Regular service here to resume shortly.
Regular service here to resume shortly.
I caught up with William Gibson’s new graphic novel Archangel a few days late. Knew it was coming out but missed the Great Unveiling until people were raving about it on twitter. Gibson’s been an interest of mine for roughly two decades now and this new collaboration with Michael St. John Smith, Butch Guice, and Tula Lotay on covers promises to be no less fascinating. This post contains a few images and some storyline from the first issue, of course, so if you haven’t read it yet and want to go in fresh you should stop reading.
My content consumption is almost all digital now, so it struck me somewhat fun that I grabbed Archangel by way of a system that allows me to pay with certain magic numbers and beams the comic to my tablet after innumerable digital handshakes. I love digital platforms and it’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to pay even with a pretty low disposable income level – I want to see creators and digital platforms both thrive like hell.
I grabbed the comic and it immediately struck me as interesting. Tula Lotay’s cover hit high notes across a discordant noir theme, injecting a mass of color into what was about to be an absolutely bleak landscape in both timelines. Archangel’s beginning contrasts interestingly with a lot of Gibson’s literary work; his novels often begin with a coming-together, and Archangel kicks off with several comings-apart, from the material sense to the societal and interpersonal. Gibson’s a trickster of a deep and joyous sort who loves fucking with the baseline, so it’ll be interesting to see how this affects the story. But in typical Gibsonian fashion it also comes into focus in equal parts grit and technology but not a lot of flash.
Watching Gibson collaborate in a visual medium should be fascinating thanks to little visual cues he enjoys, bits of tangential errata accessible only by keen rememberers or re-readers. One of the first of these is a drop pistol in a drawer, trigger guard removed, grip wrapped in tape to prevent fingerprints:
One wonders in which act it’ll be fired. Another instance of these interesting little artifacts is the mechanized, electronic insects buzzing around in the pilot’s cell – in 1945:
Gibson also treats the story itself in interesting ways. He performs a thorough split of resources with fun implications: a crashed stealth plane from the future goes to the Brits (how will that affect the timeline?), the pilot and copilot (one alive, one dead) go to the Americans. But both sets are in a passive mode so far – British studying this new plane, Americans studying the mysterious tattooed soldiers with implanted gadgetry. But the only group native to that timeline with any agency so far are the Brits, as their intelligence officer works what lines she can to get access to the future pilots and takes some stuff for testing as the Americans don’t have the capability.
Meanwhile Junior and crew arrive on scene with agency, but they’re very visibly portrayed as alien – a smirking alien face on Junior as he’s flanked by two conspicuously massive guards. The three are imposed on that last scene as if it’s a background, rather than them being a natural part of it.
Gibson’s Peripheral involved some interesting timeline stuff but that was an open system with continuous manipulation of the target timeline. If we take things at face value the target timeline in Archangel is now a closed system. That certainly changes the game.
And to please me even further, the comic includes a damn fair amount of backmatter. I’m a process voyeur and seeing Gibson talk about the process so far, both in writing collaboration and in art, is like manna from heaven. I’d read a whole book that’s just about the process, I think. But luckily we’re getting it for free.
So far Archangel is Gibson at his best: wrapping multiple plots around objects or visuals and letting things play out in the foreground while you’re still staring at something specific and wondering about it.
I want to know when Givens’ dodgy little revolver fires. I want to know what put Torres in a wheelchair. I want to know how a Montana research facility survived whatever everything else didn’t, and why the hell there’s a copy of the White House on-site.
Intensely looking forward to the next issue.
University of Pennsylvania information science professor Matt Blaze happened upon an SUV near the Philadelphia Convention Center sporting a license plate radio and other surveillance gear not-so-cleverly disguised as a Google Street Car (the kind that roam around and produce Google Maps and the accompanying Street-level scenery). More than a few outfits picked up the story and determined that it was a Philadelphia Police vehicle but the, ahem, cunning misdirection was “not authorized.”
