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May 2018 Issue [Easy Chair]

Driven to Distraction

“Only connect” are the words that E. M. Forster is most famous for. What they actually meant to him, however, often fades behind a vague notion that his was a boosterish, pro-connection position. The phrase comes up when Margaret Schlegel, the protagonist of his novel Howards End (1910), drifts in reverie after accepting a marriage proposal. “Only connect!” we read. “That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” Margaret hopes to turn her industrialist fiancé into a person who knows what he feels and questions what he thinks—into a person possessed of self-awareness and empathy, which in the case of the widower Henry Wilcox represents a major remodeling job.

Forster describes Henry as an imperialist: that is, a person who tends to destroy the things to which he is connected. On the way to his newly acquired Shropshire estate, one of the motorcars bringing Margaret and the other guests flattens a cat in the road. After briefly pondering the insurance implications, the others intend to zoom right on. Margaret, however, leaps out of the car to console the child whose cat it was. Afterward, she reflects on their deep disconnection from the landscape: “They had no part with the earth and its emotions. They were dust, and a stink, and cosmopolitan chatter, and the girl whose cat had been killed had lived more deeply than they.”

The novel’s title comes from an old farmhouse, Howards End, which presides like a god over the lives of the protagonists, sheltering and orienting them and perhaps even disciplining them. Forster idealizes the pastoral, the slow, the natural, the deliberately focused, and insists that the variety and bustle of urban life is an affliction. “The more people one knows,” says Margaret, “the easier it becomes to replace them. It’s one of the curses of London.” You might just as easily postulate Forster’s ethos as “only disconnect.” Indeed, a host of recent editorials on technology’s damage to our minds have used that phrase as their title without quite grasping that Forster meant both his original phrase and its inverse.

In both Howards End and a dystopian story he published a year earlier, “The Machine Stops,” Forster proposes that the only way to connect to the people closest to us, to the earth, and to our own interior lives is to disconnect from other things. The story is set in a future that bears an alarming resemblance to our own present: people live alone in technologically sophisticated cells that provide for their bodily needs, like embryonic bees in their honeycombs. One day, as Forster’s title suggests, the machine stops—and the result is both fatal and liberatory.

Thanks to our own megamachine, it often seems to me that we have become a different species altogether, as though before social media and smartphones we were something roaming in relative solitude, like wolverines. Back then, our lives were full of gaps. During the journeys between home and school and work, for example, we were on our own, self-reliant, self-directed. In some ways, we accepted more uncertainty in our lives, and in others, we operated with more inflexibility—without smartphones, you couldn’t renegotiate your arrival time over and over, or suddenly decide that you wanted green olives and not black. You had to live with black olives.

If we were wolverines then, we are ants now, touching antennae repeatedly, checking in constantly as we laud the conventional Instagram beauty or shoot down the unresolved analysis. The language that has emerged recognizes this collective, with terms like “hive mind” and “swarm intelligence.” Even our ability to find our way through a given landscape has been outsourced to devices.

This is what Silicon Valley has brought us. And throughout the rise of that economic and political powerhouse, connection has been celebrated as a wonder and a gift. We heard endlessly of networking and interactivity and the web and hyperlinks as if they were self-evidently good and liberatory things. These panegyrics were issued without anything being said about the vulnerabilities entailed or the potential virtues of not being connected. Many of the recent “only disconnect” editorials did finally raise this issue, but they advocated mostly for personal disconnection, not for dismantling or limiting the networks that run the world. Forster’s point, however, goes beyond the merely personal. When you connect to some things, he suggests, you disconnect from others, and those choices are not only critical in shaping our lives but are sometimes a form of resistance.

We are talking about a blessing, a curse, and a profound tangle. Every topic is a knot on a net, or a network. Yank on it, and you tug on the other topics it relates to, and each of them also exists at the center of another nexus of connections. You can’t explain something by isolating it, because its meaning comes from its context. Yet trying to understand context easily replicates the distractedness so often associated with the internet: we drift along as link leads to link, or social media throws up topics in no particular order, or search engines churn the waters and whatever we manage to bring up from the depths is algorithmically weighted to serve agendas other than our own. Distraction could be described as a phenomenon in which you connect, inadvertently or absentmindedly, to more things than you intended. The noise drowns out the signal.

