Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?

By Thomas Swann On July 31, 2015

Post image for Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?Social media are monitored and controlled by large corporations. Can they also facilitate the kind of self-organization that defines radical politics?

When I started my PhD in 2011 there was a strong feeling that radical politics was changing. On the one hand, there was more of it. The Arab Spring, theindignados, Occupy: they all made it seem like direct action and direct democracy, were moving out of the ghettos of what remained of the alter-globalization movement. With mass assemblies and a radical DIY (or even DIO: Do It Ourselves) politics, something was changing across the world. In the face of austerity and totalitarianism, an actual alternative was being prefigured.

At the same time, the tools of these protests and uprisings came into the spotlight. Not only the democratic mechanisms of decision-making but also the digital infrastructures that, many argued, were facilitating what was so promising in these movements.

Social media was increasingly seen as an essential element in how large groups were able to organize without centralized leadership. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were allowing people to mobilize not as hierarchical structures like trade unions and political parties but as horizontal networks. Individual activists and sub-groups enjoyed a tactical autonomy while remaining part of a larger whole.

Almost four years have passed, and now at the end of my PhD the gloss to this narrative has to a large extent worn off. Some elements of the 2011 uprisings have been consumed by the tragedy of civil war and renewed dictatorships, while others have dispersed.

But of course, four years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things, and the examples of Podemos and Syriza suggest that perhaps these movements are in fact evolving and developing new strategies. While the story of mass mobilization and radical social movements is by no means over, what has been disputed perhaps more than anything else in the last four years is the promise that lay in the tools of the 2011 uprisings.

Social media, once held up by some as the very essence of contemporary radical politics, is now seen in a harsher, less forgiving light. A number of experiences have underlined the implicit hierarchies and inequalities that were reinforced by social media.

Others have pointed towards the ways in which social media exploit, for profit, our online behavior. The Edward Snowden saga has shown how vulnerable our online organizing is, as has the repression of social media-based activism seen inTurkey and elsewhere.

But among these critiques of social media, is there something that can be salvaged? Can platforms like Facebook and Twitter be useful in radical politics, and if so how? Perhaps we don’t need to abandon social media just yet. Perhaps it can, in one form or another, still facilitate the kind of organization that was so promising in 2011 and that continues, in many ways, to define radical left politics.

The promise of social media

Social media platforms are often discussed as means of communication, self-expression and forming public discourse. As well as this, however, social media platforms — and communication practices more generally — also act as infrastructures that support the actions we take. They allow us to share information and resources, and to make decisions that can then be enacted.

In this way, communication practices can also be understood as information management systems. This is a concept borrowed from the world of business and management and refers to any system, normally electronic and increasingly digital, that facilitates organization. Work email and intranets are of this sort. They don’t just let people talk to one another but also contribute to getting tasks completed.

What social media might offer when viewed as information management systems, as platforms that facilitate certain forms of action, is a way to make radical and anarchist forms of organization more like the participatory and democratic structures that characterized the 2011 uprisings and radical left politics since at least the Zapatista rebellion, the alter-globalization movement in the 1990s and, even earlier, the radical feminism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Social media can provide the infrastructure for both democratic decision-making and autonomous action, with activists given access to resources and information that may enable them to act in ways that more hierarchical communication structures reduce to command and control processes.

While there are significant critiques of social media from activists and scholars alike (focusing on privacy and surveillance, corporate and state control, the political economy of free labor and the psychology and behavior that is encouraged by the architecture of mainstream platforms), I want to suggest that there is still a potential inherent in social media owing to the nature of the communication practices it supports.

These practices can be described as many-to-many communication. They are potentially built on conversations with multiple actors that reflect some of the necessary foundations of the participatory democracy of radical Left politics. Social media can, therefore, be seen as systems that facilitate radically democratic forms of organization and that can support the kinds of autonomy and horizontality that have in part been seen in the 2011 uprisings.

This is the promise of social media. And it is a promise that may yet be fulfilled. If social media present opportunities for horizontal, conversational communication, and these types of communication are consistent with the ways in which we try to imagine non-hierarchical social relationships and decision-making structures, then social media can be considered as having at least the potential to be a part of a radical left politics.

Internal and external communication practices

As part of my PhD research I interviewed a number of activists involved in the Dutch radical left and anarchist scene. The pictures they provided of the communication practices of the groups they were involved in can be used to work through some of the ideas around many-to-many communication, its relationship to radical politics and the promise of social media.

Internally, the radical left groups in question all more or less conform to the many-to-many communication model. Much of this communication is done through face-to-face meetings at which members aim to reach consensus on the topics being discussed and the decisions that need to be made.

In terms of social networking technologies, however, activists spoke of the email listservs and online forums that have been common to radical left politics at least since the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the beginnings of the alter-globalization movement.

While none of the groups used newer, mainstream platforms like Facebook in their internal communication practices, one of the groups did use the alternative social networking site Crabgrass as a core part of their discussion and decision-making infrastructure. Crabgrass was developed by people connected to the RiseUp collective that provides secure email addresses for activists. It aims to facilitate social networking and group collaboration with a specifically radical, left-wing bent.

Externally, many-to-many communication practices became much rarer. While most of the groups use Facebook and Twitter, they use them primarily as extensions of their websites, which in turn act mainly as extensions of their printed newspapers.

The three exceptions to this highlight the abilities of both mainstream and alternative social media platforms to play this role. One group, involved in community organizing, was active on Facebook not only in sharing articles and announcements but also in responding to comments and engaging in discussions with other users.

Another made use of crowd-sourced mapping in a way that reflects the scope of many-to-many communication to support autonomous action. The third example of using social media in line with this participatory ethos came from one group that printed comments and responses from Facebook and Twitter in their newspaper, facilitating some level of conversation between the group and those outside it.

Institutionalizing autonomy

The many-to-many communication social media facilitates, insofar as it allows for conversation rather than merely the broadcast of information (or even orders), is intimately connected to a radical left and anarchist vision of organization. If prefiguration, the realization of the goals of politics in the here and now, is taken as one of the core concerns of radical social movements, then a commitment to many-to-many communication might need to be seen as just as important as the commitment to democracy and equality.

It has the potential to empower activists to take autonomous action and the bedrock of participatory democracy. In this way, social media platforms can contribute towards freeing activism from the top-down structures of political parties and trade unions.

But is there another way of looking at these types of organization and of the structures suggested by social media and many-to-many communication? I mentioned at the start of this article that social media and the examples of the 2011 uprisings have lost some of what made them so attractive at the time. Activists are, it seems, increasingly (and perhaps rightly given the limitations) wary of both networked organization and networked communications. In the last year or so, however, radical politics has shifted somewhat.

In place of social movements that are completely opposed to, and autonomous from political parties, the rise of Podemos and Syriza, and indeed the surge of support for the Greens in England and Wales and the Scottish National Party in Scotland, might point to a return of the mass party as an element of radical left social movement strategy.

