The Dangers of the Internet of Everything

April 1, 2015 § 2 Comments

Courtney Barnett is this week’s sensation.  She’s an indie rocker from Sydney, Australia, and she’s making it big in the UK, and even here in the US.  She plays retro 90s guitar rock, for the most part.  Close your eyes and it’s 1996 still.  That’s not a bad thing, she also writes great songs, she tells stories, most of them autobiographical, and mostly funny.  Her music is catchy as all get out.  Rolling Stone is drooling, giving her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, 4.5 stars.  But RS‘s review also steps a bit off the deep end in this 90s revivalist kick.  In the loudest song on the album, Barnett plays around with gender stereotypes and her frustrating life pre-stardom.  The chorus goes:

Put me on a pedestal/And I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me that I’m special/And I promise to exploit you
Gimme all your money/And I’ll make origami, honey.

RS calls this “so-totally-Nineties anti-corporate lyrics.”  Fat load of good the alleged anti-corporate tenor of the 90s did.  On Sunday, Evgeny Morozov commented on a new app, FitCoin, in The Guardian.  FitCoin, based on BitCoin, seeks to monetize our visits to the gym and other attempts at fitness.  FitCoin “is the first Proof of Human Work digital currency,” in the words of the app’s designers.  That’s right, using FitCoin, you can earn digital currency, which you can then use with participating sponsors like Adidas for discounts on gear, etc.

As Morozov argues:

FitCoin might fail but the principle behind it is indicative of the broader transformation of social life under conditions of permanent connectivity and instant commodification: what was previously done for pleasure or merely to conform to social norms is now firmly guided by the logic of the market. The other logics don’t disappear but they become secondary to the monetary incentive.

The ability to measure all our activities remotely is opening up new avenues for speculation, as anyone – from corporations to insurance firms to governments – can now design sly compensatory schemes to elicit desired behaviour from consumers chasing a quick buck. As a result, even the most mundane of daily activities can be linked to global financial markets. Eventually, we’ll all be trading in derivatives that link our entitlement to receive specific medical services to our physical behaviour. This is how fitness and health are gradually subsumed by the realm of money and finance.

Wonderful.  Sign me up.  Morozov rightly notes the dangers of this, though I think anyone with a pulse would recognize the inherent dangers in the commodification of basic human behaviour such as working out.  Or whatever.  This works, in many ways, on the same principle as newspaper websites.  Take, for example, my local daily, The Boston Globe.  I have discussed the descent into stupidity by the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby, however, is a very intelligent man, and is capable of making complex arguments.  But he doesn’t any more.  His descent is tied to the larger descent of The Globe into irrelevance for anyone with a working brain.  This is made all the more bizarre when one remembers that Boston is also served by the populist, right-wing tabloid, The Boston Herald.  I guess The Globe wants to be a liberal tabloid.  In this descent to stupid, The Globe has realized which columnists and stories get the most clicks, and therefore make the most revenue. Jacoby works, because he riles people up.  And then there’s Kevin Cullen, who likes to use words like “punk” to describe Whitey Bulger (yes, he’s still carping on Bulger).

Thus, The Globe continues its race to the bottom because people want tabloid-level articles on the Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, or the murder trial of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.  Real news gets pushed deeper and deeper down the webpage.  In the physical newspaper, real news is buried deeper and deeper as the front page is dominated by these two trials, as well as Cullen’s vapidity and Jacoby’s cage-rattling.  The Globe makes more money off this than real news.

Human behaviour in terms of a newspaper is commodified, but we, the humans who follow the clickbait do not benefit economically.  FitCoin, on the other hand, takes that economic benefit and puts it into our digital wallet.  And many people will think this is a great thing.  But it is not.  Tying all human behaviour into ‘the internet of things’ will necessarily lead to the monetization of our behaviour, and this will lead to the “triumph of market logic” in all aspects into our social lives.  As Morozov argues,

[I]f permanent connectivity is essential for that logic to exercise control over our lives, then the only autonomy worth fighting for – both for individuals and institutions – would be an autonomy that thrives on opacity, ignorance and disconnection. A right to connect is important – so is the right to disconnect.

