We currently live at the apex of 21st century technology; or so we'll keep saying until the next-big-thing comes around which turns the world on its head, and there again we will stagnate, floundering at the "pinnacle of progress" waiting for the next Silicon Valley genius in a T-Shirt to saunter in and present the newest revolution. Mankind has built itself on exponential progress, moving from zenith to zenith. From stone tools to bronze, iron, silicon... we harness and refine the materials around us to make our lives easier. Along the way we have created ourselves societies dependent on these luxuries, but the costs and implications are far reaching. Setting aside the obvious evolution of weaponry from clubs to swords, pole-arms, into siege weaponry, firearms, and missiles... setting aside even travel and medicine... the social dynamics of our world are fundamentally different with each passing generation, the progress going faster and faster as we speak. Our generation is one of communication. We are in the age of information. This has not come without a price however, and the ethics of what we are doing must be considered and weighed.
Fundamentally we are creatures of greed, more than those of altruism. This is said without cynicism or nihilism, but simply as a fact of biology. As a human being, you are an animal, meaning you are a system of self-replicating organic structures whose very instincts written into your genes urge you to seek survival. You seek the least healthy foods which have the highest content of fats and sugars that you process as tastier, you seek the least laborious jobs with the least chance of injury and the most pay to get more luxuries for yourself, you seek the most attractive mates who best appeal to your sexual urges and look fit enough to reproduce with, all because we are still only human. So, without malice or judgement, it can be said that we strive for a world of convenience, almost blind to the repercussions. To some, the end justifies the means.
Let us, however, step back and look at the world as it is today. Of recent news, what have been the biggest issues in technology and society? Privacy, Anonymity, Security, Big Data, Cookies... overall issues of the ethics of the modern technology we use and the society it has bred. We've had police brutality in Ferguson bring up the issue of making police officers wear cameras, we've had the NSA scandal bring to light issues of privacy from the government, we've had it revealed that Facebook experimented with our emotions by manipulating our news feeds... but all these are just the more blatant symptoms of a more fundamental issue that technology has been bringing us towards; we are giving up our rights to privacy for the sake of convenience.
Before Google was founded in 1998, do you think anyone could have envisioned a world where the answer to any question, or access to any form of media, would be just a random search away? Here we are, though, in 2014 with services like Google and Bing and a myriad of other lesser known search engines which are free, run entirely on the revenue generated by Ads. So heavily do these services rely on advertisers, that Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky Button" which shows you the top 10 results of your query without room for ads, costs the company $110 Million per year. What is the price for these "free" services though? Well, the ads of course, and the industry and mentality that has been built around targeting those ads at potential customers.
You are being tracked online. If that statement shocks you, you've been living in a fantasy for far too long now. Ignoring even mass data harvesting such as that done by the NSA, you're being followed every time you connect to the net. Whether it's by easily logging your IP address, or using cookies stored on your computer, or even by looking at the things you share and like and post- your activity online is monitored and recorded, and then is processed with algorithms designed to determine who you are. So let's start with the basics... If you look up "coffee mugs" on Amazon right now, you might suddenly notice that on YouTube you're seeing ads for Amazon coffee mugs you'd looked at. The next time you go to buy a product you might notice that it recommends other products you may enjoy. By just simply keeping track of what you're searching to purchase online, ads are targeted towards your personal interests. So advanced are these algorithms, and so much psychological research put behind them, Target was able to figure out a man's daughter was pregnant and target ads for baby supplies at her before even her father knew. Of course there's always the option to use software and extensions such as AdBlock and Peerblock to limit connections from these companies and make the internet clean of anything but desired content; but then you've broken the system and these free services are suddenly struggling to keep themselves afloat. You end up hurting the internet as a whole with a band-aid fix to a symptom of a changing society, damaging the stability of free services and denying money to content creators such as YouTube channels who make their money from ad revenue. Ok, fine, but now let's get creepy. Facebook can learn your face through tagging algorithms and start automatically picking you out in photos to provide the "convenience of automatic tagging", oh, and by the way, the new app has the functionality to listen to the audio around you as you're posting, you know, just to be able to help do useful things like tag music you're listening to when making status updates. Definitely nothing shady there.
