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Hard to Love a Brute

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No matter which James Bond actor is your favorite, it’s undeniable that the Sean Connery films had the best villains. There’s Blofeld, who turned cat-stroking into a thing that super-villains do, and then there’s Goldfinger—Bond’s flashiest nemesis. Fun fact: the author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, named Goldfinger for a real person—an architect by the name of Ernő Goldfinger, who made giant, hulking, austere concrete buildings. Fleming disliked these buildings so intensely that he immortalized their architect as villain in pop culture.

And Fleming wasn’t the only critic. Goldfinger’s buildings were decreed “soulless.” Inhabitants claimed to suffer health problems and depression from spending time inside them. Some of Goldfinger’s buildings were vacated because occupants found them so ugly. Yet, architects praised Goldfinger’s buildings. His Trellick tower, which was once threatened with demolition, has been awarded landmark status.

2843133527_05fb175ae8_o[Trellic Tower. Credit: Thomas R. Koll]

This divide—this hatred from the public and love from designers and architects, tends to be the narrative around buildings like Goldfinger’s. Which is to say, gigantic, imposing buildings made of concrete.

Some people refer to this building style as “Brutalist architecture,” but Brutalism is a big, broad label that’s used inconsistently in architecture, and architects tend to disagree on a precise definition of the word. Furthermore, the word “brutalism” has intense connotations, even though it’s not actually related to “brutality.” The word comes from the French “beton brut,” which means raw concrete.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.52.26 PM[Peabody Terrace in Cambridge MA. Credit: Phokion Karas]

Lots of folks, beyond the creator of James Bond, love to hate these concrete buildings. Their aesthetic can conjure up associations with bomb shelters, soviet era or “third-world” construction, but as harsh as it looks, concrete is an utterly optimistic building material.

Around the 1920s, concrete was seen as being the material that would change the world.  The material seemed boundless—readily available in vast quantities, and concrete sprang up everywhere—on bridges, tunnels, highways, sidewalks, and of course, massive buildings. Concrete has become the second-most consumed product in the world. The only thing we consume more of than concrete is water.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.52.16 PM[Holyoke Center on the Harvard Campus. Credit: Phokion Karas]

Concrete presented the most efficient way to house huge numbers of people, and government programs all over the world loved it—particularly Soviet Russia, but also later in Europe and North America.

Philosophically, concrete was seen as humble, capable, and honest—exposed in all its rough glory, not hiding behind any paint or layers. Concrete structures were erected all over the world as housing projects, courthouses, schools, churches, hospitals—and city halls.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.53.36 PM[Boston City Hall. Credit: Ezra Stoller/Esto]

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Boston was plagued by a loss of manufacturing jobs, and white flight to the suburbs. For decades the Massachusetts capital had the highest property taxes in the nation and almost no new development. So Boston set an agenda to make the city great again by erecting big, soaring, modern buildings made of concrete. And, though some of these buildings were celebrated, others were despised. 

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.51.44 PM[Boston City Hall. Credit: Mark Pasnik]

When Boston City Hall was built in 1968, critics were put off by the concrete style. It was called “alienating” and “cold.” And since it was a government building, this criticism became impossible to remove from politics. Boston city hall became a political pawn as mayors and city council members vied for public support with promises to tear it down.

[John Tobin suggested tearing down City Hall when he ran for City Council]

But tearing down Boston City Hall has never come to pass. Doing so would take an incredible amount of effort and money. And so, government officials have largely chosen to ignore the building. This “active neglect,” happens with a lot of concrete buildings—they are intentionally unrenovated

, and uncared for. Which only makes the building more ugly, and then more hated, and then more ignored. It’s a vicious cycle wherein the public hate of a building feeds itself.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.52.46 PM[Madison Park High School in Boston. Credit: Nick Wheeler, Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Design]

When people built these mammoth concrete structures, no one really thought about maintenance, because they seemed indestructible. In the early days of concrete people assumed it was an everlasting material that wouldn’t require any further attention. This has not proven true. But, it can be hard to tell whenconcrete needs repairing, since its decay is not visible on the surface.

Concrete deteriorates chemically, from the inside out. Part of this has to do with the metal rebar reinforcements that help to hold up most concrete buildings. The rebar can rust, and the rust can cause the concrete to fracture. eat away at the overall structure.

