” — n
the gradual widening of the use of a technology or system beyond the purpose for which it was originally intended (…)”
“When I close my eyes, I see pixels!” says the guy who sits next to me in the car. We are driving back from Hamburg. Along with approximately 10,000 other people, we have spent the past four days at the 30th edition of the Chaos Communication Congress (30C3). The remark of my neighbor shows how much we have been sensitized to the digital at 30C3.
C3 is known as a hacker conference. Held every year since 1984 between Christmas and the New Year, the event attracts people who are fascinated by information technology and who want to take part in its shaping. Among the attendees are computer programmers and engineers, digital artists, entrepreneurs, researchers of digital culture, the occasional politician, and free-speech advocates.
My neighbor’s remark may, somewhat jokingly, be explained as a metaphoric case of “function creep.” This term is often used in hacker circles. It refers to occasions when a technological system designed with a particular function in mind becomes an entirely different kind of technology outside its design context - such as when the inside of your head appears as a computer screen displaying pixels.
Taken in a positive sense, the term ‘function creep’ describes an aspect of digital technology that is very much loved by hackers. To them, digital technology is inherently general-purpose stuff, i.e., it begs to be redesigned in ever new, creative ways and to be put to ever unexpected uses.
As the journalist Steven Levy put it in exalted terms in his book Hackers (1984), this love for the flexibility of technology can translate into a way of relating to the world at large. It feeds into the basic idea that nothing that exists – no physical, institutional, or mental structure – should be seen as eternally fixed. At 30C3 this was illustrated by the crazy bikes, workshops on kinky sex, drugs and “foodhacking”, and an intricate tube-based postal system connecting the different rooms of the venue. These showed that in this hacker environment it was not only computers, but also food, transport, communication, and human bodies that could be re-imagined and reconfigured.
Two sides of the same coin
Some hackers are very enthusiastic about the prospect of a future society where digital technology plays ever-bigger roles. At 30C3, one presenter for instance celebrated the general acceptance of sensor-based technologies that can track a person’s level of fatigue, stress, distraction, or amount of exercise. The speaker suggested that those who in this way turn themselves into “Quantified Selves” will “increase the quality of life (…) [and] optimize mental fitness and cognitive well-being.” The speaker also envisioned various commercial applications of such techniques. For instance, eye tracking software can be implemented into television sets so that content providers can adjust their programming when the viewers’ attention wanes.
Yet, particularly at the latest edition of C3, attendees were once again shaken by a considerably darker picture of the type of society that results from the general acceptance of digital tracking technologies. The message came from Jacob Appelbaum, the American journalist and free speech advocate who is in close touch with Edward Snowden, former contractor of the American National Security Agency (NSA).
In several presentations, given to the fully packed, largest hall of the venue and live-streamed into the equally packed adjacent room, Appelbaum revealed the huge scope of surveillance activities carried out by the NSA. For these activities, the NSA makes use of the power of digital technologies to profile, track, and store online communication – the same capacities so celebrated by Quantified Self enthusiasts – in order to spy on millions of citizens across the world. What is otherwise celebrated as a promising feature of digital technology – its usability for many purposes – here manifested itself as function creep at its worst.
Different responses to Function Creep
In the research on digital culture I have conducted in the past decade, I have spoken with many technology builders who have personally experienced the impact of function creep. In seeing the implementation of systems built by themselves, they have become well aware of the potentially large gap between how they experience and understand the capacity of a certain type of technology, and how it is implemented into society at large.
In fact, some of the sternest warnings against the uncritical digitization of ever more forms of human communication, logistics, and registration, have come from such hackers. They know, first-hand, how difficult it is to prevent complex, fragile digital systems from being used for purposes they have not been designed for. It was up to Dutch technology lover and hacker Rop Gonggrijp to protest against the digitization of the voting process.
Yet, despite all the examples of technological violence and abuse, technology is first and foremost equated with progress, and public voices all over the world have a clear bias towards positive validations of technology over cautionary ones. We can see this today in the enthusiastic embracing by engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians, futurists, and other advocates of our future Quantified Selves and our future Smart Cities. In such future projections, citizens will be more empowered, more in control, and engaged with their daily environments thanks to all the technologies available for tracking, sensing, tracing, and sending information.
When technology designers and others who believe in the democratizing and liberating potential of digital technology are confronted with the downsides of a digital society, they often find answers yet again in the domain of design: they work hard to put the right laws, protocols, and network designs in place and advocate the correct user awareness, so as to prevent technology from creeping into functions it has not been designed for.
Some of this optimism is informed by personal, emotionally charged experiences that strongly associate digital technology with freedom. An example is the case of the man I met at a hacker gathering in the USA who grew up in the mid-west in the 1970s; his particular interests were frowned upon in the conservative society he lived in. For him, the arrival of the first Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) at the time, which brought him into contact with far-flung remote others with similar interests, may literally have saved his life.
More recently I met a hacker activist in London, who had lived in Belgrade in the 1990s, where she was part of the opposition against the Milosevic regime. For non-censored information she relied on the radio station B92. When the regime tried to close down the station, the Dutch internet provider XS4ALL rerouted the broadcast over the internet in 1996. Thus, her story of freedom-focused activism collided with the history of the internet. And we were both delighted to find out that this story also linked our biographies, since around that time I worked at the XS4ALL helpdesk.
