The Coming Techno Apocalypse
Imagine, if you will, a war in the near future. A war not fought between East and West. Not fought between nations, nor creeds nor races. A war fought brother to brother and sister to sister, father to son and mother to daughter.
Tesh (technologists) against NonTesh (non-technologists).
The Tesh, a tribe or caste intoxicated and socially validated through their umbilical connection to technology and the Meta/Hive Mind. Glued to Google Glass, status permanently updated: the Tesh always offer the rightopinion at the right time. Incapable of nonGroupThink, the Tesh occupy all positions of import in the professional, media, academic and information classes. Opinions counter to Tesh GroupThink are not only by definition incorrect, they are also invisible – filtered, de-platformed and deleted into a silent nonexistence.
The NonTesh are homeless, stateless non-people. Unable to participate in comfortable society’s rituals and prefabricated dialogues, without access to currency and the staid social discourse that lubricates function in the mainstream. They attack from the margins: wild wastelands, hardware graveyards and mountain ranges of landfill – zones abandoned by the Tesh as beyond rehabilitation. The unknowing progeny of the much-maligned (but historically vindicated) Luddites, the NonTesh build primitive Drone traps, savagely attack convoys of technicians and inflict random violence at the edges of Tesh civilisation. They slaughter and destroy with no plan, no blueprint – a simple, intuitive anger and violence that Tesh mainframe-algorithms cannot comprehend and struggle to strategise against.
This will be the Final War – man against machine and man against machine-man.
Trapped by Techno-Blindness?
The omniscient progress of technology brings with it many benefits – this is beyond serious doubt. But seldom if ever discussed is technology’s insidious and largely invisible detriments. They remain near-invisible for many reasons: commercial imperatives, an infantile inability to see past convenience and short-term rewards and a surfeit of attractive and entertaining distractions. Perhaps the most difficult to discern are those problems that might occur in the moral, predictive, philosophical or ideological realms: spheres apparently far less concrete than instant, addictive neurochemical rewards and the superficial and textural allure of consumer electronics.
Modern-era human society also appears rusted to the concept of progress – the idea that all technological advances are intrinsically positive whether immediate gains outweigh severe long-term deficits… or not.
The black silicon squid of hyper-technology sends its powerful tentacles into every domain of human activity, its vice-like grip stultifying thought and any hint of animalistic defensive counter-measures. Our species suffocates in the death-grasp, yet lacks even the primal survival instinct to respond effectively. Is humankind fatally trapped by techno-blindness?
Big Data & Psychographic Profiling
While essentially unknown to the general public, the astounding technologies of the London based firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) are credited by some as having a fundamental role in the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump and the ‘Leave’ campaign that led to the UK Brexit. CA trumpets proudly on its website and in its strategic communications that they “use data modelling and psychographic profiling to grow audiences, identify key influencers, and connect with people in ways that move them to action.”
Birthed at the nexus of leading Cambridge University Psychometric scientists and the SCL Group (self-described as a ‘global election management agency’), Cambridge Analytica works big data to identify and manipulate the intentions of mass voter populations.
According to CA Chief Executive, Alexander Nix, “Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual. So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.” Harvesting Facebook ‘likes’, smartphone data, purchase histories, subscriptions, church visits, online and other available aggregate information, CA builds profiles of every individual in the target audience (i.e. every potential voter in the US during election season 2016) and generates a ‘psychographic analysis’ in combination with the OCEAN (‘openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism’) personality trait or ‘lexical hypothesis’ model to predict and influence the electoral actions of individuals.
As reported in the Swiss Das Magazin, with just ten Facebook ‘likes’ as input, CA could “appraise a person’s character better than an average coworker. With seventy, it could ‘know’ a subject better than a friend; with 150 likes, better than their parents. With 300 likes… (the) machine could predict a subject’s behaviour better than their partner. With even more likes it could exceed what a person thinks they know about themselves.”
Deployed in a number of developing nations, the SCL Group has worked extensively with military and political contacts in activities that Slate magazine described as akin to a ‘coup’ scenario.
According to their website, “Cambridge Analytica is building a future where every individual can have a truly personal relationship with their favourite brands and causes by showing organisations not just where people are, but what they really care about and what drives their behaviour.”
Professor Jonathan Albright of Elon University describes CA’s algorithms as “a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go.”
