Essays on Technology and Culture

Against Coveillence and Surveillance Alike

Over at Wired, Kevin Kelly is suggesting that we deal with surveillance, public and private alike, by giving in. And by spying back.

[O]ur central choice now is whether this surveillance is a secret, one-way panopticon — or a mutual, transparent kind of “coveillance” that involves watching the watchers. The first option is hell, the second redeemable.

Oh, if it were only that easy. And even if it was, it still wouldn't be worth doing.

It's not that easy because there's an imbalance of power between the spies, be they Facebook or the NSA, and us, the normal users. It's to the benefit of the spies that we not see the secret sauce that powers what they do. It's why social media companies bury the lead on what they do with and to our data in pages upon pages of legalese, designed to obfuscate their intentions. When was the last time you read Facebook's Terms of Service Agreement? With the NSA, you have the additional problem of trust. Namely, the government will trust them, before it trusts you. The NSA would happily operate in secret, transparency being a threat to national security.

Further complicating the mess is that the tools of surveillance are owned by the companies (and governments) that make it their business to spy on us. They won't open those tools up without a fight, unless you're an advertiser with a lot of money to spend. If there's one thing Facebook, Google, and the NSA have in common, it's not just that they want us to keep our mitts out of the gear they use to spy on us, but they have the same reason for doing so: to prevent competition.

Bruce Schneider was on top of this six years ago.

When your doctor says “take off your clothes,” it makes no sense for you to say, “You first, doc.” The two of you are not engaging in an interaction of equals.

It's perhaps true that, should we be able to overcome the Himalayan institutional obstacles preventing “coveillence” we would be a society of equals. That still doesn't mean it's a society we would want to live in. A good parallel is the Cold War, and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction from matched stockpiles of nuclear missiles. Neither side dared make the first move, knowing that retaliation would be swift and deadly.

There are so many reasons to keep a secret. It's easy when you're a wealthy, white, heterosexual male to be willing to expose yourself. Not everyone has that luxury. I think back to Mike Monteiro's “How Designers Destroyed the World” talk, and the way Facebook's design exposed a woman's sexuality to her parents, destroying her relationship with them. It was a relationship predicated on hiding an aspect of her self that she knew her parents would react against. Maybe she planned to come out, in time, but it was not Facebook's job to reveal it for her before she was ready.

And we all have skeletons in our closets that we don't want to share. Because we don't know how people will react, and because we do. Part of where Kevin Kelly's argument falls apart—moreso—is when he tries to bring anthropology into it.

“For eons humans have lived in tribes and clans where every act was open and visible and there were no secrets. We evolved with constant co-monitoring. Contrary to our modern suspicions, there wouldn’t be a backlash against a circular world where we constantly spy on each other because we lived like this for a million years…”

I call bullshit.

And that call of bullshit is backed up by the narcissism of small differences. We see it everywhere, from the snark between Apple and Android fanboys, to the conflict in Ferguson, Missouri, to the Sunni/Shiite divide in Iraq. In small, tightly knit groups, deviance from the norm is a threat to group cohesion. In large groups, like cities, we get privacy, and the ability to fork new groups with our own norms and mores. The Internet is the biggest city, and every group on it behaves differently.

And those groups can be just as insular and unempathetic as the early tribes Kevin Kelly so romanticizes. When Kelly says “We’ve broadened our circle of empathy, from clan to race, race to species, and soon beyond that,” he's being naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. There's enough evidence to show that the Internet is making us less empathetic to people who aren't like us. At the very least, it's just given us new avenues to express that lack of empathy.

The imbalance of power that creates the surveillance state comes the dichotomy of the public and private self that is a defining characteristic of humanity. We are not open, or closed. There are a million subtle positions between sharing everything and sharing nothing. We share more of ourselves with our spouses than our friends, more with our friends than our co-workers, more with co-workers than our barista. Some things we keep to ourselves alone.

100% transparent or 100% opaque is a new development, a function pulled as much from the binary nature of computers as it does from technology teams who either don't care, or are paid not to care, about the degrees between those extremes. Instead of bending ourselves to the on or off, open or closed nature of our technology, we should bend the technology to be more like us.

There's an air of defeatism, too, in Kelly's argument. We are too far along, it says, on the road to the panopticon. Let's just go all the way, and make sure we have cameras to turn back on our observers. I reject the premise. None of this is written in stone. We made the technologies, we made the governments and corporations that spy on us. We can remake them as well. We are not, we are never, too late.