For people whose memories of their first encounters with information technology are charged with experiences of empowerment, democratization, and freedom, it feels as a perverse and unjust case of function creep that an organization like the NSA should use these very same digital technologies to target, profile and censor people. Similarly, for some hackers who have a hands-on, code-level experience with the unlimited, creative uses of information technologies, it is an act of perversion when commercial corporations seek to hide parts of code and have secret infrastructural arrangements in order to make profit.
Restoring Faith in the Original Internet
Hence, after only a brief moment of despair and shock after Edward Snowden’s revelations, a host of organizations world-wide are now working hard to restore their original faith in a free and empowering internet: hackers, activists, and public and private organizations all over the world have set themselves the task to “fix the Internet” and to make it live up to its original promises.
As part of this “fixing” people are educating themselves and others in techniques for decentralized and anonymized internet use. Like these other internet “fixers” I am the happy owner of a small piece of hardware – a Raspberry Pi – onto which I can install my own cloud server. And like others, I also try to educate myself in email encryption, and I am registered with a Virtual Private Network provider located in a remote place that lets me surf the internet anonymously. I intend to keep myself informed and up to date regarding these developments through face-to-face gatherings like so-called “cryptoparties”, and through email lists and websites like the one of Bits of Freedom.
This “post-Snowden” movement generates a new social environment, new emotions, and a new sense of involvement with the infrastructures of the internet. Intensifying earlier forms of anti-surveillance activism, it inspires the formation of new types of conferences, mailing lists and modes of communication. It incites people to travel to follow workshops, to learn how to solder computer chips, and to program. Thus, it simultaneously feeds into and renews the idea that it is possible to negotiate on an equal level with engineers, states, and corporations regarding the design and use of technology. And so, from the perspective of this network, it seems possible to imagine a future society that is both fully digitized and participatory, democratic, and free.
Many people who fight for the above ideal regularly despair of the lack of public interest in their cause. It is often remarked that even in this “post-Snowden era” the general public doesn’t seem to care about privacy, about updating their computer skills, or lobbying for better regulations and laws; that there is a big gap between these internet fixers and society at large.
Yet, hackers who say this don’t always realize that their activism depends on a very specific type of social environment. In the first place, the very idea of function creep depends on a shared sense of original technological purpose. This understanding – associating a non-hierarchical, always modifiable internet with democracy and freedom – is informed by hands-on, emotionally charged experiences with technology and on the presence of articulate people who are comfortable with using presentations, blog posts, websites, twitter, and mailing lists to point out certain technological phenomena as instances of “function creep.” Also, the hacker belief that things can be changed and fixed is strongly informed by the ready availability of technical know-how, the possibility to spend a lot of time tinkering with and thinking about technology, and on maintaining connections with sympathizing journalists, politicians and legal representatives.
In the daily lives of people who are not part of such a scene technology simply figures differently, and the relationship between themselves as “users” and technology is imagined in different ways.
In order to get a fuller picture of how the current “information society” is lived and shapes political viewpoints, the full specter of everyday digital experiences needs to be taken seriously. Take the experiences of people whose first encounter with digital technology is not associated with freedom, but with an inherently unequal relationship between themselves and larger institutions. People who, for instance have lost their – non-digital – job and who are required to learn digital skills in order to keep their social welfare benefits. Regardless of the question whether these people may or may not be interested in learning how to work with encryption or Raspberry Pi’s, they are often part of educational environments that simply want them to “catch up” with the rest of society, which does not automatically imply teaching them a hacker-type of technological awareness.
Another example is the experiences of people who may be outraged over the NSA spying but who can’t imagine ever having the time or networks to learn how to get online in alternative ways. They are already struggling to keep all their devices up to date, and are motivated to do this mainly because they want to function well in their day-to-day lives – to stay in touch with their children’s teachers, to organize their work, and to maintain social contacts.
Yet others may associate internet use with freedom and connecting with others, but they enjoy this while trusting states and corporations to deliver these features to them.
Finally, the reluctance of people to use digital technologies at all has to be properly understood. There are many people who, like hackers, may be very interested in learning, developing new forms of awareness and creating new things, but for whom digital technology doesn’t facilitate this, but rather gets in the way. Often, “digital solutions” are offered to solve social problems that are better solved without digital technology.
Like many hacker-activists, I find it very important that people have far more understanding of the ways in which the digital society is wired, how power gets distributed online, and what decisions can be made to equalize power. I have great respect for the many educational workshops, lectures, hackspaces and mailing lists, that seek to pursue this.
Yet, I think it is important to pursue this with the awareness that, in the daily lives of most people, digital interactions are not shaped by consciously communicated origin stories. Instead, people’s digital lives are unwittingly shaped by the self-evident presence of corporations, state demands, social pressure and a perceived lack of time – often caused by the increasingly demanding everyday presence of digital technologies.
This understanding warrants not only educational programs that focus on creating more awareness of digital politics. What we need in addition is a healthy skepticism regarding the possibility of creating a digital utopia for all. Awareness of digital politics, in my view, does not compute very well with unbridled enthusiasm for Smart Cities and Quantified Selves.Thank you … Zane, Tessel, Donna, Luis and Lonneke for your very helpful sharpening comments on earlier drafts of this post!