Podemos and Syriza, by many accounts, have become the institutional articulations of mass social movements. They haven’t replaced them and are clear that they aim to act as parliamentary wings subservient to those movements (although the current tensions in Syriza suggest that this is much more problematic that some might make out).

In the case of Podemos, this has meant a continuation of the radical, direct democracy of the 15-M movement and the party has relied on social media and many-to-many communication not in getting its message across to voters but in defining the very content of that message and of its policies.

Social media might continue to have a role in radical left politics after all. The many-to-many communication practices it supports can be, at their best, prefigurative of the goals of radical politics, of democratic and participatory decision-making. As information management systems, facilitating concrete action, the examples of the radical left groups involved in my PhD research point towards this conclusion.

Both mainstream social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and alternative platforms, such as Crabgrass and n-1, can be an important part of radical left politics, whether in the form of mass social movement mobilizations or the articulation of those movements in more democratic political parties.

Thomas Swann is a PhD student in the University of Leicester School of Management and member of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. His research focuses on radical left organization, social media and organizational cybernetics. Follow him on Twittter via @ThomasSwann1.

Fueled by outrage: Why social media ultimately drives us apart

I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!

Above: I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!

Image Credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock

Clearly it didn’t turn out that way.

If anything, social media has driven us further apart. On top of the filter bubbles that push us toward more extreme and entrenched beliefs, social media has become an environment fueled by outrage.

Outrage is viral, outrage is easy, and with anonymity — or at least distance — screaming your outrage on social media or even launching personal attacks carries no consequences. Expressing outrage makes people feel good, allowing them to believe they are doing something to bring attention to things they think are problems. Outrage often masquerades as strength and action, and requires no admission of vulnerability or weakness. Outrage sells pageviews. And outrage is the easiest emotion to elicit.

Think about how social media platforms are designed. They are often anonymous, allowing people to yell, scream, and name call, all while remaining safe in hiding. Even when anonymity is not allowed, the physical distance between participants means nobody has to ever face one another.

The short message nature of many of the platforms also serve to discourage in-depth conversations while being perfectly designed for expressing outrage. Consider Twitter’s 140 character limit. It’s virtually impossible to have an intelligent debate in 140 characters, but the format works just fine for name calling, ad hominem attacks, and expressing outrage. Add in the fact that it is largely anonymous, and allows anyone to address anyone else, and you have a nearly perfect platform for outrage and bullying.

Compare social media conversations to real life conversations. What percentage of the people who tweet nasty things at celebrities, or even at other regular people with whom they disagree, would say these things to their face? Maybe one percent?

How many people would start real life conversations the same way they start online conversations? Imagine meeting someone at a party, “Hi, I’m Francisco, and I’M OUTRAGED MONSANTO IS POISONING US WITH GMOs!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS OPPRESSING US!!! PEOPLE USE WORDS I FIND INSENSITIVE!!! AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!” and then having five people standing nearby repeat, “YES!!! I’M ALSO OUTRAGED MONSANTO IS POISONING US WITH GMOs!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS OPPRESSING US!!! PEOPLE USE WORDS I FIND INSENSITIVE!!! AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!” Sane people don’t talk this way in real life but this is exactly how people communicate on social media when they post and repost links about the latest thing that has them outraged, and then follow it up by shouting down anyone who dares to disagree.

The end result of all of this outrage is that valuable, well reasoned conversations disappear from social media. As Sam Altman of Y-Combinator said recently, “Most smart people I know have decided to just not discuss anything sensitive because of the Internet lynch mob looking for any slight mistake.” Fittingly, in reply to his tweet, some people attacked Altman for what they viewed as his insensitive use of the word “lynch mob” while others accused those leaving the public conversation of being cowards — essentially they were outraged that outrage is driving the reasonable people away.

As outrage has come to be the dominant culture of social media, what started as a way to connect people has largely become a way to attack people or simply express anger. Like a giant dysfunctional family consumed with animosity and who thinks yelling is the appropriate way to communicate, social media interactions are far more likely to consist of expressions of outrage, accusations, and name calling instead of conversations. Ultimately, what was supposed to bring us together is serving to drive us apart.

Alec Empire’s latest statement on electronic music

A New Kind of Brutality

Alec Empire’s latest statement regarding the direction electronic music has taken, published in French in this month’s Trax Magazine.

It is 2015, and I feel like God’s hand has wiped us all off the continent, right into the icy water of the Antarctic. It was easy, even smooth, but with a new kind of brutality.

He is laughing at us, we can hear his deep, low voice in the winds, coming from all sides. A storm is coming. The earth is opening underneath our feet.

I have actually never believed in God or the concept of it. I always believed that we self determine our lives. I still believe this very strongly. We don’t have to believe blindly everything that other men have written down in religious books in some ancient time, when life was completely different. Believing something is one thing, but to let that drive our actions is another. The same goes for all these rules and unwritten laws in what we call “DJ culture”.

The second half of each decade is always completely different than the first half.

A new phase has begun. The first half was dominated by the euphoria we all felt about the free internet, social media and all hopes that came with it… The hope that we will be truly free. But instead, we seem to be riding on this train through a tunnel into darkness, the black hole that sucks us further into something we’ve lost control over.

Everyone can be creative, everyone can be a producer, everyone is equal.
But only if we buy certain technology that enables us to do so. This was the mantra for decades, Silicon Valley built its wealth on selling us this idea.

We witness that this hasn’t worked. We could even argue that creativity never worked this way. Now whenever creatives meet an audience online, they face a new kind of hostility. Frustration and aggressive behavior have increased a lot, I hear this from many creative people. The mob is winning. And most people choose apathy, so they don’t get noticed by the mob.

I grew up with the original ideals of the Techno movement. People should listen to the music they themselves have selected and not because context, location or their peers have pressured them to do so. Staying anonymous helps you to become who you want to be. The best DJs and producers in the history of electronic music will stay unknown, don’t win awards and don’t get a mention in history books or appear in exhibitions in museums.

Decentralization. We should set this as our highest goal again because creativity flourishes in a decentralized system. Decentralization does not happen when everyone acts like rivals on the same social media platforms, trying to become the most popular. Decentralization also means that we abandon and ignore stats systems like YouTube, Facebook or Instagram.

Our blind naive faith in technology has led us into a dead end. Many will understand what I mean in the coming years. Some are already feeling the consequences. Pay close attention, then ask yourself which headline DJ is absorbing the energy of the crowd, transforms it into creativity and then feeds it back into the crowd? We get this uneasy feeling in our stomachs, that in reality this has become a rare moment, it feels almost surreal when it does happen, it’s like a distant dream that we can’t recall after we’ve woken up.

