). Which they can then take as the foundation for building things that are best suited to the precise context (users) that they want to address (develop a product or service for).

Suddenly you have a better product. The foundational software is built to much higher standards than a team toiling away in secrecy would ever be capable of building. Which means you’re freed up to focus on building the best possible services on top of those existing solid foundations. If your goal is to make money, knock yourself out. The open source movement doesn’t prevent that. It simply facilitates that as an option after you start developing on the best version of that software that the world has to offer at that particular point in time.

In many ways, open source is Darwinian in character. It represents survival-of-the-fittest in the world of code. But it also brings some interesting challenges for certain businesses. Imagine your organisation pays developers to work on open source software. The chances are that someone outside your organisation is going to come up with code that’s better written than the code you’ve paid for (i.e. written by your employees). That is, ultimately, A Good Thing. But engendering a culture that supports that – i.e. dealing with that ‘talent’ delta – really comes down to having an ‘open source culture’ in your DNA.

The best code wins.

It’s often mentioned that there’s a little bit of an anti-establishment feel to much of the open source movement. That’s a great thing. After watching the cryptocurrency scene for a number of years, it strikes me that this leads to  a heuristic that we should all be following: if you see the best and brightest being drawn to an open source project, it’s an indication that there’s something exciting going on. And where the passionate work goes, the most significant innovation usually follows.

Today, Linux-based Android has c.70% of the mobile market. In terms of the overall market for operating systems, Android (based on Linux) has edged ahead of Microsoft. So this free, open source software is now running the majority of the world’s technology. Quite a statistic. Which must be shocking to those who could never have imagined that businesses could be built on top of ‘free’ foundations.

The project that I’m involved with is entirely open source (you can check out the GitHub repo and download the code if you like). And the areas of technology (and, for that matter, scientific research) that interest me greatest are all open source.

Why wouldn’t you want to see the largest number of people possible working on the same goals?

Leadership Tips

Some great advice on leadership in this tweetstorm that’s well-worth reading for anyone who’s involved in leading (arguably that’s everyone – or at least everyone who works to earn a living).

I couldn’t agree more with this quote in particular:-

“It’s a myth that people are promoted to leadership positions. Leaders don’t wait for titles. They simply start behaving like leaders wherever they are and then the organization simply recognizes them with a title.”

Why You Should Delete Your Social Accounts

Earlier this week, I read Jaron Lanier’s ‘Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Accounts Right Now’. It’s a short book at only 146 pages but it packs a punch, delivering a number of compelling arguments against social media.

1/ You are losing your free will.

Social media is designed to use rewards and punishment in a way that’s altering your daily behaviour. This is behavioural modification on an epic scale by unelected leaders who are now starting to regret their actions. Or, as ex-VP of User Growth at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya said:-

“The short, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works”

2/ Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.

It’s a fact that negative posts drive increased engagement from users. The algorithms that power the growth of social media platforms thrive on engagement. Yet as the situation deteriorates as a result of such misaligned incentives, people are increasingly demanding that the very same people should get increasingly involved in solving the very problems they were responsible for causing. Its akin to asking the turkeys to vote for Christmas…

3/ Social media is making you into an asshole.

Humans have two basic settings: we act as individuals or in a pack. When we’re in a group, we’re ruled by the pack. We seek the approval of the group in order to validate our existence. But in a disembodied online world, one of the only ways to get that validation is by seeking feedback by provoking a reaction. Welcome to Troll Central.

4/ Social media is undermining truth.

Even if you think you’re aware of the problem, you are grossly underestimating just how much of online conversation is false, driven by fake social media accounts that comment, support and attack specific points of view. Believing that most of what you read online is genuine and represents the sincere view of a real human is a fundamental error that creates imbalance across the system.

5/ Social media is making what you say meaningless.

Fake news is replacing real news on these platforms – for the simple reason that there is so much fake news being shared and interacted with, that the platforms – which use such metrics to define successful content – are actively supporting inaccurate narratives in the face of less engaging truths.

6/ Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.

It is impossible to understand the context of anything that has any form of subtlety when it is reduced to a pithy soundbite, devoid of its context.

Furthermore, with people increasingly viewing the world through their own personalised news feeds, there are no longer any shared experiences. So with any significant event, we are understanding less than ever before of what that event actually means to each individual.

We each have our own filter bubble which influences our experience of the world. And it’s impossible for any of us to experience the world through the filtered history of others.

Platforms are designed in a way that encourages increasing numbers of people to attack your ideas more freely.

7/ Social media is making you unhappy.

Individuals are becoming increasingly isolated whilst the world becomes more connected. Platforms see engagement rise with the level of outrage. By participating, we’re encouraging precisely the opposite behaviour to the type that most people want.

8/ Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.

The online advertising model and the growth of the gig economy has increased the reliance of society on these platforms to a ridiculous extent. By doing so, “we have enshrined the belief that the only way to finance a connection between two people is through a third person who is paying to manipulate them”. Total nonsense…

9/ Social media is making politics impossible.

Lanier’s point is that there used to be a belief that once a country had adopted democracy, there could be no turning back. Yet the indications now are that democracy is under attack. He argues that we should be paying for services instead of simply accepting ‘free’ services – and we should be demanding total control over our own data.

Of course, we all know about some better ways to do that don’t we….;-)

10/ Social media hates your soul.

According to social media and the large tech companies, the ultimate goal in life is to optimise. Continually. To increase your number of followers, rise up the search rankings..

But its a view that obscures the ‘point’ of life and forces the subservience of real meaning to metrics. Scores, let’s not forget, that are determined behind closed doors and huge secrecy within the depths of these new ruling techno-hierarchies that increasingly control the world.