8712925526_bc94d59c61_h[Wurster Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Credit:Rocor]

But despite their unpopularity, tearing down these concrete structures is probably not the answer. The process is costly and wasteful. We can adapt these buildings to make them greener, more appealing places to be. And the best way to break the cycle of active neglect may be to love these concrete brutes in all their hulking glory. As with any art form—whether opera or painting or literature—the more you know about it the more you appreciate it. This is especially true of concrete buildings.

Architecture students appreciate them because they know that concrete requires a great deal of skill and finesse to work with. Every little detail has to be calculated out in advance because once the concrete is poured, there’s no going back to make adjustments.

Aside from the interesting design challenges concrete poses, the material itself can be subtly beautiful.

Concrete-Texture-Pt1[Credit: Sarah Briggs-Ramsey]

We call the city a “concrete jungle” to talk about the artificiality of the urban landscape, but concrete can actually be a very natural expression of the environment. What we think of as a homogenous texture is actually rich and diverse, when you consider it closely.

Concrete’s color and texture can be dictated by local climate, local earth, and local rock. Concrete can also be an expression of local style and custom. For example, British concrete has big, thick textured chunks of rock, while Japanese concrete is fine and smooth.

Concrete-Texture-Key-1024x767[Credit: Sarah Briggs-Ramsey]

But the beauty of concrete architecture might be the most apparent when you can observe the buildings like pieces of sculpture—without having to actually live and work in them. Which brings in concrete’s surprising ally: photography.

BqgGEtYIYAA7rgY.png-medium[Courtesy of The Guardian]

Concrete looks good in photographs. It provides a neutral background to bring out people’s skin tones, or the color of their clothing. Fashion photographers discovered this first, but in recent years, pockets of the internet started to appreciate these concrete buildings.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 12.05.10 PM[Courtesy of fuckyeahbrutalism.tumblr.com]

Photography is allowing a new audience to appreciate these buildings for their strong lines, their crisp shadows, and increasingly, the idealism they embody.

In the words of Adrian Forty, author of Concrete and Culture:

[Concrete buildings] represent a set of ideas about the state of the world and what the future was imagined to be that we want to preserve. We should remember what people were thinking 50 years ago. If we tear these buildings down, we will lose all of that.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.51.17 PM[Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center, interior stair. Credit: Mark Pasnik]

Back in the 1960s, Victorian style buildings were considered hideous and impossible to repair. We were tearing batches of Victorians down to erect big concrete buildings. But some Victorians were saved—and today, some of them are considered treasures.

Concrete architecture now finds itself at an inflection point: too outdated to be modern, too young to be classic. And a small, but growing band of architects, architecture enthusiasts, and preservationists, would like us to just wait a bit and see.

Maybe, with a little time, we’ll come around to love these hulking concrete brutes.

Cover[Image courtesy of The Heroic Project]

Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Adrian Forty, author of Concrete and Culture; Sarah Ramsey, whose project, Postwar Concrete Postscript, examines concrete buildings all around the world; and Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley of The Heroic Project, which is chronicling concrete buildings all round Boston. Their book, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, will be out in October.

Special thanks to our pal Allison Arieff at SPUR, and with Michael Abrahamson, the curator the beautiful site fuckyeahbrutalism.tumblr.com. Additional thanks to Renee Tapp and Arcsine’s own Nathaniel Muhler.

Banner image by Paul Coles

Music: “James Bond Theme”- John Barry; “On We March”- Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; “Not Yet”- Melodium; “This Is How You Dance”- John Barry; “Seeking” – Plaid; “Reversing”- Four Tet; “Multnomah Falls”- Keegan Dewitt; “This Unfolds”- Four Tet; “Unicorn”-  Four Tet; “Vlagaine”- Melodium; “Let Go”- Melodium


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3253 days ago
Minneapolis, Minnesota
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The world's loudest sound

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The sound made by the Krakatoa volcanic eruption in 1883 was so loud it ruptured eardrums of people 40 miles away, travelled around the world four times, and was clearly heard 3,000 miles away.

Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is. If you're in Boston and someone tells you that they heard a sound coming from New York City, you're probably going to give them a funny look. But Boston is a mere 200 miles from New York. What we're talking about here is like being in Boston and clearly hearing a noise coming from Dublin, Ireland. Travelling at the speed of sound (766 miles or 1,233 kilometers per hour), it takes a noise about 4 hours to cover that distance. This is the most distant sound that has ever been heard in recorded history.

