Apple announcements never fail to entertain. Over the years most amusing moments came to be when an Apple executive makes a comment about how their products not just contain amazing technology, but embody larger than life qualities. Couple years ago, when Apple removed the headphone jack from its phones, they called, without a hint of irony, “courage”. This year’s announcements had its share of squirming moments too, from Apple Town Squares to soul-sucking visualizations of face scanning technology. But for
me, the real kicker was when Apple decided to associate the Apple Watch with cellular connectivity with “freedom”.
It’s hard to not cringe, when you see Apple’s first promo video for the cellular Watch shows a surfer, who receives a call right in the middle of her sick trick. How is that a good thing? Do people not go on vacation to unplug? The eye rolls didn’t stop there; where Apple decided to demo making a phone call with nothing but a watch by showcasing an Apple executive answering a phone call, during a paddle-boarding session on Lake Tahoe. I wrote the proclamations of freedom via a $400 watch, combined with a $120/year bill hike, off as garden-variety Apple navel gazing.
It wasn’t until I read a review of the watch by Hodinkee, a high-end watch blogger, that the freedom Apple was promising was nothing more than freedom of its own device, the phone. It’s a great read overall, with lots of interesting insights into the industry itself. But what caught my eye was how the watch changed, or reduced how he used his phone.
In the few days I’ve been using the Series 3 Edition as my only communication device, I’ve found myself checking Instagram less. Texting less. Dickin’ around on the web less. I use the watch to text or make phone calls when I need to – and that’s it. My definition of “need” has changed completely – and frankly I don’t miss having my phone in my pocket at all.
The smartphone promised us always-on connectivity, and we welcomed it with open hands. The ability to respond to an email immediately wasn’t new, but add an actual web browser, and an App Store that extended the functionality of the phone virtually endlessly, we got hooked. As the fidelity of medium increased, it slowly became not just a device to use for a specific purpose, but something that we use, to more or less, to use. In short, we traded in our attention for the promise of always connectivity.
The reasons for how our phones are so addictive are numerous and we are just discovering the results, both personal and societal, of such an enormous shift in how we manage our attention spans. Although the research is taking shape, there are already a few loud voices telling us that the commodification of our attention is nothing less than a full-on scale war by the brightest minds of our generation against our identity.
I am not no Luddite; I earned my living for the past 7 years for working at technology companies. As I have moved across first cities, and then countries, I have relied on technology to stay connected to those that’s dear to me. I also think that technology is an essential tool to slowly bring down the arbitrary barriers in humanity, democratize access to information, and generally make the world a more just place.
Apple Watch here stands as an interesting device with the promise of a connectivity with a much smaller drag on one’s attention. It has a screen, but a much smaller one than the one on your phone; you simply can’t look at it for hours at end. The input methods to it are similar to a phone (with the notable exception of a camera) but voice plays a much bigger role on it, ironically, than it does on the phone. You can, realistically, use your watch via voice, both as an input and output method and only rely on the screen for an occasional glance.
Of course, the same dangers that made the smartphone an attention hog loom over the watch. Unlike a phone, a watch is always attached to your body, with an ability to jerk you at any time with a vibrating motor. And Apple is not being subtle about its goals; while it is admirable that the company is using the heart-rate sensor to detect heart conditions and generally provide data to researchers around the world, there’s something off-putting about your heart rate being measured constantly and uploaded, even in aggregate form, to some datacenter somewhere. And maybe, this will all be invalid when the tech industry actually puts is resources, unlike they’ve done so far, behind developing new apps for the watch that become as addictive as their phone counterparts.
It is early in our technological evolution to tell what will be the prevailing way we’ll be interacting with technology and for what purposes. Smartphones seem ubiquitous now but it’s important to note that they have existed for merely 10 years, a blink of an eye even on the fast changing pace of technology. It’s very unlikely and depressing that interacting with a 6 inch glass slate that is littered with apps whose raison d’être is to collect more data about you to sell better ads, is the conclusion of human-computer interaction.
In some way, Apple’s proclamation of freedom that you can get with a watch is an admission of this guilt. What the watch promises is a freedom from your phone. More than any company, Apple itself created this world where we feel a compulsive desire to be entertained and not be bored. And maybe, with the watch, Apple can help undo some of the damage. This is not to suggest that the main reason Apple sells devices is to advance the human civilization, or to not make unfathomable amounts of money, only to spend it on absurd buildings or ask for salvation from a giant corporation for our sins.
Unlike many of the other tech giants, Apple makes most of its money (though increasingly not all of it) from directly selling products to its customers. Without other intermediaries to take a cut, the company’s incentives are more directly aligned with those of its users. And more than that, with its size and reach, Apple is a company that sets the tone for the industry.
