Tag Archives: identity

William Gibson: Google isn’t a panopticon

The New York Times turns the mic over to William Gibson, who ponders Google’s place in the world (or, perhaps more appropriately, our place in Google’s world):

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design is a perennial metaphor in discussions of digital surveillance and data mining, but it doesn’t really suit an entity like Google. Bentham’s all-seeing eye looks down from a central viewpoint, the gaze of a Victorian warder. In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory. We are part of a post-geographical, post-national super-state, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. We’re citizens, but without rights.

Note to self – I’m still enough of a vain little fanboy that I’m hugely gratified when my heroes think  similar things to myself, in this case regarding Eric Schmidt’s unGooglable childhood idea:

… I don’t find this a very realistic idea, however much the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs, prisoners of their own youthful folly, appeals to my novelistic Kafka glands. Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth, which surely the search engine, wielding as yet unimagined tools of transparency, eventually could and would do.

I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

The genie won’t go back into the bottle, folks.

Destroying the chrysalis of your online childhood

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has suggested that in the near future every person might be entitled to change their name on reaching adulthood, in order that they can live unhindered by the online record of their youthful indiscretions. Now, Eric Schmidt is almost certainly a much smarter man than I am… but that idea is clearly batshit nuts, especially coming from a Google bigwig.

I mean, think about it – most people use pseudonyms and handles online as it is. How many names and identities will you be allowed to abandon? One? Some? All? And as the vigilante efforts of Anonymous prove time and time again, even folk making a big effort to conceal their identity can have it exposed against their will. If Schmidt is implying (as he seems to be – it’s hard to tell from such a throwaway comment, to be fair) that the digital record would remain after this identity disconnection, how exactly would you prevent people from doing a combination of internet sleuthing and good old-fashioned meatspace gumshoe work in order to connect xCrazyLarry1989x to Lawrence Michaels, aspiring tort lawyer and gubernatorial candidate for his local Chamber of Commerce?

Given the way web technology keeps advancing, it may not even be much of an effort. Hell, Google itself offers a neat little app called Goggles that can identify famous faces and objects by comparing them to archived images on the web (as for values of ‘famous’, John Scalzi is apparently famous enough for this to work); given the sheer number of photos on the Facebook profiles of most young people, how are you going to prevent someone using this sort of image search and linking your newly-renamed Adult Person to the child they were?

Simple answer: you’re not. If what Schmidt actually means is that there’ll be some sort of legally-enshrined disconnect between an adult and their behaviour before adulthood, then maybe it’s not quite such a crazy suggestion… but it’s still pretty crazy. Personally, I tend to agree with Stowe Boyd and others: I think we underestimate the common sense kids apply to social media based on the high-profile idiocy of a tiny minority, and I think we overestimate the impact that youthful (or even not so youthful) indiscretions in the digital fossil record will have on how the people who left them behind will be viewed. As a crude numbers-from-the-air example: if one in five kids is pictured somewhere on the web taking a hit from a bong, is society more likely to (a) refuse to employ 1/5 of the population, or (b) figure that kids smoking weed really isn’t such a big deal?

Trouble is, we keep applying the social mores of today to the society of a decade hence. Think about how different the world felt just five years ago; attitudes change fast. By the time the internet’s knowledge of our past is sufficient to be causing problems for the majority of people, my bet is that we’ll be worrying about something else entirely. Or, to put it another way: when you have evidence that pretty much everyone has been a little bit naughty at some point in their lives, your assessment of how much naughtiness is forgivable will shift accordingly. Transgression is implicitly assessed against a baseline of ‘normality’; a searchable childhood for everyone will move that baseline. In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest it’ll be the people with squeaky-clean pasts who end up looking the most suspicious…

Defining society: the anthropologist’s dilemma

Keith Hart think’s he’s uncovered anthropolgy’s biggest challenge, and the issue that’s hampering its progress as a science: defining the word ‘society’ in a way that makes sense for the times we live in.

