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Welcome to Alphaville, Avoid the Ghetto

Posted on Jan 13, 2012
Flickr / LGEPR (CC-BY)

By Aram Sinnreich

In the 1965 film “Alphaville” by Jean-Luc Godard, a dystopian, futuristic society is governed by a sentient but unfeeling computer called Alpha 60. Emotion, opinion and free will have been outlawed under pain of death, and the human condition has been reduced to the ruthless calculus of Alpha 60’s circuit board. This regime is enforced, in part, by the presence of a “bible” in every home—a networked dictionary of permitted words that continually updates itself by expunging any reference to thoughts or ideas that may trigger an emotional response, let alone provoke a revolution.

A half-century later, the cinematic trope of the evil, dictatorial computer has become so well worn as to be a parody of itself (have you seen “TRON: Legacy”?), but most of us carry Alphaville bibles around in our pockets and purses. Yes, they might give us the gift of Angry Birds and allow us to share pictures of our lunch with our 500 closest friends. In some cases, they even help people to coordinate revolts and revolutions. But make no mistake: The world we see through our smartphones is a curated world, and its horizons are constricting, rather than expanding. Though they’re often billed as modern-day Diogenes’ lamps, outshining the light of day with the light of truth (or “augmenting reality,” in contemporary geekspeek), they would be better understood as corporate-sponsored guidebooks to our own lives, keeping us on the prescribed path and off the road less traveled.

Theoretically, there’s no reason that our smartphones, tablets, other devices and services shouldn’t live up to the hype, putting the world at our fingertips and giving us the ability to read or write any piece of information or connect with any person. The technology is certainly up to the task. The problem is that the manufacturers of these technologies, and the states that regulate them, often have their own agendas, and these are integrated into our devices, and our lives, at such a deep level that we can’t even see it—until it’s too late. 

There have been several red flags over the years, though these have often seemed to be the exception, rather than the rule, or of minimal impact to everyday people. Verizon’s decision in 2007 to block text messages from the abortion rights group NARAL to the group’s own members was one. Apple’s stringent, and at times anti-competitive, control over the applications we can install on our iPhones and iPads is another (there’s a reason we call it “jailbreaking” when we choose to install our own software on the devices we’ve purchased). The FCC’s decision not to require “net neutrality” on mobile devices, essentially giving carriers veto power over our Internet browsing, is yet another. Cyberlibertarians and free speech advocates may have bridled at these overreaches, but most people just shrugged, if they heard about them at all. With so much information to choose from, who cares if a little bit of it is off-limits? Infinity minus a million is still infinity.

The thing is, Alphaville is closer than we might think. With the advent of high-speed mobile information networks, the Internet is no longer something found in a box on our desks; it’s all around us, and there are increasingly few aspects of our lives that are not filtered through—or even supplanted by—its circuitry (a recent survey found that one in three Americans would sooner give up sex than smartphones). In the not-so-distant future, it may be integrated into our furniture, our clothes and even our bodies. This means that it’s no longer just our surfing and texting habits that are susceptible to censorship—it’s our lives themselves.

A few recent developments point to the troubling potential consequences of this situation. In August, Apple released the newest model of its massively popular iPhone, equipped with an onboard, voice-activated intelligent agent named Siri. Ask Siri anything, from “What’s the next showing of ‘Alphaville’?” to “Where can I hire a prostitute?” and she will provide up-to-the-minute, location-specific recommendations based on a quick analysis of Internet resources. In other words, she’s a search engine for nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Yet, for some reason, for the first few months after she appeared on the market Siri was unable to provide iPhone users with access to abortion services. Some iPhone owners even reported being diverted to adoption services instead. In Siri’s universe, apparently, Roe v. Wade never happened.

After an uproar from free speech and women’s rights groups, Apple apologized for the “glitch,” claiming that it was accidental, rather than ideological, in nature. Today, the problem appears to have been fixed. Yet the very fact that such a problem could make it to market, and remain unfixed weeks after it was first reported on, betrays at the very least a shameful disregard on the part of Apple for the rights and well-being of its customers. It also raises the question: What else is Siri not telling us?

