When the world was introduced to social media platform Myspace, and began socializing across cyberspace, we could hardly grasp the implications it would have on our future. 

Caught in the thrall of the Internet boom, social media platforms quickly gained popularity as people sought new ways to connect and share information through an exciting, expanding, fledgling technology. 

Myspace, as any millennial knows, was the first social media site to reach a global audience, paving the way for modern platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Facebook officially surpassed Myspace in total number of users in April of 2008, since then, Myspace usership has steadily declined. With smartphones in our hands since 2007 and engines such as Google & YouTube firmly ingrained within our culture’s psyche, I doubt many of us are aware of the original ideas which spurred the cyberpunk technocracy we find ourselves in. In other words, due to the rapid evolution of technology in our age, I feel very few of us have considered our trajectory, contemplated how we got here, or given much thought to the origin of our social media networks.

First, to put things fully in context, we’ve gotta go through a little history lesson . . .

Just after the second World War, in 1945, a government scientist named Vannevar Bush had an idea he termed the “Memex.” Mr. Bush details in The Atlantic in 1945, that the “Memex” would be a “device in which an individual stores all his books, records and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” It was truly a bold, futuristic concept, akin to our modern smartphone devices, but it was Steve Jobs that made it reality 72 years later. It took several decades before modern tech could even engage with innovative ideas like the “Memex” — ideas which had been marinating for decades.

What we call the “Internet“, wasn’t even conceived until 1973. American computer scientist Vint Cerf developed a project sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. The project was also under direction of American engineer Robert Kahn. 

Without getting bogged down in technological specifications, this DARPA-funded program led by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn would give way to the essential protocols, foundation, and architecture that eventually became the Internet. Cerf and Kahn are recognized today as the “fathers of the Internet”. Besides providing obscure history here, I offer this little anecdote because it is important to note our Internet today was originally a network funded by the US Government, dubbed ARPANET.

Building off the groundwork laid by Cerf and Kahn, the ARPANET allowed British scientist Tim Berners-Lee to begin Project ENQUIRE at CERN in 1989. CERN, the prestigious European Organization for Nuclear Research, had seemingly partnered with DARPA and the resulting offspring would come to be known as the World Wide Web. It was originally intended as a way for academics, scientists and researchers to share information. The Internet didn’t officially become available to the public until April 30, 1993. 

Similarly, Google’s origin is closely tied to DARPA and the National Science Foundation. As prodigious Stanford graduates making rapid advances in web-page ranking and tracking user queries, Sergey Brin & Larry Page received grants from DARPA and the NSF to coordinate development of a “massive digital library using the internet as its backbone.” Some even speculate that the CIA & NSA were involved in Google’s formation. 

Speaking to the intermingling of the US government’s Intelligence Community and the private sector’s research community, Barack Obama even boasted, “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.

With powerful, cutting edge technologies marrying original ideas at the turn of the century, abuse and nefarious activity was inevitable. Particularly when the military-industrial complex is at the helm, rather than the private sector . . .

The tragedy of 9/11 played a key role in bolstering the United States’ military infrastructure and advancing antiterrorism operations as our wounded nation began to view national security as a top priority. But 9/11 also gave rise to black-budget programs and bureaucratic institutions, allowing certain agencies in the US to see a rapid growth in funding they had yearned for since the Cold War era.

One agency in particular, the aforementioned DARPA, was primed to reap the blessings of that devastating national crisis we weathered in 2001.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA was founded in 1958 (then as ARPA) as an extension of the Department of Defense. The agency was formed by President Eisenhower in a rushed response to Soviet Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1. DARPA’S primary purpose is to innovate and create highly advanced, cutting edge technologies used for national security. Some of its outlandish projects and achievements resemble that of bizarre science fiction and modern mythology. Whether it’s developing artificial intelligence, or exo-skeleton suits & super soldiers, or shrinking robots smaller than the size of a human fingertip. It causes me to contemplate the true limitations of our modern technology, and wonder which developments aren’t available to the public eye.

In the early 2000’s, monolithic, bureaucratic agencies such as DARPA had culminated with the private sector. Innovative technologies and original ideas like Vannevar Bush’s “Memex” were fusing and great things were bound to occur. It also provided the fertile soil for ripened corruption and outright abuse of power. 

