Ceding Our Humanity

2017-12-20

Geoff Huston's keynote talk at RIPE 75, "The Death of Transit and Beyond", provides a sobering perspective on the recent evolution of the Internet - and, because so many of our personal, economic, intellectual, and political interactions happen over the Internet these days, on the evolution of society at large. Although Geoff tried to steer clear of alarmism, the picture is not pretty. Extreme concentration of wealth and power has led to a few leviathans controlling an overwhelming percentage of our online life (as of today, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent, and Facebook are seven of the eight largest public corporations in the world by market capitalization). Furthermore, as I explained in my talk "The Internet is Dead, Long Live the Internet" three years ago, in large measure these companies make money by tracking everything we do online and then selling those profiles to advertisers and marketers. And it gets worse: unlike the so-called robber barons of the late 19th century Gilded Age, which merely controlled markets for transportation, steel, oil, coal, and other physical goods, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways today's robber barons monitor and increasingly direct our mental and emotional life through the news we learn about, the books we read, the videos we watch, the people we talk with and connect to, and much more.

With a combined value approaching four trillion dollars (that's $4,000,000,000,000), there's not much that these companies can't buy. And, as Geoff points out in his talk, what they are really buying is the future - not just their future as organizations (major companies of the first Gilded Age are still with us, after all), but the future of humanity, too. Through the Internet of Things, wearables, augmented reality, virtual reality, and other technologies that most people haven't even heard of yet, these behemoths are working to insinuate themselves into every aspect of human life: our work, our homes, our cars, our communications, our clothes, our health, our bodies, our minds. More and more aspects of life (say, your interaction with your doctor) will be guided by software workflows that programmers believe are best, and eventually by machine-learning algorithms that even the programmers don't completely understand.

We are, quite literally, ceding our humanity.

Last week, I had a chat with someone from Taiwan whose mother writes Chinese characters with gorgeous, flowing calligraphy. Yet the input editor on her computer often doesn't recognize the characters she writes, whereas her son (who knows that the computer is looking for sharper edges and blockier shapes) experiences greater success. Similarly, voice-activated computers expect people to speak in certain ways, wearables might expect people to move in certain ways, driver-assist vehicles might expect people to drive in certain ways, refrigerators might expect people to eat in certain ways, home-automation systems might expect people to live in certain ways, etc. The aesthetic, the beautiful, the individual, or the just plain human will increasingly be sacrificed to meeting the expectations and limitations of the computers - and, especially, computers controlled by gargantuan, faceless, heartless organizations for which you are merely a means to their ends. And, because everything you do will be monitored and tracked, if you want to experience convenience, save money on home or auto or health insurance, receive certain kinds of medical care, or whatever, you will need to conform.

I don't like to sound so pessimistic, but things really do seem bleak.

What can one do? In the grand scheme of a planetary Internet, not much, I suppose. However, these modern-day robber barons succeed only because of the choices made by billions of individuals. For myself, I don't have a Facebook account, I don't use Google if I can help it (I prefer Fastmail for email and DuckDuckGo for search), I block ad trackers in my browser (Firefox has good configuration options here), I try to avoid ordering goods from Amazon, I read physical books instead of ebooks, and so forth. However, there is more that I could do (I publish my own books using an Amazon service even though I also make them available for free on my website, I switch back and forth between an Apple computer and a Linux machine, etc. - as I am wont to say, there's no monopoly on hypocrisy). Yet perhaps if enough people change their habits it will put a dent in current trends; at the least, if you make better choices then you will live a bit more freely.

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Peter Saint-Andre > Journal