Both this blog post and the next will treat books I read in December and over Christmas that (loosely) concern current and past ideas/visions about the information society. I regularly write about books that I have read on the blog and here is the previous blog post. The asterisks below represent the number of quotes from the book (further below).
*********** I know Baki Cakici, he has been a guest lecture at a course of mine (twice) and he personally and publicly handed over a copy of his ph.d. thesis last time he visited my course. I have also written two fictional abstracts with visions of future information societies together with him. Baki's thesis is called "The informed gaze: On the implications of ICT-based surveillance" (2013). His interests lies in the intersection of ICT on the one hand and surveillance on the other hand and he has, in his ph.d. thesis, applied this to two specific areas; health care and sustainability. I would furthermore place his thesis in the intersection between ICT and sociology and more specifically in the field of "surveillance studies" (many of his key references come from the journal "Surveillance & Society"). My interest is of course primarily in the latter, e.g. what are the tensions and possible problems that arise when we try to design systems that will "help" us save resources (for example electricity in our homes) through collecting a lot of data about our behaviours - data that has the possibility of saying a lot more than we expect and that can be used in ways that we may not agree with?
Baki has a computer science background and started his career by, so to speak, working on the systems he later came to ponder and criticise. As part of his thesis and as a way of explaining his interest in the area, he does not shy away from reflecting of his personal experiences of being entangled in invisible networks that sort him out when he tries to cross different (European) borders. On the one hand a researchers who is encouraged to go to scientific conferences abroad but on the other hand a Turkish citizen who has very different experiences of moving around in Europe and of regularly filling out forms to be able to stay in Sweden for another year. The abstract of the thesis says:
"Information and communication technologies are not value-netural. I examine two domains, public health surveillance and sustainability, in five papers ... My contributions include three empirical studies of surveillance discourses where I identify the forms of action that are privileged and the values that are embedded into them. In these discourses, the presence of ICT entails increased surveillance, privileging technological expertise, and prioritising centralised forms of knowledge."
****** I read Jacques Vallée's book "Det osynliga nätet: En dataexperts bekännelser" [The network revolution: Confessions of a computer scientist] (1988/1982) more than a decade ago and decided to re-read it to get a feeling for what a computer scientist back in the days worried about in regards to the future information society. This book was written more than 30 years ago and is based on the author's personal experiences (and worries) after having worked in research and in industry for more than 20 years. Vallée mentions that he started to work with IBM's first commercial computers in 1960 and that he has worked with several generations of IBM's flagship computers since then both in France and in the US. Having worked with computers (and computer scientists and programmers), he shares some of his insights about the possibilities and limitations of computers as well as the (at times very arrogant) culture around computers.
The book starts with a short story about a tragic accident. A gas station attendant calls the police with a tip about a suspicious-looking car. The police stops the stolen car but something goes wrong and driver is shot through the windshield by an overexcited policeman. It turns out the car was reported stolen three years earlier, but it turned up only ten days later. That piece of information was unfortunately missing in the police's computer systems... This cautionary tales as well as many other stories about the limitations of databases and computer systems as well as the folly of placing too much faith in them are mixed with cautionary scenarios and stories based on the author's personal experiences. It makes for some nice reading and gives a interesting historical perspective but the book definitely feels aged. It's an easy read but it's hard to recommend it unless you for some reason are looking for a "historical perspective" on computers and computing (machine translation, cybernetics, AI, the 1970's counterculture, privacy, computer-mediated communication, databases, computer networks (the Internet) etc.).
I notice that Vallée is still around - he's apparently a successful venture capitalist in San Fransisco since 25 years (homepage). Less promising is the number of books we has written about UFOs with (sub)titles like "From folklore to flying saucers", "Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times", "UFO Contacts and Cults" and "What a Group of Scientists Has Discovered about UFO Influence on the Human Race". Two interesting tidbits are that Vallée started his career as an astronomer and he was apparently the model for the French researcher in Steven Spielberg's film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977).
