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Elite gatekeeping in the age of surveillance capitalism

General purpose computing for the classes, not the masses

Summer 2021

"Computers for the masses, not the classes."
- Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore, summarizing his philosophy for producing cheap and capable home computers
"By the Lord before whom this sanctuary is holy, I will to N. be true and faithful, and love all which he loves and shun all which he shuns, according to the laws of God and the order of the world. Nor will I ever with will or action, through word or deed, do anything which is unpleasing to him, on condition that he will hold to me as I shall deserve it, and that he will perform everything as it was in our agreement when I submitted myself to him and chose his will."
- 7th-century Anglo-Saxon oath of fealty

I recently had the pleasure of reading Dr. Andy Farnell's essay "Why we will win the war for general purpose computing". While I agree with a lot of his statements and thoroughly enjoyed a spot of British wit, the conclusions reached and a few of the stops along the way bother me. Though I am Swedish, my comments here have an undeniably American perspective. Partly because that is where this fight mostly takes place and partly because several European nations are showing signs of the same symptoms.

Weaponized ideology

In the text, Dr. Farnell brushes by some very interesting and important points: Faith in liberal democracy, language policing in IDE device jumpering, and the process of deplatforming. These days, such concepts are all intertwined in the most curious of ways through an ideology that pops up under various names such as "intersectionality", "identity politics", "social justice", "equity" and even - completely erroneously - "Marxism." No matter what it should be called, I hope it's now clear what I'm referring to, because this phenomenon is a central point in my reasoning about the war on general purpose computing.

This "theory" or indeed "ideology", if we allow ourselves to call it that, is a very peculiar one. More than any other (bar those commonly labelled as actual conspiracy theories), it's full of internal inconsistencies, preposterous claims, contradictions and circular reasoning. In fact, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what the goals of it are, because its purpose, contents and the focus of its concern keeps changing from one day to another. It's severely detrimental to all kinds of open and honest debate, scientific research, education, popular empowerment and reasonable policymaking. Despite this, it's both immensely powerful and highly prevalent.

Why is this the case? If this was a "culture war" in a functioning liberal democracy, as the current mainstream analysis incorrectly assumes, people opposing it wouldn't be afraid to speak up against it (and certainly not expecting to be investigated by the police for engaging in online debate). But people are scared stiff because it's not a coherent, free and open debate about values: it's a minefield of very real and dangerous consequences for any perceived crimethink, checked against an ever-changing rulebook the accused are not allowed to scrutinize.

Follow the money

This is only ostensibly a battle of values. At its core it's an economic conflict, a fight for a slice of a cake that's long since stopped growing. Those opposing the suffocating effects of this new ideology aren't just risking a sharp rebuttal in a New York Times editorial - their income, career and even future prospects of working at all is what's at stake. No previous action, no matter how old or innocent, is too small to dig up, spin and use against them if they should fail to placate the discourse du jour in a game designed to have the rules changed without notice if it serves the interests of the elite. To tie in with Dr. Farnell's text, dissenters have their lives smashed by mobs and are then - figuratively - burned on a pile of their own writings.

The economic conflict enabling this stifling of debate, research and policymaking is also the driving force behind the locking down of platforms, data harvesting and putting software in an increasing number of everyday consumer goods. It's important here that us nerds raise our gaze from DRM backdoors and centralized online services to notice that this trend isn't limited to things we usually count as electronic gadgets. Bill Gates amassing farmland, Amazon diversifying into groceries, BlackRock turning single family houses into rentals, cars controlled through software and Uber trying to circumvent labor laws under the guise of "technology" are all symptoms of the same disease. Demands for ever-increasing growth are hard to appease when production has already been outsourced to the lowest bidder and reliable energy is increasingly scarce and expensive (Side note: Luxury electric cars for rich city dwellers won't change this any time soon). If the subscription model for apps and media won't garner enough profit, simply put it in cars, kitchen appliances and homes1 as well. In fact, let's ban affordable private transportation altogether to make the hoi polloi even more dependent on their generous and benevolent exploiters - who can then defraud the public by funneling tax grants into their rich kid hobby projects by claiming it's for the public good.

Weaponized education

I agree that civilization (as we nowadays commonly define it) relies on the knowledge of low level general purpose computation and it's a compelling argument to our advantage.