A much much smaller eruption occurred recently in Papua New Guinea. From the video, you can get a tiny sense of the sonic damage unleashed by Krakatoa:

Holy smoking Toledos indeed. On Reddit, a user details how loud a Saturn V rocket is and what the effects would be at different distances. At very close range, the sound from the Saturn V measures an incredible 220 db, loud enough to melt concrete just from the sound.

At 500 meters, 155 db you would experience painful, violent shaking in your entire body, you would feel compressed, as though deep underwater. Your vision would blur, breathing would be very difficult, your eardrums are obviously a lost cause, even with advanced active noise cancelling protection you could experience permanent damage. This is the sort of sound level aircraft mechanics sometimes experience for short periods of time. Almost twice as "loud" as putting your ear up to the exhaust of a formula 1 car. The air temperature would drop significantly, perhaps 10-25 degrees F, becoming suddenly cold because of the air being so violently stretched and moved.

Even at three miles away, the sound is loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. But that's nothing compared to the Krakatoa sound. The Saturn V sound is ~170 db at 100 meters away while the Krakatoa explosion was that loud 100 miles away! What happens at 170 db?

...you would be unable to breathe or likely see at all from the sound pressure, glass would shatter, fog would be generated as the water in the air dropped out of suspension in the pressure waves, your house at this distance would have a roughly 50% chance of being torn apart from sound pressure alone. Military stun grenades reach this volume for a split second... if they are placed up to your face. Survival chance from sound alone, minimal, you would certainly experience permanent deafness but probably also organ damage.

The word "loud" is inadequate to describe how loud that is. (thx, david)

Tags: audio   Krakatoa   science
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3572 days ago
I had no idea sound was this powerful.
Minneapolis, Minnesota
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3 public comments
3573 days ago
explosion soooooo loud you'd never even hear it!!
Burlington, Ontario
3576 days ago
Forget about face melting. Concrete melting is the new goal when rocking out.
San Francisco, CA
3576 days ago
TIL you can melt concrete with sound.
3574 days ago
So I guess that is turning things to 12?

The Fall

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

At the end of 2013, photographer David Maisel was commissioned to photograph the city of Toledo, Spain, as part of a group exhibition called ToledoContemporánea, timed for a wider celebration of the 400th birthday of the painter El Greco.

Maisel's photos offered a kind of aerial portraiture of the city, including its labyrinthine knots of rooftops. But the core of the project consists of disorientingly off-kilter, almost axonometric shots of the city's historic architecture.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

On wider flights beyond the edge of the city, modern swirls of highways are seen coiling through the landscape, like snakes preparing for arrival; in a sense, their geometry mimics—or perhaps mocks—the bewildering whorls of tiny streets and passages seen in the city's core.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

While he was in the country, however, Maisel took advantage of some extra time and access to a helicopter an airplane to explore the landscape between Toledo and Madrid, a short stretch of infrastructural connections, agricultural hinterlands, abandoned suburban developments, and arid hills.

The result was a new series of photos called The Fall.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

As Maisel writes, The Fall suggests a genre in which "the worlds of painting and photography have merged together," creating an ironically abstract form of landscape documentation.

This is most evident in the photos from an area called Vicalvaro on the outskirts of Madrid. As Maisel explains, this is "where construction was halted after the economic collapse of 2008. The abandoned zones appear like the surreal aftermath of a bombed out city or an alien landing field."

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But, as seen in Maisel's photos, they could also just as easily be extreme close-ups of minimalist oil paintings, nearly microscopic zooms into the texture of another method of representation to reveal a different kind of landscape there, one created by pigments and dyes.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

This is an interrupted landscape, a geography elaborately and expensively prepared for something that has yet to arrive.

However, the dead abstractions of Vicalvaro were only one part of the "three different areas of the Spanish landscape" that Maisel says he set out to see.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Another landscape type—true to form, considering Maisel's pre-existing focus on landscapes of industrial use—are borax extraction sites.

These are "strange, ashen landscapes," he writes, seen "in a mining and agricultural region of La Mancha. The soil is laden with the mineral borax, which gives a surreal, ashen quality; the landscape shines, almost like a grey sea in a desert."

They're like windowpanes—or mercury lakes—reflecting the afternoon light.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

The surface of the earth becomes weirdly metallic in these shots, just a thin surface scraped away to reveal something seemingly utterly unnatural beneath, as if some divine force has begun etching the earth, scratching and engraving incomprehensible shapes into the planet.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In many cases, amidst these grooved and metallized landscapes, gridded blooms of plant life have been introduced both to visually interrupt and physically contain the landscape.