"This book is about created objects and the environment, which is to say, it's a book about everything. Seen from sufficient distance, this is a small topic. The ideal readers for this book are those ambitious young souls (of any age) who want to constructively intervene in the process of technosocial transformation. That is to say, this book is for designers and thinkers, engineers and scientists, entrepreneurs and financiers, and anyone else who might care to understand why things were once as they were, why things are as tehy are, and what thins seem to be becoming."
The book unfortunately didn't do much for me. It's not exactly academic, it's filled with ideas and speculation of which some might be on track but others aren't (as the book was written 10 years ago), but I think I might have had a problem with the author's voice. If an academic book oftentimes is an argument or even an "offering", this book is more of an in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it manifesto-rant. Sterling feels "pushy" and as I object to some of the things he states about the world on a fundamental level, I had a hard time accepting other things he stated on a more superficial level too. It was a mismatch of sorts so I will stick to reading his fiction in the future.
"I aim my critique at the tacit assumption that the development and usage of ICTs are always beneficial to society.
given the impossibility of anything benefiting everyone equally, and indeed, the impossibility of even defining everyone, in my analyses I find it important to ask: who benefits from the design, development, and use of surveillance technologies, and who suffers its costs?."
----- On "smart" technologies -----
"The systems discussed in the texts are labelled smart, which sometimes appears as a synonym for sustainable, and sometimes works to emphasise a particular technology as more desirable. Additionally, the world "smart" attaches contemporary ICTs to other forms of technolgies, including other, older, ICTs. Some example of these are smartphones, smart TVs, smart homes, smart grids, smart cars, etc. In all of these examples, a previously available technology is enhanced using data processing features, and the proliferation of data also brings an increase in the surveillance performed by and around these technologies. ... the smart home ... refers to a collection of technologies that use ICT to monitor, detect, and control a wide variety of features assumed to be found in homes. For example, a home can be described as smart if it includes technologies to adjust indoor temperature according to certain factors such as the outdoor temperature, the number of people currently present, or the current price of electricity."
----- On experiencing unjust treatments as a motivation for the choice of research subject -----
Cakici, B. (2013). "The Informed Gaze", p.18-19
"The possibility of being mobile between different disciplines was highly productive for my own research. At the same time, however, I found my own physical mobility to be constrained regularly by my Turkish citizenship, and the bureaucratic demands that it placed on me while working in Sweden as a non-EU national. Although travel within Europe is relatively free of paperwork for its own citizens, for the non-citizen these issues are much more complex. Decisions from the Migration Board take anywhere from six months to a year, and those periods required that I either not leave Sweden, or not return until the Board had reached a decision... towards the end of my third year, I gave up on trying to attend a conference in the United Kingdom solely due to the complexity of the visa process
While I have now acquired a Swedish citizenship, and the challenge of European border crossings has eased significantly, my personal experience of borders, residence permits, passport checks and endless waiting has remained as a vivid reminder of a particularly unjust form of bureaucracy made highly efficient with the help of ICT, and one that countless people continue to experience while crossing borders every day. It has also informed and motivated my research into the intersections of ICTs and surveillance."
----- On making oneself into the perfect subject in a bureaucratic system, and, on academic privileges -----
"After participating in the residence permit process several times over the past few years, I have gradually come to recognise the art of becoming the ideal subject for a residence permit application with its own collection of taboos and dangerous topics. The performance of this role leaves material traces visible throughout the application process (Does the form contain spelling errors? Is it filled out on a computer? Is the form bent, creased, or folded?), but its most intense activity is during residency interviews, and to a larger but less embodied extent, in the free-text fields in applications forms that allow deviation from the standard template for a few lines.
An academic career provided me sufficient disguise to craft my own permit-eligible personal for the authorities, which is one fact of the academic privilege that, like many other types of privilege, tends to become invisible for those who possess it. Privileges of an academic career include participating in knowledge production, greater social mobility, and working further from the production of capital while benefiting from the fact that we live in a capitalist society, among others too numerous to list."