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By railrider, April 16, 2012 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

Technology is just slavery offset. Siri is a servant you don’t have to pay. Your devices are
made in countries that have no concern for human rights or pollution.
So when an app is used to help figure out a tip for the waiter, no one thinks of the cost
both human and natural that was wasted to create such a trivial device.

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By TLR, January 19, 2012 at 10:05 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Does this so-called application allow an exception to those with a “Ghetto Pass”?

See for example @

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By gerard, January 18, 2012 at 8:26 pm Link to this comment

Cheer up!  Pretty soon we’ll all be afraid of our own

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By Tara, January 18, 2012 at 10:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s simple. Don’t buy any phone from any company that participates in spying such as Verizon or AT & T. Don’t buy any phone from companies which use sweated labor like Apple. Don’t buy any phone from companies which attack women’s rights like Verizon. Apple, AT & T, and Verizon are terrible companies so boycott them.
Boycott Apple. Boycott AT % T. Boycott Verizon.

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By citizen477, January 18, 2012 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

What proponents of this garbage need to understand is that the concept and definition of “bad”, “good”, “crime” and so on are always changing, not necessarily by the masses, but by the elites.

One never knows, but tomorrow, a “crime” could be defined as simply filing a complaint against a government agency. If many complaints and petitions are filed in a concentrated area—Bingo! You’re going to end up on this app and made to be ignored and avoided.

My whole point is that we need to think about what it is that we are doing, and why we are doing it. We need to think critically, which involves also considering long-term implications and who—in this case a large corporation with a vested interest in divide & conquer tactics—is responsible for introducing these tools into our society.

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By cpb, January 16, 2012 at 2:32 pm Link to this comment

Who else but the well off to have need of such a device. 
The less well off know where they live and they know
whether or not their neighborhoods are dangerous.  They
are also less likely to be touring far and wide in ‘crime-
target’ vehicles, accidentally tripping into someplace
more dangerous than their own hood.

Another sadly typical and reactionary approach sure to be
approved by dominant culture; Let’s not ask why there are
dangerous neighborhoods and look to address such, let’s
just avoid them.

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By Oceanna, January 15, 2012 at 11:00 am Link to this comment

Apps on “dangerous” neighborhoods are like gates at an apartment or housing
community, in that they give the illusion of security and control over your
environment.  I believe it’s a false security that discourages people from using
their instincts and observations. 

Siri is just another dumbing-down feature for Americans that creates a childlike
dependency.  People are capable of finding their way around and being alert to
danger without them.  I’d say they would fare better without reliance on all that
extraneous and distracting stuff.

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By LocalHero, January 15, 2012 at 12:51 am Link to this comment

Just another good reason (aside from the cancer danger) of not owning one of these damn things.

I feel smarter every day.

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By Thomas J. Coleman, January 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” to
cite the title of the ‘60’s poem and the excellent,
three hour BBC documentary of the same name earlier
this year. As that Ayn Randian political hero Maggie
Thatcher infamously intoned, there’s no such thing as
society anymore, less and less a human society in any
case.  Rather, we now exist in a cybernetic system,
where computers become more self aware, humans less
so, increasingly devoid of human values, as outlined
by French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul in
“The Technological Society” and “The Technological
System.”  And in his book “Propaganda” Ellul outlined
how, when technology and mass society are combined,
we necessarily got omnipresent public relations and
manufactured consent.  But few predicted factories
assembling iPhones surrounded by suicide nets, but to
money mongering technicians like Steve Jobs they are
the perfect, closed loop cybernetic solution to pesky
human emotions and human beings.

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By UreKismet, January 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

It is perfectly true to say most people don’t care about this stuff.
Tht is no attack on ‘most people’ it is an observation that tends to be colored with the knowledge that western societies in general are still in the early stages of the cycle of oppression.
That means not only are many citizens complacent “it won’t happen to me” etc; the agents of oppression are also skittish about upsetting potential consumers.
Of course that will change and it will be the oppressors who become overly complacent while the citizens become more aware of their predicament.  Then and only then will it be possible to unwind this tangle of greed we stupidly permitted to take hold of our social systems.

