A Dent in the Maya

Our built world

Was constructed from

Fragments of a world

We imagine humans

To Inhabit

Every once in a while

The planet itself

Pierces that veil

Without words, it reaches out

To leave an imprint on

Our bodies

It takes us in hand

To set us on

A different path

The Balance of Identity

This happened some time ago. I’m not sure when. The balance tipped.

It used to be that identity was asserted based on something you knew, something you had, or something you are. Online identity was centered on the individual. “Two factor” was another layer based on the same fundamentals.

Recently, more than a billion unique email addresses and passwords were posted to a hacking forum. Ideal for credential stuffing attacks by malicious hackers. The data was decrypted, the protective hashing removed. The breach was made up of 12 files and 87 gigabytes of plain text.

As a matter of fact, corporations and hackers have more of your identity than you do. They have more control over your identity data than you do. They can extend your identity into the world in more ways than you can. They can suck out the bits that you thought were yours alone.

The balance has shifted. Whatever it was that we thought made up our identity is now mostly in the possession of others. And not just the past, the present and the future as well.

Perhaps there’s some impression that people make upon the world that isn’t stored digitally in some corporation’s database. Maybe there’s some pattern that we repeat that isn’t used in a predictive behavior modeling program designed to increase sales.

Can it shift back the other way? What force would be strong enough to move it that way? Where would that force come from?

One or Two Things I Know About the Future…

There’s a concept known as “technical debt.” It’s the idea that choosing easy, patchwork solutions instead of better, more integrated approaches that would take longer. The easy fixes work until they don’t, and then a large-scale expensive fix is required to clean up all the patches. The current technology culture has accumulated a kind of debt based on a set of unquestionable assumptions. The culture of “move fast and break things,” doesn’t have time to think about what it’s doing in advance.

But if you look carefully, you can see that there are a number of these buried assumptions that are starting to surface as fundamental problems. They’re starting to create cracks in the great edifices of the technology giants.

  1. User metrics don’t capture intention. Tons of user interaction data is collected through web sites, but we still don’t know what it means. There’s a gap. The systems capture to click, but the intention that caused the click isn’t contained in the click data. That gap reappears when an analyst attempts to interpret the interaction data.
  2. Crowd sourcing has very limited utility. If you’ve ever tried to make sense of a product or restaurant review with thousands of user reviews, you know that some people like it and others don’t. Almost any form of music has die-hard fans. In the end, you end up know less than when you started reading the reviews.
  3. Algorithms aren’t neutral. They encode prejudices.
  4. Artificial intelligence is poorly named. It’s neither artificial, nor intelligence. The hype is that it is, or will be, smarter than the smartest person. For instance, it can beat smart people at some specific types of games. Technologists don’t seem to understand the poverty of the language they use to discuss these systems. They do, however, understand that their projects are being funded under a basic misunderstanding of what they’re doing—a misunderstanding that works to their advantage.
  5. It’s become perfectly clear that the sharing economy and the gig economy is simply a method of shifting risk and expense to the worker to the benefit of the corporation.
  6. Personal data isn’t as helpful as corporations think it is. They collect tons of data about people they don’t need and don’t use. The big data industry has convinced them that more data is better. The problem is that they keep losing data to hackers and there doesn’t seem to be any real penalty. Data breaches are constantly in the news. At some point, corporations will have to be fined per leak, per person.The incentives have to change such that keeping the least amount of personal data in the normal state of things.
  7. Real-time social media owned by corporations are not neutral platforms. Their business model is to sell advertising against a high-volume stream of posts. It’s just like television. Flame wars and trolling are good for business. More conflict generates more volume in the stream. What these companies perceive as neutrality is really more of an amorality. More conflict is good regardless of its source. Evil triumphing over Good was a ratings bonanza!
  8. Consumers are already over-served by technology. This has been true for a while. The latest hand-held computing device adds features and power, but the real improvement is only marginal. There aren’t any big new consumer technical innovations because we’re already over-served by the current ones. A real examination of how users use personal computing devices would show what a small percentage of their capability is used.
  9. Bots outnumber humans on the network. Soon bots will be able to mimic human behavior better than humans do. It’s a variation on the old saying, “once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”
  10. Technologists and journalists like to make fun of politicians. CEOs of tech companies get called up in front of committees and get asked stupid questions. That’s the cue for journalists and libertarians to say that politicians shouldn’t regulate technology because they don’t understand it. The truth is that no one understands technology—not the CEOs, not the programmers and certainly not the journalists. Regulations are created because harm has been done. Politicians understand when harm has been done to their constituency. Technologists move fast and break things, “harm” is just part of the process. Regulations are protections from harm.

We’ve reached a point of inversion. As the graffiti says, “In the future, everyone will want to be anonymous for fifteen minutes.” Momentum will continue to take us down the road we’re on, but the hollow sound of technology’s promises will be heard for what they are. We’ve recovered from the shock of the new, and it turns out that 90% of it is crap we can live without. A counterculture is emerging.

On Thinking About Hell

Here’s another poem from Bertolt Brecht, written during his exile in the City of Angels.

On Thinking About Hell

On thinking about Hell, I gather my brother Shelley found it was a place much like the city of London. I who live in Los Angeles and not in London find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be still more like Los Angeles.

In Hell too there are, I’ve no doubt, these luxuriant gardens with flowers as big as trees, which of course wither unhesitantly if not nourished with very expensive water. And fruit markets with great heaps of fruit, albeit having neither smell nor taste. And endless processions of cars lighter than their own shadows, faster than mad thoughts, gleaming vehicles in which jolly-looking people come from nowhere and are nowhere bound. And houses, built for happy people, therefore standing empty even when lived in.

The houses of Hell, too, are not all ugly. But the fear of being thrown on the street wears down the inhabitants of the villas no less than the inhabitants of the shanty towns.

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