Technology seems to be veering away from its power to liberate and becoming a tool for oppression. The steam engine and the fridge were good ideas but big data and cloud computing endow most of their benefits to the powerful. Sure you can hail a cab without getting up from your pint but you’ve given the state and Big-Corp power to monitor your whole life.
Last week The Independent ran an article decrying the silence of Labour over the proposed Snoopers Charter allowing police to see Internet connection records without a warrant. The bill had previously been thwarted by resistance from the Liberal Democrats. Now it seems the plans have been revived and Labour will be abstaining from the vote. Odd since the former director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, is now shadow Attorney General.
The new bill will allow government to spy on citizens by requiring Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records of each user’s internet browsing activity (including social media), email correspondence, voice calls, internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services. The bill also creates arrangements to interrogate and match data from different data sources. We’re talking about Social Network Analysis.
Social Network Analysis is used by Facebook, Google and Linked to analyse who we know and what we like in order to flog us more stuff. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the United States government also takes an interest and developed a clandestine surveillance program ( PRISM ) to collect communications from US internet companies and this includes a facility where associations between individuals can be visualised. The upshot is that spooks can more easily track the relationships between a tiny minority of terrorists amongst a population of millions but the downside is that the authorities have another tool to control the general population.
I have been reading “Selfish Whining Monkeys” by Rod Liddle. His expletive laden style may not be everybody’s cup of tea but he makes some bloody good points. One of his hobby horses is nepotism in British public life. John Sentamu, for example, remember him? Archbishop of York? Very well known he was a few years ago. Very up and coming. Very courageous. Very personable. A bishops since 2002 he was on TV all the time. An obvious candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury when Rowan Williams went to make his maker in 2013. But no, not quite. He didn’t quite cut the mustard. Who did get the top job you ask? Justin Welby. He who’d only been a bishop for a year and spent much of his working life in the oil industry. There may be good reasons for appointing Welby but one can’t help wondering if his being an Old Boy from Eaton might have played some part in the decision?
Liddle points out that people from fee paying schools comprise 7% of the UK population yet make up 62% of diplomatic service, 58% of those working in the law, 80% of high court judges, 55% of senior civil servants, 60% of top City wallas, 70% of surgeons and consultants and 55% of journalists rising to 70% for national newspaper columnists and editors.
He goes on to damn the North London elite of “faux lefties” who install each other on numerous quangos and committees and takes a pop at Shami Chakrabati in the process. He invented a game to demonstrate what he’s on about. He calls it The Long March Through the Institutions and it works like this: Think of a quango, public body or charity then Google it to discover who runs it. Then look up the biography of that person and you will find that they are on the board of five or six other organisations. Pick one of these, Google it and find who runs that. Google a name and see which other boards they’re on. And so on….
According to Liddle, if you do this for long enough the same names will crop up again and again. The people on the boards have no particular expertise but the common thread is that they are paid for by the tax payer.
Ah, ‘twas ever thus, you might think. The powerful entrench their power and the rest of us are treated like mushrooms. Much of this information is a matter of public record but digging through it is a difficult task. It would be like….oh…like …. trying to track the relationships between a tiny minority of terrorists amongst a population of millions.
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander though Liddle seems unaware of the potential of technology to automate his game. Americans journalists are a little more savvy. Journalists in the United States use social network modelling tools to track the rich and powerful. Muckety is as web site which uses interactive maps powered by Adobe Flash to show relationships between people, businesses and organizations. The Economist described it as an “American site which enriches news stories with interactive maps of the protagonists’ networks of influence“.
Muckety is fairly limited but gives a flavour of what’s possible. LittleSis is a free database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government and claims to “bring transparency to influential social networks by tracking the key relationships of politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, financiers, and their affiliated institutions.”
All very nice you may think but aren’t we becoming the thing we despise? Are we not emulating the snoopers charter?
I’d say no. Homo Sapiens have been around for very roughly 80,000 years. We’ve only been mucking about with farming and machines for about 10,000 years. In essence our psychology is no different from the hunter gatherers that roamed the planet thousands of years ago. We are hard coded to exist in groups of around 100 people where the actions of the leadership are known to all. It should not be surprising that we tend toward working with people we know but in the modern world this translates to nepotism.
“Civilisation” and technology have allowed the creation of cities comprising thousands and nations comprising millions of people. Crucially this necessitates massive delegation of power. It enables the joint stock company and limited liability. It allows the rich to diverge from the poor. Technology allows some of us to live segregated and secretive lives of plenty while others are homeless. Some can set up shell companies in tax havens while others live hand to mouth. Some appoint their mates to committees and employ experts to invent ways to evade tax while others stand alone before the automated power of the state unable even to talk their way out of a parking ticket. Technology now makes our social world so vast and complex that only the powerful are capable of fully exploiting the opportunities created.
I’m some kind of liberal. I believe that the antics of others are none of my business but they become my business when they involve public funds or involve the workings of organisations endowed by society with privileged status such as public office, charities, the joint stock company or limited liability. Complexity and technology have rendered the working of such organisations opaque but public access to authoritative Social Network Analysis has the potential to go some way to remove the veil of secrecy to which the powerful have grown accustomed. It will allow us to understand social power structures far more thoroughly and thereby improve democratic accountability. Much of what will be revealed will be obvious. Business and religion are big players. Many of the powerful are alumni of top education institutions. Merely exposing this detail should not necessarily be an argument for erasing it; we all rely on networks and both religion and business have their part to play in society. But power and influence should be visible, proportional and the individuals accountable.
An amalgamation of big corporations and big government now plan to monitor practically everything we do. They will monitor our email, our Facebook, our telephone calls, our car license plate and use of public transport and hence our physical movement. They monitor what we buy and what we sell; who we meet and what we eat. Personally I am against much of this but it is happening anyway, pushed through by greed for efficiency and the fear of terrorism.
We need an equal and opposite force including tools to track and monitor our elite. Along with political sites such as TheyWorkForYou.com, Muckety and LIttlesis are a good start. At the moment specialist skills are still needed to make best use of the technology but this should improve.
It won’t be easy. The elite have grown used to secrecy. Peter Mandelson once said that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. As usual, he was Talking Bollocks! It wasn’t the people who eat in McDonalds and shop at Primark who created the biggest threat to the UK since 1939; it was the rich. So rather than snooping on our telephone calls and Facebook posts attention should be focused on exposing the machinations of those in power. And of course this includes Peter Mandelson relationship with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska while Mandelson was EU Trade Commissioner.