Category Archives: Technology

The Age of Surveillance

“Today’s world would have disturbed and astonished George Orwell.”                                        —David Lyon, Director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Queen’s University

When Orwell wrote 1984, he imagined a world where pervasive surveillance was visual, achieved by camera. Today’s surveillance is of course much more about gathering information, but it is every bit as all-encompassing as that depicted by Orwell in his dystopian novel. Whereas individual monitoring in 1984 was at the behest of a superstate personified as ‘Big Brother,’ today’s omnipresent watching comes via an unholy alliance of business and the state.

Most of it occurs when we are online. In 2011, Max Schrems, an Austrian studying law in Silicon Valley, asked Facebook to send him all the data the company had collected on him. (Facebook was by no means keen to meet his request; as a European, Schrems was able to take advantage of the fact that Facebook’s European headquarters are in Dublin, and Ireland has far stricter privacy laws than we have on this side of the Atlantic.) He was shocked to receive a CD containing more than 1200 individual PDFs. The information tracked every login, chat message, ‘poke’ and post Schram had ever made on Facebook, including those he had deleted. Additionally, a map showed the precise locations of all the photos tagging Schrem that a friend had posted from her iPhone while they were on vacation together.

Facebook accumulates this dossier of information in order to sell your digital persona to advertisers, as does Google, Skype, Youtube, Yahoo! and just about every other major corporate entity operating online. If ever there was a time when we wondered how and if the web would become monetized, we now know the answer. The web is an advertising medium, just as are the television and radio; it’s just that the advertising is ‘targeted’ at you via a comprehensive individual profile that these companies have collected and happily offered to their advertising clients, in exchange for their money.

How did our governments become involved? Well, the 9/11 terrorist attacks kicked off their participation most definitively. Those horrific events provided rationale for governments everywhere to begin monitoring online communication, and to pass laws making it legal wherever necessary. And now it seems they routinely ask the Googles and Facebooks of the world to hand over the information they’re interested in, and the Googles and Facebooks comply, without ever telling us they have. In one infamous incidence, Yahoo! complied with a Chinese government request to provide information on two dissidents, Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, and this complicity led directly to the imprisonment of both men. Sprint has now actually automated a system to handle requests from government agencies for information, one that charges a fee of course!

It’s all quite incredible, and we consent to it every time we toggle that “I agree” box under the “terms and conditions” of privacy policies we will never read. The terms of service you agree to on Skype, for instance, allow Skype to change those terms any time they wish to, without your notification or permission.

And here’s the real rub on today’s ‘culture of surveillance:’ we have no choice in the matter. Use of the internet is, for almost all of us, no longer a matter of socializing, or of seeking entertainment; it is where we work, where we carry out the myriad of tasks necessary to maintain the functioning of our daily life. The choice to not create an online profile that can then be sold by the corporations which happen to own the sites we operate within is about as realistic as is the choice to never leave home. Because here’s the other truly disturbing thing about surveillance in the coming days: it’s not going to remain within the digital domain.

Coming to a tree near you? BlackyShimSham photo
Coming to a tree near you?
BlackyShimSham photo

In May of this year Canadian Federal authorities used facial recognition software to bust a phony passport scheme being operated out of Quebec and BC by organized crime figures. It seems Passport Canada has been using the software since 2009, but it’s only become truly effective in the last few years. It’s not at all difficult to imagine that further advances in this software will soon have security cameras everywhere able to recognize you wherever you go. Already such cameras can read your car’s license plate number as you speed over a bridge, enabling the toll to be sent to your residence, for payment at your convenience. Thousands of these cameras continue to be installed in urban, suburban and yes, even rural areas every year.

Soon enough, evading surveillance will be nearly impossible, whether you’re online or walking in the woods. Big Brother meets Big Data.

Fear of Identity Erosion

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to watching Sound and Fury, the 2000-released, Academy award-nominated documentary film about two families struggling with the impact of having their deaf children receive cochlear implants. These tiny electronic devices are surgically implanted, and will usually improve hearing in deaf patients, but—it is feared by the families featured in Sound and Fury—this improvement will come at the expense of “deaf culture.”

McLuhanThe film is an absorbing exploration of what we mean by culture and identity, and how critically important these concepts are to us. Because here’s the thing—the parents of one of the children being considered for cochlear implants (who are themselves deaf) choose not to have the operation, even though their child has asked for it, and even though it will in all likelihood significantly improve their young daughter’s hearing.

