The Opportunities and Risks of Open Sharing

There is an interesting exclusive from WIRED magazine recently that examines a unique international organization, Conflict Armament Research (CAR), that combs through the illicit weapons supply chain that keeps ISIS stocked with deadly weaponry.

There’s also a really interesting subtext of tension that’s present in the piece but not fully illuminated: the tension between how sharing information openly can be a wonderful thing for transparency, but also a dangerous thing in a world of 3D printing, in what is termed in the piece as “the industrial revolution of terrorism.”

Here’s the positive:

Leo Bradley, a retired US Army colonel who once led the fight against IEDs in Afghanistan, tells me that CAR serves as a useful, if perhaps accidental, back door for US officials to publicly discuss topics that are otherwise classified. “We can reference the CAR reports because they’re all open source, and they never reveal US sources and methods,” he says.

Here’s the flipside:

Joshua Pearce, an engineering professor at Michigan Tech University, is an expert in open source hardware (a protocol to create and improve physical objects—like open source code, but for stuff), and he describes ISIS manufacturing as “a very twisted maker culture.” In this future, weapons schematics can be downloaded from the dark web or simply shared via popular encrypted social media services, like WhatsApp. Those files can then be loaded into 3-D metal printers, machines that have become widely available in the past few years and cost as little as a million dollars to set up, to produce weapons with the push of the button.

In other words, freely accessible information and hardware is a double-edged sword. It is only now that we’ve begun to more accurately perceive the risks.

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Let 2018 Be the Year

A somber and sober New Year’s reflection on the increasing cynicism this last year of chaos and conformity has wrought.

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Like the rest of you who remain tethered to glowing screens, this year has left me feeling constantly frayed. And like many others, my view of the internet, with its once attendant optimism for the future, has grown increasingly cynical.

I’ve been busy, of course, but peeling away that inevitable excuse, there’s also this to point to for my reticence in writing.

To write, to really write, is to break momentarily free from all that has come before to forge a pathway into the heart of darkness. To rediscover and lay bare the ancient byways that were already there.

But really, we — I — should have known better. Nothing is ever truly proffered for free. Every time we log into a browser, tap into an app, and affix our gaze onto a screen, our every click and swipe and clack of a key is harvested and mined for every last life drop of data. As William S. Burroughs, a professional junkie who would know, once said:

Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. What they mean is that they want more money; much more.

It all seems so banal, at first. But what a Faustian bargain it is. We grow not only reliant upon these ephemeral feeds, but addicted. The declension from creator to consumer occurs so subtly that we can almost convince ourselves that we are still creative gods as we color in prescribed, personalized templates administered to us in a drip line from the inner algorithms of a Forbidden City.

Those who control the data, who can mine them for patterns that will narrow the probabilistic outcomes for any given successive moments of time, grow stronger with every reinvestment of attention that we bestow within their encircled domains.

Yet here I am, freely spilling my branded pixels forth onto this particular platform which will be willingly disseminated via instant post grams in the hope that it may gain a stranger’s fleeting approval. So I keep clicking, and feeding, and posturing.

I — we — must still hope for something redemptive. Some Neo love Jesus transmutation that will imbue the raw bestiality of humanity with some kind of higher purpose and meaning.

But I know, we know, you know

that the greatest of power and riches lies within.

However trite, this is a diamond truth forged by star song. So long as this is kept just beyond immediate attention, we fumble in bonds.

Let 2018 be the year in which you and I and we dig closer to the inner flame for longer periods of time for a greater amount of good.

Our everyday contingent on obscure factors

…we’ve invited technical standards bodies, national- and supranational-level regulators, and shadowy hackers into the innermost precincts of our lives. As a result, our ability to perform the everyday competently is now contingent on the widest range of obscure factors—things we’d simply never needed to worry about before, from the properties of the electromagnetic spectrum and our moment-to-moment ability to connect to the network to the stability of the software we’re using and the current state of corporate alignments.

A Sociology of the Smartphone on Longreads

Liking leads unto despair

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By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg) [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-new-more-rigorous-study-confirms-the-more-you-use-facebook-the-worse-you-feel

Everything Isn’t Always OK

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I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert as I cleaned the bathroom today (BTW, Klein’s podcasts are consistently worth listening to).

As they discussed the fragility of our life on this planet, I thought of a quote from a whisky tour in Scotland last summer that has stuck with me:

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.

(Pronounced in a heavy brogue, of course.) In other words, what is maybe not-so-pleasant but necessary gloom now will replenish our stocks and become, with time, refined and complex and to be savored much later.

Elizabeth Kolbert made the point that we live in the climate of the past, while altering the climate of the future, and that’s why this quote came back to me. Because there’s that flip side, too:

Today’s abnormally warm but kind-of-pleasant winter will become tomorrow’s drought.

In other words, at a more general level, everything may not always turn out OK.

We might not make it as a nation. We might not make it as a species. There might not be a technology or leader or alien lifeform or god that will save us.

