Tech entrepreneurship is not a harmless or benevolent force. The industry is built directly on the exploitation of millions of faceless people in the global south who are driven off their land and forced to do the dangerous and thankless work of extracting (at great ecological cost) the precious metals and other raw materials that enable the tech world to exist. Once the technology has been shoved down our throats through merciless advertising campaigns, mandatory cell phone upgrades, and jobs requiring instant connectivity of smartphones, we find ourselves tied to their world.
Unlike us, this beast has a head that can be targeted. Kevin Rose and other venture capitalists like him literally design and implement this entire exploitive system. They do it because they are drunk on their own power, caught up in a sense of importance bestowed upon them by the type of wealth most of us will never interact with. Kevin Rose will rise and fall with the elites of the dominant order. While we struggle to be included in the trickle-down of wealth through dehumanizing menial labor, these techies, entrepreneurs, and capitalists take over the world. Knowing that at the vanguard of this tech invasion are people like Kevin Rose only increases our desire to completely stop the current insanity.
Taken as a whole, Kevin Rose invests in startups that perpetuate the process of alienation under the guise of social technology. It is, admittedly, genius: create the technological conditions of alienation that drive people to desperately consume technological products that claim to combat the alienation produced by contemporary technological society. Tech is now about creating and selling the new indispensable commodity that everyone must have in order to be less bored, less lost, less ridden with anxiety. We want no part of this disgusting and creepy game being played by a bunch power deranged man-children.
To this end, we now make our first clear demand of Google. We demand that Google give three billion dollars to an anarchist organization of our choosing. This money will then be used to create autonomous, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist communities throughout the Bay Area and Northern California. In these communities, whether in San Francisco or in the woods, no one will ever have to pay rent and housing will be free. With this three billion from Google, we will solve the housing crisis in the Bay Area and prove to the world that an anarchist world is not only possible but in fact irrepressible. If given the chance, most humans will pursue a course towards increased freedom and greater liberty. As it stands, only people like Kevin Rose are given the opportunity to reshape their world, and look at what they do with those opportunities.
We know that your security advisors are taking our analysis seriously, so if you are confident that your system is the best, it would be wise to give us three billion to see if we fail. Our wager is that you are scared of the viable alternative we would create. If you are not scared, contact us at our Wordpress website. Send us a message and we can go from there. Otherwise, get ready for a revolution neither you nor we can control, a revolution that will spread to all of the poor, exploited, and degraded members of this new tech-society and be directed towards you for your bad decisions and irresponsible activities. We advise you to take us seriously.
For a world without bosses, rulers, or cops! Down with the Empire, up with the Spring!
PS: The following devices and programs were used in this action: Microsoft Word (for Mac) MacBook Samsung Nexus (powered by Google) Gmail Youtube Electrical SocketAga
Excerpt from After the Protests
By ZEYNEP TUFEKCIMARCH 19, 2014
Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.
This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.
In Spain, protesters who called themselves the Indignados (the outraged) took to public squares in large numbers in 2011, yet the austerity policies they opposed are still in effect. Occupy Wall Street filled Lower Manhattan in October 2011, crystallizing the image of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent without forcing a change in the nation’s widening inequality. And in Egypt, Tahrir Square protesters in January 2011 used social media to capture the world’s attention. Later that year, during clashes in the square, four people in their 20s used Google spreadsheets, mobile communication and Twitter to coordinate supplies for 10 field hospitals that cared for the wounded. But three years later, a repressive military regime is back in power.
Thousands of people turned out in Istanbul last June to defy the government’s plan to raze Gezi Park, in spite of the fact that the heavily censored mass media had all but ignored the initial protests, broadcasting documentaries about penguins instead of the news. Four college students organized a citizen journalism network that busted censorship 140 characters at a time. I met parents at the protests who were imploring their children to teach them how to use Twitter as it became a real-time newswire, an organizing tool and a communication device for those in the park and its surroundings. One protester told me, “Internet brings freedom.”
But after all that, in the approaching local elections, the ruling party is expected to retain its dominance.
Compare this with what it took to produce and distribute pamphlets announcing the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, and a few students sneaked into the duplicating room and worked all night to secretly mimeograph 52,000 leaflets to be distributed by hand with the help of 68 African-American political, religious, educational and labor organizations throughout the city. Even mundane tasks like coordinating car pools (in an era before there were spreadsheets) required endless hours of collaborative work.
