themes / The Cyberiad

Minds in the Cloud

Wojciech Orliński

Some of the readers will proudly say: I’m a very conscious consumer of the Internet. On the contrary, decisions on the Internet are made without our consent and often, even without our knowledge.

One of tales in “The Cyberiad,” a series of short stories written by the prophet of the 21st century, Stanisław Lem, tells about Pugg, whose constant thirst for information was his own undoing. He kidnapped the constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, and ordered them to build a machine that would supply him with all the information he wanted, a so-called Demon of the Second Kind. Bound by their work ethic, Trurl and Klapaucius did their job, knowing full well that the device will surely paralyze Pugg (thus allowing the constructors to escape). The Demon flooded Pugg with bits about “how Kipling would have written the beginning to his «Second Jungle Book» if he had had indigestion just then, and what thoughts come to unmarried whales getting on in years, and all about the courtship of the carrion fly, and how to mend an old gunny sack, (…) and why we don't capitalize paris in plaster of paris or turkish in turkish bath, and how many bruises one can have at a single time” and so on.

The Spameriad

Nowadays, everyone is equipped with such a device. Some have it on their desks, other carry it in their bags or pockets. A desktop computer, a laptop or a cell phone with an Internet connection. Switch it on and suffer the unceasing flood of information: What panties did Doda wear today? What did Palikot say? Who will be Poland’s speedway champion this year? Who will be the best ping pong player in Argentina? The importance of such news is somewhere on par with “the courtship of the carrion fly,” but often we must trudge through that sludge to reach the information we seek, like the weather, movie showtimes or even the state of our own inbox. Of course, the inbox itself isn’t safe from the aforementioned sludge. Someone wants us to buy a knockoff Rolex, somebody else – a forged diploma from Oxford. It’s on sale, along with a penis enlargement pump. President Mobutu’s widow also wrote us an email, offering a piece from a secret Swiss slush fund belonging to the dead leader in exchange for 10,000 dollars of advance money.

Some of the readers will proudly say: I’m a very conscious consumer of the Internet. I filter news from news portals through a personalized RSS feed reader, I block nasty ads with perfectly configured ad blocking software. A sophisticated spam filter is just waiting to pounce on unsuspecting junk mail that happens to wander into my mailbox. But I want to reassure other less tech-savvy readers, the media you consume is also curated. Even though you don’t configure anything yourselves, your mail and the news shown to you on news sites are filtered and tailored to your needs.

The most hated form of Internet ads in the beginning of the 21st century was the “pop-up ad.” When Apple shipped its first Internet browser, a “pop-up blocker” was one of its key features. That feature is a standard for browsers nowadays: Opera, Internet Explorer, Firefox, they all have one.

The readers might not be aware of this, but whenever they open a popular website, their browser engages in a titanic struggle against the advertisers.

A similar struggle happens in the depths of our mail servers. Whether you’re running anti-spam software or not, the mail you get is just a tiny fraction of messages that you were the target of.

The mail servers themselves are the first line of defense. Had their administrators allowed an unchecked flow of emails, the servers would have collapsed under the unceasing barrage of knockoff Rolex peddlers. Spam has certain characteristics that allow us to delete such messages on sight and servers are programmed to do that automatically. It’s a necessity; servers that do not engage in such pruning are no longer considered safe by other servers.

Machines in the wilderness of words

Thus, the robot tales from “The Cyberiad” are no longer science-fiction stories, they have become our reality. Even though we consider the Internet to be a portal to unlimited knowledge, in reality the content we’re accessing has already been filtered by machines without our consent. It does not matter whether we programmed them ourselves, like Trurl and Klapaucius, or if we’re satisfied with routines put in place by someone else – browsing the Internet without any sort of filters would be: a) extremely inconvenient; b) practically impossible, because we have no say in how ISPs filter what runs through their networks.

According to the Internet consumed by the Chinese, the Tiananmen Square massacre never happened, and there is no such thing as human rights. The filters established by their government block certain types of content. But automatic content control is also a local, European problem. Here, however, its provenance does not lie in the attempts of ruling parties at keeping the population in check. In 2004, employees of the Horniman Museum in the United Kingdom complained that automatic filters delete or block messages they send. The museum was established by a 19th century philanthropist, John Horniman. Who could have foreseen that two centuries later, Internet servers would interpret his name as a thinly veiled allusion to a “horny man.”