Among other things, their roots help to secure disturbed dirt and soil from blowing away in heavy winds—but they also act to recuperate the terrain aesthetically, as if seeing these robotic fields the color of gunmetal was so philosophically unsettling for local residents that plants had to be brought in to make things seem earthly once again.

What we're seeing is thus not really arboriculture, but a kind of existential stagecraft, a rigorously constructed landscape whose ironic purpose is to shield us from the true artificiality of our surroundings.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In fact, these bring us around nicely to the third landscape type Maisel says he was exploring with these photographs, joining the abandoned developments and borax sites that we've already seen, above.

This is Fuensalida, or a region of "croplands in the La Mancha region" that have been "gridded, crosshatched, and abstracted."

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Like the exquisite tree farms documented by Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter, these rob viewers of any real sense of scale.

What are, in fact, trees appear instead to be small tufts of fabric pushing up through a needlepointing mesh. It could be a carpet interrupted mid-weave, or it could be some worn patch of clothing rubbed raw to reveal the underlying pattern for all to see.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But it's just landscape: the earth reformatted again, made artifactual and strange, carefully touched up for human culture.

This is just a selection of images, however; click through to Maisel's website to see the full series.

(All images by David Maisel, used with permission. If you like the look of Maisel's work, considering picking up a copy of The BLDGBLOG Book to read an interview with the photographer).
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3614 days ago
Minneapolis, Minnesota
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3621 days ago
Oh, these are really cool.

An Untranslatable Poem

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In his 1983 book En Torno a la Traducción, Spanish philologist and translator Valentín García Yebra cites a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:




Broadly, it’s an image of an evening tryst, but its import is so embedded in its language that García Yebra found himself unable to convey it in another tongue.

“In this short poem, phonemic form is everything,” write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in Discourse and the Translator. “The words themselves are evocative: a small town with ‘winding streets’ (rua torta), a ‘fading moon’ (lua morta) and the hint of an amorous affair: ‘your door’ (tua porta). But their impact is achieved almost solely through the close rhyme and rhythm; the meaning is raised from the level of the banal by dint of exploiting features which are indissociable from the Portuguese language as a code.

“García Yebra relates that he gave up the attempt to translate the poem even into Spanish, a language which shares certain phonological features with Portuguese.”

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3652 days ago
Minneapolis, Minnesota
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Visualizing algorithms

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Bostock Maze

In an adaptation of a talk he gave at the recent Eyeo Festival, Mike Bostock talks about visualizing algorithms.

Algorithms are a fascinating use case for visualization. To visualize an algorithm, we don't merely fit data to a chart; there is no primary dataset. Instead there are logical rules that describe behavior. This may be why algorithm visualizations are so unusual, as designers experiment with novel forms to better communicate. This is reason enough to study them.

But algorithms are also a reminder that visualization is more than a tool for finding patterns in data. Visualization leverages the human visual system to augment human intellect: we can use it to better understand these important abstract processes, and perhaps other things, too.

If nothing else, skim through the text and play the visualizations. The one of the maze turning into a tree visualization baked backed my noodle a little bit.

Tags: infovizMike Bostock
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3668 days ago
Well there went an hour.
Minneapolis, Minnesota
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Liquid Surveillance

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Cool term, huh?  Liquid surveillance. I learned it from Neil Richards’ 2013 paper “The Dangers of Surveillance” in the Harvard Law Review (thanks to Jesus Olmo for the link); it’s a useful label for that contemporary panopticon in which “Government and nongovernment surveillance support each other in a complex manner that is often impossible to disentangle.” My recent IAPP talk looked at privacy from a biological point-of-view; I’d recommend Richards’ overview for its legal and historical perspective on the same subject.

But while we come at the issue from different directions, both Richards and I disagree profoundly with David Brin. We both think that privacy is something worth protecting.

As a number of you have noticed, the good doctor took exception to my Scorched Earth talk of a while back. We’ve since gone  back and forth over email a few times. David was miffed by my failure to give him a heads-up when I posted my transcript, and fair enough; that was thoughtless of me. He also objects to my simplistic “rainbows and unicorns” caricature of his transparent society. Also fair enough(1), these days anyway; the dude does seem to have changed his tune since back in 2003 when he expressed the hope that the authorities would “let us look back”. Nowadays he takes the more defiant stance that we’ll fucking well look back whether they “let” us or not.