In other words, we enter into the type of world imagined by Dave Eggers in his 2013 best-seller, The Circle.  In it, Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle, an internet of things corporation, thanks to the fact her college roommate is an executive there.  Mae, as she climbs up the corporate ladder, is seduced by The Circle and its various apps that allow her to track every single aspect of her life in the cloud and on social media, from her health, to her late night escapes to kayak in San Francisco Bay, to her sex life and her parents’ health.  Her ex-boyfriend, meanwhile, is a craftsman and objects to Mae’s attempts to popularize his hand-crafted woodwork and wants nothing more than exist outside the all-seeing eye of The Circle and the internet.   Meanwhile, first politicians, then nearly everyone wears body cameras for transparency.  Then cameras are embedded everywhere, in the eyes of The Circle’s CEOs, this is good, because, like with Google Street View, people can travel the world without leaving their living room.  But, cameras everywhere lead to a surveillance state.  Mae, meanwhile, becomes increasingly embedded, and loses her critical ability to see what is happening.

Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, complete with the slogan, “The More We Connect, The Better It Gets.”  The TV ads for Internet.org are what I would call creepy.  They are set in the Developing World, and focus on people, usually young people or children, who build things like windmills, effectively inventing it for their part of the world.  Then the narrator of the video informs us that they don’t have the internet, and asks us to imagine what we lose globally because Mehtar and Mostek don’t have the internet.

And while certainly, the internet can be a good thing.  It can democratize.  It can get news out of places like Egypt during the Revolution there in 2011, which I watched unfold in real time on Twitter.  Or with the Ferguson protests last summer, which I also watched in real time on Twitter.  And it can bring knowledge to Mehtar and Mostek.  And maybe Zuckerberg really just wants to bring the internet to everyone.  But the internet also Americanizes the world. And it commodifies the world.  And there is a sniff of imperialism in these ads.

Belgian rapper Stromae has a brand new video for his track “Carmen.” In it, Stromae is caught in a hell of internet addiction, driven by love and consumer culture (you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the video)

Eggers’ dystopia is fiction.  The FitCoin future and commodification of everything is very real.  And why should we be surprised?  As Tony Judt argues in his brilliant Ill Fares the Landsometime in the 1980s, during the era of Margaret Thatcher and Reaganomics, western society became completely and totally obsessed with money.  The end result of this is that, despite the alleged anti-corporatism of the 90s (honestly, I am not entirely sure what this is about, even counter-culture superstars like Nirvana were on major labels), is the monetization of everything.  Greed drives us.  And as the game proceeds, it will be harder and harder to opt out.  Morozov’s “right to disconnect” will disappear.

The Problem with Being Canadian

March 20, 2015 § 7 Comments

Tony Judt is one of my intellectual heroes.  A brilliant mind, and a great writer, he was rare for an historian.  An Englishman, he lived in New York and taught at New York University.  The Guardian called him the ‘greatest mind in New York,’ which I always took as a play on the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Only Living Boy in New York.”  Judt died of ALS in July 2010 at the age of 62, and I feel like we were robbed.  I am currently reading his last work of non-fiction, Ill Fares the Land (a collaboration with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, was published in 2012).

In Ill Fares the Land, Judt takes on the growing meanness of our society and culture, on both sides of the Atlantic.  He argues that we have lost our way in the blind pursuit of money and profit, signalling the 1980s as the period where Western culture shifted from one of trust and compassion for our fellow human beings to this individualistic focus on money.  He criticizes us for having lost our way, for descending back into 19th century laissez-faire beliefs.

In one section, however, he focuses on the consensus that arose in Western society after the Second World War, when collectively we decided that we did not wish to experience the 1914-45 period ever again, and Europeans and North Americans began to build better societies, with a social safety net, seeking to eradicate the gross inequality of the 19th century, which led to the rise of dictatorships of both the left and the right in the 1920s and 30s.

Judt notes that trust is necessary to the proper functioning of society.  And he is right.  Trust is essential at all levels of society,and it is essential for the proper functioning of the capitalist system.  Indeed, this was the trust violated in the 1980s, and again in the lead-up to the 2008 Recession: economic actors essentially got greedy and corrupt and brought us down with them.  At any rate, Judt looks at what makes for a trusting society and, not surprisingly, he looks approvingly at the Scandinavian and Northern European countries.  These are places where income inequality is almost (note, I said almost) non-existant, where education is free or close to it, and there is a common, collective belief in the common good, broadly defined.

What makes these societies work?  What causes the trust to exist?  Judt notes that Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are remarkably homogenous societies, in terms of ethnicity, religion, etc.  (He also notes that Scandinavians are not so excited about the influx of impoverished refugees and immigrants in recent years, to be fair.)  He then focuses on his two primary countries: The United States and the United Kingdom.

In the period of consensus from 1945 to the 1970s, both the US and the UK were a lot more homogenous than they are now.  Both were majoritarian white, Anglo-Protestant nations, though with sizeable Catholic minorities.  But, Protestants and Catholics are both Christians, of course.  Today, however, both the US and the UK are larger, much more diverse nations.  And so trust has broken down.