Companies that sell shiitake mushrooms constantly encounter similar problems when using email or social networks – the mushroom’s name is just too much for the poor search engines.

What about the descendants of the émigrés, who after settling in the USA decided to change their name from Lipszyc to Libshitz? What about the people living in the towns of Scunthorpe, Penistone, Clitheroe or Lightwater? What’s wrong with Lightwater, you ask? Well, the “twat” part. “The Beaver,” a Canadian magazine, named for the animal whose pelt was the foundation of Canada’s prosperity, had similar problems and in 2010 its management decided to change the magazine’s name to “The Canadian History.” Building a new brand was simply easier than the constant battles with spam blockers and browser filters that disallowed access to the magazine’s website from school computers.

What about the people with names like “Jose Viagra” or “Tyson Gay”? The former is just an average Jose from California, but the latter is an athlete, famous for winning the gold medal for the 100 meter sprint in Beijing and the fact that on a certain news website, an automated daemon tasked with maintaining political correctness changed his name from “Gay” to “Homosexual” in the headline announcing his victory.

I’ve said that this problem was not political at heart, but it isn’t that simple. Out of the three most important ideologies of modern democracy: liberalism, conservatism and socialism, the third one has the most unlucky name. In western languages, the word socialism contains “cialis,” coincidentally a name of a popular drug prescribed to men with erectile dysfunction, and a staple of spam emails.

Local administration offices have similar issues during Internet consultations concerning various construction projects funded by the government. In these kinds of discussions conducted in English (Polish, too), sooner or later the word “erection” will pop up somewhere. And we all know where emails containing the word “erection” end up – in the spam folder or the trash.

The issue has a political dimension, too. Certain words are considered offensive in countries where companies such as Google, Facebook or Yahoo! want to do business. Some words offend Christian fundamentalists in the United States, while others are offensive to Islamic fundamentalists, who won’t allow the frivolous use of the names of Allah or Mohammad, thus spelling trouble for the descendants of the Irish “Callahan” family.

Under the administrators’ vigilant eyes

Before any information reaches us, it runs through a series of different filters, none of which are ours to modify or control. Moreover, we have no way to check the chaff the filters have stopped. Who knows, maybe some important message hasn’t reached us simply because it was sent from a Horniman Institute email address or from Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire? The implications of these filtering activities will only get more serious over the next few years.

Some time ago, when describing the Internet, the first media theorists lauded the freedom offered by the new communication tool. Now we know that this freedom can sometimes be a real curse.

The knockoff Rolex peddler can’t place an ad for his services in traditional media because of their institutionalized censorship. No newspaper with an ounce of self-respect would fill ad space with that sort of garbage. Because of these safety mechanisms, the Internet has become a refuge for the fake Rolex, fake Viagra, and fake Cialis people.

The demand forces the supply. The knockoff Rolex and Viagra pushers don’t send all that spam themselves. They just order spam services offered by the likes of Robert Soloway, one of the first professional spammers, who even went to jail for his deeds. But spam isn’t only limited to unwanted emails. It’s also “spamdexing,” which is tricking search engines into showing the Rolex knockoff website as the top result when a popular search query, such as “Paris Hilton,” is entered. Spam also includes “blam” – entries on blogs and social networking sites which link to some shady website.

To protect themselves from these phenomena, Internet dwellers engage in something called “curated computing,” an euphemism for digital censorship. iPhone and iPad users consider the fact that their devices won’t allow applications not approved by Apple as an important upside; they’d happily trade in some of their freedom for protection against people like Robert Soloway and his descendants.

The dominance of Facebook over other social networking sites is explained in a similar way. The Facebook terms of service are very rigid, taking away practically any anonymity that the users might desire, but in return they protect us from blam, which is blog/social networking spam. If these tendencies don’t disappear in the near future then willful abandonment of Internet freedom surely awaits us all. “Curated computing” is not as innocent as the name would suggest.

