On the Presence of Absence

Sometimes the most profound truths (or at the very least – facts) emerge not from what exists, but from what does not. This lies on many layers. As a starting point – consider the very many ways in which we are all tracked, observed, recorded, evaluated and (let’s face it – exploited) by the semi-autonomous mechanisms of commercially-driven economic systems. The commercial dimension of all of this is not new and may be an inevitable light to the accompanying shadow of endemic exploitation across a broad ethical spectrum, but it is for better and for worse a matter of fact that large corporations (as much as anyone else who can get in this game) are farming our identities. Just existing in an information age is to already be a caged battery-hen of data and information production, information and data that we are all more than happy to produce because it is precisely in the generation and consumption of information, symbols and strings of data that we have always self-reflexively defined ourselves and for many thousands of years before computers or the internet arrived.

A spontaneously defensive psychological reflex to all of this is for some individuals to seek to fly below the radar, to “opt-out” and to delete, destroy or obfuscate the digital tendrils and querying tentacles that reach out from (and back into) the essential fact of their presence in the world and which form the vectors and vulnerabilities of exploitation for the roving algorithms and the (now, ascending) juggernaut of distributed Artificial Intelligence. It is an admirable aspiration to attempt to extract one’s self from intrusion and commodification in this way but unless you were born anonymously in some backwater shotgun shack, abandoned at birth and left to fend for yourself and never, ever, registered by any other organic, cognitive, administrative or mechanical perception – it will not actually work and you will spend your life utterly introverted from the facts of the world in ways which so thoroughly still define you by those facts that you are as imprisoned by them as much (or even more) than if you had faced them head-on.

So much for any comprehensive fortress of non-existence as escape from this, the tidal swell, maelstrom and effective “bitstorm” of information (and communications technology) apocalypse. Partial solutions exist but these are of limited effect. There are various methods, for instance, by which application and (generally – mobile) device configuration can drop you off the overt layers of information tracking from major players such as Google or Facebook. To attempt to identify the specific tools or methods here is quite futile as there are many thousands of such specifications freely available online and the context and complexity of an information environment undergoing incessant metamorphosis and logical hyper-inflation is such that any reference or link is rapidly outdated and (often enough, also) invalidated, superseded.

What happens to your digital identity if you do attempt to drop off the radar? It is an interesting, and at first encounter – entirely unexpected, fact that when a person seeks to leave the web of interdependent information systems within which they exist, they become quite literally conspicuous by their absence. There is a now prominent void where once there was a person, or at least, the description and definition or measurement of a person. When you (however contingently) aspire to leave the information environment, there then continues to exist a persistent and self-propagating multi(-information-)dimensional shadow in your wake. All of those places where you manifested extension and presence in social, cognitive and information systems – these still exist and your digital, electronic footprints have left their mark and influence on the unfolding turbulence and emergent complexity of the world.

In an integrated and massively interconnected information environment, these absences can actually be fairly precisely determined and mathematically (i.e. logically) and computationally tracked, measured and evaluated. Companies (and organisations) that possess adequate computational resources are already well-equipped to exploit these facts and it is a thing which is already occurring: if you switch off the overt tracking features in an android device, Google (and anyone else with sufficient resources and interest) will follow you by the shadow cast by the relative informational blind-spot you inhabit. We find ourselves imprisoned and wandering an all-consuming and omnipresent digital information labyrinth devoid of either entry or exit points. The only true absence here is the impossibility of escape.

(Unravelling causal connections and discerning the prefigurative or forensic facts is in many cases a complicated matter of retrospective mathematical and computational probability-shuffling; i.e. it is a difficult problem to solve – not an impossible one. Beyond the implicit limits imposed by thermodynamics and entropy, quite a lot of information can be discerned by running models and simulations of currently-defined, observed or measured information spaces inversely to determine significant, conspicuous absences or attribute unknown causal factors).

Mobile Device Digital Detox ?

I enjoy with much relish the salient irony that is the implementation of an escape from social media and digital hyper-connectivity delivered through social media and digital hyper-connectivity. I have an android app which offers a mindfulness experience called “digital detox”; it becomes difficult to escape the suspicion that there is a zen joke and recursively enigmatic catharsis dwelling somewhere here.

Digital Insecurity is the new Digital Security

Smart Cities ?

This article is good. A valid criticism, if a little dramatically dystopian:

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/02/stupid-cities/553052/

The “bad part of town” will be full of algorithms that shuffle you straight from high-school detention into the prison system. The rich part of town will get mirror-glassed limos that breeze through the smart red lights to seamlessly deliver the aristocracy from curb into penthouse.

Cluttering our physical spaces with superimposed layers of electrical hyper-connectivity and pseudo-intelligent, algorithmically-informed (and biased) information, matter and energy flows doesn’t make them smart. Are we displacing complex material problems (and our obligations to responsibility) to server farms and IoT software engineers ? Is this another instance in which the marketing and hype is stronger than the administrative will to not suspend their disbelief in this fantasy and utopian vision of our future metropolitan spaces and experiences ?