According to a Vice article written in 2018 by David Axe, “In late 2002 the agency [DARPA] had launched a wide-ranging effort to develop new, more sophisticated artificial intelligence. The $7.3 million Cognitive Computing initiative included an ‘enduring personalized cognitive assistant’—basically, an artificial intelligence secretary that could learn by watching.”

In the middle of 2003 DARPA initiated a surveillance program that would spy on American citizens and gather their personal information: “In mid-2003, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched an ambitious program aimed at recording essentially all of a person’s movements and conversations and everything they listened to, watched, read and bought.”

The article continued, “DARPA saw military value in a comprehensive record of a person’s life”, and this was the basis for the 2002 Cognitive Computing initiative, as well as the agency’s future surveillance program.  

In order for the Cognitive Computing program to be successful, the AI needed to replicate human decision-making as close as possible. In order to do that, it needed loads and loads and loads of data on human behavior. 

The early 2000’s was still in the dawn of the Internet Age, and there weren’t yet loads and loads of data on human behavior. The internet had hardly existed for 10 years at that point. The agency’s ambitious AI project required massive amounts of collected data, but there was no data yet available to collect. Solutions were needed and proposed. Douglas Gage, a former Navy researcher with 25 years experience had just joined the agency. Gage suggested how they could possibly gather the enormous amounts of needed data: “If enough people recorded enough of their lives, the combined information would amount to the ontology of a human life.” Douglas Gage had also found inspiration in Vannevar Bush’s original “Memex” concept and a project in 2001 called MyLifeBits — a life-logging experiment managed by Microsoft computer scientists. Gage formally proposed what would become Project LifeLog

His bosses liked it and immediately jumped on board. Project LifeLog gained initial approval and was in the works as early as December of 2002. 

Lee Tien, a privacy lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Vice, “DARPA clearly saw how increasing digitization of human experience would make the data needed to model everyday life accessible in machine-readable form.”

The pamphlet DARPA handed out to researchers who might participate in the LifeLog program described LifeLog’s potential as a surveillance tool. “LifeLog will be able … to infer the user’s routines, habits and relationships with other people, organizations, places, and objects, and to exploit these patterns to ease its task.” 

Privacy advocates caught wind of the project and quickly began to voice their concerns. Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, told Vice in 2018, “I hate to say ‘Orwellian,’ but I think that’s what my reaction was. It seemed like a massively intrusive initiative that went far beyond what an ordinary person would willingly and knowingly consent to.”

In June of 2003, The New York Times‘ William Safire labeled LifeLog as an “all-remembering cyberdiary with insidious side-effects as people become walking government data-collectors. Everybody would be snooping on everybody else,” Safire warned.

In July 2003, DARPA was offering grants in support of Gage’s work. The grant guidelines seem only to highlight the privacy concerns shared at the time. “Researchers who receive LifeLog grants will be required to test the system on themselves,” explained a July 2003 Wired article written by Noah Shachtman. “Cameras will record everything they do during a trip to Washington, DC, and global-positioning satellite locators will track where they go,” Shachtman continued. “Biomedical sensors will monitor their health. All the e-mail they send, all the magazines they read, all the credit card payments they make will be indexed and made searchable.”

In 2003, Steven Aftergood, Tien Lee and other experts were scouring new, potentially intrusive surveillance technologies. In February of that year, DARPA had launched a new surveillance effort it called “Total Information Awareness.Vice reported, “TIA’s sophisticated software cross-referenced phone calls, internet traffic, bank records, and other personal data in an effort to identify potential terrorists.”

Congress eventually shut down TIA after just a few short months. For DARPA, Gage, and Project LifeLog, the damage was already done. Aftergood told Wired at the time, “LifeLog has the potential to become something like, TIA cubed.” The handwriting was on the wall. In February 2004, then-DARPA director Tony Tether cancelled LifeLog amidst the surmounting pressure from privacy advocates. 

Although project LifeLog was dismissed within a couple years, you shouldn’t be blamed if you assume it was carried on and maintained by a black-budget program somewhere else in the dank labyrinth of bureaucracy. Tien Lee told Vice, “It would not surprise me to learn that the government continued to fund research that pushed this area forward without calling it LifeLog.” 

