The Wisdom of the Ordinary

“Sometimes I dream of being a good father and good husband. Sometimes that feels really close, but other times it just seems silly, and that it would ruin my life… If I’m totally honest with myself, I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I was special or had excelled in some way, than to have been in a really nice, caring relationship.”

Jesse, in Before Sunrise, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan

 

16092263739_4d743c338dAs I write this, Richard Linklater’s feature film Boyhood is enjoying a good deal of ‘Oscar buzz.’ The movie, shot over a 12-year period with the same set of actors, has received five separate nominations for an Oscar, and has just won ‘Best Picture’ at the Golden Globe Awards.

I’ve long been a fan of Linklater’s work, ever since first viewing Slacker in 1991. I haven’t yet seen Boyhood. I’m sure it’s a fine movie, but I also wonder if Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy of movies, employing the same set of actors over a nearly 20-year period, isn’t just as worthy an accomplishment.

Linklater is an unusual filmic storyteller in a number of ways, not the least of which is his propensity to focus in upon intellectual concerns in his movies, as opposed to the emotional terrain traversed in more conventional films. The quote above is taken from the first of the movies comprising the Before trilogy. It tells the story of two young people who meet on a train approaching Vienna one evening, and then, in unplanned fashion, get off the train together in Vienna, and spend the entire night ‘walking and talking’ through the streets. Hardly the stuff of your typical American movie.

They debate questions like that quoted above: whether it is better to excel at some particular practice, be it creative or commercial or academic, than it is to be a good father, husband, wife or mother. I don’t want to be unfair to the script—a counter argument to the position quoted above is immediately offered by another character—but I think that the question is often misconstrued. For most of us, it’s not quite an either-or proposition.

Those who truly excel at a practice do so through some rare combination of talent, drive and luck. The talent quotient is ‘god given,’ if you will; the drive portion often does indeed come at the expense of personal relationships, and the luck component; well, there isn’t much any of us can do about ensuring that happens for us. Good luck typically amounts to being in the right place at the right time with the right ‘product.’

It’s a mug’s game for the 95% of us who are not the overachievers to compare ourselves to the 5% who are, even though this is precisely what celebrity culture would have us do on a daily basis. We’re better off looking to the wisdom of older, ordinary people, those who’ve lived, loved and worked in a more quotidian realm. These folks will have come through the bulk of their lives to a point where they’re feeling more or less content, having learned some important lessons along the way, and they will now likely be willing to share some of what they’ve learned. This is exactly what I attempted to do in a personal documentary I made few years back called What Happyns (available for free streaming here).

To measure yourself against the rich, famous or powerful is a surefire way to make yourself feel inadequate, if not miserable. No, better to understand that it’s a regular game you’re playing, alongside regular people. The rewards that come with great riches, fame and power are of course material, but they’re also largely ego-based. To achieve great success in a career is to feel privileged, exceptional. But beyond a certain point in your life you’ll come to realize that those sorts of rewards don’t mean so much.

We should all applaud the achievements of Richard Linklater, if only because his movies make us (me) think, rather than just feel. Tip your hat to the guy, say thanks, and then press on in your ordinary life. It’s all you’ll ever need.

Where We Live

“Chicago, on the other hand, was not built for people to come together but for them to be safely apart. Size, power, and the need for privacy seemed to be the dominant dimensions of its architecture. Vast as it is, Chicago ignored the distinctions between freedom and isolation, between independence and selfishness, between privacy and loneliness.”

             Aleksandar Hemon, from The Book Of My Lives

 

Aleksandar Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, where he knew his neighbours and they knew him, where anonymity was “well-nigh impossible.” He was stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, so settled there, learning English and before long becoming an accomplished writer. He eventually grew to appreciate Chicago, even writing an article entitled 20 Reasons Why I Do Not Wish To Leave Chicago in 2000, but, as indicated by the passage quoted above, it was not an easy adjustment.

He walked about the city endlessly, trying to know its neighbourhoods, seeking out a connection like the one he knew with Sarajevo, with the residents and the built environment that would help tell him who he was.

Growing up in a small town, as an angst-ridden teenager I couldn’t wait to escape to the anonymity of a big city. I regularly walked about town as well, and I clearly recall finding insufferable the knowledge that, as I walked about, I was constantly being observed by people I knew, either from their passing vehicles, or out the windows of their homes and businesses.

