The future changes so quickly that Bill Gates had to write the same book twice. When The Road Ahead was first published in November 1995, he was still tepid about the internet, not quite prepared to make it synonymous with the ‘information highway’ that he hyped throughout the book. He had, in fact, changed his mind at least six months earlier, when he released the company memo in which he charted a new course for Microsoft centred around networking and the internet. But it was too late to change the book. He finally did so ahead of the paperback edition of 1996, and so for a while the future as described by the world’s most important technologist was available in two quite different versions.
The Road Ahead, in either edition, has little more than curiosity value now. But in it Gates made a throwaway prediction that still resonates. He described how, armed with one’s ‘wallet PC’ (what we’d now call a smartphone), people might choose to lead a ‘documented life’: that is to say keep a constantly updated record not only of their interactions with the internet but also of all of their everyday conversations, as well as of data such as body temperature, blood pressure or atmospheric pressure. While admitting to finding the prospect a ‘little chilling’, Gates speculated that this running database might constitute an ‘alibi machine’ with which to guard against false accusations. ‘On the other hand,’ he concluded, ‘if you were guilty of something, there would be a record of it.’
The record is out there, we know that now. Not every conversation, but most conversations. The what and the where and the how. So much personal information that it uses the last available name for a unit of data: a yottabyte, or one trillion terabytes. Nobody has even bothered to name the next one yet. The picture of the facility that the US National Security Agency is building in Utah, above, was attributed by Wired with delicious irony to ‘Name Withheld’. Who knows if the fortified buildings will show up on Google Maps, so that we wired citizens of the world can pinpoint the exact location of the last and most secure backup of our Skype conversations, email address book or family photos?
Apple, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Facebook, Google: if its leaked internal documents are to be believed, the NSA is able to access all of their servers directly and at will as part of its PRISM programme. This wouldn’t be surprising, or at least it shouldn’t be, for anyone who is familiar with the word Echelon or the phrase Room 614A. It’s an idea with documented precedents in the recent past, and since then the appetite for total surveillance of the nations involved – the US above all – has hardly diminished. What remains to be determined is the precise nature of the system, its legal boundaries (if it has any), its technical limitations (if it has any). These are far from unimportant questions, but it’s easy to get lost in the details. Yet global surveillance is nothing if not a big picture. So much information that the quantities cannot be imagined, information containing not just digitally typed words that a search engine could make ready sense of, but numbers with innumerable different meanings (one person’s phone number is another person’s bank account balance), pictures, audiovisual recordings. Everyone’s documented life. ‘Spying’ doesn’t begin to describe this. I agree with Robin James that we need a new theory of listening, as well as of watching, or reading.
Consider again Gates’ ‘documented life’. What kind of record is it, and how would you access it? To replay it would take a lifetime, by definition. There is no memory, scrapbook or diary that contains everything, the very idea of biography is based on selection. But we have the technology now, an architecture centred around consumer electronics and social media for collecting all personal data, from the objective to the psychological. I was in such a place, at such a time, and my GPS signature so confirms it. My mood at the time , as recorded on Facebook via the drop-down menu provided, was ‘happy’.
Even if you could replay a documented life, the data, in isolation, would have little or no meaning, even and perhaps most especially to you. It makes sense only in aggregate, for corporations and the surveillance state, and the kind of sense it makes is incommensurate with individual human goals and worldviews. Your being happy in a particular situation, for instance, might be of interest to marketers, so long as they can find enough matching emotional profiles to enable them to construct a workable model of happiness – what it looks like, how best to cater for it. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies will look at different patterns, or maybe at the same patterns in different ways. They will seek not comforting repetition but dissonant anomaly. Something that suggests your record ought to be pulled out and analysed. Give a single month of someone’s perfectly documented life to an organisation that has the right software and expertise, as well as the man hours to devote to the task, and they’ll make sense of it in no time.
As several commentators have noted, when Barack Obama said on Friday that ‘nobody is listening to your phone calls,’ he likely wasn’t lying. For one thing, nobody cares about the content of your conversations. Not unless you are already the target of an investigation. But they care very much who you re talking to, where ‘who’ is narrowly defined as a set of coordinates – a phone number, a location – that can be plotted on a map. Boundless Informant, one of the secret programmes whose existence was revealed last week by the Guardian, is all about plotting the billions of pieces of intelligence gathered by the NSA on a world map, with different colour gradations indicating the relative intensity of the information collection. To what precise set of ends, it’s difficult to say, but the immediate effect for the layperson is to highlight the total reach of global surveillance, its boundlessness (although its not without internal boundaries).
The map suggests that intelligence is still being gathered with a degree of selection, but bear in mind that the Utah data centre is not finished yet. When it comes on line, in September of this year, it might be possible to fulfil the vision suggested by PRISM: a world in which all social data that circulates is captured. It is the ultimate banality of our time to suggest that we engage in self-surveillance of our own volition, as a freely made consumer choice. Gates said of the electronically documented life that it would be ‘the ultimate diary and autobiography, if you want one’ but in fact soon enough being on Facebook or on an equivalent service will be about as optional as it was thirty years ago to have a phone (if it isn’t already). Yet how else you describe those geolocated tweets and status updates, or those situating statements – I’m at the supermarket, I’m on the bus – except as a participatory compulsion, a desire, a need perhaps to be plotted on such a map? That it should be a statement of banality is all the more unsettling. We are, each of us, most of us, boundless informants.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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