by Shane Ormond
On May 21, 2020
Target reported that online sales on an average day in April exceeded last year’s Cyber-Monday sale, because if you’re not going to buy a Cuisinart Perfectemp 14 Cup Programmable Coffee Maker at the end of the world, when are you gunna buy one?
“Welcome home!” the begoggled man in a loincloth said through the purple bandana covering his face.
He then slap-happily hopped on his bicycle and, with a little too much gusto, pulled his handlebars up for a wheelie and fell flat on his back.
“Safety third!” he shouted in an “I’m OK!” tone as he got up and dusted himself off.
He jumped back on his bike a little more cautiously and slowly pedaled away, disappearing into a dust storm ahead.
“Safety third?” I asked a friend, Mike.
It was, after all, my first year at Burning Man.
Mike, on his third Burn at this point, laid it out:
1] Is it fun?
2] Does it look cool?
3] Is it safe?
“Safety third,” he said.
Fear and Loathing in Black Rock City
During the week-long pilgrimage, slogging through a Mad Max dystopia in one of the most uninhabitable landscapes on earth…
I had my ship (bicycle) stolen on the first day, dodged motorized chattering teeth and other fantastical mutant machines, blew out an eardrum, lost a day after I was seduced by the Sirens into a lotus-smoking tent, got swallowed alive and spit out by Poseidon (but not before I passed by Paris Hilton flashing a selfie), and left dazed and confused on a mustachioed short bus.
I also learned that the (apparent) masochists running Google have had a presence at “the burn” since its inception.
Fun fact: The very first “Google Doodle,” published on August 30, 1998, has the Burning Man effigy in the background.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page reportedly hired the former CEO Eric Schmidt back in 2001 after testing his mettle at Burning Man, making their decision only after seeing how Schmidt handled the burn.
The Cloud of Diamonds
“If security is not integral to an information technology architecture, that architecture must be replaced.”
Along with the top brass at Google, the attendees at Burning Man believe they’re playing a part in the world of the future — which, as far as I can tell, is a feverishly hedonistic anti-capitalist “Pleasure Island,” where everything’s “free,” and nothing has value.
(Whereas, in reality, behind the curtain, everything’s “secretly” fueled 100% by the surplus generated elsewhere by… you guessed it… capitalism.)
“Like Google,” says George Gilder in Life After Google, “Burning Man might be termed a common cult: a communitarian religious movement that celebrates giving — free offerings with no expectation of return — as the moral center of an ideal economy of missionaries rather than mercenaries.”
Problem is, whereas Burning Man’s ethos comes out of a desire for community, Google’s emerges from elsewhere:
Behind the curtain, Google’s complex of “missionaries” siphon up every detail about your life they can get their hands on, treating you like a mindless, lifeless cog in the Googleplex.
Author Shoshana Zuboff has called it “surveillance capitalism,” where Big Tech provides free services that billions of people use…
Which then allows the providers of those services to monitor the users… you… like rats in a maze (often without their explicit consent).
They try not only to use this data to predict your behavior… but to finagle with the algorithms in an effort to make your behavior predictable.
Another commonality between Burning Man and Google:
Google, too, shares the “safety third” rule, except Google’s isn’t as tongue-in-cheek…
Rather than seeing security as an architecture, Google sees it as a procedure, or a mechanism. It’s a function of the network, applied from the top down, rather than a property of the device and the device’s owner.
(Which is why all of our smartphones are, first and foremost, profoundly sophisticated surveillance devices.)
Yet, it would be unfair to cast all the blame on Google.
This is the network paradigm in which we live.
Google is just the one who best capitalized on it (in the least capitalist way possible, of course).
Don’t hate the player, as they say, hate the game.
But also don’t expect the game to go on forever.
Google’s God Complex
“Advanced artificial intelligence and breakthroughs in biological codes are persuading many researchers that organisms such as human beings are simply the product of an algorithm.”
We’ve heard plenty of heavily-inflated predictions coming from Silicon Valley over the years…
And, increasingly, these predictions have taken on a religious fervor, as the patron saint of futurism, Ray Kurzweil, takes it upon himself to lead the blind to salvation…
Among other predictions, St. Kurzweil has prophesied that in the 2030’s our brains will all be connected to the cloud…
And this, he says, is the closest we’ll ever come to knowing God.
But, there’s a problem:
Not only does Kurzweil make the assumption that consciousness can be created with deterministic machines (an assumption Gilder tears apart in his book):
But the harrowing flashing red lights of non-stop security breaches all over the world may be the proverbial stick in the spokes of Kurzweil’s digital libido.
“The crisis of current order in security, privacy, intellectual property, business strategy, and technology is fundamental and cannot be solved within the current computer and network architecture.”
This is the chink in the armor not just in the current architecture of security (top-down), but Big Tech’s “freemium” model that’s based entirely on this architecture… of which Kurzweil is indelibly intertwined.