What if we look at all the revolts of the last few years (from 2010 on) as revolts of the knowledge class or cognitariat? So, we think of knowledge workers broadly -- teachers, adjuncts, civil servants, nurses, Verizon workers, the newly layed off, phone-center employees, programmers, the unemployed students and graduate students -- we read, in other words, the precarious in terms of the majority of knowledge workers (those who generate content and data for communicative capitalism) who have been displaced and disposed because of the very technological innovations that make them knowledge workers. My hypothesis is that all the revolts of the last three years are revolts of these e-proles. The current skirmishes around Google buses are thus absolutely key for understanding the current cycle of struggles. Likewise, university struggles aren't epiphenomenol or derivative. They are major sites of struggle, like factories were in previous cycles.
The problem with much emphasis on the cognitariat has been the focus on the entrepreneuers and billionaires. This emphasis tends to rely on rags-to-riches narratives: homegrown computers and hackers in it for the lulz. But these stories are of course capitalist fairy-tales that displace our attention from workers onto their becoming-capitalist. Success is when they are capitalists, huge amounts of venture capital, successful IPOs, etc. What matters, though, are those who remain knowledge workers.
If this inclination is correct, then the stupid media fixation on Facebook and Twitter in the revolutions is useful: it flags the activity of the cognitariat (I really hate this term, though -- is there another one? like cybertarians? digital proletariat is pretty awful, e-proles? what about e-proles? I think that sounds pretty good ...) It also explains the importance of Anonymous, both as actors and as emblems. And, it links people like Snowden and security questions into the class struggle.
So, looking at the protests and revolts of the last few years as the class struggle of the cognitariat would account for the persistence of personal media, the people protesting, the economic position of the protesters, and the political ambiguity of the protests. E-proles have a strong libertarian bent (I blame 30 years of capital resurgent). They tend to present themselves as post-political, anti-political (for example, in the Spanish movement of the squares). They are so fluid and spongy (whatever beings, imaginary identities -- I talk about this in Blog Theory) that they can be pushed, channeled in different directions (they have a hard time uniting as a class and so tend to concentrate around identity claims). So, the revolt in Ukraine would be part of the same series as Tunisia, Egypt, OWS, and Turkey.
Struggles of e-proles don't look like past struggles of the working class because of the disparate, individualized nature of media under communicative capitalism. But it is a class struggle nonetheless.
Below are excerpts from an essay by Christopher Newfield on the knowledge economy. Much of it is quite useful and interesting. I am posting it because I think it helps provide some good context for the reflections above about the cognitariat. Some folks might recall that this was big a few years ago. The discussion pretty much died down because knowledge workers weren't a revolutionary class. But, I am suggesting that maybe, in fact, we are.
excerpt from smart analysis of situation in Ukraine:
Eastern Europe has returned to the periphery or semi-periphery of global capitalism. This is the return of dependency and of the race to the bottom. Somebody from the region will always hit bottom, and it will not be Ukraine all the time. And outside the former socialist bloc things do not look any better: 25 years after “the fall of totalitarian communism”, as “the final triumph of Western liberal democracy” was proclaimed, the global state of democracy has radically worsened; structural inequalities, land-grabbing and resource-wars have multiplied, and the survival of the planet itself is nowadays an open question.
In the region, the horrible destruction wrought by the anti-communist, pro-capitalist reforms of transition, no matter whether a “right” or a “left” party in power, has produced invariably in every East European state the underdevelopment of health and education; mass poverty and mass immigration; select oligarchs, as well as a small middle class; and political, intellectual and media apparatuses largely alienated from the population and oriented towards the powers, canons and fashions that be. It has also produced very powerful military and security apparatuses, in both the West and East. And now the bubble has burst, not accidentally in the biggest country on the EU’s borders, apparently not big or powerful enough to avoid being sandwiched between major powers.