Proposing, for example, that Uber’s labor problems stem from tech’s wage-suppressing tendencies could lead you to Spotify’s notorious underpayment of musicians or Amazon’s attack on publishing or ­Airbnb’s impact on housing markets and hotel employees. From there, you could circle back to Uber’s other human rights violations, from massive internal misogyny to fairly alarming invasions of privacy. Or you could leapfrog over to the limousine driver who shot himself in front of city hall in Manhattan early this year because he could no longer make a living in the trade he’d been practicing for decades, and then you might think about driverless cars and the ways that tech is resolutely eliminating the human factor, also known as jobs, from so many sectors of the economy.

If you talk about how Facebook gathers and sells data, you could go on to discuss the very specific data that was sold to Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. That in turn raises the links between Cambridge Analytica, which one former employee has called a “psychological warfare firm,” and Silicon Valley’s own sinister data-mining company, Palantir. The latter was founded in part by Peter Thiel (destroyer of Gawker, early investor in Facebook, cofounder of PayPal), and its “predictive policing” technology has been a boon to racial profiling in cities such as New Orleans. Thiel in turn is connected to Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of Cambridge Analytica’s billionaire owner and a major backer of Trump and Breitbart.

Each of these problems is connected to other problems, and trying to understand any single one of them entangles you in loose threads and associative and (more to the point) literal networks. The broad issue of privacy, for example, leads quite naturally to the National Security Agency as well as to Google, and to how Apple phones track us all if we don’t turn off the appropriate setting. For that matter, you could cut to the chase and explore how five of the biggest tech companies—Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft—are trying to create what Siva Vaidhyanathan, the director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, calls the “operating system of our lives.” That is, they are endeavoring to enmesh us in their programs and tools and products. Taken to its logical conclusion, that means a world in which we connect only through them, in which we are absolutely surrounded by their managing, filtering, information-gathering, information-shaping, and moneymaking technologies.

Distraction is far from the only price we are paying, though it is slowly but surely diminishing our attention spans. Key elements of modern life are connected in ways they were not before, including the global financial system, energy infrastructure, weapons and security systems, and voter rolls. That vulnerability is another phenomenon that is largely invisible, or at least overlooked by the general public, and trying to probe it leads into more tangles.

For example, on May 12 of last year, more than 200,000 computers in more than 150 countries were infected thanks to a bug in older versions of Microsoft Windows. The cost of the so-called WannaCry ransomware attacks was estimated to be in the billions, but the impact was more than monetary. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service was taken offline by the hackers, who also hit numerous hospitals in the country, crashing computers, canceling operations, and forcing providers to turn away non­emergency patients. In some cases, the attackers also extorted ransom payments from their victims, and to avoid those payments being tracked, they demanded payment in the virtual currency bitcoin. The success of the attack, in other words, hinged on precisely who was accessible and who was not, in ways that don’t make the new connectedness seem like a boon, exactly.

For that matter, almost all of the Putin regime’s interference in the 2016 election was made possible by the internet. This includes the troll factories and the bot armies and the advertisements trying to shape opinion on Facebook and Twitter, the attempted invasion of voter rolls in twenty-one states, and the release of fake news into a chaotic system in which people no longer comprehend where information comes from and how to filter it.

That Russia also appears to have hacked and sabotaged the Ukrainian energy grid a few years ago is a warning that hasn’t been heeded much, nor has the possibility that all this amounts to cyberwar and that we’re in the middle of one, or several. We do not know where we are in many ways. The public and even the politicians we elected are not making most of the decisions about how our world is morphing, nor are they even fully cognizant of how it is, and that’s a form of disconnection that should be terrifying.

One evening not long ago, I dined with two people who understand where we are better than almost anyone else. One was Eva Galperin, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of cybersecurity (“I hunt governments”), and the other was Leigh Honeywell, who works with the American Civil Liberties Union on security and privacy issues. Talking to these young powerhouses about the world of digital connection was a bit like bounding onto a tennis court with Venus and Serena Williams. Acronyms and specialized terminology—air gaps, InfoSec, the Scunthorpe problem, griefers—flew between them, and I scrambled to keep up.

