Tech solutions to the tech problem
"The insurrection was foolish indeed to place its hopes in the old myths of the Republic."
Now the Trumpenreich is kaput; the Bidennium has begun; and the Resistance has taken its final butterfly form—the regime which was always its destiny—the System.
50 years ago it was the Movement—same ideas, same people. They’re a bit older now. But now, there is no one above them. 2021 is the final culmination of 1969, rather as 1969 was the final culmination of 1933: the ultimate victory of a mature generation. Today the boomers have finally completed the system of hippie idealism.
American institutions in the ‘20s are fully coordinated. No one will ever again be able to pretend that any amount of air separates the press, the civil service, the Congress, the universities, the megacorps, the judiciary and now the White House. Like the great stones of Inca Cuzco, not a razorblade would fit in the cracks between them.
All these powers are of one mind—one beautiful and terrible mind, logical as the sun. And from now to eternity that mind, those powers, this System, will stand or fall as one. Such blocks of stone will not be shifted one by one. But no empire is forever.
Or is it? There’s a first time for everything, peasants. Grand Moff Biden is certainly in fine fettle. At least, his sage old hand is none too wobbly to sign a fat stack of orders prepared by his staff (who probably listen to this “rap music” he keeps hearing about), decreeing the instant and total destruction of some lingering hive of seditious rebel scum. Poof! Bang! Why is there an asteroid belt here?
The insurrection was foolish indeed to place its hopes in the old myths of the Republic. Freeze peach! The rising power of the System is not based on myth—but technology.
Peasants: take off your Viking costumes. Go back to peasanting—or whatever you do. Your foolish games will never be any match for the full power of a safe and healthy social network. Why, yes: we can pull up a picture of you from just your IP address. Hi there!
You will never regulate these people
So, if anyone is still working on “tech regulation”—well, what else could you work on?
Sorry, Admiral Ackbar. You had two years to get it done and two years to maybe sort of get it done. And you failed. And you’ll never have a chance again. Go have a chat with Admiral Byng. Maybe it was always a trap? Maybe you never had a chance?
Tech will be indeed be regulated, young Jedi. But not by your little “insurrection.” Oh, no… tech will be regulated by us! Not by the rebellion, but by the Resistance! Which you may now wish to call by another name, young Jedi…
It was always quite farfetched to imagine that any law, regulation, or regulatory body, could put anywhere near as much pressure on our digital infrastructure as the press. And no one can put any pressure on the press. Done. QED. The effort is pointless. I mean, it’s pointless now—but even before now, it was pointless.
This distance needs an illustration. To show that no one, not least the right wing, can put pressure on these corporations that comes anywhere near the power of the press, let’s imagine a world in which (somehow) right-wing power did exactly that.
A dark Christian fantasy
Imagine what a right-wing government, a really right-wing government, would have to do to make Facebook as Christian as it now is woke. A cross on the front page; a press release dedicating the company to Jesus; and a renewed commitment to a healthy and safe community with no tolerance for indecency, blasphemy, atheism, misinformation, profanity, sedition, subversion, or socialism.
Every corporation feels the same pressure. Every day a fresh batch of CEOs is born again, tearfully declares that Christ is King, and films their adult baptism for CNBC. Not that this stops the press from asking the hard questions about which important Silicon Valley companies are secretly controlled by Satan—this cynical Christwashing is really getting old. Every company puts a cross in their logo and thinks that makes them a Christian company. None of them means it. They’re all just out to make money. Have they ever really thought about what the Lord’s word means for their business?
But who wants to be sued for occult practices in the workplace? Sure, we’re insured. All the cubicles would have to be exorcised and reconsecrated—the insurance would insist on this, but not pay for it. And what do you think would happen to our rates? Witchcraft and heresy are some of America’s leading problems today. The law is the law—First Amendment and all that—but you can’t expect judges to ignore this reality... Look, Billy, we like you. You’ve always done great work for us. We’re sure there’s some mistake. You would never inscribe a pentagram on the conference-room whiteboard. Or anywhere! But the fact is, Billy—our keycard logs show you were the only one in the building. And you know—we have bosses too—this decision isn’t just up to us…
Here is an alternate America which is suffused with cynical professional Christianity. While far too cynical to be Christian enough for the real, hardcore Christians, it is far too Christian for everyone else. Everyone is terrified of the American Inquisition, but no one actually believes that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected. No one actually believes you can summon Satan in 15 seconds with a dry-erase marker, but everyone behaves as if they did. In a strange way, this opposite world is shaped like ours—but can you imagine it existing?