What I am saying here is that if we give up that dialogue between crowd and DJ and the philosophy behind it, then we give up the very essence of what Electronic Music is about. A mass of people should never be brought in line by a DJ. But I see that since the explosion of American EDM, that this is exactly what everyone aspires to do. Are we witnessing how our generation is giving birth to a new kind of cultural fascism to that was unthinkable before? We can measure those changes, we can “see” them. We can see events like the destruction of Charlie Hebdo, the rise of Anti-Semitism all over Europe and the PEGIDA protests in Germany in which Neo-Nazis proudly participate without shame. These are just examples. We can try to create a parallel world in our clubs and festivals, even for a short moment. For a few hours we can agree on our core values, defend them, celebrate them. We won’t feel isolated or alone anymore. But this means that we must define those values from new, or remind ourselves of those we want to bring with us from the past into the future. I am totally aware of all those cynics out there who giggle in embarrassment right now, because this is is an inconvenient truth for them. I can only say to them, we don’t live in an ivory tower…sooner or later this will concern all of us. The music scene is always a reflection of the society it exists in.

The Electronic Music scene can continue to twiddle knobs, press buttons, like those gambling addicts in Las Vegas, who keep trying and trying to take their chance… Or we decide how the future will look like for us. I choose the second.

Stay strong, my friends and allies!

Alec Empire
Berlin , Friday, February 13, 2015

Big Data Is Watching You

The hidden price of Google, Twitter and Facebook.



Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money.

What are we prepared to give up in the name of convenience? ThroughoutJacob Silverman’s capacious study of the world we’re in and the world we’re making—or rather, allowing tech companies to make for us—it’s demonstrated repeatedly that billions of us are happy to surrender our privacy to save a few keystrokes. Why not log in to that other website with your Facebook or Twitter or Google ID? Why not use your real identity and photograph, with a record of your movements, all across the web? You have it on Google’s word that they’re not “evil”; what could be the harm?

Silverman’s new book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, does a thorough, if sometimes long-winded, job of explaining what the harm is and what it could become. He begins with an analysis of the philosophy, variously termed “techno-utopianism” or “cyber-libertarianism,” that drives the major social media companies. The ideology should be familiar in essence, if not in name—we’ve been soaking in it for the past decade. Media theorists, long before the advent of Facebook, were calling it “the Californian ideology.” It’s what happens when youthful rebelliousness and a countercultural, anti-authoritarian spirit meets gobs of cash and untrammeled power. It’s the myth—tirelessly peddled by optimistic tech, business and culture reporters and embraced by the customers who line up for new gadgets—that a corporation that calls its headquarters a “campus” and equips its offices with slides, snacks and free daycare is something other than a capitalist entity, with motives other than profit.

To be fair, the big tech companies—Google and Facebook are the stars here, with Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn singing backup—do have goals beyond their bottom line. They want to do the kinds of things that beauty-pageant contestants want to do: cure diseases, end terrorism, go to the moon. They share a disdain for government—Mark Zuckerberg is committed to the idea of “companies over countries”—but also share a zeal for surveillance.

For Silverman, the harm of social media is both specific and philosophical. It turns journalism into a clickbait race, for instance, but it also radically changes our concepts of privacy and identity. He considers the fate of those who are chewed up and spat out by the Internet’s nano-fame cycle (nobody gets 15 minutes anymore), whose embarrassing or self-aggrandizing antics, captured on video, do the rounds and attract a quick, overwhelming torrent of derision or rage. But while we might shrug our shoulders at the fate of an Antoine Dodson or a Taylor Chapman (respectively a viral hero and villain), Silverman argues that we should be aware of the numbing and alienating consequences of the viral instinct. Not only does it frequently make clowns of those who are seriously disadvantaged, and destroy reputations and careers, it also molds the larger media world in its own image. Hate-watching a two-minute video of a reality show contestant’s racist rant is a sign that you’ll give attention to this kind of content—and the site that hosts the video, beholden to its advertisers, traffics in your attention, not your intelligence or humanity.

Headlines have always been composed to grab attention, but now they can gather intelligence too. Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money. As Silverman describes it, the urge to gather endless data about all of us—from our spending habits to the pace of our heartbeats—is a huge, lucrative industry, driven by the fantasy that correlation is causation, that because you did X activity, you’ll buy Y product.

It may be foolhardy to make predictions about the fast-evolving tech world, but Silverman offers some chilling evidence that the world of “big data” is beginning to affect the choices available to us. Some healthcare companies will lower your premiums if you use a fitness-tracking app (and share that data, of course). Data about what you eat and buy is increasingly being used like your credit score, to determine if you are worthy of that job, that car or that home.

So what? A good citizen who eats her greens and pays her bills has nothing to fear! And if she worries that some misstep—glancing at an unsavory website, running a red light, suffering a computer hack—will damage her, she can just pay protection money to one of several companies that exist to safeguard their clients’ online reputations. Silverman has no solution to these linked problems, of course, since there is far too much money driving this brave new world and far too little government will to resist. Mass surveillance is the present and the future. But if information—meaning data points—is corporate power, then knowledge and critical thinking may be citizen power.

Silverman is too cautious and self-conscious a thinker to inspire a revolution. Instead, he advocates a kind of lowlevel “social-media rebellion”—messing with, rather than rejecting, the digitally networked world in which we live. Putting up a cartoon monkey as your online avatar might not feel like much of a blow to the Facebook assault on privacy, but it’s an annoyance to the booming facial- recognition industry—and perhaps a few million determined annoyances can disrupt the techno-utopia in favor of the common good.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.

‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social media

By Binnaz Saktanber On February 20, 2015

Post image for ‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social mediaTurkey has a track record of ruthlessly cracking down on social media users, and both Twitter and Facebook appear happy to play ball with the censors.

Photo by Murad Sezer

On February 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey sent his first tweet ever: “Today is World No Tobacco Day” he wrote in Turkish — bluntly ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even World No Tobacco Day — “Use your willpower against this poison and #DontGiveInToCigarettes.” Erdoğan even signed the tweet with his initials RTE in the style of Barack Obama, who signs his personal tweets -bo.

The content of the tweet was no surprise, given that the war against tobacco is one of the personal crusades of the Islamist ruler, and that everybody and their mum is tweeting today, including politicians and world leaders who often want to engage with their public personally. What was surprising was that Erdoğan, who once famously declared social media to be “the worst menace to society” and who blocked Twitter altogether on March 2014, was tweeting at all.

So what has changed? Did Erdoğan suddenly decide to embrace Twitter and stop censoring social media? Not quite. The Turkish government is no longer blocking the likes of Twitter thus keeping a façade of freedom, but it blazes the trail in a new type of censorship regime. I call it “cease and censor.”

The worst part is that Twitter seems to be helping it by implementing its “country-withheld content” policy. First employed in 2012 to block neo-Nazi accounts in Germany, the policy complies with the concerned country’s local laws and blocks a tweet or an account only in that country when faced with a legal order. This is understandable in cases of hate speech or criminal offenses, but the policy becomes awfully problematic when it interferes with freedom of expression and is applied according to local laws that are designed to censor freedom of expression at all costs, such as Turkey’s internet law.