Home version 1 domo k photo
Home version 1
domo k photo

As with nearly all the immaterial conditions of our lives, when it comes to the distinctions Hemon mentions, between “freedom and isolation,” between “privacy and loneliness,” we seek a balance not easily achieved. In Vancouver, the neighbourhood my wife and I live in—that is the zone where we actively know and interact with certain people—is immediate, within a few blocks of where we reside. Beyond that small zone, anonymity is not hard to attain.

On Galiano, our home is secluded, at the end of a long wooded lane; we can sometimes hear but never see our neighbours. Privacy is guaranteed, though, as we move about on the island, we are rarely anonymous. But the balance is off; especially during the long, dark winter months the isolation is too much, requiring an effort to get out and interact, or travel to the city.

Home version 2 p. sebastien photo
Home version 2
p. sebastien photo

One unavoidable factor in this consideration is that we are all the malleable product of our immediate social and physical environment. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but inevitably you will become a different person as you stay in different places. As much as anything, the ‘climate of opinion’ that you are living within will seep through your pores, into your bones, eventually causing you to think, feel and behave differently, if only it is to sometimes remain silent. And this is never more so than it is with children.

Thus it behooves us to think carefully about, and hopefully choose just as carefully where we will live. Especially so if you have, or plan to have children. They will be different beings, depending on where you choose to raise them.

There is a time in your life when it is easier to resettle, and it is earlier in your life, not later. We all know of people who have tried to make this transition at the age of retirement, and how problematic that has been. When you are young, eager to engage socially and professionally, recreationally and vocationally, it happens naturally, as a consequence of that needed engagement.

I like to think that my wife and I have achieved some kind of balance, living both downtown and at the end of a long wooded island lane, but life never stops throwing changes at us, and so it requires constant adjustment. The scales tip easily, and so we have to constantly seek a new balance, a new sense of community. Walking about helps it seems, and that happens for us more often in the city. On Galiano we are more often out of doors, more active in ways other than walking, and that too helps.

Choosing where to live is not so much about choosing the city or the country or both. It’s about choosing who you want to be, or become.

Just Like Yesterday

Meet the new boss.

  Same as the old boss.

from Won’t Get Fooled Again, by Pete Townshend

 

The guardians of the old media have found a brilliant way to exploit the denizens of the new. By dangling the carrot of access to television—a mature industry where recognition and revenue remain solidly in place—the executives who stand at the gates to TV can cause the multitudes who populate the online realm—an industry where revenue is dispersed very unevenly and recognition is highly fragmented—to work tirelessly to promote their exclusive brands. It’s perfect.

In recent times, those clever folks who control TV have evolved the method of the online competition in order to shamelessly advance their corporate brands. Offer those who create content for the web—especially of course those who operate within the social media arena—the chance to create for TV, and those creators will toil doggedly, nearly interminably on your behalf, and they will do so without a cent of actual remuneration, and on the slimmest of chances at success. How great is that?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has just concluded a nation-wide contest where 285 comedy creator-teams submitted video ‘teasers’ in pursuit of a single (although lucrative at $500,000) prize of the production of a half-hour TV special. The competition ran over ten weeks, and the teaser was only the beginning of the work demanded of these aspirants. Each week, in addition to the endless amount of online ‘sharing’ these teams were obliged to do—if they were to have any realistic expectation of prevailing in the contest—these teams had to produce a new video ‘mission’ on a specified theme (‘The Do Over,” “The Differentiator” etc.).

Likewise Telus, a corporation with a more regional territory (Alberta and BC), have just run the ‘Storyhive’ competition, where hundreds of applicants chased 15 grants of $10,000, leading finally to one winner gaining $50,000 toward the production of content for Optik TV, the television service owned by Telus.

It’s a truly prodigious amount of work done by talented people on the behalf of others for absolutely no monetary recompense. The competitions are won of course via online voting solicited by the contestants, and don’t think it’s anything like a democratic, one email address, one vote mechanism. No, visitors to the relevant site (where you must of course register) ‘earn’ votes by repeated visits, or, more germanely, online promotion of the corporate site. For CBC and Telus it’s win win win; for 99%+ of the contestants it’s lose lose lose. And, if it’s necessary to drive home the point of this losing game, in the Telus competition, in winnowing the pitched projects down to the final 15, there is not one iota of critical adjudication applied; it is entirely determined by online voting. In other words, at least until that first significant selective step, Telus does not care one whit about the actual creative quality of the submissions; they care only about the quantity of online visitation they are able to achieve.

