34 – #DISGUISE

“Let’s hear it for the vague blur!”

In A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick’s dystopian science fiction novel of addiction and redemption, the protagonist – a drug enforcement agent – wears a disguise to prevent anyone from recognizing (and thereby betraying) him. The ‘scramble suit’ creates an everyman projection; in place of a single person, the whole population is represented:

As the computer looped through its banks, it projected every conceivable eye color, hair color, shape and type of nose, formation of teeth, configuration of facial bone structure – the entire shroudlike membrane took on whatever physical characteristics were projected at any nanosecond, then switched to the next…

Looking upon the scramble suit reveals nothing of the person within. Even the voice, transformed in real-time, splices together the words of people of every age and from every culture, resulting in speech full of meaning but lacking any identifiable characteristic.

Overloading ourselves with particulars, we represent nothing. Preference becomes impossible, a meaningless attempt to empty the oceans with a sieve. When everything about us is everything, we become invisible.

Therein lies our escape from the land of the shadow.

Everything that we share in common with others subtracts from our specificity. We connect and share and refine our sharing, to find our interior lives leaking away, expressed and examined and critiqued, but no longer ours. With the loss of privacy comes the loss of uniqueness. We are not defined by what we share, but rather, by what we withhold. It is the things we will not say which make us significant. Hard, secret, and often cruel, these secret stones are the making of us. Creatures of language, we are closest to that which we dare not utter.

If we are to have any of ourselves left in a hyperconnected world, we must learn to keep quiet, drawing lines around our lives, determining which parts we will choose to expose and have bleached to whiteness in the intense light cast by four and a half billion others, deciding which parts we will keep close, telling no one, not even our closest relations, lest these secrets find their way into their sharing and thereby undermine all our efforts.

The simple quiet of the Zen master provides inadequate defense against the mechanisms of the age of omniscience, where actions speak louder than words. Tirelessly watching, our machines faithfully construct their simulacra from a study of our movements; the only silence they could not penetrate would be the absolute stillness of the yogi who holds a single pose for years. Everything else points to a truth we dare not speak, but which speaks for us.

Thoroughly surrounded, we must find another passage to freedom, blinding the machines in a surfeit of light. We need to maintain connections not with a hundred and fifty others, nor even with ten thousand, but with ten million, sending messages to all of them as frequently as our channels allow, so that no pattern can be discerned within the overwhelming flood of connection. Where data can be abstracted, analyzed and applied to the simulacra, there it must be amplified, and shared as broadly as possible, without regard to recipient. Everything we say must be shouted from the rooftops, into as many ears as will hear.

This is our scramble suit: If we say everything to everyone, we say nothing of importance to anyone in particular. It must be this way. We can not simply dissemble, pretend to be other than what we are, because our actions expose our connections. We must be connected to everyone in order to move beyond the reach of the simulacrum. Hyperconnectivity is more than a condition; it is a necessity, stripping away our privacy even as it hands us the tool to restore it.

Each of us, receiving a continuous stream of communication from millions of others, would immediately lose all meaning and all contact, it being impossible to discern a whispered signal within a roar of noise. But within ourselves, in the never-revealed sanctum of the soul (and the soul’s little machines), we keep a list of those whom we choose to attend. These communications are the ones which we interpret and acknowledge. We assign importance, and so construct the screen to prevent the light we generate from dazzling us.

The filter between ourselves and our closest relations lies within ourselves, not out on Facebook or Google or Twitter or in any other system where it becomes fodder for our simulacra. It must lie within, part of our essential self, because who we know is who we are. When a simulacra faithfully models who we know, we have become simulations, programmable and easily controlled.

The joy of sharing is immediate, evident, and completely natural. Amplified across the entire planet sharing also becomes its shadow: hidden and artificial. The way down is the way forward, into an overwhelming and chaotic construction of connectivity which purposely surrenders any extrinsic meaning in order to preserve its occult intent.

Let us then embrace noise and randomness, seeing them not as problematic but as beneficial, the keys to our release. Noise resists analysis, and can not be used to fortify simulacra. Randomness confounds computers, providing no clear picture, only a Rorschach-like exploration of the interiority of the observer, not the observed.

Turning the tables on the observer, we will use our scramble suits as mirrors, turning them to face the shadow machinery of simulacra, which, lacking real data, will feedback upon their own inbuilt hypotheses, producing monstrous projections, a carnival funhouse utterly divorced from reality. What they look for they will find, but it will always be a phantom, the exteriorization of the observer’s own desires and fears, a hall of mirrors filled with hungry ghosts.

We must connect. We are compelled to share. We must no longer discriminate: Everything for everyone, everywhere. If they know us, they will listen; if not, they will thank us for the disguise.

