« Traffic stop | Main

Purposeful dystopianism

Truman-Show-exist.pngA university comparative literature class on utopian fiction taught me this: all utopias are dystopias underneath. I was reminded of this at this week's Gikii, when someone noted the converse, that all dystopias contain within themselves the flaw that leads to their destruction. Of course, I also immediately thought of the bare patch on Smaug's chest in The Hobbit because at Gikii your law and technology come entangled with pop culture. (Write-ups of past years: 2018; 2016; 2014; 2013; 2008.)

Granted, as was pointed out to me, fictional utopias would have no dramatic conflict without dystopian underpinnings, just as dystopias would have none without their misfits plotting to overcome. But the context for this subdiscussion was the talk by Andres Guadamuz, which he began by locating "peak Cyber-utopianism" at 2006 to 2010, when Time magazine celebrated the power the Internet had brought each of us, Wikileaks was doing journalism, bitcoin was new, and social media appeared to have created the Arab Spring. "It looked like we could do anything." (Ah, youth.)

Since then, serially, every item on his list has disappointed. One startling statistic Guadamuz cited: streaming now creates more carbon emissions than airplanes. Streaming online video generates as much carbon dioxide per year as Belgium; bitcoin uses as much energy as Austria. By 2030, the Internet is projected to account for 20% of all energy consumption. Cue another memory, from 1995, when MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte was feted for predicting in Being Digital that wired and wireless would switch places: broadcasting would move to the Internet's series of tubes, and historically wired connections such as the telephone network would become mobile and wireless. Meanwhile, all physical forms of information would become bits. No one then queried the sense of doing this. This week, the lab Negroponte was running then is in trouble, too. This has deep repercussions beyond any one institution.

Twenty-five years ago, in Tainted Truth, journalist Cynthia Crossen documented the extent to which funders get the research results they want. Successive generations of research have backed this up. What the Media Lab story tells us is that they also get the research they want - not just, as in the cases of Big Oil and Big Tobacco, the *specific* conclusions they want promoted but the research ecosystem. We have often told the story of how the Internet's origins as a cooperative have been coopted into a highly centralized system with central points of failure, a process Guadamuz this week called "cybercolonialism". Yet in focusing on the drivers of the commercial world we have paid insufficient attention to those driving the academic underpinnings that have defined today's technological world.

To be fair, fretting over centralization was the most mundane topic this week: presentations skittered through cultural appropriation via intellectual property law (Michael Dunford, on Disney's use of Māui, a case study of moderation in a Facebook group that crosses RuPaul and Twin Peaks fandom (Carolina Are), and a taxonomy of lying and deception intended to help decode deepfakes of all types (Andrea Matwyshyn and Miranda Mowbray).

Especially, it is hard for a non-lawyer to do justice to the discussions of how and whether data protection rights persist after death, led by Edina Harbinja, Lilian Edwards, Michael Veale, and Jef Ausloos. You can't libel the dead, they explained, because under common law, personal actions die with the person: your obligation not to lie about someone dies when they do. This conflicts with information rights that persist as your digital ghost: privacy versus property, a reinvention of "body" and "soul". The Internet is *so many* dystopias.

Centralization captured so much of my attention because it is ongoing and threatening. One example is the impending rollout of DNS-over-HTTPS. We need better security for the Internet's infrastructure, but DoH further concentrates centralized control. In his presentation Derek MacAuley noted that individuals who need the kind of protection DoH is claimed to provide would do better to just use Tor. It, too, is not perfect, but it's here and it works. This adds one more to so many historical examples where improving the technology we had that worked would have spared us the level of control now exercised by the largest technology companies.

Centralization completely undermines the Internet's original purpose: to withstand a bomb outage. Mozilla and Google surely know this. The third DoH partner, Cloudflare, the content delivery network in the middle, certainly does: when it goes down, as it did for 15 minutes in July, millions of websites become unreachable. The only sensible response is to increase resilience with multiple pathways. Instead, we have Facebook proposing to further entrench its central role in many people's lives with its nascent Libra cryptocurrency. "Well, *I*'m not going to use it" isn't an adequate response when in some countries Facebook effectively *is* the Internet.

So where are the flaws in our present Internet dystopias? We've suggested before that advertising saturation may be one; the fakery that runs all the way through the advertising stack is probably another. Government takeovers and pervasive surveillance provide motivation to rebuild alternative pathways. The built-in lack of security is, as ever, a growing threat. But the biggest flaw built into the centralized Internet may be this: boredom.

Illustrations: The Truman Show.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)