Many people are loading their homes with extra-smart devices, not just connected but able to do things like spoken language processing thanks to microphones and cloud software, such as the Amazon Echo. Gizmodo’s Matt Novak put in a Freedom of Information Act request to see if the FBI had yet wiretapped one and received what’s known as a Glomar Response: “We can neither confirm nor deny.” Draw your own conclusions there.
An incredible, insane investigation shows that federal agents bugged public areas around bay-area courthouses for years in the hopes of overhearing illegal conversations. And did so without warrants. In order to catch mortgage auction bid-rigging.
In public, non-public and supposedly privileged areas we are less and less able to depend on any kind of principles around privacy. In some cases (such as the Echo) we willingly surrender some of that privacy for convenience. In others we find that the privacy considered to be sacrosanct is violated without so much as due process of law. Practicality demands we enter into two renegotiations: one with ourselves regarding what privacy and self-security we’re willing to relinquish in exchange for services (Echo) or some semblance of safety (overall law enforcement); and a second with each other, on the civic level, as technology enables vastly greater surveillance powers but doesn’t seem to be enabling greater democracy. As Thomas Rid said in the excellent Cyber War Will Not Take Place, “The real risk for liberal democracies is not that these technologies empower individuals more than the state; the long-term risk is that technology empowers the state more than individuals, thus threatening to upset a carefully calibrated balance of power between citizens and the governments they elect to serve them.”
I have a deep love for subversive technologies – something that should be no surprise. Rid’s book contains an excellent discussion on technology and subversion, a discussion we need to revisit as the state and other institutions demand authority and legitimacy but continue to interfere with protected freedoms. Our technology currently empowers the state. What does the situation look like with more balance? What technologies can we promote that, as Rid defines subversion, deliberately attempt to undermine the trustworthiness, integrity and constitution of an established authority or order. Certainly they’re not all illegal and there are perhaps some of those technologies that may be illegal or treated as illegal that aren’t. For instance, use of the Tor anonymization platform is perfectly legal but, as authorities have admitted, brings extra law enforcement scrutiny to users and makes them surveillance targets (so does the simple act of encrypting your net traffic, such as through a commercial VPN). That very tension – between an act not being illegal yet prioritizing one as a target for more surveillance – is at the heart of subversion because it exposes the practical differences between the values we exalt and the operational principles we employ.
It’s not an easy balancing act. Nothing about this is simple. But the narratives that FBI Director James Comey and others keep slinging are filled with, at best, inaccuracies. The FBI positions aren’t a result of them being disempowered by encryption but empowered by a myriad of technologies – automated plate readers, better remote microphones, in-home surveillance rigs – and fearful of a re-balancing.
Technology’s primary role should be to empower individuals. Tell me I’m wrong.
(This is the featured meat of this week’s newsletter, which just went out. If you want to subscribe you can find it here.)
Thinking about artificial intelligences a lot lately. Our thinking about machine thinking feels like it’s matured significantly over the past six months or year, entered a new phase. Most of the conversation seemed stuck for a while on fears like Bostrom’s paperclip maximizer – the idea that an AI programmed even to a trivial task could be dangerous because it thinks machinistically. That, programmed to create paperclips, an AI would consider humans detrimental to its programming because they might unplug it, and also humans are made up of a lot of atoms that could be better served assembled into more paperclips. The logical issues with overblown fears like the paperclip maximizer are astounding – first and foremost, it pretends we can think non-biologically about how an AI will approach biology, or really any task. The argument invalidates itself by wrapping around the idea that we can in no way conceive of how AI will “think.” But, apparently, we can know enough to be afraid of it. In fact, we can guess enough about its possible thought processes to consider it an existential threat, according to Bostrom!
The idea that non-biological intelligences will “think” in ways totally alien to us is not new, but I’ve seen it explored a lot more lately, and with a lot more depth. It’s entering more conversations about AI in general and our interactions with it in particular. Take AlphaGo, for instance – Google’s deep learning program devoted to playing the board game Go. AlphaGo’s faced four matches with the second best Go player in the world, winning the first three (the fifth has yet to be played). The ability to watch and analyze in detail human-AI interaction can produce some astounding insights, and in this case seems to point to an entirely new way to approach Go gameplay.
