Your Machine-Readable Life

Not so long ago, a family needed to keep its private papers in file cabinets and cardboard boxes. Accounts needed to be penned in. Checkbooks needed to be balanced, because online banking didn’t exist and ATMs were often distant. While telephones existed, the capacity to record calls in bulk on a mass scale was not yet created. If your private conversations were going to be recorded, someone either had to get a subpoena, have a connection at the phone company, or physically tap your line.

Over the last couple decades, there has been a concerted push to put more human communication online. The World Wide Web, originally conceived as a repository for research (Google’s original PageRank algorithm was conceived as the web’s answer to peer review which assigned authority based on frequency and quality of citations), has morphed into an all-purpose interface for communications of all sorts, both public and private.

From a high level, government officials have encouraged the use of what’s called ‘social networking.’ People have learned to ‘share’ their digital media with each other. Photographs that would have remained in glossy albums or as Polaroids pinned to corkboards are instead published to the entire world for free. As if they were being categorized in a library, many of these files have meta descriptions attached to them. Many machines are now sophisticated enough at ‘reading’ data that they don’t even need explicitly machine-legible descriptions to understand that a photo is of a certain person and not of another.

Supposedly, this is either a liberating technological development or a threat to the existence of a private life. This debate is, in my view, off-base. Media about your private life is not your private life. That media is a derivative of your private life, and it’s a mistake for people who think that it’s indistinguishable from the actual thing are going to be badly mislead by the conclusions that they draw from that ‘data.’

What the people standing from on high think that they have is a way to read the lives of everyone in the world at a low, low price. What they actually have is an apparatus for detecting a lot of noise created by machines controlled by people that might not have much of anything to do with what is actually going on for those people. What people publish on Facebook is not actually their private lives. It is what they want people to believe is their private life. Similarly, what goes down in e-mails is not always what’s going on in reality. The written word is derivative of actual events and not the other way around.

What terrorists under targeted surveillance have learned is that this technique — the over-reliance on signals and downplaying of the human factor — can be used against the Goliath that attempts to crush them. Because the surveillance state relies on wiretaps, it’s simple enough to feed chaff information into the taps and then to use non-electronic communication for anything important. Total Information Awareness tends to lead to an overwhelming awareness of trivia, with little ability to sort for relevant knowledge .

This is, reportedly, how Putin’s Russia was able to invade Crimea by surprise: knowing America’s complete reliance on signal intercepts and sophisticated decryption techniques, all they had to do was use messengers to coordinate the invasion. This method has been routinely used by various adversaries of American intelligence since this particular vulnerability has been carped about endlessly for the last few decades in various books about the state of America’s intelligence organs. It’s not particularly obscure except to experts.

But it’s in this way: a blindness to reality, and over-reliance on polls, ‘traffic data,’ surveys, and focus-tests — that tends to afflict the modern man, who believes that text, images, and videos are realer than reality.

It is in a similar way that ‘backwards’ economies in Southern Europe have tended to foil their tax authorities: by doing an end run around the official accounting system. When an official system loses legitimacy (secular faith), people will tend to rout around it. To the extent that people learn habits of routing around the official systems, the official system usually collapses eventually. All human systems, computer-managed and otherwise, rest upon trust and honesty among the participants. All of the ‘data’ in the world is useless if some underling or another is fudging the inputs, which is what happens when people stop believing in their sacred mission.

The universe does not owe any of us a private life. There is also nothing inherent to computers or to networking that makes them inherently hostile to the idea of private lives. They have wound up that way due to trends in popular thought and the pressures of political power. Power from a different direction could change the use of that technology to reduce how legible our lives are to various petty persecutors and criminals.

What I encourage you to do, however, is to throw some noise into the system. The public internet should be more confusing, less reliable, and  more prone to misinforming people who rely upon it. Tools like satire, parody, false-flag trolling, and other methods can hamper the tools that bureaucratic managers use to make decisions, which they have been trained to put undue faith in.

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