From The Archive

Apocalypse Soon

 Yes, your gadgets are ineluctably engineering your doom 

s
a
l
v
o
s

In the developed West, the projection of firepower and technological prowess has become so forcefully identified with the idea of progress itself that it makes a straightforward sort of sense to imagineer the intellectual progenitors of the modern liberal state as a diorama full of Avengers-style superheroes. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, might productively swap out his damaged historical brand as a slaveholder and sexual predator for Captain America’s efficiently waste-laying shield and reassuringly noncarnal eternal virility. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that well-known admirer of the mystic arts of self-liberation and law-giving, could make a kick-ass Iron Man, barking out new formulations of the social contract as he rocketed out of his secluded Geneva compound in his customized flying suit to save the world. The stern-yet-cunning Queen Victoria, who presided over much of England’s industrializing Golden Age, seems tailor-made to pull duty as Black Widow. And who better to embody the spirit of the Incredible Hulk than that redoubtably blood-soaked theorist of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes?

Lately, however, there’s been a distressing grinding of the gears to upset the close choreographing of technological advancement with civilizational triumph. Prophets of Western might, from Herbert Spencer to Jared Diamond, once descried our foreordained superiority in the invigorating (and all but interlocking) hum and clangor of our workshops and battlefields. But now, a gathering sense of doom attends the refinement of military applications into the futuristic contrivances of the Information Age. No longer do we envision the raw materials of scientific progress spontaneously shaking themselves out in concert with a confident conception of Westernized new world order. Instead, a sodden mood of end-times gloom abounds in the sanctums of conflict-prognostication.

Consider two recently published studies in the genre, which present the future as a looping montage of doom: The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones—Confronting a New Age of Threat by Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum (Basic Books, $29.99) and Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It by Marc Goodman (Doubleday, $27.95). Of course, the kinds of upper-middle-class neurotics who buy books about the future do love to have the living daylights scared out of them. And both of these titles will lavishly reward those in the market for good, old-fashioned (futuristic!) thrills and chills. To hear Wittes, Blum, and Goodman tell it, countless horrors await us, most of them caused by exotic and mysterious enemies lurking around every corner of the globe, using advanced technologies to reach hapless victims thousands of miles away.

In both of these tech-dystopian works, the future is an anxious bird, flying in circles over a hot, flat, crowded landscape, biding its time until an ISIS-operated drone sprays weaponized bird flu in its face. What else can it do? The clock is ticking down and nothing is sustainable. The seas are boiling, filthy with plastic bags and drowning polar bears; the smoggy air will soon be swarming with (more) U.S. military drones, rogue-state nuclear drones, homemade bioweaponry, and Amazon’s fleet of robotic delivery devices.

Even now, as we guiltily crouch in our resource-gobbling suburban fortresses, reassuring ourselves that no carbon-based life form is perfect, criminals are creating vast, organized, untraceable economies on the so-called Dark Web while Big Data rips our lives apart right before our eyes without any repercussions. All of our personal data—Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, nude photos, names of children, pets, and second cousins—is bundled by Google and Facebook and Amazon and then sold to data brokers; they then peddle it to Vietnamese identity-theft crime rings, pedophiles, terrorists who make AK-47s on 3-D printers, and freelance assassins with termite-sized drone armies.

Knowledge is not power—or at least not power designed to be exercised by the pipsqueak likes of you or me—and information doesn’t want to be free, as it turns out. That may have been its stated goal back in 1999, but these days, information wants to embarrass you, get you fired, cut you off from the power grid, bankrupt you, drive your children to suicide, kill you, and then take over the world—which is about to be too hot, flat, and crowded to inhabit anyway.

Terror Cells

In Wittes and Blum’s hands, the future is a James Bond movie in which roles are dramatically reversed: terrorists and rogue states flaunt their sophisticated technologies while Agent 007 hides under his bed at home, weeping into his hands. “Imagine for a moment that we changed one fact about the 2001 anthrax attacks,” the authors of The Future of Violence begin, describing a criminal who, “using a real website called DIY Drones,” builds “a robotic distribution system to spread the [anthrax] spores over densely packed groups of people.” In another chapter, the authors egg us on into a more baroque sort of world-endangering fantasy. Let’s say that a “disgruntled molecular biology graduate student” gets all bent out of shape and “undertakes a secret project to recreate the smallpox virus.” The student infects himself and then “goes to an airport and has close contact with as many people as he can in a short time” (presumably by seducing strangers in line at the Cinnabon).

