Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Good Life: Mobility, Anonymity, Freedom

The recent advanced in networked mobile computing has made it rather unnecessary for a large class of people—ones who use computers for work—to maintain a fixed abode: it is now possible to do all the same things, via the Internet, from any place in the world that has a wifi signal.
If your work involves designing, writing and testing, or simply running software, then all you really need is a laptop, with a way to charge it. (In a sunny place, 200W of solar panels plus a couple of 6V golf cart batteries, a charge controller, and an inverter are all you need.) If you are doing research, then it turns out that a lot of libraries have gone electronic too, and that there is less and less reason to clamber around the dusty stacks, looking for a call number that of course isn't there because the book is either checked out, misplaced, or lost altogether. In short, showing up is no longer important; all that matters is being able to get online.

What's more, such mobility has become a definite plus, as more and more businesses have become virtual, relying on contractors that do their work remotely. Most such employers hardly ever have reason to see you in person; however, most of them really, truly, deeply care where you are physically. They want you to be nearby, just in case. In case of what, exactly? Nobody can tell you that, except that it is important. I only mention this because it's true: it's something I know from experience.

Suppose you have a job that involve banging away at a laptop for 8-10 hours a day for some company whose offices are located in a major urban center. You could, of course, rent an apartment in that urban center, buy a car, brave the traffic morning and evening, and spend your days sitting in an empty cube behind your laptop (which you carry back and forth with you), overhearing inane conversations from people who aren't really your coworkers (inevitably, your real coworkers/contractors/clients/support people are on the Internet, and you communicate with them using email and videoconferencing). You have to pay rent, make payments on the car, pay for gasoline, pay for lunches from the cafeteria or from some fast food joint nearby. All the while, you would constantly encounter stressed-out, money-obsessed people compulsively poking at various electronic devices while ignoring each other.

All of these things are draining, both financially and psychologically, and so your productivity and morale suffers, and you spend more and more of your workday wasting time on Internet newsgroups and blogs. Your employer has no idea, or doesn't care, as long as you are in your cube and staring and the screen for at least eight ours a day. But demoralization can become so profound that it gives rise to passive-aggressive behavior and in due course produces something like a secret work-to-rules strike, for any endeavor can be brought to a halt simply by following rules meticulously and refusing to stray outside one's job description. After breathing the same air with such colleagues, you come home every night too drained to do much beyond warming up a pre-manufactured meal and taking in a dose of television, although more often than not you end up checking and responding to emails and answering phone calls even while at home, once again driving home the point that it doesn't matter where you are. If your employer is even slightly enlightened, then you will be allows to work remotely. Of course, you'd be expected to stay in town, in order to show up on a moment's notice (for what?).

Now, you could also do the same work from an undisclosed tropical location where rent is tiny, if you choose to rent, or where you can buy a house with a few of months' wages. In the mornings, you could go for a run on the beach and a swim, and then settle down with the laptop in a chaise longue in the shade by the pool, listening to exotic birds and watching neighborhood kids and pets run around unattended. You would do your shopping by bicycle. In your spare time you could go surfing, or scuba-diving, or go hike through the jungle and admire the wildlife, or party with the motley crew of international backpackers that happen to be filtering through the area. Since everyone around you would be happy and relaxed, you would be happy and relaxed too, and your productivity would soar, allowing you to finish the usual daily workload in half the time, and to deliver stunning results. Of course, if your employer ever finds out your secret, then you are in big trouble.

But how would your employer find out? Your laptop can connect to the company servers (which are not even where the company has its offices but in the cloud somewhere) from anywhere in the world. If security is an issue, the connection can be via an encrypted tunnel. Your phone is on wifi and you can make and receive calls that look like they are coming from the local area code. A friend of yours, who happens to live in the area where you are supposed to physically reside, has agreed put your name on her mailbox, so that official correspondence has a place to go. You provided her with a signature stamp, so that she can stamp checks and letters that you periodically email to her to print out and send off. This more or less completes your virtual façade.

What could go wrong? Well, most people couldn't possibly pull this off, for the simple reason that they are hopeless when it comes to maintaining their anonymity. They use Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, which specifically destroy their anonymity and lay their lives out there for all to see—their employers, the cops who pull them over, border patrol, IRS agents—anyone who cares to look. They load up their smartphone with apps that track their location. If they blog, they blog in their own name. In short, instead of being savvy users of modern technology, turning it to their advantage, they act like cattle for the slaughter, making it trivial for corporations and the government to examine and control, to tax and to monetize, and generally manipulate and control every aspect of their existence. They volunteer to be slaves.