----- On surveillance and ICT systems -----
Cakici, B. (2013). "The Informed Gaze", p.32
"Surveillance practices have been shown to negatively affect those who are already underprivileged, whether they are ICT-based or not. However, it is also important to recognise that surveillance is not simply an oppressive force to be resisted at every turn.
a commonly cited definition of surveillance is "the focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for the purposes of influence, management, protection or direction" (Lyon 2007). ... Following the definition, it is not difficult to classify the vast majority of ICTs as surveillance systems ... and correspondingly, contemporary surveillance is commonly performed using ICTs as they are especially suited to performing routine tasks systematically."
----- On studying design documents as a research method -----
"design documents ... contain many indicators of the designers' intentions, describing what is assumed to be true
During the design process, these documents are written to describe the systems fully, to ensure that they can be developed in the future. Many choices that become invisible later when the system is operational are clearly described in the design documents. Differing from interviewing designers, another potential method, studying design documents makes it possible to describe the system as it is being constructed. As these documents are also addressed at other experts, they make it possible to capture the assumptions shared between different actors involved in the project. They are mostly written for an audience that is considered to be part of the design process, and they tell stories of how ICTs come to be."
----- On surveillance systems turning people into passive sources and receivers of information -----
"surveillance subjects are positioned in relation to ICT-based surveillance as sources of information [and] they are made individually responsible for changing their behaviour based on the information they receive.
the needs of those who will use the systems are made secondary to constructing standardised and transportable knowledge. Furthermore, subjects under surveillance are represented as passive sources and receivers of information and ... representing them as such is unlikely to lead to the substantial changes that the designers aim at.
As with many other infrastructural projects, it is possible that the benefits created by these systems remain local to where the systems are installed while their harmful effects are pushed away, e.g., electricity consumption is decreased in the new city district while natural resources from another region far from the new city district are exhausted in creating the computer screens that visualise electricity consumption."
----- On "lateral surveillance" - neighbours spying on neighbours -----
"The system proposed ... sets up a way for inhabitants to monitor one another to encourage energy-saving behaviour. This type of activity where individuals are provided with surveillance tools to keep track of one another has been called lateral surveillance. In lateral surveillance, the populace is made responsible for monitoring itself, and everyone is "invited to become spies" for their own good."
----- On allowing the people to keep track of energy companies instead of vice versa -----
Cakici, B. (2013). "The Informed Gaze", p.124
"If the challenge to be tackled is reducing energy consumption, or creating more sustainable ways of living, the answer does not necessitate the development of new technologies. ICT does not need to be everywhere, and it does not need to be involved in solving every problem. Sometimes ICT might be the wrong answer. Even in cases where ICT development simply has to be involved in sustainability initiatives, it can be used for purposes other than the surveillance of inhabitants. For example, ICT can be used to understand how other technologies in residential spaces can be constructed differently to last longer, or to waste less energy, without falling back on the common solution of monitoring the users. Finally, if ICT simply has to be used for surveillance, that surveillance can be aimed at larger institutions rather than the individual inhabitants. It can provide ways for the inhabitants to hold accountable companies that develop wasteful technologies, or energy suppliers that attempt to classify and sort their customers using smart metering schemes."
----- On designing computer systems based on doubtful assumptions and thinking that one size will fit everyone -----
"The assumption about behaviour change through consumption feedback is questionable primarily because it overemphasises individual choice while neglecting a whole range of other factors involved in shaping human behaviour.
When targeting virtually everyone, ranging from children to elders, from formally uneducated to professionals and academics, from people that have spent their whole life in their current setting to people who just arrived from a life spent on the other side of the planet, the user population displays and extrem variation with regard to ways of interpreting and acting upon information. In addition to taking the time and possessing the expertise to make sense of the information, the user must also have an interest in doing so. Both the policy texts and many of the project descriptions from our analysis seem to assume that people have a general interest in changing their behaviour to save energy. Alternatively, the texts assume that financial or altruistic incentives can motivate people to take an interest. It is hard to find empirical evidence in support of this assumption."