I believe that humanity is caught precariously in transition between two notions of where society is located, the nation-state and the world. The dominance of the former in the 20th century fed the ethnographic revolution in anthropology which, rather than following the needs of colonial empire as is commonly assumed, was in fact an attempt to make the national model of society universal by finding its principles everywhere, even in so-called primitive societies. These principles included cultural homogeneity, a bounded location and an ahistorical presumption of eternity. The centrality of the state to such a concept of nation was negated by the study of stateless societies in these terms.

Clearly world society is not yet a fact in the same sense as its principal predecessor. But the need to make a world society fit for all humanity to live in is urgent for many reasons that I don’t need to spell out. Retention of ethnography (which first emerged in Central Europe to serve a nation-building project) as our main professional model has made most of us apologists for a fragmented and static vision of the human predicament, reinforcing a rejection of world history that amounts to nothing less than, “Stop the world, I want to get off”. We no longer study exotic rural places in isolation from history, but, in abandoning that exclusive preoccupation, we have failed to bring the object, theory and method of anthropology up to date.

Note the similarities to concerns about the nation-state as dominant identifier coming from all sorts of other disciplines (as frequently documented on this ‘ere blog, among other places). Nationality is increasingly coming to be seen as the hollow sham it has always been. Think about it: the problem with identifying with a nation is that you’re identifying with nothing more than a word and a piece of multicoloured cloth. The ideological continuity that nationality implies is a complete fiction: if I’m “proud to be English”, am I proud of the same things Churchill would have held dear? Is it the citizens of England I identify with, or its values and laws, or even the physical ground itself, that territory which is no longer the map? None of these things are constants; they are different now to how they were a year ago, a decade ago, a century ago. No one chose where to be born… so why this fanaticism for a fluke of geography and childhood survival statistics? You don’t see people born on a Wednesday singing anthems about the wonderfulness and well-earned superiority of Wednesdays, do you?

“England” (or “America”, or “China”, or or or… ) is a hollow word, and the vacuum at its heart is easily filled by people with agendas that have nothing to do with bringing people together. You don’t bring people together by labelling them, by gathering them beneath a banner; that’s the definition of segregation. Nationality is at best meaningless, and at worst extremely dangerous. Nationality is apartheid.  It’s an idea that makes no logical sense in a networked world, where geography increasingly constrains only your individual access to physical resources. Until we get past the idea of ‘society’ being something to which we may belong, but to which some (most!) other humans do not, solutions to all our most pressing problems as a species will continue to elude us.

My two cents, there. 🙂

Roleplaying Games and the Cluttered Self

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont


0: Hume

Have you ever looked at an old photograph of yourself or read one of your old letters or emails and marvelled at the differences between the person you are now and the person you were then?  Getting older means falling into the habit of shrieking “what was I thinking?” whenever you stumble across some fragment of a former life.  But let us take this idea a little further: are you actually the same person that you were when you wrote that letter?  When you had that photograph taken?  When you decided to start dating that person who was obviously so ill suited to you?  Are you the same person you were yesterday?  Or five minutes ago?  Or when you started reading this sentence?  The 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume suggested that you might very well not be. Continue reading Roleplaying Games and the Cluttered Self

Iceland’s Modern Media Initiative

Remember that law that was intended to enshrine Iceland as a ‘haven’ for journalistic free speech? Well, it passed unanimously last night.

As mentioned before, a law being passed in one small country doesn’t change certain basic facts about how international law operates (nor the politics pulling the strings thereof), but it’s good to see a nation-state upholding the values I hold dear, and which appear to be increasingly unpopular with the bigger players on the world stage.

But then again, Iceland was pretty thoroughly reamed by the economic implosion, and unlike the rest of us, there was no bailout to be had. Maybe that’s what it takes to get a nation to start thinking straight… tough love, Jerry. Tough love.

Now, if Iceland wanted to start selling shares in its national identity to individuals (and hence, by extension, protection by said laws), I think a pretty big queue of geeks and wonks would form right now… myself among them.