Delving into the idea of nonbiological artificial intelligence in a different way is Injection, a comic written by Warren Ellis with stunningly beautiful art by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. Injection’s relatively new – issue 8 comes out this week – but quickly becoming a favorite comic of mine thanks both to the art and the wonderful ways in which Ellis intertwines things like technology, philosophy and folklore. It involves a crossdiscipline team of varied experts including Brigid Roth, a hacker and programming phenomenon who, well, had a bit of fun with the Turing Test…
Injection goes much, much deeper into the issue of machine intelligence, in fascinating ways. And I’m excited to see where Ellis takes it, especially given the richer environment. We might be ready for this conversation. We might. Injection approaches it in a great way, though – through a lens not necessarily but not unlike horror. And as Eugene Thacker (who I talked about in the last issue of this newsletter) states, horror is a way to think about the unthinkable, a way to process past what might be the limit of human thought. Using horror to approach nonbiological intelligence – a form and function of “thought” that we cannot comprehend – is nothing short of perfect, a sort of speculative machine intelligence metacognition.
People continue to be flabbergasted that the anger behind Donald Trump’s support has not burned itself out yet. It must, they often insist, consume itself and leave former supporters gripped by boredom, lackadaisical, having spent their energy in acts of political catharsis before averaging out and backing a candidate of more substance, closer to the aims of the Republican Party. This is true for observers on both sides of the aisles and they’re both thoroughly wrong. It’s the kind of thinking, oddly enough, that led to the hallucinatory 2008 and 2012 predictions widely circulated within the Republican party (though both parties are guilty of this at random times) that they were about to win the presidency – a disconnect from the ground-level reality behind campaigns.
To offer a more grounded view of Trump’s supporters than I did in my previous post (regarding philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Trump and Dante’s Inferno) let me turn to one of the most basic parts of any Psychology 101 curriculum for decades.
The support behind Trump is the Stanford Prison Experiment writ large with all the ethical and methodological issues still intact.
In 1971 psychology professor Philip Zimbardo began a two-week experiment in the basement of a Stanford University building in which students were divided up into guards and prisoners. Guards were given uniforms, batons and mirrored sunglasses to avoid eye contact. Prisoners were forced to wear uniforms with their prisoner number on them, and referred from there on as that number. Guards policed the prisoners in their cells and a few other confined areas, ensuring they acted “appropriately” and punishing displays of defiance.
By the second day both groups began to assume their assigned roles in big ways. Guards became much more authoritarian and began to target and torment prisoners in various ways. Prisoners began to defy that authority, act out, block access and respond with anger, hostility and hopelessness. Steps such as the removal of clothing or the refusal to let prisoners empty the “sanitation buckets” in their cells were taken, stripping prisoners of essential dignity. The entire experiment spiraled into a mountain of increasing ethical violations until a graduate student assigned to interview prisoners objected to the conditions.
It took less 6 days for the experiment to go so badly that it had to be terminated. Both prisoners and guards identified so deeply with their roles that they treated each other savagely. Six days.
I spent a few hours looking at the Trump corners of twitter and facebook today (for two good samples, check Mitt Romney’s facebook page and then go search “Mr Trump” on twitter – diehard supporters love using the “mister”). Reviewing the rhetoric of Trump supporters brought me to a conclusion: this is the Stanford Prison Experiment inscribed on presidential politics, graffiti’d like a vulgarity scratched on a lamppost. Trump supporters see themselves as prisoners and want to be the jailers, but in the meantime assume the roles they feel they’ve been forced into.
Zimbardo’s instructions for guards before his experiment began are preserved publically and quite on point here:
“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”
And this is exactly what you see in the complaints of Trump’s political base – they are both bored and fearful, and feel that the world has exacted some terrible price upon their individuality and personal agency. They bemoan the total control that they perceive the government to be exerting and at the same time identify with it, often wanting to exact similar or worse upon their own enemies. To repeat: they’ve assumed the roles of powerless prisoners but fantasize of themselves as the jailers, using sadistic violence, vitriol and privilege manipulation to control and punish those they see as weaker. Shows of force are highly extolled virtues – everything else is met with sneering contempt (I’m again reminded of the Warren Ellis character presidential candidate Bob Heller – you can find a few relevant panels at the bottom of this post).