In a very direct, simple way,

Freedom = Mobility + Anonymity

It seems uncontroversial that if you can't move, you are more or less in jail. It doesn't have to be a physical jail: you could be wearing an ankle bracelet, or just fulfill the requirement that you show up at the same place every weekday morning. Just being able to move, in a theoretical I-could-if-I-wanted-to sort of way, doesn't count as mobility. Anybody can catch a flight somewhere... and then two weeks later catch a flight back to where they started. Anybody can “travel”—for pleasure or for business. True mobility is in being able to go from place to place to place, keeping your base of operations virtual, limited to a name on a mailbox and a cell phone with an area code that matches the postal code of the mailbox. The two hallmarks of mobility are that your “public location”—where prying eyes think you are—is mostly fictional, and that your “physical location”—where your physical body resides—is arbitrary, irrelevant, and secret. The best choice for a “public location” is a US state with no income taxes but with high property taxes—but in which you don't own any property.

Of course, anonymity is what makes it all possible and here it is possible to go very far. The first step is to delete all the social networking accounts. Next is to start using email using any number of services that reside in countries that are not subject to US or EU law, do not maintain logs, and do not respond to official requests for information. Next is to encrypt all your communications. Clearly, you do not want your physical being to be associated with any electronic representation of you. If there is a public profile photo of you, it should be of someone else (more attractive) who looks like you. If you publish, do so under a pseudonym, or, better yet, a group pseudonym, because it is amazing how much the simple shift from “anonymous person” to “anonymous persons” does to frustrate efforts to identify you. “Tyler Durden” of Zerohedge is a good example of that strategy, and illustrates the close connection between anonymity and freedom of expression. Of course, if you stay in one place for too long people will eventually find out who you are (there are always enough busybodies around for that). If you are abroad, then eventually your visa will expire; if you are in a country for which you have a passport, the local authorities will eventually become inquisitive. And so it's best to stay on the move.

Thus, mobility requires anonymity, and anonymity requires mobility, and both equate with not just freedom, but with nomadism. And nomadism, in turn, requires that your status as a nomad be kept secret, for, as James C. Scott wrote in the introduction to his book Seeing like a State, “the state has always seemed to be the enemy of ‘people who move around’ ... [g]ypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, run-away slaves and serfs [emphasis mine] have always been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarization) seemed to be a perennial state project-perennial, in part, because it so seldom succeeded.” And so you should be a “resident” in the place where you don't live, and a “tourist” in any number of places where you do (sometimes) live. These are simple, uncontroversial, popular categories that require very little in the way of confirmation.

There is another potential benefit to this sort of virtual existence, but its importance depends on your estimate of the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse breaking out: it allows you to relocate to a place, or places, that are far away from the ground zero of zombie apocalypse (which is what every major city is) and to hide out in some calm backwater where your chances of riding out the transition period, when the zombies all eat each others' brains, in relative comfort.


Terry T said...

Yes. Mobility + Anonymity are keys to freedom. This reminds me of the concept of "Legibility" such that if you are anonymous and mobile you attain a level of illegibility to the State bureaucratic apparatus. And they just hate that. But it may be the only true freedom out there.

This blog entry also comes on the heels of my recent viewing of an older documentary called "Catching Out" about modern train-hopping hobo's.

But the all seeing eye of street cameras, satellites and the increasingly bizarre levels of "security" measures taken by every single entity in this country are making it so that it may soon be impossible, at least in North America.

I used to quip that we will reach a point that fully half of the population will be employed in spying on the other half. I had no idea that such a profoundly absurd reality could come to be close at hand.

Heisenberg said that observing the system changes the system. The realization that one is being watched at all times by anonymous sociopaths [aren't these people just internet trolls that got a job?] destroys spontaneity and eventually the spirit. There are a few will be steeled up to do what you are suggesting.

But must it be that choosing to tend to our defensible communities and to the defenseless among our neighbors must come at the price of relinquishing freedom from tyranny?

Silent Otto said...

Gday Dmitri , if only someone could have told Wilhelm Reich this before he started running around preaching free live , handing out condoms and advertising his Organoscope to all and sundry ....i feel sure the anonymity of the internet would have been rifht up his alley ...the only thing that troubles me simewhat is , would we love and revere him as a rebel and a free thinker , and would Kate Bush have sung a song about him, " Cloudbusting " , if he hadnt been public enemy number one and thrown in gaol ? , same goes for Tim Leary ,

Cheers Mate

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Wolfgang Brinck said...