Why? Because improved hearing will negatively affect their daughter’s inclusion in the deaf tribe. I use that word advisedly, because it seems that is what identification comes down to for nearly all of us—inclusion in a group, or tribe. We identify ourselves via gender, language, race, nation, occupation, family role, sexual orientation, etc.—ever more narrowed groupings—until we arrive at that final, fairly specific definition of who we are. And these labels are incredibly valued by us. We will fight wars over these divisions, enact discriminatory laws, and cleave families apart, all in order to preserve them.

And here’s the other point that the film makes abundantly clear: technology forces change. I’m told that American Sign Language (ASL) is the equivalent of any other, fully developed spoken language, even to the point where there are separate dialects within ASL. The anxiety felt by the parents of the deaf daughter about the loss of deaf culture is entirely justified—to the extent that cochlear implant technology could potentially eradicate ASL, and this language (like any other language) is currently a central component of deaf culture. With the steady advance of implant technology, the need for deaf children to learn ASL could steadily decrease, to the point where the language eventually atrophies and dies. And with it deaf culture?

Possibly, yes, at least in terms of how deaf culture is presently defined. To their credit, it seems that the parents featured in Sound and Fury eventually relented, granting their child the surgery, but they did so only after fierce and sustained resistance to the idea. And so it goes with ‘identity groupings.’ We are threatened by their erosion, and we will do all manner of irrational, at times selfish and destructive things to prevent that erosion.

My friend Rafi, in a recent and fascinating blog post, announced that this year, he and his family will mostly forego the Passover rituals which have for so long been a defining Jewish tradition. He writes that, after a sustained re-reading and contemplation of ‘The Haggadah,’ the text meant to be read aloud during the Passover celebrations, he found the message simply too cruel, too “constructed to promote fear and exclusion.” “I’m done with it,” he announces.

Well, at the risk of offending many Jewish people in many places, more power to him. He does a courageous and generous thing when he says no more “us and them,” no more segregation, no more division.

All cultures, all traditions can bring with them a wonderful richness—great music, food, dance, costumes, all of it. But they can also bring insecurity, antipathy and conflict, conflict which can often result directly in people suffering.

Everyone benefits from knowing who they are, where they came from culturally. But no one should fear revising traditions; no one should slavishly accept that all cultural practices or group identities must continue exactly as they are, and have been. Technology may force change upon you, but regardless, recognize that change whatever its source is relentless. Anyone who thinks they can preserve cultural traditions perfectly intact within that relentless context of change is fooling themselves. And neither should anyone think that all cultural traditions are worth preserving.

New identities are always possible. Acceptance and inclusion are the goals, not exclusion and fear. It takes time, careful thought, and sometimes courage, but every human being can arrive at a clear individual understanding of who they are and what is important to them. Choose traditions which welcome others and engender the greater good. Reject those which don’t. If you can do this, and I don’t mean to diminish the challenge involved, you’ll know who you are, and you’ll undoubtedly enjoy a rich cultural life.

Storytelling 3.0 – Part 2

We tend to forget—at least I do—that, in the history of storytelling, movies came before radio. By about 15 years. The first theatre devoted exclusively to showing motion picture entertainment opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. It was called The Nickelodeon. The name became generic, and by 1910, about 26 million Americans visited a nickelodeon every week. It was a veritable techno-entertainment explosion.

The thing is, anyone at all—if they could either buy or create the product—could rent a hall, then charge admission to see a movie. To this very day, you are free to do this.

When radio rolled around—about 1920—this arrangement was obviously not on. It’s a challenge to charge admission to a radio broadcast. In fact, the first radio broadcasts were intended to sell radios; this was their original economic raison d’être.

Sadly, very quickly it became illegal to broadcast without a government granted license. (Oddly enough, the first licensed radio broadcast again originated from Pittsburgh.) And almost as quickly, sponsorship became a part of radio broadcasting. The price of admission was the passive audio receipt of an advertisement for a product or service.

An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Maia C photo
An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Maia C photo

Radio shows were much easier and cheaper to produce than movies, and they weren’t always communal in the way movies were, that is they were not always a shared experience. (Although they could be—many a family sat around the radio in the mid part of the 20th century, engrossed in stories about Superman or The Black Museum.)

More importantly, as with book publishing, the gatekeepers were back with radio, and they were both public and private. No one could operate a radio station without a government license, and no one could gain access to a radio studio without permission from the station owner.

