Saturday, May 23, 2009

Twitphilia & Twitanoia: Controlling Technology

An in-depth analysis of Twitter from a radical perspective.

I created a Twitter account during the planning phase of the protest surrounding the 2008 Republican Nation Convention. I had heard about it's text-to-phone cababilities and thought it might be useful to help organize the protesters and provide them with up-to-the-minute logistics while they were in the streets. This still seems like a potentially viable use of the system (capable of bringing flashmobs to a whole new level), but I had neither the time nor the technical understanding before the protest to make a serious push in this direction. I simply posted a prescient "tee hee" tweet and abandoned the endeavor.

Since then I have learned more about and I have revived my account in an effort to increase my web presence and spur discussion about radical politics. I continue to network with other radicals and enjoy sharing and spreading useful and interesting information.

Twitter from a revolutionary perspective...

A problem I see with this, particularly as a radical political activist, is that there still exists the very real possibility (in the conceivable future) of a very totalitarian and fascistic crackdown on revolutionary organizing and dissent. Twitter is not wholly responsible for this, of course, but it is a part of the larger technical communication apparatus which evermore seems to be recording all publicly expressed opinions and the networks of friends who may share those opinions. With this in mind, I wonder if radicals are exposing themselves too carelessly and I wonder if their use of computerized mass communication systems actually serves the greater good in the long run.

Many of the people who use Twitter probably don't care one wit about the greater good -- some may not care about anything, even themselves. But even amongst those people who do care about their fellow beings, and the global environment, etc., a question remains... Are they imbibed with a true understanding of the world's problems and do they have the focused skills to do anything about them?

General Technological Problems

I'll get back to a more Twitter-specific analyis in moment, but first I want to point out that several dire problems of civilization continue to get worse despite our technological know-how and our advanced communication systems.

In part I believe this because destructive forces/actions often trump sustainable activities like the europeans invading the new world. For a couple more examples to make my point... it only takes one person (or organization) dumping poisonous dioxins into the local water supply for that supply to be wholly and completely ruined -- even if everyone else in the community was very conscientious about living sustainably and not doing such things. Similarly, in the the extreme possibility, it would only take a small group of people launching nuclear weapons to bring about an unspeakable catastrophe -- even if the vast majority of people in the world had no desire for such an event to transpire. Even without great numbers, our technological capabilities have made it possible for a smaller group of committed individuals to greatly change things for the worse (my apologies to Margaret Mead). So all social justice movements and environmentalist groups would be rendered completely irrelevant if they were overpowered by the advanced weaponry of a much small group (or if that group created and released an imminently destructive force upon the environment).

A second problem, related to the previous, has to do with Thoreau's famous axiom that "there are thousands hacking at the branches of evil to one who striking at the root." As we sail today on our technological Ship of Fools this has never been more true. People form groups and write passionately about not kicking puppies, rising tuition costs, and stopping spousal abuse -- and all of these things may be very important -- but pre-eminent bodies of scientists and Nobel laureates have warned us that humanity all but faces extinction in the next 100 years. Hundreds of millions are starving RIGHT NOW, wars ravage the lands of millions more, and this hardly begins to touch on the hundreds of millions more who are literally toiling their lives away in sweatshop factories. These problems have become more prevalent during the advancement of techno-industrial civilization and yet some of us still cling to the discredited idea of progress.

You'll have to forgive me if I've gotten a little riled up, but here I sit in front of my computer listening to Crass songs with a visceral feeling of disgust and hypocrisy. But regarding my hypocrisy... that doesn't mean I can't or shouldn't recognize the problems and at least I recognize my complicity while owning up to it.

More On Twitter (& computer networks in general)

As mentioned earlier, Twitter is the latest advancement of George Orwell's "memory hole" concept. For the majority of proles this will never matter but, evermore, our ideas and networks of friends are permanently recorded on massive hard drives in the bowels of massive skyscrapers. The problem with this isn't so much that you'll fail to get a job because of some risque old Myspace picture but, rather, that you might have expressed an idea that a future regime doesn't like -- or perhaps you seem to have associated too closely with someone who expressed those ideas. It's like the problem with widespread surveillance camera's... The problem isn't that they reduce crime or make us act like puritans -- the problem is that an extremely repressive regime may someday come to power and then have total control over the surveillance apparatus previously installed.

