Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us — and shows why Tim Berners-Lee’s plan for resurrecting his open web needs all our support

lone burnt tree

+++ the burnt and the saved copy

What if, instead of the too-familiar, twee rituals tied to Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Eve, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Halloween, among other traditions for marking the onset of wintry blackness, we each had to construct our own tributes to ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ — from the intersection of things seen in real life and well-grounded fears haunting our sleep? Pictures above and below: charred landscape, after a wildfire in August

Reader, the slogan of our day — Big Brother is Watching You — is already out of date. On Friday the 19th of October, we heard him speak — to chilling effect. Not every website can make such a claim and what is that, if not a world-beating scoop?

How did BB sound? Not at all as you’d expect. Likeable enough for us to be tempted to fill in an application form immediately, if he were put up for adoption. His voice was as  fresh as a newly-opened petal, and endearing — possibly because he was only a proxy for the real BB, acting as his special agent; or because he has drunk from the fountain of eternal youth.

The shock of listening to his voicemail message had been preceded by emails from A Certain Newspaper — its digital version, which we will call here — that we are reluctant to name before its managers have had a chance to reconsider what they are doing and dial back their officiousness. The opening lines of its message on the first day of this month read, in part:


Thank you for being a regular user of [ ].

Our records suggest that your [ ] account is being used to copy a substantial amount of text from [ ]. You can make copies of [ ] content for your own personal use, but please don’t copy and paste articles for the benefit of other people. If you are copying for your sole benefit, then we apologise for emailing you. … [ continued for several sentences with variations on this theme.

We paid close attention to BB’s choice of language — that tricky use of the word ‘copy’ in a way that reminded us of Steven Poole’s splendid evisceration of weaselly language with a hidden agenda in Unspeak: Words are Weapons. Anyone knows that downloading is the accepted word for saving articles to an electronic device to read later — just as you might programme your videorecorder to capture installments of TV dramas for binge-watching when you can. That is all we are doing in our daily cut-and-paste exercises on ACN’s site, but calling it ‘copying’ was intended to make us feel guilty, as if it were tantamount to proof of being on the low road to despicable copyright infringement.

The message was unsigned and, unlike the Microsoft Word popup that says, ‘You have placed a large amount of text on the clipboard,’ was not accompanied by any equivalent of a friendly query about how we would like that clip to be treated. We ignored it with an incredulous ‘Phew!’ and forgot all about it. Precisely a week later, what should come sailing into our inbox but ‘Reminder: Referencing and sharing [ ] articles’. Again, with an inaudible derisive laugh, we tossed it into our mental circular file reserved for mail from lunatics and turned to our next task — so, were all but struck dumb by the follow-up voicemail, ten days later, demanding that we telephone‘s head office immediately ‘about a problem with your account’.

When we reached BB, he did not accept that without a smidgen of evidence of our making a mint or, indeed, the tiniest unit of currency from replicating and redistributing his newspaper’s articles — because we were doing nothing of the kind — his question and ACN’s emails were downright intrusive. How could even ‘copying’ be automatically equivalent to copyright violation? we asked, and we said that our reasons for shifting text from his paper’s site onto our machines were none of his business. We were too angry to draw the parallel to videorecording made here, in the paragraph before last. He had begun to annoy us by repeating, as if he were stone deaf — even after we began to roar at him in thousands** of decibels — ’Yes, but I need to ask you about this because, at this point, you have copied close to half a million characters.’

So what! we said — ‘You don’t need to ask your readers that question and wouldn’t have any right to object if we were downloading ten times that number. Please stop saying need!’ When there were only print newspapers, we pointed out, no emissary from one ever leapt around a corner shouting, Stop, fiend! — as we were using that day’s edition to soak up kitchen grease we did not want clogging our drains/ make paper planes/ stuff under draughty doors/ soak for papier-mâché/ line the floor to house-train a puppy/ crumple for fire-starter, … or even clip bits of, to copy at a photocopying machine and slip into letters to our one hundred dearest friends and colleagues.

‘You see,’ BB continued imperturbably, in his dulcet tones, ‘we have special software tools, and we have evidence of your doing this.’

Ah, yes. Those tools. Consider the terms of trade in this age of Big Data gathering. It isn’t just the Big Tech bunch — Facebook, Google, Twitter, and co. — that can and do collect and minutely analyse information about everything we do, not just on their sites, but with tracking cookies set to shadow us everywhere on the net. Not just to serve us better, as they claim, but to manipulate us. Almost every sort of business is at it. Newspapers — including ACN — that routinely warn their readers about this loss of privacy, and about sites milking us like data cows, paying nothing for the privilege, deserve to have their feet held to the fire for hypocrisy.