Always On

Though I've been away from social media, more or less, it's hard to stop thinking in a social sharing mindset. I still think in remarks of 140 characters or less. When I see something interesting, the thought is to snap a picture and post to Instagram. Instead, I snap a picture and add it to my journal in Day One at the end of the day. I can't be the only one.

There's enough worry about passive social media consumers, wallowing in what Michael Lopp described as “other people's moments.” He's not wrong, either. However, without people sharing their own moments, those passive consumers of moments would find something else. What is it that motivates us to share so many of our moments for strangers?

Part of it is our nature as social animals. That can't be denied. Something about access to an audience, however, makes so many of us willing to take photos of our dinners, take six second videos at concerts, or just post whatever comes to our mind at any moment. To quote my friend Jonathan Pfeffer, “The Internet is a void.” If so, something must fill it.

What does being always on for our audience, however large or small, do to us? How does it change our relationship to the world, and to each other? If all of our moments are grist for the mill of social media, if we live our lives constantly sharing our experiences—or at least the subset of those we think will be best received—it can distort the very idea of what our lives mean. There's no room for a rich, internal life in a world where even minor matters are shared.

That's not to say that the internal life is gone forever. We're all still adapting to the potential to be always on. The possibility exists that we will push back, as a culture, against the stress of being always on. We'll find the balance. However, it's to the benefit of Facebook, Twitter, et al, that we feed the beast with our thoughts, photos, and links. It's to their benefit that we Like, Favorite, Share, and Retweet, so they know more about us and what we like. They won't give up without a fight.

A Different Future of Our Home Screens

Over at The Verge, Joe Alicata is bemoaning the state of our home screens.

“Home screens come in many flavors. We have semi-customizable experiences from cable TV providers, and the more modern over-the-top streaming content boxes like Roku. The problem with both is the focus on the “app” rather than on the content. When I land on my Apple TV home screen, it’s mostly a grid of apps — there are precious few clues as to what I should actually watch. The interface certainly lacks any notion of what I might want to consume based on previous patterns.”

The idea of a content focused home screen isn’t new with Joe. Amazon’s Kindle Fire devices provide a carousel of recent media and apps, though they don’t make suggestions as to what you might want to look at today. It’s an idea that makes sense on a dedicated content consumption device like a TV, or set-top box. Even on a more general device, be it smartphone, tablet, or computer, it should be easier than it is to view content somewhere else. “If I get a notification that a new piece of content is available and it happens to be a video, it should be easy to push that to my TV without launching the app and finding the funny-looking icon to cast it to my TV. If the TV is already on, shouldn’t it just show up as an option to watch?” I don’t own a TV, but it would be super useful to shoot a link from my iPhone or iPad to my MacBook, connected to a big display, if I want to watch some video content. Handoff in Yosemite and iOS 8 doesn’t do this, at least not yet.

Where it falls down is the idea that “[t]he home screen of the future needs to lead with content…” as a generalization. As I said earlier, this makes perfect sense for a content-consumption device. However, the idea of this kind of interface on a phone gives me the willies. I don’t need my phone buzzing me to check out this cool video a Twitter friend posted, or throwing suggestions out willy-nilly. Even on my iPad, I’d rather it give me the option to consume, or to create. The grid of icons with strange names does make it harder to find what we want or need, but it’s the best balance for devices that serve for consumption and creation tools. For now.

What would be more useful, on a smartphone in particular, is a home screen that adapts to a user based on context. If I’m at home, show me the apps and widgets that are about the things I do at home. For many people, that’s probably about media consumption, so that would be about stuff to control music, video, books, etc. Out and about, the home screen can focus on those apps and services we use while on the go: local search, transit directions, ways to keep in touch with friends. At the office, it’s all productivity and communication.

The technology is there to make a lot of this contextual stuff happen, and it’s less fuzzy than recommendation algorithms. Content consumption is a big part of what we use our gear for, but far from the only thing. Our most personal devices become far more useful, and far more personal, when they adapt to our needs and wants. Getting “relevant content” is nice. Doing relevant tasks, including consuming content, is better.

Let’s move this forward instead.

Keeping Score

In The Circle, the titular company is huge on quantification. This is best illustrated by the project to count the grains of sand in the Sahara, simply because they can. Mae, the protagonist, is tracked relentlessly, her ranking in the company calculated by scores from customers, her activity on social media, the amount of product she moves on recommendation, and even how much she interacts with people on campus. Like the best dystopian science fiction, it’s not a huge leap to The Circle levels of quantification from what we have now. Our scores are self-reinforced for the most part: follower counts, retweets, favorites and likes—but also the numbers in our bank accounts and on our pay stubs. This goes way beyond just wearing a FitBit.

