Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Beware of Geeks Bearing Grifts

By Gene Rochlin

It seems as if the news media have become a wholly owned subsidiary of the internet technology complex (ITC) these days. No matter which seemingly outrageous new product or system is being put forth, it will become ‘news’ in print and online, unpaid advertising that assumes that all of us have little else to do but sit here and salivate over the next great new development, however futuristic and socially disruptive it is.

Do I exaggerate? Over the past few days, Apple’s latest products/development/ideas have gotten almost as much media space as Ukraine or Ebola (although somewhat less than ISIS). And to a close reader of hype, what, exactly, is being promoted? The ‘new’ iPhone, which is somewhat larger than the original iPhone (among whose attractions was its small size)? The one you bought last year is now so five minutes ago. The miraculous web watch, for those with very tiny fingers and the 20-20 eyesight of youth who don’t mind their health as well as their location being monitored? The Apple Pay system, which will let you trade your money and credits from your account with those from someone else’s without their consent? Or, in conjunction with the others in the ITC, the Cloud, which provides a neat single warehouse for data theft? Not so widely noted is Apple’s dropping its promotion of the iPod, the small appliance that started it all, and which now seems to have been developed in order to do a bait-and-switch to the iPhone.

For those of us of a certain age, who disdain the label of ‘Luddite’ but still see no particular personal advantage to joining Facebook or Twitter, who prefer to protect our privacy and identity as much as possible, and who believe that there is no such thing as a perfectly secure internet site (although we hope some of our banks and all of our military sites are more secure than Home Depot), the notion that Apple Pay will make credit card payments obsolete is absolutely horrid. One after the other, these newly promoted ‘capabilities’ will not only stimulate sales, but will also ensure that the market never saturates.

And one more thing. Many of these new capabilities introduce new insecurities, new modes of spam, new avenues for thefts of data and of value ranging from credits to cash, and new possibilities for blackmail, exposing us to a whole new generation of Internet grifters.

Several common threads connect these ‘modernizing’ ideas, ranging from planes without cockpits and cars without drivers to ApplePay (or its equivalent). One is that they are always put forth in the spirit of idealistic innovations for the benefit of everyone. Less publicly mentioned is the admission that without continual innovation there is no hope of continual (and sometimes outrageous) profits. They assume that however impractical their widespread use may be within our present social formations, societies will simply adapt and reform themselves in the face of technological pressure. The social costs, of course, are never mentioned, let alone taken into account. That there are so few challenges reflects the degree to which the early successes of the computer industry, ranging from home PCs to LANs to the Internet, have softened up consumer resistance. Each new model, or innovation, can then be easily and widely promoted, even cheered, with complaints and interference only from a group who the industry can tag as backward outsiders.

It is interesting to note that this is often expressed as the triumph of individuals over institutions, wrapped in a mantle of progress and development. Some of it, admittedly, does promote efficiency and social progress. But not all, and not everywhere. The creation of new social and political risks without forethought is already stirring demands for institutional control, a genuinely unfunded mandate. There is also a redistribution of wealth and privilege, instantiated by rapid obsolescence. More seriously, what I see being actively promoted is the triumph of libertarianism over social coherence, the creation of new social and political risks without giving them serious analysis. Many of the newer developments being promised also have no real benefits to the growing cadre of older folks, particularly those without the education and technical skills to keep up, while increasing their vulnerabilities in ways they cannot deal with as individuals. Their interests are not only marginalized, but as far as the press is concerned they are not important. No one is speaking up for them effectively. Some of us should try.

Added note: Michael Cabanatuan reports on SFGate on Sept. 16 that because the use of services such as Uber and Lyft have cut deeply into San Francisco taxi rides in the past few months, the number of regular taxis on the street has sharply declined, nowhere more steeply than in wheelchair-accessible ramp taxis. He further reports that because ride services are not required to pick up people in wheelchairs, municipal authorities are considering stepping in. And so it goes.