Tag Archives: technology

You’re only prey once their jaws snap shut

Posted on June 26, 2014 by

Peter Watts has been thinking and writing about surveillance in society , about how governments have cameras everywhere and facial recognition software that works (if your haircut’s symmetrical), about how all of our e-mails and blog posts end up archived in big NSA spy computers. About how corporate entities like the iStore can track not only our movements (via our phones) but the number of times we watched our legally downloaded copies of Iron Man 3. (Answer – 3.25).
He’s talking about how our televisions may one day have the power to say, “Hey, there are four people in this room and only three of them are licensed to watch Game of Thrones, so I’m powering down until you kick that freeloading bastard outta here!”
He’s pointing out that all the information lovingly gathered by corporations can end up in ill-intentioned government hands any old time, or even just as a matter of routine if the companies in question are feeling generous.
In the midst of his latest article on this subject, he says:

“I was ranting to a friend the other day as she booted up her smart TV, ran down the usual list of grievances and suspicions and countermeasures. She listened patiently (as you know, I do tend to go on sometimes), and finally drawled “You know, your arguments all make sense, but I just don’t really care.”

So, first: I wasn’t listening patiently, Squid. That implies I was humoring you. I was interested in what you were saying, even if I was also rather amazed at your ability to finish sentences in the presence of CinZo. Because every thought either Kelly or I begins at home right now seems to end with “… blah blah blah the nuclear physics, and its impact on society… OMG, kids, you are cute! So cute! Photo op!”

Go ahead: start a big thought and then look at this:

Yeah, I said I didn’t care. It was a bit glib and yet in many ways true. More precisely, I don’t care enough. Not enough to spend cash on having a computer at home that’s not connected to the Internet. (Anything I truly didn’t want the world to know would never find its way onto a hard drive, or even a piece of paper.) Not enough to worry about whether Apple has a detailed map of my movements when I’m rabidly posting geo-tagged photos everywhere I go on Instagram. Frankly, I think of that stuff as my alibi cache:

“Actually, Detective, I’m pretty sure I can produce a picture of me and Richard Kimble in the Distillery District at the time when the crime took place.”

I certainly don’t care enough to torrent all my media instead of buying it from corporate providers, even if they do count my watch history–or to to eschew Netflix. Hell–if they could actually use my viewing habits to accurately predict what I’d love to watch, my daily half-hour of TV would be more effectively used.

(It used to be more TV. Again, kittens are so time consuming!)

It’s true that I don’t actually *need* Netflix to recommend stuff. My friends do that–check out Gemma Files and her drive-by film and TV reviews–but Peter’s not wrong. We should take him seriously. It’s reasonable to want our TVs to be passive machines that deliver entertainment without reporting on our viewing habits, private conversations, sexual antics and political leanings. The fact that we’re not only living in the age of Big Brother but paying companies hundreds of dollars to give us the shiny surveillance devices they can potentially use to watch us is insulting and creepy.
And it’s a little sad, maybe, that I’m comfortable with letting someone mine my data if I can watch Youtube videos in a 36-inch format. There’s a vein of laziness and apathy there, and I know it’s not necessarily admirable.
The thing is, the hypothetical privacy ship has long since sailed, hasn’t it? Peter was halfway through breaking down the TV thing for me before it occurred to him to glance at my flatscreen and jokingly ask if it might be listening. Our phones were on. Heck, the window was open.
If you want to plan a (virtuously-motivated, civilly-disobedient non-violent) crime these days, and you want to be 100% sure Ominous They couldn’t get wind of it, could you put a working Cone of Silence together? Is that possible? Even if you pulled it off, and didn’t leave any kind of evidence trail, Peter himself points out that Ominous They don’t really care about the law. Innocent or guilty, alibi trail or not, evidence could be manufactured if they liked you for the deed.
Saying “I don’t care” was dismissive. It is, to some extent, untrue. The corporate info-gathering does, at times, annoy the crap out of me. When some peppy twenty-something from the drug store calls and starts to tell me when I last renewed my prescriptions, what follows does not result in their having a good day at work. (Those people mostly don’t call anymore.) Until we moved, I made a regular practice of doing most of my shopping on a cash basis, with an eye to limiting the bank’s total understanding of my consumer habits. By chance, that paid off for me once, when someone tried to phish my bank card–there was literally only one place where I’d used debit in the past month. I tell varying wild lies to the Internet services I sign up for about my age, genders and location. If there’s no reason for you to know where I live, your database probably has my dead grandparents’ postal code.
Peter talks about not liking the feeling of being prey.
My friend, we’ve never been anything else. I’ve never doubted it. I was in the closet until about 1989, and there was a definite feeling, at that time, that amounted to keep your head down or lose it. Back in my student activist days, it was generally assumed–I admit this was probably just twenty-something drama queenery–that CSIS kept files on us all. My Sixties-vintage parents had a touch of the same bug; they swore that because they had friends in the SDS, their phone in Utah was tapped.
I’m not saying that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That is, I know, bullshit. I’m saying that if you have something to fear, you’re probably already screwed. Which is maybe fatalistic, but governments have historically shown it to be the case time and again. And they didn’t need Facebook to help them. Facebook just makes it easier and inexpensive.
Which is why the essence of Peter’s argument is this: Ominous They can watch us, but we can make the system expensive, difficult, and buggy. We can sabotage!
(This presumably means obliging Them to use more of our tax dollars on keeping track of us. Because a higher price point won’t curb the attempt, will it.)
I’m not necessarily against making the surveillance society less effective. But here’s my thought: what you’re arguing for, really, is better anti-predator adaptations. Increasing our chances of dodging the hyena pack. To borrow the cats and mice metaphor, you’re telling us to be better mice. Or maybe to evolve out of rodentness altogether and become antelope, so there’s a big herd of protein ready to circle ’round when something comes at you, claws out.
So here’s one conundrum: being a better antelope, having a bigger herd, might mean embracing the Book of Face. That’s the virtual watering hole, ain’t it?
And that I’m down with. This may be about accepting your preyness, Peter, and deciding what kind of delicious edible thing-without-claws you want to be. Are you in truth a mouse, living in the house of Ominous They, snurching crumbs of delicious data from their cupboards, and pondering whether you can ease the cheese out of the basement mousetraps without falling afoul of Newton, the Maine Coone Death Machine? The tools of the successful prey species are hiding, camouflage, breeding in inextinguishable numbers, being too toxic to eat, and running like hell. Can we translate some or all of those to our gadget-abundant ecosystem?
What does a person who feels passionately about this do with the faintly-indifferent mass of Netflix-loving folk who are just hoping to crouch in the grass, unseen and uneaten? Is there a way to get us on board with being antelope?
Maybe. We live in a time where you can get people to do nearly anything if it’s easy, sexy, cheap and fun. Hiding your data would have to be as simple and more emotionally rewarding than having points cards and a map of everyplace on the planet where you’ve ever posted a photo. It would have to outcompete iTunes and Google in terms of joy delivery. Easy, right? Basically, all I’m asking for is a civil disobedience app.
Having said that, I will check out the e-mail shredder and the other stuff Peter posted. If it’s easy, the work of a few minutes to chop up my outgoing messages, I’ll do it. I figure I owe the herd that much.

