Technological creep

Network from Michael Rigley on Vimeo. [video link]

About halfway through last month my Samsung Galaxy S III’s data connection slowed down to 30 kbs a second, which is roughly the speed of an old modem. At first I wondered if there was a software glitch or some technical issues with my provider. It turns out the problem was that I had used up my one gig a month quota of data transfer, which pushed me into the slow lane until the end of the month. It was an interesting psychological experience. It reminded me of what it is like to be on the other side of the digital divide, and also the nefarious consequences of a world in which net connection is not neutral: pay a premium price for the tollway or get stuck in a traffic jam.

But what I found incredibly interesting is how this telecom strategy resembles the gambling industry: tantalize the customer just enough to want more, but make sure that the odds are always in favor of the house. In my case, moderate use of internet on my cellphone– such as checking email, Twitter and Facebook, and the occasional use of apps for navigation or bus schedules–seemed to keep me under the limit. Then I discovered Spotify, podcasts and multimedia, all of which gobble data connections at a ridiculous rate. Suddenly I wanted more. And all those years that I commuted without the aid of a fast, multimedia connection were forgotten quickly. What’s even worse, not only does my telecom find ways to charge me more every month, but it also resells my data without giving me a cut.

The psychological crisis described above is often attributed to technology addiction. But I think that is a misdirection. Is the carpenter addicted to hammers when she is building houses? The phone is just a tool to achieve something else. The addiction is not in the tool, but in the desire to eleviate bordom or the need to feel connected to others. These are mind states that exist with or without technology; the phone just makes it easier to scratch that mental itch.

But this leads to a much bigger issue related to recent news about massive government spying. One gets the feeling (especially after watching the video posted above) that these surveillance technologies are autonomous and beyond the control of their users. It feels this way because there is an architectural logic that access to the data dictates that it should be consumed–either to spy on or to commoditize users. It’s too easy and tempting to resist. And if you are part of a control freak security state, what better way to facilitate this mania than to just Hoover up the entire internet. Like frogs in a pot of water that’s gradually boiling, we have casually allowed this erosion of our rights for the sake of convenience. It’s the same as that casino psychology tethering me to the telecom’s business model: as long as it’s convenient and stimulates the right pleasure centers, I’ll keep dropping coins into the machine .

But am I willing to just stop? We have to be cautious about some of the anti-technology arguments that posit machines as autonomous from human control. While it is true that we tend to conform our behaviors to the structures that we create, those structures can also be changed. After all, they are created as a result of human culture. In this case, it’s not necessarily that technology is controlling our behavior, it is that technology has become the metaphor for how many view the world. For example, the faith in Big Data and information control comes from a blind acceptance of mechanism, which is a 19th century model of the universe based on a machine.

But the metaphors we use can change, and hence alter how we view the world. An organic metaphor, such “ecosystem,” can help us shift perspective so that we view technology not as a dominating system of control and efficiency, but rather a component of a complex system that also involves human agency. Not only that, lest we forget, these technologies also create feedback loops within living systems, which means that certain kinds of technologies that are not sustainable will simply cease to exist.

So if total surveillance is part of a strategy to reconcile the needs of protecting the carbon economy and the national security state, they are both doomed to fail. Of course, the fear is that they will take all of us down with them. This is a legitimate concern. It seems to me that Big Data and leaking are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, governments and corporations are compiling an inordinate amount of data on us. On the other hand, they are compiling data about their own activities which inevitably gets into our hands through the brave actions of leakers. So just as our information is at the mercy of systems that seem beyond our reach, those systems are also vulnerable to their own methods.