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Locks are to keep honest people out

Message Peter Barus
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When Dad died, Mom found a note from him that said: "Just because I'm dead, don't you be." So when young Jim (at 75 slightly her junior) took her to a concert, for which he had written the music, and to which the lyrics were about his love for her, she married again. And in the fullness of time, after twenty years, Jim died; and Mom said she had been brought in a wheelchair to see him, "just after the door of life had closed."

There are doors to every room in a house, and they are substantial barriers to passage if closed and locked. People slam them when upset, and the noise is quite satisfying, or shattering, depending on which side you are on, and who is expressing themself in this way. If you ask anybody why all these doors? they will probably say, Privacy.

Long before the PC or the cellphone, as Martin Luther King was nailing the handwriting to the wall, I taught at a small impromptu children's art center in a housing project basement we had cleaned out. One night I found the locks had been changed. Typical of the Housing Authority, whose superintendent rose to high public office in later years. But the pottery kiln was running at over two thousand degrees Fahrenheit. I found the custodian, heroic Warren Stansbury, who smashed in the door, remarking: "Locks are to keep honest people out."

The door had been locked to defeat what the Housing Authority saw as a Trojan-horse virus in the American operating system. They were right. Correlation is not cause, but one of our "inner city" students graduated from Harvard Medical School, which was not written on his palm at the age of six. I like to think messing with lumps of pottery clay had something to do with it.

There is nothing remotely private about the Internet. Such doors as may be are mostly closed to "users" and no more than a bead-curtain to everyone else, especially "providers". Passwords confuse the users with a constant reminder that they don't really own anything, and prevent interruptions while the providers are busy scraping at your private data.

This customary abuse did not start in the malicious brain of some bullied visionary. I know this from experience as one such miserable character. When I developed a CAD system for a small niche in the building trades, none of my "users" were competent to fix anything they broke, much less notice it was broken, and I could not find every possible way to break it. I had to have a back door, and this meant I had the most intimate access possible, to hundreds of small businesses. I used this excessive power for their benefit, but there was never any way to be certain any provider would stop at any boundary, real or virtual.

Other than the front door, which I think defines the legal perimeter of a juridical entity known as "household", doors in a house are all but unnecessary. They can be deadly impediments when there's a fire or accident. They are a mostly-symbolic protection for one's space. Doors on the Internet, in contrast, are entirely symbolic and impede nothing and nobody but users.

We find ourselves in a strange relationship now, as we participate in this vast electronic network experiment. The concept of individual space is a an illusion: we are not enclosed in protective walls with a door between us and the world; instead we are rendered selectively blind and deaf. To us that point of contact with a global extraction industry is our lifeline to the world; to the "providers" it is both the coalface and the point of sale (POS) in the most lucrative mining process ever built.

Down to its foundations, the marketing industry is profoundly abusive. Unrelenting stress, offering temporary relief only at the point of sale, leaves "users" hostage. The business model that works reliably is that of a crack dealer.

Under the prevailing business model, computer programs monitor our screen activity and deliver small rewards precisely targeting the human brain's addictive response. This has nothing whatsoever to do with anything social, and in fact has the opposite effect, it leads to isolation. Connection is promoted as healthy relationship through sophisticated and tested techniques to equate connection with healthy, authentic relationship, not what it really is: addiction exploitation. The Internet connected us inextricably to the new commercial system, and only as a byproduct to each other. It was irresistible bait.

That's the deal, in its essence: our autonomy in exchange for incalculable corporate power and profit. Privacy is a quaint notion, like "security" or "certainty". We should learn to think of these as colonial trading-beads.

"Media" is not the message, it's the marketing industry. When the Internet arrived, it absorbed the media. This placed news organizations in a quite different relationship to the reading public. At that point, instead of selling ads to support reportage (of whatever quality), another source of revenues had to be found. But the public was used to the idea that advertising made cheap newspapers possible. It didn't register that the newspaper industry had been displaced by the marketing industry.

Today enormous narrative-factories churn out carefully curated stories designed to attract as much attention as possible, while avoiding high-maintenance, low-profit facts. Stories about stories proliferate. Journalists interview other journalists. Questions are facts and facts questions. What's on the screen is not about current events: it is the current event. Whatever was happening out in the world is already over. The most remunerative events are terrifying, and each must outdo the last in shock and awe.

The "social" media monopolies are about the farthest thing from anything social ever invented. The business model absolutely relies on isolation of users. Instead of synchronizing coherent public awareness, transcending obsolete barriers, expanding and extending community, the internet became this parasitic machine that assigned us to separate cubicles in a social vacuum, isolated and alone, clinging to meaningless symbols of relationship, artificially sugared with ego reinforcement and the endorphin rewards of online shopping. Over time our worldviews diverged, whether or not we believed in the perceptions we were fed. In place of awareness we have opinions. In place of choices, we have options. In place of solidarity, we have toxic competition.

With the providers sitting between us in every conversation, like the pervasive middlemen who manage our medical care, with their profit-motive and hidden agendas, the level of cohesion necessary to save a planet is a pipe-dream. We will watch the end of the world on our screens, if the grid stays up that long.

We think of "social" media like flies think of spiderwebs. Until it is recognized in law, this system will continue to cripple democratic institutions and divide us into hostile camps, while manipulating the platform to the detriment of people's lives, and life itself, for profit.

Who to blame? An especially tragic aspect of all this is that it is all driven by machines, while our natural impulse is to find and stop the perpetrators. We imagine, if we even notice our incarceration, that somebody is doing this to us. But the humans who lit up this doomsday machine are long dead. The self-maintaining and adaptive algorithms have become a rueful joke, if they are acknowledged at all. But make no mistake: not intelligent, or hostile, or evolving into some new hybrid species, its intention is more like that of a toaster, just one simple function to perform endlessly. Earth will be a barren rock long before it fixes us in its malevolent gaze.

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I'm an old Pogo fan. For some unknown reason I persist in outrage at Feudalism, as if human beings can do much better than this. Our old ways of life are obsolete and are killing us. Will the human race wake up in time? Stay (more...)

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