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DataSexual

  On Morozov, Lanier & Google

 Joshua Cohen




Datasexuals are to Silicon Valley what hipsters are to Brooklyn: both are ubiquitous and, after a certain point, annoying. These days, one has to search really hard to find daily activities that are not being tracked and recorded; now that everyone carries a smartphone, all walks of human existence are subject to measure­ment, analysis, and sharing. [. . .] Alexandra Carmi­chael, a health entrepreneur and one keen devotee of the datasexual lifestyle, records forty things about her daily life, from sleep and morning weight to caloric in­take and mood, not to mention sex, exercise, and day of menstrual cycle. [. . .] The most impressive feat of self-measurement comes from Larry Smarr, a com­puter scientist recently profiled in The Atlantic. Smarr is in a different league from most self-trackers; he tracks everything they track—and more. For example, he collects and analyzes his poop. As The Atlantic puts it, “He is deep into the biochemistry of his feces, keeping detailed charts of their microbial content. Larry has even been known to haul carefully boxed samples out of his kitchen refrigerator to show incautious visitors.

To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov


          
# of books read for this review: 4.
# of pages total: 1,424.

List price of books, total: $104.
List price of ebook versions, total: $51.96.

Best book because of its thoughtful resistance to utopian techno­logical dogma: To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov.

Worst book because of its thoughtless embodiment of utopian technological dogma: Future Perfect, Steven Johnson.

Other books: Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier; The New Dig­ital Age, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen.

Most notable achievements of Evgeny Morozov: Editor at For­eign Policy; writer of Net Effect, a popular blog whose “aim is to help you navigate the dense world of technology news and understand the impact that technology has on foreign affairs”; author of The Net Delusion (2011).

Most notable achievements of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen: Chairman of Google and director of Google Ideas, respectively.

Jaron Lanier: Digital media designer, VR innovator, self-styled anarcho-consultant to the likes of “Walmart, Fannie Mae, major banks, and hedge funds.”

Steven Johnson: Media theorist, TV guest, radio personality, college-circuit lecturer; “I’m a father of three boys, husband of one wife, and author of eight books, and co-founder of three websites.”

Relationship between Jared Cohen and Joshua Cohen, the au­thor of this review: None.

Relationship between Joshua Cohen and Google: Use of Google search, Gmail account.

# of books published about the internet/web since the start of 2013: 10,668, according to Amazon.

Significance of 2013: Fortieth anniversary of the internet’s pro­tocols being developed by the United States Department of Defense (1973, Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf presented their TCP/IP design at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K.); thirtieth anniversary of that protocol’s implementation (1983, the Defense Department required all computers that hosted its internal network, or intranet, to conform to TCP/IP).

Date of last celebration of the birth of online connectivity: 2009, the fortieth anniversary of the Defense Department’s original net­work, ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, 1969); and the twentieth anniversary of the web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee, working out of the European Organization for Nu­clear Research, or CERN (originally the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, 1989).

Chance of getting disparate governments, research institutions, multinational conglomerates, and authors just trying to sell their books to agree to a firm standard date on which to celebrate the birth of online connectivity: 0 percent.

Subtitles of the books under review, with no attempt to link them to their titles proper:Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist; The Case for Progress in a Networked Age; Re­shaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business.

Reason why publishers and maybe now even authors are con­vinced that subtitles help sell books: Inconceivable.

The only book under review without a subtitle: Who Owns the Future?

That book’s answer to the question of its title: You.

That book’s answer to the question of who owns the present: Global “Siren Servers” like Facebook and Google, which have man­aged to take control of the internet, concentrating in a few hyper­dactylic hands vast reserves of material wealth derived directly from the information you provide them.

What “your information” is, according to Lanier: Your identity on social media and networking sites, your purchasing profile and browsing history, that of others who are socially networked with you, emails, chats, etc.

What else “your information” is, according to Lanier: An asset.

What you get in return for giving this asset away, according to Lanier: “reputation,” “karma,” and “free services” like Facebook, Google search, and Gmail, which depend upon your data to better calibrate how to sell you goods and services (i.e., through ads based on keywords).

What Lanier proposes instead: “Two-way transactions,” which will finally turn you “the used” into you “the user,” the beneficiary of your own information.

