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  • Robert Lipscomb

Humanities on the Edge Lecture Review – Siva Vaidhyanathan


On April 2, 2015, Siva Vaidhyanathan, the twentieth Humanities on the Edge speaker, presented his lecture about “The Operating System of Our Lives” before an impressive crowd gathered at the auditorium of the Sheldon Museum. Vaidhyanathan, the Robertson Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, explained in detail (and without notes) some specific and logically constructed reasons why people should be worried about current technological trends. This review of his lecture will attempt to cover the main points of his data-rich lecture.

Vaidhyanathan began his discussion by recounting an episode of Seinfeld titled “The Comeback” in which George thinks of a zinger (a comeback) to a putdown he experienced about half an hour earlier. Vaidhyanathan related this anecdote to illustrate a feeling he experienced about a month after the publication of his controversial book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). He explained that in addition to the book already being wrong in some ways only a month after its release due to rapidly progressing technology, he had also failed to ask questions about the environment in which we interact with technology. One phrase was missing from his analysis: “The Operating System of Our Lives.” Indeed, Vaidhyanathan’s lecture proved to be an eye-opening reconsideration about the transformation and ever-changing role of operating systems.

For example, while Google is critically important to our lives, it is also a crutch—maybe even more than a crutch. It can be perceived of as a light in the darkness. This company, like so many, has become essential in the way that we manage our daily existence. Google is the most important company that governs the way we use the World Wide Web. Seventy percent of all internet searches in this country are Google based. It completely changed how advertising works; it changed how we navigate the actual terrain of the world. In short, we are outsourcing a significant amount of decision making to Google’s algorithms. But his focus on one company to the exclusion of everything else proved to be blinding. Vaidhyanathan has become interested in the long game. He directed the audience’s attention to the work done by operating systems, the name of the software that manages everything. They controls traffic, the flow of data. How these operating systems (and the concept of operating systems) relate to the internet is of paramount importance.

Vaidhyanathan explained that since the beginning of the thing known as the internet (possibly dating to an article in Time in 1993), society has been offered multiple metaphors. For example, we have been told that it is a separate place, an exceptional place—that it exists in a very different world. It was called the information super highway. From the beginning, we have been told to think of this network of networks as a distinct and separate space that offers a different way of communicating and functioning under a different set of rules. These terms are still used today no matter how much we have moved away from this concept. Moreover, the space where the internet was once accessed in our homes—namely, a large and bulky personal computing device—is no longer a stable space. We carry our access with us in our pockets.

Vaidhyanathan explained that our internet ecosystem has changed dramatically. Our data usage is increasingly going through apps like Facebook and Instagram. Facebook itself is becoming a more and more isolated and insular product; it is less and less connected to the web. True, the web still connects to billions and billions of documents around the world, but this is no longer the only thing going on. To be clear, Vaidhyanathan argued, the internet is not a place (not a space); it is a phenomenon of interconnectivity. He explained that the internet is not exceptional; it is only what it is because that is how it was designed to be at the time. The internet is governable; it is not radically free as promised. The internet does indeed censor. Basically, Vaidhyanathan argued that we have all been participating (if not collaborating) in the mass illusion that the internet is the radically open space that we were promised in the 1990s. Furthermore, a real change has occurred that should get us to stop using metaphors like the term internet itself. Data devices are now connected to us. They are increasingly embedded upon us. We are now nodes. We are data points. It is at this moment that Vaidhyanathan turned to further discuss the long game.

He recounted that the five most important companies in the Unites States right now that interact with the internet are Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon. Apple is the wealthiest company in the history of the world in terms of market capitalization. Therefore, it has an outsized effect on many of our decisions. Apple makes money by selling expensive and gorgeous boxes to the general public. The other four companies make money differently. Microsoft still rules the operating systems of the laptop and desktop. Google is in the process of working its way into the realm of the operating system, especially in terms of K-12 schools. Google makes money placing advertisements next to targeted searches as does Facebook. Of course, Amazon doesn’t actually make money having turned a profit in only four of the last fifteen years. This Walmart of the World Wide Web is, however, building market share by destroying local stores.

Our speaker discussed their interaction and future direction. These five companies compete for labor. They compete for money. They all want to change the world. They have a vision of making the world better (though Steve Jobs was actually an exception). They do battle with each other. For example, people are moving away from the iPhone toward less expensive Androids. However, these companies are looking 20 years down the line. They are not really interested in beautiful boxes. They don’t want to be just another operating system. They are interested in the fact that we are all nodes in the stream of information. They are interested in managing us. They can make us more efficient and more effective. The first glimpses are seen in wearable devices like the Apple watch. Being on the skin can pay off in new and different ways. It is a step toward a sense that these data nodes can touch the body, the flawed human body. According to Vaidhyanathan, human beings are increasingly viewed as the problem. Such flaws can be fixed with things like a self-driving car. Every new Ford and Buick is connected to data networks now. They speak to satellites and cell towers. There is constant monitoring of these things. The new luxury is simplicity. For example, it is notable that Porsche offers a high end car not connected to data networks.

