Notes on Culture and Empire

Published: 2019-10-27
Tagged: thoughts readings

On a recent trip to the Bay Area, I decided that Pieter Hintjen's "Culture and Empire" would be an interesting read. Having read his "Psychopath Code", I was pumped what he had to say about online privacy. The first 100 pages, in which he describes how online culture will evolve and change the world, were an interesting mix of ideas. But after that the book becomes confusing and chaotic and feels like a collection of rough drafts of blog posts. What surprised me more was a growing sense of disagreement with the author. He used events with which I'm familiar with to paint a picture of the world that is completely different than what's in my head. While fascinating, I found the arguments to be weak. I can imagine meeting with Pieter and spending a long afternoon discussing this just to figure out why our views diverge so much, but sadly that's not possible. It would have been fascinating.

Digital culture vs. analog culture

The first part of the book argues that we are in the midst of a digital revolution, which is changing our lives as drastically as the industrial revolutions did, but at a much faster pace. This threatens the established power structures, which are fighting to control the torrent of change. Software patents, copyright law, online censorship, mass surveillance are one side of this fight. Open source, digital right activists, whistleblowers are on the other. The latter group is force of good because the change they bring improves democracy by giving more people a voice and making sure everyone can access information. He uses the example of the telecommunication industry in Africa, which was stagnant for many years because of corrupt government, but exploded when lightly-regulated and cheap cell phone service became available. By giving people tools to communicate freely, you allow them to come together and solve problems and he argues that cheap, reliable telecommunications have done more to help Africa than foreign aid. It's a compelling and heartwarming picture. What better way to help people than to allow them to help themselves?

During my relatively short life, I've witnessed billions of people connect to the Internet and use it to discover new ways of living. The first impulse is always to fool around, but then people get serious. At least that's my hope right now. There are tons of cool and funny gadgets and websites that are winning tens of millions of eyeballs and dollars. I think I see this initial, kid-like fascination begin to fade as people get more serious about privacy and security. The question that keeps me up at night is whether we're learning this fast enough?

Patterns where non exist

After that, my view of the world began to sharply diverge from Pieter's. He praises Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia for strengthening four freedoms:

Reading that in 2019, my thoughts jumped to all I've learned about online propaganda, fake news, troll farms, and a lot of other toxic sludge that social media has spread around the world. It seems like social media is actively acting against the four freedoms mentioned above.

Following that, Pieter suggests a model of the world where various three-letter government agencies make up the para-state that is lead by a shadowy elite. This elite is afraid of the masses, especially young 20-somethings, rising up and overthrowing them and establishing a new world. To back up his arguments, he uses the Snowden and Manning leaks along with a dozens of smaller pieces of history, and attempts to weave all of them into one linear narrative. For me, all the examples he brings up appear to be failures of all the systems around us instead of a single narrative plot line woven together by a cabal of evil masterminds.

The part the really knocked the whole thing over for me was his recurring dislike for Americans that made the whole second part of a book feel like a long rant against America itself. Some examples:

Americans seem to show a capacity for sharp and hostile responses to real or imagined threats, a disregard for others' suffering and cost, and an emotional view of the world, driven by lust, fear, hate,jealousy, anger, and self-pity.

The passivity of the American public is famous, and confusing.

If I was American I'd be embarrassed that for all my country's advantages, its main gifts to the world have been Coca-Cola, MTV and CNN, and countless nasty wars disguised as peace actions.

The problem with this is that it's too simple a model. It proposes a single, nice target to blame for the evils of the world: jealous, angry, uneducated, and fat Americans, who somehow are completely blind to the abuses that their government is inflicting upon the world and that are happy to continue along, consuming, eating, being jealous and paying taxes to fuel the invisible machine that's bent on world domination.

He backs up his argument in confusing ways, such as this:

It [The Economist newspaper] has a division called the Economist Intelligence Unit, which used to be the Business International Corporation, a CIA front company. BIC coincidentally employed a young Barack Obama.

What does The Economist, the CIA, and Barack Obama have in common? I have no idea and even less of what it proves that the three might be tied together.

What finally brought some measure of understanding was reading arguments like the following:

How can we tell the difference without the trial-and-error that so often results in dire consequences? Did we really need centuries of war in Africa leading to tens of millions dead, and a major civil war in the US to prove that slavery was a bad idea?

This made me realize that the core argument for the existence of a shadowy global cabal of masterminds is an exercise in hindsight bias. You start with the result: the existence of the group. Then, you pull in as many events that confirm that view as you can. The result is a combination of seemingly random bits of news, important events, and a dash of anti-American sentiment. For example, let's take the example of slavery: yes, we really needed centuries to understand that slavery is evil. To the people alive back then, this wasn't obvious. It isn't obvious to many cultures today that still adhere to a caste-based system and practice indentured servitude that's slavery in all but name. To understand this, instead of passing judgment from the comfy year of 2019, imagine you are one of those people: the education (if any) of a modern 10 year old, never having traveled more than 20 miles from your place of birth, a deep fear of the paranormal and anything different. This isn't an excuse, but an observation that while technology advances at blindingly fast pace, social norms evolve at the speed of a hasty glacier. Add to that the fact that there's no guarantee that progress is linear. We have seen regressions and may sadly see more of them.

With this in mind, is it really that hard to imagine how organization given absolute power and secrecy abuse it? Given how big a system our global society is, I'm not surprised that we're seeing these failures. It doesn't need the guiding hand of an evil cabal, all it needs is enough people taking part, like the hundreds of thousands of people working for all the secret services around the world, and a revealing agent like the Internet, to expose one abuse of power after another. These systems are broken. They produce, alongside the product they were built for, namely information, failures that take the form of abuses of power. It's a wonder how this whole thing hasn't ground to a halt.

Toward the end, Pieter mentions a friend that "... look[s] at events over the last twenty years and they see continuation of old patterns." Just 20 years? What we're seeing is a continuation of hundreds of years. We toil to put up systems that are meant to provide "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", only to watch them become corrupt and turn against us. Just like software, nothing we make is perfect. It needs constant care and attention to make sure it's running correctly. Eternal unease and vigilance are the price of free society.

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Hi, I'm Matt.

Notes on programming and life. Often both.

All views expressed are my own.