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The City of Cyberia: un plagio/omaggio a Italo Calvino

Il fatto che le nuove tecnologie dell’informazione e della comunicazione rappresentino una minaccia alla privacy dei cittadini è già un luogo comune. I rischi derivati dalla raccolta massiva dei dati personali e del loro trattamento automatizzato, rischi che si facevano presenti già agli albori dell’informatica, si sono accentuati con l’invenzione e l’espansione di Internet e con l’uso progressivo di algoritmi e di diverse forme di “intelligenza artificiale” come meccanismi di supporto all’attività decisoria di organizzazioni pubbliche e private.

Non si tratta soltanto di rischi in termine di incremento delle capacità di sorveglianza, le cui conseguenze attuali furono “profetizzate” alcuni decenni prima dello scandalo Snowden da teorici dei media come Friedrich Kittler. Un problema ancora più grave sembra essere quello dell’autonomizzazione digitale delle burocrazie. Prima programmate da leggi, strutture decisionali gerarchiche e procedure formali, queste burocrazie sono adesso programmate da codici, ovvero programmate da quella “leggerezza del software”, che presiede alla “pesantezza dell'hardware”, di cui parlava Italo Calvino nelle sue Lezioni Americane. “Code is law”, come dice Lawrence Lessig. Una legge poco flessibile, che si alimenta dei dati personali degli utenti per poi produrre decisioni sempre più automatizzate che toccano quasi tutte le sfere della loro vita, dai controlli di sicurezza agli sconti nell’acquisto delle merci, dalle investigazioni della polizia all’accesso al credito. Perciò, come suggeriva già anni fa Daniel Solove, la metafora letteraria più adeguata ai nostri tempi non sarebbe il Grande Fratello di George Orwell, ma piuttosto Il processo di Franz Kafka.

Come se non fosse sufficiente la minaccia alla privacy e all’autonomia dei cittadini, le burocrazie digitali avanzano su altri fronti e con il pretesto di proteggere la proprietà intellettuale finiscono per limitare le possibilità di produzione e scambio di informazioni e contenuti online, come dimostra la recente direttiva UE sul copyright approvata dal Parlamento Europeo.

Partendo da diversi presupposti teorici, alcuni giuristi hanno suggerito di pensare il diritto alla privacy e alla protezione dei dati personali in termini molto simili al diritto dell’ambiente: in entrambi i casi, si dovrebbe proteggere qualcosa di esterno alla società dall’inquinamento generato dai processi di produzione. Dunque si tratterebbe di proteggere l’integrità psichica degli esseri umani dall’“inquinamento dei dati” prodotto dalla società dell’informazione, così come è necessario proteggere l’ambiente naturale dall’inquinamento prodotto della società industriale e del consumo.

Tale analogia ambientale mi ha riportato alla memoria una delle città invisibili più “visibile” descritta da Marco Polo nel geniale libro di Italo Calvino: la città di Leonia, dove la spazzatura dei prodotti consumati ieri si accumula e inonda progressivamente il presente e il futuro della città. Nelle nostre città attuali tuttavia si accumula anche una “spazzatura digitale” fatta di dati sempre più velocemente raccolti (e scartati) dalle nostre protesi digitali. Questo parallelismo fra “vecchi” e “nuovi” rifiuti mi ha ispirato questo plagio/omaggio a Calvino:

The City of Cyberia

The city of Cyberia reboots itself every day. Every morning its inhabitants turn on their brand-new computers, unlock their interactive cell phones, check for fresh notifications and emails, read the most recent posts written online, see new photos of friends and relatives that have just been uploaded, watch the funniest videos moments after they have been recorded, download the newest and highly rated apps and files, while sending instant messages about the latest and most commented events.

On secret and closed servers and datacenters, all the data flows of Cyberia are instantly and meticulously recorded, mined, classified, and finally fed back into the city itself. The temperature there is so hot that all the chips and wires must be constantly refrigerated in order to avoid melting, a kind of hazard that would completely paralyze whole fractions of Cyberia. These places collect and store not only information that people have consciously decided to share, but the most varied and unexpected sorts of data: search histories, e-mails sent, instant messages exchanged, websites visited, applications used, advertisements clicked on, purchases and other transactions conducted, videos watched, music listened to, books read, location data, traffic data and all sorts of other data about data (or metadata) that is generated by means of a simple access to the city’s ubiquitous net.