But let's assume somehow that we will never ever get a (more) repressive government... There are still other social ramifications associated with the use of Twitter and computer communications in general.

Earlier I mentioned the idea of a small group wielding immense technological power over the general masses and this concept still applies even if they aren't intending to use that power for our immediate and utter annihilation. The endless promotion of consumerism, for example, is a problem in itself. You or I may or may not be susceptible to various forms of mass marketing, but the masses obviously are. The increased prevalence of personal computers has been ushered in with even greater levels of consumption. Marketing has never been a more exact science, delivery of products has become streamlined, and product production has been facilitated by internet communication systems. In the U.S., and abroad, consumerism has reached new heights and will likely survive all but the worst of economic collapses -- and at that point this article will seem hackneyed and passe. If humanity as a whole continues to consume as much as we can, as fast as we can... the environmental consequence are sure to be devastating. The prudent conservation of a few will matter very little. Moderate conservation will matter even less if we are still using computer networks that inevitably work to promote consumerism to our fellows.

Defensive Arguments of Technological Neutrality

One will argue that articles such as this one prove the potential good computer networks like Twitter can do. However... not only are we still faced with the widespread typical uses of such a system, there is still the possibility that this article is too tame (along with any similar articles that actually get read). This article might be too mild and fall ideologically short of the necessary critical assessment of our circumstances. Your less than humble author is, after all, still immersed in this system and is something of a product himself in that regard. Humans are the most domesticated animal and I worry that all those cartoons in my youth may have made me, and consequently this analysis, too tame.

This brings me to my next point... what is the broad psychosocial effect of this long immersion in these technological systems of media and communication? We can't just assume that the effects of the last 50 years of media immersion will stop being consequential simply because we now sit in front of monitors instead of televisions. For example... the standards of beauty created by the television studios won't simply cease to be our standard of beauty today. And that's a very physiological effect on our innate sexuality. More to the point... the ideological indoctrination will not cease to have an effect now that hordes of Joe Bloggers give us the same ideological perspective that has always been promoted by the corporate state in the schools, history books, and television studious. Sure, you can find ideological niches of liberation and social critique in some online circles but the shallow, the mundane, and the reactionary are still the norm -- even on Twitter.

The Technological Bias on Twitter and Beyond

One of the greatest ideological biases of out time regards the blind aforementioned faith in technological progress. Since the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and since the widespread acceptance of personal computers into the majority of American homes, technological criticism has become evermore lost in a virtual sea of advertisements for the latest gadget or pill.

One can hardly find a truly qualitative critique of technological advancement unless they look very thoroughly and with formal philosophical studies in their background to guide their assessments (of course why would anyone want to look for such a thing anyway?). Most of the critiques conclude that technology is a neutral tool and if we try a little harder to be moral then everything will be fine with it. Obviously I disagree and find that assessment to be overly simplistic.

On twitter such discussions are bound to be limited because most of the users have accepted the use of computers in our daily lives and have completely brought into the pro-tech paradigm. But one of my most telling online experiences regarding the technology debate took place around the wikipedia article about technology. There were two pictures on the page which I attempted to change in an effort to challenge the neutrality claims of the other editors. One was of an astronaut floating serenely in space (as the headline image) and the other was a picture of an idyllic old-fashion windmill with a nuclear power plant in the background. Respectively I tried to replace these with a photo of a mushroom cloud and a picture of the melted down husk of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I feel like I made a strong case for these edits since e=mc2 and it's weaponized results were more significant than high altitude orbiting (and even contributed to space travel) while the Chernobyl image balanced the other benign, neutral, and positive images on the page. Not surprisingly, these edits didn't stick, but I do think they illustrated the lack of neutrality and the positive spin put on technology.

A Closing Look at Twitter

(If you've read this far, congratulations -- I'm surprised your technologically stunted attention span held out for this long. I'd be even more surprised if you retained any recollection of the points I was trying to make. It's somewhat improbable that you found this article at all.)