How many times this reviewer was reminded of drugs while reading Lanier’s perseverating, palilaliac evocations of “use”: 12.

How many times this reviewer did drugs in the same period: 1.

How this proposal to cut you in on the profits generated by the monetizing of your online identity is a betrayal of Lanier’s previous book, You Are Not a Gadget (2010): That previous book was more of a philosophical or spiritual manifesto—indeed, A Manifesto was its subtitle—whose wariness of technological promise was premised on the conviction that collaborative or interactive cultures deincen­tivized originality and were prone to commercialization; this new book, however, overturns that individualist caution by casting you the human—a term this reviewer prefers to “user”—as nothing more than the overworked sales rep of your own enumerated “self.”

Representative passage: “Here’s a simple example of how you might make money from the cloud in a humanistic future of more complete accounting. It’s based on the kind of dubious calculation that’s typical of cloud entrepreneurship today. You meet a future spouse on an online dating service. The algorithms that implement that service take note of your marriage. As the years go by, and you’re still together, the algorithms increasingly apply what seemed to be the correlations between you and your spouse to matching other prospective couples. When some of them also get married, it is automatically calculated that the correlations from your case were particularly relevant to the recommendations. You get extra nanopayments as a result.”

What Lanier calls this type of redistribution: “The humanistic information economy.”

How disappointed is this reviewer in Lanier: Enough to end our relationship, despite forfeiture of any future “nanopayments.”

What better suggestions this reviewer has to more equitably re­distribute the profits generated by the monetizing of your online identity: A hypothecated federal tax on all social-media and search-engine advertising profits, the revenue from which would be spent directly on job creation (i.e., finding new work for people—book reviewers, for example—whose occupations have been technologi­cally peripheralized or obsolesced); an online social movement call­ing for all “two-way transactions” to disburse a fixed percentage of profits to charity, including but in no way limited to nonprofit groups advocating “net neutrality.”

Replacement of social norms by commodity exchange: Bad.

Replacement of social activities by commodity exchange: Bad.

Obfuscatory term for both: “Gamification.”

Other examples of gamification: quitting smoking or drinking by depositing money in an online escrow account that is lost to you if you lapse, but will accrue interest if you do not; keeping fit by walking or running a certain distance within a certain time, distance and time to be measured by your smartphone whose WiFi function cannot be activated until the quota has been met.

Evgeny Morozov’s term for treating social norms and/or activi­ties as unexploited opportunities for commodity exchange: “Solu­tionism.”

Other vocabulary from Morozov’s book: “Bouncing” (“whenever in­formation collected for one purpose [e.g., campaign contributions] is used for another purpose on another site”); “highlighting and shading” (“whereby some pieces of the disclosed information take on unintended, disproportionate roles in defining the person’s repu­tation”).

Morozov’s problem with “solutionism”: “Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that be easily optimized—if only the right algorithms are in place!—this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to ad­dress.”

Examples he details: Loss of sense of adventure by driving under the influence of GPS; loss of moral or ethical sense developed in the discharge of petty chores by automating them/contracting them to machines.

Place of Morozov’s birth: Belarus.

Saliency to this review: Belarusians spend a lot of time waiting in lines.

More important issues addressed: “Algorithmic gatekeeping,” in which computers do their own censoring, flagging so-called “por­nography” and “hatespeech”; how “closed” web policies restrict public speech in totalitarian regimes (Belarus, China, etc.) while “open” web policies erode privacy in democracies.

Google’s politics of “open” and “closed,” according to Schmidt and Cohen: America will remain fairly stable insofar as it continues to remake online in its own image; i.e., as a space for developing and testing the products by which more-closed societies will open them­selves to democratization and so to capital.

Translation: Americans will use Twitter to get famous; Arabs and Iranians will use it to compete with, and counteract, theofascist governance.

How life will be for Americans, according to Schmidt and Cohen: “Entertainment will become a more immersive and person­alized experience in the future. Integrated tie-ins will make today’s product placements seem passive and even clumsy. If while watch­ing a television show you spot a sweater you want or a dish you think you’d like to cook, information including recipes or purchas­ing details will be readily available, as will every other fact about the show, its story lines, actors, and locations. If you’re feeling bored and want to take an hour-long holiday, why not visit carnival in Rio? Stressed? Go spend some time on a beach in the Maldives. Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.”