Ukraine’s own schisms may be collapsing the country internally, but many of Ukraine’s problems are international. It is only logical that the answer will involve a defense of the state, from different directions, although the actual victims cannot be reduced to the state apparatuses, and arguably have not been represented for a while by the state. The rise of far-right nationalists, against the background of the domination of cynical opportunists and local oligarchs, is an integral counterpart of the dream sold aggressively by the West in the same package with the counter-offer from the Russian East. That dream, which has captured in the past decades most local energies of betterment, has slowly expired throughout the region after the explosion of the crisis in the very centers of global capitalism. In the last three years, popular movements have exploded all throughout Eastern Europe, and all expressed an anti-systemic discontent. However, in spite of probable longer-term community-building effects, all movements failed to produce a common constitutional moment – most likely as a consequence of the historic annihilation of the left after 1989. Many such movements, whether from Ukraine or Romania, have come to be dominated or marred by nationalists and the far right. In the aftermath, autonomous groups have continued to work relatively isolated. No popular front has emerged. Reacting to the wave of change, the local Eurocentric liberals have turned towards the left en masse, but going only so far as to deny their previous role, and to support issues of anticorruption, human rights, a purer modernization, and maybe Keynesianism. The response from the political systems has invariably been denial, repression, false choices of “lesser evils”, yet more developmentalism, reinforcement of vertical structures, sometime support of local capitalists, even more secretive and quick privatizations, and the shameless use of movements to gain advantages over adversaries in the formal political sphere.
In the intense moments of global transition, social uprisings could move things very quickly, either for the better or for the worst. In times of conflict, there is a dire need for building communicative powers. Unlike Latin America, in Eastern Europe, the traditional mediators of consensus (for better or for worse), religion and nationalism, have traditionally been claimed by forces of the extreme right, thus standing for the opposite of liberation. These same forces have also used the vocabularies of anticolonial struggle and autonomism to reinforce the obedient political imaginary of a fortress under siege, rather than to build the sovereignty of the people. If the world is indeed transitioning towards another global system, such signs, as seen from the region, are not very encouraging. War, repression and sanctions are solutions only for the current vertical structures, political bodies and for the armed far right, all of which will continue to hurt the people. They all correspond to the common conception of power in modernity: power as domination, as opposed to power in the sense of serving the people. However, the discontents of the population are systemic, and keep on rejecting domination. In the struggle, members of parties and security forces will likely leave these structures if they continue to work against the people.
In early 2005, as demand for Silicon Valley engineers began booming, Apple’s Steve Jobs sealed a secret and illegal pact with Google’s Eric Schmidt to artificially push their workers wages lower by agreeing not to recruit each other’s employees, sharing wage scale information, and punishing violators. On February 27, 2005, Bill Campbell, a member of Apple’s board of directors and senior advisor to Google, emailed Jobs to confirm that Eric Schmidt “got directly involved and firmly stopped all efforts to recruit anyone from Apple.”
Later that year, Schmidt instructed his Sr VP for Business Operation Shona Brown to keep the pact a secret and only share information “verbally, since I don’t want to create a paper trail over which we can be sued later?”
These secret conversations and agreements between some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley were first exposed in a Department of Justice antitrust investigation launched by the Obama Administration in 2010. That DOJ suit became the basis of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of over 100,000 tech employees whose wages were artificially lowered — an estimated $9 billion effectively stolen by the high-flying companies from their workers to pad company earnings — in the second half of the 2000s. Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied attempts by Apple, Google, Intel, and Adobe to have the lawsuit tossed, and gave final approval for the class action suit to go forward. A jury trial date has been set for May 27 in San Jose, before US District Court judge Lucy Koh, who presided over the Samsung-Apple patent suit.
In a related but separate investigation and ongoing suit, eBay and its former CEO Meg Whitman, now CEO of HP, are being sued by both the federal government and the state of California for arranging a similar, secret wage-theft agreement with Intuit (and possibly Google as well) during the same period.
The secret wage-theft agreements between Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe, Intuit, and Pixar (now owned by Disney) are described in court papers obtained by PandoDaily as “an overarching conspiracy” in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act, and at times it reads like something lifted straight out of the robber baron era that produced those laws. Today’s inequality crisis is America’s worst on record since statistics were first recorded a hundred years ago — the only comparison would be to the era of the railroad tycoons in the late 19th century.