Our mode of interaction with our technology is still evolving. It is not reasonable to roll back to a world where always-on connectivity isn’t the norm. But that doesn’t mean that our attention should be up for sale. A device, or a combination of devices, that makes a conscious effort to be less in your face and more out of your way is one way to ensure that.
With a new unicorn popping up seemingly every other week, it’s easy to forget that the new behemoths that shape our lives, the technology firms, existed more than a few years. Behind the shiny veneer, however, there is a rich history of how this world came about to be. And just like any other history, it’s one that keeps repeating itself.
The latest iteration of the history, though, is not its finest one. Nazis are back.
A quick recap. The informed citizens of the greatest country on earth have collectively voted to elect a white supremacist sympathizer, with overt, covert, voluntary, and involuntary help of practically every tech company and its acolytes. By the time we all woke up to what we did, it was too late; the Nazis were emboldened, chanting in the streets of Virginia, among many places. Then a guy woke up, literally, and decided to kick the Nazis off the internet, until they find a new home.
For some observers of the technology, this latest kerfuffle might just be a new chapter in the upcoming book by a Vanity Fair writer. For those a bit more in the know, they would note that the Nazis (a word I am using as a short for white supremacists), never really left the internet. They practically populated the every platform you did; they were on newsgroups, mailing lists, 4chan, reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and probably still are.
But, go down a bit farther back in the Wayback Machine, and it’s easy to remember that Nazis and some part of their history was on the internet as far as 2000s, and it points to one of the most interesting tensions of the Internet with capital I; the constant tension between the borderlessness of it, yet the levers of it being controlled just a few. This is subject of this essay; how the current gatekeepers of the internet’s aims to create a new type of statelessness state is just a clumsy reiteration of past attempts.
The aspirational extraterrestrial culture of the internet is a messy and deep subject but the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” is a good start. Penned by John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), at a World Economic Forum, the declaration pulls no punches. In fact, more than just statelessness, you can hear the subtext of cyberspace being not just an international entity but almost an supranational one. It is a good read, both as a way to understand the libertarian thinking of early residents of the cyberspace and also as a Marxist approach to how zero marginal cost of production of technology changes the entire dynamics of economy and of course societies. It is also remarkably prescient, not necessarily in the types of world early adopters would eventually create but the conflicts they would face.
Scroll your way up to 2000. Not just to the days Before iPhone or Before Facebook but Before Google. In 2000, a French human-rights organization discovers that Yahoo, on its auction platform, allows sale of Nazi and Third Reich memorabilia. While still not tasteful and unpresidential at the time, such activity was not illegal under US law, but quite so under French law. In what’s considered a landmark case, French court eventually ordered Yahoo to not just pull such items from its French store (fr.yahoo.com) but also make the items in the US store inaccessible in France.
Front page of the internet, 2000
The entire discourse around the case is extremely fascinating, and some of the statements from both sides have a very timeless quality. To an American audience, where only freedom of speech is more paramount to right to carry a firearm, an interference by a French court of all courts, is an international overreach of unseen proportions. However, this analysis misses the continent-wide trauma Europeans experienced with Nazism in 1940s. While America has its fair share of World War 2 scars, it pales in comparison to the destruction Europe endured. This suffering was so profound, so widespread and so deep, and Nazism such a vile idea that the entire continent’s new identity, European Union is largely built around this reaction.
It is worth pulling out a few quotes here especially, just to see how prescient some of the predictions from the French philosophers are. Mark Knoebel, the French activist whose letters sparked the entire shebang says that American internet is becoming a “dumping ground” for racists all over.
Any discussion of censorship on the internet would be amiss without bringing up everyone’s once-favorite liberal reformer turned autocrat strongmen Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. Even as far back as 2008, just 4 years after Google’s IPO, the Turkish government was in cahoots with YouTube over a couple of videos making fun of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkish Republic. In what would become the norm for Turkish government (or already was, depending on your ethnicity in Turkey), the state decided to block YouTube entirely, and demand the videos be taken down. The case went on for literally years, during which time YouTube stayed blocked in Turkey for almost two years. Turkish bloggers took the matters to their hands, where they shut down their own sites to protest the government’s block. However, the block itself was so ham-fisted that even the then Prime Minister Erdogan himself mentioned that “everyone knows how to access YouTube”.
Still, the details of this 2008 already signals the awkward situations tech companies would themselves with government. Impossible to imagine now, though, Google employees felt comfortable jokingly calling themselves “The Decider” with a New York Times journalist in the room. The employees in charge, many with law degrees, were aware of their power, felt obviously uncomfortable with the levers they held, but, in the end they held on to them.