Not chilling enough? Another chapter plunges directly into a Psycho-tinged thought experiment—if, that is, Psycho had been directed by Roman Polanski in an exceptionally bad mood. So there you are, placidly scrubbing down in the shower, only to discover a spider happily encamped in the stall. But this isn’t just any spider, mind you; it’s a “personal surveillance spider, purchased from ‘Drones “R” Us’ for $49.95 and set loose by your next-door neighbor, who dislikes your noisy dog and is monitoring the spider on her iPhone from a sports bar downtown.”

The kinds of upper-middle-class neurotics who buy books about the future love to have the living daylights scared out of them.

Oh, phew—just some harmless high jinx between frenemies, then? Au contraire! “The pictures of you undressed, taken by the spider, are now being relayed on several screens during a break in an NFL game at a local bar for the neighborhood’s amusement.” (Apparently criminals will also run the local sports bars of the future.)

On the other hand, things could always be worse: this spider could take a small sample of your blood and compare it with your DNA profile on file. Once the match is confirmed, it will inject you with “a lethal dose of a synthetically produced poison,” after which your assassin “who is on a summer vacation in Provence,” will direct the spider to self-destruct. This last example is faintly soothing in its meticulousness. Who is this murky but detail-oriented Francophile assassin who goes to the trouble of checking your DNA to avoid murdering the wrong person?

But lest we grow complacent about the fussiness of tomorrow’s terror-brokers, Wittes and Blum insist that the coming boom in high-tech mayhem will owe a lot more to Hobbes than to Tim Gunn. For one thing, they note, the ability to trace and mete out justice to dispersed, anonymous threats is grievously limited. You might think that the U.S. military’s habit of intervening unilaterally in international theaters of conflict without regard for international law had lulled us into the superstitious faith that our advanced technologies will protect us from foreign threats in the same ways they always have. But The Future of Violence sternly tells us otherwise: thanks to cheap networks of distribution, these technologies become evenly dispersed across the population, placing all of us more at risk than ever before of succumbing to cunning attacks from virtually anyone.

Moreover, nothing puts a target on your back quite like going out into the world to deploy, with maximal impunity, technology that won’t be yours alone for much longer. As the authors point out, “Unilateralism risks exacerbating international friction and might easily spiral into broader conflict, however ‘surgical’ or contained it is,” and “the urge to respond to immediate, known threats must be countered by consideration of the broader and long-term uses and abuses of similar response by others.” On the other hand, “As the threat level rises, even the most reticent members of the developed world will no longer be able to afford striking isolationist poses. No Leviathan, however powerful, can police the entire globe on its own” in this new world order. “It must instead rely on other Leviathans to do their share.” And as our technological dependencies grow, so do our vulnerabilities. “To put it bluntly,” the authors write, “we are all in the same boat now, one in which we are vulnerable to surveillance, theft, harassment, and even physical attack from a variety of actors capable of pursuing us with diminished accountability for their actions.”

A Farewell to Lulz

Such menacing entities are no longer just screwing around with their precocious powers of online mischief, like Matthew Broderick in WarGames. As former cop and security expert Marc Goodman explains in Future Crimes, “In the early days of the personal computer, hackers were mostly motivated by the ‘lulz,’ or laughs.” But “now it’s not just about the ‘lulz’ but for want of money, information, and power that hackers ply their trade.” (Goodman’s love of the word “lulz” is still good for a few lulz, however.)

If we’re to believe Goodman, these online malefactors are more ill intentioned than ever. And to be fair, he’s much more effective than the authors of The Future of Violence in rendering material that initially sounds like an exercise in controlled hysteria into a truly unnerving cavalcade of statistics and stories about an increasingly dangerous and insecure world. As viruses and malware grow and spread, the antivirus software industry is clearly outmatched. In one study of popular antivirus programs, 95 percent of malware went undetected. According to another study, hackers can penetrate networks 75 percent of the time, and in only 15 percent of those cases does the intrusion require more than a few hours of concerted hacking effort. Infrastructure, air traffic control, and the electrical grid are increasingly dependent on computer technologies and are thus increasingly open to criminal attack; intelligence officials claim that spies from China and Russia have mapped the American electrical grid so it can be taken out during a war. Meanwhile, the identity-theft economy is booming, featuring sites where “criminals from around the world” can “freely gather to buy and sell stolen and hacked identities, documents, and account numbers.”