Then came television with the same deal in place, only more so. TV shows were more expensive to produce, but like radio, they lent themselves to a more private viewing, and access to the medium for storytellers was fully restricted, from the outset. As with radio, and until recently, TV was ‘free;’ the only charge was willing exposure to an interruptive ‘commercial.’

With the advent of each of these storytelling mediums, the experience has changed, for both storyteller and audience member. Live theatre has retained some of the immediate connection with an audience that began back in the caves (For my purposes, the storyteller in theatre is the playwright.), and radio too has kept some of that immediacy, given that so much of it is still produced live. But the true face-to-face storytelling connection is gone with electronic media, and whenever the audience member is alone as opposed to in a group, the experience is qualitatively different. The kind of community that is engendered by electronic media—say fans of a particular TV show—is inevitably more isolated, more disparate than that spawned within a theatre.

The first commercial internet providers came into being in the late 1980s, and we have since lived through a revolution as profound as was the Gutenberg. Like reading, the internet consumer experience is almost always private, but like movies, the access to the medium is essentially unrestricted, for both storyteller and story receiver.

And that, in the end, is surprising and wonderful. Economics aside for a moment, I think it’s undeniably true that never, in all our history, has the storyteller been in a more favorable position than today.

What does this mean for you and I? Well, many things, but let me climb onto an advocacy box for a minute to stress what I think is the most significant benefit for all of us. Anyone can now be a storyteller, in the true sense of the word, that is a person with a story to tell and an audience set to receive it. For today’s storyteller, because of the internet, the world is your oyster, ready to shuck.

Everyone has a story to tell, that much is certain. If you’ve been alive long enough to gain control of grunt and gesture, you have a story to tell. If you have learned to set down words, you’re good to go on the internet. And I’m suggesting that all of us should. Specifically what I’m advocating is that you write a blog, a real, regular blog like this one, or something as marvelously simple as my friend Rafi’s. Sure, tweeting or updating your Facebook page is mini-blogging, but no, you can do better than that.

Start a real blog—lots of sites offer free hosting—then keep it up. Tell the stories of your life, past and present; tell them for yourself, your family, your friends. Your family for one will be grateful, later if not right away. If you gain an audience beyond yourself, your family and friends, great, but it doesn’t matter a hoot. Blog because you now can; it’s free and essentially forever. Celebrate the nature of the new storytelling medium by telling a story, your story.

Storytelling 3.0 – Part 1

Leighton Cooke photo
Leighton Cooke photo

With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, when it comes to story, the medium is not the message. Yet the medium certainly affects reception of the message. As I’ve written earlier in this blog, storytelling began even before we had language. Back in our species days in caves, whether it was the events of the day’s hunt, or what was to be discovered beyond the distant mountain, I’m quite certain our ancestors told stories to one another with grunt and gesture.

Once we began to label things with actual words, oral language developed rapidly and disparately, into many languages. The medium was as dynamic as it’s ever been. It was immediate, face-to-face, and personal. Stories became ways in which we could explain things, like how we got here, or why life was so arbitrary, or what the bleep that big bright orb was which sometimes rose in the night sky and sometimes didn’t. Or stories became a way in which we could scare our children away from wandering into the forest alone and getting either lost or eaten.

Then, somewhere back about 48 centuries, in Egypt, it occurred to some bright soul that words could be represented by symbols. Hieroglyphics—the first alphabet—appeared. The art of communication has never been the same. The great oral tradition of storytelling began to wane, superseded by written language, a medium that is both more rigid and exclusive. To learn to read and understand, as opposed to listen and understand, was more arduous, difficult enough that it had to be taught, and then not until a child was old enough to grasp the meaning and system behind written words.

It was not until about 1000 BC that the Phoenicians developed a more phonetic alphabet, which in turn became the basis for the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets, and thus the alphabet I use to type this word. The Phoenician alphabet was wildly successful, spreading quickly into Africa and Europe, in part because the Phoenicians were so adept at sailing and trading all around the Mediterranean Sea. More importantly though, it was successful because it was much more easily learned, and it could be adapted to different languages.

