An op-ed by Joshua Benton on the first quarter-century of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace on the Nieman Lab website.
Unpacking the different facets of Barlow’s personality and worldview goes a long way toward mapping out early internet ideology: most everyone finds parts to admire as well as intimations of disasters to come. The protean nature of the author of the Declaration helps in the process. Was Barlow Dick Cheney’s friend or Ed Snowden’s? Was he a scion of Wyoming cattle ranching royalty or a Grateful Dead lyricist? Was he part of the Davos digerati or a defender of civil rights and founder of the EFF? All of these, of course, and much besides. Undeniably, Barlow had a striking way with words, matched only by a consistent ability to show up “where it’s at” in the prevailing cultural winds of the time (including a penchant for association with the rich and famous).
Benton does a good job highlighting how far removed the techno-utopian promises of the Declaration sound from the current zeitgeist regarding the social effects of information technology. But ultimately we see in Barlow a reflection of our own hopes and fears about digital societies: as I previously argued, there is no rigid and inescapable cause-effect relationship between the ideas of the ’90s and the oligopolies of today. Similarly, a course for future action and engagement can be set without espousing or denouncing the Declaration in its entirety.
Given the recent salience of news on surveillance and surveillance capitalism, it is to be expected that there would be rising interest in material, technical countermeasures. Indeed, a cottage industry of surveillance-avoidance gear and gadgetry has sprung up. The reviews of these apparatuses tend to agree that the results they achieve are not great. For one thing, they are typically targeted at one type of surveillance vector at a time, thus requiring a specifically tailored attack model rather than being comprehensive solutions. Moreover, they can really only be fine-tuned properly if they have access to the source code of the algorithm they are trying to beat, or at least can test its response in controlled conditions before facing it in the wild. But of course, uncertainty about the outcomes of surveillance, or indeed about whether it is taking place to begin with, is the heart of the matter.
The creators of these countermeasures themselves, whatever their personal intellectual commitment to privacy and anonymity, hardly follow their own advice in eschewing the visibility the large internet platforms afford. Whether these systems try to beat machine-learning algorithms through data poisoning or adversarial attacks, they tend to be more of a political statement and proof of concept than a workable solution, especially in the long term. In general, even when effective, using these countermeasures is seen as extremely cumbersome and self-penalizing: they can be useful in limited situations for operating in ‘stealth mode’, but cannot be lived in permanently.
If this is the technological state of play, are we destined to a future of much greater personal transparency, or is the notion of hiding undergoing an evolution? Certainly, the momentum behind the diffusion of surveillance techniques such as facial recognition appears massive worldwide. Furthermore, it is no longer merely a question of centralized state agencies: the technology is mature for individual consumers to enact private micro-surveillance. This sea change is certainly prompting shifts in acceptable social behavior. But as to the wider problem of obscurity in our social lives, the strategic response may well lie in a mixture of compartimentalization and hiding in plain sight. And of course systems of any kind are easier to beat when one can target the human agent at the other end.
I just read a story by Tanya Basu (in the MIT Technology Review) about the use of single-page websites (created through services such as Bio.fm and Carrd) to convey information about recent political mobilizations in the US. It’s very interesting how the new generation of social-justice activists is weaning itself from exclusive reliance on the major social media platforms in its search for anonymity, simplicity and accessibility. These ways of communicating information, as Basu underlines, bespeak an anti-influencer mentality: it’s the info that comes first, not the author.
It is early to say whether the same issues of content moderation, pathological speech, and censorship will crop up on these platforms, as well, but for the time being it is good to see some movement in this space.