The Great Hack is an interesting movie. We’ve been living with the internet for so long that it’s creepy aspects have become undeniable. The tech industry had a good run with “We’re connecting people!”, but the narrative isn’t convincing enough anymore. In other words, the tech industry needs damage control. The Great Hack accomplishes that very well. Some unpleasant facts about tech are now common knowledge, but that’s pretty new in society. As people awaken to the problem, they’re persuadable before they’ve decided what should be done about it. It’s about getting ahead of the story and framing it, which is best done subtly, in moments spread throughout the film.
It’s not about denial. It’s about storytelling.
The beginning of a movie is important. At roughly 3-4 minutes, the movie says that “It began with the dream of a connected world.” That’s not true. It’s tech industry PR.
Importantly, the movie is part of the same system that it’s about. I watched it on Netflix, which means that AI classified the movie along a lot of dimensions, classified me along similar dimensions, and compared those classifications. The movie was released by a studio, which means someone probably wrote a proposal with a section about target audience and market size.
A few minutes into the movie, I started to wonder how old the filmmaker was. They’re my age or older, so we’ve all lived through the events described. 2016 was a wake-up call for them, but people were raising these issues long before that. This is key: the movie’s timeline is calculated to make sense to the average liberal. The average person definitely wasn’t concerned about data and surveillance until recently. They signed up for social networks and connected with relatives, long-lost acquaintances, etc. The tech companies whispered in their ear, “We’re hear to bring the world together.” Millennials just don’t care about privacy. That way of thinking is obsolete. Until recently, that message was effective, so the movie puts the turning point in 2016.
Back to the beginning: “It began with the dream of a connected world.” In a movie that’s supposed to be critical of the tech industry, key early scenes are uncritical about tech industry talking points. About an hour later, there’s an interview talking about “I believe in redemption.” The end of the movie makes the Mueller investigation central. But now we’re seeing that the Democrats still don’t want to impeach. People’s sense of what to do was channeled in an ineffective direction. It’s about damage control.
The movie does a good job of building connections between things, showing a whole web of shady connections. It’s a question of emphasis. In fact, the internet began with the need for military command and control to integrate data from multiple radar sites, etc. when making decisions. The sites had to be networked. Later, the SQL databases underlying modern websites were developed by defense contractors. The movie mentions psy-ops and that SCL was a defense contractor, but these facts don’t change its story that “we want to connect people” was the beginning. That’s misleading. Netscape, Microsoft, AOL, and others commercialized the internet and sold it to the public. It was supposed to be inclusive and so on, but that was because companies were trying to grow a market. Nothing about the internet was ever primarily driven by altruism and human connection.
Fundamentally, the movie is telling the viewer that our information dystopia is a new problem. The present is discontinuous with the past. But part of damage control is limiting the scope of damage. Obviously, Netflix and the movie studio aren’t trying to kill the advertising industry as such.
So, what does psychoanalysis in reverse look like? Well, if psychoanalysis’ project is to heal neurosis in the individual by creating self-awareness, of making unconscious conscious; then this process in reverse looks to make people more unconscious, less aware. Adorno further suggested that a culture industry sought to deliberately manipulate the passions of the masses, and offered us nothing by way of creating consciousness or awareness. Mass media, he suggests, is a new totalitarian system that hasn’t invaded territories or set up garrisons, but has instead insisted upon itself in the mind. The next step was liquidating the self to whim of this new system. The self in this system becomes a malleable, useless husk without integrity at best. At worse, it encourages this hollowed out self to freely project externally rd all anxieties and amuse one’s self by inflicting the bassist sadistic impulses outward.
Alienation used to be a topic of discussion in Industrial Society.
This goes all the way back to Bernays, and it was extensively documented in The Hidden Persuaders in the 1950s.
It is my feeling that a number of the practices and techniques I’ve cited here very definitely raise questions of a moral nature that should be faced by the persuaders and the public. For example:
What is the morality of the practice of encouraging housewives to be nonrational and impulsive in buying the family food?
What is the morality of playing upon hidden weaknesses and frailties–such as our anxieties, aggressive feelings, dread of nonconformity, and infantile hang-overs–to sell products? Specifically, what are the ethics of businesses that shape campaigns designed to thrive on these weaknesses they have diagnosed?
What is the morality of manipulating small children even before they reach the age where they are legally responsible for their actions?
What is the morality of treating voters like customers, and child customers seeking father images at that?
What is the morality of exploiting our deepest sexual sensitivities and yearnings for commercial purposes?
What is the morality of appealing for our charity by playing upon our secret desires for self-enhancement?
What is the morality of developing in the public an attitude of wastefulness toward national resources by encouraging the “psychological obsolescence” of products already in use?