We are talking a revolutionary change here. Prior to this time, written language was, to echo Steven Fischer in A History of Writing, an instrument of power used by the ruling class to control access to information. The larger population had been, for some 38 centuries—and to employ a modern term—illiterate, and thus royalty and the priesthood had been able to communicate secretively and exclusively among themselves, to their great advantage. It’s not hard to imagine how the common folk back then must have at times regarded written language as nearly magical, as comprised of mysterious symbols imbued with supernatural powers.

We are arriving at the nub of it now, aren’t we? Every medium of communication, whether it be used for telling stories or not, brings people together, but some media do it better than others. Stories build communities, and this is a point not lost on writers of language as divergent as Joseph Conrad and Rebecca Solnit. In his luminous Preface to The Nigger of Narcissus, published in 1897, Conrad writes that the novelist speaks to “the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.” For a story to succeed, we must identify with the characters in it, and Solnit writes in 2013, in The Faraway Nearby, that we mean by identification that “I extend solidarity to you, and who and what you identify with builds your own identity.”

Stories are powerful vehicles, with profound potential benefits for humanity. But they can also bring evil. As Solnit has also written, stories can be used “to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live.” The Nazis had a story to tell, all about why life was difficult, and who was to blame, and how we might make life better.

The content of the story matters; the intent of the storyteller matters. And the medium by which the story is told has its effect. As storytelling media have evolved through time, the story is received differently, by different people. Sometimes that’s a good thing; sometimes it isn’t.

To be continued…

Words

My own view on the ‘proper’ use of language is radical, though not so radical as some. I am told of a UBC professor who believes that, “If you used it, it’s a word.” I would amend that statement to read, “If you used it—and it was understood by the listener in the way you intended it to be understood—it’s a word.”

Rafel Miro photo
Rafel Miro photo

I’m employing the classic communication model here, where sender, message and receiver must all be present in order for communication to take place, and I do believe that clarity is the prime consideration when attempting to communicate with the written or spoken word. Honesty might be my second consideration, and all the niceties of language—the elements of style—would follow, a distant third.

Words are meant to communicate, and communication is meant to move you somehow, either intellectually or emotionally, depending upon the kind of writing or speaking being done. But nowhere should it be maintained that there is a proper way to communicate with words, that there is one and only one correct way to string words together.

And yet of course there is. We have the rules of grammar, and we have the dictionary. The dictionary tells us that there is one and only one correct way to spell a word, and the rules of grammar tell us that there is only one way to correctly construct sentences.

Well, to not put too fine a word upon it, hogwash. Shakespeare never had a dictionary or grammar text to refer to, and most of us would agree that no fellow has ever strung English words together better than he, and he invented some dillys (How about “fell swoop?”). It makes no more sense to say that there are rules to govern writing than it does to say there are rules to govern painting, or sculpture, or theatre. Writing is an artform like any other, and to impose rules upon it is an act of stultification.

I’m with Bill Bissett, subversive poet of deserved renown whose work can be found on his “offishul web site,” work like this pithy gem (from scars on th seehors):

IT USD 2 B

yu cud get sum toilet papr

nd a newspapr both 4

a dollr fiftee

 

now yu cant  

yu gotta make a chois 

Bissett points out in his essay why I write like ths that it was the invention of the printing press that precipitated the standardization of language:

previous to that era peopul wud spell th same words diffrentlee  evn in th same correspondens  chek th lettrs btween qween elizabeth first n sir waltr raleigh  different spellings  different tones  different emphasis  sound  all part uv th changing meenings  

Once again it seems it was technology determining change, change which in this case undoubtedly impoverished words as a creative tool.

It was the Victorians who truly imposed a final set of rules upon the English language—the first Oxford Dictionary appeared in 1884—and generically speaking, there has rarely been a more noxious bunch populating the earth.

The French have the Académie française, “official moderator of the French language,” there “to work, with all possible care and diligence, to give our language definite rules.” The Academy of course admits a few new words to the French language each year, mostly to replace odious English words that have crept into use in French, but again, it is hard to imagine a more officious and objectionable pomp of bureaucrats than these self-appointed jury members. (Did you catch me inventing “pomp,” and, more importantly, did you grasp my meaning?)

Language evolves, daily, as must any art if it is to remain an art. It must constantly be in search of the novel, for there is precious little else remaining when it comes to the recognition of art than that it be new. Those who would stand in opposition to this evolution stand with those charming Victorians who offered up as their sole necessary justification, “It’s not done.”