Hands free… ish

Posted on October 15, 2010 by

A few years ago I decided to try out dictation software for composing things like e-mails.

I had a couple of goals: one was simply to reduce the amount of time spent typing draft, especially for small stuff, the quick messages that keep my life organized. I type a lot, and fast: the wear and tear on my hands is considerable.

Another was to see what kind of stories I would get out of it. I find that my longhand scribbles have a a slightly different writing style, you see, than the fiction I compose directly on the keyboard. I’d played with a dictaphone for awhile, and that yielded some interesting results, notably “The Town on Blighted Sea.” The idea of accessing different parts of my writerbrain through different mechanical processes is alluring and cool.

But, you see, I’m not so keen on transcription.

I didn’t end up liking the software that much. I tried two versions, both of them Sir Clunky Crashalots. The hardware wasn’t much better: I splashed out on a good headset and mic combo and it wasn’t comfortable. And even after I had learned a fair amount, the process of correcting typos was mind-blowingly awkward.

What I wanted, of course, was the Star Trek thing where you talk to the computer and it renders perfectly transcribed, beautifully punctuated prose, preferably of Pulitzer quality. Which was too much to hope for, and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready for how it would substitute wild things for the numerous made-up words that tend to pop up in my fantasy and SF. It also didn’t much care for the fact that every twentieth word out my mouth is fuck.

Perhaps Captains Archer, Kirk and Picard would have encountered the same problem if they shared my fondness for profanity. Maybe there’s a cut scene in Enterprise where Scott Bakula’s going, “I fucking said T’Pol!” and the screen reads “Paul. The Paul. I boxing said the poll. Dude, what do you want from me?”

I am now having a second go at occasionally dictating things, for no better reason than that the Dragon app on the iPod is free, free, free! I had low expectations: I couldn’t figure out how the thing would work, given that the original Dragon was such a enormous memory vampire. What I’ve discovered is that the bulk of the processing happens online. You just dictate little passages and it uploads them to the Internet. Huge dragon servers transcribe them while you sip tea and contemplate your next Grate Thought, then shoot back the results.

This version of Dragon can’t be taught weird ecofantasy words like vitagua (I eventually convinced its predecessor to do this, for the sake of Indigo Springs) and OMG, it’s so cute, it puts a * in the middle of f*cking. What it does do, and what I really enjoy, is it lets me indulge in the verbal equivalent of a freewrite, babbling on in short sentences whenever I have privacy and a Wi-Fi connection

Of course, one has to ask: given that there isn’t word-perfect transcription, is it worth the hassle of correcting the text once you’ve e-mailed it to your hard drive? Sometimes it’s pretty garbled. Here’s a phrase from this particular passage of dictation:

is it worth the Thompson house of correction once you have the text a random Ms. Gilbert Fray

Answer: Maybe. I’m still data-gathering. This might just be another flirtation with a technology I don’t end up using. You gotta kiss a lot of toads, and all that.

Datapoint: when I took a look today at some gibberish I’d recorded for an upcoming guest blog entry, I noticed that it wasn’t that hard to correct the sentences: I remembered whatever it was I had said.

Datapoint: There was also a pretty decent idea wrapped up in all of the out of order paragraphs and peculiar word substitutions. Once I had done little organizing and fixed the most egregious typos, I had the very beginning of what looked like a seriously cool draft.

Will it work for fiction? I don’t know. I do most of my fiction writing well away from anything resembling a Wi-Fi hot spot; I make rather a point of it. And things are going pretty well right now on that front, anyway. I also suspect I’d have to evolve some kind of verbal shorthand to increase comprehension: all my main characters might need to be John Smith or Joan Addams just so I had some faint chance of knowing who the hell was talking at any given time. But I’ve I’ve written a couple good blog posts, and some letters to my grandmother. We’ll see where it goes from there.

Watch the birdie!
Song sparrow