They have the anger of those who feel their dignity is assaulted every day, and so take on the mantle of the Undignified. No amount of dialogue or statesmanship is going to make a bit of difference in that case – it’s why appeals to presidential dignity like Romney’s today will be met with Trump explicitly saying Romney would’ve given him oral sex for an endorsement in 2012, for instance, to the raucous applause of his supporters and enthusiastic approval from his political base.
The Republican leadership – any leadership, really, but the Republican in particular – has no idea what to do with this. This kind of self-identification isn’t just a sort of fad-anger that can be redirected or tamped. And surely bringing people like Mitt Romney to try and stamp it out only fans the flames – in him they see another captor, an establishment jailer who they nonetheless picture themselves in the role of. They want to be successful capitalist so badly, the Bain Capital executive, the man in the pressed suit. But that desire to be Romney can’t become conscious and so is sublimated back into the unquenchable anger of a population that feels it’s been forced into indignity and barbarism.
They’ve been given a role, and they will play it until the experiment’s over. That they don’t see Trump as another jailer – one that’s bankrupted numerous legitimate business and crushed countless people much closer to the level of the supporters – is an artifact of fantastic marketing on Trump’s part. As long as he feeds the anger he gives them the only sense of agency they have.
Just sent another newsletter out – the main article’s below, and you can subscribe here.
I’ve just started reading Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet, the first in his Horror of Philosophy series and as recommended by Warren Ellis. In the Dust of This Planet considers horror as a vehicle through which to think about the unthinkable, from personal to climatological. Horror as a way to poke and prod at the limit of thought and immediate experience. It’s fantastic and engrossing so far and I was so caught by a particular point that’s stuck ever since.
Thacker proposes a few interpretations for the word black in the phrase “black metal” and in doing so addresses, separately, several ways to process darkness, evil and demons.
“In contrast to what Schopenhauer calls a private nothing (the nihil privativum; dark as the absence of light, death as the absence of life) there is a negative nothing (the nihil negativum; nothingness without any positive value).”
In other words, private nothing is an absence of something defined and has its own character on that basis. Compared to that, negative nothing is without character or definition – it is simply absence without any kind of light-or-matter transition to some positive state. Thacker goes on to discuss demons and typology, including a fantastic point – right on topic – that “Elaine Pagels’s widely-read The Origin of Satan makes the clearest point: the demon is inseparable from a process of demonization, and this process is as much political as it is religious.” And a bit later:
“The demon is not really a supernatural creature, but an anthropological motif through which we human beings project, externalize and represent the darker side of the human to ourselves.”
Mechanism established Thacker moves onto typology of demons in Dante’s Inferno and identifies at least three distinct types: Lucifer himself, personified, giant, brooding counter-sovereign; embodied demons such as the Malebranche that are found instituting various punishments and generally administrating the mundane tasks of hell; and the third type, which is what I’m concerned with here. Dante encounters a demonic atmosphere, a tempestuous and vile black wind driving the spirits back and forth, “eternal in its rage.”
“We soon learn that this tempestuous scene is not the backdrop for some new genre of demons, but that the wind, the rain and the storm itself is the demon. This “black wind” is at once invisible and yet dramatically manifest, coursing through the swarming bodies of the damned.”
Thacker describes this as a demon that is “fully immanent, and yet never fully present,” “at once pure force and flow,” but having no substance of its own “also pure nothingness.”
It occurred to me while reading that this seems a perfect corollary to the Trump Campaign. A fiery, rageful bombast who has yet to articulate any particular strategy or stance. Instead, Trump blows back and forth across what all involved seem to percieve as a doomed and decrepit plain, and they’re taken by the force he shows. He bellows from above about destroying this or that enemy or head of state, bellows about building a wall that he’ll force another country to pay for, bellows frenetically back and forth: he contradicts himself as much as he affirms himself. It isn’t direction Trump is concerned with, only force. He’s a political tempest with rage rather than form; his campaign is “fully immanent, and yet never fully present,” lacking hereness but “dramatically manifest.” Not the counter-divine but rather the political nihil negativum, an absence furiously insisting upon its presence.