Yes, the too-indulgent use of words can be tedious and problematic (Has anyone actually read Finnegan’s Wake?), but even more problematically tendentious are the language police manning the checkpoints in defense of a hopeless, conservative cause. If you want to say, “There is data to support my argument,” as opposed to “There are data…”, go ahead. Those who would condemn you for it are snobs, snobs with a fascist bent, and not the least deserving of the respect they seek. If you consider it a word, and you think it likely to be understood in the way you intend, go ahead, fire away, use it. Feel free.

Exponential End

Computers are now more than a million times faster than they were when the first hand calculator appeared back in the 1960s. (An engineer working at Texas Instruments, Jack Kilby, had invented the first integrated circuit, or semiconductor, in 1957.) This incredible, exponential increase was predicted via ‘Moore’s Law,’ first formulated in 1965: that is that the number of transistors in a semiconductor doubles approximately every two years.

Another way to state this Law (which is not a natural ‘law’ at all, but an observational prediction) is to say that each generation of transistors will be half the size of the last. This is obviously a finite process, with an end in sight.  Well, in our imaginations at least.

The implications of this end are not so small. As we all know, rapidly evolving digital technology has hugely impacted nearly every sector of our economy, and with those changes has come disruptive social change, but also rapid economic growth. The two largest arenas of economic growth in the U.S. in recent years have been Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and Wall Street has prospered on the manipulation of money, via computers, while Silicon Valley (Silicon is the ‘plate’ upon which a semiconductor is usually built.) has prospered upon the growing ubiquity of computers themselves.

Intel has predicted that the end of this exponential innovation will come anywhere between 2013 and 2018. Moore’s Law itself predicts the end at 2020. Gordon Moore himself—he who formulated the Law—said in a 2005 interview that, “In terms of size [of transistors] you can see that we’re approaching the size of atoms, which is a fundamental barrier.” Well, in 2012 a team working at the University of New South Wales announced the development of the first working transistor consisting of a single atom. That sounds a lot like the end of the line.

In November of last year, a group of eminent semiconductor experts met in Washington to discuss the current state of semiconductor innovation, as well as its worrisome future. These men (alas, yes, all men) are worried about the future of semiconductor innovation because it seems that there are a number of basic ideas about how innovation can continue past the coming ‘end,’ but none of these ideas has emerged as more promising than the others, and any one of them is going to be very expensive. We’re talking a kind of paradigm shift, from microelectronics to nanoelectronics, and, as is often the case, the early stages of a fundamentally new technology are much more costly than the later stages, when the new technology has been scaled up.

And of course research dollars are more difficult to secure these days than they have been in the past. Thus the additional worry that the U.S., which has for decades led the world in digital innovation, is going to be eclipsed by countries like China and Korea that are now investing more in R&D than is the U.S. The 2013 budget sequestration cuts have, for instance, directly impacted certain university research budgets, causing programs to be cancelled and researchers to be laid off.

Bell Labs 1934
Bell Labs 1934

One of the ironies of the situation, for all those of us who consider corporate monopoly to be abhorrent, is evident when a speaker at the conference mentioned working at the Bell Labs back in the day when Ma Bell (AT&T) operated as a monopoly and funds at the Labs were virtually unlimited. Among the technologies originating at the Bell Labs are the transistor, the laser, and the UNIX operating system.

It’s going to be interesting, because the need is not going away. The runaway train that is broadband appetite, for instance, is not slowing down; by 2015 it’s estimated that there will be 16 times the amount of video clamoring to get online than there is today.

It’s worth noting that predictions about Moore’s law lasting only about another decade have been made for the last 30 years. And futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Bruce Sterling believe that exponential innovation will continue on past the end of its current course due in large part to a ‘Law of Accelerating Technical Returns,’ leading ultimately to ‘The Singularity,’ where computers surpass human intelligence.

Someone should tell those anxious computer scientists who convened last November in Washington: not to worry. Computers will solve this problem for us.

Cars

I drove a car just as soon as I was legally able to.  Couldn’t wait.  A learner’s permit was obtainable in Alberta at age 14 back then, so within days of my 14th birthday I was happily out on the road, behind the wheel of a freedom machine.  I owned my first car, a light blue Volkswagon Fastback, by the time I was 18.

epSos.de photo
epSos.de photo

My own son, who is now 24, has never owned a car, and professes no interest in doing so.  It was my suggestion, not his, that he obtain a driver’s license, since I believed, perhaps naively, that it enhanced his chances for gainful employment.  My son’s cousin, same age, similarly has no interest in driving.  His friend Mendel, a year younger, has never bothered with the driver’s license.

