Realin’ In The Years

“Far from being an aberrant expression  of some political extreme or a product of gross misinformation, a conspiratorial view of politics is a widespread tendency across the entire ideological spectrum.”
“I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.” 

The Wachowskis have ruined paranoia for me. Although blaming them seems a little unfair. It’s all the idiots who watched their breakthrough movie that really bear the brunt of my displeasure. Thanks to the Blue Pill / Red Pill speech in the Matrix, any discussion of reality and its true nature have been rendered quotidian, even farcical. Any sense of epistemological vertigo has been earthed. On Reddit, the “Red Pill” means hating women – which not only abhorrent but also tediously unimaginative. Clive Palmer has started using Red Pill memes. And when Clive Palmer starts doing something (mining nickel, forming a political party), you know it’s over.

All this is a shame because paranoia is so hip right now.

Mark Pesce discusses the last days of reality in a Meanjin article and a Future Tense interview. For Pesce, as a result of Facebook’s algorithm-driven surveillance capitalism and the growing spread of augmented reality technologies, “we lose our moorings and become entirely post-real”. We become prey to ideological predators such as Cambridge Analytica. States form a pact with Facebook to give it free reign over our personal data while they get to stay in power forever. Feelies with a nice UX. Newspeak with Friends. To counter this, Pesce commends Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid as an initiative that will allow consumers / citizens / data producers / dumb fucks (delete as applicable) control over their own data and thus identity.

Now I share some of Pesce’s concerns but I wish to challenge him on three points: the past, the present, and the future.

Past

The first point to make is that reality has always been soft around the edges. At some base level, human beings are creatures of fantasy. Yes our bodies root us in the world but we don’t experience it unmediated. Our reality is already augmented by the myths, dreams and delusions that enable us to get through the day. We are not passive recipients of sense data but rather active beings who impose our prejudices on the world.

Which is not to say that we are insane. We know are our immediate environments very well. But most of us have to take on trust everything else that happens in the world. This is why those who seek power have sought to control the flow of information – by banning books and printing, restricting travel or more subtly by monopolizing mass media channels. Certain institutions have been very effective over the centuries at controlling the flows of social information. The Catholic Church did not require machine learning and neuromarketing to control the hopes and dreams of millions of people – and make their flocks love the priests for doing so.

The Catholic Church is a prime example of a truth about our knowledge of the world, our connection to reality – it is social and communal. Our knowledge of world is co-created with others. It recreated through our collective action. We go mad when we go inside our own heads alone. Whereas the Facebook model of influence is both social and isolating. Facebook’s rhetoric is all about community but its advertising model is hyper-targeted niche marketing focused on the individual. The defining unit of Facebook is the individual account – which may be a member of multiple groups. It doesn’t sell to communities, it sells to individuals. The American Dream of 1-to-1 Marketing. With its bifurcating obsession with individual identity and group belonging, Facebook is a very American company (a nation whom Fukuyama labelled “Rugged Conformists”).

With all the bright, shiny apps, we risk losing sight of more traditional means of control. Old style mass media still matter. Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary have put significant effort into controlling the mainstream media in those states. The first move of ZDF forces in the November 2017 Zimbabwe coup was to seize control of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. People still watch a lot of TV. While everyone is losing their mind about Cambridge Analytica, fewer comment that Donald Trump built his reputation from 14 years of playing a business tycoon on reality TV and then heavy coverage from Fox.

Present

Pesce references Orwell and Huxley as dystopian visionaries. However the 20th century provides another dystopian model through with to understand our predicament. Huxley’s is a world of control through technocracy and hedonism (a world where Travis Kalanick would feel comfortable partying). Orwell offers the 2 minute hate and the dull tang of Victory gin. But our world is a broken one. We spend hours on hold in call centre phone queues. We deal with labyrinthine tech company T&Cs and bank PDS documents. We are passed around functionaries who only know that they cannot help us – as much as they might personally want to. It is a world of petty prejudices rather than totalitarian. Our world is that of Franz Kafka.

In a Kafka-esque world, Cambridge Analytica’s much-vaunted algorithm… isn’t very good. The first mass market attempt at augmented reality – Google Glass – was a dismal failure. For all the hype around Magic Leap, it has yet to magically leap anywhere. Gartner flagged up virtual reality has a technology just sliding down from its peak of inflated expectations – in 1995. Facebook’s sky-high stockmarket valuation may not be justified by its actual business potential. Neuromarketing is fMRI theatre.

I do not want to play the role of curmudgeon for too long. Technology does change who we are, how we relate to the world, how we relate to each other. It does offer new opportunities for both freedom and control. The machine learning algorithms that Pesce describes are having a negative impact – but that seems to be because they are too like us. They black box our bigotry and narrow-mindedness. They are Kafka’s bureaucrats, not Big Brother. I am aware that the narrative of World Facebook Domination probably appeared on slide 3 of their VC funding deck circa 2006 and I do not wish to be pulled into that narrative uncritically.

Future

The solution that Pesce pins his hopes on is a technical one. I have my doubts about Solid. Tim Berners-Lee is the father of the World Wide Web and he has been sorely disappointed in his child since its birth. He has scolded it for its lack of structure – creating The Semantic Web to fix this. Despite some traction, The Semantic Web largely remains a set of standards rather than a core element of web infrastructure.

But more than the Semantic Web, Solid reminds me of Doc “Cluetrain” Searls Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) movement, based just across the way from MIT in Harvard. The goal of VRM (as opposed to CRM  / Customer Relationship Management) was to put the control of individuals’ data into their own hands. It has not had a significant impact. People just aren’t that interested in controlling their data. Personally, I think that absent a real disaster or significant money-making opportunity for someone, this is not going to happen. The EU’s GDPR regime is a welcome update of its data protection legislation but it certainly does not rein in Facebook and its data empire ambitions.

So where do I see a way forward? Well, I want to go back to danah boyd’s recent SXSW talk. As I have stated, I believe that the solution that boyd points to is not primarily technical but political. Our knowledge of world is communal. If we wish to hold onto reality, then we will do it together rather than apart. And the challenges to this are beyond technical. Divisions in the US are more physical than virtual. A viable future is one where we keep each other sane.

“The things that pass for knowledge
I can’t understand”

The End

We have always been a bit shaky at distinguishing reality from fiction – and that’s a feature not a bug. “Making the world a better place” and “global domination” are just flipsides of the same techno-supremacist story that currently circulates elite conversations. Authoritarianism is a real thing but it relies more on older mass media as newer social platforms. The way forward will probably happen more off- than on-line. The revolution will not be Liked.

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