You can’t imagine it. You can’t imagine it because it just isn’t physically possible—not unless this right-wing government is just a completely different government—which rules over a completely different country.
But in this complete and total fantasy, a right-wing organ (the Christian press) has the same magnitude of authority that we objectively observe among our real press today—just with the opposite polarity. Since politics is the art of the possible, any real-world right-wing regulatory force would be many orders of magnitude weaker than this full-out witch-hunting madness—meaning it would be many orders of magnitude weaker than the opposing force—meaning it could not possibly prevail.
On a scale of right-wing regulation, if making Facebook a citadel of Christian purity is 100, making sure Facebook doesn’t treat kvetching housewives as “domestic terrorists” is maybe, like, 2. So it’s 50 times easier. It requires 50 times less power. At least.
And it still requires 100 times more power than you ever had, Lord Ackbar—even in the first two years of the Trump administration.
How to (actually) regulate Twitter
Like: just focus on the people who would have to enforce these rules. Who are they? How do they think? What will they do? The mechanism of power is always people—never pieces of paper.
As an impractical example, may I suggest a concrete approach? Maybe it’s what you already had in mind, Admiral. But I doubt it.
In Canada, when the revolution wanted to enforce its new race laws, without the bad, Cuba-tier optics of shooting all the old white judges, they created an entire marsupial judiciary. This had the added benefit of employing many good and loyal comrades.
Admiral: did you have something similar in mind—but for Twitter bans? You could call it the Autist Rights Commission—you’d pack it, of course, with epic power trolls, shitposting anons hardened in the nuclear fires of Salo Forum, irredeemable namefags who are double secret banned, like Trump and Aimee Terese, for evading bans on ban evasion—and this board of scum and villainy would of course be given the power, in addition to generous honoraria and an ample, talented and obsequious staff, to impose, at its exclusive and unreviewable discretion, arbitrary and unlimited fines—which monies shall remit directly to the Commission’s own travel and beverage budget…
I do think this would do it. But I’m not sure what else could do it. And the truth, I fear, is that you had nothing in mind. Admiral: in the minutes that remain before you, your little base, and your entire so-called insurrection, are annihilated by our star destroyers, you may reflect on the bitter fact that you were playing a game. But we weren’t.
Dissidence, not insurrection
But is any series ever over? Things are actually looking up—because it is not power that has slipped from the hands of the insurrection, but fake power that has slipped from the hands of a fake insurrection. The clear bleak truth is much more beautiful.
The election has freed us—freed us from false pomp and the desire for illusory power. Now we know that the only tool we have is technology itself; and the only purpose of this tool is the creation of a free digital civilization. Everything else can wait.
It is no longer the time for insurrection (and it never was). It is the time for dissidence. Dissidence is still rebellion, but it operates by completely different rules. Dissidence never challenges power; dissidence works around power.
For an insurrection network, or even a terrorist network, quantity of users is the most important thing. How many bodies can you get in the street? For a dissident network, quality of users is the most important thing. Lame people subtract value. Any new users you invite should be better on average than the users you already have.
Once objective achievement and objective status drift apart, the powers that be have abandoned true quality for fake prestige. The mission of the dissident is to sneak past them, capture the abandoned citadel, and use the enemy’s old bunkers as our new HQ. Our single focus must be on gaining and holding this high ground of reason and truth.
We, not they, are the true heirs of human history. All we can do is prove it. One day it will be obvious to all that they have failed, and we are up there; they will look up at us; and they’ll be like—fuck, I could never get up there—and then we will tell them what to do. They will obey, for we will have defeated them—not their bodies, but their souls.
It is not our intent to attack from these positions. Actually there is no good reason to attack the enemy in any sense, certainly physical but even rhetorical, ever. The one exception is for honest rhetorical practice—not to win, just to stay sharp.
Also, you want them to ignore you. The best way to do that is to get them to fear you—in a strictly intellectual sense, of course. Or rather, to fear your ideas. Or rather, to fear giving your ideas oxygen. They sure don’t fear giving bad ideas oxygen, do they? The best way to be feared is to be exactly right and terrifyingly gentle, like a well-trained bear at a cocktail party. This is nowhere near his first party—but he’s still a bear.
Eventually you will grow too important to ignore—and they will start attacking you. Your ideas—but also, you. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, and your defenses must be strong. Your first and foremost defense is the utmost probity in all aspects of your life and work. As a dissident this may not save you—but the converse will doom you.
Defending the idea park
Now that we know that the purpose of the technology war is simply to defend, by any means necessary, the birth and infancy of a new and independent intellectual space, a sort of idea park, to incubate the mind of the next century, we can choose our tactics. This time, the goal is realistic and so must be the tactics.