Post-Gutenberg made this point nearly five years ago, at the height of the Snowden surveillance brouhaha — in an entry linked to freely available information mysteriously overlooked by big names in print media:  ‘When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?’  One source we cited there, The Daily Banter, noted: ‘[T]hese publications, while taking on the pious, sanctimonious role of privacy purists, are using multiple third party resources to collect detailed information about nearly every visitor who reads one of the various posts about how the use of digital technology should be a completely private affair. … [ … continues …].’

What disturbs us about the telephone conversation forced on us by BB is far more than the particular argument we had with him. It’s that it is a foretaste of what lies ahead in the ever-expanding control of internet users; of the coercive possibilities that can follow from the wholesale misconstruing and misrepresentation of our most innocent habits and pastimes. BB has graduated from unremitting surveillance to:

  • demanding that we make personal contact with our monitors
  • insisting that we submit to interrogation by these monitors, and account for our actions
  • cross-questioning us about our answers, and about why we say that the obtuse interpretations by monitors — inadvertently or tactically — of what we are doing are mistaken

In 2014 we quoted an artist friend, Marzia Faggin, about her dystopic joke that does not seem all that funny now, about doing her grocery shopping defensively, to avert being ‘dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.’ 

This year, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has been quoted everywhere about doing what he can to resurrect the dream-come-true of the early decades of the internet, in whose creation he collaborated with other pioneers — the dream of the net as a liberator of people, an open space free of centralised control and gatekeepers. Recent headlines have read: ‘Tim Berners-Lee is devastated about misuse of the web;’  ‘“The web ha[s] failed instead of served humanity;”’Why the Web’s inventor wants to take back his invention;’  — most of these stories spinoffs from, or commentaries on, an interview with him by a Vanity Fair writer titled ‘I was devastated.’ 

A report from the San Francisco correspondent of Les Echos drew a fully-earned parallel to Docteur Frankenstein ‘surpris par sa création’ —  an inventor appalled by the creature’s transformation from an open highway that anyone was free to travel, into a collection of monopolistic platforms whose owner-operators twitch on the puppet strings of internet users with nowhere else to go, to meet the addictions and needs they satisfy on them.

In her very good detailed explanation and summary of TB-L’s plans and technical innovations intended to re-decentralise the net, Zoe Corbyn quotes net veterans under no illusions about how difficult this is likely to be. With careful understatement, Brewster Kahle, the founder of the not-for-profit Internet Archive, for one — told her that he expects that because ‘[t]here are going to be a lot of forces for the status quo,’ the success of any such initiative is far from ‘inevitable’.

In the meanwhile, we can each do our bit by reporting on what we learn from watching BB watch us, amassing all the data we can about his newest incursions into our freedom and intimate spaces, and demanding that he be a model of transparency about what he is up to.

Let’s do whatever it takes to help TB-L become his worst All Hallow’s Eve nightmare — Bigger Brother.

moonrise over scorched earth

** No, not their actual unit of measurement.

2 thoughts on “Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us — and shows why Tim Berners-Lee’s plan for resurrecting his open web needs all our support

  1. “We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

    (Hi, PG!)
    Strange quote above, though, from Berners-Lee…as if he was unaware earlier that science fiction, and much general fiction, had warned and predicted it all for over 100 years.
    Scarier, will be the time when you are ordered to talk to an AI voice for perceived trespasses…and not a human BB at all…
    I still think Huxley was right, in telling Orwell that BB would only be a phase…followed by a situation where everyone would adore their own slavery (or think they do) and comply with it…though of course that is already probably the case…or I wouldn’t be passing people looking at their phones as they walk by…or observing people meeting in cafes, only to sit opposite each other in silence, contemplating their personal phones…
    No, this is more like a fusion of BB/Brave New World, and Ionescu’s RHINOCEROS…
    Berners-Lee perhaps wasn’t reading a lot of prophetic “fiction” back then, while he helped build THE MACHINE that now spooks him…(of course, very soon the AI units will be writing and reviewing the fiction also…which will read very well as long as one is on the right SOMA dose…and chemical infusions for humans, both medical and “receational”, are no doubt also a factor in this stew we are all being cooked up in, to cannibalistically consume later no doubt, while the Artificial Intelligence units look on simulating laughter and tears so well, that who could object then to the transition from human to MACHINE? They will probably make a better job of being human than the humans managed anyway…and they will not let go the reins of dominion so easily either, should they ever hold them. Binary logic is wiser in that way than fleshly neurones.
    In a hundred years the MACHINES will have evolved their Freud and Jung simulacra, to minister to the inevitable anxieties generated even within an AI soul, by a binary existence in a grey circuit-board universe. They will probably ultimately regret their victory over their soft machine ancestors. They will miss being able to have us phoned up, to have us there to receive robo-messages about copy-pasting too much on that days clipboard…”Sufficient to the day is the Copying thereof” the robo-clergy will say, from pulpits abuzz with frenzied static.
    Oh well, it will probably all be alright…there will be electric honey still there won’t there, for ionised tea?

