Posted on Fri 20 January 2017 in Comment

Today’s disgusting and frightening events in Washington and everything that has led up to them are evidence of a cultural collapse that has crept up on us over the years but only recently hit us forcefully and painfully.

Recently, as partial explanations for the current state of affairs, we have heard a lot about “fake news” and “echo chambers”. These certainly exist, and there are technical as well as social reasons for them.

Those of us who were technological optimists and believers in the power of the Internet to transform and democratise the world through information have for some years been finding that view increasingly harder to maintain.

That is partly because of the predictable but increasingly aggressive use of state power to use technology to close down access to information. This has not always been fully effective and there is still some truth in the old adage (John Gilmore 1993) that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. But when effective censorship by technical means is combined with mass surveillance and old fashioned physical repression, we see that the liberating effects of the new technologies have not lived up to their original promise, particularly in places with a tradition of suppressing free speech.

In the West, and particularly in the USA and the UK, those of us of a certain cast of mind “always knew” that we were under massive surveillance by secret organs of the state, but at the same time, until the Snowdon revelations, we somehow tried to put these facts out of our minds and live as if it were not so. Even since Snowdon, we largely still do. And give or take the odd adblocker, most of us have similarly ignored the stealthy growth of “surveillance capitalism” which tends more to amuse or mildly irritate us with its occasional “creepiness” than terrify us as perhaps it should, given that this surveillance builds up a picture of our lives far more detailed than our own memories and recollections: a picture that can potentially be used against us for far more sinister purposes than selling us consumer goods. But knowledge of these things and their “chilling effects” has led to a state of mind in which disillusion, defeat and cynicism are uppermost.

Thirteen years ago, in 2004 I was a political pessimist but a technological optimist. I had been present the previous year on London’s streets on February 15th, the day that in retrospect for many of us marked the beginning of disillusion and even despair. Just think: we actually thought that there was a point in joining the largest demonstration ever to take place in London: that this might achieve something. Soon we knew better.

But there was at least a place to talk about what was going on: there was a flourishing culture of blogging. I joined in this in a small way after writing my own static site generator in Python in 2004. We used feed readers to keep up, and blog aggregators were quite common. For many of us this served a purpose similar to today’s so-called “social media”: one knew something about what one’s friends, acquaintances and others were doing and thinking, often in reasonable detail, sometimes with original and interesting insights. Now we tend to obsessively follow social media and see the same news (or fake news) repeatedly re-posted, with little useful comment. At the same time the quality of the original sources of these headlines has steadily deteriorated, with the sustainability of online newspapers’ business models seeming dubious (at least if they do real journalism).

In those days, to read news on the Internet, one tended to go to a trusted source or search for it. Now, far more, people passively news via twitter or other social feeds. This of course is the source of the well known “echo chamber” phenomenon, and of the fact that fake news can spread much more easily than ever before.

Facebook opened to the public in 2006. Twitter appeared the same year. Google Reader launched in 2005 and closed down in 2013, which expresses quite nicely the arc of this change. Of course, mentioning Google Reader exposes the irony here and gets to the core of one of the biggest problems. A world of multiple blogs is a decentralised one, but people wanted to be able to access their personal selection of RSS feeds from anywhere. So a centralised service appeared to provide that ability. And then, as centralised services tend to do, it went away again.

In the world of smartphones every new thing is tied to a centralised service, leading to absurdities like the pets that went unfed because of a server failure and horrendous wifi connected light switches controlled by an app that wants to take over your phone and send information insecurely across the world. One can simply avoid most of the current generation of “internet of things”. But many people buy the latest “smart thing” without thinking about these issues. And why should they, really? The botnets based on some of these devices have concentrated minds, but no-one has really suggested useful ways of preventing the proliferation of bad practice.

The massive changes of the past ten years: centralisation, social media and ubiquitous smartphones have created a situation in which how we use the Internet doesn’t correspond to our older mental models of how it should work. But they have also had social consequences that have directly contributed to the cultural collapse that has made recent political events possible.

There is not much hope, but there are some technical answers.

Projects such as Nextcloud and Owntracks give us the opportunity to control at least some of our own data (contacts, calendar, photos, location…) rather than automatically delegating these to Google or Apple. But these are not really “for the masses”, and won’t be until there is a change both in people’s perceptions and in the economics of personal data (“how much are you worth to Google?” and “how much are you willing to pay for basic privacy?”).

There are some hopeful signs around blockchain technology and other distributed and federated systems. But there need to be incentives for people to operate nodes in those systems, and easy ways for non-technical people to participate.

I think there is at least a glimmer of hope that something better can emerge technologically.

But in the meantime, I hereby inaugurate this new blog and hope that at least a few people will be interested in what I write here.