Joab Jackson on Mon, 1 Mar 1999 02:10:13 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Techno-Colonization

Something I wrote for the Kansas City Pitch Weekly:

By Joab Jackson

So here's my rant for the week: I'm at the local supermarket, picking up
the usual supplies of cola and donuts, and I'm waiting in line behind a
person paying for her purchases with a cash card, or trying to anyway. She
runs the wrong end of the card through the reader, the side without the
magnetic strip. Then, she randomly punches a few keys, and turns to those
of us behind her and says, "Oh, I just don't know how to work these
things," flashing a smile. 

The socially appropriate reaction, of course, would be empathy. "Yes, this
technology stuff is beyond me, too," we should say, chuckling. "Things are
changing every day and, gosh darnit, who among us can keep up?" 

But all I felt was impatience. 

Sure, we all fall to moments of stupidity, but I'm sorry, it's 1999, and
not knowing which end of your ATM card to swipe should no longer be

I sat down later and thought about why she did this. This woman was
well-dressed. She looked like she did well in this big complex world of
ours, so it's doubtful she just wasn't smart enough to understand that
it's the magnetic strip of the card holding the information. Perhaps, she
was just being passive-aggressive, sending a message to the store that any
swiping done would be executed a few rungs down the social-economic
ladder, by, say, the cashier (who, in fact, ended up doing it for her).
But when you really get down to it, I'd wager she just felt no social
responsibility of figuring out how ATM cards worked. 

Once upon a time, maybe 10 years ago, such folksy habits were acceptable.
If you weren't into fiddling with VCRs or computers or such, that was OK.
Not so any longer. Now, digital technology is not a hobby; it is a weapon.
In fact, digital technology is one of the most dangerous weapons to come
along in a long while, and people should at least know what can be done
with it. 

The sentiment of technology-equals-weaponry may seem extreme, but at least
one way to look at history is to see those with dominant technology
lording it over those without: The Romans with their aqueducts and roads,
The Portuguese with their ships, the British with their steam power. As
the Brits became complacent, economic advantage shifted to those more
aggressively innovative countries, like the United States and Germany. In
short, those with the technology reaped the riches, those without, to put
it euphemistically, got colonized. 

And why would it be any different now? Even the government understands
this: President Clinton announced a proposed $1.46 billion program to
protect critical systems from cyber and other attacks. That's fine for the
country, but you also have to protect yourself. 

With ever greater amounts of computer power at their disposal, why
shouldn't businesses and governments build databases on you, track your
behavior with ever greater degrees of precision and surround you
psychologically until you're fenced in at their mercy like one of those
factory-farmed calves? Club 'em while they're young, as good chefs like to

If one chooses to read the news through this filter, one can see hints of
the powers-that-be gearing up already. Remember last month when it was
found that Intel's Pentium III chips came with the feature of having its
processor serial numbers automatically read over the Internet, identifying
its owners in the process ( The company backed
down from implementing the feature only when activists made this
information known. Or how about the Secret Service's proposed national
database of driver's license photos that the American Civil Liberties
Union is now railing against ( n021899a.html)? And
did anyone catch that article in the December Scientific American that
explained how Microsoft had given Cambridge University $20 million in
research money to figure out how to have Microsoft's software "broadcast"
its serial number ("Beating the Tempest":

"In principle, properly equipped vans could patrol business districts
looking for copyright infringements," the article read. Isn't the idea of
Microsoft vans patrolling your business district a little creepy? And how
much can this company really be suffering from piracy when its founder is
arguably the richest man in the world? 

And that's not even getting into the weird conspiracy stuff, such as
psychrotronics: "An entirely new arsenal of weapons, based on devices
designed to introduce subliminal messages or to alter the body's
psychological and data-processing capabilities, might be used to
incapacitate individuals. These weapons aim to control or alter the
psyche, or to attack the various sensory and data-processing systems of
the human organism. In both cases, the goal is to confuse or destroy the
signals that normally keep the body in equilibrium," reads an article in
Parameters, a U.S. Army War College quarterly

Digital technology is getting more invasive and less user-friendly. And
without some understanding of how it works, how can we know the possible
threats it poses? The days of shrugging our shoulders, looking at the
computer or the ATM card, and saying, "I just don't know how these things
work" are over.


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