Talk at Skeptech - Manuscripts don't burn

In April, I gave a talk at Skeptech, a fantastic event put together by Mark Hurst to question what the internet’s become lately.

The video of the talk is here. My section starts around 1:12:00, but I really encourage you to listen to all of it.

Thank you to WFMU for hosting.

This is the transcript I wrote for my speaker’s notes. It doesn’t 100% match up with what I talked about, but follows the spirit of the talk.

Hi, I’m Vicki. I’m a data scientist, which means, for work, I look at data about how people behave to understand what they’re thinking. I was born in Russia and live mostly online. In my spare time, I write. Back in the days when I didn’t have a toddler, I was working on a novel set in the Soviet Union in 1937.

Why 1937? Because it was in the middle of the Great Purge, arguably the most tragic period in Soviet history. During that time, Stalin liquidated anyone who didn’t agree with the party’s ideals, which were always in flux, depending on who was interpreting them.

Anywhere from 600,000 to three million people were murdered during those years. No one knows for sure, because many Russian government records are still strictly classified. It was also extremely easy to become an unperson, to have your entire life erased, meaning you couldn’t be counted. This happened even to people like Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB), who was one of the engineers of this era of fear. He himself was tortured and murdered in complete secrecy in a torture basement built to his own spec.

But the even scarier part is that, in the 1920s, the Soviet Union was pretty progressive. The fresh, new feel of the revolution made Russia feel like a whole new world for artists and writers alike. The new government pushed for many progressive ideas. In addition to banning private property, it also gave women equal rights to men under marriage, legalized abortion, and gave legitimacy to children born out of wedlock. People made modern art. It was a period of free speech more than existed in the United States at the time.

So, I was really interested in how things changed and how people adapted. In a lot of my research, I found a lot of parallels between the inner lives of people in Russia in the 1930s, to how people are using the Internet today.

Now, a huge caveat. I do NOT AT ALL think we are anywhere near 1937 in Russia. But, we are at an inflection point where we need to stop to think about what the following means:

Then: First, people become anonymous. Many writers in those days wrote under pen names. And then, chastushki started going around. Traditionally in Russian culture, chastushki were short, rhyming folk songs that consisted of several couplets filled with irony, set to music. Since they came out of the people, no one could determine their source, and many chastushki included political jokes or statements that would have never been permitted by the government.

Now: Today, anonymity is a luxury. Facebook makes you use your real name. Google tried. Twitter just this week rolled out a set of measures that makes it easier to target you to advertisers. I’m seeing a lot of backlash to this. I’m seeing a lot of my friends, particularly those high up on the professional ladder and from former Soviet backgrounds, switch to using their first name and their middle name as their last name, or similar. and other microblogging services where you are not at all tracked exist.

Then: Second, the people who become vocal are the ones who are acceptable under the platform. After the 1920s passed and the Soviet Union went under the Iron Curtain, all the experimental artists, the avant-garde, and surrealists, either fled the country, tampered down, or committed suicide. Plays became strictly about the Soviet ideal. Everything became standardized and boring.

Now: Remember how many different sites we used to have? Now everyone has to play by Facebook or Google’s rules. What happens if they don’t? They get kicked off the platform, a type of silence.

Then: And third and most dangerous, people start self-censoring. For example, many people burned their diaries when they knew the black Marias were coming for them. Many censored out lines that complained about food shortages. Journalists, knowing that their stories would get cut, specifically picked ones that glorified communism. The amount of paranoia and fear around sharing thoughts in the Soviet Union persisted until it dissolved. In 2006, my dad and I went to Russia to visit family. We stayed in a fancy hotel in Moscow. Whenever I said something semi-private in the hotel room, my dad shook his head. It was 2006, he had been gone from Russia for over fifteen years, and he was still paranoid about talking in the hotel room. There is even a phrase for this in Russian: “это не телефонный разговор.” It’s not a telephone conversation. Better to meet in person. No one trusts the medium, or themselves.

Today: If you don’t “86% of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.”

Here is what scares me about all of this: We are, again, not in any way close to 1937, but history never repeats, as Mark Twain said, it rhymes.

We are not headed to Gulags. But we are headed into a period to a narrowing of human thought. Think of how many clickbait articles you see online every day instead of real ones.