----- On limits to behaviour change for the affluent, rational "economic man" -----
"The saving of energy motivated by financial gain can only be an optimal behaviour if it generates more income per unit time than other methods of wealth generation such as salaries. For those with higher incomes, the time and attention spent on acquiring the best deal from the system is less likely to be higher than their current income per unit time. On the other hand, those with lower incomes, those who would benefit more financially from the financial incentives, are only able to participate if they invest time and acquire the technological competence required to operate the systems. For those who are able to learn to operate the system, interpret its results, and make the necessary changes, the system grants certain benefits such as lower energy costs. Marginalisation becomes visible at this level, where those who are not able to interpret the system becomes unable to enjoy its benefits ... Thus, the technologically and financially privileged can afford to ignore the system and disregard the disadvantages of lost profit while the under-privileged are marginalised further."
----- On the past future of the information society -----
"I had some friends who worked in that lab. They believed that they were creating a new world for humanity, a world where the old, hated structures would collapse and be replaced by more rational alternatives. They saw artificial intelligence as a spearhead for human thought, paving the way for a new social contract based on knowledge instead of on money, which would lead to a time when there would finally be peace and when everyone would understand each other. Wasn't there for instance already an annual competition between American and Russian chess computers?"
----- On computers as a threat to the integrity of our privat lives -----
"With regard to the integrity of our privat lives, it is rather naive to think that it can be strengthened by moving a person's life story from a paper in a file cabinet to the memory in a fast and powerful machine which can be reached over the telephone network from almost any location in the world. I can not see how this can lead to anything but further concentration of power in the hands of those who already have the power to install computers and design the systems"
----- The past future of e-learning and MOOCs -----
Vallée, J. (1982/1988). "Det osynliga nätet" [The network revolution:], p.34-35
"in the education system [computers would] take over tedious routine jobs, and a single curriculum could be administered to thousands of students. ... I remember that I heard a lecture by a pioneer in this field, Dr. Bitzer, in 1965. ... When I left the lecture, I was convinced that the solution to the education crisis was near. The small village school only needed a few computer terminals and a connection to the telephone network to take advantage of the world's most sophisticated resource bank in the area of teaching, the memory of a giant computer [Internet?], which would constantly bring new courses at all levels from pre-school to the doctoral dissertation. Students will happily go through school assignments tailored to their needs and abilities, and friendly smiling teachers would no longer have to repeat the same information and provide rigid tests for students who needed to learn at their own pace. Two things were wrong with this idea. First, the teachers could not be described as smiling friendly. ... The other problem was the price. "
----- On past predictions; in the future computers will a) liberate us or b) enslave us? -----
"In a newspaper article titled "Telephones in the Country" [from] around 1900 ... [the author] foresaw some basic changes in the economic roles, since the farmer would be able to keep in touch with the market and "deliver their products directly to the city merchants or to consumers, without any intermediaries". ... Is that always true ... that increased communication gives the individual better possibilities to survive financially and intellectually, and more control over their own lives? Or will it lead to greater uniformity and concentration of control in the hands of fewer and fewer? Our society is answering the question with the latter alternative. "
----- On computer system builders as a modern brotherhood -----
"Considerable mystification surrounds those who devise and develop information networks. Since they simply do not have the time to write down what they do, I will try to dispel some of the mysteries by describing how their techniques are transmitted silently from one data warehouse to another - almost in same way as for medieval craftsmen when they in holy zeal built the cathedrals ... System builders ... remain unknown because their methods are complicated and difficult to explain to the uninitiated, and because they constantly change ... Yet the systems they create exert a tremendous influence because ... the real power lies with those that determine the structures of the others' are thinking, for it is they who define what is available and what is not available, what is documented and what is forgotten. "
"When I previously studied cults and new religious movements, I encountered many different organisations that believe that the movement towards credit cards and a cashless society is a worldwide conspiracy for the purpose of controlling individual citizens. According to members of these groups there is there somewhere ... a computer that is used to maintain an overview of all the world's credit cards. They also believe that a general system will be introduced for numbering of all goods coming from all factories on the planet: shoes, cars and all other products will to get a code number which conveniently begins with the digits 666, the number of The Beast of the Book of Revelations. This will lead to paperless transactions, which they regard as evil as they are carried out in secret and leave no traces behind. In the second phase, the credit card number will be matched with the personal number and tattooed into the forehead of every living human being, and so begins the reign of Antichrist. "
----- On cultural metahistories -----
Sterling, Bruce. (2005). "Shaping things", p.37-38
"Every culture has a metahistory. ... Metahistory is about what's gone by, what comes next, and what all that is supposed to mean to sensible people. As a science fiction writer I find these social constructions of particular interest. How do people come to grips with the future? How do they think about futurity? How are those judgments made and how do we alter those judgments? A culture's metahistory helps it determine whether new things are appropriate, whether they fit into the trajectory that is considered the right track. For instance, if you happen to be an Egyptian pharaoh, it makes perfect sense to assemble the populace in the off-season to crate huge granite and limestone time-machines for your posthumous existence.