They all own mobile devices of course, and if they ever had to choose between a car and a smart phone it would not be a difficult choice, and the auto industry would not be the beneficiary.

Times change.  And yet, more than ever, Canada is a suburban, car-dependent nation.  Two-thirds of us live in suburban neighbourhoods and three-quarters of us still drive to work, most of the time alone.  Vancouver, where I spend most of my time, now has the worst traffic congestion in all of North America, this year finally overtaking perennial frontrunner Los Angeles.

If ever a technology is in need of a revolution it has to be cars.  As uber venture capitalist (and Netscape co-founder) Marc Andreeson has been pointing out of late, most cars sit idle most of the time, like 90% of the time.  And the actual figure for occupancy on car trips is 1.2 persons per journey.

Car co-ops, and car-sharing companies like Zip Car of Car2Go point the way.  Many people have begun sharing, rather than owning a car.  But if you take the numbers mentioned above and add in the coming phenomenon of the Google robot car, the potential transportation picture becomes truly intriguing.

Driverless cars are now legal on public roads in Nevada, California and Florida.  Since 2011, there have been two collisions involving Google’s robot cars.  In one incident, the car was under human control at the time; in the other the robotic car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.  We might assume that a human was driving the car that rear-ended the robot.

What if no one owned a car?  What if you could simply order up a driverless car ride on your smart phone any time, anywhere?  Your robot car would arrive at your door, it might stop to pick someone else up en route, but it would then drop you off at the entranceway to wherever it is you’re wishing to go to.  You would pay a fee for this service of course, but it would be minor in comparison to what you now pay if you own and regularly drive a car.

And of course the need for cars would nosedive, because these robotic cars would be in use nearly all of the time, say 90% of the time.  Car numbers would plummet, meaning traffic congestion would be a thing of the past.  And it keeps going: garages, driveways, parking lots would begin to disappear.  Our urban landscape, which has essentially been designed to accommodate cars, would begin to transform.  A lot more green space would become available.

And I haven’t even mentioned the reduction in carbon pollution that would ensue with the reduction in cars, carbon pollution being a problem which just may threaten the stability of civilization in the coming years.

Cars have been with us for about 100 years now.  Our relationship with them over that period has at times been tender, at times belligerent, at times top-down, sun-in-your face, wind-in-your-hair fabulous, at times utterly savage.  For those people who love cars, who fuss over them, restore them, take them out for careful drives only on sunny Sunday afternoons; I hope those people keep their cars, as an expensive hobby.  For the rest of us, those of us who use cars simply to get from A to B, for whom cars are just a form of convenient transport, the days when we need to own a car are disappearing.  For my money, the sooner the better.

Clicktivism

I first joined Amnesty International back in the early 80s.  I still have a thickish file containing carbon copies of the letters I wrote and sent back then, thwacked out over the hum of my portable electric typewriter.  Despite my efforts to keep them informed, A.I. didn’t do a particularly good job of tracking me as I moved about from place to place in the following years, but, nevertheless, on and off, I’ve been sending protest messages under their aegis for some 30 years now.

Scott Schrantz photo
Scott Schrantz photo

But these days it’s a whole lot easier.  These days I receive an email from them, outlining another outrage by an oppressive government somewhere, and I’m asked to simply ‘sign’ a petition.  They have my details on hand already, so all I need do is click to the petition page and click one more time.  Done.

It’s called ‘clicktivism,’ and, quite rightly, its comparative value is questionable.  In the 2011 book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Siva Vaidhyanathan took this somewhat indirect swipe at the practice: “… instead of organizing, lobbying and campaigning… we rely on expressions of disgruntlement as a weak proxy for real political action.  Starting or joining a Facebook protest group suffices for many as political action.”

Writing in The Guardian a year earlier, Micah White made a much more direct attack: “In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal.  It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”  White points out that clicktivism is largely activism co-opted by the techniques of online marketing.  The greater the emphasis on click-rates, bloated petition numbers and other marketing metrics, the cheaper the value of the message, according to White, resulting in “a race to the bottom of political engagement.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is that organizations like Amnesty pass their contact lists to other like organizations, presumably for compensation, without soliciting consent.  I did sign on with Avaaz, but I’ve never asked to receive emails from SumOfUs, Care2 Action Alerts, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Plan Canada, the Council of Canadians, All Out, Change.org or Care Canada, but I do.  I will readily admit that many of those emails go unopened.

