Evgeny Morozov on the threats of data surveillance

Evgeny Morozov, a valuable and constant critic of evovling capitalism, raises several questions about the fantasies spun by Silicon Valley in response to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the pervasive monitoring of life by the National Security Agency.

But the spying debate has quickly turned narrow and unbearably technical; issues such as the soundness of US foreign policy, the ambivalent future of digital capitalism, the relocation of power from Washington and Brussels to Silicon Valley have not received due attention. But it is not just the NSA that is broken: the way we do – and pay for – our communicating today is broken as well. And it is broken for political and economic reasons, not just legal and technological ones: too many governments, strapped for cash and low on infrastructural imagination, have surrendered their communications networks to technology companies a tad too soon.

The collapse of government management of throughput as a common good has been an enduring feature of the digital age, and one encouraged by the very people who now promise to lift all threats hovering over the monitored public, or “consumers.” When we became primarily consumers — users of goods, rather than citizens who, among other things, shopped — evolving economic opportunity passed to technologists who would rather treat their innovations as purely positive, even though technology always carries benefits and disadvantages in at least equal measure. Why should we trust anyone without demanding a thorough understanding of what they are doing to our lives, their motivations and the rewards?

But we’ve sold off our infrastructure and now we recognize implicitly — as anyone who has been paying attention for the past 20 years should have known — that the communication channel is owned by the operator. We should insist that the content of communication is not part and parcel of the channel that transmits it. We need to own our ideas and preferences.

Sometimes, I start to wonder if Snowden isn’t a plant or dupe himself, a convenient fool who unveiled much less than he thinks he did. The fact that he “escaped” to Russia of all places and now sends his missives, thoughtful though he may be, seems unlikely, improbable. When I first broke the news that the NSA had interfered with public cryptography standards back in the 1990s, the NSA made itself very clear, via direct communication and surveillance, including monitoring my home and work phone numbers — a government insider warned me explicitly about this — that it was displeased. But it also maintained, as it does today, that such interference was necessary, in that case because the National Institute of Standards and Technology wasn’t capable of putting cryptography into place without expert assistance from the NSA.

We’ve got plenty of experts vying for influence over our lives. Enough, even when we benefit from their participation. We should be debating more energetically than ever before the rationales and assumptions that are reshaping our polity into only an economy, in which personal power is apportioned by existing economic means other than the quality of our ideas in the natural competition among citizens for a voice in the process.

Quote: How questions yield value, even before they are answered

“In the case of supersymmetry, we still don’t know whether it is realized in nature, but the idea has become popular. The reason is that many of the issues that plague conventional quantum field theories are eliminated when supersymmetry is introduced. Supersymmetric theories are generally more elegant and easier to analyze.”

Edward Frenkel, Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality

This is an excellent book to think through the power of questions. Frenkel makes complex mathematical and physics problems clear and relatively easy to understand — there is no point in reading this or any book if you already have all the answers. Come prepared to think hard in order to learn, and through learning, to ask new questions.

Note: Being and Lottery

Have you ever read Badiou’s Being and Event? It’s an awful read and the idea of novelty is lionized to death, but his idea that “events,” moments of true novelty, are what propel us, is valuable. He simply doesn’t see that “events” are happening all the time across a spectrum of human live, instead of happening only occasionally and in a big way, like the advent of Maoism (which he rabidly endorses). Winning the lottery is an event, too – a novelty, and the outcome of an action that carries risk. It’s just the answer to the question “Did I guess the right numbers?” that provides some excitement in a stultifying world. Opiates, meet the masses, with tens of thousands of distractions disguised as events of note.

The value of playing the lottery is in the transition from not-knowing to knowing the outcome of a bet.

The stock market is another mechanism of monetary entertainment.

Note: Money in politics

Income inequality, which is a natural feature of an economy because people do contribute more or less on average than others, can be carried to an extreme that destroys the country in which it occurs. France, new Russia (which has only increased its economic disparities since its abandonment of the fictional equality of communism) and even the United States, where the Great Depression could have tilted the country into revolution, are historical examples.

The impact of money in politics diminishes the democracy, but not by amplifying some voices more than others. In an answers economy, money is tied to existing forms of production that money defends well past its useful life. The benefits to the few may justify the diminished democracy in the judgment of those few, but eventually everyone recognizes that the inefficiencies that result are destroying the economy from the inside out. At that point in the life of a democracy, the rascals get thrown out of office; in a country without democracy, the weapons come out — on both sides.

The availability of money in great volumes allows a fraction of society to adopt new strategies and tactics which are not available to the general population. Money can bankroll a candidate dedicated to destroying public decision-making for years past the time that, without the propaganda for the established order, would have resulted in that politician being tossed out by voters or, in several notable cases, by other legislators who are sickened by abuses.