My argument wasn’t so much that we shouldn’t look back as it was that the silverbacks would come down hard on us when we did. I wholeheartedly endorse David’s current perspective, even though he sometimes gets so caught up in his own heroic defiance that he has an unfortunate tendency to describe the rest of us as mere “whiners” in comparison.

Quibble Appetizer

He uses the word repeatedly— here, when he engages me, and here, where he takes on the URME line of surveillance-foiling full-face masks.  Privacy advocates— hell, people who walk down the street wearing masks— are just a bunch of moaners who keep “whiningdon’t look at me!‘”

I think Dr. Brin might be protesting a bit too much. Has he ever worn a mask in public, or (like Ladar Levison of Lavabit) given the finger to authorities who show up with their hands out? These are not craven acts. Wearing a mask in public is the very opposite of hiding: it doesn’t avoid attention, it draws it. It’s not just a middle finger raised to a gauntlet of cameras; it’s an invitation to any badge-wearing thug within eyeshot, even in those places where wearing a mask isn’t outright illegal.  It’s about as whiney, moany, and hidey an act as— well, for example, as getting out of your car during a protocol-violating border search to ask what’s going on. (Or as David puts it on his blog, “scream and leap”.)

I’m quibbling, though. So the dude slants his semantics for dramatic effect; I’m Mr. Unicorns-&-Rainbows, so I can’t really complain. Besides, I think Dr. Brin and myself are pulling in the same direction. We’re both outraged by abuse of power; we both regard our governments as— if not an outright enemy— an adversary at least, a group organism whose interests cannot be counted on to align with those of its citizens. We both think it needs to be resisted (and if we don’t, I’m sure David will set me straight, because this time at least I’ve given him a heads-up.)

I still think he’s dead wrong about privacy, though.

The Trouble With Transparency

I’ll give him some points right out of the gate. The use of cell phone cameras has depressed the number of incidents of police misconduct, has even resulted in charges now and then.  That’s a positive development.

I don’t know how long it will last.  Laws written by cats have a way of adapting when the mice figure out a workaround.  Sneak cameras into factory farms and you may get public outrage, grass-roots momentum, the passage of more humane animal-treatment laws.  Then again, you might get laws that outlaw undercover journalism entirely, redefine anyone who documents the abuse of agricultural animals as a “domestic terrorist”. Record video of police assaulting civilians and you’ll certainly get a lot of front-page coverage for a few days. You may even get public enquiries and actual charges, at least until the next Hollywood celebrity overdoses on horse tranquillizers and moves the spotlight.

But how much of that theater results in conviction?  The Mounties who killed Robert Dziekański in the Vancouver International Airport got off the hook, despite video footage of their actions.  James Forcillo is back on the job after repeatedly shooting a crazy man to death in an empty streetcar, despite hand-held recordings from multiple angles establishing that the victim was not a threat. (He’s since been charged; conviction, in my opinion, is unlikely.) And the cops who vandalized, robbed, and assaulted bodega owners in Philadelphia were never even charged, despite video showing them cutting the local securicam wires before partying down.

Of course, anyone can google for newspaper headlines showing this corrupt cop or that crooked politician getting away with murder. That’s called arguing by anecdote and— while the anecdotes are valid in and of themselves— you can’t hang rigorous statistics off that kind of cherry-picking. My sense is that we’re in an arms race here; the authorities are still coming to terms with the presence of ubiquitous civilian surveillance at street level, the cops haven’t quite internalized the fact that they might be suddenly accountable in a way they never were before, but I expect countermeasures to these countermeasures. (Which, now that I think of it, serves as a rejoinder to David’s suggestion that I’ve never heard of Moore’s Law. I confess the term does sound familiar— but I think it applies to both sides in the struggle, so rather than a monotonic climb to a transparent utopia, I see something more cyclical. Maybe that’s just the ecologist in me.)  Brin himself points to a patent that would let the authorities shut down every inconvenient cell-phone and tablet within reach (interestingly, he proposes a response similar to my Cylon Solution from back in March).  I expect that generally, those in charge will figure out how to put back whatever rocks we manage to turn over.

But that’s just my sense of things, and I could be wrong. So let’s be optimistic and grant the point.  Let’s assume that our cell phones and skeeterbots permanently level the playing field down here at street level, that cops no longer get away with assaulting civilians whenever they feel like it, that our masters and their attack dogs finally have to treat us with a modicum of respect.