Let me be very clear about my take on this process. It’s manipulative, exploitive, and vile. The folks behind it should be ashamed of themselves.

Tau Zero photo
Tau Zero photo

But, as with so many of the changes wrought by the digital revolution, neither is this obnoxious game about to go away. The television executives who have invented it have mined gold for themselves, and they could care less about the fact that almost all of the losing contestants have nothing good to say about them or their contest. Those losers are simple collateral damage in the winning war for online traffic, and thus advertising dollars.

It’s odd and slightly unsettling that (as described in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine) KingBach, a top star on Vine, an online video site where content episodes last a sum total of six seconds, dreams of making it on TV and in the movies, where fewer people will watch him.

Welcome to the new world of mass media, which looks altogether too much like the same old world. The ‘young adult’ demographic still watches far more TV than they do online video. YouTube will make less than $4 billion in advertising this year; CBS will earn more than $8 billion.

Pete Townsend’s prayers may well have been in vain.

Interstellar Dreams

In a recent article in Aeon magazine, Elon Musk tells us that he figures it will take about a million people to properly colonize Mars. He has in mind a design for a giant spaceship, the “Mars Colonial Transporter,” to facilitate the task.

8577726421_2a363387c1And lest you think that Mr. Musk is just another techno-geek keener with a shaky grip on reality, no. This is the guy who sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion, then went on to successfully compete with corporate behemoth General Motors by designing and marketing the Tesla electric car. Currently he heads up SpaceX, a startup dedicated to said colonization of Mars, a company that has a contract with NASA to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. He’s the real deal.

Musk sees the colonization of the red planet as a stepping stone to exploration of the rest of our solar system, and ultimately interstellar space. He imagines the million colonists in place within a century, the first bunch taking up residence there around 2040.

As a species, we have been journeying out beyond the horizon for about as long as we’ve been mobile. Always willing, despite obvious dangers, to explore unknown territories, then ‘settle’ them, before allowing others to move on again, into the alien. This urge to migrate, to reconnoiter strange lands and then inhabit them is one of the true hallmarks of humankind. No other species has spread so far and wide on the planet, and done it with such aplomb.

And so, for us, outer space is of course “the next frontier.”

The obstacles this time are no less considerable than they were on terra firma. Mars once had an atmosphere; probably surface water too, but these days it’s a distinctly harsh environment; exposed to it you’d last less than 30 seconds. Colonist’s quarters there will be close, and extremely stress-inducing. It will be a bleak, constricted adventure, and very few will care to go, given that it’s a one-way ticket.

Getting there, however, is relatively easy, compared to interstellar space travel. The nearest star, called Alpha Centauri, is four light years away. Sounds encouraging—if we can even approach the speed of light the trip might take less than four years for the astronauts to arrive, if Einstein was right about speed shortening time. The problem is the energy needed for the journey; it seems it is physically impossible that the spaceship could carry enough onboard fuel. Scientists have imagined ‘solar sails’ which will capture the streaming energy of the sun, a solar wind, if you will. Then there’s the need for enough food for the trip, the immense psychological pressure of isolation lasting that long, the health problems that come with weightlessness, the difficulty of communication with home, exposure to hazardous radiation, and more. Again scientists have ideas to meet all these challenges, but they are highly theoretical. None of them are anywhere near practical realization.

And of course there is the possibility of robotic exploration of space, but that’s not the same is it. Where’s the adventure in that? No robot can ever be a hero, not without a lot of misplaced anthropomorphism.

No, for all intents and purposes, our days of exploration are over. There are no more truly wild places left upon Mother Earth, and our chances of sallying forth into outer space, at least for the very indefinite future, are essentially nil. As William Gibson has pointed out, no one will speak of ‘the twenty-second century’ the way we used to of the twenty-first.