The tangle is so advanced now that the agenda for disentanglement is no longer solely in the control of the oppressed.  The timetable for a revolution will be determined by the greed and insensitivity of the oppressors as much as it will be by the oppressed.
At the moment the oppressors back off if they recognise their move was too early -see Siri’s reprogram to answer abortion queries.
That was an easy one as it is doubtful that change affected profits, the delay would have been a mixture of stubborness and reluctance to fork out the small cost of the reprogram. 
We know 1%ers are rapaciously greedy, so it is easy to imagine that within another decade and half, widespread poverty & injustice will have most humans champing for a change.

Change will be much tougher to get this time than it was last time.  In the latter half of the 19th century when the last great humanist revolt was instigated, most humanists were only concerned about the welfare of whitefellas.

That made the revolution a much easier sell for the 1%, they didn’t have to sacrifice much of their wealth, they simply gave whitefellas in the west free access to the wealth of unwhitefellas.
Most white lefties grabbed that with both hands, not giving a toss for their fellow unwhite oppressed. 

Indeed it has been the demands of unwhites to grab a ‘share of the pie’ that has left 99% of westerners up the creek.  Once again the 1% didn’t offer up anything of their own, they merely gamed the 99%ers in the west into giving their advances back, to fund a small rise in the well being of an unwhite 99%.

This time will be much tougher because we are gonna have to force the 1% to give up their wealth, not someone else’s.

That wealth will have to be spread to 99% of all humans, lest we end up in constant war.
There will be blood - something the morbidly obese western 99%er is not yet prepared for.

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By Okasis, January 14, 2012 at 1:56 pm Link to this comment

Teaching critical thinking to the virtual reality victims would go far to control some of these excesses. That, and the ability to take control of a situation that could go tits up on you if you are careless, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. Life is dangerous. It always has been. Seeking security often puts one at more risk than making sure you know your neighbors and that they know you. Strangers are only strangers till you meet them.

I learned that as a teenager, self-conscious, insecure, and convinced people were staring at me because I was doing something wrong. My solution was to smile, and say hello, and keep right on moving. About the 3rd or 4th time meeting the same ‘stranger’, they smiled and returned my greeting. I had so many ‘big-brothers’ looking out for me, I never had a date in High School.

Of course, I grew up in a bad neighborhood, and never worried about getting in trouble with anyone but the cops.  A friend and I once sought sanctuary at the Veteran’s Hosp on Beacon Hill at 12 am whan some guys kept following us as we walked home from the movie. The watchman took us on his rounds, and we even got to tour the morgue and see a dead body.

My mother wasn’t thrilled with this tale when I got home at 3 a.m. - safe and sober.

IMO, in any urban landscape, your most likely threat is the Cop. They have the badges, guns, and authority to lie with no restraint. On top of which, none of them has ever helped me when I needed help. It’s far easier to arrest the victim than an armed spouse bent on doing damage.

No matter how bad the neighborhood, you can always walk up to any door as if you live there and scream for help if necessary. Also, don’t forget that anything can be a weapon in an emergency. A rock thru a window will bring out the better half of the population. Some ass-hole afraid to get involved is far more likely to be found in the middle-class neighborhood than in a “Bad” one. At least the people in a disadvantaged neighborhood have a grudge they are willing to act on if they get the chance.

Take control of your own life - It’s the only one you get in this world, so why waste it?

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By db Schell, January 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a very well written article. Congrats. Of course corporate control over our
lives extends well beyond the smartphone.

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By db Schell, January 14, 2012 at 12:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a very well written article. Congrats.

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By gerard, January 14, 2012 at 11:38 am Link to this comment

Better free Bradley Manning and Julian Assange and hope other “whistle blowers”
like them keep on top of Internet freedom.  Better hope Anonymous and other
hackers maintain social and moral standards as the basis of institutional integrity. 
Better be sure that kids are taught from early years what to trust, what not to
trust, how to recognize fact from fiction, why it is more rewarding to be good than
to be bad, etc.  etc.  Better reconstitute (read Constitution) legal rights to
strengthen democratic rule and get rid of authoritarianism.  Better prevent the 99%
versus 1% imbalance.  Better Occupy Wall Street. Better stop supporting secrecy
fear and war. Better believe a better world is possible, and find joy in working for
more peace and justice. Better learn all you can.  Better pull together.