It will be an improvement. Not a game-changing one. Because even in this optimistic scenario, society is only transparent down here on the street, where the cell phones are. Elsewhere, the glass in the windows is all one-way.

Take a Man’s Castle, for starters. Even Brin draws the line at domestic privacy: his Transparent Society ends on our doorsteps, explicitly allowing that our homes, at least, will remain unsurveilled. It may have seemed a plausible extrapolation back in the nineties, before Moore’s Law and Surveillance Creep produced such a litter of unholy love-children: the television in your bedroom that reports your viewing habits and the contents of your thumb drives back to corporate headquarters. The back doors built into every Windows operating system from Xp on up. The webcam that counts the people in your living room, so that it can shut down your TV if it sees four faces when your subscription to Game of Thrones is only licensed for three. And of course the government, lurking overhead like a rain-swollen overcast sky, turning all of corporate America into its bitch with a wink and a National Security Letter (and even an actual warrant on rare occasions). (but hardly ever an actual warrant). The Internet of Things has barely even got off the ground, and these are only a few of the intrusions we’re already facing.

And don’t even get me started on LOVEINT

David, dude— it was a beautiful dream back in 1998, and how I wish it had turned out that way. But do we have back-door access into Dick Cheney’s web-surfing habits? Did I miss some memo about the White House camera feeds going public-domain last week? That giant supercomputer complex going up in the Utah desert: when it goes online, will they be using it to help mothers keep track of their wandering children? Do we know what books David Cameron keeps on his Nook, do we know what passages of Mein Kampf he tends to linger over?

Will any of these insights be within our grasp in the foreseeable future?

And that’s just in people’s homes, in the private little bubble that we all agree should remain sacrosanct. Is it better when you step outside, and lose not just the reasonable expectation of privacy but of anonymity to boot? If you were attending a rally to protest— oh, I dunno, illegal drone strikes on foreign nationals— would you feel not the slightest chill when informed by one of our Boys in Blue that yes, you’re perfectly free to exercise your right to public dissent— but before you do we’re going to take down your name and address and bank details and employment history and phone records and any past interactions you may have had with Law Enforcement stretching back into childhood? Would it make you feel any better to know that no Boys in Blue were exploited in the making of this film, that all those data— and orders of magnitude more— were collected by an unmarked autonomous quadrocopter talking to a computer in the desert?

Is it okay that someone without any relevant qualification can access psychiatric records of people in other countries, the better to arbitrarily restrict their freedom of movement? Is it acceptable that people who’ve never been convicted of any crime— who’ve never even been charged with anything— have lost jobs, been turned down for educational programs, been denied travel, all because the police keep records of everyone they come in contact with for whatever reason, then hand those data out at the drop of a hat? Would all that somehow be redressed, if only we had guerrilla cellphone footage of some asshole behind a desk stamping REJECTED on a your job application?

Don’t count on enlightened legislation to turn the tables. The original surveillance program that grew into PRISM and Stingray was regarded as illegal even by many in the Bush Administration; the White House went ahead and did it anyway. None of those folks will ever be held accountable for that, any more than they’ll be charged with war crimes over the waterboarding of prisoners or the dispatch of flying terminators to assassinate civilians without due process.

I have a friend who practices law in California. The last time we hung out she told me that what disillusions her the most about her job, the thing she finds most ominous, is the naïve and widespread fairytale belief that the law even matters to those in power— that all we have to do to in order to end government surveillance is to pass a law against it, and everyone will fall into line. It’s bullshit. Only mice have to obey the law. The cats? They can take it or leave it. (I passed that message on to Canada’s Privacy Commissioner when we chatted after my IAPP talk. In response, she could only shrug and spread her hands.)

The damnable thing about David Brin is, he’s right: If the watchers watch us, we should damn well be able to watch them in turn.  Where the argument fails is in his apparent belief that both sides will ever have comparable eyesight, that an army of cellphone-wielding  Brave Citizens (as opposed to the rest of us moaning whiners) is enough to level the playing field. Yes, Moore’s Law proceeds apace: our eyesight improves over time. But so does theirs, and because their resources are so vastly greater, they will have the advantage for the foreseeable future. (Of course, if someone’s planning on crowd-sourcing their own supercomputer complex in the desert— complete with legislation-generating machinery to legally protect its existence and operations on behalf of the 99%— let me know.  I’d love to get in on the ground floor.)