It’s a necessary, perhaps mythic shift in consciousness with consequences yet to be determined. Obviously it behooves us to take good care of the planet, given that it’s the only abode any of us will ever have. But it also suggests that we should better appreciate the miraculous coincidence of life on ‘the pale blue dot.’ Just as interstellar travel may never happen, so too we may never discover life elsewhere in the universe.

This is it folks. We’re staying home tonight, and likely forever. Fate will find us where we are.

 

Change

Dick Cavett Nick Step photo
Dick Cavett
Nick Step photo

Dick Cavett, the former [brilliant] talk show host, tells the story of working as a writer on the Jack Paar Show when he learned that Peter Ustinov was to be a guest on the show, and that his segment would last all of nine minutes. Ustinov was legendary as a talk show guest, “the best ever” in Cavett’s words, and Cavett proceeded to throw something of a hissy fit with the show’s producers, arguing that Ustinov should be given the entire show, that the other three utterly forgettable guests should be punted. “Oh no,” replied the producers, “People like change.”

What’s interesting about this episode, from the perspective of our advanced ADD age, is that the Jack Paar Show ended its run in March of 1962 (Johnny Carson would take over). In other words, the media emphasis on fast paced change has been with us for quite some time.

Despite the “idiocy” Cavett describes in his story, it’s undeniably true that many people do in fact enjoy change. My wife likes to periodically rearrange the furniture in our home. It gives her a sense of renewal, a small but unquestionably positive energy bump. Me, I’m more prone to leaving things where they seem to work best. Sure, move the furniture around a few times when the configuration is new, but once the optimum arrangement is discovered, that’s how it should stay.

My wife is the daughter of a Dutch diplomat. Growing up, she lived a life of continual change, as the family moved every few years to a new foreign locale, often exotic and stimulating, places like Kobe, Japan or Capetown, South Africa. I, on the other hand, grew up in one home, one town for the entirety of my young life. In wondering why my wife prefers change, and I don’t, my initial theory was that, having grown up with this usually enjoyable and invigorating level of change, she preferred to maintain it wherever she could, if only on a micro level. I, having grown up in an unchanging environment, not so much.

But then one day I was talking with my brother, and he described the regular incidents where, returning home from a long day at work, he would encounter his teenage daughter excitedly hopping about on the front step, keenly eager to have him help rearrange the furniture in her bedroom. My niece too has grown up in an entirely stable situation, one house, one town. To this day she lives just a few blocks from her parents.

So much for that theory.

The mystery persists. Is it then a gender thing? Certainly it is quite a fundamental rift, this gulf between those who embrace and those who avoid change. All I can suggest at this point is that, like the inclination to be on time or late, the desire for change is both learned and somehow genetic. Lasting too. In any given individual, the need for change, or not, is not likely to change.

Which is not to say that Dick Cavett was wrong, and his producers right. Far from it. We live in a time of unprecedented change, within a veritable vortex of technological transformation, and so, for us, change is anything but a scarce commodity. It’s the long-form article, or uninterrupted period of quiet which has become today’s uncommon resource, and therefore the thing of value.

But more than that, what we’re losing, as we feel the obligation to welcome change, and so throw our arms of awareness wide, is the simple distinction of quality. Which is of course what Cavett was pointing out to his producers. Peter Ustinov was indeed dazzling at what he did as talk show guest, funny, trenchant, witty and articulate. (Watch him here in a compilation of interview clips with Michael Parkinson of the BBC.) He was the best at what he did, and Cavett’s producers couldn’t have cared.

Today the best is often lost among all the electronic noise. Our attention is fleeting, the audience fractured. The news cycle completes its turn in just one day. It may have been going on since 1962 and before, but the embrace of change will always come at a cost, and so today’s accelerating change comes at an accelerating cost. No one should lament the loss of exclusive access to the media, or decry the democratic power of the internet. What we should do is remember to celebrate excellence, and to give it our sustained attention.

Quiet

Certain owners/managers of noisy restaurants—the type where you must shout to be heard by your tablemate—tell us that their clientele like it that way. Said customers enjoy the buzz, the dynamic feel, the sense that they are at that moment in a ‘happening’ place. That may well be; I don’t doubt that you could find individuals within the cacophony who would agree, but I’m a little skeptical as to the real reason why these restaurant bosses prefer the noisy ambience. I suspect it has more to do with the turnover rate that such noise induces. More turnover and the resultant more money.