Digital censorship

Apple and Facebook are companies with global aspirations. We have once naively thought that globalization will force Western morality and customs upon the unsuspecting people of Dubai. Meanwhile, it turns out that it might be the other way around. IT giants don’t want their services boycotted in Muslim countries, which constitute large, booming markets, thus they’re forcing Muslim morality and customs upon us. Facebook removed the “Everybody Draw Mohammed” group and Apple has removed the iPad version of erotic comics based upon Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

The appeal of digital censorship lies in its stealth. If Apple, Google or Facebook want to hide something from their users, they do it in such a way that the users never find out about the hiding.

Digital censorship is perfect censorship, like in “1984,” which – in an immensely ironic twist – disappeared from Amazon’s Kindle e-book readers due to a squabble over copyrights.

New web services making use of these censorship tendencies seem to popping up all over the Internet. One example is blekko.com, a search engine that is supposed to finally solve the problem of “spamdexing.” Unlike Google, Blekko does not seek the farthest reaches of the Internet. The search results are censored by the Blekko staff and users registered with the service. We can even improve the censoring ourselves by adding a so-called slashtag. When we enter the search query “feminism” with the addition of a “/liberal” slashtag, we get results drastically different from those shown when the slashtag “/conservative” is added.

Blekko might just be another abortive startup, but it might also be the one to take Google’s position as the Internet’s dominating search engine (well, in 2010 “uncensored “Google already lost its position as the most visited site on the Internet to the “curated” Facebook).

The gadget of real

What does all of this tell us about the future? Web services will play an increasingly role in our day to day lives. Newspapers, CDs and DVDs, thick books – they’re all heavy and bulky, traveling with them is difficult, they’re easy to lose or damage. We’ll be gradually switching to paying for “playback rights” or “reading rights” – it will be more convenient, despite obliging us to submit to the whims of invisible administrators.

When cut off from Google or notes stored on our computers, we’re often left feeling intellectually powerless. That’s why we happily switched from desktop computers to laptops, and we’re now switching from laptops to tablets and smartphones. It’s fairly easy to predict the next step: we’re going to use a device which allows hands-free Internet access, like glasses. What’s the next step? The same thing, but in a contact lens, instead of bulky glasses. The next one will probably be cybernetic enhancements, Internet access implanted first in the cornea and later directly in the central nervous system.

The latter seems to be a very drastic step, from which the average man from 2011 shrinks away in horror. But do you remember how the sight of a person with cell phone irritated you during the 90s? We were always complaining: “Do they really have to answer them in restaurants or on the bus? And those stupid ringtones…”

If we’re going to have uninterrupted access to the Internet, then the implications of the automatic content control are more serious than any of us might think. We are already setting different ringtones for our wife, whose calls we answer immediately, and our coworkers, whom we can call back at a later time.

In the future we’ll probably be seeing improved versions of today’s chatbots, which will answer the phone for us, just as the mail servers of today “read” our mail for us and decide whether it’s spam or a message that should be delivered to our inbox.

Then the tales of the robots will be the only thing we’ll know. A digital butler will keep in touch with our digital environment and decide which information to pass along to us and which to discard. We’re already asking the search engine to preemptively censor the search results by using slashtags, and in the future our digital butler will do that for us, basing his choices on our views and proclivities. It might also have an interesting effect on democracy. Papers used to be stacked next to each other on stands, so when buying one, we unwittingly read the headlines of the other.

The digital world allows for complete separation. In this world, you can read only “Wyborcza” or “Rzeczpospolita,” and remain ignorant of the position presented by the other side of the political aisle. We use the “/conservative” slashtag to isolate ourselves from the results that show up after using the “/liberal” slashtag. Can democracy even function in a society consisting of groups so strongly isolated from each other, divided into slashtag-described polar opposites? Protection from everything incompatible with our particular worldview is an interesting side-effect of ubiquitous spam protection and filtering. But it’s also shielding us from a world that the automata controlling the networks don’t want to show us.

It’s a terrifying vision of an atomized society. But that’s the essence of the “Tales of the Robots”; Lem was rarely optimistic when writing about our cybernetic future. Perhaps another one of his prophecies will come true. In “The Futurological Congress”, up'n'at'm is a powerful substance that eliminates drug-induced hallucinations and allows people to see world the way it really is. Maybe the most sought after device of 2050 will be some sort of digital up'n'at'm, which will make it possible for users to access uncurated computing and linking them to the real world, with its knockoff Rolexes.

Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz