Technology concentrates power.
In the 90’s, it looked like the Internet might be an exception, that it could be a decentralizing, democratizing force. No one controlled it, no one designed it, it was just kind of assembling itself in an appealing, anarchic way. The companies that first tried to centralize the Internet, like AOL and Microsoft, failed risibly. And open source looked ready to slay any dragon.
But those days are gone. We’ve centralized the bejesus out of the Internet now. There’s one search engine (plus the one no one uses), one social network (plus the one no one uses), one Twitter. We use one ad network, one analytics suite. Anywhere you look online, one or two giant American companies utterly dominate the field.
And there’s the cloud. What a brilliant name! The cloud is the future of online computing, a friendly, fluffy abstraction that we will all ascend into, swaddled in light. But really the cloud is just a large mess of servers somewhere, the property of one American company (plus the clouds no one uses).
Orwell imagined a world with a telescreen in every room, always on, always connected, always monitored. An Xbox One vision of dystopia.
But we’ve done him one better. Nearly everyone here carries in their pocket a tracking device that knows where you are, who you talk to, what you look at, all these intimate details of your life, and sedulously reports them to private servers where the data is stored in perpetuity.
I know I sound like a conspiracy nut framing it like this. I’m not saying we live in an Orwellian nightmare. I love New Zealand! But we have the technology.
When I was in grade school, they used to scare us with something called the permanent record. If you threw a spitball at your friend, it would go in your permanent record, and prevent you getting a good job, or marrying well, until eventually you’d die young and friendless and be buried outside the churchyard wall.
What a relief when we found out that the permanent record was a fiction. Except now we’ve gone and implemented the damned thing. Each of us leaves an indelible, comet-like trail across the Internet that cannot be erased and that we’re not even allowed to see.
The things we really care about seem to disappear from the Internet immediately, but post a stupid YouTube comment (now linked to your real identity) and it will live forever.
And we have to track all this stuff, because the economic basis of today’s web is advertising, or the promise of future advertising. The only way we can convince investors to keep the money flowing is by keeping the most detailed records possible, tied to people’s real identities. Apart from a few corners of anonymity, which not by accident are the most culturally vibrant parts of the Internet, everything is tracked and has to be tracked or the edifice collapses.
What upsets me isn’t that we created this centralized version of the Internet based on permanent surveillance.
What upsets me, what really gets my goat, is that we did it because it was the easiest thing to do. There was no design, forethought, or analysis involved. No one said “hey, this sounds like a great world to live in, let’s make it”. It happened because we couldn’t be bothered.
Making things ephemeral is hard.
Making things distributed is hard.
Making things anonymous is hard.
Coming up with a sane business model is really hard—I get tired just thinking about it.
So let’s take people’s data, throw it on a server, link it to their Facebook profiles, keep it forever, and if we can’t raise another round of venture funding we’ll just slap Google ads on the thing.
"High five, Chad!"
"High five, bro!"
That is the design process that went into building the Internet of 2014.
And of course now we are shocked—shocked!—when, for example, the Ukrainian government uses cell tower data to send scary text messages to protesters in Kiev, in order to try to keep them off the streets. Bad people are using the global surveillance system we built to do something mean! Holy crap! Who could have imagined this?
Or when we learn that the American government is reading the email that you send unencrypted to the ad-supported mail service in another country where it gets archived forever. Inconceivable!
I’m not saying these abuses aren’t serious. But they’re the opposite of surprising. People will always abuse power. That’s not a new insight. There are cuneiform tablets complaining about it. Yet here we are in 2014, startled because unscrupulous people have started to use the powerful tools we created for them.
We put so much care into making the Internet resilient from technical failures, but make no effort to make it resilient to political failure. We treat freedom and the rule of law like inexhaustible natural resources, rather than the fragile and precious treasures that they are.
And now, of course, it’s time to make the Internet of Things, where we will connect everything to everything else, and build cool apps on top, and nothing can possibly go wrong.”