As a good Canadian, I was practically yelling “CANADA!” at this point of the book.  To be fair to Judt, he DOES notice The Great White North.  Frankly, it’s hard not to.  It’s this big country just to the north of New York state.  He writes:

The crossover case might be Canada: a mid-sized country (33 million people) with no dominant religion and a mere 66% of the population declaring themselves of European origin, but where trust and its accompanying social institutions seem to have taken root.

But then he dismisses the Canadian crossover case because it’s not conducive to his argument.  He immediately goes onto return to his arguments pertaining to the US and the UK.  This makes no sense.  Canada is a fine comparative point to both the US and the UK.  It is geographically large, it has a sizeable population, it is incredibly diverse (more diverse, in fact, than either the US and the UK), and takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation (the US, of course, takes in the most immigrants in absolute numbers).  And yet, “trust and its accompanying institutions” are deeply-embedded in the country, as our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper (who is otherwise hell-bent on tearing down the Canada most Canadians want), has learned.

Judt’s myopia regarding Canada is nothing new, frankly.  It is common for Americans and, especially, the British, to overlook the country.  But that does not make it any less infuriating.

I am reminded of Trainspotting, and the rant of the central character, Mark Renton, on why it sucks being Scottish.

Reappraisals and the Forgotten 20th Century

May 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

I picked up Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century on somewhat of a whim at Montréal’s last independent Anglo bookstore, Argo Books on rue Sainte-Catherine, a few months back.  Since then, it’s been buried in the knee-deep stack of reading next to the bed.  But, after finishing Jerry White’s meditation on 20th century London, as well as a short novella by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, two defining writers of the 20th century, I thought perhaps it was time to crack the binding on Judt’s book.

I am all 7 pages in and have already read more food for thought than I do in most of what I read in a month.  Judt’s main point is that in the West, but especially in North America, particularly the United States, we have done exactly what Mike Edwards, the frontman of the disposable pop band Jesus Jones said we were doing 20 years ago, “waking up from history.”  Except, whereas Edwards was optimistic, and Francis Fukuyama was loudly and proudly declaring we had reached the End of History (seriously, how the hell does Fukuyama have ANY credibility after that?!?), Judt is more concerned.  He says we’ve lost our way, we live in a society focussed on forgetting, of ignoring the lessons of history.

Judt is particularly concerned with the States, his adopted nation, and where he died in 2010, after a battle with ALS.  In particular, he writes of the triumphalism of the States after the end of the Cold War, despite the defeat in Vietnam and the stagnation of Iraq (and Afghanistan) when he was writing in 2007.  He notes how the United States is the only Western nation that still venerates and celebrates its military history, a sentiment that disappeared in Europe after the Second World War.  He writes:

For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the last century is that was works.  The implications of this reading of history have already been felt in the decision to attack Iraq in 2003. For Washington, war remains an option — in this case the first option.  For the rest of the developed world, it has become a last resort.

I’m not entirely certain this is indeed the case, given Tony Blair’s hitching of his horses to Dubya’s war machine in 2003, but it certainly does give pause for thought.

It also brings the Harper government here in Canada into sharper focus.  Canada is a middle power, and that might be generous, actually.  And yet, Harper is hell bent on celebrating Canada’s military history, one that by and large ends with the Second World War, and denigrating our proud history as peacekeepers (including the very simple fact that Lester B. Pearson invented peacekeeping).  I wrote about this, somewhat tangentially, with the return of the Winnipeg Jets to the NHL last fall.

And yet, here we are, a minor middle power in the world, striking a more bellicose tone than even the US in some cases, most notably in our support for Israel.  This is not a discussion of whether Israel deserves support or not, this is a discussion about the role of military history and veneration in public discourse.  Harper has used Canada’s proud (and distant) history as a military power, and Canada’s excellent record in the two World Wars to bolster and justify his muscular vision of Canadian foreign policy.

In this sense, then, while the US remains a major military power, and indeed the world’s major one, Canada remains small potatoes.  And all I can think of is an episode of The Simpsons where Bart, Milhouse, Rod, Tod, Nelson, and Martin head into Shelbyville for reasons I can no longer remember, and they decide to break  into teams.  Bart and Milhouse, Rod and Tod, and Nelson and Martin.  As they make their way off, Martin dances around the big, burly Nelson, who is somewhat reluctant of his role as the enforcer, singing his friend’s praise and celebrating his prowess.  In my vision, Obama is Nelson and Harper is Martin.  Kind of sad, really.

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