If today’s Internet is the size of a golf ball, tomorrow’s will be the size of the sun.

According to Goodman, the Dark Net or Dark Web includes Yelp- and Google-like sites where criminals can purchase armor-piercing ammunition, explosives, stolen luxury goods, fake documents, stolen credit cards, computer viruses, and child pornography. They can hire hit men and engage in human trafficking. They can search for “high quality crystal meth,” or “Afghani Brown Heroin,” and dealers who’ve paid a fee for the privilege will show up higher on the search list, just like their more legit counterparts do on Google. Criminal customers can review criminal suppliers. This shadow economy is aided by untraceable currencies like Bitcoin. Some estimates have found that virtual currency transactions tallied up to as much as $10 billion in 2013.

This is all to say nothing of malevolent terrorists, “nation-states, cyber warriors and foreign intelligence services” out to get us, from the Chinese hackers who infiltrated Sony to whoever landed a quadrocopter drone bearing traces of radioactive material on the Japanese prime minister’s roof. As our connectivity grows exponentially, the threats to our security and privacy ratchet up in tandem. If today’s Internet is the size of a golf ball, Goodman asserts, tomorrow’s will be the size of the sun—enormous and white-hot from the glow of a million-and-one doomsday scenarios.

Goodman describes a Jetsons-meets-1984 future in which all of the objects in your house will communicate with each other—and tattle on you. “Your smart watch will reveal your lack of exercise to your health insurance company, your car will tell your auto insurer of your frequent speeding, and your garbage can will tell your local municipality that you are not following local recycling regulations.” We don’t need a special microchip to tell us that Goodman’s powers of imagination are operating at their maximum capacity in these passages: “At the scene of a suspected crime, cops will be able to interrogate the refrigerator and ask the equivalent of ‘Hey, buddy, did you see anything?’” But in case that sounds simply too far-fetched, consider that Samsung’s Smart TVs have already “allowed hackers to remotely turn on the built-in camera meant for Skype calls and surreptitiously snap photographs and watch viewers in their living rooms and bedrooms.”

Why single out Google or Facebook when data mining is one giant, thriving, multibillion-dollar exercise in the shared, worldwide suspension of disbelief?

Goodman’s book is packed with such colorful scenarios and startling real-world examples. Apart from the occasional eye roll over a snitch-friendly refrigerator or waffle iron, this is what we look for in a book with the words “Future” and “Crimes” in its title. In contrast, Wittes and Blum’s tome soon abandons juicy apocalyptic scenarios in favor of repetitive, policy-focused chapters that are constructed largely by rearranging the same fifteen words in as many different combinations as possible. Future threats will be distributed and diverse, involving various actors across multiple platforms, and each situation will unfold differently depending on different factors across different platforms. If this is a book custom-designed for hysterics and neurotics, why is it lulling us into a deep sleep?

Some of the most shocking passages in Future Crimes don’t concern the future’s menacing rogue states or criminal hackers at all, maybe because the more out-there applications of artificial intelligence and the networking breakthroughs poised to land us in the “Internet of Things” are still pretty tough to fathom. Instead, they focus on today’s corporate criminals, entities that are somehow empowered to use technology against the masses with very little threat of reprisal. Most of the facts in play have been common knowledge for years, so it’s a testament to Goodman’s storytelling prowess that he evokes a shiver of dread just by pulling them all into one dense, tangled pile. First, he reminds readers that in

early 2012 Google announced it was merging its data across all of its seventy products and services. The result: a unified, profound, and unprecedented view of you and your world. Previously, your searches in Google, what you did on your Android phone, and the videos you watched on YouTube were data that in theory Google held separately. Not anymore; now Google has a single unified, highly detailed picture of you and everything you do across its Googleverse.

All of this data is bundled and sold to data brokers, many of whom have proven themselves inept at protecting it from malevolent forces.

But perhaps Google itself should be considered a malevolent force. In 2013 the company admitted that its Street View cars outfitted with 360-degree cameras weren’t just taking photos; they were loaded with software and equipment designed to steal data from personal computers via unsecured Wi-Fi networks, including “passwords, emails, photographs, chat messages, and other personal information.” Moreover, when you upload anything to Google Docs, according to its absurd Terms of Service,

you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify and create derivative works, such as those resulting from translations, adaptations, or other changes and license to communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.