Facebook also complies with the Turkish government’s requests to block and censor political content. @Madigudisi in Twitter and Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post) on Facebook are two victims of this new censorship regime. I talked to them to learn their stories and to better understand how this new regime of censorship works.

Tech-savvy netizens versus archaic politics

But first, let’s refresh our memories. Last March, the Turkish government blocked Twitter amid alleged leaked recordings implicating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and other government officials on a corruption scandal. Another recording had senior army officials discussing intervention in Syria. The recordings were posted mainly on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter.

“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic,” said a furious Erdoğan before blocking Twitter. A YouTube ban followed. The blatant censorship created an outcry at home and abroad. Hashtags #twitterbannedinturkey and #youtubebannedinturkey became worldwide trending topics within minutes, garnering millions of furious tweets criticizing Turkish government’s censorious antics. Every news outlet in the world reported the issue, while rights groups and the international community condemned the bans.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the Twitter ban on April 2 and the YouTube ban on June 4, stating they violated laws on freedom of expression. The court’s decision was widely applauded. Yet it did not affect that much in terms of Turkish netizen’s social media activity, as tech-savvy citizens never actually stopped tweeting, and mocked the blocks by circumventing it almost immediately thanks to VPN services and changing their DNS numbers.

At the time, I argued that ancient censorship mechanisms and archaic politics do not work in the face of technological dissent and the voice of the streets anymore. The Turkish government must have felt the same, since it soon began to employ a different tactic to keep social media giants like Twitter and Facebook on a short leash without actually having to block them: threatening them with banning their service altogether and imposing heavy fines, bombarding them with court orders, and making them block specific content and accounts.

Accomplice to censorship

When the transportat minister Lütfi Elvan tweeted “If your phones do not work after an earthquake, call the ministry” on May 28, 2014, he received a witty reply from Twitter user @Madigudisi. “This is not Zaytung [a local mock news portal similar to The Onion]. Goodbye to the brain…”

On July 13, Madigudisi received an email from Twitter’s legal team asking him if he would voluntarily delete the tweet. The message referenced a court ruling about the tweet, claiming it to violate Turkish law. In short, it was a polite recommendation of self-censorship from a social media giant that once famously praised itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and which promised to “stand with our users in Turkey who rely on Twitter as a vital communications platform” in the midst of the blocking of its service.

Twitter waited for three days for a voluntary deletion, and then censored the tweet. Instead of the original tweet, visitors now see a notice informing them this tweet has been withheld in their country. Madigudisi did not reply to Twitter or contest the ruling. Doing so would reveal his identity and bring more lawsuits.

His fear was not paranoid. Twenty-nine people were put on trial for tweets posted during the Gezi protests in a court case in which the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan is himself listed as a victim. All of the tweeters were accused of “inciting the public to break the law.” Three of them were also accused of “insulting the Prime Minister.”

The tweets they were trialled for were nothing but information on the location of police forces during the protests, passwords for wireless networks in the protest locations where 3G service was not usually available, and messages of support for the nationwide protests. In short, not that different than what millions of other people were tweeting during the summer of 2013.

In the last hearing on September 22, 2014, 27 of the accused were acquitted of all crimes. Yet one defendant was fined 8.000Turkish liras (roughly US$3.200) for “insulting the Prime Minister” and another’s file has been set apart for a future date. Amnesty International, which has been following the trial, declared that “no evidence presented in court points to criminal conduct that is not protected under international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression,” and pointed out that the prosecution suggested authorities aim to discourage others from using social media in a country where Twitter was blocked before.

Withholding content, blocking accounts

Madigudisi is not the only casualty of Turkey’s “country-withheld content” policy. According to Twitter’s latest transparency report, Turkey had the highest number of removal requests (477) for 2.642 different accounts between July and December, filing five times the amount of requests of the next country on the list. Compared to the first half of the year, Turkey’s requests increased 156 percent and the number of accounts specified grew over 765 percent. As a result, 62 accounts and 1820 tweets were withheld.

Twitter received 328 court orders and 149 requests from Turkish government agencies to remove content ranging from violations of personal rights to defamation of private citizens and/or government officials, just like Madigudisi’s tweet.

In the report, Twitter has defended the policy, releasing the following statement:

We filed legal objections with Turkish courts in response to more than 70% of Turkish orders received. Objections were filed where we believed the order interfered with freedom of expression laws or had other deficiencies. Our objections to Turkish courts prevailed only ~5% of the time. We un-withheld three accounts and 196 tweets following the acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.

In the last year, in addition to Madigudisi, three anonymous accounts used to reveal alleged phone conversations implicating Erdoğan in the corruption scandal were also blocked, as well as the account of the activist hacking group TheRedHack. RedHack’s last act was to hack the records of the biggest internet service provider of the country and dedicate it to Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was killed during the Gezi protests.

Another casualty is Fuatavni, the whistleblower account claiming to write from inside the government with close to a million followers. Fuatavni’s account was blocked shortly after he tweeted details about a wave of arrests of police officers related to the December 17 corruption scandal. Having warned his followers that his account might be blocked, he now writes under the pseudonym FuatAvniFuat, but it is not clear how long this account will last.

Intimidation and despair

Madigudisi is neither a journalist, nor does he trust mainstream media. He says he opened a Twitter account the same day the Gezi protests started, with the sole purpose of tweeting about the protests and obtaining uncensored news about the events. He tweeted 24/7 (“in tears” he says) and tried to provide logistical support to protesters. For him Twitter is pivotal: “Without this platform it is impossible for us to know what is really going on in the country because the press is not free. That’s why I was so disappointed with this censorship.”

On January 15, the Turkish government warned it will shut down Twitter and Facebook if they do not block accounts mentioning documents revealing a weapon delivery to Syria. On January 2, 2014 two trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped for a search by a state prosecutor, finding weaponry inside. The trucks were going to Syria and the incident sparked controversy that the contents were meant for jihadists in the neighboring country.

At the time, a court issued a ban on the publication of news related to the incident. Following tweets that publish documents related to the incident, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issued a warning that the March 2014 government decree banning coverage  is still valid. The New York Times reported that “networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order on Wednesday, removing content from accounts to avert a shutdown.”

No need for big threats for Facebook, as the company already frequently allows the Turkish government to censor content. According to the company’s latest and second ever transparency report, Turkey is the second most frequent censor of the social network, after India. Turkey restricted 1.813 pieces of content between January and June 2014, primarily because it defamed or criticized Ataturk or the Turkish state. Many Kurdish pages including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — the largest pro-Kurdish party in the country — are closed down, sparking an online petition from academics around the world and the suspicion that the blocks are political in nature.

“The sole purpose of this censorship is to intimidate us.” Madigudisi reflects. “I am not afraid. I will continue to voice my opinion no matter what. But I cannot help but feel despair. I am also very angry, why should I restrict my freedom of speech? There was nothing defamatory or insulting in my tweet, I just made a humorous observation.”

