covetousness makes merchandise

February 24, 2016

A few things came together this morning which sent me scurrying to find a half remembered text from the Letters of St Peter. Firstly a tweet from Euan Semple took me to a blog post from Mahmoud Al-Qudsi picking up on the way in which Google takes you to locations it wants you to visit rather than places you were interested in finding. He isolates a new manifestation of that particular phenomena and I love his phrase intentional uselessness. I will shamelessly steal that one at some point in the future. The same tweet was picked up by Mika Latokartano who asked for advise on Google alternatives and both Euan and I suggested DuckDuckGo. For Apple users it is a selection option although Google I am told paid a fortune to be the default. The final piece in the puzzle was a bad dream about my recent interview for CBC in the Yukon when I forgot to use the key phrase Tyranny of the Herds when I was expressing concern about over enthusiasm for social computing. I say a bad dream as it was not a nightmare, more a frustration of missing a key sound bite – something that is all too important in radio interviews.

Now I have for years railed against people enthusiastically picking up the latest fashion in technology and lacking necessary caution and cynicism. You get this a lot with people claiming that the internet is liberation and that social computing has democratised the world. Now this is arrant nonsense. Yes when a new communication medium becomes available it has a revolutionary effect. We can see that when the west stole the idea of rag based paper production from the Chinese on the silk road. Before then, while there were printing presses, the cost of each book was prohibitive, now it dropped. However while it opened up possibilities, power learnt to subordinate it. Do you think that the radical phamleteers of the 16th and 17th Century in Britain imagined a future dominated by Rubert Murdoch or a society trivialised by the tabloid press?

We see the same issue with the internet. I have long argued that anything an algorithm can interpret and algorithm can create and that is increasingly the case with Facebook and Twitter alike, before we even look to the manipulation of Google searches. The naiveté of crypto-anarchism (and that is what most web advocates fall into) has been exploited by fascists over the years and no one learns the necessity of constraint. A world dominated by who shouts the loudest is a work in which false prophets able to trump (sic) reason with simplistic emotional triggers is not one that has any real humanity in it. But it is one that comes closer as long as we focus on the technology as the solution, not simply another tool which has to be tamed, understood and criticised.

So what was that passage I have recalled? Well here it is in full from 2 Peter 2 1-3 in the King James version (of course).

1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
2 And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.
3 And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.

I whole of that, especially verses 2-3 is a testimony against naiveté, commercial interests have far more power than a distributed network, not only that they can instantiate meaning within in it by judicious monitoring and ownership of the links that we make. It is the danger of Amazon and Uber as well as Google and at the moment we are slumbering too damn much. Frogs may be coming out of the mouths of the false prophets, but we have lost the capacity to see them.

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