So, did you see this?
Ideological tech companies whose visionary founders were raised on a diet of SF cautionary tales and shabby reading comprehension skills are conspiring, Bloggers, to make me sound like a conspiracy nut about half the time I open my mouth. But from a camera that is always there, to a camera that is always on…
…Is quite a serious change, and so I’m forced to get quite serious about it. And I guess the first thing I really should say, just as preamble to the seriousness, is:
Forgive me, Joss Whedon. You were right, and I was wrong: Dollhouse was a really good show. Oh, not when it aired! But now the world has caught all the way up to it, you have been proved prescient indeed: right about the whorehouse and right about the phones and right about all the rest of it, and therefore not just a guy with an excellent, some would say “white-knuckled”, grasp on the fundamentals of screenwriting who enjoys putting pretty actresses in danger and lopping off the heads of fan-favourite characters, but a true and fully-fledged SF writer in the old classic style! A man of ideas!
Sir, I salute you!
But man, I wish I didn’t have to. You know? Hell, I bet you wish that too.
Man, does it ever suck to be us.
So here’s a little story, Bloggers, about the greatest land general in all of human history, the one-and-only Impossible Man, who could never be beaten…and how he was defeated anyway, despite that. Hey, write this one down in the book of boxing, I’m telling you! Because Hannibal simply conquered the hell out of everyplace he went, was a single man fit to go toe-to-toe with entire nations and whip them decisively — Hannibal could have conquered Spain if he’d wanted to, for heaven’s sake! — but he couldn’t conquer Rome, because Rome wasn’t a country so much as it was a machine. A soldiery machine, wherein children were given spears to play with instead of toys! Where if anyone was coming down your chimney, it must’ve been the Great God Mars! Like Disney movies, every seven years Rome cycled out one army and cycled in another, and sent them against Hannibal, and they died…but the new audiences just kept coming up, and up, and up, and eventually Hannibal was simply outlasted by them. “But most of all, the paymaster/ Loved to hear John Henry’s hammer ring, Lord Lord!” Loved to hear John Henry’s hammer ring, but in the end King Steam always wins, doesn’t he, and that was always the secret of Rome’s success: not organization per se, but the astonishing fecundity that organization — even fairly lousy organization, before Augustus — could put to use. In today’s TED-talk terms, they were just so awfully good at monetizing, you see; they just monetized and monetized all the live-long day, and Hannibal could crush armies and smash nations right enough, but he just couldn’t beat all those people! All those families, all that cottage industry turning out all those guys with gladii, all that decentralized military-agricultural activity, all that sheer bacterial growth! To stop it, he would’ve had to stoop from slaughtering armies to just plain killing people, killing them wherever he found them, finding all of them and killing each of them…and far be it from me to speculate on the reasons why, but since this was something he didn’t do then this (they all tell me) was the reason he lost. Or, more accurately: the reason he had to lose, having not done anything to neutralize Rome’s ability to put their breeding program on a war footing. He might still have won, if he’d obliterated the City itself — mastering its civil government as he mastered its military forces, he could’ve taken its ability to organize away from it, but I guess that just wasn’t how they used to operate in the old days. I don’t know; I am still reading about Hannibal, and Rome in general, and I don’t know a tenth of a hundredth of nothing about the subject — hey, I am pretty good on Augustus, though! — so I don’t know how to judge what Hannibal did wrong, but what Rome did right answers readily enough to some good ol’ textual analysis…because Rome, that first of modern countries, just plain outproduced Hannibal, didn’t they?
Today, Google must be hoping for a similar success. They just keep on pushing on that ownership/privacy envelope, don’t they? But they didn’t win against the courts when it came to publishing rights, and it’s hard for me to see how they can win against them in the nightmare scenario of privacy violation described by the link up above, and Google is very good at making money and drafting in a user-base…but are they as good at that, as Rome was at having little soldier-babies? A court ruling can do what Hannibal couldn’t: it can find everyone and require compliance from each person it finds. It can go door-to-door if it has to. It can — if necessary — cause Google Glass to vanish from the face of the Earth, and all its accumulated data, too. It can sack the City of Google and dismantle its entire system of organization, if it comes to that.