What is the morality of subordinating truth to cheerfulness in keeping the citizen posted on the state of his nation?
The only thing that’s changed is that we now that the technical ability to build the telescreens from 1984. There’s a scene in the book where Winston isn’t doing his morning exercises diligently enough, and the screen calls him out by name. We have that now, more or less.
Freeing ourselves from this problem would be much more radical than the movie implies. We’d have to fundamentally reject consumerism. But the internet itself relies on advertising now.
Around 26 minutes in, there’s another interesting statement: “We don’t want to admit that propaganda works.” It goes on about pride and denial, etc. But some people have been saying propaganda works this whole time. Noam Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent a long time ago.
Part of Orwellian dystopias is the memory hole. Every generation is starting over from scratch, from first principles, instead of building on what earlier leftists wrote down. The right’s had a coherent strategy since the Powell memo. It’s like the Republicans are benefiting from code re-use and we aren’t.
The testimony where the guy says “you shouldn’t win by cheating” is also interesting. As a vegan, I totally get the point of appealing to very simple principles to make a point. Nobody will disagree with “elections should be fair.” What’s interesting about the metaphor is that the guy believes in the legitimacy of the testing authorities. But Netflix has a documentary about that:
What if the current government is so corrupt that it’s irredeemable?
The movie is an interesting case study in the banality of evil. It’s very telling when the mastermind guy says “even they don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing at the time.” Note that telescreens from 1984 were built by some hipsters with emotional, financial, and family problems. Someone went from the Obama campaign to the Trump campaign because she was desperate to have some impact, any impact. In other words, the Obama campaign wasn’t principled, either.
Is her life really in danger, or does fretting about it make the movie more cinematic? She says the real problem is “polarization”, which is exactly the way Joe Biden would put it while defending segegationists. She’s a whistleblower, but her message is deradicalizing, non-threatening.
Early on, the movie uses 3D holograms to represent nefarious computer stuff. More Hackers than Mr. Robot. The movie did a disservice by not spending a little bit of time on an explanation of how recommender systems and clustering algorithms actually work. You can put a scatterplot on the screen and draw circles around clusters. You could say something about graph theory and social networks. There are academic journals and free online courses about machine learning. What Cambridge Analytica did isn’t actually mysterious. The NSA even released an open-source tool called “Accumulo”, and there are open-source graph databases. Machine learning is just training computers to classify things.
It doesn’t help the film’s narrative that all of this is actually done out in the open, all the time. It’s the basis of the ad industry. There’s Google Analytics in addition to Cambridge Analytics. So what did they really mean that their stuff was “export-controlled?” For all I know, that could mean something as simple as “the product used cryptography.” But really, the military psy-ops origin of these things is important. The movie introduces the idea, but doesn’t flesh it out.
See here. The important thing about social networking is that it produces graph data. Who has a lot of mathematician’s who’d know about graph theory? The NSA, Facebook’s research team, etc. In math, a “graph” is just a set of nodes and connections between them. Graph algorithms are a whole field of study. How would you explore all the points of a graph (search engine spiders)? How to get between two points (Google maps)? But you can also look at incoming vs. outgoing connections of the nodes, and quantify how central they are, etc. This means you can use data mining to identify key nodes in the graph, i.e., “influencers”, who can spread memes through the network most easily.
Another point about exports: the military is legally constrained against using psy-ops domestically. But defense contractors and political consultants are private sector.
The movie glosses over neo-colonialism as a factor in all this. It does talk about encouraging apathy among black people in Trinidad as an effective strategy. It talks about using African and Eastern European countries as testing grounds for propaganda techniques that are later used domestically. But besides Trinidad, we don’t learn which parties and which policies they were helping. Exploring that would’ve let us draw conclusions about their agenda. Importantly, these are the same techniques involved in “color revolutions” seen around the world.
It’s glossed over that, all over the world, we’re deciding elections in other countries, as part of a unified strategy. There’s also a whole academic literature of defense analysts talking about how to maintain imperial dominance. The Pentagon releases official doctrines about it. What exactly are we paying the CIA so much money to do? To a large extent, everything really is America’s fault, all over the world.
So the Great Russian Conspiracy was a small part of the overall information warfare domestically, and it was also dwarfed by what the US does in other countries. Again, then why does the movie make the Mueller investigation so central?
The movie ends by asking if we can ever have free and fair elections again, as if we did before. What this ultimately does is legitimize elections. Someone explicitly talks about the importance of redemption “even if some things stay broken.” This is called “realism.” Really, it’s just charming and disarming the opposition.
There were anarchists talking about these issues years before liberals. For example, Moxie Marlinspike in 2010: