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Shady Illuminations

Lost Highway

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John sees Google’s adventures in China as a road picture starring James Dean and directed by David Lynch, David Cronenberg, or Neill Blomkamp.  

So Google thinks it’s too big to fail? Even if it snubs China and threatens to take its search engine and go home? Excellent. From an entertainment point of view, I mean. It’s two crazy guys’ wacky adventures on the road to China.

Let’s review. Here are some key elements of the story as reported, accurately or inaccurately, in the tech press:

Google decides that it will no longer censor its search results for the Chinese government, which it acknowledges may mean that it will have to shut down its operations in China. Google says it is doing this in response to cyberattacks originating in China. Google’s CEO has dinner with the US Secretary of State and the next day she goes to bat for Google. This annoys the Chinese government. At the same time, an LA law firm sues China for 2.2 billion for copyright infringement and gets hit with cyberattacks also originating in China.

Google’s actions make it clear that Google has been collecting information about all its users all the time, for the use of national governments. Meanwhile, Google Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar services are all shown to be highly insecure, and are only somewhat more secure once Google turns on encryption by default immediately after the China incident.

Microsoft is planning to throw a lot of money at Apple so Apple will replace Google with Bing as its search engine on iPhones and iPod Touch, where the majority of mobile advertising is read. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been accused of ripping off an Asian micro-blogging site, the Google attacks are thought to have been enabled by a security flaw in Internet Explorer, and the same security flaw causes the government of Germany to warn users against IE.

Oh, and the government of Italy announces plans to censor the internet. Did I miss anything?

A Road Picture

I see it as a road picture in the age of the information superhighway. You remember those dated Hope and Crosby movies in which some exotic Far East country plays backdrop to the stars’ ad-libbed mugging and crooning? Like that. Yang and Filo and Dorothy Lamour bouncing around Beijing in a rickshaw chased by inscrutable IP pirates, about to crash into a clown car filled with government agents.

“Don’t worry. That guy’s gotta see us.” -James Dean

Part of the fun of this is trying to decide who will benefit. If Android phones suffer a backlash, it seems to me Apple will benefit. If Google search disappears from China, Microsoft benefits. If Google pulls out of China, pretty much everybody but Google and China benefits. Of course, pretty much every company doing business in China is doing it wrong, it seems to me. I do not mean to suggest that there is a right way to do business in China.

Pardon me, but isn’t at least some of this the kind of stuff the Internet was supposed to recognize as damage and route around?

Metaphors of the Open Road

But there are plenty of other things the internet should route around, and doesn’t. You see them in the unfulfilled metaphors of the open road.

Technological metaphorical crashes were already causing real grief and disaster long before the internet enriched the metaphor, but now those crashes can lead to traffic jams and other detrimental alterations to the crucial flow of packet traffic. Roadblocks are erected at country borders, and there are endless arguments about setting up toll gates or imposing speed limits on some drivers and granting car-pool privileges to preferred traffic. On-ramps slow the internet traveler via crappy maintenance, narrow lanes, and the unsuitability of the road construction for high-speed travel. Detours are inherent in the protocol: you have no idea over what roads your trip will take you. You only hope you don’t end up as road kill.

“Just take everything down to Highway 61.” -Bob Dylan

Everyone loves the romance of the road, but I incline to the darker Dylanesque view of the highway as a place where illicit activities occur and secrets lie buried under the blacktop. And, true to the metaphor, the information superhighway, which Al Gore never said he invented, paves over inconvenient truths and leaves untruths stinking on the shoulder.

Trapped in a Meme of Our Own Making

Does the information superhighway metaphor impoverish our perception of the internet? Then wouldn’t it be the case that the same metaphor must enrich our perception of the physical highway? Or is a metaphor not a zero-sum rhetorical device?

You say that the information superhighway metaphor is dead? But powerful metaphors don’t die that easily. Even as influential a thinker as Nietzche couldn’t kill God, although he did apparently get him to move to Utah. To kill a powerful meme, you need a more powerful meme. To kill the hippie meme, they had to parade through the Haight with a coffin.

“The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.” -J. G. Ballard

We can’t get along without metaphors. It’s impossible to talk about the Internet or any abstract concept without indulging in metaphor. We invent words for the virtual by overloading the terminology of the physical. And there are worse metaphors than the highway. I can’t read about photo “thumbnails” without thinking of my poor carpentry skills. Which leads to thinking about that scene with Wikus Van De Merwe in “District 9” or the similar one with Seth Brundle in “The Fly.” To me, thumbnails are metaphors of horror.

I’m all for net neutrality—provided it doesn’t start sheltering Nazi gold. Neutrality in the context of the internet is a metaphor, and metaphors can’t be trusted.

The metaphor of the electronic frontier leads to declarations like this:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

That’s John Perry Barlow, and I have to say, it’s pretty high-toned rhetoric for a Grateful Dead lyricist. Me, I love that kind of talk, and I think there’s nothing wrong with getting all puffed up by the inspiration of it. But I also think that it’s a good idea to at least try to extricate your thoughts from the metaphors they are embedded in before you start loading the muskets.

And that’s all I have to say on the subject. Except for this:

In case you need some help with the movie references in the preceding, David Lynch directed “Lost Highway” (1997), Neill Blomkamp directed “District 9” (2009), and David Cronenberg directed both “The Fly” (1986) and “Crash” (2004). The J. G. Ballard quote is from his book The Atrocity Exhibition and is repeated word-for-word in Cronenberg’s “Crash,” which was actually based on a different Ballard novel and which is not to be confused with the slick 2004 Paul Haggis movie “Crash,” or the even slicker TV series spin-off. The Ballard/Cronenberg “Crash” is unlikely to inspire a TV show. The James Dean quote is one version of his last words, just before the crash.

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland on a cloudy day in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He claims he failed his first driving test because he didn’t want to go anywhere that roads led.