it used to be that if you were a technophile, you might as well have been, to some degree, a conspirator. The two were adjacent; some of the nerd’s basic lyrics are basically conspiracies wrapped up as fiction or parody—Illuminatus! Trilogy, The Book of Undergenius. When the internet came up, it became the place to go for the good stuff. It could teach you about the solitaires that rule the world, or about how ghosts are just time-traveling. I took it like a duck to spotted water, armed with the names of FTP sites written in a notebook. It was just the case for a powerless teenager looking for order. The alternative – that I was a normal human being instead of a repressed genius – was unthinkable.
As the internet grew and became less about conspiracy and oddity and more about commerce, so did I. I put childish things away, started taking a newspaper (well yeah, the website), and generally came to believe that the world was not ruled by forces that intended to hurt chaos, but instead by a network of fools , which acted on a variety of motives. , most greed. malicious? Sometimes a little. Satanic? Nah.
Still, a drop of conspiratorial ink colored my view. I assumed that the people who ruled the world – Bill Gates, for example, or Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk – just had more knowledge about its secrets. They have access to more information, I would think. They know what the companies they run and invest in are working on, they can see reports, they can buy raw data and hire teams of consultants to synthesize it for recommendations. But it turns out that the books they read tend to be the same books that everyone else reads. And their hobbies are the hobbies of ordinary rich people. In the launch video for Windows 95, Jay Leno drives a car that looks like a computer mouse. Mighty people have a lot of data, but it’s hard to guess what hidden knowledge they may possess.
In fact, it feels to me as if a large part of humanity has entered an age without secrets. Regular people do “open source intelligence”, trawl YouTube footage of war zones, triangulate with Google Maps, compare notes on Reddit to define exactly what happened. If you meet someone for coffee and you search for their name, you slip directly into their LinkedIn or their property records, and you need to remember not to get the price of their house up when you sit down. I used to download large Freedom of Information Act PDFs and search around leaked databases, but who can keep up with the pace of publishing now? The value of data on entire hard drives, so much data that we notice it: Paradise Papers (1.4 terabytes), Panama Papers (2.6 TB), Pandora Papers (2.9 TB). And recently – did anyone notice other than Wikipedia? – Suisse Secrets (which affects tens of thousands of bank customers). When the U.S. government revealed information about UFO sightings on military radar, people tweeted a bit and moved on.
at some level, you can look at the whole of modern telecommunications as a system for creating and then losing control of secrets. DMs, group chats, video recordings of our collective noses being picked up in the elevator. In the future, more will be hacked, more will converge, more systems will emerge to find patterns in other systems, recognize the still images, interpret the video. AI is pretty powerful this way: It can not think, but it can hoot. Europe seems ready to regulate it all, while the United States, when it comes to privacy, is trapped somewhere between fundraising and grandstanding. China just leads a wire directly from your computer to the government.
But should life in a networked panopticon be gloomy? I subscribe to a wonderful mailing list called Data Is Plural, which regularly posts new sources for health results, voice recordings, bird watching, and so on. It’s the only newsletter I open right away. Releasing a dataset is just such an optimistic act. Have you seen Microsoft’s Planetary? They have the whole world in there, more cards than you thought possible. Wooden cover. Soil type. You can go to Wikidata.org and ask for a list of all the famous dogs, or cities with populations over a million. There is a new data format, Zarr, that can take a file you put on the cloud and turn it into a geographic database. A beloved tool called Datasette turns your database into a website, lickety-split. The traditional boundary between client and server is blurred. These are abstract things, but the result is that it’s getting easier and easier to put data out there, to give people something to grow on. The new common areas do not take the form of a web pages (Wikipedia aside), but as a web data.
When you sit down to work the world, you are faced with a choice. You may be engrossed in the forces that are, and decide to interpret them through the wildly interconnected networks of the conspiracy. I have done that. You can look at the big daring names that drive your industry, which governs the government, and see how many of them sit on each other’s boards. I have done the same. Still do it. A lot. Or you can look at how much of the world is now available to anyone with a reasonable network connection and a desire to understand. Things seem pretty bleak, but I have kids to bring up, and that’s what I want to show them: Instead of worrying about the power of others, think about what you want to download. Hopefully you can do something better about it.
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