28 – #SIREN

A massive earthquake, far out to sea. The ocean floor shakes and spreads and ruptures, moving billions of litres of water. The trembling stops, and news spreads. Immediately people turn to their mobiles, reaching out to check in with their family and friends. Are they ok? Where are they? What just happened? Everyone knows an earthquake has come — but how big? Will there be another? Did anything come down? Is everyone alright?

Everyone asks these questions simultaneously.

The mobile network, overloaded, begins to stutter. Text messages fail. Calls cut off in mid-sentence. There is signal – you can see the bars on your mobile’s screen – but no connectivity. Not knowing, not being able to connect and learn, amplifies the sense of crisis. Something bad is happening. And you don’t even know how bad.

Seismologists set to work, read their graphs, make some calculations, and form a prediction. The seafloor has been sufficiently disturbed to produce a ‘harbour wave’ – in Japanese, tsunami – spreading out from the epicenter, across the Andaman Sea and Indian ocean. Supercomputers generate a visualization of the spread of this wave, based on the size of the temblor and the topology of the ocean floor. That gets published to a website, and is immediately copied and posted to Twitter, where it is shared a few hundred more times:

Tsunami Prediction Forecast

The international news networks, CNN and BBC and Al Jazeera, begin rolling coverage of the earthquake. They show the visualization, calling out the predicted landfall times of the tsunami, one after another. Aceh. Phuket. Andaman Islands.

It all has a horrible feeling of deja vu, because the sequence of events appears eerily similar to the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami of 2004, when a magnitude 9.0 temblor produced a wave up to 15 meters high in some places, killing well over three hundred thousand people. People died in such numbers because no one knew the tsunami was coming. Even after the prediction had been made, there was no way to warn everyone in the tsunami’s path.

In 2004, little more than a billion people owned mobiles, and most of those lived in the developed world, not the Indian Ocean basin. Not yet connected, they could not be reached. They could not be warned.

A quarter of a billion seconds later, more than four and a half billion own mobiles, many of these new owners concentrated in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka – precisely the countries most affected by the devastation of the last tsunami. Systems have been deployed, both to detect a tsunami, and to spread the alarm. Text messaging – originally developed to provide a channel to send emergency messages to many mobiles simultaneously – shares news of the predicted tsunami with great rapidity. Anyone who doesn’t get the message – or doesn’t have a mobile – learns of the prediction from someone who got the message.

The authorities issue an evacuation order. Everyone within a few meters of sea level must relocate to higher ground. There is no resistance to the command; memories of 2004 are too fresh. People begin a relatively orderly migration away from the shoreline, into the hills. Numerous signs – installed after the last tsunami – direct people toward specific evacuation zones. Someone uses their mobile to snap a photo of the evacuation in Phuket, posting it to Twitter, where it is quickly shared around:

No one knows if the tsunami will come; some earthquakes, lifting the earth up, produce monster waves, while others, shuffling the crust from side to side, do little more than stir up the water. Seismologists seem confident this earthquake belongs to the second (and less dangerous) category, but reports come in over Twitter, shared and shared again, sightings of vast areas of exposed seabed in Phuket. The drawing back of the sea is a sure sign of an incoming tsunami; everyone knows this. But reports are not proof, and the reports conflict. Eyewitnesses report one thing, government officials report another. Finally, someone shares a photo of a Phuket beach, taken with a mobile and uploaded to Twitter, then shared and shared and shared:

Sea recession in Phuket 11 April 2012

It looks as though the sea has vanished. But who can say? The debate rages, even as people continue making their way to the designated evacuation areas. Some of the evacuees use Twitter to share their own observations – how orderly it seems, how there is no real fear, just a sense of urgency.

Newscasters blithely report that – according to predictions – the tsunami should have already engulfed Aceh. They’re waiting for word, running the same few seconds of video from Aceh, taken in the moments following the earthquake: people running from buildings, standing in the street, waiting. But they’re not just waiting. At least half of them are talking on their mobiles, or staring down into them, connecting. Each using their own connectivity to build an awareness of everyone and everything of importance to them:

Phuket mall evacuation area

CNN International, waiting for news from Aceh, begins to show some of the photos people have shared on Twitter: evacuations, traffic jams, long lines of people on the move. “You see everyone in these pictures on their phones,” the newscaster adds. “They’re getting information about what to do.”

No great wave destroys Aceh again, nor Phuket, nor the Andaman islands. No buildings have come down, either in the initial quake, nor in the aftershock – so big that by itself it will be one of the biggest earthquakes of the year. Another tsunami warning follows the aftershock. People continue to wait, and share:

Evacuating and waiting in Phuket

Eventually, the all clear comes, and people climb down from their high places, breathing a sigh of relief. Was this just a mass fright, shared at the speed of light across a hyperconnected planet, or simply sensible behavior? No one died, but no one was in any real danger. Better to be safe than sorry, surely. Now that we are all connected, we know that others will share with us when we come into danger.