Here's the thing though, are you really going to suddenly boycott Facebook and try moving to a new social media service? You could, sure you could, but will you? More importantly, if you did, would it do anything but delay the inevitable? Facebook has only been around 10 years, Twitter for just 8... and yet think about how engrained they are in our current society. If you suddenly ditched Facebook how would people get in contact with you? Text messages sure, but could you share photos and videos and keep up to date with their lives? Supposing you do make the leap of faith and rebuild your connections somewhere else, how long until this new site becomes so mainstream you have to jump ship again to keep at bay the corruption? How viable even is that? We've become so dependent on these networks that you're almost required to use them in order to remain a functional member of society. So the issue really isn't about individual corporations, but about drawing the line to define and protect our privacy. Whether by stubbornness, laziness, or ignorance, though, it seems we are just willingly giving up those rights. If you were to Google "Nude Photo Leak" right now (and yes, Google has become so mainstream in our culture that "to Google" has been accepted as a verb), you'd see page after page of articles on recent scandals involving celebrity photos being leaked online, with arguments ranging from technological ignorance, to victim blaming those involved for taking the pictures in the first place. That's where we stand. The internet has become such an open forum for the exchange of information that we aren't even agreed on the right to privacy of people who privately share personal photographs that then get stolen via the net.
There are of course those who want to change the face of the Internet. The government and internet service providers are constantly trying to pass legislation which will destroy Net Neutrality, Privacy, and Copyright protection. SOPA/PIPA and other such bills aimed at "defeating piracy" would give the government broad privileges to censor and destroy websites based on even the pretence of suspected data theft. Right now we enjoy an internet of relative equality and anonymity. The random start-up is getting the same treatment from ISP's as the multi-billion dollar corporations, allowing a free and open market... though of course companies like Verizon and Comcast would much prefer this balance be upset, using mob tactics and throttling their customers' connections to major web services such as Netflix in order to bully them into complying with their corporate wishes. MegaUpload fell victim to its users' content, taken down in 2012. This lead to the PirateBay, a website essentially dedicated to data theft and piracy, to moving from servers to the cloud in order to make itself "impossible to shut down". The implications are reflected even on the small scale though... because with government control over websites' content, they could censor individual users who speak out in undesirable ways.
Let us broaden the scope a little bit here. We've been focused on your presence on the internet. What about offline? Is there even such a thing? Most of us are essentially required to carry smartphones with us constantly to remain connected to our friends, family, employers, co-workers... and these devices have the ability to constantly track us with GPS and Wi-Fi location techniques. We're surrounded by cameras all the time, from CCTV, to people taking selfies, to tourists with their DSLRs, to even Google streetview and satellites, or the Kinect hooked up to your XBOX, or the camera in your laptop screen you don't think is ever on... even when you think you're disconnected you aren't. From this wealth of data personally given by those who thrive on checking in their locations, sharing photos, keeping their location services on, tagging friends who otherwise might not have given up their anonymity... anyone can find out almost anything they want to about you at any time.
It is because of things like this that the NSA has had a field day with easy data acquisition. By misleading their FISA court overseers, and abusing their incident reporting system to gain "incidental data" from citizens while targeting "legitimate foreign threats", and pressuring companies like Microsoft into giving up user's personal and private information, they were able to steal massive amounts of data. To be fair, in the case of most major tech companies, the websites don't even know or store your actual passwords, but rather encryptions that attempt to match your password entry after it is run through an algorithm. This doesn't prevent the NSA from hassling companies again for their encryption algorithms, though. Even without collaboration, the NSA could tap the data centres in between points of security for companies like Yahoo and Google to get what they wanted. Over the course of its lifetime the NSA was able to abuse the system to unconstitutionally spy on both citizens of the United States and foreign officials, which has lead many countries to respond with plans to make their own closed-loop intercontinental internet lines completely separate from the rest of the system, therefore theoretically untouchable by American agencies.