In as much as “meaning is usage” (Wittgenstein) we can only assume that “smart cities” as a concept will eventually be entirely coopted by the various vocabularies of digital and cyber. Cities which possess, or indeed – cultivate, an intrinsic and emergent self-organisational homeostasis are not as psychologically alluring to the common-or-garden-variety metropolitan administrator as is the fantasy and mythology of control implicit to digital technology. Indeed, occurring pari passu the utility and success of these digital technologies are the reflexive and psychological insecurity-bolstering mechanistic, reductionist mythologies of power and control. Never mind that digital technology does not actually solve (or resolve) as many problems as it simply displaces elsewhere.

Digital Legacy

Your digital legacy will be all those recorded-as-binary-data artefacts, ideas, opinions and ripples-of-influence you leave behind in your wake and that after your passing will form some turbulent impression upon this shadowy, shared virtual space. It’s unlikely that through our online activities any of us will make much of an impact on the path the world chooses to follow. It is also unlikely that, over a longer historical arc, many of these tokens of self-assertion will ever be unearthed and analysed, appreciated or considered beyond the cursory, fleeting attention any of us receive; we are all narcissists here, at varying depths and degrees of intricacy.

The online footprints-in-the-sand we are all leaving behind us here will fade, like words into silence after some celebration or battle; sharp experience and lived feeling to dull edge and well-ordered data storage. Should civilisation perform some intelligent manoeuvre of self-preservation and manage to climb out of the muddy, bloody pit of intransigent, internecine self-destruction it keeps sliding back into, clawing its way out of this mess without destroying itself – it might be possible that we will preserve all of this digital culture and communication indefinitely.

Beyond record in some vast government or corporate silo, all of this shared experience might one day become fodder for automated archaeology. Our digital trails are already undergoing automated analysis and commercial data extraction, perhaps our communications are also already the sustenance for some nascent Artificial Intelligence, just beginning to form itself some alien concept of identity and self. Perhaps some future literal alien civilisation will extrapolate our existence and extract some value or worth from the electromagnetic residue we currently seek to engrave into space and time.

If there is value in this moment and these shared ideas, images and opinions – it is in the creative participatory buzz of human communication and interdependence. Even this shared moment is rapidly fading into meaningless void.

Your digital legacy is the sum total of all those ripples you leave here behind you. It is no more ultimately substantial than is your physical path through the world but now and in living momentum, it is another vector, dimension and expression of whatever it is that is you. We share digital tokens here to assert personal and cultural self-existence but in the end and as far as our physical track or path through life or reality is concerned – transience and impermanence always, always wins.

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Digital Insecurity

Context: Wired – Security News This Week: The Deloitte Breach Was Worse Than We Thought

There exists a non-trivial difference and distance between the grandiose claims of technological consistency and efficacy made by corporations and the empirical facts of an unrelenting litany of catastrophic security failures. It is probably something of a mathematical inevitability that any bounded, defined system is implicitly vulnerable (by virtue of its own structure) to extension, vulnerability and exploitation. Yet again, a thoroughly mechanistic analog thought process and assertion of consistency/completeness fails to hammer the square peg of it’s own fallacious assumptions through the round hole of digital transformation. The technology may inevitably always be limited in some way but the real faults and problems which derive from this situation lie in human psychology.

We are as a species overly fond of narratives of completion and logical consistency but we are prone to overlooking the foundational errors of assumption we make. Reality has absolutely no obligation to conform to our assumptions about it. Human ingenuity and an endless incentive and existential imperative for self-interest imply that the technological conflict of information and communication security, exploitation and subsequent technical evolution is fundamentally an open-ended, incomplete process.

Analog

I can only assume that I am not the only person to have noticed that, ever since the birth of the Information Age and the accelerating turn towards digital transformation across corporations and various organisations from small businesses through to national (and international) bureaucracies, there is an unrelenting failure to activate the full potential and power of these information technologies. The same parochialisms, the withered old hierarchies and battling egos of strong-willed but weak-minded career bureaucrats and senior managers (or politicians), the utterly analog simplicity of purely linear project management and an intellectual poverty born of a failure to understand the effective novelty of the digital, of the network and of the blossoming complexity of any number of associated disruptive technologies – there is an all but complete failure to actually capitalise on the potential of these powerful systems and conceptual tools.

Organisations are venturing ever more deeply into a digital looking glass but are also everywhere all but entirely missing the point. I may be mistaken but it looks very much to me like our globally interconnected organisational systems are still attempting to hammer the square peg of analog thinking and management style into the round hole of digital transformation and technological metamorphosis. The problem appears to be partly cultural, partly political but is more likely (and largely) attributable to the limitations and failings of both collective and individual human psychology and the tribal or personal self-interest encoded into our existing organisational hierarchies. There may also exist a certain endemic reticence to adapt and adopt the logical organisational consequences of a fully-fledged digital transformation when such an acknowledgement and act of intellectual leadership is bound to also invalidate a non-trivial proportion of the cultural assumptions upon which the tenure of many of those policy and strategy-generating senior managers and C-suite executives depend. Massively networked systems-of-systems are utterly decentralised and non-hierarchical; there is little rationale for the alpha executive in such a system, even less for the legacy of power and salary which comes with such a role.

Human beings are immensely talented at creating new ideas and technologies but we seem to be just ever so slightly more talented at stifling and suffocating the free adoption and successful uptake of these technologies and their ultimately beneficial consequences.

Included: dodgy 1980’s advertising image of couple sharing romantic moment with computer at a fireplace.

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