E-Pocalypse Now

By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief

Last Friday, October 21st, a major cyber-attack was carried out in the U.S. and Europe, affecting over a thousand websites and services including Amazon, Netflix, Airbnb, and Twitter for a large portion of the day. Early news reports were highly speculative, assuming that such a massive effort could only have been carried out by a state actor or a group with a global presence, such as the hacker collective Anonymous.

The insignia of Anonymous. PC: Wikipedia
The insignia of Anonymous. PC: Wikipedia

Anonymous, unsurprisingly, did step forward to claim responsibility, stating that the attack was carried out in retaliation for the severing of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s internet connection by the government of Ecuador, in whose London embassy Assange has lived since 2012. This claim, however, has been met with skepticism, and evidence now points to the culpability of certain members of the online gaming community.

Things were made even more complex and sinister when it was reported that the attack was made possible by the taking over of countless seemingly mundane devices connected to the “Internet of Things,” such as webcams, digital cable boxes, even baby monitors and thermostats. It appears that we must now add smart fridges to the list of items we must fear in the modern world.

Perhaps the most unusual facet of this event is that it fits in squarely with the zeitgeist of 2016. We now live in a world where one major party’s unprecedentedly radical presidential candidate rallies his millions of supporters using Twitter and Instagram, the viability of the other party’s is undermined by the release of hacked emails stored on a private server against federal regulations, and the blame for the whole fiasco is placed at Russia’s feet. Today’s is also a world where the killings of unarmed citizens by police officers are routinely live-streamed, and where a hyperviolent terrorist group can recruit members, inspire followers, and spread fear and paranoia around the world by making videos of their brutality available to billions with the click of a mouse. In comparison, the takedown of some of the world’s most heavily visited websites by a handful of disaffected video-gamers is a slow news day.

Two absolutely captivating pieces of recently-released media seek to define the parameters of our brave new world, and to suss out its existential implications for the human race. The first is the new documentary by Werner Herzog, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. The other is the new season of the brilliant British science fiction anthology Black Mirror, released via Netflix. The picture painted by both is, more frequently than not, frighteningly dystopian.

PC: theplaylist.com
PC: theplaylist.com

When the internet was announced as the subject of Herzog’s new film, many were surprised. For the duration of his career, Herzog has been fascinated by humans; specifically the incomprehensible engines driving the actions of concrete-willed individuals who thrash against society in an attempt to make it yield to their desires. Herzog is a man who once dragged a 30-ton steamship over a Peruvian mountain using only ropes, pulleys, and manpower; who ate an entire boot as a matter of principle; and who was shot from a passing car while giving an interview and commanded the panicked reporter to continue because it was merely “an insignificant bullet.” Herzog values those who seek out obstacles for the sake of conquering them; the iPhone should be a trifle to him, a bauble of the superficial modern world distracting us from the Big Questions.

But in watching Lo and Behold, it becomes clear that its focus is not on the toys themselves, but how humans can use them to transcend the proscribed boundaries of their existence. His madmen are still here, but their dream of a transformed society is one that is post-human, one where freedom and expression can go beyond what is possible. The techno-optimists are present; those who believe that exponential innovation will solve all of the world’s problems and usher in a global society of peace and comfort. There’s Elon Musk and his dream of colonizing Mars, and brain researchers ecstatic about the possibilities that neural implants may provide.

But, because this is Herzog, the doomsayers are here as well. Lawrence Krauss, Professor of Cosmology and Theoretical Physics at ASU, expounds on his belief that within the next five years, acts of cyber-terrorism will paralyze the operations of modern society and plunge the world into a new Dark Age. And Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz describes how we could meet the same end not through willful destruction, but through the havoc that can be wreaked on our electrical and communications infrastructures by an extraordinarily large solar flare.

The film also covers some familiar ground, such as the enormous amount of privacy we have sacrificed in order to join a global village huddled around the glow of screens. This is paired with the isolation that membership entails; we are, after all, huddled around our own screens. Also explored is the depravity and cruelty invoked by anonymity; he speaks to a family whose daughter was killed in a horrendous car accident and a picture of her body snapped by an EMT made its way online. The family members then began receiving emails with mocking messages and the photo attached. Why were these messages sent? Because the people who sent them could get away with it. Her mother describes the internet as the “manifestation of evil.”

The five-star caste system in Black Mirror. PC: The Independent
The five-star caste system in Black Mirror. PC: The Independent

This is the side of technology that Black Mirror highlights: the violence, exploitation, and detachment that innovations said to be right around the corner will make possible, and are likely to emerge as a function of human nature. The show’s creative driver, Charlie Brooker, describes it as being set in a future that we might be experiencing “in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”  This grounding in the world of now makes the show especially effective. We see the technology that many are waiting for with baited breath after the glow has worn off. It is as taken for granted as our iPhones are now. And most of the time, it makes the lives of its users more complicated and stressful.

The first episode, for example, portrays a world where everybody rates one another on a five-star scale after every interaction. Nobody has the ability to opt out, and a caste system emerges around the ratings. Those at 4.5 and above live like royalty, those who fall below a 2.5 lose their jobs, and those who go under 1 are considered unfit for society and imprisoned. It’s this creativity, the stretching of our already ingrained habits to their furthest extremities, that makes the show so smart.  Incredibly, the new season was released last Friday, October 21st, when a cyber-attack took down the very platform on which it was launched.

PC: Time
PC: Time

It’s always amusing to read things written about the internet 15 years ago, before it became integrated into every aspect of our lives and transformed the world fundamentally. It’s almost comical to think back to the Y2K panic, a millenarian madness that gripped the world and ended up doing no damage beyond charging a handful of video store customers 100 years’ worth of late fees. And maybe that’s what going back and watching things like Black Mirror and Lo and Behold will be like five years from now. What we can say with certainty is that with every technological innovation comes increased complexity. And when the complexity of a system is increased, the unexpected becomes more likely to occur. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet figured out a way to guard against what we don’t know is coming. Maybe that capacity, though, is on the horizon.

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