The risk we take when we try to keep score and compete on numbers with anything in our lives is losing perspective. It’s so easy to focus on relentless improvement and quantification in some area that something else falls by the wayside. If we’re focusing on improving our standing at work, it can be detrimental to our relationships at home or our physical fitness. If we focus too much on the surface indicators of physical health, it can be detrimental to our mental health. Concentrate on juicing our follower counts and Klout scores, and it can damage our work and personal lives, too. And to say nothing of the mental stress.

I’m guilty of this as much as anyone. A couple high-profile links to this site this month have spiked my stats to ridiculous levels that I’ve never seen in my entire history of blogging. I want to keep that up, and even in the back of my head, I know I can’t expect to have 1000 page views per day, every day, I look at the numbers, and see the drop off, and disappointment sets in. “I’m doing my best work, aren’t I? Where is the love, the social shares, the invitation to join The Deck or Fusion Ads?” But I’m the only one keeping score here. I have to recalibrate my expectations, and my determine that my worth isn’t based on any number of other people. Yes, it feels great when the numbers all match what I want to feel, but if they don’t, it doesn’t reflect badly on me.

Myke Hurley and Casey Liss talked a bit about this on their new podcast, Analog(ue), and it echoes Myke’s sentiments in a guest post for 512 Pixels he wrote about a year ago. Namely: “Audience Quality > Audience Quantity.” It’s harder to put a number value on the quality of the people I’m reaching—hell, it’s almost impossible. I’m just glad I’m reaching some, and have the opportunity to talk to them, and bounce ideas around, and communicate. I don’t want to put a number on that. Doing so makes it less valuable.

Social Media Sabbatical – A Two Week Update

It’s been two weeks since I uninstalled Twitter from my phone, deactivated my Facebook account, and turned off almost all the social media feeds I spend far too much time on. In just this short amount of time, it’s already been far more effective than my previous attempt. I’ve finished reading several books, in print and on my Kindle, done plenty of writing, and settling into the domestic routine of life in a new apartment with my partner. Not having the streams to distract me has helped me focus. I can think more in long-form, instead of 140-character chunks. After dropping a huge Tweetstorm, it’s harder to re-channel those thoughts into a longer piece.

Before typing this up, I finished reading Dave Eggers’s latest novel, The Circle. It’s a science-fiction satire about a technology company that’s Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon all rolled into one, The main character, Mae, works at the titular company as a Customer Experience agent, and as part of her job, starts to live in the omnipresent hyper-streams of the future network. As one character describes what happens to Mae:

“…[A]ll this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky.”

Again, this is satire, and the character who drops that quote is pretty much a Captain Obvious Aesop, but there’s a kernel of truth to the quote. It’s one thing to keep in touch, it’s another thing to just spew your brainfarts into the stream with no sense of why. Why do we do it? We want to be liked, fav’d, retweeted… we want to be loved. And it’s done in the form of, as said Aesop describes as “snack food.” I’m sure you all read Mat Honan’s excellent essay about what happened when he liked everything he saw on Facebook for two days. You should also read Elan Morgan’s piece about what happened when he stopped liking things on Facebook, and Anil Dash’s essay on “The Semiotics of Like”. This isn’t even a new thing: Fish: A Tap Essay asked similar questions, over two years ago.

Reading The Circle and those above linked essays has me thinking a lot about what I’m going to do when my sabbatical ends, as it must, and I go back into the streams. I have to think about my relationship with the people on these services, as well as my relationship with the service itself. What data I surrender, where I choose to view and post into my streams, what I post, and what I allow to bug me. I’ll have more detailed thoughts closer to the end of my sabbatical, largely around Facebook, which is the worst offender in abusing my data, and the biggest of my social timesinks according to RescueTime. The only thing that’s allowed me to take action, however, stepping back and cutting everything off, allowing everything to come to a balance, and adjusting accordingly.

When you live in the streams and get lost in other people’s moments, it’s easy to lose perspective of who you are—your dreams, your ideas, your relationships. They all get subsumed in the long stream of data that washes over you every time you launch an app. Regaining perspective has been the greatest benefit of this sabbatical. I don’t want to lose it all when I go back. If I can’t go back with a sense of mindfulness, awareness, and perspective about the role these services play in my life, I may as well just cut them out together. I don’t want to be the anti-social media extremist, nor do I want to drown in the stream. There’s a middle ground to find.