CC BY-NC-SA krozruch

Are you dumb enough to work for Google?

2nd draft: v0.1.1


I was leaning out of the window of our flat smoking one day, or just looking out at life across the street, and I saw a computer monitor through one of the windows opposite. I could not see the person operating the display but at that moment I knew them. The 'content' on the display was scrolling rapidly, text going up the screen like the sped-up end credits of a film, but surrounded by images, videos, gifs (short video sequences), then stopping, typically for a fraction of a second, before scrolling rapidly again. To many (but not yet all, and eventually perhaps, an ever-diminishing fraction) of the people I hope may get to read these words in a very different context (in a handmade printed zine of some kind whether it be a 'lo-fi' printed brochure or a stitched together masterpiece of amateur creativity with everything from moving panels to pockets for stickers and a CD, or, differently excitingly, a traditional book published in the near or distant future),1 the situation and the mindset will be familiar.

Everything done by a computer can be described diagrammatically by drawing a series of "black boxes" arranged in a flowchart. In its simplest form the processes inside these black boxes may be broken down into simple English concepts. I am now touching the keys on my keyboard and seeing letters appear to form words in a word processor. We will come back to that. First, though, let's make it, briefly, a little harder. The word processor, here Scribus,2 is running on a graphical user interface, i3, on an operating system, Debian. The only reason this matters for our purposes is because there are, in the more complicated map of processes, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of black boxes in each of these individually-named components of this computer system. Most of them do things that could be described in English words that are familiar to most. This one multiplies a number, let's call it n, by itself; that one multiplies a number, let's call it x, by another number, let's call it y; another one takes as its input a letter, let's say an 'l' which is the first letter of this clause, and finds a graphical representation of it (a lot of dots in a pattern, or a lot of curves), and passes it as an input to another process, which puts it in the right place on the screen, here, after the space, ' ', that came before it. Inputs and outputs can be more or less anything. An input can be a nerve stimulation, an output the movement of a prosthetic arm. Or an input can be a surveillance camera, an output somebody's name, or rather, a reference to a database containing a name alongside anything from an individual's race to their [official] gender to their age and employment status (the list can go on and on as a database can store references to practically any output of any other process, though it may get mangled somewhat in the translation).

What was happening in that room across the road? In simple terms the individual had become a black box, providing output for a given input again and again and again until something, perhaps their bladder or their stomach, or their nicotine addiction, becomes an input powerful enough to pull out into traffic and snatch their finger to close the 'tab' or the internet browser, and break the loop.

My phone lights up. I open the social media application - in this case Tootdon, which connects to the Mastodon network rather than Twitter or Facebook, but the effect, I find, can be much the same; the software has been designed and is being maintained and developed (very skillfully in some areas, arguably clumsily in others) to offer an alternative to some of the dangers of centralised social media services, but though it is not built with surveillance capitalism and data mining baked in, it does not preclude it, and it borrows most of its design decisions from systems built with advertising in mind.

You could walk in any major city for days and not bump into anybody under the age of forty (coincidentally my age) who, if you were able to describe or mime the act of scrolling vacantly, would not either laugh or chin you out of recognition. Some are more resilient, some less, as with smoking, alcohol, gambling, or crack; as with all of those examples, there are pushers who make money from persuasion. The biggest and, on any number of criteria, the most powerful companies in the world, each of the top ten of which are arguably more powerful than the visible state apparatus of any nation state in the world, have learned how best to turn us into black boxes.

An article in the Guardian Investments today discusses the fact that the FTSE 100 (Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index) is 35 years old this month. British American Tobacco was the most successful company over this period. Unilever which, in a sign of what was to come, formed in 1929 from the merger of a margarine company and a soap manufacturer, was the second best investment. The best performing manufacturer was BAE systems, maker of military hardware and warships. Broadening out to the most profitable companies in the world, we come across Exxon and other oil companies including Gazprom, Apple, Samsung and others which make some of their money from selling things, and then Alphabet, Google's parent company, and Facebook, which make most of their money from datamining - making products of you and your interactions with the internet (not just Facebook or Google), apps, devices, and with the companies which use their services or make extra money through selling data about you to them.

When Milan Kundera tired of Stalinism, he began to write a series of books which peaked, in terms of popularity, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being. One of the more obscure but almost certainly the most compactly impactful of the texts which took their name from this novel in the next few years was a paper published in the July 1999 edition of American Psychologist. Entitled The Unbearable Automaticity of Being, it would take its epigraph, as Kundera's novel would take his opening, from Nietzsche: "The strongest knowledge–that of the total unfreedom of the human will–is nonetheless the poorest in successes, for it always has the strongest opponent: human vanity."

The thrust of the paper is that most of our thoughts are performed automatically. One of its more thought-provoking quotes may be the following, from Alfred North Whitehead:

Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle–they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

One of the concepts outlined in the piece is the notion of "ego depletion". It is one I for one recognise. Ego depletion is when you are out of mental horsepower. I get it when I have to think constantly, especially about things which do not interest me. Gone are the days when many or most people did jobs which involved semi-skilled physical movements which freed the mind to wander or "think of nothing". The rise of Facebook, Amazon, Twitter coincides, for me, with the rise of a particular breed of bullshit job involving directed thought: telesales, data entry, anything involving email, anything that can and will be done away with in a few years and where the repetitive motion and the heavy lifting is all in the mind. Having "ADHD", these are the jobs that make life a living hell.