The title of this post comes from a question asked by a Greek comrade on our bus back to the hotel tonight after dinner. Dinner was excellent, lots of appetizers (mezze) and then mixed grill. The bus smelled of gasoline, had velvet curtains blocking the windows, and red lights with mini glass beads around them. Someone joked that the curtains were for security. Apparently the hotel is the site of a bombing that killed the director of the movie, "Halloween." It was also one of the first high rise hotels in Amman, renown for its prostitutes.
No one knew the words to the Internationale in Arabic, although an Italian said that he heard it a lot in Cairo in the first Eygyptian revolution. To be sure, he said, some of the singers were Stalinists. Someone said a lot of older Algerians knew it--after all, Che Guevara came to Algeria--but not so many anymore. The younger folks aren't so interested; they've lost contact with this part of their radical history, are interested in something new.
It could be that this is the wrong crowd for that song. The key sponsers are Global Voices Advocacy, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Hivos, EFF, Tactical Technology Collective, Soros (Open Society Foundations), and a few others. My sense the first day (which may well change) is that this is a human rights, civil society, NGO, democracy, advocacy and awareness sort of crowd. The topics for the breakout groups: security, story-telling, internet governance and policy, and information visualization. I think most people went to story-telling today. There was some very smart and important work being done to help people know what sort of details and verification was necessary for reports to be able to have evidentiary value in different legal environments.
The morning began in a style that I can't quite place: is it NGO-activist or US Silicon Valley corporate? I've seen the same in university settings, and it seems to me that activist students like it. It's the stand up, move your body, introduce yourself in 3 sentences, answer a funny question, do crazy motions sort of thing. I don't particularly like it. I was interested, though,in the exercise that had people step to the center room if they answered yes to a particular question, for example, had kids, were bloggers, were new to the meeting. It worked well in that it made people pretty cheerful and relaxed.
The day was structured very loosely. After sleeping some this afternoon (I expect I will regret this tonight), I showed up about fifteen minutes before my session. We were told it was running late, people weren't sure if anyone would show up, they would have to cut it short, maybe we should do it tomorrow, structurelessness's small cuts and redirections. After all that, we started less than half an hour late and had terrific attendance. The organizers kept us on point and on time. People seemed interested and engaged. We had heard that some had been very, very skeptical about having academics here--reluctant to be research subjects, not interested in being lectured to. From my standpoint, the vibe seemed good, an actual conversation.
I talked about communicative capitalism and the way it can open us up to thinking about social media and US imperialism. A brief quote from the notorious Jared Cohen helps establish the point quickly. Arguing that the internet and mobile phones can help reach the "disaffected youth of the Arab world" (and keep them from becoming terrorists which seems to be what he takes to be their default mode), Cohen writes:
Because the digital and technological world offers young people opportunities to generate their own media and entertainment, they are learning critical thinking through self-exploration, and they are practicing digital democracy on a daily basis, even if they claim to despise the very concept of democracy. Without their keyboards, remotes, and telephones, they assume a real-life political, religious, ethnic, or nationalist identity. Behind the technology, many of these “digital natives” are beginning to identify with a transnational youth identity.
Global consumer or terrorist. Those are their options. With that as a way to approach communicative capitalism, I went through a few of the features of the idea. My initial sense was that people thought the concept was relevant to the MENA, although in need of some alteration to make it fit with the neoliberal autocracy of a place like Syria. One of the Palestinian bloggers spoke powerfully of the affects of individualism on Palestinian bloggers, providing as well examples of some of the ways they try to work around that feature of the format. An Egyptian blogger expressed a sense of capacity to steer the mainstream media conversation.
At dinner I learned that there was not much of a discussion of climate or environmental issues in the Middle East. One question, issue, problem overdetermines all the rest.
In the contemporary US, capitalist ideology pushes non-stop on the throttle of individuality.
"Individuality," in the present context, is not the same as rugged individualism or personality, although it shares with these earlier formations an emphasis on the singularity of a self against others. Unlike rugged individualism, contemporary individuality doesn't emphasize strength as much as it does suffering. Unlike personality (appearing in a new form in the 19th century and well-described by Richard Sennett), contemporary individuality doesn't rely on an interiority that is both authentic and to be cultivated, expressed only with care and attention. Instead, individuality is uniqueness for its own sake, uniqueness as moment, quip, fashion statement, flare, comeback, quirk--the difference that registers as different before it is swept into communicative capitalism's flows.