LifeLog was officially disbanded in February of 2004. Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin launched Facebook that same month. Three years later, Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. Steven Aftergood describes smartphones and social media as “LifeLog equivalents.”

Even LifeLog’s creator, Douglas Gage says “Facebook is the real face of pseudo-LifeLog at this point.” Gage points out the fact he tries to avoid using the omniscient social network. “I generally avoid using Facebook, only occasionally logging in to see what everyone is up to, and have never ‘liked’ anything.”

I want to avoid getting stuck in the mucky weeds of conspiracy theories here, but this much is obvious: Project LifeLog smoothly laid the groundwork for Myspace, Facebook, Twitter and the future of social media. 

It wasn’t the government, but the private sector that has turned LifeLog, MyLifeBits, and Memex from concept to reality for millions of people. And ironically for privacy advocates, we practically beg for it.

Now we wear smart-devices and install advanced, smart-home systems like Alexa and have fully accepted digital life logs, even perceiving them as a modern necessity.

“We have ended up providing the same kind of detailed personal information to advertisers and data brokers and without arousing the kind of opposition that LifeLog provoked,” said Steven Aftergood.

The general public has rejected military-developed, government-operated digital life records in favor of similar systems developed and operated by multinational-corporations. It doesn’t seem to matter to most people that the Big Brother in Silicon Valley watches them arguably as much as a government system would have, if not more so.

And the government will choose to mine social media for people’s data, regardless. In October 2016 the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that police had been working with a company called Geofeedia to track “peaceful protesters” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley firm Palantir set up a “predictive policing” system in New Orleans that helped authorities anticipate potential gang ties between social media users and predict when those suspected gang members might commit a crime. Apps such as Geofeedia and Palantir and other surveillance tools primarily derive their river of data from the masses of people that voluntarily use social media.

Elon Musk once stated, “You could argue that a company is essentially a cybernetic collective of people and machines — that’s what a company is. And then there are different levels of complexity in the way these companies are formed. And then there are sort of.. there’s this sort of like, collective AI in the Google search — you know, Google search — where we’re all sort of plugged in as nodes on the network, like leaves on a big tree. And we’re all feeding this network with our questions and answers. We’re all effectively programming the AI, and Google plus all the humans that connect to it are one giant collective. This is also true with Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram and all these social networks — they’re giant cybernetic collectives.”

We still don’t know what happened with DARPA’S AI project — the Cognitive Computing initiative. Meanwhile, Vint Cerf, former DARPA computer scientist, is now sitting as vice president & Chief Internet Evangelist at Google.

I believe technology can be a diversely effective tool when used properly. It can also become a terrible weapon when in the wrong hands and abused. Only time will show whether the decisions we’ve made will help foster true prosperity or bring pernicious consequences. 

The choices we’ve made concerning our technology in the first 20 years of this century may be irreversible. If so, that still doesn’t afford us the right to blindly continue down this path. I am not advocating deletion or disbandment of social media platforms. I am not calling for institutions or businesses to be disassembled. I am not an expert on law & technology, nor am I a legislator. I’m just a concerned citizen posing the question, “who is moderating our moderators?”

I believe it’s now obvious to most we’ve handed the proverbial keys over to Silicon Valley. But have we sat and reflected the ramifications? At the very least, are we conscious of our addiction to modern tech and how dependent we are on social media for our little dopamine rush? Do we use modern tech as a diverse tool for accomplishing noble tasks & righteous acts? Or do we use modern tech as a basic, primitive tool to cure our boredom? Have we unwittingly allowed Silicon Valley to become our overlord?

I am merely calling for moderation and self-reflection. I humbly hope to bring some sense of awareness and provoke unfamiliar thought-patterns. I am calling on government officials and those in the media to hold the Silicon Valley monopoly accountable when it violates constitutional rights. I am demanding forceful checks and balances that will restrain bureaucratic institutions and multinational corporations before our basic privacy and civil liberties are stripped away. It is my earnest, sincere desire that we begin to collectively consider our trajectory, and begin to discuss these matters with a more frequent urgency.

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