Though in my judgement it probably won’t come to that, but what it will certainly come to is a very large matter of money that surely — you’ve got to think! — Google stands to lose, because let me tell you in my country we are not going to be very forgiving about an American company absorbing ever-vaster stores of data on us, that are then made easily, even trivially available to an ever-more secretive and sinister U.S. federal government…and, I daresay we ain’t alone in that “not-forgiving” sentiment, and furthermore since the U.S. Trade Department is an indefatigable protector of America’s number one cultural export — “hardball”, if you’re wondering — it isn’t like we’re going to be able to ban Google Glass, so…
I foresee a lot of time spent in all kinds of different courtrooms, for Google: paying top dollar to lose, and you’ve got to think that the matter of rectification is not going to be a small or inexpensive one. Not that Google cares, about any of that. Google simply doesn’t care! Google wants to write new law, as though software engineers were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and everybody’s in the syndicate so everybody has a share.
Stinkin’ utopians, am I right?
They’ll bury us all, if they get their way…
But fortunately it really does not look to me as if they will get it. What will happen to Google, when they finally overreach? They are overreaching right now, all around you, so it’s a good time to consider the matter of that fallout…can they survive the catastrophic collapse, that the successful pursuit of Google Glass seems to me to make inevitable? In all these books they misapprehend the meaning of, the forces of repression go down the same way, because their mistakes are already sown in the ground in the moment they begin to succeed…they simply don’t see it coming, because they simply won’t, but if you questioned them under hypnosis they’d probably allow as how they always knew, and indeed they had to know because it was the exact bargain that they made, and the rest was always all just bullshit. Can Google survive its own success?
You have to think that they’re not really, so to speak, planning on it. Which means “no”. So.
I wrote a story like this myself, once. Actually it was a TV show: nine scripts about the Canadian experience writ large across the stars, a Galactic Empire story with rebels and dictators and alien invaders and the whole box o’ wax, but because it was about Canada it was also (necessarily) about trade relations with the United States, and so I had to find a science-fictional device for representing the character of those relations. And, hey, I might’ve just as well called the device “Google Glass”, you know? Because it pretty much worked the same way! So maybe I am already one up on Google, because I’ve already imagined what their encounter with the wheel of fortune will end up looking like…not that I would’ve had to write anything about it to get that way, since I could’ve just read any old SF story of about the last seventy years or so that in any way treated on Galactic Empires, from Isaac Asimov to Iain M. Banks, but as it happens I did write something about it, and what I wrote described (because it was Canadian) how to deal with cultural and economic products you don’t want, when you can’t use tariffs or quotas to keep them out…
…And as it turns out, the method’s rather effective, but I won’t spoil it for you now, since I’m sure you’re going to see it all around you before too much more time passes. Behind Google stands America, with its unparalleled military might, but as someone pointed out on the Internet so long ago that I don’t even remember who it was, despite America’s massive military apparatus it’s no empire of the sword as Rome was…rather it’s an empire of the robe, an empire of trade, and the sword is there primarily to back up the robe’s access to markets. By which I mean, it is not the sword that expands the hegemony, and it isn’t the robe that flows in afterwards! But the robe itself is the instrument of hegemonic expansion…
And thus, even though behind Google stands America, Google is still vulnerable because, well, it’s standing in front. In a way, it’s a minor miracle they’ve lasted as long as they have, even though they’ve sure had a lot of help — well, but they sure needed it, too, because they’re much more a threat to American national security than Wikileaks is: all Wikileaks does is reveal secrets, after all, where Google changes the whole map of information, secrets and non-secrets alike. It’s actually a pretty destabilizing kind of project they’ve got going! The one-to-one map; the world knowledge depository. Everything, everywhere. Wars — many wars — have been fought over much less, you know? And even Apple can’t touch the nastiness of Google Glass — Apple only surveils you, but Google Glass makes you the surveiller of everybody else…!