Two elements that factor into the particularly US fetish for individuality are law and economics. Our legal system emphasizes individual rights. The peculiarity of US libertarianism is its inability to acknowledge that a right is only as a good as the force that backs it up, whether that force comes from the state or the community. Rather than part of a broader cultural appreciation for the imbrication of rights and responsibilities, duties, and obligations (part of the continental tradition), in the popular understanding of rights in the US, rights are individual claims to freedom. Rights are imagined in terms of the specific injury of a plaintiff, not the larger, structural, condition of a collectivity. Winning rights (ending segregation, workplace discrimination, marriage restrictions) has required not just legislative victories but judicial ones as well, which means finding individual plaintiffs.
The US capitalist economic system likewise insists on individuality. Particularly in the wake of the attack on unions, work is more and more figured as an individual matter. It's a choice, an option, a matter of one's own unique ability to work hard, play the game, think outside the box, be a team player, demonstrate leadership skills, give a 110 percent, seize the opportunity, and take risks. One has to be be unique, different from all the rest, so that one stands out from the crowd, shows that one has what it takes -- no wonder it's hard for some people to think of themselves as part of the 99%. The demands of so-called flexible employment (flexible for whom?) make the process of differentiation constant and inescapable: one is perpetually trying to show that one is the best for whatever job comes around.
The best are hard to find. They are unique. This is the lesson of Wall Street, whose finance wizards are ostensibly rare and valuable enough to justify massive bonuses every year. It's the lesson of Silicon Valley: not everyone is Steve Jobs. It's the lesson of professional sports (one MVP), of Hollywood, of all of communicative capitalism's intensified networks as they activate the many in order to generate the one.
How, then, does the left respond?
There is the rejection of leaders. Already part of the legacy of '68, the current rejection of leaders rightly tries to immunize itself from celebrity seekers attempting to use radical politics for their own advancement. Some of the best versions of this have been the common names Zapatista (including Subcommandante Marcos) and Anonymous. They replace individual leaders with a common name and image. Occupy went far in this direction of a name in common as well.
Yet it's also the case that people sometimes interpret the need to provide an alternative to capitalist individuality as an injunction to destroy any individual who emerges out of the left as someone exciting, someone to hear and read. Need passes through demand to the plane of unconditionality, to put it in the ever-popular Lacanian idiom. In this urge to destroy, we find the intensity, the excess, of desire. It's desire that is absolute, unconditioned, out of proportion, desire that abolishes the dimension of the other.
We learn from Lacan that this desire is incommensurate to any specific object. So, we would be wrong to think of it in terms of its object. I admit, this is a drag. It would be much easier to be able to point out that someone desires their own fame, their own power, their own glory, and then demolish them by demonstrating how this desire makes them hypocrites, failed and false leftists, even betrayers of the people or the revolution. This sort of cheap shot relies on a shift into the economy of the drive, into the loop of momentary satisfaction where one repeats the same gestures over and over, getting off a little bit, enjoying, but completely effacing the dimension of desire.
To think within desire we have to think of it in terms of its effects, its abolition of the dimension of the other. The question, then, would be who is the other who is abolished? Who is the other for us?
For communists, the other is the capitalist other. In the demand to abolish private property (ownership and waged labor), basic needs pass "over to a state of being unconditioned, not because it is a question of something borrowed from a particular need, but of an absolute condition out of all proportion to the need for any object whatsoever, and in so far as this condition is perhaps called for precisely in this, that it abolishes here the dimension of the other, that it is a requirement in which the other does not have to reply yes or no." The capitalist cannot meet the demand. It cannot even reply "yes or no." Morphed through demands, basic needs are not enough. Their satisfaction is just a vehicle for a more profound, unconditional, restructuring of society.
An effect of communist desire, then, is the abolition of capitalist other, and hence an abolition of class itself, the very relation on which capitalism depends.
It's no wonder that capitalism works incessantly at blocking this dimension of desire, at attempting to push it into the more present and frequent momentary satisfactions of drive. Capitalism wants to channel this desire into different languages and images, the ones that it provides -- that of individuality, specificity, uniqueness. For a left that has struggled for a voice in a place contorted by forty years of unfettered capitalism, this channeling is apparent in efforts to suppress emerging class solidarity. Even as a global proletariat -- textile workers in Bangladesh, technology workers in China, transport workers of multiple backgrounds, indeed, a mobile proletariat visible less in terms of national location, race, or sex than of interdependence along multiple vectors -- presses to build its collective power, the left finds itself attached to practices that undermine solidarity. Perpetually suspicious and mistrustful, it eats its own.