The fact that we exist at all, on this particular planet, right here and now at this moment in time, is remarkable. (Read Sean Carrol’s superb From Eternity to Here for more on this). The happenstance cosmic circumstances and events and conditions that have come before us that enable us to now live are tenuous. We are lucky to be alive. Our existence, as a species, as an individual, is highly fragile, just as our planet’s current state is highly fragile.

There are moments in our lives when we suddenly see our extreme fragility through the lens of our own frail existence. Times such as when a friend or loved one dies, or when any other cherished relationship or job or possession is lost or close to being lost. When we have an accident. When we are sick or our health is compromised, whether due to circumstances beyond our control, or due to our own shortsighted decision-making. When we are expecting a child, and realize just how precious and influential every feeling, every nutrient, everything that we say and do has on our child to be.

Our lives are short and so very, very fragile. And only precious when we recognize them as such.

As my first love, Sade, croonsI cherish the day. I won’t go astray. I won’t be afraid.

We may not be able to have much influence over the cosmic and planetary changes under way, nor the brutal reactions of a nation’s mob. But we can channel our attention. We can savor the ones near to us. We can love every moment of our lives as closely and dearly and desperately and passionately as we can.

Even as our bodies or nation or earth may crumble.

 

The Cluetrain anti-Manifesto: People are Corporations

I have no idea who recommended The Cluetrain Manifesto, but it ended up on my Goodreads “want to read” list, and it arrived in my local library a few days ago. I honestly thought it was a fiction book from the title, something along the lines of The Monkey Wrench Gang, perhaps.

Turns out The Cluetrain Manifesto is a breathless paean to the Internet circa 2001, about how the internet will revolutionize business (though the version I’m reading has been updated with some sobered hedging by the authors ten years later).

The primary thesis of the authors is that markets are at heart conversations, and that businesses will either enable the freewheeling conversations empowered by the Net, or fight a losing battle for control.

I don’t want to wave away the advances that the internet has engendered, as I think it’s too easy to downplay, especially for you young whippersnappers who don’t even recall rotary phones. It really has been transformative. But from the vantage point of 2016, we can also see that the breathless prognosticating of the original Cluetrain hasn’t quite panned out. We’re seeing the once wide open, seemingly endless forests of internet anarchy, Grateful Dead-and-Phish-tape-trading freedom turn into gated communities as glossy, ad riven, and manipulative as the corporate fiefdoms of old.

So what went wrong? Why aren’t we living in an unmitigated bliss of genuine, heartfelt connection to one another across digital divides?

While markets have indeed become more about peer to peer sharing, people themselves have become more like corporations. 

Ever heard the term “personal brand”? That’s right – as individuals, we now carefully cultivate and craft our online personas, targeting our messaging, delivering elevator pitches to our friends, and twisting our faces and extending our arms to capture selfies at perfectly calibrated angles.

Successful businesses today support our social posturing, while gathering our data, as defined by every click, post, and geospatial movement. Successful online personas, such as Kim Kardashian, harness the hall of mirrors to their advantage.

In this manner, we market ourselves while allowing ourselves to be marketed. The damning thing about all of this is that the internet of yore – that wild, ecstatic beast – is still right here around us but we gild ourselves into gated, controlled, glossy realms like moths to bulb. 

Why? Because that’s where all the cool kids are.

Outside of the Cluetrain, I’ve been grappling with this lately in terms of my use of Facebook. I deeply appreciate how the platform enables me to interact and relate to others. I’m not always the most personable person in everyday life, and Facebook helps me to communicate different aspects of myself with people I wouldn’t otherwise.

But it’s also a gated community designed to keep me posting and clicking so it can stay in business.

This is the Faustian bargain we make. And if I assume some kind of radical stance on Facebook and delete my account or just stop using it (both of which I’m considering), well, I’ve also then got to justify why I am still actively using Google services, or Twitter, or Instagram, or …

… Or even why I am so tethered to a smartphone in the first place. Do I really need to be notified the minute I get an email? Do I really need GPS instead of a map? 

Are the things I’m actually spending my time on each day adding meaning to my existence?

Would I do more of the things I really want to do if I didn’t have addictive attachments to social media? Would my relationships with people around me be more positive?

I don’t know. But I do remember the internet of the early 90s, back when I would spend summer nights chatting to random strangers on IRC. And yes, even then, we vied for social status with any nerdy signifier we could lay claim to, whether it was our handle, our ASCII graphic skills, our quick wit with a keyboard, or our creative use of asides. Even without the like buttons and the notifications, we found ways to develop and curate our online personas.

The difference is that nobody was really watching, outside of the Cheers-like regulars we came to know at our regular watering holes.

There was a freedom to it, and a loneliness.

Do I still have the wherewithal for that kind of thing? I’m not sure.

But surely in a day and age in which wildernesses both virtual and real are ever diminishing, it’s worth escaping from the everyday mall of mirrors–even if only for a blog post B&B–and exploring.