“It’s the end of the world and I feel fine,” went the line from 80s song. The 2018 equivalent of the sentiment can be found in George Gilder‘s book Life After Google. The era Big Data is ending and it’s good news. More tantalizingly, perhaps not just Google but a whole way of centralized control may be passing away, the victim not so much of hostile populism but of changing times. Big silicon’s model of selling everyone’s information to advertisers, politicians and secret policemen for an absolute fortune yet a relative fraction of real value is running out of steam.
“Centralization is not safe,” nor is it even efficient. Google’s offer ‘free’ service on close inspection reduces to Tim Cook’s observation that “you are the product” they can sell to companies and governments who are the real customers. What’s free is your data. In the centralized world you don’t even own yourself. Users only have a fragmented view of their own information, unable to see what they’ve left scattered among dozens, perhaps hundreds of sites with each behind its user name and password combination. Even at your sites ownership is illusory. Hollywood actor James Woods with 1.7 million followers found Twitter could suspend his account simply because they didn’t like what he said.
By contrast big silicon has a seamless view of the user’s information. As James Carmichael in the Atlantic put it, Google knows you better than you know yourself. By using algorithms (to quote Wells that are “vast, cool and unsympathetic”) they are able to piece together every scrap about an individual without the “small, self-deceptive fictions [that] are a big part of how we operate”. The results are valuable to paying customers. The algorithms can recognize your face, parse your voice, track your movements, note your purchases and read your emails through data centers running so hot they literally need rivers to cool them.
Gilder gives some idea of their throughput. “Google’s internal links are larger in cross-section bandwidth than the entire Internet”. This apparatus works so rapidly that even light speed has become too slow. “The length of the computation … is governed by the speed of light, which on a chip is around nine inches a nanosecond—a significant delay on chips that now bear as much as sixty miles of tiny wires.” Speed: all so it can predict how you’ll behave to clients before you predict it yourself.
Despite this frenzy those data centers don’t really attempt to understand the users or duplicate their consciousness. They simply generates a statistical prediction based on history at blazing speed. A map but a very quick one. In the “great divide between creativity and determinism” Google’s hidden Markov models stands squarely on the side of determinism.
Since by definition “information is surprise” the great servers effect an inversion: the map or model defines the world rather than the other way round. The machinery is trying to get people to do what it figures they ought by suppressing information contrary to the ruling paradigm. One instance was reported the Wall Street Journal. “Days after the Trump administration instituted a controversial travel ban in January 2017, Google employees discussed ways they might be able to tweak the company’s search-related functions to show users how to contribute to pro-immigration organizations and contact lawmakers and government agencies, according to internal company emails.” They will control the horizontal; they will control the vertical — because you would have done it yourself were you wiser. The effect says Gilder, is a suppression of creativity and innovation. The biggest output of the data centers is heat –which by definition is not work — the byproduct of making the user’s next action predictable.
The inevitable revolt has taken the shape of billion dollar blockchain networks and applications now challenging the world according to Google. They see their role as enabling massively cooperative endeavors and turning glorified client terminals back into independent centers again. They are trying to create directory services and transaction stores that all can accept and none can manipulate. Gilder sums up the radical vision of a world turned upside down thus:
Google is hierarchical. Life after Google will be heterarchical. Google is top-down. Life after Google will be bottom-up. Google rules by the insecurity of all the lower layers in the stack. A porous stack enables the money and power to be sucked up to the top. In life after Google, a secure ground state in the individual human being, registered and timestamped in a digital ledger, will prevent this suction of hierarchical power.
Whereas Google now controls your information and uses it free of charge, you will be master of your information and charge for it freely.
Whether the “heterarchy” ever overthrows the hierarchy (or coexists with it), the fascination of Gilder’s book is that it describes the mental counterpart of the political crisis all around us. As the silicon empires are pressed by states into creating custom surveillance environments for their citizens the programming ghost shadows the visible world. The European Union is already “trying to flex its censorship muscles around the world … [insisting on] the “Right to Be Forgotten,” the “General Data Protection Regulations” (GDPR), and recently announced anti-hate speech regulations … the EU has [already] decided to redesign the information superhighway with a series of landmines, speed bumps and exit ramps to Speech Jail.”
China is redesigning things also. Beijing told Google what it wanted and they will likely get it. “Imagine if the U.S. government was able to freely access your search history and use it against you. That’s what may end up happening in China, thanks to a censored search engine built for the country by Google.”
The search engine, codenamed Dragonfly, was designed for Android devices, and would remove content deemed sensitive by China’s ruling Communist Party regime, such as information about political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.
Keep in mind that China already has a social-credit system that ranks citizens and punishes them for behavior deemed inappropriate, such as bad driving or buying too many video games, according to Business Insider. Now think about the idea of your search history ending up tied to this system.
Naturally, Google doesn’t want to talk about what it’s doing.
“Google has so far declined to publicly address concerns about the Chinese censorship plans and did not respond to a request for comment on this story,” The Intercept reported.
Whether or not ‘the Google world is ending and we’ll be fine’ remains to be seen. It may be the Global World order will break up into regional surveillance states. Perhaps the US will yet lead the way to “taking back the net”. Perhaps the political upheaval associated with information decentralization will recede. What’s certain is that big changes are afoot because the problems are too great to be ignored. The “deep fakes” and manufactured news everyone bemoans are not aberrations that have slipped through the cracks of the Google/Facebook system but the outcomes of a system designed to deliver the public to a paying customer, whether a shoe manufacturer or the Chinese Communist Party.
Will we shift from the way things are? Will James Woods be reinstated on the ‘free’ service? If “information is surprise” we’re in for a lot of information.
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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.
For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.
Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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