There are multiple versions of this mistrust. Sometimes it manifests as a preoccupation with process. Sometimes it manifests as critique and "problematization" before anything has even been carried out. For those who engage in social media, the left-liberal press, and left academia, it appears as a set of predictable responses and snarky one-liners, which then devolve into debates over tone, and various accusations, most of which are mean-spirited, many of which demolish rather than build.
In the course of the demolition, the capitalist is displaced as the other. He is safe, protected, no longer the target.
The only way to move through this is via an ethos of comradeship, a solidarity. We can't fight class war one person at a time. We have to be connected, solidary, and strong. Mark Fisher's recent essay in The North Star is a major contribution to such an ethos as it describes the practices that have prevented it from emerging as well as their destructive effects. Mark writes:
We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication. We need to think very strategically about how to use social media – always remembering that, despite the egalitarianism claimed for social media by capital’s libidinal engineers, that this is currently an enemy territory, dedicated to the reproduction of capital.
As I see it, examples of destructive projects are criticisms that attack someone for sins of omission, as if one person could do, think, and write everything, as if one person had the capacity of a party to encompass a wide array of positions. Criticisms of blog posts as if they were academic articles or even books are similarly misplaced as are attacks that proceed as if one article were all that a person had ever written.
What would the left mediapelago look like if we treated one another as comrades? Yes, there would be fights, splits, and purges. But they would grow out of and intensify opposition to capitalism. They would contribute to the maintenance of communist desire, not capitalist drive.
We also like to think that the Internet is still widely distributed as Baran envisioned, when in fact it’s perhaps the most centralized communications network ever built. In the beginning, ARPANET did indeed hew closely to that distributed ideal. A 1977 map of the growing network shows at least four redundant transcontinental routes, run over phone lines leased from AT&T, linking up the major computing clusters in Boston, Washington, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles. Metropolitan loops created redundancy within those regions as well.  If the link to your neighbor went down, you could still reach them by sending packets around in the other direction. This approach is still commonly used today.
By 1987, the Pentagon was ready to pull the plug on what it had always considered an experiment. But the research community was hooked, so plans were made to hand over control to the National Science Foundation, which merged the civilian portion of the ARPANET with its own research network, NSFNET, launched a year earlier. In July 1988, NSFNET turned on a new national backbone network that dropped the redundant and distributed grid of ARPANET in favor of a more efficient and economical hub-and-spoke arrangement.  Much like the air-transportation network today, consortia of universities pooled their resources to deploy their own regional feeder networks (often with significant NSF funding), which linked up into the backbone at several hubs scattered strategically around the country.
Just seven years later, in April 1995, the National Science Foundation handed over management of the backbone to the private sector. The move would lead to even greater centralization, by designating just four major interconnection points through which bits would flow across the country. Located outside San Francisco, Washington, Philadelphia, and Chicago, these hubs were the center not just of America’s Internet, but the world’s. At the time, an e-mail from Europe to Asia would almost certainly transit through Virginia and California. Since then, things have centralized even more. One of those hubs, in Ashburn, Virginia, is home to what is arguably the world’s largest concentration of data centers, some forty buildings boasting the collective footprint of 22 Walmart Supercenters.  Elsewhere, Internet infrastructure has coalesced around preexisting hubs of commerce. Today, you could knock out a handful of buildings in Manhattan where the world’s big network providers connect to each other — 60 Hudson Street, 111 Eighth Avenue, 25 Broadway — and cut off a good chunk of transatlantic Internet capacity. (Fiber isn’t the first technology to link 25 Broadway to Europe. The elegant 1921 edifice served as headquarters and main ticket office for the great ocean-crossing steamships of the Cunard Line until the 1960s.)
As we layer ever more fragile networks and single points of failure on top of the Internet’s still-resilient core, major disruptions in service are likely to be common. And with an increasing array of critical economic, social, and government services running over these channels, the risks are compounded.