We moderns behave in much the same buoyant, unthinking way when we disinter fantastic volumes of coal and crude oil, set fire to them, and export the smoke into the sky. This was critical to our sense of progress once; we've yet to understand that it is radically harming our ability to go on."
----- On brainstorming -----
"Designers brainstorm. It's not reasonable to brainstorm. A brainstorm works anyway, because the point of brainstorming is escaping "reasonable" constraints. A brainstorming session fails if [it] remains too reasonable."
----- On the magical act of transforming "stuff" to "rubbish" -----
"This [wine] bottle arrived in my possession seemingly stripped of consequences, but those consequences exist. Where is this bottle going, once I empty it? The mythic moment of "getting rid of it," of throwing it "away," is supposed to be the sudden and total end of our mutual narrative as human and object. But that is by no means any end of any object. It's just the moment when I, the human, unilaterally decide to ignore the object. The object is merely semantically reclassified as "rubbish" and exported willy-nilly ot the future."
----- On the digital divide between the dog elite and the canine proletariat -----
"Last night I watched the local television, and saw that the pet dogs of Belgrade were receiving injections of Radio Frequency ID identity chips. The local dog pound is being outfitted with an RFID reader, and when strays are collared, they'll be scanned. Then lost dogs do not have to have their homely pictures photocopied onto telephone poles. Lost dogs can be rescued quickly and returned to their grieving owners, which is sweet and nice.
But that's not the only way to describe what I just saw. We might also say that an RFID-injected elite of dogs will be returned to their owners posthaste, because these dogs now have a machine-readable identity. All other dogs are in grave and increasing danger. Belgrade is a rough town with a serious stray-dog problem. Being a Belgrade dog without an injected RFID may become a capital canine offence in relatively short order. We've got a yawning digital divide between the injected elite and the canine proletariat."
----- On why manuals suck -----
"Did you ever notice how many books there are for sale about popular objects, books like The Missing Manual or The Repair Manual for the Compleat [sic!] Idiot? Did you ever wonder why companies are so bad about writing popular books about the objects they presumably know best? Well, there are three reasons why their books and manuals are lousy. First, all their public documents are vetted through a PR department, so they are basically promotional items. Second, they don't care much about you or what happens to you, after they take your money. And third and most crucially, they don't know very much about their own stuff. Why? Because knowing about their stuff is not their reason for being. They are a commercial enterprise."
"The 20th century's industrial infrastructure has run out of time. It can't go on; it's antiquated, dangerous and not sustainable. It's based on a finite amount of ice in our ice caps, of air in our atmosphere, of free room for highways and transmission lines, of room in the dumps, and of combustible filth underground. This is a gathering crisis gloomily manifesting itself in the realm of bad weather and resource warfare. It is the legacy we received from world-shaping industrial titans such as Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller - basically, the three 20th century guys who got us into the Greenhouse Effect."