All in, the book’s definitely worth reading. It won’t come as a surprise to many that social media brings with it many problems. But it’s only when you start to focus on what they all represent in their totality that the size of the challenge becomes more readily apparent.

Privacy and Emails

Back in 2014, Glenn Greenwald gave a great TED talk on privacy and why it matters. Here’s the section that’s always stuck with me since the very first time I watched it:-

“Over the last 16 months, as I’ve debated this issue around the world, every single time somebody has said to me, “I don’t really worry about invasions of privacy because I don’t have anything to hide.” I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, “Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.”

Not a single person has taken me up on that offer.”

The Challenges of Decentralisation

I read a great series of articles by an ex-BitTorrent Inc guy Simon Morris on decentralisation today. You can check them out here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

They’re interesting for a number of reasons but I’d urge you to read them if like me, you’re working in any way with decentralised technology. Even if that just means you’re holding cryptocurrency.

Obviously the fairly recent news about the acquisition of BitTorrent Inc by Tron and the new token white paper (BTT) that they’ve released is useful background here. But given his involvement for a decade with BitTorrent (which, as he says, as the perhaps the most broadly decentralised technology yet, you should be reading it if your view is that decentralisation is a major feature, and not a bug, of a global technology system.

He argues that the most interesting use cases for decentralisation – and perhaps the only ones that will ultimately work – are those that break the rules. Now, those could be laws, they could simply be outdated regulations overdue for an update or perhaps they are simply strong societal norms. But being censorship-resistant (with no centralised organisation or technology to be attacked) is clearly crucial here. As he puts it:-

“If you’re not breaking rules, you’re doing it wrong!”

Interestingly, it’s a point that you heard often in the earlier Bitcoin days but the message has been watered down as vast amounts of VC and early institutional money started to enter the scene. Put simply, the killer use cases are payment on dark markets and ICO’s (where vast sums of money could be raised without having to follow the restrictive capital-raising procedures of many nation states). In other words, areas where this new technology enabled new things to happen that were impossible before.

Of course, foundation-shaking, risk-taking, rule-breaking is part of the DNA of true innovation and necessary if you’re planning on shifting those paradigms. So it’s unsurprising. But he also points out, that’s a tightrope for those in the industry: perhaps coming out and saying you’re looking to break the law isn’t the sort of messaging that’s going to give you (the organisation – as opposed to the platform that you’re working on) the best chances of success in any event. It worked out for Bitcoin – even if much of the second half of the last ten years has seen many obsess over a fascination with discovering the true identity of Satoshi Nakamoto.

Ultimately, decentralisation is hard – like, ridiculously hard. People misunderstand precisely what level of difficulty is involved to deliver. We’re talking way past boss-level here. So (to put words into his mouth), those who’re shouting loudest for results from these projects in a timescale of a few months are probably doing little beyond highlighting how poor their own understanding is of the technology and challenges that are involved.

So at the end of the day, why do you really want to seek decentralisation for your project? If censorship-resistance is the reason (or at least the overwhelmingly important part of it) then it makes sense: take on the increased costs and the massive increase in complexity when it comes to governance.

Governance is a hot topic of course. Ridiculous sums of money have been thrown at attempts to solve the issue and plenty of conference debates have been held on the subject. But as he points out, you can’t have it both ways: any platform that is censorship-resistant will have no obvious controlling element (which would then be a weakness that others could attack). So is it any surprise being able to control and roll out agreed updates and decisions is hard.

I always liken blockchain upgrades to human evolution: like standing on the sidelines as you grab some poor guy by the shoulders and scream in his ear that he should have grown a third arm by now, or be ten feet tall already. Evolution takes time. With decentralised technology, the strength of the network comes precisely from the fact that no-one can be prevented from joining. So expecting a massively disparate group of individuals around the world who have freely chosen to run software to agree quickly and efficiently on the direction a community should take, despite the fact that each has his or her own unique incentives and contexts to consider is simply unrealistic.

Overall, it’s a great selection of articles and well worth reading. Food for thought, for sure.

Protecting Your Digital Door

Given the choice, humans will always work harder to avoid losing property than they will to get more. So it’s unsurprising that technology is becoming increasingly in demand in this respect.

There’s a company called Ring that seems to be doing well for itself. Amongst other things, they make smart dooorbells which allow the home owner to not only see, but also hear and record what’s going on outside their front doors. Bye bye parcel delivery thieves. Hello app notifications that tell you when someone’s knocking on your door, trying to deliver a parcel.

You’ll be hardly surprised to hear that they were subsequently bought by Amazon…

But the reason I’ve come across them recently is because of a particularly dodgy practice that appears to have been going on. Yes, that’s right – this personal property surveillance system (which some people also use inside their homes) have been allowing other people to view strangers’ feeds.

Its a story that is depressingly familiarise. Company finds way to develop decent technology to serve a demand. Company decides to extend service to create a (‘neighbourhood watch’ type of) platform to build scale so individuals can share data between themselves. Company tries to automate with very basic identification techniques in order to tag objects. Process proves to be difficult and so is forced to rely on humas to do the brain-crushingly boring job of tagging masses of images by hand each day in an effort to teach/feed the machine. Resulting in free, unencrypted access for strangers associated with that company (in this case, in the Ukraine).

It’s not something new. People are increasingly attracted to technology in order to monitor their property in ways that weren’t possible before. Shame on you if you’re a parent in this modern day and age who doesn’t have a baby monitor (even if you have no idea how to secure it).

But still, it’s probably worth stopping and thinking before you sign up to these things. Taken as individual items, they may not cause harm directly to you. But the problem is that very few things exist as private islands purely for your benefit when it comes to personal technology these days.

Almost everything is, or soon will be, online. So every time you open that digital door to the outside world, just be very careful who you’re letting through it. You might not know who’s come through – but it’s worth bearing it in mind.