The greatest cause for concern is our growing dependence on untethered networks, which puts us at the mercy of a fragile last wireless hop between our devices and the tower. Cellular networks have none of the resilience of the Internet. They are the fainting ladies of the network world — when the heat is on, they’re the first to go down and make the biggest fuss as they do so.
Cellular networks fail in all kinds of ugly ways during crises; damage to towers (15 were destroyed around the World Trade Center on 9/11 alone), destruction of the “backhaul” fiber-optic line that links the tower into the grid (many more), and power loss (most towers have just four hours of battery backup). In 2012, flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy cut backhaul to over 2000 cell sites in eight counties in and around New York City and its upstate suburbs (not including New Jersey and Connecticut), and power to nearly 1500 others.  Hurricane Katrina downed over a thousand cell towers in Louisiana and Mississippi in August 2005, severely hindering relief efforts because the public phone network was the only common radio system among many responding government agencies. In the areas of Japan north of Tokyo annihilated by the 2011 tsunami, the widespread destruction of mobile-phone towers literally rolled the clock back on history, forcing people to resort to radios, newspapers, and even human messengers to communicate. “When cellphones went down, there was paralysis and panic,” the head of emergency communications in the city of Miyako told the New York Times. 
Disruptions in public cloud-computing infrastructure highlight the vulnerabilities of dependence on network apps. Amazon Web Services, the 800-pound gorilla of public clouds that powers thousands of popular websites, experienced a major disruption in April 2011, lasting three days. According to a detailed report on the incident posted to the company’s website, the outage appears to have been a normal accident, to use Perrow’s term. A botched configuration change in the data center’s internal network, which had been intended to upgrade its capacity, shunted the entire facility’s traffic onto a lower-capacity backup network. Under the severe stress, “a previously unencountered bug” reared its head, preventing operators from restoring the system without risk of data loss.  Later, in July 2012, a massive electrical storm cut power to the company’s Ashburn data center, shutting down two of the most popular Internet services — Netflix and Instagram.  “Amazon Cloud Hit By Real Cloud,” quipped a PC World headline. 
The cloud is far less reliable than most of us realize, and its fallibility may be starting to take a real economic toll. Google, which prides itself on high-quality data-center engineering, suffered a half-dozen outages in 2008 lasting up to 30 hours.  Amazon promises its cloud customers 99.5 percent annual uptime, while Google pledges 99.9 percent for its premium apps service. That sounds impressive until you realize that even after years of increasing outages, even in the most blackout-prone region (the Northeast), the much-maligned American electric power industry averages 99.96 percent uptime.  Yet even that tiny gap between reality and perfection carries a huge cost. According to Massoud Amin of the University of Minnesota, power outages and power quality disturbances cost the U.S. economy between $80 billion and $188 billion a year.  A back-of-the-envelope calculation published by International Working Group on Cloud Computing Resiliency tagged the economic cost of cloud outages between 2007 and mid-2012 at just $70 million (not including the July 2012 Amazon outage).  But as more and more of the vital functions of smart cities migrate to a handful of big, vulnerable data centers, this number is sure to swell in coming years.
Cloud-computing outages could turn smart cities into zombies. Biometric authentication, for instance, which senses our unique physical characteristics to identify individuals, will increasingly determine our rights and privileges as we move through the city — granting physical access to buildings and rooms, personalizing environments, and enabling digital services and content. But biometric authentication is a complex task that will demand access to remote data and computation. The keyless entry system at your office might send a scan of your retina to a remote data center to match against your personnel record before admitting you. Continuous authentication, a technique that uses always-on biometrics — your appearance, gestures, or typing style — will constantly verify your identity, potentially eliminating the need for passwords.  Such systems will rely heavily on cloud computing, and will break down when it does. It’s one thing for your e-mail to go down for a few hours, but it’s another thing when everyone in your neighborhood gets locked out of their homes.
Smart cities are almost guaranteed to be chock full of bugs, from smart toilets and faucets that won’t operate to public screens sporting Microsoft’s ominous Blue Screen of Death. But even when their code is clean, the innards of smart cities will be so complex that so-called normal accidents will be inevitable. The only questions will be when smart cities fail, and how much damage they cause when they crash. Layered atop the fragile power grid, already prone to overload during crises and open to sabotage, the communications networks that patch the smart city together are as brittle an infrastructure as we’ve ever had.
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