I keep expecting Trump to burn out – to blow himself out, really. That at some point his energy has to expire and give place to something else. But there’s no energy to bottom out. Trump’s not the counter-anything, but rather that nothingness without a positive value. He’s that vile storm blowing across a landscape that doesn’t know there’s a positive value on the other side of rage. And he appeals so much to people who seem to view themselves as the damned – angry at being cast into a landscape they find existentially hostile and punishing, a population mad enough at their world that they’ve instead chosen the storm that’s as likely to turn on them as anything.
This piece just went out in the weekly newsletter, along with breach, robot and TSA news and some breaking news about a voter information breach. You can subscribe to the newsletter here or read the current issue here.
A few weeks ago I send myself an email. Because oddly it’s still the easiest way to move individual files from one device to another. I send it without subject or content, just the attachment. A few seconds later the email hits my tablet but I can see even without opening the email that there’s content.
What’s this, then?
Opening the email I find that my antivirus attached a signature at the end of my email advertising itself. “This email was scanned by Avast Antivirus and is safe!” or some similar foolishness. Of course, never having authorized the program to attach signatures to my email I was more than a little curious and annoyed. Digging into the program I found that since I had updated the program engine that day it added a function to attach its own signature to my emails and then automatically opted me in without so much as a courtesy notification. This kind of thing, of course, is not the way legitimate software acts. This is the stink of malware. So I abandoned the antivirus I’ve used and recommended for years and wondered just what the hell they were thinking.
Avast’s egregious fuckery falls into place with a dynamic that’s seized the technology world and undone decades of careful work: put simply, it’s a war on users. User loyalty is no longer a prominent dynamic, nor is usability. Nearly every service I use now puts things in between me and what I want to get done. Apple’s Music app reworked the user interface to advertise its own junk before you could actually get to a place to play your music that you had on your device. Google Play Music now does the same thing, spawning me into the “Listen” screen where they want me to buy their streaming service. It takes me an extra few clicks to just get to my damn MP3s. Twitter’s begun destroying its own usability by displaying tweets out of chronological order in timelines.
There is a war on users and what suffers is not only our productivity and efficiency but really the enjoyability of the platforms pulling these shenanigans. I shouldn’t have to paw through three different screens just to get to the music I bought through your app. I know you have new streaming services or some exclusive concert you’d like me to listen to. I don’t care. We spent three decades perfecting user interfaces according to User Experience (UX) guidelines – make things simpler, easier, faster. And we’ve undone that in the span of three years just to badger people into buying extra crap.
I had a nightmare once that coin-operated video game arcades never existed as we know them (and I have fond, fond memories of spending hours in Hampton Beach arcades feeding in quarter after quarter). In the nightmare you only got to the games after watching a revenue-generating advertisement and then passing through a series of screens “offering” extra paid services of the arcade. We got what we paid for but only after we saw what they wanted – and we all accepted it.
The war on users goes beyond UI and UX considerations. It’s obstructionist product placement. Word-of-mouth is no longer the goal for these services. They demand captive ears and eyes. And short of building our own platforms we suffer at their whims.
This is the future. Things should be getting easier for us, right?
Just sent out issue 2 of the Neurovagrant Newsletter, containing this and more.
Last week security researcher Chris Vickery uncovered a massively insecure database belonging to the Hello Kitty line of products – which include a number of online components. Vickery found that the details of some 3.3 million accounts could be accessed including real name, gender, country of origin, password and birthday. Even more troubling is the fact that most of these accounts likely belong to children – and coming so quickly in the wake of the VTech toymaker hack in which four million parent accounts and six million child profiles were compromised, it should cause each parent about to buy an internet-connected toy some pause.