Twitter strikes me as little more than a large recorded chatroom. How anyone could possibly read all the links posted from even 100 average users is beyond me (perhaps they're already cyborgs and don't know it). I suppose one wouldn't have to read all the links but then it just seems like one could search more directly for the information they're interested in without having to wait for some to tweet about it. Twitter might serve some limited good in specific situations but, overall, it just seems to be the newest medium for dishing out pop culture drivel (and I don't care what Aston Kutcher is doing today or what CNN says is news). The only thing that would change my mind about Twitter is if this article about it brought 10,000 unique visitors to my blog -- and I dare you tweeters to make that happen! I'd still probably end up being a little skeptical of the whole thing.

Tweet Away,

Nihilo Zero


Ariane said...

Lol. Best post I've read in ages.

Insult your audience - tick
Look only at half the issues - tick
Ask insulted audience to use condemned medium to increase your readership - tick

Of course it rather missed the point that Twitter is most often used as a frivolous way to keep in touch with people.

Not saying you don't make valid points - I though the Chernobyl picture was quite valid. Consumerism is probably the greatest threat to humanity at the moment.

As for future regimes, quite seriously, the sheer amount of utter rubbish they would have to sift through to even see patterns is increasingly overwhelming. It becomes theoretically impossible to search. We will electronically disappear into the seething masses just as we do in real life.

Connectedness will not be the first thing up against the wall when my revolution comes, but I'll be happy to see in a new era.

N. Zero said...

Thanks... I try. If I missed some points and garbled some things you'll have to excuse me since I no longer sleep but only twitter. Yes, I suffer from the conditions about which I write.

I'm glad you were able to meet me half way on some of the points. I do think think that future regimes will be able to improve their search methods in efforts to weed out dissent. Or, more directly, they'll be able to find the information they seek on specific individuals and groups who they may want to target for any number of other reasons. Imagine if the Nazi's had this search engine technology... just because there may be a lot of people belonging to a particular group or religion does not mean they wouldn't be able to find out who those people were because of all the rubbish you speak of. They would easily be able to compile their lists (created unwittingly before they came into power) and find out who the leaders of various oppositional movements were. They could then examine their networks of friends and use the information for nefarious purposes.

Anyway... since you're "tick"ing me off, does this all amount to an early appearance of Godwin's Law in this discussion? Tick?

Either way, I too will be happy to see in a new era.

Ariane said...

My (admittedly second hand) understanding of computer science is that since searching data is an exponential problem, even with targeted searches, there comes a point where the amount of data is theoretically unsearchable. It isn't a question of technology, it is a question of finite search times - no matter how short you can make that.

There is always the possibility that our current understanding of the universe is wrong, quantum mechanics is not set in stone, but my money is on the signal to noise being impossibly small.

Having said that, in the future as in the past, it will always be possible to find out whatever you want about an individual if you know which individual and you have sufficient resources.

Radical thought is a good thing. It balances up the status quo, but I live in the middle ground. Partly for my sanity, partly because I think it is the right place to be. :)

Anonymous said...


Think of something exotic, translate to text, wrap in quotes, and click "I'm Feeling Lucky" (Google) — they've solved that exponentially complicated problem of searching everything quite nicely.. Then consider, as Nihilo mentions, the data as it is stored on the server's end. I think the more important idea to acknowledge is that technology is getting "better" (read easier) every day. Easier for us, easier for them — whomever they are..


I've been searching and waiting for a free thinker to discuss these implications of technology (specifically Twitter/Facebook) for some time now.

Thank you. I am not alone in my thoughts.

As a hacker by ideology I posit that the deep web is a hugely untapped resource — or is it? Can one truly know?

After spending the last 15 years out of not many more investigating the web down to its most fundamental elements I feel like I see potential that most simply cannot. I grew up spending an incredible amount of time appreciating the inherent digital anarchy of the web just to see Facebook and Twitter trash the concept for mass consumption; quickly.

What I believe you (and I) are looking for is a fully decentralized, yet connected, social space that lives, for the most part, in the deep web. Encryption keeps even the future (quite, not entirely) safe. Organization can be done privately while still leveraging the scale of a world-wide network. In fact I am working full time on just a project. Where does one go to discuss the intersection of technology and anarchy in a meaningful way?

I keep finding myself banging my head against the wall in discussions with fellow engineers and technologists who simply cannot carry on a coherent conversation about the social implications of tomorrow's technology. When you're in my world you see clear distinctions between developers and end-users. The increasing power of the developers to shape how end-users exist in this ever-encroaching digital space is rarely mentioned.