Politically motivated page removals

Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post), a small citizen journalism outlet mainly reporting on the Kurdish issue, has had their Facebook page blocked repeatedly after they became one of the most popular alternative news sources due to its coverage of the Gezi protests. The page has been blocked ten times since July 2013, each time having been forced to open a new one.

As Fırat Yumuşak, an editor for the outlet, says: “This censorship is a direct result of the government’s efforts to suppress the internet during and after the Gezi protests. Facebook is cooperating with the Turkish government. Even government officials admitted this. This is the reason why Facebook was not blocked when other social media sites were.”

Yumusak said they have tried to contact Facebook to reverse the decisions, to no avail. After their page had been censored “because their logo of a pomegranate is found erotic” or a news item about a child sexual abuse case has been found pornographic, they have written to Facebook Europe Director Richard Alan.

When Alan gave an interview to the Turkish newspaper Radikal, he said: “Someone filed a complaint about the page and checked the box of pornographic content as a reason. We have examined the page and found no such content. Yet, we have concluded that the page had violated our terms of conditions by posting content that praises the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They were posting content that had the flag and symbols of PKK. Posting this flag is a concrete violation of our rules even when it is done without being aware of it. For example, if someone posts a photo and there is someone in that photo carrying a PKK flag in the background, this is against our rules.”

Soon after the interview, The Other’s Post received an email from Facebook’s User Operations. The email was only signed with the first name Deniz, without a surname, and apologized for providing them with an incorrect explanation about why their page had been removed. “Yet,” the email read, “you have violated our standards many times so your page will not be republished.”

According to Yumusak, the problem lies in the fact that Facebook’s said rules and community standards are not up to date and inclusive enough for specific countries: “Because the standards are designed for a global audience, they do not reflect the realities of Turkey. While mainstream media outlets can publish a picture of Öcalan (the jailed leader of PKK), when we publish it we are accused of promoting terrorist activities and get censored,” he says.

Yumusak also argues that Facebook is not transparent enough: “For example, we received messages like ‘your page has been removed because we have received a sufficient amount of complaints.’ What is that amount? We asked several times and got no answer. This lack of transparency allows Facebook to easily cooperate with the authorities. Their page removals are more political than a simple technical act. At this point my thought is that Facebook will censor a page if they want to censor a page. They will create whatever reason necessary to do so. And they cooperate with the government doing so, because they don’t want to give up their market share or ads revenues.”

A façade of freedom

Like Madigudisi, Yumuşak believes in the power of social media in voicing and organizing dissident and that’s why the cut hurts deep. “Gezi showed us that social media provides an alternative platform for popular movements to speak for themselves and to break up the information barrier owned by the dominant classes. The psychological barrier also broke. People went from thinking ‘I am the only one who thinks this’ to ‘I am not alone’. It also helps organizing and mobilizing collective action: you get to learn where the police are, who needs help and where,” he said.

Intimidating the likes of Madigudisi and The Other’s Post is easy for Turkish officials to do thanks to the new internet censorship law providing them ample power in the name of protecting “the common good” and “privacy” while infringing on freedom of expression and online dissent against the government altogether.

The new internet bill, which is cited in the court ruling Madigudisi received, gives enormous power to Turkey’s telecommunications authority. Any URL can be blocked within four hours without a court decision, hence without your knowledge. Internet providers are now obliged to store all data on user activities for two years and to provide the data upon request. The intimidation policy also works outside the courthouse, when families become scared for their loved ones who voice dissent in social media. Madigudisi said he has closed his Facebook account because his family was concerned “something would happen to him or he would get jailed.”

But more importantly, this type of “cease and censor” regime helps the government keep a façade of freedom and avoids Turkey being boiled in the same pot as internet enemies like Iran and China while censoring political content all the same. Actually, it looks like the government prefers people to tweet their dissent so that they can spot the “suspects” more easily. Less international criticism, less local protest, easy targets, and all the censorship one’s heart desires. It looks like Turkey hit the jackpot of despotism.

“Facebook and Twitter are ending lives”

We might argue that this is not that big of a deal compared to last March, when Twitter and YouTube were blocked entirely. People are so tech-savvy they can bypass the censorship easily. Encryption software, VPNs, changing the DNS settings, changing your country settings in Twitter: all easy enough remedies that people are well versed in.

We might say that Twitter’s “country-withheld policy” has good intentions. At least one can see a censored tweet in another country, or by changing the country settings. Yet, the danger in that mentality is that Twitter is actually making it less evident that censorship has occurred, thus becoming an accomplice in censoring governments whether they want it or not.

Until Twitter and Facebook become censorship-free, users are forced to cope with the situation. Madigudisi uses VPN and changes passwords every week. Yumusak says they sneak around the censorship by writing the “forbidden” words in reverse or even just posting the news with the headline “Facebook censored this content.”

Yet the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression should not rest on the shoulders of ordinary people and should not be reduced to technical gimmicks. There is no guarantee that the Turkish government will not find a way to block these technologies or pass further bills restricting internet freedom.

Erdoğan made his first speech as president-elect to the provincial heads of his party. He said: “I don’t speak via social media. I don’t like to tweet, schmeet, because you know what they cause in society. Facebook and Twitter are ending lives.” Now even he is tweeting! Maybe it’s time Twitter and Facebook start being more courageous in terms of human rights and basic principles of free speech, instead of succumbing to the censorious antics of authoritarian governments. This is what we expect of them — if they want to keep their seats at the free speech party, that is. Otherwise they should stand up and leave.

Binnaz Saktanber is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York. Her research revolves around the interaction between social media, politics and social movements. Saktanber is also a blogger and writer who is published in numerous Turkish and international publications. She is based in İstanbul and New York.

How Facebook Killed the Internet

Death by Ten Billion Status Updates

White thumb up next to the like from social networks on blue bac


Facebook killed the internet, and I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of people didn’t even notice.

I can see the look on many of your faces, and hear the thoughts. Someone’s complaining about Facebook again.  Yes, I know it’s a massive corporation, but it’s the platform we’re all using.  It’s like complaining about Starbucks.  After all the independent cafes have been driven out of town and you’re an espresso addict, what to do?  What do you mean “killed”?  What was killed?

I’ll try to explain.  I’ll start by saying that I don’t know what the solution is.  But I think any solution has to start with solidly identifying the nature of the problem.

First of all, Facebook killed the internet, but if it wasn’t Facebook, it would have been something else.  The evolution of social media was probably as inevitable as the development of cell phones that could surf the internet.  It was the natural direction for the internet to go in.

Which is why it’s so especially disturbing.  Because the solution is not Znet or Ello.  The solution is not better social media, better algorithms, or social media run by a nonprofit rather than a multibillion-dollar corporation.  Just as the solution to the social alienation caused by everybody having their own private car is not more electric vehicles.  Just as the solution to the social alienation caused by everyone having their own cell phone to stare at is not a collectively-owned phone company.