26 – #SQUARE

Monday afternoon in Australia is Sunday evening in America, and that can only mean one thing: file-sharing. Home Box Office airs their most popular shows on Sunday evenings, series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and, on this particular evening, the premiere of the second series of Game of Thrones. Sitting at the end of a long chain of producers and distributors, Australians always endured long waits before a television series made it to air – if it made it at all. In a still-remembered incident, a commercial broadcaster yanked The West Wing off the air in the middle of its fourth series, leaving hundreds of thousands of loyal viewers up in the air.

At just that moment in time – the middle years of the 2000s – television audiences gained a power that had been tightly held by broadcasters – the ability to distribute a program. A broadcaster raises an antenna (or buys a cable channel), then has the right – a monopoly, really – to use that bandwidth as they see fit. If they want to fill the airwaves with home shopping, car crashes, or haute couture catwalks, that’s their privilege. Scarce, bandwidth had to be meted out carefully, with some lip service to the public interest – hence the public broadcasters – but inevitably creating an interlocking ecosystem of corruption, as broadcasters and public officials worked in lockstep to keep bandwidth a strictly limited resource. Audiences wanting to watch these programs accepted that broadcasters controlled the only mechanism to distribute them.

In 1999, changes in distribution methods emerged on college campuses throughout the United States. Shawn Fanning, a student at Boston’s Northeastern University, developed software that allowed his friends to share their music collections across the campus broadband network. Nicknamed ‘Napster’ after Fanning’s curls, the software quickly mushroomed in popularity, not just at Northeastern, but at every other American university offering high-speed Internet access.

Napster scanned a user’s hard drive, compiling a list of all music files, sending that list off to a central computer. When another user searched for a particular piece of music – perhaps the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony – they would be presented with a list of the different users who offered it as part of their music collection. A Napster user could then click on a particular user, and the track would be copied directly from the user who offered to share the music to the user requesting it. Napster’s superdistribution essentially converted the Internet into a gigantic disc drive, with the contents of any one computer available to every other computer. This ‘file-sharing’, as it became to be known, created a unified, global platform for the exchange of any type of media.

Napster did not last long. Although each individual user had purchased their music, the recording industry sued Napster, claiming it provided tools which enabled and encouraged widespread copyright violation. Unsurprisingly, the courts agreed, and Napster – that is, its centralized database – went dark in August 2000. Over fourteen million people used Napster in the days before it disappeared, each of whom experienced the exhilaration of a vast catalog of music available for their enjoyment. Although much of the file-sharing involved the most popular music of the day – Metallica, for example – many users shared recordings too rare or obscure to be widely available. Napster briefly became a treasure trove of audio gems, and sensitized a generation to the power of sharing.

Just days after Napster closed down, Gnutella launched. In contrast to Napster’s centralized – and vulnerable – design, Gnutella’s users searched one another’s computers directly, forming a ‘peer-to-peer network’, each asking all the others for music. Without a center to sue into oblivion, the recording industry took to suing individual file-sharers, an effort akin to boiling the sea. Since its introduction, peer-to-peer file-sharing has seen a steadily growing volume of content distributed, despite intense efforts to shut them down, disrupt or poison them.

Gnutella’s peer-to-peer networks had one weakness: they could not deal well with high demand for an item in short supply. If a user had a the only copy of a particularly prized song, they would be flooded with requests answered serially. If you were toward the front of the request queue, you’d be fine, but if you arrived after a few thousand others, you’d be waiting a very long time for that song. As people began to share television programs and movies – hundreds of times the size of songs – this problem became acute.

An ingenious solution to this problem came from bright programmer named Bram Cohen, who realized each copy of an item could be used as a source for subsequent copies. Let’s say, for example, I’d like to share a copy of this book. I have a copy machine which I can use to make copies, and as each person queues a request, I make a copy of the book, hand it to them, then start making a copy of the book for the next person in the queue. Lengthy, laborious — and the way Gnutella works.

With Cohen’s insight – known as BitTorrent – I would break the book up into individual pages, make a copy of each of these, and give one page to each person in the queue. Once each person has a page, I tell them each about one another. They also have copy machines, so they start to share furiously with one another, asking one another for copies of the pages they don’t have. In short order, everyone has a complete copy of the book.

A resource shared is a resource squared. With BitTorrent, sharing becomes a shared task, squaring the power of sharing, transforming superdistribution into hyperdistribution. Hyperdistribution means anyone, anywhere can share a file of any size with everyone, everywhere. The restrictions on bandwidth which effectively barred individuals from acting as broadcasters have fallen away.

Once the public learned of hyperdistribution, they began to self-distribute all sorts of media: music, movies, television, software, databases – anything that could be digitized was now freely and widely distributed — including episodes of television shows such as The West Wing and Game of Thrones. Freed from being the whipping-boys of television programmers, Australians became the most profligate downloaders of television on the planet. Audience-driven distribution – sharing via hyperdistribution – had supplanted television broadcasting.