And Hannibal, having learned his lesson, would perhaps see it: if you can’t actually keep up production, then you can’t overproduce anybody out of kicking your ass for you…even, and maybe even especially, if this has always totally worked for you in the past. So to me, the basic rundown is like this: roughly speaking, the more people there are who are doing something of value online in an unremunerated way, the more money all the various new-style tech companies make…the more blog-posts, the more tweets, the more useless-in-practice Yelp! reviews, the more likes and faves and uploads and downloads and links and clicks and God only knows what will be next, but the more everything that gets done the more little green George Washington soldiers you can raise on those informational acres. And it makes me wonder sometimes: is this really the entire key to a successful business, now? I mean, forget the talk about goods and services and retail mark-ups, is it not really that any given business is an equation of inputs with outputs, and only whatever you get to take in without cost at the front end, comes out the other as profit? Exxon likes oil because it doesn’t have to make it, it just has to get it…if it had to make it as well as get it, it would go do something else. Pave a rainforest, possibly. Whatever’s cheap, which is to say: whatever’s at least partly free.
So throw out your John Locke: the value isn’t in the labour that turns an empty field into a farm, the value’s in the fact that empty fields exist to be claimed as property by the addition of labour to them! And the less stuff that’s already owned by somebody else, the more potential profit there is in the world, and vice versa. Polonyi said it better than I can, but what the hell: market fundamentalism is useless utopianianism, because once you drop the hammer on the ground its potential energy is used-up. Resources are finite, and not everything under the sun can be rightly thought of as a commodity. People, for example, are not commodities: we can always make more, but we can always run out too, and anyway we cannot make there be more people than there actually are, at any given time. Which is, parenthetically, why we need decent social services provided by government, because without them a rise in unemployment equates to a die-back, and the cost of people goes up, and you can never get it back down. You know, once I had a class in school where the question was raised: how come when inflation started to hit the feudal lordlings of Europe (around the end of the 15th century, when more “free stuff” was found), they didn’t modernize? Why didn’t they build more aqueducts, more windmills? The answer that was given was one that still interests me today:
“Because the peasants wouldn’t build them.”
Well, for one thing they didn’t really have time, did they? But for another, it was simply not a thing they could be compelled to do. The feudal bargain, rather obviously unforgiving on the peasants themselves, proved also in rarer cases to be equally as unforgiving when it came to those who were intended to benefit from it. When it came to war, for example, it was the aristocratic class that had the duty to fight: the peasantry was what was being fought over, as attributes of the contested land. And, when it came to operating in a money economy (which is what you have, if anyone in your economy happens to be using money), it was the aristocratic class that was thrown into dire straits, while the “attributes of the land” continued to think exclusively about non-financial, non-virtual, “weather”.
We may have something much the same going on, these days: as I think I mentioned just a little while ago, we have a thing today — a most curious and remarkable thing! — called “neo-feudalism” (I know, I was shocked too), in which tech companies fight one another over profits proceeding from the unpaid work done by you and me, the “attributes of the Internet”. And doesn’t it also seem, these days, as though a good deal more than half of all the products and services out there are meant not so much to be useful things in themselves, but merely delivery systems, vehicles for Terms And Conditions? As though the real point of every new product is to provide yet another way to entangle its users legally with the interests of a large corporation?
“Facebook, n., a way to teach children how to click on buttons marked ‘I Agree’.”
Tied to the land, tied to the land and fought over, that’s what we are…but if neo-feudalism deserves its name, perhaps it is as doomed as its predecessor, and for the same reasons. I fancy I can see a certain circling of the wagons, myself, among the tech companies: some sort of inflation threatens, and they are desperately trying to avoid being tagged by it. What if “user-generated content” stops being free?
What if people stop using Facebook and Twitter?
What if the blogs go West?
