Today I return to my blog to recap the next three chapters of Surveillance Valley, still one of two non-fiction books I’ve ever read. While the previous section had a focus on the pre-internet era and reasons for its development, the next section focuses on a time the reader will find much more familiar.

Surveillance Valley | Surveillance Valley — Yasha Levine

Chapter 4: The hippie Moses.

After leaving off lost history with riots against the development of the ARPANET, a pre-historic military-funded version of the internet, it would seem impossible for the internet to continue development or at the very least change the public opinion surrounding it. But we already know the ending to this story, a spoiler by nature of you reading this blog online: The internet is created, web browsers are made, a small group of companies remain richest in existence until the present day and the internet is so widespread it’s more shocking to not have the internet than to not have clean water. But how exactly did we jump from riots to the new internet timeline? Levine brings light to one man in particular, a hippie by the name of Stewart Brand. In the failure of building societies of hipsters connected by cybernetics, Brand would take a different path towards the popularisation of the internet. Like a murderer becoming a detective, Brand didn’t require much more knowledge besides re-branding himself as someone that was more than a hippie. Describing the internet as a counterculture, Brand successfully dared the youth to support the progress of the internet and got the industry walking with two-feet again. Brand also wrote a catalogue called ‘The Whole Eath Catalogue’ which Levine describes as ‘Google in paperback form’ and created the New Communalists in the 1980’s, a hipster group that by trying to get rid of heirarchies and replace it with cybernetics, ended up forming new heirarchies in their place where more charismatic leaders would drown out the voices of the suffering. It sounds like a dystopian future but the fact it was our past gives more than enough reason to not try building societies around flawed ideals.

 

Chapter 5: Google: The Life Browser

Historically, Google has always been a fairly successful business and has found its success on one thing alone: surveillance. As I’m sure you’re already aware, Google tracks the data behind each search and stores it to create a profile. However, up until I read this chapter, I didn’t know how detailed an image Google was capable of creating, nor did I realise it was practically the next logical step forward in the internet’s relations to counter-insurgency.

To take a step back, counterinsurgency is the collection of data of a large group of individuals and taking as many datapoints to accurately and efficiently determine their next decisions, possibly preventing conflict before it happens.

With that, I now present to you Google: a company that found success from the collection of data of a large group of individuals and taking as many datapoints to accurately and efficiently determine their next decisions, to grant faster access of information and guarantee successful advertisements to advertisers. While the latter part is certainly a different description of something far from counterinsurgency, the former is not. Google, and all similar businesses that have found their success through collecting datapoints and creating profiles of users, are basically using the same principles as counterinsurgency but commercialised in our new capitalist world.

Google’s accuracy is also scary to think about. When Levine covered a discussions between Google employess and if they were able to create an algorithm to predict stocks, they concluded that ‘it would be illegal’. The fact that it wasn’t a matter of whether Google couldn’t create the algorithm but that they shouldn’t reframes the idea that Google is just a searchbox. It’s clearly capable of much more and when Gmail was created, it granted Google access to more than just searches. Where before anything beyond the search bar was beyond limits, Gmail crafted a door into people’s day to day lives by having accesss to a person’s emails. As a person with 6 used gmail accounts (and more used for creating 1 time use accounts), I realised only then what Google had access to. Every digital receipt I’ve ever received, every promotional email and every actual email I’ve ever sent (which is to say a very limited dataset) can be read by Google and used to increase its accuracy of my personality further.

Levine also brought light many tech companies and their relations to state surveillance. Apparently, Facebook’s Occulus VR system was planned to be integrated into fighting cyberwars, which sounds like something of science fiction at first but when you stop and think about it, it might genuinely work. Other notable companies and their surveillance include: eBay’s police division that lead to the arrests of 3000 people, Amazon’s cloud computing for the CIA, Blue Origin and SpaceX, both missile companies started by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon,  and Elon Musk, co-founder of paypal respectively.  The head of the hydra that is the use of surveillance for the government belonged in sheer volume to Google. Google Earth itself started off as a program inspired and later funded by the CIA to do exactly what it does today: take a satellite image of a map and project a 3D image that can be explored. The CIA funded the project, then owned by Keyhole, and made its way into the CIA itself because of how useful it was. Google also launched a spy satellite (GeoEye-I), bought Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that like poetry was funded by DARPA a.k.a ARPA, the same ARPA that would create the ARPANET. Google even has a way to redirect anyone searching for potential terrorism topics and ‘diverting them to State Department webpages and videos developed to disuade pepople from taking that path’ named the ‘Redirect Method’. With this many forms of surveillance, ties to counterinsurgency and federal agency stakeholders, it’s become quite obvious through Levine’s book that Google might be a spritual succesor to ARPA once you take a look at it.

My favourite quote of these two chapters has to be one of the communes that were built around the idea of flat heirarchies that ended up just forming their own heirarchies where all manners of horror became possible “There was constantly a background of fear in the house – like a virus running in the background, like spyware. You know it’s there but you don’t know how to get rid of it.”

 

While initially I had plans to cover Chapter 6, I read slower than anticipated and ther was just so much to cover in Chapter 5 on Google alone I’d like to leave that for another blogpost in the near future.

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