Stella, dear…

A retweet from AK brought this article from McKelvey, Tiessen & Simcoe to my attention the other day:

SMwe-hear-the-sound-of-machinesThe abstract suggests that the internet, with social media, big data and analytics, “can together be understood as a vast simulation machine that mediates and modulates everyday life to refashion what was once the ‘real world’ in its own image.” It reminds me of Gibson’s idea of everting cyberspace, which I’ve touched on before – the idea that the distinction between the virtual and the real has disappeared. It’s an idea from science fiction, and the article invokes a book I’ve never read which eerily parallels our current situation of government and corporate surveillance. Of course, the internet wasn’t constructed to do this. It grew more organically, as a product of us into a product using us. Or maybe it’s even more – not just using us, but making us. As Quinn Norton put it:

Your internet experience isn’t the main result of algorithms built on surveillance data; you are.

SMtaken-for-a-rideMcKelvey & co. said the web is “designed to narrowly calibrate human desire and activity” and that it “decipher[s] and shape[s] knowledge and information.” It does this based on our inputs, so in a sense it is a web of our making, but the control lies with the gatekeeper, not the user. This is seen as a benevolent power. They quote the philosopher Mengue: “control implies a positive mechanism that aims to protect life, increase its dynamism.” I think we’ve heard this before:

This is from “I, Mudd,” an episode of Star Trek where the intrepid explorers find themselves held captive on a planet where androids will cater to their every need, except their need for freedom. And like Kirk and friends, McKelvey & co. suggest that we fall back on an insanity defense:

what is to be done to subvert the data-mining machines other than to stop making sense?

Stop Making Sense was the title of a Talking Heads album and concert film. It comes from the lyrics of their 1983 song “Girlfriend is Better,” which I don’t pretend to understand. It is interesting though to read the words in the context of the web/Simulacron/panopticon – “It’s always showtime,” “Evr’ything’s under control,” “everything’s free / I don’t care how impossible it seems” – they take on unintended meanings. And if we look at them in the context of Star Trek, can we say the Harry Mudd has a girlfriend that’s better than that?

 

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