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As We Cling to the Internet, Are We Feeding a Monster?

‘The Internet of Everything’ director on the good and bad of tech in a pandemic.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Mar

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Reach her here.

Director Brett Gaylor’s documentary The Internet of Everything comes at a strange moment. With people largely confined to their homes for weeks, perhaps months, we are more than ever reliant on our screens. Computers, phones, television — anything that will provide information and occasionally distraction from too much information. It feels almost irresponsible to be away from the internet, even for moments at a time.

Gaylor has long been a creature of technology. One of his first films, Rip! A Remix Manifesto looked at the emergence of sampling, copyright, and digital technology in the music industry. The film was released in 2008, a time that feels like it was a few thousand years ago.

The Internet of Everything takes as its central conceit the interconnectivity of our most personal items — phones, refrigerators, toothbrushes, all of it online and collecting (relaying) information about our lives, while we’re eating, sleeping, having sex or perpetrating crimes. From predictive policing on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to Smart Cities in China that rewards citizens for good behaviour, the film makes the point that we are on the verge of another industrial revolution — this time founded upon data.

Invasion of privacy, surveillance culture and the end of human liberty are all on the table, but there are a couple of different sides to the story.

The Tyee posed a few questions to Gaylor about how connective technology can be both a force for great good and much bad amidst a pandemic. 

The Tyee: Given that people are even more reliant on screens and the internet during this moment of social distancing, how do you foresee this moment impacting on society in the future (i.e., demonstrating that working remotely is viable for many people)

Brett Gaylor: It's a reminder that internet connectivity is now a basic necessity! And that it also gives people a tangible example of why centralizing all of our internet infrastructure is dangerous. It's great that many of us can work from home, but what if Google went down?

It's awesome that we can use Zoom for video calls — but it turns out their privacy policy is terrible, and it enables employers to more easily surveil workers. 

Over the past decade, we've moved from an internet made of countless different services, ideas and approaches to one where several large companies are able to set the rules for how we work, share and communicate. We should think about what that means!

One of the issues alluded to in your film is automation and the idea that a great many human jobs could be better performed by machines. Do you foresee this as a good thing (more free time) or a bad thing (a neo-Luddite revolution)?

The film explores the idea that we are entering a Third Industrial Revolution. Economist Jeremy Rifkin proposes that three forces will soon converge that will transform society: the connection of nearly everyone on earth to the internet, the transition from oil to renewable energy, and the interconnection and unprecedented access to global supply chains. The theory is that when this happens, we will be able to exchange physical goods in the same way we transmit digital information — very fast and at zero marginal cost. It's an exciting vision — and we are seeing hints of this already.

Look at all of the small businesses that use the internet to sell goods. My friend sells clothing all around the world, from their basement here in Victoria, based on orders they receive online. The components come from around the world, are assembled "just in time" here in Canada, and then mailed around the world.

This business would not be possible without the internet. What I and others hope comes next is decentralized manufacturing. With machines like 3D printers, weavers and CNC cutters, the idea would be to just share the design of the object, and then it is manufactured by the machine. Imagine the carbon savings in this model — none of the shipping, none of the waste. Anyone with an idea for a physical good can take advantage of this infrastructure, in the same way anyone can take advantage of the web now to share an idea.

In these scenarios, however, all the jobs that are involved in the existing supply chains would no longer be relevant. For this reason, we need to create the political will for a just transition to this new economy. The only sane economic policies going forward are those that help to accelerate adoption of renewable energy and ubiquitous broadband connectivity. This week, we saw that these types of measures are possible. We must demand this.

One of the people interviewed in the film notes that humans are willing to give up a lot for the sake of convenience, but recently there has been something of a backlash against the surveillance state. What do you make of this reaction against technology?

I think it’s a reaction against exploitation, rather than a reaction against technology. What I find most interesting right now is that there is certainly a sense of unease — if you look at polling of people, there's certainly growing distrust. The Pew Research Center has been studying U.S. attitudes towards the internet for years, and their recent polling shows that more than 80 per cent of people feel that they have no control over the data that is collected about them by corporations or governments. So, people know that this is happening, and they don't like it.

However, when I talk to people, they can't always put their finger on exactly why they don't like this. Many people will say it bothers them, but at the same time, they don't find it troubling that a company might be storing their individual viewing history, or in the case of The Internet of Things, information about their health or location. Folks can't necessarily see why someone having access to their own data could be a problem, other than a vague sense that it is "creepy."

I think there are a few reasons for this. The first is that the impact of being surveilled may not have an immediate effect for you. Companies collecting data about your web browsing might not be an immediate problem — but if, after months of collecting this data, your airline offers you a higher rate for a plane ticket, that would be a negative effect. It's like smoking. It takes a long time for the problem to hit you, so you keep doing it.

And it should be said that many communities have experienced immediate impacts of surveillance. Just ask Cindy Blackstock.

What I've also seen is that "privacy" is not always the most accurate way to describe the problematics associated with the internet. As we explored in the section of the film about Sidewalk Labs, Google's sister company that has proposed a neighbourhood in Toronto, often the issues are around privatization. When we create sensors and methods of quantifying things that didn't use to be quantifiable — the temperature of your house, the contents of your fridge, whether you are gaining weight, or how often a sidewalk is occupied — you are creating the potential for that thing to be monetized. Airbnb monetized rooms in our houses we weren't using. That felt amazing at first, and it still is, but we didn't realize at that time it would be so successful that it would negatively impact affordable housing.

So, I think we are at the early days of the "techlash." Part of why I wanted to make this film was to have a discussion about how the internet has changed us, and how we want to build a world going forward that recognizes that it is here, it isn't going away, and it can help us.

The story of predictive policing in your film is particularly fascinating, but in the wrong hands, there might be the possibility for incredible abuse of power. What kind of safeguards do you think need to be in place to protect people, especially more marginalized populations from being targeted?

There's good work in this area happening already with Canada's Directive on Automated Decision Making. Essentially any technology that is used by the federal government has to think through whether it has bias or disproportionately impacts a particular community. The problem is that many of these impacts will be felt in non-federal jurisdictions like cities, and inside our phones. Clearly there needs to be transparency and civilian oversight of these systems. I've been impressed by how the Vancouver Police Deparment built their system — it has international academic oversight. The question, of course, is whether these systems should be used at all.

With people being increasingly monitored by our own personal devices — iPhones, laptops, Alexas — what does this mean to the concept of privacy and even being human when so much of our personal lives are being strip-mined for data?

Again, I think the question is "in whose interest is this awesome power being used?" There are many, many uses of the internet that serve the public interest. Can you imagine living through this pandemic without it? I can check in with my family on Galiano Island, I can receive firsthand information from B.C. health authorities, my kids can play Minecraft with their buddies in Vancouver, people can work from home. We need to ensure there is a loud, educated and grassroots understanding that the internet is ours. What is the purpose of this global network we built? Is it to more efficiently direct attention to advertising? Or is it something else?

The Internet of Everything is available to screen on CBC Gem here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Film

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