Me, I’m hoping that this is exactly what’s going to happen. Again as I’ve said before, so much of the written web is run on a sort of loose adapatation of the publishing model, where opportunities for payment are scarce and competition for them is fierce…and quality is secondary…and it doesn’t actually have to be that way. Another loose adaptation of something else, the ubiquitous Terms And Conditions, don’t have to be the way they are, either. It’s a big Internet out there, after all…plenty of places to hide from Big Social…
And Big Data doesn’t necessarily have it any easier. You know I turned down a store card the other day, not for my usual reason of “fuck you” but instead because I suddenly couldn’t believe how much information they wanted, for their piddly discounts? My name, for heaven’s sake! Now what on earth do they think they need that for, and what makes them think they can get it so damn cheap? My address, good God! For what, for 20% off a box of Corn Flakes? “Store,” I thought, “you’re gonna have to do a lot better than that…”
Goodness gracious, I mean just the anonymized buying-habits stuff, that’s not enough for them! Ludicrous…
So it made me think, too, about what Google wants: which is EVERYTHING, right? They want everything. Their project is a Babel Tower, and it will never be finished…
Unless, that is: it is finished, by dint of nobody wanting to work on building it anymore.
But…will the end come soon enough? In a post-Enron, post-Goldman Sachs world, it isn’t like there’s much doubt anymore that the fondest wish of a large commercial enterprise is usually to short the stock of the society it lives in, and if the tech companies really are getting nervous then we might expect them to behave in increasingly aggressive ways: trying to get more unmonetized information, and more, and more, faster and faster to beat the closing bell. Remember what I said about the gross misapprehension of science fiction?
You know that movie from the Eighties and Nineties, about the dastardly computer company CEO’s Trojan Horse?
The one they just kept making and making?
Well, this is that movie; except it won’t do any good to Get The Disk To The Congressman or whatever…it won’t do any good to tell the New York Times…because the NYT already knows all about it, and the congressman’s on the payroll. About twenty years into the mass-market explosion of the World Wide Web no one really knows anything yet, except that if they were well-served by Phase Two (the bit where they figured out how to get their money) they’d rather not gamble on Phase Three (the bit where they might lose it), and so it’s the time of ring-fencing and end-running and the hearty Welcome To The Dollhouse, where of course you may check out any time you like. To go back to my oft-ridden hobby-horse about science fiction’s ironical indications (and, no foolin': more on that soon), the Evil CEO’s Master Plan was never really about someone taking over, taking secret control of the universe with back-door access to all the power-plants and air-traffic control systems. Why, after all, would someone who’s a billionaire already need such a power? If everything’s going fine…
But, aha…what if everything’s not going fine?
We might consider what the threat actually is, in That Eighties And Nineties Movie About Computers. What will happen in that fictional world, if the bad guy wins? That it’s never stated is no accident: the bad guy may make some noises about an end to war and poverty, but he’s the bad guy, so it’s just noise. Often we get the hero saying something like “it’s too much power for one person to have”, but if the power’s never really used then what really can be the threat?
Well, just flip it over, folks…
…Because the nature of the threat is that the power will never be used!
Because when one person has it, then nobody else can do anything with it. That’s the slightly more antique pattern that the Eighties And Nineties Movie is really following, you see: the evil developer makes the music school into the condominium, and Old Man Potter gets hold of the Savings & Loan. Computers really have nothing to do with it; that’s why that old movie’s so ridiculous. It’s just about Big Business vs. the Commons.
Which is not quite like this movie here: where privacy, not power, is the thing at issue, so it isn’t the commons that’s under threat…!
But instead, naturally, it’s the individual. “Dude, I’m not gonna sit with you while you’re wearing those fucking Borg-glasses“, is what I plan to say to anyone I may meet who’s wearing them, and I invite you to do the same…because it’s all just too much power for no one to have, you know? Which, huh, if you think about it…
…Is a complaint that goes all the way back to the Romans.
And we all know what happened to them.