Somewhere in there, Galperin made some remarks about the insecurity of medical devices that can be hacked, with fatal consequences, and mentioned that Dick Cheney’s pacemaker had been disconnected to prevent exactly that. We moved on to sex toys with similar operational pitfalls and some other gendered nastiness in the wired world. There was, they mentioned, a “smart vibrator” for couples that could be operated remotely, had text and chat features, and shared data with the manufacturer. Of course, it could be hacked, too, and the information the company collected was both extremely personal and inadequately secured, which led to a lawsuit and a $3.75 million settlement.

The impact of connectivity on our intimate lives hardly stops there. We talked about revenge porn, which affects an enormous number of young women now that sexual relationships involve a lot of easily uploadable digital photographs. The images are often made by men replicating the iconography of online porn, and are displayed on websites specifically designed for such vengeful voyeurism. The day before our meeting, a Briton was sentenced to thirty-two years in prison after using such images to blackmail forty-six people, many of them children and adolescents, into performing further acts of degradation for the camera. The genre, built on pain and humiliation, is appropriately called hurtcore.

Then there is “deepfake” porn, which came up in the conversation over curry and spicy eggplant. Over the past year, artificial intelligence has made such great leaps forward that we can now produce convincing videos in which recognizable people appear to do and say things they never did or said. Inevitably, one of the offshoots is pornography with famous women’s faces pasted onto other women’s bodies. The ability to find images, turn them into recombinant forms of fakery, and circulate them around the globe is reaching a new summit of perfection.

Indeed, deepfake videos, pornographic or merely propagandistic, may well finish off photography as what we wanted it to be since 1839—a largely trustworthy documentation of the actual. Perhaps all this will lead to an era in which no one believes anything, and everything solid that hasn’t already melted into air liquefies into slime. We’re already well on the way.

Earlier this year, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted the Kremlin-connected Russian Internet Agency, along with twelve of its employees and contractors, for using social media to create havoc during the 2016 election. The organization generated inflammatory Facebook pages with names such as “Secured Borders,” “Blacktivist,” and “United Muslims of America,” and used these pages to promote real-life protests and marches throughout the United States. The Senate Intelligence Committee even alleged that the organization promoted both pro- and anti-Islamic demonstrations at an Islamic Center in Houston on May 21, 2016, with the goal of further inflaming partisan tensions.

Another possible argument might be that we don’t even have to worry about the fake stuff. What most of us have actually done and said and bought and protested could come back to haunt us like revenge porn, now that we’re in a world where nearly any act performed in view of a digital device and virtually anything said on electronic media will be archived. People running for office or trying to adopt children or become citizens are going to be facing documentation more comprehensive and often more damning than any of us ever did before.

Still, we face dangers on a far greater scale than the personal. In the booth in the dark restaurant, Galperin’s lavender hair and Honeywell’s pinkish locks glowed as they talked about the May 2017 cyberattackswhich at one point they compared to the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic. In that case too, Honeywell noted, the vulnerability came from a lack of what she called “discipline and hygiene.” She insisted that in today’s networked world, we were dealing with the same problem: “Nobody’s washing their hands.” She noted that all kinds of widely used software were full of such bugs, and described some that she had encountered a few years earlier. 

Galperin remarked, “Jesus, was that written on clay tablets?”

“What does worry me is state voting rolls,” Honeywell said. “It’s like kicking puppies. All of these systems are independently administered, and each one is a nice, soft, juicy target.” The thing that would alert most Americans to the scale of the problem, they agreed, was a catastrophic attack on the US power grid.

“It will be like cyber Pearl Harbor,” Honeywell noted half-jokingly, since that’s a stock phrase among the alarmists. “Then people will pull their heads out of their asses.”

Which was her way of saying that we are disconnected from the frightening reality of the world we live in. Disconnected in our incomprehension or ignorance, connected in all the ways that make us vulnerable. We are dust, and a stink, and cosmopolitan chatter, and the girl whose cat has been killed lives more deeply than we do—that’s one way to frame the situation. Another is to wonder if we’re the cat.

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January 2018

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