Don’t get me wrong: I agree that we should look back whenever we can. Even when the gorillas beat the shit out of you. Looking back is necessary.

But it is not sufficient.

The Opacity Alternative

If we can’t level the field by spying on the authorities, the obvious alternative is to try and limit their ability to spy on us. Neil Richards argues not only that privacy can be protected but that it must be, because personal privacy is essential to a functioning democracy. His argument seems compelling to me, but I’m not a legal scholar (and I’m not entirely sold on the whole democracy thing either), so I’ll leave it to Richards to defend Richards. Brazil, at least, seems to be on board with his outlook, given the recent passage of their “Internet Bill of Rights“.

For my part, it just burns my ass that these fuckers arrogate unto themselves the right to watch me from the grasses.  I don’t like being targeted.  I don’t like being prey. So it resonates when Edward Snowden tells us that we don’t have to ask the government to give us back our privacy: we can take it.

Brin’s response is: Tough noogs, Bub. The Internet Never Forgets.  You can’t burn data to the ground when they’ve already been copied and recopied and stored in a million backup repositories throughout a network designed to remain operational after a nuclear war.

He’s got a point.

My porn-surfing habits from 2011 are probably immortal by now. I’ll never be able to disown this blog post no matter how many religious conversions I experience down the road. CSIS probably knows all about that little sniper reticle I superimposed on the forehead of a cat-cuddling Stephen Harper last decade. Those ships have sailed.

But that doesn’t mean we have to keep launching new ones.

There’s no shortage of online posts listing the various ways one might protect one’s your privacy, from asymmetrical haircuts to sticking your cell phone in a Faraday Cage. Some are really obvious: if you don’t want your TV spying on you, don’t get a smart one(2). (Dumb TVs are cheap these days— we just bought one a couple of weeks back— because everyone’s clearing their warehouses to make room  for new devices that come with HAL-9000 as standard equipment.  When you can’t get a dumb TV any more, go dumber: my last 47-incher was basically just a monitor with a bunch of input jacks.) Keep your deepest secrets on a computer that’s completely isolated from the internet. Encrypt everything. Stay the fuck away from Facebook.

Start a Cylon Solutions boutique that specializes in backlash technology, machinery too dumb to be used against you(3). Start a franchise. Make it a thing. Hell, if vinyl staged a comeback decades after the entertainment industry banished it to the wilderness— if analog tech has become cool again for no more than the audio aesthetic— how much more potential might there be in a retro movement founded on the idea of keeping Harper and Obama out of our bedrooms?

Of course, not everyone cares enough to put in the extra effort. I was ranting to a friend the other day as she booted up her smart TV, ran down the usual list of grievances and suspicions and countermeasures. She listened patiently (as you know, I do tend to go on sometimes), and finally drawled “You know, your arguments all make sense, but I just don’t really care.”  A lot of people, seduced by the convenience of the tech and unwilling to make their own soap from scratch, are indifferent to the panopticon. I wish them well.

But to many of us the Snowden revelations have provoked a backlash, a renewed interest in drawing a curtain back across our lives. That backlash seems to be provoking an uptick in privacy measures that are actually easy to use, convenient enough for even the surveillantly-indifferent to embrace. Cyberdust is a free app that encrypts and anonymizes your communiqués, then burns them to the ground after they’ve been read no matter how often David Brin weighs in on the impossibility of such a feat (although you may want to stay away from Snapchat for the time being). Chrome’s new “End-to-End” encryption add-on has got so much recent press it’s barely even worth embedding a link. (Let us take a moment to reflect on the irony of Google in the role of privacy advocate.) And Snowden’s gift has also weakened the nonelectronic channels through which government spying often passes— the security letters, the secret back-room demands for data which corporations were only too happy to turn over before their clients knew what they were doing. Now it’s out, and customers are deserting in droves; see how Apple and Facebook and Microsoft have seen the light at last, now that their bottom lines are threatened. See how they’ve all pledged to give up their evil ways and join the Occupy movement. It’s not just Teksavvy and Lavabit any more; now even the lapdogs are showing a couple of teeth. (Whether they actually bite anything remains to be seen, of course.)