Rather than being analyzed by human beings, this ocean of data is automatically processed by complex and sophisticated algorithms, which are constantly sifting through these data in search for new patterns and trends, as well as threating risks and deviances. These algorithms are so smart that some people even believe they might be able to think. It seems, however, that the very idea of thinking has no meaning at all to them, since they don’t have to understand what they do in order to do it well. At the end of the day, they don’t make sense, they only calculate. And by their meaningless calculations they are able to stimulate all the events and communication going on in the remotest parts of Cyberia.

Few people ask what the algorithms really do with all the data they collect. Showing more targeted and personalized advertising, that’s for sure. They organize information and all sorts of content that is interesting for people, but they also organize these same people in the interest of advertisers. Their owners like to praise their capacity to objectively analyze data in order to the lift the veil of reality, showing the deep truth behind the surface of these data, a truth that no one has ever thought about beforehand. They forget, though, that the reality discovered by algorithms is also shaped by algorithms, so that the virtual side of Cyberia is increasingly undistinguishable from its real one. Notwithstanding all the myths about the neutrality of its artifacts for automatic data processing, the city is cursed to continuously reflect upon itself, and upon its own reflections of itself, in a never-ending, and sort of unpredictable, feedback loop, which gives rise to ever-new self-fulfilling, as well as self-defeating digital prophecies.

The result is that the more Cyberia updates itself, the more it gets outdated. Most information generated today from data collected and processed yesterday becomes irrelevant tomorrow. Its obsession for new data accelerates the very process of data obsolescence. It doesn’t matter if the information is true or fake as long as data keep flowing. Despite that, the city seems paradoxically unable to forget. Not willing to leave anything behind, its huge electronic repositories grow exponentially day-by-day, as well as its ability to selectively search for and retrieve almost anything from its digitally accumulated past, a past that is constantly flowing into its present almost at light speed.

The perfect memory of Cyberia inspires both fear and devotion. Although fascinated by the possibility of navigating through all-encompassing databases and endless timelines, people are also afraid of having their lives exposed without their consent, as well as being classified, profiled and discriminated against by reasons they are unable to grasp. Beyond the fear of being constantly surveilled by the city’s digital bureaucracies, as well as by their own peers, people also worry about how countless decisions are routinely taken about their lives without them (or probably anyone) even being aware of, from security checks to price discounts, from police investigations to access to credit. Tired of being automatically remembered everywhere, some people have even claimed their right to be forgotten, without realizing that this is equivalent to remembering Cyberia to forget, which turns out to increase its remembrance, and not necessarily its forgetting.

Most of what happens in Cyberia depends on the ability of its algorithms to organize and process the content and data produced by its inhabitants. The opulence of the city is, then, measured by its capacity to parasitically exploit the creativity and contingency of its inhabitants in order to balance and complement the inherent determinacy and calculability of its algorithms. Automation and connectivity seem so natural that it’s easy to overlook the city’s permanent need of human energy. The ones who realize that are the ones who profit the most, even if their businesses also tend to normalize and restrain this same energy that is so vital to their very profitability.

The borders of Cyberia are both virtual and real. Through a vast network of wires, cables and electromagnetic waves, the city is able to instantaneously reach most other existing cities, which are continuously sharing among themselves their daily data flows. Worldwide connectivity is so developed that some utopians like to think of Cyberia as a free, independent and immaterial heaven beyond all other mundane spaces. They forget, however, that, unlike digital packets, people of most remoted cities are barred from entering Cyberia, which has countless visible and invisible firewalls surrounding it from all sides. These people may once and a while manage to connect their minds to the city and its affluent neighbors, but for most of the time, as some of Cyberia’s sharpest critics say, they remain bodies located far away that just try to survive the next day.

Cyberia is so focused on its own present that sometimes it seems to be suspended in time. Some of its inhabitants think that the future has already begun, which is just another reason to accelerate things in the present without thinking about the consequences of such acceleration. Unable to leave its past behind while at the same time so obsessed about the present images of its own future, the city is an easy prey to its grandiose illusions. That’s probably why most of those who think of themselves as realists tend to be infused with so much pessimism.

By accumulating data about its past and frustrated illusions about its future, it is possible that one day Cyberia will give rise to such huge and complex bugs that simply cannot be fixed, causing the city to be frozen in a mischievous line of code, from where it cannot reboot itself out. The city will, then, be reduced to just another stack of data, which, by their turn, will be processed by other cities in the surroundings, each of them continuously collecting each other’s data and blindly programmed by their own self-generated images of themselves.