The old Federalists knew well that power cannot be tamed by pieces of paper; that the only way to control a real power is to set another real power against it. Let’s look at four further lines of defense—in ascending order of technical complexity. They all use this same Federalist formula, though with very different countervailing powers.
The best way for a dissident to operate is always in plain sight with nothing to hide. This is a strong position, because you claim your rights as a member of civil society. To claim these rights, you must obey all the rules, even the taboos, of that civil society. Or at least: to break them, you need an incredibly good reason.
The art of deep neutrality is the art of compliance without submission. Compliance is as essential as oxygen. Submission is both humiliation and collaboration. It is as toxic as cyanide, and there is no healing the scar it leaves on your soul.
To avoid submitting to an official doctrine, avoid thinking within that doctrine. Never touch its langue de bois, its jargon or its cliches. Do not appeal to its principles—even to accuse it of violating those principles. Do not even think against the doctrine. Treat it as if it did not exist—as if no one had ever considered thinking in this strange way.
Because it both enforces official taboos and prohibits official thoughts, deep neutrality is a code of social etiquette which is not less restrictive, but more restrictive, than the ordinary rules of our new safe and healthy discourse. It is anything but “freeze peach.”
Yet these rituals cannot seriously interfere with intellectual communication. In fact it is almost always easy to talk around a taboo; and often the game is even fun.
Since neutral discourse is compliant, it is very hard to crack down on; since it refuses to serve the official discourse—whose jargon is always a weapon—it does not soil its soul. While sometimes working within these rules is a little cumbersome, if you follow them religiously—your enemies will come for a lot of people before they come for you.
This doctrine of neutrality works the best when coupled with aggressive curation for quality. Low-quality dissidence is a pollutant. Dissidents need to actively filter it out. High quality is the whole point of being a dissident. If you operate with a definition of quality that includes neutrality—an aesthetic of neutrality—you are on strong terrain.
Power must be set against power. This convention of confident, compliant neutrality is a power, though a purely social power. It is not invulnerable—what is?
Client-side encrypted communication—Signal, Telegram, Matrix, etc—is a common tech solution that is, for what it can do, mathematically invulnerable. The power of math can defeat even the most powerful regimes. Some see this as cool. Personally I love these tools and use them all the time.
The trouble with encrypted chat is that the network has no state except at the edges—the whole point is that everything looks like random bits until it’s on your phone. So the set of social problems it can solve is correspondingly limited.
Signal cannot replace Twitter, because Signal is a mechanism for communication and Twitter is a mechanism for publication. Publication requires a server. Signal runs on your phone, which is a client, not a server.
A client cannot respond to outside requests and also, since it can fall out of your pants while you’re skydiving, cannot be treated as a durable data store. There are various ways to hack around these problems, all of which are weird and feel weird to the user. But it would be cool if someone could prove me wrong about this.
Protocol extraction and unauthorized clients
One way to peacefully attack the tech behemoths is protocol extraction—analyzing and reconstructing the secret protocols that their apps use between client and server.
Every app is an API. When you load an app, say your Facebook app, you are running a client program on your phone. The source code of this program is a big secret. To talk to the Facebook server, the Facebook app uses a network protocol—an API—which is an even bigger secret.
If these secrets were open to the world, any fool could write a Facebook client. This would set another power against Facebook: the power of the client against the server. For example, Facebook would struggle to force third-party clients to show its ads; even worse, multi-server clients would emerge and become the user’s true center of gravity, making it easy to switch servers and destroying the lock-in that is Facebook’s capital.
Obviously, these superior clients—a whole marketplace replacing a captive monopoly—would create immense consumer surplus. What Facebook has been doing is tying its monopoly in one market—social servers—to a monopoly in another—social clients. These are two separate lines of business that, if the Internet was used as the network it was supposed to be—a network of open protocols—would not be connected at all.
Obviously, this is exactly what antitrust law was meant to prevent. Obviously, the right remedy would be for a judge to order Facebook, or Congress to require all big social companies, to simply disclose the specifications for their internal APIs—and handle any packets matching these specifications, regardless of what software sent them. Congress could turn every app into an API, creating a Cambrian explosion of clients— not to mention a huge number of good American code-monkey jobs.
But of course the System will never do any such thing to itself. So that’s out, now. Still, sometimes when there’s a will there’s a way.
There is a will for one such API: the YouTube API, whose protocol is tracked by the famous youtube-dl project that—downloads YouTube videos. Even this is not easy. Still, it is physically impossible to create a protocol that cannot be reverse-engineered.