There may even be some utility yet to be squeezed out of direct legislation, notwithstanding my skepticism about cat-authored laws. Sure, if you tell  the spooks they the law says the spooks can’t spy on you, they’ll just do it anyway and just lie to Congress about it afterward.  But what if you pass a law that cuts their budget— reduces their allowance so they can’t afford to spy on you, whether they’re allowed to or not? We’re about to find out, if the House of Representatives’ recent amendment to a Defense appropriations bill makes it past the Senate.

If worst comes to worst, just break the law.  It serves them, not us, and they can’t put all of us in jail.

Yes, they are vast and mighty and all-seeing, and we are small and puny, but we are scattered and so very many in number. We can’t keep the spooks out if they really want us— but they don’t really want most of us. The only reason They See All is because the technology makes it so damn easy to target everyone, to err on the side of overkill. Tangle up that driftnet enough and cost:benefit changes; at some point they’ll go back to using longlines.

There are things we can do, is what I’m saying. It’s what Edward Snowden is saying, too.  It’s what Neil Richards and  Bruce Schneier and Ann Cavoukian and Micheal Geist are saying. It what activist organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and national governments like Brazil and a myriad others are saying. We’re saying we can burn things, and here’s how. We’re saying we can take it back.

We’re saying that David Brin is wrong.

About this, anyway.  Because— and I’ll say it again— I am totally on board with the way the man rallies his troops to join battle on one front. What I diss is his unconditional surrender of the other.

To me, that’s the very opposite of being a Brave Citizen.

Deleted Scenes and Extras

In a way I believe Ed Snowden’s inspirational example has misled us, misled me. In hindsight I think I was wrong to write when I wrote that he “looked back”— as though he was one of us, just some guy on the street staring at the gorilla.  He wasn’t. He was the gorilla; he was a trusted part of that network, he was Agent Smith, he was one of the watchers. That’s the only way he had access to all that information in the first place: not through “souseveillance”, not by looking back, but simply by being a gorilla who happened to grow a conscience. We can’t aspire to follow his example because no matter how hard we stare, we will never enjoy the access he once had.

In a way, that doesn’t even matter—because whether Snowden was a true metawatcher or just a gummint voyeur plagued by a sense of ethics, the real metric of progress is whether the Society has grown more Transparent in the wake of his revelations. Will the next Ed Snowden have an easier time, or a harder one, casting a spotlight on the powerful? Does anyone really believe that the keyholes he peeked through haven’t since been plugged?

Obama, finally exposed, utters mealy-mouthed platitudes about transparency and accountability while continuing to lie about PRISM and Stingray and all those other programs with Le Carré names. Debate is suddenly “welcomed”, our leaders are suddenly willing to contemplate new restraints on their unbridled power. And yet their minions continue to lean on local law enforcement to keep their yaps shut about ongoing surveillance efforts, rewarding them with AVs and machine guns for their cooperation. And over in that dark corner, Thomas Drake— a conscience-afflicted NSA employee who leaked unclassified documents to the press concerning the unconstitutional and illegal surveillance by of the US government on its citizens— found himself charged with espionage by the simple expedient of taking unclassified documents found on his computer, reclassifying them after the fact, and then laying charges for possession of retroactively-forbidden fruit.

Think about that. If the state doesn’t like what you’ve done, it will reverse-engineer reality to make you a criminal. The law itself becomes quicksand, rewritten on the fly to favor the house: more than once US courts have thrown out suits alleging violation of amendment rights simply because the programs committing those offenses are “state secrets”. If the court doesn’t know a program exists, it can’t pass judgment on what that program it may have done to you; and if the program is secret, the court is not allowed to acknowledge that it exists.

In the light of such Kafkaesque rationales, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that criminality may ultimately be inevitable to anyone who truly values their privacy. Even if your countermeasures are legal today, they may not be tomorrow. If you’re not a criminal now, you might be then.

Might as well say Fuck the Law, and take your countermeasures. Avoid the rush.

(1) Although seriously: artistic license, right? A cheap laugh before a cold audience. I say it was worth it.

(2) You could always get a smart TV, put tape over its eyes, and keep it isolated from the web— but how long before the onboard AI simply refuses to run your favorite shows until you “confirm your identity” through an internet link?

(3) Brin urges his own Brave Citizens to adopt similar tactics, albeit to prevent the cops from protecting their own “privacy” rather than to further the protection of your own.

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3674 days ago
It's terrible that we're in this place, but Watts is right.
Minneapolis, Minnesota
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2 public comments
3677 days ago
Long, but worth taking the time to consider
3677 days ago
Yes yes and more yes
Waterloo, Canada
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