This brings us in to Google docs. I first used these at an international school in Prague from 2013. Google Docs is where the heavy lifting becomes light, or, at least, where all of the switching of focus, the moving of a pointer inside one's own mind, the ego as both the border collie and the farmer in One Man and His Dog, rounding up stray thoughts from one pen into another, one black box into the next, becomes somehow streamlined.

All of which feels kind of nice as far as it goes, so long as you don't think too much about the often arbitrary regimentation of the mental work, the exhaustion of coffee-driven executive function, and the ego depletion leading into the automatic passivity of your down time; and so long as you don't think too much about what it means that most of the people you know are working for Google in their working hours, and that they feed the Google, and Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest of it (Netflix, Spotify etc.), in all of their downtime.

That first international school I worked at called itself an "Apple school". Still, it did most of its work for Google, as did my next school which, funded by the brother of an oligarch who had made his money on algorithmic trading and was said to have considered a run for president before shifting down to an ambition to change the voting system, called itself "Montessori". Lessons were planned on Google docs, feedback given and written up on Google forms and sheets. Students were told to "Google" subjects and answers. And, of course, hundreds of thousands of emails were sent back and forwards, all of them scanned by Google.

According to Wikipedia at time of writing, Google's "Don't be evil" motto was first used in 1999. The motto was referred to in a letter3 Google's staff sent to its CEO, Sundar Pichai, objecting to a collaboration with the Pentagon. The project was later put on ice - though perhaps only until the whole shitstorm blew over.4 Whatever the fact of that, in a time of machine learning and plausibly imminent AI, such, to most, unimaginably vast silos of information are as clear and present a danger to the security of the world as nuclear weapons; no form of governance can guarantee its safety now or going forward.

The title of this piece is a play on the title of a book called Are You Smart Enough to Work At Google. You can read it at Google Books, among other places, which means that information about your reading habits can be picked over and mined for information along with any other mentions you make of it on many email and social media services. Since in every one of the thousands of interactions you make with this corporation in your working day and in your downtime, you are adding to the value of a company which seldom has to directly sell you their services (you are, as the common dictum runs, the product, not the consumer), you are, as you interact, working for Google. This is true directly of your use of your Android phone, your navigating using Google maps, or your listening to music on YouTube, but there are many interactions where the interaction is obfuscated but your data ends up in one of their silos. Google, though it is one of the worst offenders here, stands in for many another such service, among them Facebook, Amazon, and, a fraction more ambiguously, Apple.

I smoke the penultimate cigarette in a pack of Lucky Strikes, one of the brands owned by British American Tobacco, which I bought in Leipzig where I attended a tech conference, staying, almost inevitably, at an AirBnb; I told myself it will help me to push on with this writing, which does not now and may not ever count as work. I smoke occasionally, have done intermittently for years, meaning that I am one of the millions of people who have modestly contributed to the immense success of firms such as BAT and Phillip Morris, firms which have done well out of those species of habits which owe much to the automaticity of being referred to in the paper referred to above. The Guardian article I refer to wonders how many of the current top companies in the FTSE 100 will be around 35 years from now. As well it might. My guess is that many of the big tobacco firms will adjust to the new realities, one of which is the shift from alcohol to marijuana, a drug which in many ways maps rather well to the existential realities of contemporary life and work, permitting people to unwind to live to face another day of meaningless intellectual heavy lifting. According to The Economist "In 1970 British American Tobacco put together a blueprint for a “cannabis-loaded cigarette”. Companies known for tobacco have since then bought up stakes in companies making marijuana products. They are ready to reep the spoils of liberalisation.5

Burned out from all of this work that doesn't count as work, this thinking that cannot easily be monetised, I read a short piece in the Guardian signed by a number of writers and historians, including Milan Kundera, warning about the decline of Europe. The average age of the signataries is 70. In the source code of the piece there are 38 occurences of the search string "facebook", 35, of "google", and 269 of "twitter". Elsewhere on the Guardian site was another piece, about the "Cat Person author Kristen Roupenian" who says her whole life "became a trending hashtag". Do the two take on a different subject, or just a different perspective? "The continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin" says the former, which is true enough taken on its own terms. But how? That question can best be answered, I suggest, with reference to the articles, podcasts, and interviews of Carole Cadwalladr, the intrepid investigative journalist, J. J. Patrick, the former policeman who crowd-funded his book-length investigation into hybrid warfare, Alternative War.6 The answer, however you may wish to divvy up the blame, involves data mining or, in other words, surveillance capitalism. Putin, though he may certainly prove to be a key player, was not alone. The tools he and his suuporters are said to have used were, for the most part, made and maintained in California. How about let's not walk back the clock into a rerun of the period most of these signatories knew too well, the Cold War; how about let's try to be more honest about the parts we have ourselves played in the current mess.