The Valley’s religious zealotry of its own God-like omnipotence — where its algorithms will soon eclipse humanity and the “breakaway billionaires” will watch over their creations from their private cities on Mars, doling out UBI schemes to the now-obsolete peasantry — has reached its zenith, untethered from the basic realities of… well… everything.
Daedalus is begging Icarus to come back down to Earth. But, at this point, Icarus is too far gone — he can’t hear his father’s calls.
Security is the foundation of all services online and absolutely crucial to all financial transactions. It is the most basic and indispensable component.
And yet, it’s not even one of Google’s 10 principles on their “Our Philosophy” page — mentioned elsewhere, only as an afterthought.
Furthermore, says Gilder, taking a jab at Google’s “free” business model:
“In business, the ability to conduct transactions is not optional. It is the way all economic learning and growth occur. If your product is ‘free,’ it is not a product, and you are not in business, even if you can extort money from so-called advertisers to fund it.
“While most of us welcome ‘free’ on the understanding that it means ‘no charge,’” Gilder goes on, “what we really want is to get what we ordered rather than what the authority chooses to provide. In practice, ‘free’ means insecure, amorphous, unmoored, and changeable from the top.”
The Achilles’ Heel
Indeed, security on the Internet has collapsed.
Google is now forced to dispatch “swat teams” of hackers to react to security breakdowns. But the holes can’t be plugged fast enough.
Hacks are a dime-a-dozen.
The ones we hear about are corporate bank accounts drained, centralized cryptocurrency exchanges “pwned,” private videos, emails, and messages leaked, and credit card numbers sold by the thousands on the Dark Web.
(Alongside, of course, the cacophonic screechings of Russia “hacking” the 2016 elections.)
Despite this, says Gilder, “Silicon Valley has pretty much given up. Time to hire another vice president of diversity and calculate carbon footprints.”
As the security system has been proven to be fundamentally flawed, the need for a new architecture has become increasingly apparent.
Meanwhile, the digerati, says Gilder, “have begun indulging the most fevered fantasies about the capabilities of their machines and issuing arrogant inanities about the comparative limits of their human customers.”
Soon, however, the wings of Icarus will melt.
The Ritual Death of Google
It’s an act of poetic prophecy, then, that Google has reportedly paid upwards of $1.2 billion to own 51.2% of the Burning Man festival — meaning it now has controlling share, and will take over logistics and running the event.
A journalist at MixMag spoke to Marcus Fooly, Google’s “Chief of Fun and Games” division (yes, you read that right), who told them what Google had planned for the festival:
“We don’t want to change too much about the event, we just want to compliment the essence of the Burn. We’ll be adding our trademark Google Os as eyes for the Burning Man effigy and also renaming Robot Heart to Roobot Heart, but as you can tell, it’s only minor changes to the aesthetic.”
It’s poetic because many long-time Burners see the burning of the effigy each year as the burning of “The Man.”
“The Man” as in, in the Burner’s mind, the large corporate structures which “keep the little guy down,” shove crap down his throat, patronize him with cheap gimmicks and sly tricks, keep him distracted from the rapture of being alive…
You know, “The Man.”
I’ve considered going to Burning Man in August just to see the looks on the faces of the long-timer “Burners” as they look up at the soon-to-be-corporatized, Googley-eyed effigy…
(Entertaining to say the least, seeing as all corporate logos are banned at the Burn.)
And, to participate in a ritual which may very well metaphorically mark the death of Google.
The Googley eyes will melt, the man will burn, the Burners will cheer…
Or cry, realizing “home” has become just another corporate ruse.
And me. There. Dehydrated. Covered in dust.
[Selling a ticket or know someone? Email us: LFTodayFeedback@lfb.org.]
Life After Google
You’ve likely heard of Moore’s Law.
Moore’s Law, which describes the growth in capacity of integrated circuits has a corollary law named after engineer Gordon Bell.
According to Bell’s Law, says Gilder, “every decade a hundredfold drop in the price of processing power engenders a new computer architecture.”
In 2006, George wrote the first big article in Wiredon cloud computing as the “next big thing.”
That was 13 years ago.
“And a new architecture is arising,” says Gilder. “And this new architecture solves the Internet’s increasing concentration problem, as well as remedies the security vulnerability that comes from that concentration problem.”
Long-time sufferers of our missives know what architecture we’ve been pointing at for years now:
The decentralized web.
“Emerging is a peer-to-peer swarm of new forms of direct transactions beyond national borders and new forms of Uber and Airbnb beyond corporate gouges.
“Google is hierarchical. Life after Google will be heterarchical.
“Google is top-down. Life after Google will be bottom-up.
“Google rules by the insecurity of all the lower layers in the stack. A porous stack enables the money and power to be sucked up to the top.
“Whereas the Google world confines you to one place and time and life, the new world will open up new dimensions and options of new life and experience where the only judge is the sovereign you.”
[Ed. note: As mentioned last week, George Gilder is the newest member of the Laissez Faire team. Stay tuned for more insights from him and a BIG announcement.]
Managing editor, Laissez Faire Today