The Last Free Generation


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My son Atlas is just over nine months old. He’s just started crawling, eating solids, and getting close to saying words.

One thing that’s been troubling me, is that he probably won’t have liberty (freedom) in his lifetime.

Liberty requires a few things:

  1. Freedom of Self-Determination
  2. Freedom to Defend Self-Determination
  3. Freedom of Speech
  4. Freedom of Information
  5. Freedom to Privacy

All of the above is more-or-less enumerated in the United States Bill of Rights. The premise of liberty is simple: you have the right to do anything you desire that doesn’t impede others strive for self-determination. Although easily defined, the term “impede” is where the trouble is.

Freedom to Privacy

Atlas (my son) was born in a world where every single person is tracked to within one meter of where they are at all times (if they have a cell phone). Everyone’s personality is classified, mood tracked, and manipulated at a grand scale.

Hell, as a one man startup, I write systems that predict the moods in real-time of nearly a million people who are communicating on the internet (HNProfile.com & RedditProfile.com). More than that, it can predict moods, identify where they likely live, family, and even de-anonymize them:

What does this mean? When everyone’s thoughts, actions, and moods can be predicted, we can be manipulated. Our government can identify “trouble” makers, the definition of which may change with the political season. Without the freedom to privacy, you don’t have freedom. I don’t see how my son can get that back. Thus, I try to keep as much out of the internet as possible.

Freedom of Information

Facts… the news claims to report them, we are shown videos, hear audio clips, read documents. Occasionally, we’ve seen “fake” news and information in the past, however there’s something coming that’ll change everything.

Synthetic data (which I also work on) is also becoming increasingly realistic. Meaning, the term “real news” will take on a whole new meaning. For instance, we can overlay Nicholas Cage on anyones face:

In addition, we can do this with audio, text from my work, and I’m working on improved video too…

For this reason, I avoid discussing or posting images of my son on the internet. With a handful of images and a 30 second sound clip, we can start generating synthetic videos and as it relates to privacy, we can construct real-looking scenarios.

What does this mean? When we don’t know what’s real — everything loses meaning. This is the death of freedom of information; poisoning the well so-to-speak. Worse than propaganda, because we can no longer distinguish what is real. Eventually, we will all lose faith in “facts”.

Freedom of Speech

Increasingly, communication occurs in a few centralized locations: Facebook (Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram), Twitter, Google Messages, Apple iMessage, Reddit, etc.; accessed via a few devices: Windows, Mac, iPhone, Android; via several service providers: Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile.

Notice, each one of those systems are gatekeepers to communication with the wider world. If they ban you, you’re locked out of your community. Discussions are not “free” on any social network, which arguably is where most of the discussions happening for younger generations. This will likely increasingly be true for people from my sons generation. These are echo chambers, further manipulating free speech. Communities are segregated and if you say something people don’t like…

From: billboard.com

Banning people today may seem minor and deserved, however the implications are massive. Imagine if Twitter and Facebook decided to ban liberals… It would be like silencing half the United States. Although that’s only occurring in rare cases today, it appears to be occurring at an increasing rate lately[1].

What does this mean? If only three companies control 90% or more of discourse on the internet and those three companies start censoring their user bases, we no longer have free speech within our communities.

Final note on this, when the government [attempts to] prosecute(s) individuals who are whistle blowers (aka Edward Snowden) or journalists who aren’t United States citizens (aka Julian Assange), our ability to practice “freedom of speech” is all but a farce.

Freedom to Defend Self-Determination

This is a touchy subject for some. The idea is that without the ability to defend your liberties at some point, they’re bound to be taken away. That doesn’t necessarily mean arms (weapons, guns); this includes legal proceedings to defend your rights. Unfortunately, with the FISA court, they can both issue warrants and gag orders, with the court not really answering to anyone. Meaning, there is no way to defend yourself legally.

Historically, this is where arms (weapons, guns) come in. It’s the final, ultimate check to a government. Are we there yet? Not quite, but say the government decided to ban abortion and make it illegal to be LGTB (after so many people have come out)? The only defense those people have will be defending themselves “illegally” with weapons. That’s, in part, why we have that embedded in the constitution of the United States.

What does this mean? To have self-determination, you need to have the means to defend it. Otherwise, you wont have it any more, typically when a tyrannical government comes to power. In the documentary above, a sitting representative, supposedly with the authority to review the NSA has their house broken into… by the very organization(s) it’s supposed to oversee.

Freedom of self-determination

With the above eroded away, with mood manipulation prevalent, 24/7 real-time surveillance, from devices we even install ourselves…

What hope does my son have? Self-determination requires we have access to information, the ability to choose the way we live (including privately), the ability we can decide who, what, where, when why we do what we do.

I was born free. My father was born free. My grand-father was born free.

We didn’t always have welfare, social security, and other forms of security. We’ve always had terrorism, and the risks of life. To a large degree, our society (and world) has tried to leave this Earth, better than we left it. Unfortunately, it appears as our society grows — it is suffocating what it strives to protect: life & liberty.

Today, my son has no hope for liberty.

All I can do, is provide him the best opportunity for privacy I can. I don’t upload his photos, I’m working on these systems so I can control their development, I donate to the EFF, and I do my best to inform others. I’ll fight for change, but the first step is to inform.

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2 thoughts on “The Last Free Generation

  1. You nailed it, Austin. Our kids will grow up never knowing what it was like to live without the electronic tether.

    Teach them to live free and unencumbered by our device obsessed culture and to make the devices and leashes work for them instead.

  2. I think you are pretty much correct on every major point you made here, which is terrible. Unless something can reverse these trends, I can’t help but believe that the luddites were correct. 200 years after the industrial revolution, and now “childhood” has globally become synonymous with a complete loss of privacy and control. Some will argue that it’s always been that way, because parents have always wanted to keep a close eye on their children. This of course ignores the fact that there are information-gathering / punitive mechanisms available now that would have been physically impossible prior to the year ~2000, many of which are available to distant state/corporate 3rd parties. It should come as no surprise that teens are becoming internet shut-ins en masse, because it is a coping mechanism to deal with every mistake of theirs being remembered forever.

    Unfortunately, there doesn’t actually seem to be a way to opt-out of this surveillance short of moving to a (currently) undeveloped nation. You might be encouraging your son to avoid sharing information unnecessarily, but will that stop the microphones in all of his classmate’s phones, or facial recognition software running on data collected from supermarket cameras? Opting-out as a collective is impossible as well, because the nature of this surveillance is that of an arm’s race. If one nation decides to forgo participating in mass data harvesting, another nation will be happy to fill that gap on their behalf (e.g. the data collection China is performing on US citizens). There are hundreds of thousands of groups in the world capable of gathering data on the average person, and only a relative few are required to build profiles that track people’s day-to-day activities.

    This is perfectly acceptable is mainstream culture, however, because the first world citizen has no shortage of physical comforts. The idea that this level of comfort could ever come to an end, while interesting, is just a far-fetched possibility.

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