Vickery wasn’t done there. That week he “was on a rampage, reporting data breaches for companies and services like MacKeeper, security vendor for Macs (13 million accounts); OkHello, video chat app (2.6 million accounts); Slingo, online gaming site (2.5 million accounts); iFit, fitness app (576,000 accounts); Vixlet, social network (377,000 accounts); California Virtual Academies, online school network (74,000 accounts); and Hzone, dating app for HIV patients (5,027 accounts).”
On Thursday Juniper Networks announced that its Virtual Private Network operating system ScreenOS had been compromised for at least the last four years. Juniper is a giant in the VPN business, which allow you to do things like access work networks from outside the office or protect your internet traffic from those seeking to intercept it. It appears two separate backdoors were installed into ScreenOS including one that utilized a cryptographic algorithm known to have been weakened at the direction of the National Security Agency – dual_ec_drbg. Attackers took advantage of engineered weaknesses to intercept the traffic of Juniper clients. To what extent is not yet known, but again: the backdoor had been present for the past four years.
Enter most of the 2016 presidential candidates. The entirety of the GOP candidates appear to be “against encryption” – a laughably simple argument considering encryption powers just about every bit of commerce and civic life we’re involved in. Encryption safeguards your card information when you purchase something on the internet but also when you use a card in-store; the point-of-sale machine connects to a payment processor, and when the encryption and/or segmentation there fails we see retail store POS breaches like Target or the processor-side TJX/Heartland breach. A strong economy relies on strong encryption. So does a strong healthcare system – healthcare breaches constitute the lion’s share of breaches in the past several years. Strong government itself relies on strong encryption. The OPM hackof this year shows us that. Not only did attackers gain an incredible data trove on law enforcement, intelligence and military members but having extended access to the database raises the specter of information being added, allowing deep infiltration of important institutions.
The encryption debate – often termed The Crypto Wars by those involved – popped up repeatedly since we became an information-heavy society. The latest round of Crypto Wars all but ended earlier this year in a resounding defeat for those seeking weaker encryption thanks to a strong, universal agreement among security experts that installing system backdoors cannot be done without weakening the system to other attackers. We cannot produce a golden key that only allows authorized access. Backdoors are by definition security vulnerabilities. Encryption in the sense we talk about it whether we’re talking about credit card payment systems or messaging apps is a form of mathematics. When we talk about algorithms we’re not talking about some kind of arcane code but rather mathematical formulas. A formula is a relationship. The right relationships between variables can do things like create nearly-unguessable random number sequences. Tweak that relationship even a little bit – as was done with dual_ec_drbg mentioned above – and you instantly change the formula in huge ways, sometimes drastically reducing the amount of computer power/time needed to work out what numbers the formula is going to produce.
This is a vast simplification of the math involved – but it is math. No amount of magical thinking or politicking will change the fact that encryption is, at is core, a mathematical problem. And unlike statistics shenanigans politicians are used to playing when it comes to polling these numbers don’t bend.
The Crypto-Wars reignited after the Paris attacks. Oddly so, since there’s not one iota of evidence that attackers used encryption. FBI Director Comey continues to make statements in his interest about terrorists using encryption and those statements continue to be disproven as investigations move forward and we learn more details. Statements like “their phones included encryption” are disingenuous at best – all modern cellphones include encryption of various sorts. The authorities depend on vague and unprovable statements and emotion to sway public opinion while information security experts have issued a resounding opinion: you cannot build a backdoor that no one else can exploit.
Hillary Clinton has called for a “Manhattan Project” in order to help law enforcement break into encrypted communications while leaving them secure and this is as doomed a project as that of any Republican. The comparison to the original Manhattan Project is an immediate failure: they were working with the physics, Hillary wants experts to work against the math. Mathematics is not an issue you can legislate or threaten your way out of, something the Catholic Church learned the hard way ages ago. Tweak the smallest parameter in an algorithmic relationship and you put at risk anything in that system – financial access, health data, intelligence agent backgrounds and their biometrics.
In crypto even more than in politics, we ignore the numbers at our peril.
After some encouragement I’ve begun shipping a weekly or near-weekly newsletter over at TinyLetter. You can subscribe here.