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By kerryrose, January 14, 2012 at 10:13 am Link to this comment


That sentiment happens to be my reality.  If you are lucky enough to have support system of trusted friends and relatives to give you loving and honest advice… more power to you!

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By EmileZ, January 14, 2012 at 10:05 am Link to this comment

@ Kerryrose

Perhaps you should reconsider that statement or sentiment or whatever.


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By kerryrose, January 14, 2012 at 9:17 am Link to this comment


When you are alone, any advise is good advise.

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By EmileZ, January 14, 2012 at 8:27 am Link to this comment

@ Kerryrose

I think you misinterpreted my comments.

Crime statistics can be more or less relevant depending on who you are and what is considered and recorded as a crime.

Looking to “Siri” to calculate your life decisions is fucking stupid and disgusting in a way that no algorithm could possibly calculate.

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By bpawk, January 14, 2012 at 8:05 am Link to this comment

What this article makes clear is that even though people have access to more information than ever, they still can’t think for themselves.  They care about the monarchy or celebrities or sport stars but nothing about how to make their lives or the planet a better place to live. A lot of people have false consciousness and don’t even identify with their own economic class and turn to the elites to make the laws for them even to their detriment. Of course the large media are owned by people who want sheeple to control ... People don’t question the unfair system in which we live but try to find a way to live in it, letting others make their decisions for them..

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By kerryrose, January 14, 2012 at 6:42 am Link to this comment


‘Bad’ neighborhoods aren’t about color.  I moved to another ‘poor’ neighborhood where crime was less.  I wouldn’t expect Siri to tell me minority neighborhoods are ‘bad’ but to calculate crime statistics and give me that information.

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By EmileZ, January 14, 2012 at 6:21 am Link to this comment

@ Kerryrose

I just can’t let this go.

When I was in Philly, I lived in predominately white neighborhood called East Falls for a while. The former mayor Ed Rendell lived there.

One evening, I was beaten up, stripped naked, and burned with cigarettes by a group of meatheads out on the street.

When I lived in North Philly, the “bad neighborhood” where the black people resided, I had no problems with anyone.

Similarly, when I lived as a teenager in the upper middle-class area of Bellevue, WA, Many people I knew were terrorized and beaten up by jocks.

My girlfriend and her sisters had some nut lurking around their house at night, peering in the windows and masturbating. And there was other shit, but I wont go into it.

When I moved to a “bad neighborhood” in Seattle, I had no trouble with anyone. Though there were some assholes that harassed my girlfriend.

Later, when I moved to the “univeristy district” where college kids resided, I and many of my friends, and many many others were attacked and severely beaten for no reason at all.

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By EmileZ, January 14, 2012 at 5:58 am Link to this comment

@ Kerryrose

If you were “even poorer” where would you have moved instead???

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By kerryrose, January 14, 2012 at 5:08 am Link to this comment

In all honesty, I have run into bad trouble by getting off the subway station in dangerous neighborhoods.  In fact, my first independent move in NYC was to a bad neighborhood (I was even poorer then) and there were disasterous consequences.  I was chased home at night and taunted by my pursuer.  I was grabbed and hurt during an attempted rape.  My apartment was broken into and robbed of the few possessions that I owned.  I was terrorized by people banging on the door at night and wiggling the lock.

The author (living in his suburban home) can talk about ‘harming deprived neighborhoods’ with insufferable Liberalness, but I wish I had a Siri when I was 23.  She could have saved me much pain.

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By EmileZ, January 14, 2012 at 3:36 am Link to this comment

Kill your “smartphone”.

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By Okasis, January 14, 2012 at 12:49 am Link to this comment

Purplewolf, As a good US democrat [little ‘d’], I’ll program the Robot, thank you very much.

The rest of you can trust me to look after your lives, and property, and best interests. Won’t be any worse than what we have now, I guarantee it.

As for the Robot, I really recommend reading the ‘Reflection’. Agree or not, the intellectual depth is amazing from a guy who died last week - at least according to Twitter.

Hope I can do as well in another 10 years - otherwise I’ll have to depend on others for some of that Maybe we could have a Primary to nominate the new Programmers…

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By purplewolf, January 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm Link to this comment

gee my other post must be being proofread.never showed up.censorship.