Which is not to dismiss the insights of the people who know the world that has been being built over the last two decades. According to a Guardian piece published yesterday, YouTube has promised to recommend fewer conspiracy theory videos. Isn't that sweet? What's the alternative? I have a few suggestions (though it would be great if you could watch them elsewhere). In one such, Thomas Drake, speaking alongside fellow NSA whistleblower William Binney at the Logan CIJ Symposium in Berlin, March 2016, who said "you see information is the coin of the realm but unfortunately, in a surveillance society, in a surveillance age, it's also used to atomize our lives, even to the point of reducing us to mere subjects of state and corporate powers." He went on, talking of the Stazi whose headquarters he had visited in the past: "you see this is the golden age of surveillance, and it's become a huge profit centre for cyber-centric businesses". According to the official figures, just over 1000 people have watched it.

By the time I visited the Logan CIJ Symposium in Berlin in March, 2016, I had already committed more than was comfortable. According to Bernard-Henri Lévy and the other signatories of the copyright pamphlet distributed with the newspapers which will largely now be read on the internet with pings going out to all of the major perpetrators of both state and corporate surveillance, "European patriots" are often "too quiet and too resigned". Now I am not altogether certain that the phrase European patriot is one likely to get us out of the mess we are in, but let me make something clear: the more constructive voices of the generations who succeeded those notables above (voices which are far too various to be expressed by any one individual or think piece), are not being heard or are being misrepresented. They are muted or skewed by any one of the black boxes we have been communicating through, and / or, they are attacked with bespoke memes through the black boxes which are capable of "frictionlessly" piping them into the hearts and minds of millions of people using the exploits which have been finessed by our most highly-rewarded tech bros. Since our minds have been mapped, it is not hard to find these exploits or to make these injections. Even if their letter were as well expressed as they no doubt consider it to be, it would not stand a chance against any of the tiles and the memes that have been used against the few people, such as Carole Cadwalladr, who have been working hard to investigate this mess, and overlooking the source of that bile will do nothing for us.

Anger has been leveraged by our politicians for various ends. It has been leveraged by corporations because it pushes our buttons, and anything that pushes our buttons is a monetisable interaction. It has been used by media companies to make click bait and push ratings. All of these things have put us where we are now. Though the anger has been misdirected, its origin is rooted in material facts. Besides a lack of meaning, a lack of meaningful work. While a handful of kids made millions or billions moving fast and breaking things, our leaders looked on, stroked their chins, and invested, and collaborated, and let it go on, stopping only occasionally to berate those of us who were being targetted by some of the most optimised human exploits that have ever been seen. What they are witnessing now is blowback, and it ought to have been foreseen. Without the managed dismantling of the systems of surveillance there will never now be the meaningful and constructive debate that can make societies resilient to whatever threats they face. The problem is vast and all-embracing. These systems have been embedded into practically every one of the institutions we once relied upon. Removing them will be the hardest task humanity has yet faced; unless, that is, confronting the problem, being honest about root cause and its extent should prove harder.

  1. Though it will now first be published on-line, this is piece taken from what was to be the first printed edition of what I was still calling the Marginálie zine. My hope was, and perhaps still is, that some of the people who dump their minds and emotions all over the internet every day, publishing to everybody at once and permitting at one and the same time our oligarchical overlords to take a caliper to their souls and use the knowledge to better manipulate the majority, might be encouraged instead to pool their thoughts and contribute to a community zine with syndicated Creative Commons and anti-copyright content. Implicit here, I was thinking about such zines being assembled and stocked at independent bookshops, cafes, tea houses, and music venues as well as zine libraries. I see this as a kind of community rewilding or simply recommunilisation. Almost everybody who could be reading this has the means to do contribute to such an effort by finding a handful of people. Some of them could then host their own content on-line, helping with the kind of cross-pollination that could undoubtedly challenge the communicative monocultures I am describing here. Of course, everything is possible, and with sufficient support or an adhocracy of innovation, any of these scenarios can come about from what you are reading now.

  2. As I edit this piece, which I wrote a year ago, Emacs.

  3. The first hit on this issue on DuckDuckGo is from Business Insider; it was also covered by Digital Trends, the New York Times, and The Verge. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's notorious adviser, is a big fan of Project Maven.

  4. Writers of comic scripts apocalyptic fiction can sleep easy, the project was taken over by Palantir. Everybody else can take a guilt-free dump in their kecks wherever they are standing or sitting since this is precisely the kind of backstory cyberpunk novels are founded upon.

  5. Certainly more so than the millions of people arrested and / or imprisoned for using marijuana from the 1970s prior to the recent and still-ongoing paradigm shift. Disproportionately, people from racial minorities have been targetted.

  6. A year has passed since I wrote this sentence and though I will leave it as it stands, I have often, in this period, wondered about the degree to which journalists have been drip-fed information and inadvertently fed a repurposed narrative of Russian meddling which, though it has something to it, and though many of the characters found in the dramatis personae of both Brexit and Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election have links to Russia they have gone to great lengths to hide, is by no means the whole story here. Neither of these authors are exemplary off this trend but it ought perhaps to be noted that here we are dealing with the kind of competing informational gravity wells which rarely permit clarity of thinking and expression.