It’s a difficult phenomenon to come to terms with ethically.  These organizations are undoubtedly staffed by well-meaning people who genuinely believe they are making a difference.  And I’m sure that sometimes they do.  Yet there is also no doubt that the greatly facilitated process that clicktivism represents degrades more on-the-ground forms of political protest, and allows people like myself to make essentially meaningless contributions to worthy causes.  ‘Facilitate’ may be the operative word here, as in facile, meaning, according to Merriam Webster, “too simple; not showing enough thought or effort.”

December 10 is International Human Rights Day, as first proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950.  Last year Amnesty International organized the sending of more than 1.8 million messages to governments everywhere on that date, asking them to respect the rights of people and communities under threat of persecution.  To their credit, in addition to urging their members to send messages, Amnesty is encouraging its members to organize or attend an event in their community or workplace on December 10.  They have targeted seven different cases of human rights abuse from around the globe for action.  These include Dr. Ten Aung, who was given a 17-year jail sentence in Myanmar last year after attempting to keep the peace between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohinyga Muslims; Ihar Tsikhanyuk, who has faced threats, intimidation and beatings in Belarus for attempting to register a group in support of LGBTI rights, and Badia East, from Nigeria, who, along with many of her neighbours, was left destitute and without compensation after authorities destroyed her home last February.

The problem with my problem with clicktivism is that it pales in comparison to the problems faced by these brave people on a daily basis.  And like so many other new processes made possible by digital technology, the change represented by online activism is not about to reverse itself.  We keep our eyes forward, think critically, and do what we can.  I’ll try to write a letter on December 10.

Rogue Species

“Nothing will regret us.  Nothing will remember us.  It will be a clean wipeout, and every single molecule that constitutes part of a human being today will be working somewhere else for something else.”

Farley Mowat, in The Green Interview

Author Farley Mowat has long considered human beings a rogue species.  According to Mowat, we’ve overrun the planet, decimating one species after another along the way for our own commercial gain, and in the process we’ve done lethal damage to the natural systems which sustain us.  We’re headed for collapse, disappearance, if Mowat is to be believed, and we won’t be missed.

Scott Schrantz photo
Scott Schrantz photo

In an oddly related bit of news, the people of the southeastern British Columbia District of Invermere voted last week in overwhelming support of a deer cull in their part of the planet.  Of the 994 people who voted, 749 approved the use of culls to reduce populations of “urban deer.”

Deer are one of those species, like Canada geese, raccoons and rats, which have learned to adapt to, and then thrive in a human-altered landscape.  Humans are adept at eliminating animals like wolves and cougars from their immediate environs, and so deer are able to happily move in and benefit from a total lack of predators and plenty of human-maintained greenery.

This is certainly the case on Galiano, where wolves and cougars have been completely eradicated from the island, and, as every Galiano gardener can tell you, deer populations are such that no bit of greenery can be safely cultivated except behind a high protective fence.  “Concentration camp gardening” I like to call it.

The island deer population seems to build up over the course of a number of years, until what are essentially ‘plague conditions’ arise, and a significant portion of the populace dies off from disease.  Then the cycle begins again.

Is Mr. Mowat correct?  Are we headed for the same fate, collapse if not disappearance?  Has the level of carbon pollution in the atmosphere already reached a level where civilization as we’ve known it is soon going to be thrown into chaos, with millions upon millions suffering?  Can technology save us?

The future is notoriously difficult to predict.  Just a few years ago, in 2008, the notion of ‘peak oil’ seemed to suggest that economic, if not ecological downfall was rushing pell mell toward us, as demand for oil fast outpaced supply and the price for a barrel of oil reached $145 U.S.  Today, with increasing efficiency in automobiles and the advent of ‘fracking’ technology, the price of oil is under $95 a barrel.  This week Encana Corp, an energy company with assets of more than $14 billion, announced layoffs for 20% of its workforce.  As the great sage Yogi Berra once observed, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Whatever the future of the species, acting locally, and thinking globally would still seem to be the prudent thing to do.  There should be more than enough evidence out there of dire economic and ecological possibilities to convince even the most obdurate of us of at least that much.  Do what you can in your own backyard, and try to make decisions based upon the longer term, your grandchildren’s future, as opposed to your own.

