For almost all of us, the technology that we draw around us closer and more intimately with every passing moment is also something that we understand only more and more distantly. As it becomes smarter, better, more pervasive and more essential it also becomes more mysterious and arcane. The phones in our pockets are now so complex, to most of us they might as well be small black boxes of magic.*
Carl Miller is Research Director for the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media. The Death Of The Gods is his first book. It’s about the internet, and how it is radically shifting the locus of power in society. It’s a catchy title, but Miller actually shows us that not all the old gods are dying—some are managing to use the internet to find new ways to hold on to and expand their power over other people.
The chapter titles give a good idea of the range Miller covers: People, Crime, Business, Media, Politics, Warfare and Technology. There’s also an “Interlude” which, in defiance of its etymology and usual meaning, is the last chapter before the Epilogue. It dips a toe into the topic of the Dark Web, and how much we can believe about what goes on there.
The chapter entitled “People” deals with hacker culture, from its origins in MIT during the 1950s, among the aficionados of the Tech Model Railroad Club, to today’s DEF CON conferences, where hackers show off their latest exploits to tumultuous applause. Miller’s thesis is that, because hackers understand the workings of everyday technology so much better than the rest of us, they own that world in a way that most of us don’t. There’s a new locus of power out there, and a power struggle within it between the “black hats” and the “white hats”—criminal hackers and those who hack against them.
“Crime” talks about how the internet has provided a whole new modality for criminality. In 2015, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, told us all that the crime rate in England and Wales had fallen by 64% since 1995. But in 2016, for the first time, crime statistics were adjusted to include “computer misuse offences”—and they turned up around 4 million cybercrimes to add to the 7 million annual “conventional” crimes we already knew about. Criminality hadn’t been suppressed—it had just moved on-line. And the police are finding it difficult to follow effectively, because their jurisdiction stops at international borders, whereas the internet does not.
“Business” describes the rise of new business models, in which tech giants provide free services to users, in exchange for harvesting and monetizing their data. This bypasses many laws that were originally designed to protect consumers in their dealings with corporations that are selling a product, or publishing and distributing media. The scale of the regulatory problem has started to become visible with the recent drama involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The chapter also delves into the rise (and wild oscillation) of cryptocurrencies, and how their underlying blockchain technology promises wider applicability to how we make contracts with each other in future. While the tech giants try to centralize power, cryptocurrency and the blockchain holds out the promise of decentralization.
“Media” is about how the internet is killing good old-fashioned investigative journalism, and the small newspapers that held local politicians and businesses to account. It’s being replaced by a scramble for click-bait content (“churnalism”) which doesn’t even need to be true to earn money. And yet … Miller also tells the story of how conventional news outlets watch social media to pick up breaking news as it happens—the BBC picking up the first hints of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey on-line, before the news had spread through the traditional news machine. And then there’s the story of Eliot Higgins and the Bellingcat Investigation Team, who, in the wake of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, used social media posts and videos to track the movements of a Russian BUK missile launcher into and out of the area.
“Politics” talks about how the big data harvested by those tech companies are used to produce targeted campaign advertisements, but also about how social media has allowed the coordination of protest, like the Arab Spring of 2011. But the problem with social media is that while it’s useful for the initial coordination of a protest movement, it’s very poor at teasing out a coherent negotiating position. Enter Audrey Tang and “civic hacking”—a complicated way of using social media to allow a large group of people to hone down gradually on some simple statements that summarize their position. It’s a process that’s already had some success in Taiwan.
“War” is about informational assault—not just trying to sway hearts and minds via social media, but also the conduct of 4D attacks (deny, disrupt, degrade, deceive) by sowing complicated and conflicting interpretations of events until the target audience doubts what the truth is.
And “Technology” deals with how all that other stuff is delivered to us—the algorithms that track our movements, predict our desires and wrap us in a filter bubble of our own design; and the bots that seek to drive or divert on-line conversation by automatically making posts or tweets according to some pre-established agenda.
Miller writes pretty clearly, and tells his story with a combination of interviews, research and personal anecdote. And I think this is a timely and balanced effort. It’s easy to become overwrought about the rate of societal change being driven by the internet and its attendant technologies, and to focus on the undoubted bad stuff that comes with it—but Miller is careful to describe how the same technology holds out the potential for solutions, and ways in which this seismic shift in the locus of power can be moderated and controlled.
* In 1973, Arthur C. Clarke pithily predicted the problem Miller describes: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”