Indifference of electrons

I stumbled upon presentation notes of a talk, a couple of nights ago, given by Maciej Ceglowski (of Pinboard) at Webstock 2014. Fascinating as with any topic Maciej dives into, through the life of Lev Termen in his illustrative tour de force, he explains how technology concentrates power.

On Lev Termen:

There are two themes that recur in Termen’s work. The first is this idea of touching the intangible, palpating the impalpable, effing the ineffable. Termen loved to connect the invisible world of the electron to our physical senses, in astonishing ways. You see this in the theremin and you also see it in The Thing; both devices couple sound to a high-frequency electromagnetic field.

And that’s the other theme, that everything Termen worked on seemed to have a dark side.

Part of this was not his fault, just due to the amoral nature of physics. You can’t have a world with a theremin without also being able to build ‘The Thing’. The electrons don’t care.

On Termen and Lenin:

Lenin was delighted with the theremin and insisted on playing it himself. Like an old tennis pro, Termen stood behind the dictator and moved his arms until he was sure Lenin had the hang of it. Then he let go, and Lenin finished the tune by himself.

On Lenin and technology:

Lenin knew that if he could get the peasants on the grid, it would consolidate his power. The process of electrifying the countryside would create cities, factories, and concentrate people around large construction projects. And once the peasantry was dependent on electric power, there would be no going back.

On internet:

Erika Hall in her talk yesterday wondered what Mao or Stalin could have done with the resources of the modern Internet. It’s a good question. If you look at the history of the KGB or Stasi, they consumed enormous resources just maintaining and cross-referencing their mountains of paperwork. There’s a throwaway line in Huxley’s Brave New World where he mentions “800 cubic meters of card catalogs” in the eugenic baby factory. Imagine what Stalin could have done with a decent MySQL server.

We haven’t seen yet what a truly bad government is capable of doing with modern information technology. What the good ones get up to is terrifying enough.

I never before realized side effects of technology had such a chilling historical context, believing instead of it largely as a force for good. Technology being neutral, the subtle cue in here is that power amplification of technology tips the hand of the already powerful.

On how to fix the broken, Maciej says:

The good news is, it’s a design problem! You’re all designers here – we can make it fun! We can build an Internet that’s distributed, resilient, irritating to governments everywhere, and free in the best sense of the word, like we dreamed of in the 90s. But it will take effort and determination. It will mean scrapping permanent mass surveillance as a business model, which is going to hurt. It will mean pushing laws through a sclerotic legal system. There will have to be some nagging.

But if we don’t design this Internet, if we just continue to build it out, then eventually it will attract some remarkable, visionary people. And we’re not going to like them, and it’s not going to matter.