When we have a narrowing of human thought, people like Mikhail Bulgakov slip through the cracks. Already a famous author and one sanctioned by Stalin, he nevertheless struggled for years on a book called “Master and Margarita, “ a great, sprawling satire of a novel where the devil, called Woland, disguised as a handsome foreigner, visits modern-day Moscow and causes a pandemonium by living among the confused, fearful, cynical Muscovites, and finally disappears.

There was an obvious analogy of Woland to Stalin, a plot line involving Jesus, and naked witches flying above the city. So obviously, the book could never be published as it was. Bulgakov was forever tortured by the fact that his creative work was never legitimized and approved. He begged Stalin personally be allowed to leave from the Soviet Union. He struggled against the state with every fiber of his being. And, he ended up burning his manuscript because of the futility of the task.

He was never published in his lifetime, and died with his greatest life’s work still in manuscript form. Later, in the 1970s, his work was published underground. My mom, a teenager at the time, was given Master and Margarita as a typed-up bound book of onionskin pages - samizdat. She had two days to read it before passing it on. She read it in one night under her covers, spellbound.

Bulgakov’s experience gave rise to a phrase in the finished book later on, “Manuscripts don’t burn.” In writing this, Bulgakov meant that whatever narrative you’re working on in your head, human thought, can’t die, because humans can’t stop thinking things, even if the government wants them to.

For writers, for all humans really, what makes us human is that we have thoughts that we carry inside of us all the time. Those can never be changed or conquered, because that’s the nature of the human spirit. We can’t change who we are and what we think. That’s why we do things like go to the moon and learn to read even though we’re blind and deaf, why we decide to climb Mount Everest, or in the most mundane sense, why we go through life on a day-to-day basis: the richness of our inner dialogue, our hopes, dreams, and beliefs, keeps us going.

Тhinking about things, in a random way, out of the eye of judgment, is how we’re designed to process the world. And some of those thoughts will be weird, and that’s ok , because human experiences are designed to be temporal.

Coming back to modern day, how is this relevant? Because we are building tools to enable self-censorship, mediocrity, and loss of creativity not even in the name of some grand ideology, but because we want to track how much time users spend on our sites, because we ostensibly want to optimize for advertising, because we can.

And the more we do that, the harder we dig into what our users are doing, particularly given the rise of social media company collaboration with the government, the more users will become paranoid and scared, and the more we have to lose in the internet. Because, how does thought monitoring happen today? We don’t need to go far to see it.

Here’s something that happened a couple weeks ago: A leaked document revealed that Facebook targets teenagers when they’re at their most emotional. “Monday-Thursday is about building confidence; the weekend is for broadcasting achievements,” the document said, according to the report.” In 2013, Facebook was also testing the ability to potentially track keystrokes (whether they have this capability or use it now, it’s impossible to say. ) in order to, ironically, figure out whether people self-censor on social media.

The combined fear of government, plus an ever-growing surveillance state, means we are saying more than ever, but meaning less and less. This is not healthy, and this is not what the internet was meant for. If the internet is indeed an outlet for human expression, we need to do much, much better. But how?

How do we solve this?

First, we can build experiences that are optionally temporal in nature. Something that a lot of people have started doing is auto-deleting tweets after a certain time period. When I was job-searching after college, I had to go through and manually delete all the pictures of me doing college things, and even then, there is no guarantee that they are actually deleted. Give people the option to auto-delete data, and to ensure that it stays that way. Give them a way to confirm that this has happened.

Second, tell people what you’re tracking about them, in a transparent manner. The best company that does this today is x. We shouldn’t have to reverse-engineer what the Facebook News Feed does. The more open you are, the more you’ll find people are willing to give you their information.

Third, let people be anonymous online. This, of course, means the need for at least some increased moderation. But as the G+ failed experiment shows, not everyone wants all of their activity associated with their real names. Not even any of their activity.

Third, as users, we need to be writing these things down on our own platforms, where we are in complete control over them (well, with the exception of what goes on Google.) Don’t like a post you wrote? Delete it!

How can we get back to the point where our rich inner lives are ours again? That’s the challenge for us to take on.