The opportunity for quiet, for interlude, whether it be for easy conversation, or just contemplation, is to be sought out. As a young man, I once found myself in the company of my slightly older friend John, ankling it across Bear Creek Park in Grande Prairie, when an intense summer rain shower overtook us. We quickly found shelter under the wide eaves of the nearby swimming pool building, where I sat down against the wall to wait out the worst of the rain, and began to muse about what was going on in general in our situation, and where it was likely to lead.

John didn’t want any part of that. I’d hardly gotten two sentences into my musings before he marched off into the downpour. There was no place for such contemplation in John’s comfort zone.

A few years later John drowned in a couple of inches of salty water on a beach in Mexico, after riding a wave for too long while body surfing, breaking his neck when he hit the sand. We may well have been on our way to the bar that day; John was probably drunk when he hit the beach—he’d become an alcoholic while still in his twenties—but it was absolutely consistent with his joyful approach to life that he would ride that wave to its very limit, and then beyond. During that summer afternoon under the swimming pool eaves he was my best friend, and so too he was for several other of my friends. Such were his social skills, and his big heart.

 

"Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching."       - Satchel Paige
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”
- Satchel Paige

But a moment of tranquil contemplation was more than he could face. Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you,” but for John it wasn’t a matter of looking back. He couldn’t look sideways, at his present circumstances, without seeing demons staring back at him. I was surprised when he marched off into the rain, and I’m not sure even today that I can say I understand what those demons were, but I saw immediately that they were there, and that he was terrified of them, and so he kept moving.

He preferred a noisy atmosphere, to get drunk rather than to stay sober, and yet, in his own odd way, he was absolutely in the moment. It’s just that he didn’t wish to contemplate that moment. He preferred distraction.

The quiet on Galiano can sometimes be nearly absolute, with little more than the periodic echoing chortle of a crow, or the shrill beeping of a tree frog to interrupt. It’s something I’ve come to value now more than ever, and it’s something I consider akin to a regular physical check-up, something I should oblige myself to do. I want to see if there are any demons standing next to me. I might want to do something about them, before they run me to ground.

One recommended approach is Buddhist; I attempt to calmly stare right back at those demons present, to just ‘sit with them’ for a while, no challenge, no confrontation. Eventually they’re not quite so scary; they’re just demons. I may be responsible for them, but they’re not the final word on who I am, or where I can go

These days, incidentally, without much effort, you can find information on the noise level in restaurants in your area, and act accordingly. One Vancouverite carries with him small cards that he leaves behind after eating in any restaurant; they say either that he enjoyed the relaxed environment, or that he won’t be back, because of the din.

Quiet shouldn’t scare anyone. Connecting to another human being should be the goal. We should all stop moving once in a while, seek out stillness, not distraction. Once you’ve pulled up, take a look around. Any demons? Don’t kid yourself; if you look back there will always be regrets as to how you got here, but hopefully you are still okay with here. If not, if there’s a fiend lurking nearby, while you’re still breathing, there is always something you can do.

Fact Not Fiction

“The cool kids are making docs.”

                                            —David Edelstein

When I attended film school, back in the ancient 80s, there was not a single documentary program to be found anywhere across the educational landscape. We attendees were all keenly intent upon becoming the next Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola; those most successful fictional moviemakers from the first generation of film school brats. Documentary film was seen by us as slightly dusty, quaint, more often suited to arid academia than the edgy dramatic territory we meant to occupy.

Otrocuenta Desarollo photo
Otrocuenta Desarollo photo

These days documentary programs abound in film schools everywhere, and documentary film is seen as a highly relevant form aggressively focusing our attention upon social and economic issues of immediate concern to all of us.

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

Certainly the greatly increased availability of production and post production technology (think cameras and computers) has a lot to do with it. Today’s media audience maintains a more forgiving expectation of documentary ‘production values’ (the quality of the sound and picture) than that expectation which remains for dramatic film. In the documentary world, content rules, and so if you have captured a terrific story using a comparatively cheap digital camera, then edited on your laptop, you may well be good to go in the marketplace. Searching for Sugarman would be a prime example. Not so much in the dramatic sphere, where a low-budget look is still likely to prevent you from ever hitting the theatres.