CA’s Nix gave an example from their brief tenure on GOP candidate Ted Cruz’s primary campaign. Cambridge Analytica’s big data analysis “identified that there was a small pocket of voters in Iowa who felt strongly that citizens should be required by law to show photo ID at polling stations. Leveraging our other data models, we were able to advise the campaign on how to approach this issue with specific individuals based on their unique profiles in order to use this relatively niche issue as a political pressure point to motivate them to go out and vote for Cruz. For people in the ‘Temperamental’ personality group, who tend to dislike commitment, messaging on the issue should take the line that showing your ID to vote is ‘as easy as buying a case of beer’. Whereas the right message for people in the ‘Stoic Traditionalist’ group, who have strongly held conventional views, is that showing your ID in order to vote is simply part of the privilege of living in a democracy.” According to some sources, CA is able to bombard target individuals with thousands of uniquely tailored and feedback evolving ‘dark ads’ (advertisements that aren’t seen by others).
‘Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine’
In a piece titled ‘The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine’, journalists Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath assert that Cambridge Analytica, “has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.”
It would be easy to argue that primitive versions of these techniques have indeed been used in various ‘coloured revolutions’ and ‘regime change’ operations for decades at least (and more subtly in the general domestic activities of the mainstream media): perhaps the only salient difference being that now the ‘coup’ chickens have extraordinary ‘Artificial Intelligence’ technologies at their disposal which have now clearly come home to roost.
Fraught and fragile as our democracies are, the inevitable march of ‘progress’ means we’re about to lose them permanently to The Machine.
Technology also threatens to advance and empower policing to the realm of monolithic totalitarianism. In an eerie echo of Phillip K. Dick’s ‘Minority Report’ short story, predictive policing software and models are now deployed to assess the assumed future crimes of identified ‘criminal classes’. In Chicago, a city wracked by disproportionate levels of gun homicide, gang violence and rampant police brutality, a report in Scout Magazine notes that, “Microsoft, the Chicago Police Department, and a partner called Third Eye have created a cloud-based solution that predicts what types of criminal activity are likely to take place where. Using historical data, the Chicago force can deploy officers to specific locations across the city based on how likely crime is to occur there. They can also predict crime trends based on the weather, specific times of day or a range of other factors. The LA Police Department has developed an algorithm called PredPol that does the same thing.”
Unfortunately, these predictive models are often wrong.
‘Beware’, a software model developed by security firm Intrado, was tasked with identifying an individual’s “threat level based on their address, searches of the deep web, arrest records, vehicle registrations, criminal records, warrants, property records, ‘known associates’ and the content of their latest social media posts.”
Adopted in Fresno, California in 2015, ‘Beware’ was soon abandoned in April 2016 after persistent concerns were raised about its accuracy and deleterious effect on privacy.
Aside from the obvious, nightmarish and Kafka-esque scenarios that predictive policing might produce, it should also be noted that any Artificial Intelligence capability can only be as useful and accurate as the data it utilises. Error-prone, biased or prejudiced inputs will inevitably produce arrests or harassment for what equates essentially to ThoughtCrime or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or even being the wrong person at the wrong time).
Predictive policing will always risk impugning guilt through data aggregation rather than actual criminal action.
Star Chamber ‘Justice’
In recent decades the explosion in electronic and online communications has been a boon for surveillance industries and the instruments of the corporate and political state tasked with gathering masses of information. Post the revelations of NSA whistleblowers like William Binney and Edward Snowden (and Wikileaks’ recent ‘Vault7’ cache of documents), it appears safe to assume that all electronic communications are vulnerable to surveillance at all times.
It came to light through the Snowden revelations that police and other law enforcement departments have regular and essentially uncontrolled access to ‘products’ of the NSA/CIA and surveillance state. Though use of this ostensibly illegally obtained information is inadmissible in court proceedings, police routinely work around this impasse by creating ‘parallel construction’, a technique to mask the use of ‘unconventionally obtained’ data from defendants or the accused.
According to an August 2013 Reuters report, “A secretive US Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funnelling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans. Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin – not only from defence lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.”
In the US, local police and the FBI routinely use a device called a ‘Stingray’ that mimics a cell/mobile phone tower and thus can capture metadata and phone traffic content from nearby phones. No warrant is required for their use but The Guardian in August 2016 reported on a “non-disclosure agreement that local police were forced to sign with the FBI before receiving permission to use Stingray – a document that mandated local prosecutors to abandon cases rather than risk information about Stingray becoming public.”