How this tourism will be accomplished, according to Schmidt and Cohen: By hologram, projected into your home.

How life will be for everyone under less stable regimes, accord­ing to Schmidt and Cohen: “In the coming decades, we’ll see the world’s first ‘smart’ rebel movement. [...] Before even announcing their campaign they could target the government’s communications network, knowing it constitutes the real (if not official) backbone of the state’s defense. They might covertly reach out to sympathetic governments to acquire the necessary technical components—worms, viruses, biometric information—to disable it, from within or without. A digital strike against the communications infrastruc­ture would catch the government off guard, and as long as the rebels didn’t ‘sign’ their attack, the government would be left wondering where it came from and who was behind it. The rebels might leave false clues as to the origin, perhaps pointing to one of the state’s external enemies, to confuse things further.”

How many of the tactics described above have already been un­dertaken not just by Arab and Iranian dissidents but by the hacker collective Anonymous against American police departments, mili­tary and intelligence infrastructure, and, if you can believe it, NASA: roughly 50 percent.

# of times this is acknowledged in this book: 0.

How much Steven Johnson believes in collaboration: 100 per­cent.

# of authors of this book by Steven Johnson: 1.

# of times Johnson acknowledges that the type of decentered data-sharing he advocates might result in a massive uptick in data theft: 2.

Terms coined by Johnson in his previous book, Where Good Ideas Come From (2010): “The adjacent possible” (inventors use old inven­tions to make news ones), “exaptation” (inventors developing tech­nology for one application only for it to be used in another).

Terms coined in his new book: “Peer progressives” (members of decentralized cooperative movements, whether cultural like Wiki­pedia, economic like Kickstarter, or political like Occupy Wall Street), “pothole paradox” (that a pothole outside your house is about to be fixed by the city is the single most important news item in your life and yet the least likely to be reported upon by traditional media, which paradox is used by Johnson to advocate for greater online customization of journalism).

# of times “hive mind” is defined as “a dense network of human intelligence”: 1.

# of times Renaissance Venice and Genoa, and Ottoman Istan­bul, are described as “peer networks”: 1.

This reviewer’s incredulity that people can be paid to come up with this crap: Total.

This reviewer’s naïveté: Boundless.

Requisite Marshall McLuhan concept that Johnson “appropri­ates”: “Affordances,” or the tendency of each new medium to shape the message it communicates (e.g., movies and TV prioritizing the auditory and visual over the textual).

Application of McLuhan’s “affordances” to all the books under review: The new type of text property, whether book or ebook, regarding technology, is intended to appear quickly and disappear quickly and probably even in the best of cases should not be re­viewed; the obvious speed of its composition, and the brief sales window in which it is expected to perform, all form the velocity of its “sending,” and too its method of “reception”: rush through; do not pay attention; things are changing fast.

Malcolm Gladwell: Blurber of the Johnson book, thanked in the Acknowledgments section of the Schmidt and Cohen.

Also thanked in the Acknowledgments section of the Schmidt and Cohen: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Evgeny Morozov.

Takeaway scores on scale of 10: Morozov 6, Schmidt and Cohen 4, Lanier 2, Johnson 1.

Other new books this reviewer considered reading: Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Kenneth Cukier; Automate This: How Algo­rithms Came to Rule Our World, Christopher Steiner; a stack of Mex­ican novels; friends’ poetry.

# of hours spent on this review, including reading: 80.

Monies earned: $800.

Hourly rate: $10/hour.

Word count: 2,382.

Rate per word: $0.33585222502/word.

What $800 can buy at Ibrahim’s cart just outside the building this reviewer was writing in on Van Brunt Street in “hipster” Brooklyn:



400 hotdogs,
266.666 hamburgers,
800 sodas.

# of times Google was consulted for this review: 82.










Datasexual is excerpted from Joshua Cohen’s Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on the 14 August 2018.




Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers, Moving Kings), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, n+1, and others. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City. 

Copyright © Joshua Cohen, 2018. Reproduced by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions, London.



2018




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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

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