There are some failures like Google Glass. However, Vaidhyanathan reminded us, such failures frequently inform future successes. Eventually, we will all be part of a constant data feedback system. Even our appliances may be a part of this system. Moreover, it is almost inevitable that one company will dominate those processes. It will be the company that is the most trusted, the one that cuts the best deals and uses the data the best. At present, these companies are scrambling to make sure these new devices are already attuned to us. At some point, our refrigerators will be able to self-order milk. This new type of operating system, one inextricably connected to our biologic processes, will be connected to a series of contracts among vendors. This process will either open up our choices or limit our options much in the way Google already does with online searches. Vaidhyanathan argued that “The Internet of Things” is neither--neither the internet nor things; it is people. The future has nothing to do with our watch being connected to our refrigerator; it is about things on our bodies being connected. He reminded us that these new operating systems of our lives are designed to remove friction. But, as the speaker also reminded us, friction is not always unproductive.

He then turned to the topic of surveillance. Based on surveillance, these companies know what we want more than other people do—perhaps even better than we know what we want ourselves. Predictability is the payoff of surveillance. Amazon’s suggested items to purchase is a good example of how this works. This type of information is what authoritarian regimes around the world want. They want to know what we are going to think next. Amazon has our consumer desires, and they can satisfy those desires in even the most remote village. They introduced two new devices just a day before the lecture: the dash and the dash button. You hold the dash up to the bar code of a product you want to reorder, then go to your tablet and determine a quantity to order. There is also a voice recognition option. Vaidhyanathan explained that we can shop in the grocery store within our home. There is also the dash button that we can preset and use to reorder anything we want. We can put a Tide button on our washing machine. Just push the button and reorder.

Vaidhyanathan then turned to more controversial topics. Specifically, Edward Snowden has taught us a lesson about what we should worry about. Worry, Vaidhyanathan clarified, does not mean hate or fear, or destroy. It means worry, be aware, educated, and concerned. In Snowden’s document, the NSA uses such consumer data and appears to do so without the cooperation of these companies. They have assembled a massive collection of all the emails going in and out of the country. They are supposed to scrub these emails if they are from US citizens, but they don’t know who all the citizens are. The problem is that data has yielded some false positives that have caused some folks to be caught in a dragnet of security. And we are the good guys. What about a government like Turkey that is currently cracking down on dissent? Furthermore, India passed an internet crackdown that was thrown out by their Supreme Court. And these are both vibrant democratic countries.

Vaidhyanathan also explained that we are told that all of this data sits in the cloud. None of this data sits in a cloud. This is another imprecise and stupid metaphor. There is no cloud. These are data centers with fossil fuels burning to keep the servers cool. Nothing is virtual. Nothing is mystical or imaginary. Human bodies, hands, and minds are always involved in this process. Humans are always part of this data system.

Ultimately as a result of these process, the world might be better. We might be happier. We might be more peaceful. However, just because we connect with each other doesn’t mean that we are all going to love each other. There may be some real benefits, but we should hold people accountable all along the way. The inevitable one company will hold tremendous power.

Vaidhyanathan concluded by saying that there is no need to panic. The goal of thinking about these things is to think deeper about these things. What are the consequences? Do these things make life better? What is the trade off? Is our ability to be citizens increased by our ability to be connected to other citizens? Vaidhyanathan hopes that these breakthroughs will ultimately change our lives. He hopes that he is wrong about many of the problems that he outlined. But so far, we have not done the hard thinking. So far, we have just “rushed into the cloud.”

This nebulous concluding statement brings into focus one central theme that informed all of Vaidhyanathan’s presentation: the theme of space. The internet is conceived of as a virtual space when, in fact, it is an actual space with data centers and nodes of connection increasingly connected to the skin of our bodies. For Vaidhyanathan, we have not slowed down enough to even consider this fact. We are chasing the dazzle of innovation in same way that folks in nineteenth-century opium dens chased the dragon.

Humanities on the Edge focuses on problems of the present by applying a rigorous theoretical approach. Professor Vaidhyanathan is this year’s fourth responder to this year’s topic of “States of Exception.” We live in an age of crisis: financial, ecological, social, etc. The idea of a crisis once meant there might be a chance to return to some sense of normalcy. This may no longer be the standard. The State of Exception may now be the State of Affairs. But the “Operating System of Our Lives” appears to be a symptom of this permanent age of crisis.

Throughout Professor Vaidhyanathan’s lively lecture, I kept thinking about Forbidden Planet (1956). In this film, it is learned that an alien species created bio-mech technology that alleviated them from all of their burdens—reduced all the friction as Vaidhyanathan would argue. The result was the sudden and total release of the monsters of the Id (the secret desires we keep locked down) and the destruction in an instant of their species. Needless to say, we are not quite that advanced. But I am now the more mindful that we are transitioning to these new technologies without much deliberate thought. Maybe we are closer than we realize to confronting the monsters of our Ids.

#biopowerbiopolitics #spaceplace #humanitiesontheedge #robertlipscomb

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