But there’s more to it than that I think. Today’s generation of film school students is far more determined to effect change then we ever were. We were interested first of all in making films; today’s doc filmmakers seem first of all interested in making a difference. Where filmmaking was an end for us, it is a means to them. Caught up as we were in the countercultural ethos of 70s ‘anti-hero’ movies like Scarecrow or Straight Time, we were willing to focus our lenses upon the downtrodden, the misfits, but we were rarely inclined to take direct aim at problems we nevertheless knew were all around us, problems like air pollution or economic inequality. Contemporary docs like An Inconvenient Truth and Inequality For All show no such reluctance.

And let me be perfectly clear; this change is much for the better. We humans have a ravenous need for stories, and one of the reasons for that is because we understand, sometimes unconsciously, that stories offer us ‘life lessons.’ They offer us insights into how we should or should not behave in the face of common human problems. To a lesser or greater degree mind you. Some stories are so simple minded that whatever insight they may offer is utterly generic, if not banal.

And documentaries, by their very nature, offer us better insights than do dramas. As good as the storytelling is in a dramatic series like Breaking Bad, for instance—and it is very good—it doesn’t necessarily hold any greater relevance to real life than does your typical comic book movie. Walter White is only marginally more real than is Spiderman.

Not so with Michael Morton, the Texan who spent 25 years in prison before finally being exonerated on all charges, and is the protagonist of a documentary entitled An Unreal Dream. Morton is the real deal, a genuine American hero.

Conventional TV broadcasters operating right now have badly dropped the ball on the burgeoning audience interest in documentaries, as evidenced by a recent Hot Docs study. Despite that fumble however, because of the rise of the internet, and because of their own commitment, the film school students of right now who are drawn to documentary are likely to succeed at making an impact, at changing the world, however incrementally. They are perhaps not entirely typical of the current generation, but they undoubtedly represent a new, different and very worthwhile slice of that generation. And more power to them.

Let the Machines Decide

The GPS device in my car knows the speed limit for the road I’m driving on, and displays that information for me on its screen. Nice. Nobody needs another speeding ticket. But what if my ‘smart car’ refused to go over that limit, even if I wanted it to? You know, the wife shouting from the backseat, about to give birth, the hospital four blocks away, that sort of thing.

David Hilowitz photo
David Hilowitz photo

It’s a scenario not far removed from reality. Google’s robotic car has inspired many futurists to imagine a computer that controls not only the speed of your car, but also where it goes, diverting your car away from congestion points toward alternate routes to your destination. Evgeny Morozov is among these futurists, and in a recent article in The Observer, he suggests that computers may soon be in a position to usurp many functions that we have traditionally assigned to government. “Algorithmic regulation,” he calls it. We can imagine government bureaucrats joining the unemployment line to fill out a form that will allow a computer to judge whether they are worthy of benefits or no.

Examples of machines making decisions previously assigned to humans are already easily found. If the ebook downloaded to my Kobo has a hold placed on it, the Vancouver Public Library’s computer will unceremoniously retrieve it from my e-reader upon its due date, regardless of whether I have just 10 more pages to read, and would be willing to pay the overdue fine in order to do so.

But Morozov’s cautionary critique is about a wider phenomenon, and it’s largely the ‘internet of things’ which is fuelling his concern. The internet of things is most pointedly about the process which will see digital chips migrate out of electronic devices, into those things which we have until now tended to consider inanimate, non-electronic objects, things like your door, or your mattress. It may well be that in future a computer somewhere will be informed about it when you don’t spend the night at home.

Maybe you spent the night on a friend’s couch, after one too many. Maybe you ate some greasy fast food that night too. And maybe you haven’t worked out at your club’s gym for more than six months now. The data gathering upshot of this at least arguably unhealthy behavior is that you may be considered higher risk by a life insurance company, and so proffered a higher premium.

Presumably there is a human being at the end of this theoretical decision-making chain, but I think we’ve all learned that it’s never safe to assume that digital tech won’t take over any particular role, and certainly whatever the imagined final decision taken as to your insurance risk, certainly it will be informed by data collection done by digital machines.

The most chilling note struck in Morozov’s piece comes, for me, when he quotes Tim O’Reilly, technology publisher and venture capitalist, referring to precisely this industry: “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.”