A common theme that underlies most of the Silicon Valley thinking is that computers, internet and associated technologies changes everything; from mode of production to distribution to how information is generated to how it is disseminated. No incumbent is too big to not upend, no industry without with inefficiencies a couple of scripts can eliminate. A common complaint of the less-STEM focused side of the world, then is that Silicon Valley’s casual disregard for the history and the rules of the world is bordering on recklessness.
This is largely a political argument, which means it’s an everything argument, but the singular point is that sometimes the Internet company’s casual disregard for history is not just hurtful for the entire world, but also for themselves (a statement whose irony is quite obvious to yours truly).
Silicon Valley companies love to invoke legal talismans, a phrase (I think) coined by Kendra Albert. In short, they love to evoke feelings of a legal proceeding, such as a due process, where there is none, to mostly justify their own decision making. But sometimes, such invocations are just symptoms of delusions of grandeur and they do come with consequences for everyone, as mentioned, including the companies themselves.
Consider the time Twitter UK General Manager called Twitter not just a bastion of free speech but the “free speech wing of the free speech party” in 2012 and try not to cringe. But you can definitely see a direct line from the EFF declaration to such an inane statement. A new world is being born, called the cyberspace (as opposed to what, meatspace?) and the rules are written by whoever is creating this world. Considering the current situation Twitter find itself in right now, with user growth barely chugging along, a stock hugely under its IPO levels, its value possibly held up significantly by an orange White House resident, it’s hard to imagine Twitter would be behaving the same way if they had a better understanding of the nuances of free speech laws, and how it protects people from state because, unlike corporations, state is allowed to jail and sometimes, kill, its people.
Of course, this aspirational statelessness of guardians of the cyberspace does go the other way too. It’s easy to write off your overzealous application of freedom of speech as a mistake, but harder to do, when you do the opposite. When a tech company counts ⅓ of the world’s population as its users (and 80% of online Americans), and those users spend a considerable amount of their waking moments looking at things pushed on to them by that company, it’s practically impossible to for a one-in-a-million event to not happen with exceeding frequency when you are dealing with billions.
Probably one of the more eye-opening cases of this American overreach into cultures involves bodies, or more specifically naked ones. For Americans, a sight of a covered breast at a sporting event is a cause of national debate, but for many Northern Europeans, nudity is just another state of undress, as normal as any other. Especially so, when it is presented in a historical, artistic or just non-sexualized context. And even more especially so, when it is the Conservative Norwegian Prime Minister who happens to share a Pulitzer-prize winning photo. Is Facebook, run largely by a bunch of white men in America, not making cultural statements about an unashamedly progressive country?
Banned in California
It is easy to write off these high profile instances as simple mistakes, and having worked in a similar user-generated content site before, it is mind-blowing to me that Facebook is as free of spam as it is. But what does that mean when these types of incidents happen so often that you slowly start shifting values of other cultures to your own, which whether you like it or not, were shaped by your own American upbringing? One cannot just create a culture in such a transactional manner.
It is one thing, as an academic exercise to imagine a world without governments, a libertarian paradise. And if someone wants to take his academic exercise to the seas or to other planets, it is only within their rights to do so.
But for a generation that wants to eventually not just govern the cyberspace but also one of the most important states in the world, the utter clumsiness of the entire enterprise should give one a pause. A common joke in Silicon Valley, the place about the Silicon Valley, the hit HBO show is that many of the absurd plot twists in the series is really toned down to be believable to the general public.
Consider the case of Reddit. When a bunch of celebrity’s iCloud accounts got hacked and their private photos were posted on the site, the company decided, reasonably, to remove that content. But in doing so, the CEO of the company said that they were considering reddit not just a private company, but “a government for a new type of community”. He even went to describe how he sees the actions by the moderators akin to law enforcement officers. But, how do you reconcile such great ambition with the fact that your CEO, or president, resigns from the government because of a seating arrangement issue? (Disclaimer: I worked at a Reddit competitor briefly, around 7 years ago, partly because I was and still am quite interested in the space. I even wore a Reddit t-shirt when they came to visit us)
Building a new world, one that is more just, more humane, one that is safer, cleaner, more efficient all great goals. When I decided to study computer science in 2005, my main motivation was similar. I grew up in a town in Turkey where I didn’t always fit in and it was through the internet where I could see more of the world easily enough and find people that I could connect with, on many levels. I wanted to extend that world, which seemed reasonably better than the one I lived in, more to the real world.
And personal politics matter too. As an immigrant to US, unlike most of my more left-leaning friends, I find the idea of statelessness, or a post-nation-state world an experiment that humanity owes itself to try. While the supranational organizations such as the EU and World Trade Organization do have their flaws and globalization comes with this unsettling feeling of homogeneity, I stay largely optimistic that as a species, we are better off in a more integrated society.