Using what are legally ‘invisible’ technologies to gather incriminating evidence poses myriad problems for the accused: a frightening ‘Star Chamber’ scenario that is reportedly now commonplace. As Reuters confirms, “If defendants don’t know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence – information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.”
The continued militarisation of police has been of concern to many. Now airborne drones (Unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) are also becoming part of the increasingly high-tech law enforcement arsenal. In the US, North Dakota was the first state to legalise armed police drones. The aircraft will be nominally limited to ‘less-than-lethal’ weaponry (i.e. sonic weapons, tear gas, tasers, rubber bullets and pepper spray) though ‘mission creep’ would appear to make it inevitable that law enforcement will soon patrol from the skies with lethal firepower, a scenario that was science-fiction a few years ago.
Connecting all to the ‘Internet of Things’ – Including People
Advancements in ‘smart’ technology (or as author and Silicon Valley critic Evgeny Morozov calls them: “Surveillance. Marketed. As. Revolutionary. Technology.”) and the approaching ‘Internet of Things’ threaten an ominous near-future where common everyday/domestic appliances/devices – cars, dishwashers, refrigerators, televisions, toilets, washing machines, thermostats, alarm systems and alike – are, for ‘convenience sake’, automatically and intrinsically connected to the cloud/internet.
Speaking in 2012 to the In-Q-Tel (the CIA’s venture capital arm) CEO Summit, then CIA Director General David Petraeus remarked about the impending ‘Internet of Things’ saying, “Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters – all connected to the next-generation Internet using abundant, low cost, and high-power computing – the latter now going to cloud computing, in many areas greater and greater supercomputing, and, ultimately, heading to quantum computing.
“In practice, these technologies could lead to rapid integration of data from closed societies and provide near-continuous, persistent monitoring of virtually anywhere we choose. ‘Transformational’ is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies, particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft. Taken together, these developments change our notions of secrecy and create innumerable challenges – as well as opportunities.”
US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, similarly remarked in February 2016 that, “In the future, intelligence services might use the ‘Internet of Things’ for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.”
The day is fast approaching where your fridge might spy on you.
Imagine Cambridge Analytica’s 4-5,000 data points harvested for every individual, correlated with tens of thousands of domestic data observations, and it becomes possible to build electronic and informational profiles of individuals of staggering scale and darkly malevolent detail.
Secret CIA Technology Exposed
Wikileaks’ 7 March 2017 dump of thousands of secret CIA technology documents confirmed a landscape of ubiquitous surveillance and data harvesting. Among the myriad revelations allegedly leaked from the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence in Langley, Virginia:
“‘Weeping Angel’, developed by the CIA’s Embedded Devices Branch (EDB), which infests smart TVs, transforming them into covert microphones. After infestation, Weeping Angel places the target TV in a ‘Fake-Off’ mode, so that the owner falsely believes the TV is off when it is on. In ‘Fake-Off’ mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a covert CIA server.” (www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-03-07/wikileaks-hold-press-conference-vault-7-release-8am-eastern)
As Internet renegade Kim Dotcom noted, the “CIA turns Smart TVs, iPhones, gaming consoles and many other consumer gadgets into open microphones,” and further the “CIA turned every Microsoft Windows PC in the world into spyware.”
Also described was the CIA capability to hack computer networks while cloaked as another entity or state actor. The CIA UMBRAGE group, according to Wikileaks, “collects and maintains a substantial library of attack techniques ‘stolen’ from malware produced in other states including the Russian Federation. With UMBRAGE and related projects the CIA cannot only increase its total number of attack types but also misdirect attribution by leaving behind the ‘fingerprints’ of the groups that the attack techniques were stolen from.” (http://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/)
Further from Wikileaks: “As of October 2014 the CIA was also looking at infecting the vehicle control systems used by modern cars and trucks. The purpose of such control is not specified, but it would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations.”
This last point casts an ominous shadow on the 18 June 2013 death of controversial defence and surveillance journalist Michael Hastings. Just hours before his demise in an inexplicable and fiery, high speed auto-crash, Hastings said, “The Feds are interviewing my ‘close friends and associates’” and, “I’m onto a big story and need to go off the radar for a bit.”
