Borrowed Wires

When I was a kid, the coolest thing under the tree was a set of walkie-talkies. A friend and I could disappear into the wilderness, fire up the walkie-talkies and chat away over the scatchy radio system. This obsession was part of a national thing. On the road, there was CB radio (insert mental images of 8 year old me drooling over the Radio Shack catalog and those awesome 40 channel CB radios)! People were not tethered to the phone system. Truckers could warn you about what lay over the next hill. That was life in 1976.

In the 1980s, all of the cool geeks had a modem. The REALLY cool geeks had their modem hooked to a computer running a bulletin board system. Each computer was a little digital island: you could find anything there-- find files, contact people, use the BBS software. Popular BBSes would have multiple phone lines. Some of them charged for access and-- gasp-- some of them would offer connection to this thing called The Internet. When I was on Victoria’s Freenet, I could occasionally punch out and visit the confusing jumble of the Internet.
After 1993, the Web opened up digital traffic to tourists. People (myself included) who could not navigate the newsgroups to any benefit could really latch onto the Web. It was interconnected: as long as you found an on-ramp, you drive the digital highway. Back then, I had a UVic roommate: if we were willing to sacrifice our phone line, we could be on the Web.
The mobile Web has become a large factor in the last five years. All of the Internet available from your smartphone. Geeks with modems were okay-- let ‘em download the list of Picard quotes and they’ll be happy. But the mobile lot is a dynamic shift. People can communicate from anywhere: they can receive instructions and send data out. That’s bad for people who use information asymmetry and privacy exploits to clutch onto power, for now.

The Web didn’t knock down Mubarak. What it did was dump an extra 50 degrees of heat into a boiling pot.

The Arab governments toppled or weakened by the mobile Web this Spring didn’t appreciate the technology’s impact. The angry mobs became better coordinated. The atrocities came into clear relief thanks to HD camera phones. The Web didn’t knock down Mubarak. What it did was dump an extra 50 degrees of heat into a boiling pot.
The Internet, touted as a computer network immune to nuclear attack, is a creature of our connected world. It needs infrastructure to survive and its fixtures (servers, cables, transmitter towers) are sitting ducks. You need to be near a wifi source or cell tower. It needs to accept your access. Then, if the following points along the chain, allow your access you’re connected.
Mobile users think they are too nimble to be caught by authorities but instead, every cellphone user is packing around a little transmitter: it’s at the heart of how cellphone work. They poll for nearby cell towers and then keep an ear out for incoming calls. Currently, you can’t pinpoint where someone is, but you can figure out that they are in range of a given cell tower, factor in their direction (which cell tower were you near an hour ago?) and many phones give you GPS info. It’s not hard to narrow a search to a block or less.
This connection addiction has a big problem: your connectivity is borrowed. If you ask a service provider or website to bend to serve you (the consumer), you’ll be heeded only if the cost is low. When government or police show up at the service provider’s offices, the provider is all ears. Blackberry rolled over to volunteer its user data to the British government and months earlier surrendered its user’s privacy to some of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. And why not? You’re leaving your dirty laundry in their machines. If you’re dumb enough to use Blackberry, you may be dumb enough to think that the few dollars Blackberry collects from you pays for safe secure servers, like rented vaults. Instead, you’re paying for a handful of salad from the buffet. If they lose you as a customer, another glutton will belly-up to Blackberry and enjoy the data storage and connectivity.
Free wifi is even more of a free-lunch prospect. BART (Bay Area Regional Transit) in San Francisco caught word of a BART protest. As BART controls the wifi and cell service inside of their train tunnels, they had control over whether or not they could throw the switch and turn off the Internet. The British government wants a similar stranglehold over “social media”-- the ability to leverage good infrastructure control and make it into total control over the communications of its citizens. Eventually, they’re going to get what they want. This connection system is not yours: it’s theirs. The democratized Web is a sham.
To seize control of a Banana Republic (the nations, not the stores), rebels would take over the radio station. Controlling media is the best way to align the population. Mass media (radio, TV, Internet) is too new a phenomenon for us to have adequate defenses against. When someone walks up to you can lies to your face, you call Bullshit. When the Internet pipes you a video of a floating kitten, you swallow it-- heck, you become a pawn of media, sharing and adding social proof to the fakery by sharing the link. When those sweaty and desperate guerillas get to the microphone and belt out their message to the people, the people listen no matter what the message is. A radio station represents about $100,000 in equipment and set-up. Would special credence be given if the same rebels took over a machine shop? No: it’s all about communication. People are living with a chunk of their brain sitting in the communication realm, outside of their body.

Trusting communications from the outside world would be like trusting that burnt toast smell during brain surgery.

When that realm is tapped into and controlled, we integrate it like it’s a fact-- like the sensation of touch that your fingers feed back to your brain. But the communication realm of your brain isn’t under your control. Trusting communications from the outside world would be like trusting that burnt toast smell during brain surgery. People are always tinkering with the controls, the data. More than that, they can shut off access and make us into digital paraplegics at the yank of a cord.
There is evidence that our brains topped out in size some time in our distant past and we’ve been on a marginal but definite decline in brain capacity. It’s like the societal wellsping of specialists and stored knowledge can be tapped into, so we don’t need that storage space any longer. Why would we need the brain capacity to hold the names of the US Senators? We don’t, we can tie into that data. But it means that we’re interconnected via borrowed wires.
Schools are mistakenly drilling and filling our children with memorization tactics. Our brains are logic engines more than storage devices.

Our brains are logic engines more than storage devices.

The advent of mass media has accelerated this trend of specialization but the school system is taking children in their formative years and not teaching them how to get information and results. It’s teaching them how to regurgitate. When they emerge, they have a head full of academic trivia that was easy for the teachers to dish out. They’re not equipped to think, so they don’t know how to research spontaneously and come up with their own results. Many jobs list “self-starter” as a prerequisite likely because that has become a rare trait. The convenience of the borrowed connections we can make means that we don’t have to look inside for facts or even build our own how-tos. We can just download them, if the connectivity is available.
I, for one, miss the days before this deep interconnectivity. I used to like the idea that I could pick-up a handheld mobile device and talk to someone far off-- but do it without fearing roaming fees. More than missing that scratchy reply, I miss the mindset. Had we started to evolve mobile technology to be more like radios, BART couldn’t shut down cell service because of a case of the jitters. We wouldn’t have to worry about cell reception. Two campers in the wilderness could talk via their version of the iRadio. The heart of cellphone technology is not some corporate-government conspiracy (that’s just a happy side effect), it’s greed. If we all had communication devices that behaved like radios, we might not need to subscribe to cellphone providers and pay ongoing fees for connectivity. But because we’re running through borrowed wires, we have to behave. Otherwise, someone will cut off that connection and give us a social lobotomy.

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