Rebecca Lemov writes: The protagonist of William Gibson’s 2014 science-fiction novel The Peripheral, Flynne Fisher, works remotely in a way that lends a new and fuller sense to that phrase. The novel features a double future: One set of characters inhabits the near future, ten to fifteen years from the present, while another lives seventy years on, after a breakdown of the climate and multiple other systems that has apocalyptically altered human and technological conditions around the world.
In that “further future,” only 20 percent of the Earth’s human population has survived. Each of these fortunate few is well off and able to live a life transformed by healing nanobots, somaticized e-mail (which delivers messages and calls to the roof of the user’s mouth), quantum computing, and clean energy. For their amusement and profit, certain “hobbyists” in this future have the Borgesian option of cultivating an alternative path in history — it’s called “opening up a stub” — and mining it for information as well as labor.
Flynne, the remote worker, lives on one of those paths. A young woman from the American Southeast, possibly Appalachia or the Ozarks, she favors cutoff jeans and resides in a trailer, eking out a living as a for-hire sub playing video games for wealthy aficionados. Recruited by a mysterious entity that is beta-testing drones that are doing “security” in a murky skyscraper in an unnamed city, she thinks at first that she has been taken on to play a kind of video game in simulated reality. As it turns out, she has been employed to work in the future as an “information flow” — low-wage work, though the pay translates to a very high level of remuneration in the place and time in which she lives.
What is of particular interest is the fate of Flynne’s body. Before she goes to work she must tend to its basic needs (nutrition and elimination), because during her shift it will effectively be “vacant.” Lying on a bed with a special data-transmitting helmet attached to her head, she will be elsewhere, inhabiting an ambulatory robot carapace — a “peripheral” — built out of bio-flesh that can receive her consciousness.
Bodies in this data-driven economic backwater of a future world economy are abandoned for long stretches of time — disposable, cheapened, eerily vacant in the temporary absence of “someone at the helm.” Meanwhile, fleets of built bodies, grown from human DNA, await habitation.
Alex Rivera explores similar territory in his Mexican sci-fi film The Sleep Dealer (2008), set in a future world after a wall erected on the US–Mexican border has successfully blocked migrants from entering the United States. Digital networks allow people to connect to strangers all over the world, fostering fantasies of physical and emotional connection. At the same time, low-income would-be migrant workers in Tijuana and elsewhere can opt to do remote work by controlling robots building a skyscraper in a faraway city, locking their bodies into devices that transmit their labor to the site. In tank-like warehouses, lined up in rows of stalls, they “jack in” by connecting data-transmitting cables to nodes implanted in their arms and backs. Their bodies are in Mexico, but their work is in New York or San Francisco, and while they are plugged in and wearing their remote-viewing spectacles, their limbs move like the appendages of ghostly underwater creatures. Their life force drained by the taxing labor, these “sleep dealers” end up as human discards.
What is surprising about these sci-fi conceits, from “transitioning” in The Peripheral to “jacking in” in The Sleep Dealer, is how familiar they seem, or at least how closely they reflect certain aspects of contemporary reality. Almost daily, we encounter people who are there but not there, flickering in and out of what we think of as presence. A growing body of research explores the question of how users interact with their gadgets and media outlets, and how in turn these interactions transform social relationships. The defining feature of this heavily mediated reality is our presence “elsewhere,” a removal of at least part of our conscious awareness from wherever our bodies happen to be. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The seven young men sitting before some of Capitol Hill’s most powerful lawmakers weren’t graduate students or junior analysts from some think tank. No, Space Rogue, Kingpin, Mudge and the others were hackers who had come from the mysterious environs of cyberspace to deliver a terrifying warning to the world.
Your computers, they told the panel of senators in May 1998, are not safe — not the software, not the hardware, not the networks that link them together. The companies that build these things don’t care, the hackers continued, and they have no reason to care because failure costs them nothing. And the federal government has neither the skill nor the will to do anything about it.
“If you’re looking for computer security, then the Internet is not the place to be,” said Mudge, then 27 and looking like a biblical prophet with long brown hair flowing past his shoulders. The Internet itself, he added, could be taken down “by any of the seven individuals seated before you” with 30 minutes of well-choreographed keystrokes.
The senators — a bipartisan group including John Glenn, Joseph I. Lieberman and Fred D. Thompson — nodded gravely, making clear that they understood the gravity of the situation. “We’re going to have to do something about it,” Thompson said.