However, locking people out from learning such skills isn't necessarily bad from the point of view of an elite wishing to stay in power. Dr. Farnell mentions the printing press as a disruptor, but the real game changer was the increase in literacy that preceded it. This increase was made possible by an expanding economy providing room for a new (literate) elite to grow. The western world is currently struggling to maintain both of those things, meaning it becomes necessary for anyone in a lucrative societal position to guard it against potential usurpers.

Right now there are unprecedented possibilities for gaining programming skills on the cheap, but the fences to jump without some formal proof of knowledge grow a little higher every day. In the US we see ever steeper college tuition and application procedures followed by contrived and often pointless rites of passage in tech hiring. Controlling education and dumbing down computational devices to mere appliances for consumption is only part of the strategy: gatekeeping is undeniably made easier by an "ideology" of arbitrarily changing shibboleths. It's not enough to know the name of the game; to last an entire career, you must be trained to play it. That means learning to decode and produce the sort of mumbo jumbo that would fluster even Derrida and Focault themselves - a skill which unlike programming is almost exclusively learned within certain social strata, preferably at an expensive university.

A slow dimming of the light

Like Dr. Farnell, I too harbor hopes of revitalizing general purpose computing through hardware diversity, but the more I ponder these matters, the more I realize it's a conflict much deeper and more complex than something that can be solved within the confines of our current economic and political situation, let alone be handled inside the tech business (however we define it). Too much is at stake for too many people in positions of power for things as profitable and useful as surveillance capitalism, centralized communication, information control and recurring subscription revenue to be handled with the public good in mind.

Dr. Farnell refers to technological slavery, but I think the overall direction of society is more reminiscent of serfdom: rent everything, work your gig to pay that rent and, at all times, pander to the whims of your benevolent master... or else. Perhaps the inevitable end result of a liberal democracy reliant on constant growth is something liberal and democratic in name only. After all, it's easy to graciously allow average citizens a say when things are going well, but much harder when they're suddenly demanding a piece of the shrinking pie you've got your eyes on.

Neurobiologist and writer Kenan Malik once likened western media's stance on Islam after Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" to an internalized fatwa. I'd like to suggest that the same has happened regarding this new ideology inside all of the institutions in which Dr. Farnell places his faith: academia, governments, police forces and the military.

While they should be the custodians of enlightenment, popular will and individual prosperity, we can no longer look to them for immediate help. They are right now firmly in the grip of people too heavily invested in big tech as a means of controlling information and thus the populace, too heavily invested economically in China (and other countries considered "ideological enemies") and finally too scared to lose their elite positions to ever concede the flaws of their new ideology. Hence (as I've written elsewhere), truly free and open technology is a danger to those who wish to wield this ideology in order to stay in power: deplatforming isn't effective if there are no central platforms to be ousted from. Being banned from having a Google account, on the other hand, can mean complete loss of income for small business owners and individuals. And not a single line in any constitution or law has to be changed.

Libre Software has a part to play here, but those who claim that "Linux has won" are wrong: platform lockout is a real thing. Crony capitalism has corporations working together with governments to design a society impossible to partake in without proprietary platforms for banking, interacting with basic utilities and filing taxes. We must learn to keep grifters and game players from implementing not just legal and financial but also ideological moats around FOSS repositories. There is a fight in the making here, too.

Dystopia, then, isn't lurking around the corner - it's well on its way to being fully implemented. The technocrats are already in power, treating us with paternalistic condescension while continually rigging the system in favor of big tech. Orwell's 1984 (except maybe sans the joycamps) is kept at bay by nothing but a lever not yet pulled to "max" and a few crumbling pages of legislation: the tech is already in place and the elites are growing ever bolder in their efforts to control us.

The present demands action

Suggesting we wait for some yet unknown disruptive technology merely turns us into complacent millenarians, biding our time until The Great Rapture magically appears to change everything for us. It absolves us of any kind of individual agency and, in effect, serves the purpose of those currently in charge. This disruptor may very well appear, but we don't know what it is and therefore can't say how it'll be used. After all, this rather gloomy discussion is pertaining to technology about which similar words of hope were spoken not that long ago.

Lastly, having faith in youth and the future isn't wrong, but let's not push the whole burden onto the younger generation. What happened to leaving the world a better place than we found it? The struggle is here and now and all able hands are useful.

1 I know that renting homes is a very old practise, but the latest developments in this field are nothing but a way of robbing future generations of the safety in owning their homes (and thus amassing some scrap of capital).