Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)

In a world where internet users number over 3.6 billion, teenagers are reportedly spending nine hours a day on social media and computers are being taught to dream, Gibson’s vision of cyberspace doesn’t seem that far off the mark.

Cyberspace, the location of this article, and where we spend increasing portions of our lives, has changed much over the years.

It was a land discovered almost by accident

Who knew that our network of phone lines could contain a digital world? It was as though we had built a grand sewage system beneath the country, and only realised decades later that you could actually crawl into this catacomb of tunnels and use it for something other than just holding drainage. Moving through the cramped crawl spaces was slow in the early days, but you could scrape messages on to the walls, hide documents and images, and even hold clandestine meetings in this digital deep.

As more people began to gather in this underground city, the tunnels were bored wider and new passages were drilled. It became easier and easier to navigate this hidden landscape. As server space became bigger and images became more common on this interconnected network, it was though we had transcended the sewer system and emerged from the manholes into a wild new world.

And wild it was. You were living on the frontier – the quality of character among the people you met varied widely. Firewalls didn’t exist back then, so there were no borders to keep the bad guys out; the most security you could erect around your outpost in the wilderness were the flimsy walls of a password.

No really knew what this place was, or was becoming

But some people understood that whatever it was, it was important. Cyberspace was a world independent of government, laws or banks. You could be anyone you wanted to be online, and no would try to stop you from attempting to do anything. It presented an alternative to a physical reality that had become bloated with laws, regulations and state intervention. And for a while it was such an alternative.

The freedom of the internet appealed hugely to libertarians and anarchists alike. As governments tried to intrude on what they felt was their home, the cyber-natives fought back fiercely. This is perfectly summed up by “A declaration of the independence of cyberspace”, written in 1996 by the psychedelic libertarian John Perry Barlow:

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.

This was written primarily in response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in the US, one of the first times the internet was explicitly addressed in an American law. It gives quite an insight into the radical philosophy of the early pioneers of the digital realm.

These radicals mostly disappeared when the internet became mainstream, although they did re-emerge for a time when bitcoin became popular, and when the online black market known as the Silk Road was shut down. The use of cryptocurrencies rose in line with the rise of “crypto-anarchists”, who saw currencies like bitcoin as a means of subverting the state. For more on cryptocurrencies, click here.

 

Surveillance capitalists

It was only a matter of time before the powers of the physical plane infiltrated and influenced the hidden frontier of the internet as it grew and developed. We looked earlier in the week at how websites such as Google shepherd us through the internet now, collecting our information to sell to advertisers and use for their own analysis. And yesterday we looked at how intelligence agencies analyse metadata from the internet to identify people of interest.

As the internet went mainstream, more information began to accumulate on it. And if you can analyse this vast spread of information, you can gain money, power or both in an effort known as “surveillance capitalism”.

Data mining is now a massive industry. The subject of quantitative analysis, where huge reams of information are run through mathematical models in order to predict future events, has grown fast in popularity recently. And it’s no surprise – as the mountainous pile of data continues to accumulate, those who can extract wealth from it stand to gain more and more.

Monitoring data

This phenomenon of trying to extract value from massive piles of data can even be seen in the realm of exchange-traded funds, or ETFs. $BUZ, the “Social Media Insights ETF” run by Sprott, tracks an index which analyses posts and conversations on social media. If companies are being discussed positively, for example in terms of brand perception, it will rise higher on the index.

With so much information about our daily lives now uploaded to the internet, I suppose it was only a matter of time before some thought they could cure a recession with it. This is a quote from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and richest man in Asia:

Over the past 100 years, we have always felt that the market economy is excellent, but in my opinion, in the next three decades will be a significant change, the planned economy will become increasingly large. Because we have access to all kinds of data, we may be able to find the invisible hand of the market. … [I]n the age of data, it is like we have an X-ray machine and a CT machine for the world economy, so 30 years later there will be a new theory [on planned economy] out.

I’m no billionaire, but from my perspective the pursuit of a planned economy has brought unimaginable quantities of suffering and death into the world through communism. If some tries it in this country, I don’t care what analytical tools and models they’ve got, I’m ing for the hills.

Until next time,

Boaz Shoshan