Now isn’t that heartening. Corporate insurance as the business model of the near future.

The gist of what is alarming about the prospect of digital machines taking increasing control of our lives is that it suggests that the ‘depersonalization’ we have all been living through for the last three-plus decades is only the beginning. It’s “day one,” as Jeff Bezos likes to say about the digital revolution. It suggests that we can look forward to feeling like a true speck of dust in the infinite cosmic universe of corporate society, with absolutely no living being to talk to should we ever wish to take an unnecessary risk, diverge from the chosen route, or pay the fine instead.

For all the libertarian noise that folks from Silicon Valley make about efficiency and disruption, let no one be fooled: the slick algorithmic regulation that replaces decisions made by people, whether government bureaucrats or not, may be more objective, but it will not bring greater freedom.

Dark Matter

“The internet as we once knew it is officially dead.”                                                                                 Ronald Deibert, in Black Code

Although born of the military (see Origins, from the archives of this blog), in its infancy, the internet was seen as a force for democracy, transparency and the empowerment of individual citizens. The whole open source, ‘information wants to be free,’ advocacy ethos emerged and was optimistically seen by many as heralding a new age of increased ‘bottom up’ power.

Mike Licht photo
Mike Licht photo

And to a considerable extent this has proven to be the case. Political and economic authority has been undermined, greater public transparency has been achieved, and activist groups everywhere have found it easier to organize and exert influence. In more recent years, however, the dark, countervailing side of the internet has also become increasingly apparent, and all of us should be aware of its presence, and perhaps we should all be afraid.

Certainly Ronald Diebert’s 2013 book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace should be required reading for anyone who still thinks the internet is a safe and free environment in which to privately gather information, exchange ideas, and find community. Diebert is Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, and in that role he has had ample opportunity to peer into the frightening world of what he terms the “cyber-security industrial complex.” In an economy still operating under the shadow of the great recession, this complex is a growth industry that is estimated to now be worth as much as $150 billion annually.

It consists of firms like UK-based Gamma International, Endgame, headquartered in Atlanta, and Stockholm-based Ericsson, makers of Nokia phones. What these companies offer are software products that of course will bypass nearly all existing anti-virus systems to:

  • Monitor and record your emails, chats and IP communications, including Skype, once thought to be the most secure form of online communication.
  • Extract files from your hard drive and send them to the owners of the product, without you ever knowing it’s happened.
  • Activate the microphone or camera in your computer for surveillance of the room your computer sits in.
  • Pinpoint the geographic location of your wireless device.

These products can do all this and more, and they can do it in real time. Other software packages offered for sale by these companies will monitor social media networks, on a massive scale. As reported by the London Review of Books, one such company, ThorpeGlen, recently mined a week’s worth of call data from 50 million internet users in Indonesia. They did this as a kind of sales demo of their services.

The clients for these companies include, not surprisingly, oppressive regimes in countries like China, Iran and Egypt. And to offer some sense of why this market is so lucrative, The Wall Street Journal reported that a security hacking package was offered for sale in Egypt by Gamma for $559,279 US. Apparently the system also comes with a training staff of four.

Some of these services would be illegal if employed within Canada, but, for instance, if you are an Iranian émigré living in Canada who is active in opposition to the current Iranian regime, this legal restriction is of very little comfort. Those people interested in whom you’re corresponding with do not reside in Canada.

And even in countries like the US and Canada, as Edward Snowden has shown us, the national security agencies are not to be trusted to steer clear of our personal affairs. As Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA, told documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, “We steal secrets,” and none of us should be naïve enough to believe that the CIA, if they should have even the remotest interest, won’t steal our personal secrets.

All of us have to get over our collective fear of terrorist attacks and push back on the invasion of our privacy currently underway on the web. The justification for this invasion simply isn’t there. You are about as likely to die in a terrorist attack as you are as the result of a piano falling on your head.

Neither should any of us assume that, as we have ‘done nothing wrong,’ we need not be concerned with the vulnerability to surveillance that exists for all the information about us stored online. Twenty years ago, if we had thought that any agency, government or private, was looking to secretly tap our phone line, we would have been outraged, and then demanded an end to it. That sort of intervention took a search warrant, justified in court. It should be no different on the web.