In response to the threats of such government agencies, hacktivism has been on the rise. Groups such as Anonymous have gained fame and infamy in the public eye for their influence over the world. They've shut down government sites on multiple occasions in response to power abuse. They've also been responsible for the shut down of dozens of child pornography rings over the last few years. With our world run on hardware and code, the programmers and whistle-blowers who can control it and understand it have power. In a world where privacy is a right we are throwing away, anonymity has become precious. These groups advocate the use of proxies, browsers such as TOR which shield you behind a network of relays, operating systems like TAILS which Snowden used, and just being smart about your personal information online. Though many may fear the power of hackers, afraid of their accounts being compromised, of personal information being stolen, or the black hats who want to watch the world burn, there are many white and grey hats out there being the change we need. Sites like Wikileaks have allowed us to see what they would rather us not see, and to know about atrocities that may have otherwise been swept under the rug. If the current course of technology means price of convenience is the dissolution of privacy, then we must have a response. For better or worse, we masquerade in our screenplay lives. We hide our emotions and struggles from one another. Even the most pure at heart of us have secrets we keep to ourselves. Whether we are just trying to maintain a public image of composure while we stress internally, or we try to avoid judgement and blame, or we otherwise try to be who we are not; our society is built on wearing many faces. The internet is both a blessing and a curse for this private anonymity. We can share our deepest thoughts and desires without the fear of personal scrutiny and judgement, because no one sees your face. For some this is liberating, for others this is an opportunity to do shameless damage without the limitations of social etiquette. The Anonymous response to the attacks on our rights to privacy have been to use the system against itself; to take control of the internet and use it as a weapon. To the technologically illiterate, this is terrifying witchcraft. The thought that someone could walk past you and steal your identity, or could scam you out of all your money is one of nightmare fuel.
These fears have become so mainstream that they are bleeding heavily into pop culture. Game's like Ubisoft's recent Watch_Dogs exemplify people's concerns with modern technology and hacker groups. The game's protagonist is a vigilante hacker with access to Chicago's infrastructure granted by software taken from the fantasy hacktivist organization DedSec. At the touch of a button he can blow power transformers, change traffic lights, jam calls, control gates and street bollards, raise bridges, control steam pipes' pressure to blow up the street... and though no city currently runs all of its infrastructure from a single centrally integrated system, the idea of a possible future in which this were attempted is not inconceivable and this power fantasy is one that many take seriously. In cinema, the Lego Movie had messages about government corruption and "sheeple" who go blindly with the flow and ignore the signs of deception and trouble in the world. Wall-E had Buy-N-Large, a corporation whose monopoly seemed to control the world; clearly just a science fiction cliché though, right? We depend on governments, despite our distrust in certain aspects of them like the NSA...
In many ways though, perhaps the sci-fi archetypical future of corporate control is not so far fetched. Would you trust your data to be taken by your government, stored and monitored like with the NSA? No, of course not. Would you willingly turn it over to a corp. either? No, of course not. Forced into the choice, though, many people would choose a non-government entity to protect their data. Entrusting your data to companies like Google, Apple, or Microsoft seems at least marginally more comfortable. Beyond that, as a consumer you have some say in what you agree with. You'll often hear the phrase "vote with your wallet" in reference to businesses. If you don't like, say, Chick-Fil-A being anti-gay you boycott them, you deny them your money and make them bend to your will. As a consumer, a company relies on your funding to survive. This gives you power. With government, however, you have no say with where your money goes. They take their taxes out of your pay-cheque, give themselves their salaries, and spend it as they like. You can't 'boycott the government'. If everyone stopped buying the iPhone tomorrow, Apple would scramble to clean up their act and figure out what the consumer wanted from them in order to keep afloat. On the other hand, if everyone stopped, say, voting, the government would continue to exist and dictate how you live your life. So in some ways, the idea of corporate government could be more just than the existing system. It all comes down to the dichotomy between theory and practice, and how much of our privacy and lives we are willing to sell in order to gain the convenience of new technology.
So what even is the point of this article? Just to state the obvious? Well, yes and no. It is so easy to fall into the fallacy of permanence. Try to imagine yourself in 10 years. You'll be pretty much the same person right? You've always been you. Except, if you were to look back a decade and filter through the nostalgia, I'm sure you'd regret some of the things you did, the music you liked or the clothes you wore... but, how could you regret if you are still the same person? The fact is, you're not. All throughout our lives, we are changing and growing into different people. As individuals and as a species we are constantly evolving. Just twenty years or thirty ago the idea of a society where people were connected to one another through machines almost more so than physical interaction would seem rather alien. Texting, Skyping, Facebook Messaging, Tweeting, Online Dating... foreign fantasies in the minds of science fiction dreamers. The world we are in now is new, and will be the basis of creating our future. It's so easy to take for granted how far we have come, and yet how far we still have to go. The legislation is outdated, and the progress is outpacing the system. We need to be aware of the future we are creating, and make sure it's one we are comfortable with. It's about being aware, staying connected, and understanding the consequences of our actions and our inactions.
My name is Jeffrey Hepburn, and I'm a young writer, graphic design artist, and aspiring filmmaker.