These sorts of statements make all of the “paranoia” and “idealism” of the Electronic Frontier Foundation circa 1995 look prescient indeed.

And then there’s this little zinger, which for some reason didn’t kick up much outrage when it was revealed two years ago:

In 2013, the data broker Experian mistakenly sold the personal data of nearly two-thirds of all Americans to an organized crime group in Vietnam. The epic fraud meant that the Social Security numbers of 200 million Americans were now available to the thieves around the world.

Why would a “reputable” firm sell data without doing due diligence? Because, as Goodman points out, “data brokers make money when they sell data, not when they protect it.”

Or take Facebook, which was sued in federal court for regularly and “systematically intercepting users’ private messages . . . and sharing the data with advertisers and marketers.” Once you download Facebook to an Android phone, the phone’s number is automatically shared, and the terms of service grant Facebook permission to “take pictures and videos with the camera.” In other words, “Facebook [can] turn on your mobile phone’s camera at any time without your confirmation.” And when it updates its terms of service, Facebook often resets your privacy settings back to the least private option available.

But why single out Google or Facebook when data mining is one giant, thriving, multibillion-dollar exercise in the shared, worldwide suspension of disbelief? Beyond the disturbing lack of useful regulation over such bizarre, invasive profiteering, there’s something inherently apocalyptic about the whole enterprise—a fact that’s not lost on the developers themselves. When I referred to my friend Joey Anuff’s data-vacuuming music app as “data sodomizing,” he replied, “I think of it less in sodomy terms and more like Human Centipede III: Final Sequence.”

So is it time to delete those apps, or at least get rid of those Facebook profiles once and for all? No, says Goodman:

If you don’t own and control your own online persona, it’s extremely easy for a criminal to aggregate the known public information about you and create a social media profile for you and use it for a wide variety of criminal activity, ranging from identity theft to espionage.

Goodman then goes on to describe how in 2010 “an organized crime group commandeered the identity of secretary-general of Interpol, Ron Noble, and created a Facebook Web page for him,” and then began successfully friending senior law enforcement officials around the world. (“Vladimir, my good friend! I am so exciting to make your acquaintances!”)

So what can we do about the future? Goodman emphasizes the importance of encryption; the outdated nature of password protection; the rampant, reckless use of sloppy, bug-ridden code; and the need for more education and regulation when it comes to online security. He suggests that a kind of “cyber CDC” could educate the public, monitor networks, and sniff out threats, and points out that, with so many threats, crowdsourcing investigations may be not just helpful but necessary.

Wittes and Blum are a little less concrete in their suggestions and focus more on the abstract big picture: we’ll have to stretch our notions of security, privacy, and liberty as those principles are tested by a dramatically altered, unnervingly vulnerable landscape for all citizens. Wittes and Blum sometimes seem to be suggesting that the United States will have to invade our privacy and take unilateral action to control threats moving forward; other times, they seem to hint that our country’s recklessness has opened us up to new worlds of threat even as we beat back the old ones. Thanks to their tendency to retreat into vagaries, the future is mostly hazy through Wittes and Blum’s windshield. Goodman, though, puts it more plainly: “This gathering storm of technological insecurity can no longer be ignored,” he writes. “We’ve reached an inflection point, a punctuated moment in time that demands our immediate and greatest possible intention.”

Can we rise to the challenge and ward off technological changes that threaten to drag us and the whole world into chaos? Sadly, it’s hard not to suspect that people’s lives and the very air we breathe may be threatened, but real change won’t come until world markets and giant fortunes are imperiled along with them—and the Tesseract unleashes a torrent of otherworldly demons to start whaling away on the embattled Avengers of the old Enlightenment vintage. It’s only a matter of time—and at that point, Nick Fury will likely be scraping by on his meager government pension.

Heather Havrilesky is a columnist for New York magazine and Bookforum. Her new book is How to Be a Person in the World.

You Might Also Enjoy

The Dog Delusion

G’Ra Asim

I just wonder if there’s something dangerous about championing a dependent, hierarchical relationship as an ideal realization of love or friendship.

word factory

Baffler Newsletter

new email subscribers receive a digital copy of our current issue.

Further Reading

 September 21

On September 4, Princess Catherine announced her third child. It took eight days. By September 12, a titanic fatberg had been found under London.