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By purplewolf, January 13, 2012 at 11:22 pm Link to this comment

Oaksis: But who programs the robot and what did they put in that program. It can also be manipulated to do as “Big Brother” wants anyway.

On the “who knows what else” part. Many food companies years ago have placed nano dots basically on packages of their products like Kraft and their Philadelphia Cream Cheese. They monitor when you buy it as it leaves the store, how long you have it as they are tracking where it ends up-you house usually-and when you throw the package out to see how long it takes you to use it up. You know the toll free phone numbers on most food products where you can call and comment on? A friend of mine was not happy with a product so she called to tell them. Now this woman pays cash only -no store membership discount cards so you would figure they cannot track the items she buys, so companies shouldn’t know what you purchased for food-nor the gov,-you would be wrong. They already know. So this woman gets a customer service worker and told her about the product and this c.s.worker said to my friend, “Oh, I see you also bought 3 other boxes of ...and told her the different flavors she bought. This really freaked out my friend as they can track what you have in your house for products and the only way they could have done this is through some super spy programs that must somehow scan your property as you talk to them on the phone. Remember she used NO store membership discounts cards, cash only, no coupons, should be no way to know what was in her house, but they did. We used to joke that Homeland Security, NSA and other spy agencies know how many sheets of toilet paper you use every time you use the bathroom, now they do. I betcha, betcha.

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By Zeitgeist, January 13, 2012 at 9:35 pm Link to this comment

A most truthful exposure . But what can “we the 99% ” , do about it ? Stop buying
electronics and computers ? Go away to live in forests and mountains, away from the
“madding crowd” ? Or,to learn to live with it? Life , for an ordinary mortal is confiding
as such even before the information highway was laid. But highways and bye- passes
always channelizes traffic . It has it’s own merits but you will miss the flowers and some
of the fauna and flora enroute. It is unavoidable and desirable if you are in a hurry to
hit your destination. Intellectually & philosophically, one may find demerits in using
highways for traveling but practically highways are expeditors and not impediments.
“We the 99% “, can’t change the world , but I’ll have to suffer being led by our noses if
we want to catch up with the 1% . Or, we should remain mulish and deliberately avoid
information highways sticking to our good old paths of gathering information at snail-
pace through hard copies and libraries , personal visits and individual analysis. Choice
is yours. All that we can do is to be intellectually aware of the limitations and pitfalls of
the information highways and don’t put our blind uncritical faith on it.we should retain
our individual freedom to stray from it when we so desire.

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By Okasis, January 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm Link to this comment

Canuck, I don’t know if I agree or not. About half of my family avoid the ever-creeping intelligence gathering as much as possible, anyway - no ‘Social Networking’, no gsp, spend cash rather then using plastic, etc, as much as possible.

But, the problem for me is that the circle keeps getting smaller with the chips added to driver’s licenses, passports, and now one can be installed in your body with your complete medical history imbedded - plus who knows what else, of course.

Assuming that the average person doesn’t care may be a mistake. I mention this stuff to just about everyone I talk to, and most of them react adversely, rather then pooh-pooh the problem.

Here in Hawaii, they just announced that the new DLs will have the micro-chipped identity info imbedded, starting March 5th. That law was passed in 2005, and I thought it had been done in by the multi-state law suits. No, they just left it on the back burner till our attention was elsewhere.

At least I can renew early, as my license expires in May. Many states give citizens a much shorter window for things like this - and we get 8 year DLs, so at 75, I may not have to face this problem again.

Of course, Fidel has a much better suggestion for the new ability to gather and analyze all this trivia and random data. He thinks the US should create a robot that is able to assess all the possible results of an action in an instant and choose the best course to take. Then we could all vote for the Robot and at least know it wasn’t basing its decisions on how much money passed hands, or some religious fetish, or prejudice buried in the mind of a human candidate.

I am definitely voting for the Robot, btw. has the Reflection for Jan 4th.

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By SarcastiCanuck, January 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Big Brother is getting bigger all the time baby.The really unfortunate thing is that most of the lemmings couldn’t care less anyways.

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