From ‘Smart Dust’ to ‘Bots’ that roam Internet forums and newspaper sites generating automated comments, from Barbie dolls that collect and wirelessly transmit children’s conversations to marketers, and algorithms or artificial intelligences that finger potential criminals, generate credit ratings, parole recommendations and employment decisions: we are about to leave the epoch of human decision making and enter a brave new era of automated or ‘virtual intelligence’.
Some, like renowned technologist, futurist and Google Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweil celebrate the coming ‘singularity’ – the point when computer intelligence equals or surpasses human intelligence and potentially the human mind melds with technology. Kurzweil predicts that by 2029 our brains will fuse with machines and the event will usher in a new ‘techno-utopia’ where according to his evangel, “We’re going to be able to meet the physical needs of all humans. We’re going to expand our minds and exemplify those artistic qualities that we value.”
Another noted technologist, Elon Musk, struck a far more cautionary tone in October 2014: “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.”
Digital Control Machine Will Never Sleep
It’s easy to drown in the multifarious, conceptual and jargonistic details – the techno-babble and giddy utopianism.
But the simplest observation is also the best and most essential – in a few short years we will already be in a future where every interaction with any electronic device, technology or landscape will most likely be recorded, stored, analysed and actioned. Every phone conversation will be harvested for advertising data; every comment, search or online visit yielding the raw stuff of social engineering and opinion/vote massaging; every opinion big data grist for the ‘Shock Doctrine’ mill: a traitorous crop of domestic appliances will report on conversations, sleep, ablution and eating habits as online algorithms patrol like nano-ThoughtPolice – reporting social media infractions to employers and state bodies.
Always on – always transmitting – always analysing and evolving: the Digital Control Machine will never sleep.
It is, in the most basic form, a nightmare world of permanent, inescapable surveillance and panopticon monitoring: a Technological Prison that serves up constant entertainments and distractions with the small, dutiful price of mental conditioning and omniscient servitude. Permanently connected to ‘the Cloud’, a remotely controlled and infinite feedback system that modulates mood, thought, opinion and activity. Soon we will be digital puppets, addicted to ‘sticky’ devices and rewarded for our compliance by serotonin hits and endless ‘content’.
In 1984 George Orwell imagined a brutal dystopia of regimented ‘Thought Police’ and perpetual war. Previously, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World described a future of bio-chemical thought/mood enhancement and control through the cheerfully prescribed and gladly ingested ‘soma’ of ritualised and inescapable entertainments and obligatory trivia and tribal custom.
Our near-tomorrow will likely be a hybrid of the two – swift, final technological punishment for the troublesome ‘Michael Hastings’ types (those who have transgressed beyond rehabilitation) – and endless, comfortable distraction for those who submit meekly to the gilded techno-cage. A soft, warm and luxurious digital boot “stamping on a human face – forever.”
Human society’s breathless race to embrace dehumanising and inherently totalitarian technologies must have an end point.
It’s possible to form a cogent argument that recent political ‘shocks’ and developments (the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, the impending demise of the EU and UN) are in some sense the manifestation of a sublimated rejection of technology (and the government/economic/corporate systems empowered by technology) from a dazzled, bewildered but instinctively antagonistic herd-populace.
Is it to be war between those Transhumans who accept and rejoice in their hybridisation into the matrix of omniscient ideological control technologies (an adjunct of the modern permanent state of entertainment/distraction and doctrinal/behavioural feedback), and those on the margins who knowingly or intuitively reject the encroachment of optic fibre, microwave blast and touch-screen texture into every last human domain of flesh, thought, sinew and soul?
The Final War – the ragtag remnants of man-kind against man-machine.
Tesh versus NonTesh.
About the Author
DAVID THRUSSELL is a poet trapped in the body of a hillbilly. Or a hopeless romantic hidden in the twisted frame of a dark electronic musician. Late at night Thrussell fantasises that actually he lives next door to Hieronymous Bosch in Medieval Europe and has hallucinated the whole dreadful modern era while suffering from acute ergot poisoning. We are not entirely convinced that this is not the case. The world knows him (if it knows him at all), as the creator of a seeming multitude of obscure recordings (Snog, Black Lung and Soma among others) and film scores. He has written previously for Wax Poetics, Fortean Times and numerous other publications.
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The above article appeared in New Dawn 162 (May-June 2017) and is re-printed here with permission.