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Carl Miller on Five People Changing the World

Posted on 10th May 2019 by Martha Greengrass

An exploration of the shifting sands of global dominance, The Death of the Gods is pioneering technology researcher Carl Miller’s timely and incisive study of power in the digital age. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he reveals how and where change is happening and who really holds all the cards.

The book began because I am afraid that we are going blind. Deeper and deeper into the digital revolution we go, furnished with more bytes and digits than we possibly know how to handle. And yet we actually understand less than in the past about those who shape our lives and how they do it. A new order is rising, often from the margins and corners of society, that we don’t recognise or understand. Today, power is concentrating in all kinds of places and forms that we overlook.

So began a year in which I travelled the world - to try to find and get to know the people who are changing all of our lives through technology. Each of their stories revealed something bigger than simply the success or failure of individuals: these were stories of institutions collapsing, and others emerging. Of old powers and new powers sometimes fighting, sometimes combining, to remake our world. And whether for good or bad, each have lessons, inspirations and warnings for all of us. So here they are: the stars of The Death of the Gods, the people who are really changing the world.

The Fake-News Merchant 

He would only meet in a public place. Finally, he stepped through a cloud of hot white dust and sat at my table in a café in downtown Prishtina, Kosovo. That was when I first heard it. Ping-Ping-Ping-Ping. His phone, carefully placed on the table, never stopped chirping. Each ping was a click. And each click was someone being transported to his world where ‘Bay Leaves can cure cancer!!’ and ‘Boy Comes out of Coma after 12 Years, Whispers Dark Secret to Parents [video]’. His name is Burim, and he is a fake-news merchant.

Burim buys and sells huge Facebook groups, runs thousands of fake accounts and has built up online audiences the same size – I judged – as a major newspaper. When I met him, he was making a hundred times more than he had in any previous job by getting people to read stories that were complete nonsense. ‘I don’t care what the content is,’ he told me, his face lit by his phone as he scrolled through the endless posts that his operation spews out. ‘This is the first time I’ve actually read it. I just care about the traffic.’

He was the most extreme example of an enormous shift happening to journalism as the ‘clicks economy’ takes over. Revenues for mainstream media have come crashing down and, in the UK alone, over a hundred local newspapers have shut in the past ten years. The number of journalists reduced by a third between 2001 and 2010. Commercially, Burim and journalists have a shared goal: to capture clicks and make money. But Burim was coming out on top because he is the nemesis of the values and principles of the Fourth Estate: the origin of the story doesn’t matter, truth is irrelevant. Clicks are king. Clicks, of course that come from us. We are the ones that fund Burim. And in return he, and thousands upon thousands of people like him, create the clickable, shareable, entirely warped world of online information that we live within. 

The Algorithmist

‘I’ll lose my job if anyone knows about this,’ he said, and paused. ‘Someone is going to go through your book line by line,” he continued, ‘to try to work out who I am.’  This man worked for a tech giant and was about to break one of its cardinal rules. With a father’s pride, he turned his laptop around and there it was: differently coloured writing sprinkled around the page. It was an algorithm, clearly, but not just any algorithm. It was a jealously guarded piece of fabulously expensive intellectual property that builds a reality, of sorts, that many of us use every day. 

We all now know that algorithms can determine a lot of what is important to us: from whether we’ll get a mortgage or not, to landing that dream job. Yet what the algorithmist taught me was how much of this power really came down to humans like him, and not to cold maths and machines as we often imagine. With a flick of his wrist, he tweaked his creation, and the reality that it created changed instantly. ‘I can’t say which one is true,’ he said. ‘I can only say whether it passed the minimum evaluation criteria.’ His entire algorithm is full of parameters – judgements about the world – that could easily have been something else. ‘Who checks these?’ I asked. ‘Me.’ ‘What about your boss?’ ‘You’ve seen how difficult it is to understand. Sometimes even I struggle with it, and I created it.’ We think of algorithms as objective, neutral. But the truth is that the men and women who build them have enormous power of discretion over how they work. ‘It’s power without responsibility,’ he muttered, scrolling through lines of code. ‘This is not a notional, abstract concept of power. This is real power over the day-to-day lives of real people.’ Then he stopped. And sighed. ‘The world has to know how it works.’ 