Many people from the grassroots to the elites are thrilled about the social media phenomenon.  Surely some of the few people who will read this are among them.  We throw around phrases like “Facebook revolution” and we hail these new internet platforms that are bringing people together all over the world.  And I’m not suggesting they don’t have their various bright sides.  Nor am I suggesting you should stop using social media platforms, including Facebook.  That would be like telling someone in Texas they should bike to work, when the whole infrastructure of every city in the state is built for sports utility vehicles.

But we should understand the nature of what is happening to us.

From the time that newspapers became commonplace up until the early 1990’s, for the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population, the closest we came to writing in a public forum were the very few of us who ever bothered to write a letter to the editor.  A tiny, tiny fraction of the population were authors or journalists who had a public forum that way on an occasional or a regular basis, depending.  Some people wrote up the pre-internet equivalent of an annual Christmas-time blog post which they photocopied and sent around to a few dozen friends and relatives.

In the 1960s there was a massive flowering of independent, “underground” press in towns and cities across the US and other countries.  There was a vastly increased diversity of views and information that could be easily accessed by anyone who lived near a university and could walk to a news stand and had an extra few cents to spend.

In the 1990s, with the development of the internet – websites, email lists – there was an explosion of communication that made the underground press of the 60’s pale in comparison.  Most people in places like the US virtually stopped using phones (to actually talk on), from my experience.  Many people who never wrote letters or much of anything else started using computers and writing emails to each other, and even to multiple people at once.

Those very few of us who were in the habit in the pre-internet era of sending around regular newsletters featuring our writing, our thoughts, our list of upcoming gigs, products or services we were trying to sell, etc., were thrilled with the advent of email, and the ability to send our newsletters out so easily, without spending a fortune on postage stamps, without spending so much time stuffing envelopes.  For a brief period of time, we had access to the same audience, the same readers we had before, but now we could communicate with them virtually for free.

This, for many of us, was the internet’s golden age – 1995-2005 or so.  There was the increasing problem of spam of various sorts.  Like junk mail, only more of it.  Spam filters started getting better, and largely eliminated that problem for most of us.

The listservs that most of us bothered to read were moderated announcements lists.  The websites we used the most were interactive, but moderated, such as Indymedia.  In cities throughout the world, big and small, there were local Indymedia collectives.  Anyone could post stuff, but there were actual people deciding whether it should get published, and if so, where.  As with any collective decision-making process, this was challenging, but many of us felt it was a challenge that was worth the effort.  As a result of these moderated listservs and moderated Indymedia sites, we all had an unprecedented ability to find out about and discuss ideas and events that were taking place in our cities, our countries, our world.

Then came blogging, and social media.  Every individual with a blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, etc., became their own individual broadcaster.  It’s intoxicating, isn’t it?  Knowing that you have a global audience of dozens or hundreds, maybe thousands of people (if you’re famous to begin with, or something goes viral) every time you post something.  Being able to have conversations in the comments sections with people from around the world who will never physically meet each other.  Amazing, really.

But then most people stopped listening.  Most people stopped visiting Indymedia.  Indymedia died, globally, for the most part.  Newspapers – right, left and center – closed, and are closing, whether offline or online ones.  Listservs stopped existing.  Algorithms replaced moderators.  People generally began to think of librarians as an antiquated phenomenon.

Now, in Portland, Oregon, one of the most politically plugged-in cities in the US, there is no listserv or website you can go to that will tell you what is happening in the city in any kind of readable, understandable format.  There are different groups with different websites, Facebook pages, listservs, etc., but nothing for the progressive community as a whole.  Nothing functional, anyway.  Nothing that approaches the functionality of the announcements lists that existed in cities and states throughout the country 15 years ago.

Because of the technical limitations of the internet for a brief period of time, there was for a few years a happy medium found between a small elite providing most of the written content that most people in the world read, and the situation we now find ourselves in, drowning in Too Much Information, most of it meaningless drivel, white noise, fog that prevents you from seeing anywhere further than the low beams can illuminate at a given time.

It was a golden age, but for the most part an accidental one, and a very brief one.  As it became easy for people to start up a website, a blog, a Myspace or Facebook page, to post updates, etc., the new age of noise began, inevitably, the natural evolution of the technology.

And most people didn’t notice that it happened.

Why do I say that?  First of all, I didn’t just come up with this shit.  I’ve been talking to a lot of people for many years, and a lot of people think social media is the best thing since sliced bread.  And why shouldn’t they?

The bottom line is, there’s no reason most people would have had occasion to notice that the internet died, because they weren’t content providers (as we call authors, artists, musicians, journalists, organizers, public speakers, teachers, etc. these days) in the pre-internet age or during the first decade or so of the internet as a popular phenomenon.  And if you weren’t a content provider back then, why would you know that anything changed?

I and others like me know – because the people who used to read and respond to stuff I sent out on my email list aren’t there anymore.  They don’t open the emails anymore, and if they do, they don’t read them.  And it doesn’t matter what medium I use – blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Of course some people do, but most people are now doing other things.

What are they doing?  I spent most of last week in Tokyo, going all over town, spending hours each day on the trains.  Most people sitting in the trains back during my first visit to Japan in 2007 were sleeping, as they are now.  But those who weren’t sleeping, seven years ago, were almost all reading books.  Now, there’s hardly a book to be seen.  Most people are looking at their phones.  And they’re not reading books on their phones.  (Yes, I peeked.  A lot.)  They’re playing games or, more often, looking at their Facebook “news feeds.”  And it’s the same in the US and everywhere else that I have occasion to travel to.

Is it worth it to replace moderators with algorithms?  Editors with white noise?  Investigative journalists with pictures of your cat?  Independent record labels and community radio stations with a multitude of badly-recorded podcasts?  Independent Media Center collectives with a million Facebook updates and Twitter feeds?

I think not.  But that’s where we’re at.  How do we get out of this situation, and clear the fog, and use our brains again?  I wish I knew.

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.

William Gibson: I never imagined Facebook

The brilliant science-fiction novelist who imagined the Web tells Salon how writers missed social media’s rise

William Gibson: I never imagined Facebook
William Gibson (Credit: Putnam/Michael O’Shea)

Even if you’ve never heard of William Gibson, you’re probably familiar with his work. Arguably the most important sci-fi writer of his generation, Gibson’s cyber-noir imagination has shaped everything from the Matrix aesthetic to geek culture to the way we conceptualize virtual reality. In a 1982 short story, Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.” Two years later, his first and most famous novel, “Neuromancer,” helped launch the cyberpunk genre. By the 1990s, Gibson was writing about big data, imagining Silk Road-esque Internet enclaves, and putting his characters on reality TV shows — a full four years before the first episode of “Big Brother.”

Prescience is flashy, but Gibson is less an oracle than a kind of speculative sociologist. A very contemporary flavor of dislocation seems to be his specialty. Gibson’s heroes shuttle between wildly discordant worlds: virtual paradises and physical squalor; digital landscapes and crumbling cities; extravagant wealth and poverty.