However, that does not mean I advocate for a world where we outsource our thinking, our values, our cultures, our judicial decisions and certainly not our free press wholesale to a small number of people, who are unelected, unvetted, and largely unaccountable.
What I would like to see, however is less of the reckless attitude but a more thoughtful approach. An informed, inclusive, global debate about the kind of digital world we can create together. One that learns from our previous mistakes, and does better. Time for this discussion is running out, and we have repeated our mistakes enough times. We need to do better now.
Istanbul is not a quiet place. The streets are filled to the brim with cars, honking. The kid is screaming to his mom, the girlfriend to her boyfriend, the police to the street vendor. It’s not pleasant, but it is Turkey.
However, the real noise is not the people, or the cars, or the ferries. It is the news. Everyone in Turkey is always watching the news. It’s on the background when you are at home, with your parents. It’s blaring at you when you are at the corner store from the TV hung to the corner. It’s shouting at you when you are at bank, from the small radio sitting next to the framed photo of the teller’s daughter. It’s even on at the waiting room at the doctor’s office, because that’s when you really need a pick me up.
And when you are, by some miraculous happenstance out of the earshot of a TV, there’s Twitter. Everyone is always on their phones, and if they are not checking Instagram, they are checking the news on Twitter. It never ends. It wasn’t always that way, I want to say, but for the love of me, I can’t remember when it wasn’t.
It used to be fashionable to call Turkey the “Little America”, largely due to an overzealous adoption of neoliberalism and all the joys and pains that come with it. It used to be a thing, a family tradition, to enjoy the even the most inane of American traditions. Having visited America was a sign of not just wealth, but also a checkmark on the pursuit of a more enlightened world.
Now, slowly it looks America is on its way to become a “Little Turkey” itself, primarily starting from people’s addiction to the news and a constant state of screaming.
Many a words have been said about the 24/7 cable news networks in the US. How the inane, and insane, need to fill up over the hours drives networks to just have talking faces on TV. The current boogeyman for the orange man in the White House is partly responsible, people argue, for him being there. When I was a kid, CNN for me was the night-vision imagery from the first, of seemingly endlessly many, Iraq war. Now it’s a bunch of talking heads, that are always there.
And then, there’s Twitter. And push notifications. Always the push notifications. It used to be different though. When I first moved to US, in 2006, we also had a scandalous president. He didn’t seem to be that coherent, and his policies didn’t earn him many favors in or outside the US. There was some political turmoil, maybe even a war, but it happened on a different timescale. There were other things going on.
One of the first things that America lost when Trump got elected is the quiet, the personal space millions had to themselves. You had a time to yourself to be in love, to be with your friends. There were conversations that never touched on politics. Some things were downstream politics, but most things were not. There was a time, when you could just be angry at your things in your world at your own time. Now, you are required to be angry all the time because of something you didn’t do, don’t have control over and seemingly with no end in sight.
Has it been 6 months since Trump took the office, or 6 years? Is anyone even counting anymore? How would it feel different if this wasn’t just 1/8 (hopefully) into the dumpster fire that’s this administration but we were just halfway there. I am aware that I am speaking from a privileged position here, as a white man with a stable job in a well-paying industry, as opposed to being a minority. Maybe things were always this loud, if you always had to worry about your job, or your livelihood.
But in the objective space I can carve out, I feel that things got worse. And we need to do something about it.
I am not suggesting that people ignore the news or disengage from the public discourse. Or disconnect entirely or at all. I don’t think a democracy works with a fully disengaged public. And it certainly does not, with a public that only is informed about topics that interest them. We all have a responsibility to be informed, including on things that don’t matter to us but to those around us. But it also matters what we each decide to think about, what we need to care about. We built ourselves empires on capturing attention, and we are slowly realizing that our minds cannot keep up with its demands. But, I think we have yet to realize that our minds aren’t also capable of being outraged, all the time. We can’t always be mad, lest we lose our connection with the reality. Everything is political but politics isn’t everything.
One goal of politics is to arrange relationships between big groups of people. Not necessarily divide or unite them, but to establish some sort of structure. A network of roads, where connections happen. It doesn’t care if you run tanks on them, or ice-cream trucks. You can drive away, or run towards someone. But the world is not about those roads. It’s not not about them either, of course -just ask any commuter- but it’s just a part of it.
Somewhere along the way, we need to park our cars, get off our bikes and look around the world as is. The quiet is easily disturbed, but in the end, it’s what makes each of us human, unique and it’s what keeps the society humming along. We can’t always scream, we need to be quiet so that everyone else can have it too.