The Digital Democrat

By the age of twelve, Audrey Tang left school in order to learn more about technology. She moved to Silicon Valley and, in her early thirties, announced her ‘retirement’ and returned to her native Taiwan to become a civic hacker. She and her colleagues tried to use technology to open up the way that government and politics worked but were largely ignored by the Taiwanese government. Until the Sunflower Revolution happened in 2016.

Thousands of protestors gathered around Taiwan’s parliament because they felt the government wasn’t listening. Some protestors climbed over a fence, through a window, and occupied the parliament building for weeks. In the aftermath of the occupation, something magical happened. Government officials came to one of Audrey’s hackathons and asked for her help. Audrey went from high-school drop-out, to technology entrepreneur, to Digital Minister of Taiwan.

In doing so, she also became a completely new kind of politician. ‘I don’t take commands. I don’t give commands,’ she said. To open up democracy, she started a new process called vTaiwan: huge online discussion spaces focused on particular decisions. But differently to Facebook or Twitter, this platform was designed to unearth consensus, surfacing only comments that got broad support across political dividing lines. As consensus statements began to emerge, Audrey committed her government to enact in law the outcome of the vTaiwan process.

For centuries, democracy has pretty much manifested as one thing: elected representatives sitting in sovereign parliaments. But that is changing. Audrey is only one of the first of a new kind of digital democrat who doesn’t want to change what government does, but instead aims to modernise what government actually is. Their call for change will get louder, as they use technology to create new models, new processes and new ways of connecting people to decision-making. 

The Citizen Investigator 

Less than a decade ago, Eliot was working as a temporary administrative assistant for a lingerie manufacturing company based in Leicester. The war in Libya was raging, and every morning he’d sweep through newspaper articles about it and post on the comments thread of each story, linking to sources that he felt had been neglected: shaky battlescapes on YouTube, selfies on Twitter. The war was being chronicled online, and nobody else had noticed. 

Eliot found a few scoops, his reputation grew, and a small network of likeminded people began to form around him. Then, in 2014, flight MH-17 crashed in eastern Ukraine killing all 298 people aboard. The next day, Eliot formed his team of citizen investigators to find who shot down MH-17. They were called the Bellingcat Investigation Team.

It began as a hunch: a single video, quickly taken down after the crash, showing a missile launcher driving around somewhere in Eastern Ukraine. The Bellingcat Investigation Team spent hundreds of hours forensically combing through social media looking for it. And finally, years later, they had a timeline: they plotted the missile launcher winding through eastern Ukraine, coming to rest under MH-17’s flightpath, and then driving away again, this time without a missile. The international investigators of the crash have recently come to the same conclusion.

Eliot went from arguing in the comment threads of the Guardian to being on the front page of the New York Times. Why? Not because he had the skills or technology of professional journalists. Citizen investigators like him are often stepping in with the one thing that the pros have too little of: time. Their story shows how what we currently think of as the Fourth Estate is not simply being destroyed, but actually reborn. The person protecting you from the mendacious and corrupt might easily be that detailed-obsessed person, bored at work, with some time on their hands. 

The Hacker 

Caesar’s Palace sits right in the middle of the Las Vegas strip, all pink and white marble; glitz and vice. But once a year, every year, a whole new kind of player comes into town. Black jeans, black t-shirts, pirate bandanas, neon blue mohawks, Japanese anime tattoos. It’s DEF CON: the world’s largest annual gathering of hackers. 

One hacker I met, ‘Major Malfunction’, hacked his hotel room using only his TV’s remote control. To a laughing crowd, he showed how he could set his friend’s wake-up call for 5.30 am, check them out and reset their minibar bill. Another hacker demonstrated they could cause wind turbines to explode. A third hacked a laptop using just light. Then light you couldn’t see. Then sound. Then sound you couldn’t hear. They hacked all manner of electronic voting machines within hours.

The most capable hackers in the world are a strange new kind of ruling class, and it is all because they have a completely different relationship to technology than the rest of us. To them, the technology actually makes sense. They are open: chips understandably arranged on circuit boards, obeying programmatic instructions that the hacker can interpret, and throwing out data, wifi, radio frequencies, according to rules and laws that the hacker has studied. And because they understand technology, with enough talent, skill and in many cases bloody-minded obsession, they can make it – and the world that relies on it – answer to their commands. 

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