In his latest novel, “The Peripheral,” which came out on Tuesday, Gibson takes this dislocation to new extremes. Set in mid-21st century Appalachia and far-in-the-future London, “The Peripheral” is partly a murder mystery, and partly a time-travel mind-bender. Gibson’s characters aren’t just dislocated in space, now. They’ve become unhinged from history.

Born in South Carolina, Gibson has lived in Vancouver since the 1960s. Over the phone, we spoke about surveillance, celebrity and the concept of the eternal now.

You’re famous for writing about hackers, outlaws and marginal communities. But one of the heroes of “The Peripheral” is a near-omniscient intelligence agent. She has surveillance powers that the NSA could only dream of. Should I be surprised to see you portray that kind of character so positively?

Well, I don’t know. She’s complicated, because she is this kind of terrifying secret police person in the service of a ruthless global kleptocracy. At the same time, she seems to be slightly insane and rather nice. It’s not that I don’t have my serious purposes with her, but at the same time she’s something of a comic turn.

Her official role is supposed to be completely terrifying, but at the same time her role is not a surprise. It’s not like, “Wow, I never even knew that that existed.”

Most of the characters in “The Peripheral” assume that they’re being monitored at all times. That assumption is usually correct. As a reader, I was disconcerted by how natural this state of constant surveillance felt to me.

I don’t know if it would have been possible 30 years ago to convey that sense to the reader effectively, without the reader already having some sort of cultural module in place that can respond to that. If we had somehow been able to read this text 30 years ago, I don’t know how we would even register that. It would be a big thing for a reader to get their head around without a lot of explaining. It’s a scary thing, the extent to which I don’t have to explain why [the characters] take that surveillance for granted. Everybody just gets it.

You’re considered a founder of the cyberpunk genre, which tends to feature digital cowboys — independent operators working on the frontiers of technology. Is the counterculture ethos of cyberpunk still relevant in an era when the best hackers seem to be working for the Chinese and U.S. governments, and our most famous digital outlaw, Edward Snowden, is under the protection of Vladimir Putin?

It’s seemed to me for quite a while now that the most viable use for the term “cyberpunk” is in describing artifacts of popular culture. You can say, “Did you see this movie? No? Well, it’s really cyberpunk.” Or, “Did you see the cyberpunk pants she was wearing last night?”

People know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t work so well describing human roles in the world today. We’re more complicated. I think one of the things I did in my early fiction, more or less for effect, was to depict worlds where there didn’t really seem to be much government. In “Neuromancer,” for example, there’s no government really on the case of these rogue AI experiments that are being done by billionaires in orbit. If I had been depicting a world in which there were governments and law enforcement, I would have depicted hackers on both sides of the fence.

In “Neuromancer,” I don’t think there’s any evidence of anybody who has any parents. It’s kind of a very adolescent book that way.

In “The Peripheral,” governments are involved on both sides of the book’s central conflict. Is that a sign that you’ve matured as a writer? Or are you reflecting changes in how governments operate?

I hope it’s both. This book probably has, for whatever reason, more of my own, I guess I could now call it adult, understanding of how things work. Which, I suspect, is as it should be. People in this book live under governments, for better or worse, and have parents, for better or worse.

In 1993, you wrote an influential article about Singapore for Wired magazine, in which you wondered whether the arrival of new information technology would make the country more free, or whether Singapore would prove that “it is possible to flourish through the active repression of free expression.” With two decades of perspective, do you feel like this question has been answered?

Well, I don’t know, actually. The question was, when I asked it, naive. I may have posed innocently a false dichotomy, because some days when you’re looking out at the Internet both things are possible simultaneously, in the same place.

So what do you think is a better way to phrase that question today? Or what would have been a better way to phrase it in 1993?

I think you would end with something like “or is this just the new normal?”

Is there anything about “the new normal” in particular that surprises you? What about the Internet today would you have been least likely to foresee?

It’s incredible, the ubiquity. I definitely didn’t foresee the extent to which we would all be connected almost all of the time without needing to be plugged in.

That makes me think of “Neuromancer,” in which the characters are always having to track down a physical jack, which they then use to plug themselves into this hyper-futuristic Internet.

Yes. It’s funny, when the book was first published, when it was just out — and it was not a big deal the first little while it was out, it was just another paperback original — I went to a science fiction convention. There were guys there who were, by the standards of 1984, far more computer-literate than I was. And they very cheerfully told me that I got it completely wrong, and I knew nothing. They kept saying over and over, “There’s never going to be enough bandwidth, you don’t understand. This could never happen.”

So, you know, here I am, this many years later with this little tiny flat thing in my hand that’s got more bandwidth than those guys thought was possible for a personal device to ever have, and the book is still resonant for at least some new readers, even though it’s increasingly hung with the inevitable obsolescence of having been first published in 1984. Now it’s not really in the pale, but in the broader outline.

You wrote “Neuromancer” on a 1927 Hermes typewriter. In an essay of yours from the mid-1990s, you specifically mention choosing not to use email. Does being a bit removed from digital culture help you critique it better? Or do you feel that you’re immersed in that culture, now?

I no longer have the luxury of being as removed from it as I was then. I was waiting for it to come to me. When I wrote [about staying off email], there was a learning curve involved in using email, a few years prior to the Web.

As soon as the Web arrived, I was there, because there was no learning curve. The interface had been civilized, and I’ve basically been there ever since. But I think I actually have a funny kind of advantage, in that I’m not generationally of [the Web]. Just being able to remember the world before it, some of the perspectives are quite interesting.

Drones and 3-D printing play major roles in “The Peripheral,” but social networks, for the most part, are obsolete in the book’s fictional future. How do you choose which technological trends to amplify in your writing, and which to ignore?

It’s mostly a matter of which ones I find most interesting at the time of writing. And the absence of social media in both those futures probably has more to do with my own lack of interest in that. It would mean a relatively enormous amount of work to incorporate social media into both those worlds, because it would all have to be invented and extrapolated.

Your three most recent novels, before “The Peripheral,” take place in some version of the present. You’re now returning to the future, which is where you started out as a writer in the 1980s. Futuristic sci-fi often feels more like cultural criticism of the present than an exercise in prediction. What is it about the future that helps us reflect on the contemporary world?

When I began to write science fiction, I already assumed that science fiction about the future is only ostensibly written about the future, that it’s really made of the present. Science fiction has wound up with a really good cultural toolkit — an unexpectedly good cultural toolkit — for taking apart the present and theorizing on how it works, in the guise of presenting an imagined future.

The three previous books were basically written to find out whether or not I could use the toolkit that I’d acquired writing fictions about imaginary futures on the present, but use it for more overtly naturalistic purposes. I have no idea at this point whether my next book will be set in an imaginary future or the contemporary present or the past.