What happened instead was a tragedy of missed opportunity, and 17 years later the world is still paying the price in rampant insecurity. [Continue reading…]
Michael Massing writes: Arriving at BuzzFeed’s editorial offices (housed in temporary quarters while the main office is being renovated), I found two adjoining cavernous spaces filled with long tables, at which sat some two hundred people gazing at computer screens. I was introduced to Shani Hilton, the executive editor for news. Thirty years old, she had worked for NBCWashington.com, the Washington City Paper, and the Center for American Progress before joining BuzzFeed in 2013. I asked her to cite some recent stories she felt were noteworthy. She mentioned a report by Ben Smith about the threat by an Uber executive to dig up dirt on a reporter who had criticized the company (it kicked up a storm); a story by Aram Roston on financial conflicts of interest involving a top NSA official (which led to the official’s resignation); and “Fostering Profits,” an investigation into deaths, sex abuse, and gaps in oversight at the nation’s largest for-profit foster care company. As for regular beats, Hilton mentioned two in which she felt BuzzFeed had excelled—marriage equality and rape culture.
From talking with Hilton and with Ben Smith (now editor in chief) and from sampling BuzzFeed’s home page, I came away convinced of its commitment to being a serious provider of news; there’s a sense of earnest aspiration about the place. At the same time, I was surprised by how conventional—and tame—most of its reports are. Much of BuzzFeed’s news feed seems indistinguishable from that of a wire service. Its investigations, while commendable, fall squarely within the parameters of investigative reporting as traditionally practiced in this country, with a narrow focus on managerial malfeasance, conflicts of interest, and workplace abuses. There’s little effort to examine, for example, the activities of hedge fund managers, Internet billionaires, or other pillars of the new oligarchy.
In April, Ben Smith removed two BuzzFeed posts that were critical of the advertising campaigns for Dove cosmetics and the Hasbro board game Monopoly. Both Dove and Hasbro advertise on the site. After coming under much fire, Smith restored the posts, though he denied that their original removal had had anything to do with pressure from advertisers. Soon after, the writer of the post critical of Dove, Arabelle Sicardi, resigned. So much for “true journalistic independence.” Overall, BuzzFeed’s practice of journalism seems nowhere near as pioneering as the sleek platform it has developed to deliver its product. [Continue reading…]
Politico reports: Daniel Sepulveda just might be the closest thing the United States has to an “Ambassador to the Internet.” And the 42-year-old is in the middle of a tricky battle.
Some countries, including behemoths China and Russia, as well as smaller countries with few resources, are starting to argue that the loose way the Internet is run leans too heavily in the U.S.’s favor. Their solution: Shift regulation of the Internet to the world stage, perhaps to the United Nations, where they might have more control.
That runs counter to the official position of the Obama administration. And that’s where Sepulveda comes in and what keeps the deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy airborne much of the time, flying to Dubai, Costa Rica, Cuba or South Korea as the administration’s pitch man.
The Internet’s evolution should be decided “organically, by participants in the network,” Sepulveda argues, “as opposed to by governments or intermediaries.”
He’s willing to acknowledge that the current, somewhat ad hoc system of regulation — where geeks, not governments, get to vote — needs reforming. But it mostly works, as it allows for what Sepulveda calls “as little friction as possible” as information and ideas move around the world. Binding the future of the Internet to the U.N. threatens to upset a way of doing things that has produced, in the Internet, a global force unlike the world has ever seen.
The complicated part, though, is that Sepulveda and his colleagues have to sell that government-hands-off-the-Internet policy while also being high-ranking appointees of a government which has been accused of using the Internet to allegedly spy on its own citizens, as well as on world leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and Brazil’s Dilma Rouseff. [Continue reading…]
Ed Lake writes: Who was Aaron Swartz? I never met him, though I’ve had dealings with friends of his over the years. The outline of his biography is a matter of public record: teenaged computer whizz gets rich, becomes a political activist and ends up in his 20s facing decades in jail for murky charges related to the misappropriation of academic journal articles. That much is on Wikipedia.
If that isn’t intimate enough, perhaps his character comes through in the tributes that poured onto the internet following Swartz’s suicide in 2013. The signature notes of tenderness, exasperation and awe, in reminiscences from Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and many other notable mentors, certainly conjure a fleeting presence. Nevertheless, in the end, the person is irrecoverable, and those of us who weren’t lucky enough to know him never will.
‘What was Aaron Swartz?’, on the other hand, seems like both a tractable and a worthwhile question, not least because a decent answer ought to say something about where we are now. Swartz positioned himself at the exact spot where technology and politics press noses and glare at one another. It’s a Silicon Valley joke (or perhaps just a Silicon Valley joke) that every idiot with a dating app says he wants to change the world, but Swartz seems really to have meant it. He quit money the way PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel wants smart kids to quit college. He became a white-hat hacker among the levers of state power.
And things ended, not just badly, but dismally, in a sulphurous halfworld of G-men, prosecutorial intimidation and forced betrayals. It is, I suspect, impossible to learn anything about the young activist’s story without starting to see it as a symbol of something ominous in our present chunk of history. But what? [Continue reading…]