It was with some surprise that I saw that the creator of the Silk Road website was so harshly sentenced to life imprisonment for what was described as a drug trafficking enterprise. As you may recall, Silk Road was the dark web commerce site where drugs and contraband were sold for Bitcoins. While there was a certain debate as to the harshness of the sentence, there seemed to be no surprise that the sentence was being handed down at all. In this age of internet impunity, it seems like someone being held responsible for their online actions are more the exception the rule. While I do feel sorry for Mr. Ulbrict, one can only applaud in the hope that this is the beginning of some internet accountability, that one’s avatar will be as accountable as their flesh and blood actions. While this may require some rethinking of our idea of a corporation as an avatar, remember, corporations do have many of the legal rights of people and receive few consequences from their illegal actions, maybe we are growing up in this new digital realm.
While thinking about Moore’s Law, you may remember, it states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, with the second law being that cost would fall with each new development, I was reminded of a passage from “Big Data” by Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier about the growth of information and the ability to share it. From the advent of Arabic numerals, writing, print and so forth it seems that the pace of our ability to share and manipulate data has been getting faster not unlike Moore’s Law. The world that most of us grew up in is very different from the world that we are living in now and will, no doubt, look much different in the future. How are we to understand and relate to the world that may be changing faster than our ability to understand it. Motion picture film moves at 24 frames per second that transform single images into a fluid moving image. Will our technology begin to move so fast that the single now is transformed into a rapidly disappearing past, beyond our understanding or realization?
When I was growing up outside of Chicago, I often went into the Loop to look at the architecture, see a movie or the latest show at the Art Institute. One particularly cold winter I remember my winter coat had had a rather tough time of it, after falling in slushy snow on several occasions and truth be told, I looked rather rough, knit hat pulled down to my eyebrows and proudly showing that first bit of beard. The cold and wind made me take refuge in a new lifestyle brand clothing store that had just opened. I was just warming up when I noticed a clerk who seemed to have no other job than to follow me around the store. Everywhere I went he made sure that he was in my gaze, making it clear that I was not welcome there. This made me so uncomfortable that I soon decided the arctic Chicago weather was better than the clerk’s cold gaze.
This came back to me while reading Joseph Turow’s “The Isles Have Eyes”, a fascinating new book on big data’s effect on retailing and the future of sales in general. It seems that retailers are now tracking our transactions both through our purchases and in the store via facial recognition to create a live buyer persona to project our needs and try to fulfill them before we reach the checkout isle. While a frequent buyers program can give discounts, Turow proposes that a store could tailor your experience to the store’s needs and perception of who you are and how your presence fits into their brand. For example, if you shop at that store only occasionally but spend a lot of money the store may want to woo you. Once the store recognizes you with facial recognition, they may alert a clerk to your presence, have them approach you with suggestions all based on your buying history. They may also have other information about you, say family names or photos from social media or a recent promotion from trade papers or press- all to ensure your return to their store. While this may be a bit creepy, the opposite is even worse. Let’s say a stores database decides you are not their demographic for whatever reason. A store clerk could be sent to shadow you around the store and if deemed necessary, even call security and remove you. All from the data that has been gathered about you, whether you know it or not. It seems that in the future we can be discriminated against not only for how we appear physically but electronically.
With recent events, I have found this post something that I needed to share once again. Please, no matter how you feel about recent events, we can not keep silent. Make your voice be heard and listen to those who are speaking, in fact based arguments. Now is not the time to be silent and to hide behind hashtags. We have too much to be thankful for and too much to lose.
Change is never easy and watching the news shows that change is necessary. The nature of this change struck me while listening to an NPR interview with the Aunt of the man killed in a police shooting in Minneapolis. She was weeping and crying saying how the police had taken something from her that she could never get back. While I was struck by her grief I was shocked by the way she added a hashtag to the conversation, not unlike the ones used by the black lives matter movement. While I do not argue with the validity of their outrage is a hashtag really the best way to vent our anger? Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”; is a hashtag or a twitter post really an outlet for our rage? Is a social media post the warm cozy blanket we wrap ourselves in to pretend that we are feeling beings, part of a community of people for whom we have a moral obligation to treat humanely? If we are mad, shouldn’t we get mad, shout from our windows, take to the streets and demand to be heard not read and reposted? What will it come to before we realize that change is often not something that can be done from a comfortable chair? Has a revolution been replaced by the retweet?
I woke up from a dream not too long ago, thinking about QWERTY. Now as you may know that is the name of the keyboard that I am using to type this and probably the keyboard you use too. I was surprised to learn some time ago that the arrangement of keys on the QWERTY keyboard supposedly was not to allow people to type quickly but to slow them down by placing the keys in award places to keep the levers that produced each letter from colliding as they typed. I like to think that the technology was changed to allow for human speed but it is common thought that that is not the case. This makes me wonder about the new coming waves of technology. It does seem that there will be a point where technology will move faster than we can as humans but will we remember who the technology is for? Will we make the technology serve us by intentionally slowing it down or will we force ourselves to work at a pace dictated by technology? In short, will we retain control or end up like Lucile Ball struggling with an uncaring production line of chocolate without the benefit of a laugh track.
Some years ago when we lived in Brooklyn, I delighted in the fact that our apartment was in between the revitalized and soon to be gentrified seventh avenue and the still un-gentrified Fifth avenue. I loved having the ability to go to Fifth avenue for a dollar store or to a bodega for dried candied ginger that I would never find on Seventh. This came to my mind when I saw more concern about the dark or deep web. These are websites that are either not accessible without specific browsers or search engines or not indexed by search engines. Many of these sites are used in drug sales, porn or for hackers and while I don’t condone the use of the web for illegal purposes I am fascinated to see how we wish to divide this part of our nature from the “light” or public web. We only want to think the best of our nature, to think we look only for the light and turn away from the dark. Have we not learned that we are two sides of one coin and that we need our darkness to see our light? Let our search be for truth which may take us through the darkness and through the light.
Like many people, I have been following the political race pretty closely and have been surprised bordering on shocked in the way that the candidates respective roles have been portrayed. I understand that there is a whole grammatical ballet around how one presents a candidate, there is an entire lexicon available to refer to candidates with the correct meaning, but as we refer to the “Presumptive” nominees it seems as though we take our data to higher and higher platitudes (with a nod to the late Mayor Dailey). It seems as if because we can sample data and make predictions from it that these predictions are obliged to have the future oblige the prediction. An off colour remark by a candidate and the pundits are showing us how this will put his future victory in peril, all charted with colour maps showing delegates hanging like low-pressure systems awaiting the next prediction to blow them to a different course. Maybe we are looking to be ruled by the predictive force of algorithms in place of our own free will. We still have a voice but we won’t for long we allow the predictions to become the dictators of reality.