Perhaps the best specific political reform that might be enacted (don’t get excited; it’s not on) would be to see politician’s elected to a single, five-year term.  Once in office said politician does what they believe is right, what they promised to do when running for office, without any concern whatsoever for the prospect of getting re-elected.  Long term thinking is enabled.

We live in precarious times.  And if collapse comes it will not necessarily be precipitous.  The fall of Rome, the advent of ‘the dark ages’ didn’t happen overnight.  Rather it was a slow decline, noticeable only over a longer term.

Do what you can.  Work hard, respect the earth, and your neighbours, and, whenever you can, try to act for the greater good, as opposed to your own particular, short term interests.  It’s pretty simple really, but it takes a clear head, calm nerves, and a check on our emotions, those emotions, born of our own stressful conditions, that cause us to resent, lash out, or otherwise act selfishly.

It isn’t easy.  But if we can consistently, calmly think the greater good, and act upon it, you never know, we might just make it.

 

The Eggs in Google’s Basket

Back in the third century BC, the largest and most significant library in the world was in Alexandria, Egypt.  Its mission was to hold all the written knowledge of the known world, and so scribes from this library were regularly sent out to every other identified information repository to borrow, copy and return (well, most of the time) every ‘book,’ (mostly papyrus scrolls) in existence.  We don’t know the precise extent of the collection, but there is no doubt that its value was essentially priceless.

And then the library was destroyed.  The circumstances of the destruction are unclear—fire and religious rivalries had a lot to do with it—but by the birth of Jesus Christ, the library was no more.  The irretrievable loss of public knowledge was incalculable.

In those days, access to knowledge was limited and expensive; today such access is ubiquitous and free, via the World Wide Web.

MicroAssist photo
MicroAssist photo

Except that there’s this singular middleman.  A corporate entity actually, called Google, that acts as a nearly monopolistic conduit for all today’s abundant information.  As Siva Vaidhyanatha has pointed out in his recent book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), the extent of Google’s domination of the Web is such that, “Google is on the verge of becoming indistinguishable from the Web itself.”

The corporation operates in excess of one million servers in various data centers spread across the planet, processing more than a billion search requests every day.  And then there are Google’s other services: email (Gmail), office software (Google Drive), blog hosting (Blogger), social networking (Google+ and Orkut), VoIP (Google Voice), online payment (Google Checkout), Web browsing (Chrome), ebooks (Google Books), mobile (Android), online video (YouTube), and real world navigation (Google Maps, Street View, Google Earth).  There’s more.

It’s a unique and amazing situation.  As Vaidhyanathan adds, “The scope of Google’s mission sets it apart from any company that has ever existed in any medium.”  Its leaders blithely assure us that Google will always operate consistent with its unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil,” but it’s difficult to imagine how we should accept this assurance without some degree of caution.  The company is only about 17 years old, and every entity in this world, big and small, is subject to constant change.

Google is less dominant in Asia and Russia, with about 40% of the search market, but in places like Europe, North America and much of South America, Google controls fully 90 to 95% of Web search traffic.  For most of us, this gigantic private utility has taken over the most powerful communication, commercial and information medium in the world, and is now telling us, ‘Not to worry; we’re in control but we’re friendly.’  Well, maybe, but it behooves all of us to ask, ‘Who exactly appointed you Czar?’

For one thing, as many of us know, Google is not neutral in its search function; a search for “globalization” in Argentina does not deliver the same results as a search for the same term in the U.K.  Google is now making decisions on our behalf as to what search results we actually want to see.  It does this based upon its ability to mine our online data.  Why does Google do this?  Because that data is also valuable to advertisers.  Perhaps the most important point Vaidhyanathan makes in his book is that Google is not at its core a search engine company; its core business is advertising.

You might argue this is win-win.  Google makes money (lots and lots of it); we get a remarkably effective, personalized service.  At least we usually don’t have to wait for the advertising to conclude, as we do on TV, before we can continue our use of the medium.

Vaidhyanathan argues in his book for creation of what he calls the Human Knowledge Project (akin to the Human Genome Project).  This would deliver an “information ecosystem” that would supplant and outlive Google—essentially a global electronic network of public libraries that would be universally accessible and forever within the communal domain.

It’s an idea worthy of consideration, because, once again, we seem to be vulnerable to the loss or change of a single, monopolistic source of information.  As with the Alexandria library, there are too many eggs in Google’s basket.