Long-time fan of nomadic lifestyle though I have only dabbled in it, never gone mainstream with it. Here's a link to a posting I did on one nomad I've encountered: http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-hit-the-road-on-the-cheap/
I want to point out two extra hurdles the successful nomad has to overcome in addition to the ones you mentioned.
One is banking or access to money. While this is trivially easy these days with atm machines, using them makes one visible. One can of course carry cash although that is cumbersome.
Another hurdle is psychological. Humans are social beings and our health, mental as well as physical depends on having the support of a community. When nomads used to travel in groups their community moved with them. However, the solitary nomad needs to be able to connect with other people. The nomad also needs to be able to have a stable sense of self that does not depend on social rank or possessions.

Unknown said...

Interesting post as always Dmitri! My wife teaches cob building so we meet people from all over and have met a couple originally from Romania who live much in the fashion you describe. As they revisit places many times they have many communities that they are a part of. Wonderful people whose visits are always too short.

Sal from SRF said...

Hi Dimitry. I don't agree that freedom= mobility + anonymity. I think mobility and anonymity can lead to vulnerability (although I agree, stay off fakebook and its ilk).

I was a "nomad" for 10 years or so, the longest I was in one place was 3 months. Often it is lonely. It is true that we need a functioning community around us to thrive.

Something else as a nomad: You are very dependent on others to supply your needs. Almost nobody has the skills to provide all or even most of their food, clothing, maintenance of shelter (whatever the form), etc. With a community around you, you network and get help from your friends, family, and neighbours.

As an outsider, this only works when times are good and the people around you suffer your presence. But when times get hard-- and they will-- communitites look after their own first. Sure, live in a tropical paradise. The people will smile and take your money and all will be good, but they keep you around only as long as they need to. You need them, they don't need you.

As a member of a smallish community now, and having been on both sides of the mobility spectrum, I'll take community any day.

Unknown said...

I agree with Sal. Being nomadic in the modern world opens one up to a lot of difficult tests. I also found my nomadic periods to be lonely, but it was fun. Nomads have no ability to procure their own food, except in very mountainous ways or serfdom. Frankly I think you are best off if you are accustomed to a nomadic life, and yet have a home, land, and a base of operations. I don't totally disagree with everything you say. But freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Its a mentality, and being a nomad doesn't change it in anyway in and of itself.

I think you are talking about a very narrow set of people who would benefit from the full blown nomadism you talk about. Certainly not the very rich, or even the moderately well off. Very poor people also probably can't be nomads without severe difficulty. I just don't really see any sort of person categorically benefiting from nomadism in the modern world.

Kevin said...

As to deleting Facebook and Google accounts, I can't help wondering whether it can even be done. I seem to recall reading three or four years ago that Facebook accounts were soon to be made un-extirpatable. If indeed it is possible to delete them, I'd be obliged if someone posted a reliable source of information on how to do that. In my case, Google and others seem to tracking me by my device. I would of course have to start by erasing the very account I'm using to post this response.

k-dog said...

I cant' agree more with your advice to delete social networking accounts, use anonymous email, and encrypt. Slaves have no place in a sustainable future and people are blithely volunteering to be slaves. But enough people enforcing anonymity will make for an atmosphere more receptive to discussing problems and solutions.

Freedom is mobility and anonymity and powers of control want to take both away. Employers may have little reason to see you in person but they want to know where your butt is at all times.

To get an employer the LinkedIn social network is now de rigueur if one is to be considered au fait. Over 259 million LinkedIn members have registered allowing their humanity to be sliced and diced so that their 'value' can be electronically compared to others by others. People give hardly a thought to allowing bits of data to represent them from which decisions are made which control their lives. They give the process little due.

Sadly this is going to be a case of everyone not knowing what we've got Till it's gone. And we won't know what it is we did so wrong until all the freedom is lost and gone.

Terrace said...

"Humans are social beings"

One hears this a lot, but humans aren't monkeys or apes either. Humans will not, contrary to popular belief, shrivel up and die if they don't socialize.

As for Facebook, my solution has been simple: simply don't post anything on the account. Just because you have an account you can't erase doesn't mean you have to populate it with stuff.

I, too, have never understood this passion for posting things online under one's real name. In the early days of the Internet, nobody was inclined to do this. Especially I don't understand why women would want to do this. Not just because it attracts abuse from men, but because men tend not to take seriously what women have to say. If using a gender-neutral screen name, Internet users will usually assume you are a male.

Spanish fly said...

OK, Dmitry, very good ideas. I'm going to be more anonymous in my life...