Monday, December 31, 2018

On the Surveillance Techno-state

I used to run my own mail server. But then came the spammers. And  dictionary attacks. All sorts of other nasty things. I finally gave up and turned to Gmail to maintain my online identities. Recently, one of my web servers has been attacked by a bot from a Russian IP address which will eventually force me to deploy sophisticated bot-detection. I'll probably have to turn to Google's recaptcha service, which watches users to check that they're not robots.

Isn't this how governments and nations formed? You don't need a police force if there aren't any criminals. You don't need an army until there's a threat from somewhere else. But because of threats near and far, we turn to civil governments for protection. The same happens on the web. Web services may thrive and grow because of economies of scale, but just as often it's because only the powerful can stand up to storms.  Facebook and Google become more powerful, even as civil government power seems to wane.

When a company or institution is successful by virtue of its power, it needs governance, lest that power go astray. History is filled with examples of power gone sour, so it's fun to draw parallels. Wikipedia, for example, seems to be governed like the Roman Catholic Church, with a hierarchical priesthood, canon law, and sacred texts. Twitter seems to be a failed state with a weak government populated by rival factions demonstrating against the other factions. Apple is some sort of Buddhist monastery.

This year it became apparent to me that Facebook is becoming the internet version of a totalitarian state. It's become so ... needy. Especially the app. It's constantly inventing new ways to hoard my attention. It won't let me follow links to the internet. It wants to track me at all times. It asks me to send messages to my friends. It wants to remind me what I did 5 years ago and to celebrate how long I've been "friends" with friends. My social life is dominated by Facebook to the extent that I can't delete my account.

That's no different from the years before, I suppose, but what we saw this year is that Facebook's governance is unthinking. They've built a machine that optimizes everything for engagement and it's been so successful that they they don't know how to re-optimize it for humanity. They can't figure out how to avoid being a tool of oppression and propaganda. Their response to criticism is to fill everyone's feed with messages about how they're making things better. It's terrifying, but it could be so much worse.

I get the impression that Amazon is governed by an optimization for efficiency.

How is Google governed? There has never existed a more totalitarian entity, in terms of how much it knows about every aspect of our lives. Does it have a governing philosophy? What does it optimize for?

In a lot of countries, it seems that the civil governments are becoming a threat to our online lives. Will we turn to Wikipedia, Apple, or Google for protection? Or will we turn to civil governments to protect us from Twitter, Amazon and Facebook. Will democracy ever govern the Internet?

Happy 2019!


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