The failure of moneyed parties, which includes the Tea Party and the Rands, both of which are convenient fools who money stands up as “rebellious” alternatives, to accept compromise is stark evidence of their being funded beyond the ability of the democracy to respond to misinformation. Compromise is the essence of governance, though great leaders can grow by knowing when to push for the unpopular option. But money, far greater than the popular rebellions stoked by great wealth, owns both political parties, as well.

It’s not that wealth is speaking more often or at a higher volume than advocates of change — of any degree, at this point in American history — but that the wealthy are playing a different game, one where the interests of great wealth (their interests) overwhelm all alternatives by stone-walling through bought-and-sold politicians. That requires very few politicians, and the remainder are branded by wealth as class warriors or with the humiliation of some other form of extremism or personal fault. The social mobility provided by capitalism, albeit in less and less generous doses, now provides much bigger paydays for succeeding in penetrating the veil of great wealth (the Bezos, Gates and Zuckerbergs, among others). These newcomers who provide the suggestion of potential change in wealth by introducing “new blood” and “new ideas,” are typically bound by their success to defend their solution above all others, even if all consumers are 90% indifferent to the solution but are marketed to heavily enough to accept the delta between what they want and what they get. Billionaires are made by creating new perspectives, but those highly charged transformations, of computing in the home or the friend networks of Facebook almost always retreat to defending their existing solutions instead of innovating more. We the people are force-fed answers that “worked in the past” from which we’ve “fallen” or contemporary answers that are modified just enough to retain customers. In the end, we are only offered an array of answers across the economic, social and political spectra while being forced to swallow appalling compromises with our needs.

A questions economy, which values new ideas and, by extension, more change in society, would not produce the same income inequality. It would be up to those who put the questions into action to ensure economic results reflect fairness. My writing this does not mean I believe I am not susceptible to doing what makes sense in our current economic system, preserving my advantage by systematically communicating the necessity for compromise with my customers’ needs. But if we live through a system that surfaces the beginnings of a change-driven social or economic progress, rather than today’s change-resistant system, the cost of holding things in place will be clearly recognizable to all participants.

Rough Draft: Volitional Efficacy

Let’s talk about free will. Without volitional efficacy, if we cannot make a decision which will influence future events to turn out differently than if the action had not happened at all, there is no point is pursuing change. Questions are neutered if they do not surface and increase the urgency of new ideas. They become answers, generally answers that invoke God, a divinity or some magical intervention which cannot be explained and must be accepted instead of providing empirical data. Many claiming to speak for Science (an absurdity on its face, since science cannot speak with one voice by definition) have taken up determinism as the cudgel of authority in arguments about free will.

I don’t accept that we do not have some influence over the future course of events. We are not consigned to a fate we cannot control. At least some of the time, we can choose our path, concentrate our resources to achieve a goal, and generally skirt the limits of fate.

Quote: Degrees of freedom as phase space

“However, we might choose to consider our laboratory as part of a far larger system, let us say the rest of the entire Milky Way galaxy within which we reside, where there are enormously many more degrees of freedom. By including all these degrees of freedom, we find that our phase space will now be enormously larger than before. Moreover, the coarse-graining region pertinent to our calculation of entropies within our laboratory will now also be enormously larger than before, because it can involve all the degrees of freedom present in the entire galaxy, not just those relevant to the contents of the laboratory.” — Roger Penrose, Cycles Of Time

Phase space is essentially the field of potential outcomes in an experiment. Very literally, science excludes most of reality in order to isolate phenomena. However, because phenomena take place in the universe, scientists often miss the actual explanation for, or causation of, events that are too large or small to measure. We do the same to ourselves when we imagine that, without recourse to the information provided by corporations and governments, we cannot decide for ourselves about a purchase, a law. Instead, our inquiries expand the phase space — the realm of potential — of the market, government and even science. People do science. People tell computers to science, they would not do science without the human impetus.

Quote: Philosophy can be a scout

“…philosophy can be a scout. It can be an explorer – mapping out intellectual terrain for science to later move in on….” — Scott Aaronson, Quantum Computing Since Democritus

What we fail to see is that questions, especially critical questions, are the fastest route to improvement. Pat answers only slow down the progress of humanity, which has to fight to overcome the dogmas of the past in order to move ahead. Philosophical inquiry begins revolutions. See Thomas Kuhn.

Quote: The future does not yet exist

“The future does not yet exist and is therefore open.” — Lee Smolin, in Time Reborn: The Crisis in Physics and the Future of the Universe

Despite what the hard determinists may say, and it is their confidence in prediction based on past experience that leads to so many “black swan” events, that the future is already fixed. Whether we find a way with the Answers Economy to project the level of demand for a specific product or simply succeed in asking the consumer what they want in detail, the impact on society will be positive.