Saturday, February 4
the incipient model
I wrote last month about being embarrassed by all the stupid shit I’ve
I’m not going to delete all this stuff, though. I’m not sure if I can quite
say why. I don’t blame anyone else for that impulse, but it’s not for me right
now. Maybe I’m just too obsessed with memory to deliberately efface one of the
few artifacts I’ve made out of it. Or too conscious of how little else I’ve
built than a pile of words, as I near an age when it’s just as likely the bulk
of my accomplishments are in the past.
But having written that, I keep thinking about the value of putting anything on
the public internet at all.
This is rooted in a bunch of half-formed thoughts: I used to think the
internet was in some deep sense a benign phenomenon, with some kind of root
ethos or principle that tended to erode power and build a more humane
community. I’m now pretty sure I was wrong.
The first thing is that networked computation is an epidemic.
Cellphones have already rewritten civilization; beyond that, the epidemic is
expanding into every remaining domain where it can be supported by market
speculation, narrow technological advantage, fast prototyping, spying on users,
and/or generalized b-school hype-machine idiocy. Processing power is cheap,
wireless networks begin to approach ubiquity, software is easier than hardware,
business is full of gullible power-mongering assholes, and data collection is
like catnip to every system of control on the planet. That people and
industries will keep putting computers in shit is hilariously overdetermined,
and there is nothing short of an apocalyptic calamity that can be done to stop
Network-scale capital has built us a baby panopticon, and it’s maturing fast.
So is the technology to extract meaningful structure from all of the data it
We already know, for example, that photos exposed to the internet are scanned
for recognizable objects (like faces) and correlated. Google does this for
image search. Social networks do this to associate media with individual
users. Law enforcement agencies are applying similar tech to an ever-growing
firehose of surveillance data. Facial recognition and license-plate tracking
have only just begun having consequences, and they’re the tip of an iceberg.
Given enough storage and compute, the facts and associations latent in things
we think of as opaque blobs of content are about to become visible to everybody
with a big enough database. It’s all metadata, given enough of the stuff.
Of course there’s a vast amount of opportunistic bullshit being spun about
machine learning and AI right now, but all of this is really just an emergent
effect of a less shiny-marketable thing: Databases and networks have
consequences. Kinds of data that our culture still think of as requiring human
interpretation are rapidly becoming easily-queried tags and indexes.
So the network at large contains this cumulative model of me. It’s not all
contiguous and cross-referenced yet. Much of it is hidden from direct view,
it’s lossy in a bunch of particulars, and it’s still fractured in part by legal
apparatus and social norms. But it’s a big thing and it’s not going away.
It’s going to T-1000 itself together from all those pieces just about
no matter what. There are very few remaining technical impediments, and no
political institutions seem willing (or able) to create effective legal ones.
So I wonder: Should I be feeding this model my writing and pictures? Should I
volunteer, for that matter, any kind of self-surveillance?
The second thing is that we’re starting to have good empirical evidence about
the kinds of social systems the internet generates. Plenty of them are good,
or at least fairly benign. Others of them are, for example, a resurgent
fascism. Hateful shitheads turn out to do just fine in the network
environment. Reactionary backlash and the inelastic properties of damaged
cultures propagate as well in new media as anything does. Sometimes better.
There’s something here about systems. I was wrong about how this system
operates and what’s possible within it. I think I’ve been naive about systems
So I wonder: What part of the self-surveillance I volunteer isn’t an attack
Anyway: I want to put writing and pictures out here. But there’s this
competing impulse to hide all the stuff as far as possible and take down all of
the public accounts. Go dark and operate only in the quiet corners of things,
keep longform writing and pictures for letters to family and a handful of
tags: topics/panopticon, topics/surveillance