Are these discussions happening at the radical level (besides yourself of course)? Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the WWW, mentioned the impending responsibility of web workers in a speech over a decade ago — haven't really heard much since..

Amos Keppler said...

It's just a tool, lik ea lot of other tools, making up a whole to the very changed world somewhere ahead.

N. Zero said...

OK... so it's been a few days/weeks since I posted this blog and I feel obligated to say that it's driving 20% of the traffic on my blog. Hard to argue with that. I still stand by most everything I had to say in this piece though. That said... I do feel the need to share this comment I made on an article at OpEdNews

Faith in the freedom loving people of the world...

Whether or not the majority of the people voted for Mousavi and increased freedoms, those people in Iran should be supported by other freedom-loving people in the world and they should not be allowed to end up as "collateral damage." And this is where I think the "script" you mentioned gets a little off base. Sure the Iranian people are oppressed... but I don't think that a war on Iranians will be as broadly supported now that we see so many of them chanting (in english) "WE WANT FREEDOM!"

The democratization of information by sources like Twitter is the real story right now because average people are able to spread their stories far and wide to other average people! So my feeling is that never before have people been more in solidarity with others around the world who want freedom. It's simply amazing! What's happening now is what we've always been told is the best possibility for global internet communications! And this might just be the beginning! If this model of protest, backed by 21st century information technology, can succeed... we may all have a chance of throwing off our oppressors and democratizing the spread of information!

I'm not saying this is the end all be all, or that international communications won't come under attack by those who wish to keep us seperated, but WOW! What if?! So often the rulers who control the media equate the rulers of other nations with the people under their boots, but NOW... we are clearly seeing that's not the case! The Iranians want more freedom! They are sick of the morality police! They are just normal people who are sick of being abused by their government! Who can't relate to that and how can a full scale attack be justified in light of that?

Maybe Iran will come under attack by the U.S., but that will only show that the people of this nation have no more say than the people of Iran. The wizards may still have some power but the curtain is definitely being lifted -- and Kansas isn't that different from Oz after all!

Nihilo Zero

N. Zero said...

Twitter Phrases, Terms And Most Often Used Words Demystified
re: "Twitphilia & Twitanoia:Controlling Technology"

Anonymous said...

"...possibility of a very totalitarian and fascistic crackdown on revolutionary organizing and dissent."

- Yeah, sure, but what you're missing is that fascism is a leftist concept, not a rightist one. Surprise! You've been totally misinformed!

Why don't you read Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" (
which describes in detail the socialist roots to Naziism within Germany before WWII. Blaming the right for fascism is the greatest snow-job the press ever pulled.

How does it even make sense anyway? You have a rightist political group that is constantly seeking to give more power to the people and take it away from government, and you want to accuse them of being fascist?

The Left is fascist. Communist China, right now, is the very definition of Fascism. All fascism is defined by central control. And only with central control can the kind of abuses you are against ever occur.

Your problem is that you're trying to give the central government total control in order to right wrongs, and you don't realize that that central control is going to be taken away and abused for evil ends at some point. The only way to ensure that doesn't happen is to make sure central control never arises in the first place.

N. Zero said...

Again, as with your comment on my other article (Dignity, Freedom, Idealism & Expectations), I see no way in which one could reach the conclusion that I am "trying to give the central government total control..." How at all does that even begin to jive with a primitivist ideal? Somebody is missing something here and I don't think it's me.

I don't deny that fascism does indeed have leftist elements. But insomuch as fascism tends to deregulate primarily for corporate business interests (at the expense of the public commons)... I would say that's where (in part) it shows elements from the right.

In any case... you don't need to tell me what I believe or things that I already know. If you want to ask me to clarify or specify something... that's fine. But I'm not looking to have a flame war in the comments section and am only posting your comment and this response to clarify any possible misunderstanding. Let's all try to be more specific and clear about what we are talking about, OK? We need a way of life that is far removed from the hackneyed and unclear conceptions of what is left and what is right. Most governments have elements of both and cause problems from both sides. So while I'm not excusing the left... this is exactly what you seem to be doing for the ill-defined right (by putting all the blame on the ill-defined left). Left, right, left, right... How ridiculous. Together they both march us to war.