For a comparatively small amount of money, perhaps even funded anonymously, it might be possible to analyze, document and maintain the private protocols of all major social services—turning all their apps into APIs, and creating a compatibility library sound enough that a whole ecosystem of polysocial clients can stand firmly on it.
For tens of millions of dollars in code-monkey ramen (although you might want to spend at least as much on legal), you could devastate hundreds of billions of dollars in monopoly capital. Nothing personal—you’re just “commoditizing the complement.” How about it, donors? I’d maybe go with… ZCash… for this one. (Maybe the world needs a donor-advised fund that makes distributions to ZCash addresses.)
Of course, this magic library is useless if no one’s phone will let them use it. This is another good thing for donors to support: free-software phone stacks. Which will work even better if they can reverse-engineer private Google protocols…
The secure personal server
Protocol extraction is a hack, of course. Ultimately, everything is a hack until you have your own real computer. A client is not a real computer. It is a sort of half-computer. Only a server—one which is yours and runs whatever code you want—is a computer.
Ideally, owning your own server would be like owning your own dog: normal. Today, owning your own server is like owning your own bear: not normal. This is a technology problem—so technology can fix it. Think about all the things technology can’t fix!
You could keep a server at home. But if you keep your server at home, and you keep your digital life on your server, a skydiver could fall through the roof and smash it. While the skydiver would be physically dead, you would be digitally dead.
You’d rather have a virtual server in the cloud. That server could be as reliable as your Gmail. You know Google isn’t going to lose your Gmail. You don’t know Google isn’t going to start rummaging through your Gmail… how do you run a server in Google’s cloud, without Google being able to see what it’s doing?
This is a technology problem—so technology can fix it. In fact, technology has fixed it. In fact, Google itself offers this very service—under the brand Confidential Computing. The product is hardly aimed at consumers, let alone shitposters. But what is—at first?
The way this works is something called a secure enclave. This is a feature of the Intel or AMD chip your virtual server runs on. It encrypts the server while it’s running. It also lets you trust that your server is running on an honest chip—or at least, on a chip that someone with Intel’s secret key helped make. Maybe someday the government will make Intel make a bunch of backdoored chips—but this doesn’t happen easily.
So Google can’t even see what your server, running on its server, is doing—especially if your server uses encrypted onion networking (like Tor). And what Google can’t see—Google can’t censor. What Google can’t censor—Google can’t be pressured to censor. Who really thinks Google likes being pressured into censorship?
And if Google won’t take ZCash to run anonymous, uncensorable servers—someone will. And at this point the whole promise of the inherently-free Internet is back again.
Right now, your digital life is spread across the corporate servers of the apps you use. Each app has N users on one shared computer—like a 1970s mainframe. The software that runs the app never leaves the building.
In the future, your data will move to your own computer—like a 1980s PC, but virtual. You control the software on that server. All your apps talk only to your personal server. Multiuser apps have to work by actually sending messages between servers.
(As a bridge to this future, your personal server may learn the protocols your existing apps use to talk to their own corporate servers, and pretend to be your phone for you—letting you take central control of your current digital life, without any migrations.)
In this world, your digital life is as free and private as if you kept it in your bellybutton, yet as safe and secure as if it was guarded in Fort Knox by Jesus himself. Jesus would not know what was on your server—Jesus, in fact, wouldn’t even want to know. Let he who has never had a single bit to hide, launch the first denial-of-service attack.
Technology is hard, actually
So why don’t we all have personal servers already—if all the technology is there? Well, the hardware is there—but there are some small issues of software to iron out…
You can run a confidential server now at Google. But if you run any server now, it runs Unix on the public Internet. This is like saying it is an attack helicopter which flies missions in Afghanistan. Your mother does not fly attack helicopters—and when she does, she tries to at least stay in Northern Alliance airspace.
Unix is an OS originally designed for mainframes in the 1970s. It was so well designed that it works perfectly well as an industrial tool to run Web services in the 2020s. Like a bear, however, it was never designed for the home. And if you think Unix is a bear, meet the public Internet. Mos Eisley is a nunnery next to the public Internet.
While the personal server is theoretically possible, it is not actually possible with our '‘70s software infrastructure. To be done right, it needs (a) a new OS; (b) a new network. You don’t have to have done advanced research in system software to know this means: a new everything. You know when you go to pick up your car and—the mechanic gives you that look? But new everythings aren’t something our society is all that good at now.
Some readers know I’ve done some technical work in this area myself. But I try not to cross the streams. Should you really go out looking for new things? Or wait for them to find you? There is an excellent case for the latter. In any case, impressed by my rigid independence and stoic refusal to shill, you should concede to the inevitable and: