We live in dark and darkly hilarious times. Our world has grown so bewildering and complicated, in no small part because of the finger jammed on technology’s fast-forward button, that many people have given up trying to make sense of it — or to make sense at all. That’s honestly my only explanation for some of the craziness out in the tech world these days.
I once saw Cory Doctorow talk about ending DRM worldwide in the next decade. Oh, Cory, do you have your work cut out. Consider Juicero. No, wait, stop laughing — I mean, keep laughing, but not just at that. Juicero isn’t just VC excess poster child which built massively overdesigned juice press that could be replaced by, er, your hands: it was also, lest we forget, explicitly defended as DRM for spinach. Let me just say that again: DRM for spinach.
But wait, it gets worse/better! Not to be outdone, another startup is crowdfunding .. wait for it … DRM for tap water. I am not making this up. The sad truth, I’m afraid, is that the next decade will bring us the exact opposite of DRM eradication: rather, anything that can be DRMed, will be DRMed. I look forward to DRM for clean air. There’s probably a Beijing startup on the case already.
Meanwhile, in the world of cybersecurity:
Good news! The NSA seems to be rolling back some of its warrantless collection of data. Bad news! At the very same time, more and more people are installing always-on microphones (Amazon Echo, Google Home) and cameras (Amazon Echo Look) into their homes. Smartphones are bad enough, but at least you have administrative control over your phone, and can root it (if Android) or rely on the safeguards of the one mega-tech company whose business model does not rely on surveillance capitalism (if Apple.) The Echo and Home, though? I mean…
The same company that sells you the Home was just victim to a viral Gmail phishing attack, but nothing like that will ever happen again, right? Right?
“But the data’s encrypted!” you protest. Don’t kid yourself. Despite people who know better telling politicians over and over again, for thirty years, that a) end-to-end encryption is just math b) banning math is a terrible and futile idea — brain-dead authorities around the world, including the US and UK, have decided that the thing to do is … you guessed it … ban math. Even Teen Vogue knows better than that. Presumably when math is outlawed, only outlaws will have math — while Amazon, Apple, and Google won’t, or, at least, won’t be legally allowed to use it to protect you.
There’s a theme here. One gets the distinct sense that people everywhere, authorities and ordinary folk alike, are so stymied and confused by our brave new world of technology — maybe it’s the math? — that they want to move back towards the 19th century, rather than forward into the 21st.
I’m very serious about this. For one thing, it helps explain the astonishing rise and cultural normalization of open, flat-out racism around the world. (Call it “white nationalism” if you like: even its adherents no longer seem to pretend there’s any difference.)
It also helps to explain why more and more tech executives are of the moustache-twirling comic-book-villain variety. Consider Peter Thiel’s opposition to democracy, and/or his wistful longing for the years when women were not allowed to vote (seriously! I am not making this up!) Consider Uber’s astonishing run of pervasive amoral/immoral behavior over the last few years. We thought they were bizarre throwbacks; turns out they were the leading edge of the wedge. 19th-century-style plutocrat comic-book villains are so in, these days! And by “in” I mean “in charge.”
This zeitgeist longing for the colonial era also explains why, at a time we should be reconsidering the division of the world into geographical nation-states, thanks to technology increasingly making those divisions obsolete … serious law professors in serious newspapers are instead calling for a colonialism to come back. What could possibly go wrong?
Similarly, what could possibly go wrong with this (admittedly technically cool) “Genetic Access Control” project, which offers code to restrict access to online resources based on a user’s 23AndMe genetic data? I can see no way that this could possibly make our century even worse. Nosirree, none at all. But hey, at least we get to imagine the amusing moment when a “white nationalist” member learns, the hard way, that they themselves have always been a target of their own hatred and fear…
Not so long ago, I could write about how charming and anarchically appealing the tech industry’s ridiculousness was. Not any more. It’s no longer possible to ignore what’s happening outside of our little petri bubble — not least because it’s arguably happening in part, at least, because of what we have done.
Outside our bubble, our fundamental infrastructure is crumbling from lack of maintenance and investment, not to mention political gridlock and score-settling, while inside our bubble, Elon Musk hopes to colonize Mars and Hyperloop us to places on Earth, maybe along Boring Company tunnels. Kinda like how the 19th century laid the groundwork for aircraft and automobiles, amirite?
Meanwhile, inside our bubble, ordinary ponds are apparently now “organic pools.”
Inside our bubble, modern medical research is doing amazing things; outside our bubble, modern medical policy is disappearing into a horrific maw of venal cruelty. In the same week, scientists announced they can cure HIV in mice, courtesy of CRISPR — and the wealthiest nation in the world, again apparently trying to recapitulate the 19th century, stripped healthcare from 24 million of its poorest citizens in favor of tax cuts for its wealthiest residents.
Smug executives, professors, and venture capitalists argue against a universal basic income, claiming it will rob people of the “fundamental dignity of work” — while people who actually work jobs which are worse than those of executives, professors, and venture capitalists, like, say, building an iPhone, are mostly too tired, too beaten down, and insufficiently famous to call them on their bullshit. Why, it sounds … like the early days of the labor movement. When was that again? Oh yes.
The increasing growth of winner-take-all power within the tech industry is also all too reminiscent of those bad old days. The Stacks — Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft — are increasingly accused of monopoly power, and there are increasingly frequent and prominent calls to break them up or regulate them with revamped antitrust law. Think of Google as Standard Oil, Facebook as U.S. Steel, and the other three as railroad barons. And think of the new Tech Solidarity movement, which hopes to get tech workers to rise up against the Stacks, as the Knights of Labor. I wish I wasn’t so pessimistic about their chances.
But come on, people. If we do retreat to the 19th century, culturally, then that will mean the 20th century will be humanity’s high-water mark — and that’s just too embarrassing, we can’t allow it to happen. Weird tech magnates crafting strange new devices in isolation, while ignoring plutocrats stomping all over the poor, racist gangs gathering together to assuage their insecurities with violence and hatred, late surveillance capitalism, and increasingly unchecked authoritarian power … I mean, there might be a certain steampunk narrative appeal to that if it were a novel, but, alas, this is real life.
In real life, recapitulating the 19th century is both stupid and boring. We can do better. I propose that instead of accepting what’s currently happening, we get our shit together, build on the good things that are happening too, and construct a future worthy of the name. Because right now, I’m sorry to say, this timeline in which we find ourselves is just ridiculous.