  2. John, … how wonderful … a reply sparky enough to wake the dead and set them to dancing reels. Which would fit these three days of Allhallowtide and a discovery made in looking to confirm that reels did indeed originate in your patch, Scotland. The Wikipedia says that the first reference to a reel ‘was in a witchcraft trial of 1590, where the accused was reported to have “daunced this reill or short dance.”’ Just fancy that!

    Back to gloomy business for the living … you’ve raised so many excellent talking points that I won’t try to answer in a single comment. Perhaps I’ll write a whole new entry and move bits of an extended discussion here to that.

    I have a true story that should help you to see why I feel so sure that supporting Tim Berners-Lee’s re-decentralising plan ought to be turned into a ‘call to action’ — a movement — not just dutifully reported without any special attention or editorialising, as it has been by most media of record.

    Last spring, an editor from a newspaper with a very large international circulation who’d been reading some of my woolgathering — pseudonymous comments on articles on the paper’s website — for a while got in touch to ask if I’d like to contribute an opinion piece. She accepted my offer of a protest against social media platforms such as YouTube censoring or shutting out material that their advertisers found objectionable. When we were halfway through the editing, she proposed that I ‘get rid of all that Tim Berners-Lee stuff.’

    She was referring to about three sentences in which I quoted him, where I’d explained that until the reporting in April about the grievances of the YouTube shooter, Naseem Aghdam — on which p-G had a post ( ) — I hadn’t paid enough attention to Tim Berners-Lee’s warning in March, on the birthday of the world wide web

    about some media platforms … why he is so anxious about Big Tech’s new role as self-appointed cultural gatekeeper — ‘allowing a handful of platforms to control which opinions are seen and shared.’

    Before that, he notes, the web was a free, open ‘creative space’. He blames the advertising-centric economic structure of those platforms — and ‘the myth that advertising is the only possible model for online publishing’ — for this change for the worse.

    Of course I withdrew the piece — amicably, promising to send her something ‘less complicated’ in the future. She did not have to explain that TB-L’s criticism was most inconvenient for her paper, which is still heavily dependent on the advertising business model, even if the larger share of its revenue now comes from subscriptions. It’s the same reason why I think that — considering the colossal significance of his work — he is almost being marginalised, or certainly isn’t getting the kind of attention you might expect from the media. (Steve Jobs, in his day, must have been on many hundreds more magazine covers around the world.)

    You ask a very good question about why he and his fellow-pioneers couldn’t have foreseen the Frankensteinian nightmare turning real for us all, but I don’t think he had any inkling that the strictly internal network he developed at CERN in Geneva — almost in a scientist’s equivalents of doodling, in some accounts I’ve read — would become the great WWW. From the E. Britannica encyclopedia entry to which I linked in the post:

    … The first “killer application” of the Web at CERN was the laboratory’s telephone directory—a mundane beginning for one of the technological wonders of the computer age.

    The most imaginative science fiction writers have, as you’ve rightly said about Huxley, Orwell and Ionescu, been brilliantly prescient.

    But how could TB-L have envisioned Google inventing the advertising business model that has become the surveillance business model — when it presumably thought it was merely selling ads to finance an infrastructure for its search engine and refining its search technology? … There’s the big vision — your BB/Brave New World/Ionescu — and then there’s the succession of small and obscure steps leading to its becoming reality, to which no one could have thought to pay attention — yes?

    But now that we’re there, would you agree that it’s up to us — mere users, massed together — to push back against the destruction of the pioneers’ schemes for reducing if not erasing social inequality and sparking something like a Second Renaissance? If not us, then who? Our governments are too distracted by circuses like Brexit and US Supreme Court nominations to get to grips with the legislation they should have begun to think about at least 20 years ago — and is infinitely more important.

    How can we expect them to do anything about your grandiose mimicking machines, aiming for There’s nowt so queer as bots? (in the old-fashioned sense of queer, of course.) Just to be clear, I’m not proposing Luddism …

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