Do you feel as if sci-fi has actually helped dictate the future? I was speaking with a friend earlier about this, and he phrased the question well: Did a book like “Neuromancer” predict the future, or did it establish a dress code for it? In other words, did it describe a future that people then tried to live out?

I think that the two halves of that are in some kind of symbiotic relationship with one another. Science fiction ostensibly tries to predict the future. And the people who wind up making the future sometimes did what they did because they read a piece of science fiction. “Dress code” is an interesting way to put it. It’s more like … it’s more like attitude, really. What will our attitude be toward the future when the future is the present? And that’s actually much more difficult to correctly predict than what sort of personal devices people will be carrying.

How do you think that attitude has changed since you started writing? Could you describe the attitude of our current moment?

The day the Apple Watch was launched, late in the day someone on Twitter announced that it was already over. They cited some subject, they linked to something, indicating that our moment of giddy future shock was now over. There’s just some sort of endless now, now.

Could you go into that a little bit more, what you mean by an “endless now”?

Fifty years ago, I think now was longer. I think that the cultural and individual concept of the present moment was a year, or two, or six months. It wasn’t measured in clicks. Concepts of the world and of the self couldn’t change as instantly or in some cases as constantly. And I think that has resulted in there being a now that’s so short that in a sense it’s as though it’s eternal. We’re just always in the moment.

And it takes something really horrible, like some terrible, gripping disaster, to lift us out of that, or some kind of extra-strong sense of outrage, which we know that we share with millions of other people. Unfortunately, those are the things that really perk us up. This is where we get perked up, perked up for longer than for over a new iPhone, say.

The worlds that you imagine are enchanting, but they also tend to be pretty grim. Is it possible to write good sci-fi that doesn’t have some sort of dystopian edge?

I don’t know. It wouldn’t occur to me to try. The world today, considered in its totality, has a considerable dystopian edge. Perhaps that’s always been true.

I often work in a form of literature that is inherently fantastic. But at the same time that I’m doing that, I’ve always shared concerns with more naturalistic forms of writing. I generally try to make my characters emotionally realistic. I do now, at least; I can’t say I always have done that. And I want the imaginary world they live in and the imaginary problems that they have to reflect the real world, and to some extent real problems that real people are having.

It’s difficult for me to imagine a character in a work of contemporary fiction who wouldn’t have any concerns with the more dystopian elements of contemporary reality. I can imagine one, but she’d be a weird … she’d be a strange character. Maybe some kind of monster. Totally narcissistic.

What makes this character monstrous? The narcissism?

Well, yeah, someone sufficiently self-involved. It doesn’t require anything like the more clinical forms of narcissism. But someone who’s sufficiently self-involved as to just not be bothered with the big bad things that are happening in the world, or the bad things — regular-size bad things — that are happening to one’s neighbors. There certainly are people like that out there. The Internet is full of them. I see them every day.

You were raised in the South, and you live in Vancouver, but, like Philip K. Dick, you’ve set some of your most famous work in San Francisco. What is the appeal of the city for technological dreamers? And how does the Silicon Valley of today fit into that Bay Area ethos?

I’m very curious to go back to San Francisco while on tour for this book, because it’s been a few years since I’ve been there, and it was quite a few years before that when I wrote about San Francisco in my second series of books.

I think one of the reasons I chose it was that it was a place that I would get to fairly frequently, so it would stay fresh in memory, but it also seemed kind of out of the loop. It was kind of an easy canvas for me, an easier canvas to set a future in than Los Angeles. It seemed to have fewer moving parts. And that’s obviously no longer the case, but I really know contemporary San Francisco now more by word of mouth than I do from first-person experience. I really think it sounds like a genuinely new iteration of San Francisco.

Do you think that Google and Facebook and this Silicon Valley culture are the heirs to the Internet that you so presciently imagined in the 1980s? Or do they feel like they’ve taken the Web in different directions than what you expected?

Generally it went it directions that didn’t occur to me. It seems to me now that if I had been a very different kind of novelist, I would have been more likely to foresee something like Facebook. But you know, if you try to imagine that somebody in 1982 writes this novel that totally and accurately predicted what it would be like to be on Facebook, and then tried to get it published? I don’t know if you would be able to get it published. Because how exciting is that, or what kind of crime story could you set there?

Without even knowing it, I was limited by the kind of fiction of the imaginary future that I was trying to write. I could use detective gangster stories, and there is a real world of the Internet that’s like that, you know? Very much like that. Although the crimes are so different. The ace Russian hacker mobs are not necessarily crashing into the global corporations. They’re stealing your Home Depot information. If I’d put that as an exploit in “Neuromancer,” nobody would have gotten it. Although it would have made me seem very, very prescient.

You’ve written often and eloquently about cults of celebrity and the surrealness of fame. By this point you’re pretty famous yourself. Has writing about fame changed the way you experience it? Does experiencing fame change the way you write about it?

Writers in our society, even today, have a fairly homeopathic level of celebrity compared to actors and really popular musicians, or Kardashians. I think in [my 1993 novel] “Virtual Light,” I sort of predicted Kardashian. Or there’s an implied celebrity industry in that book that’s very much like that. You become famous just for being famous. And you can keep it rolling.

But writers, not so much. Writers get just a little bit of it on a day-to-day basis. Writers are in an interesting place in our society to observe how that works, because we can be sort of famous, but not really famous. Partly I’d written about fame because I’d seen little bits of it, but the bigger reason is the extent to which it seems that celebrity is the essential postmodern product, and the essential post-industrial product. The so-called developed world pioneered it. So it’s sort of inherently in my ballpark. It would be weird if it wasn’t there.

You have this reputation of being something of a Cassandra. I don’t want to put you on the spot and ask for predictions. But I’m curious: For people who are trying to understand technological trends, and social trends, where do you recommend they look? What should they be observing?

I think the best advice I’ve ever heard on that was from Samuel R. Delany, the great American writer. He said, “If you want to know how something works, look at one that’s broken.” I encountered that remark of his before I began writing, and it’s one of my fridge magnets for writing.

Anything I make, and anything I’m describing in terms of its workings — even if I were a non-literary futuristic writer of some kind — I think that statement would be very resonant for me. Looking at the broken ones will tell you more about what the thing actually does than looking at one that’s perfectly functioning, because then you’re only seeing the surface, and you’re only seeing what its makers want you to see. If you want to understand social media, look at troubled social media. Or maybe failed social media, things like that.

Do you think that’s partly why so much science fiction is crime fiction, too?

Yeah, it might be. Crime fiction gives the author the excuse to have a protagonist who gets her nose into everything and goes where she’s not supposed to go and asks questions that will generate answers that the author wants the reader to see. It’s a handy combination. Detective fiction is in large part related to literary naturalism, and literary naturalism was a quite a radical concept that posed that you could use the novel to explore existing elements of society which had previously been forbidden, like the distribution of capital and class, and what sex really was. Those were all naturalistic concerns. They also yielded to detective fiction. Detective fiction and science fiction are an ideal cocktail, in my opinion.


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