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The suburb that changed the world

In the 1980s, Silicon Valley was populated by lefties and hippies who dreamed of a computer revoluti

In Sofia Coppola's 2006 film of the life of Marie Antoinette, there is a scene where an entourage of palace jeunes filles sweeps through a ball at which the set and costumes are period, but the music and manners are straight out of a modern dance club. The proposition seems to be that an elite few were able to put a toe into the future to experience what is ordinary today.

Something like that went on in the Silicon Valley I knew in the 1980s. The debates and dilemmas that occupy a generation today appeared in miniature before there was an internet. We took our anticipation of the internet deadly seriously, to the point where it seemed already real. Thus I have experienced the internet age twice.

Experiencing the internet in reality is different - and even bizarre, because although it seemed reasonable to expect the thing to come about, it is still uncanny that the reasoning was right. It feels as though we got away with something we shouldn't have done.

The internet arrived from two directions, one top-down and the other bottom-up. Initially computers and computer networking were both developed in military and government labs. The way you experienced computation from the 1960s often reflected this point of origin, with early computer companies such as IBM exuding a grey, regimented stoniness in order to appear seductive to their patrons.

In the 1970s, a small market emerged for hobbyist computers. You could build your own little box with blinking lights that you could program by flipping lines of switches on the front panel. That's all you could do at first, but oh, the ecstasy to be able to touch your own computer, if you had an inkling of where it all could lead.

A culture grew up around these hobbyist machines centred in Silicon Valley, and spawned the personal computer market - with Microsoft launching in 1975 and Apple in 1976. The centre of gravity split: the stony grey opposite delirious hippies and faux revolutionaries.

The turbulent confluence between top-down and bottom-up continues to this day. Internet start-ups sprout like garage bands. Most die, but a few explode into national-scale empires, as in the case of Facebook. Dreary top-down institutions such as wireless carriers maintain their lofty entitlements, though occasionally they drain away, like the old music business. I used to be partisan, favouring the bottom-up approach, but now I appreciate the balance of tides, because all kinds of power should be checked.

My first encounter with Silicon Valley was at the end of my teens, which was also the end of the 1970s. The world seemed carved into zones according to the degree of magic available. The highest magic was found in nexuses of hippie exuberance such as the beach town of Santa Cruz, California, where pearlescent rainbows covered everything and even the most mediocre musicians could effortlessly invent melodies superior to almost anything heard since. Young, creative people with any sense of ambition tended to be drawn to these places like weight to gravity, but by the time I arrived the magic was receding.

The overwhelming explanation we held of our time and place was that we had been born too late to experience the one true orgasm of meaning, the 1960s. Young people who felt jilted by life because of a slight error in timing found solace in a twisted calculus of punk humour. An alternative to the Santa Cruz-type El Dorados of bohemia were the zones of brazen, barren reality: remote and violent desert towns, impoverished villages in Mexico, or tenements in New York City.

The most deficient places - condemned by hippies and punks alike - were the suburbs, the places of the conventional parent: an artificial world ruled by Disney and McDonald's.

I did not arrive at this suspect ontology naturally, having grown up in a way that was both gritty and bohemian. My father and I couldn't afford a home at one point, when I was 11, so we lived in tents on cheap land while building a crazed, geometric, spaceship-like house in a rough corner of southern New Mexico. I adapted to the flight from the suburbs because this seemed the ticket into the social world of my peers in that era. I well remember how my heart sank when I later realised that eco­nomic circumstances left me no choice but to force my old jalopy over the mountain pass that insulated dewy, arousing Santa Cruz from soul-killing, blandifying Silicon Valley, which was situated in, of all places, a suburb.

The mountain ridge that separates Silicon Valley and the town of Palo Alto from the ocean keeps out the famed fog of northern California in the summer. This has always made it an elite getaway from San Francisco, but to me Silicon Valley's light looked incomplete and made me feel remote and depressed - so close to the ocean, but without its full light.

I despaired at the time that I had failed to earn enough to be able to remain at the fulcrum of hippie truth, but I was to learn, slowly, that I was moving from one narcissistic category war to another. Instead of hippies v suburbs, I enlisted in the turf war between nerds and - well, the opposite doesn't have a name. A sort of muggle: the fool who doesn't realise that he lives in a cocoon and serves only as a battery to power the action; a person who fails to understand that the world is an information system, and that life is programming.

Having moved from one kind of nonsense to another eventually helped me learn to be sceptical of both.

Palo Alto was nicknamed "Shallow Alto" by the hippie hackers, who felt that living there was a sell-out, a sign of failure. And yet, one by one, we gave in and entered an alternate, infinitely better-funded elite club. The place was much more than a suburb, naturally. A little more than a century earlier, there had been a Native American culture there, but it was murdered and erased, so little more can be said. Layers of mutually indifferent histories were then overlaid on to this, awaiting the final washout by Silicon Valley culture.

A trace of the Spanish colonial period remained in the odd old adobe mansion; evidence of black immigration from earlier in the 20th century lay in the shocking, violent twin to Palo Alto, East Palo Alto; fruit orchards swept to the horizon in some directions and utilitarian grids of simple wooden buildings testified to the well-ordered conception of railroad towns and military bases.

But the hackers would take over. What a strange society nerds make. In 1996 Oliver Sacks published a book called The Island of the Colour-blind, about a place where so many people cannot see colour that it becomes the norm. In the same way, the society of computer nerds is nerdy not in comparison to a centre, but as a centre. Our nerdy world, which from an outsider's perspective might seem slightly askew, even tilted a touch into Asperger's syndrome, was and is our centre. The rest of the world seemed hysterical, irrational and confused by the surface aesthetics of things, somehow failing to grasp the numerical, causal, core truth underpinning events and the problem-solving purpose of reality.

I kept my concerns about the light of Palo Alto to myself and "passed", which was, happily, not hard for me. Certain kinds of math and programming come on strongest when you're young, and I could program the hell out of a computer in those days. Then and now, technical credibility is the ultimate membership card in Silicon Valley, and it is one of the reasons I still love the place. The billionaire company starters - and I won't name names because it's all of them - still get a little insecure and feel a need to preen when they're around top hackers.

The overlap between the late stages of hippie bohemia and the early incarnations of Silicon Valley was often endearing. There was a sense of justice in the way that males who had been at the bottom of the social ladder in high school were on track to run the world. Greasy cottages with futons on the floor, with dustings of pot and cookie crumbles rubbed into cheap oriental rugs, a carnage of forgotten dirty clothes in the corner, empty refrigerators and tangles of thick grey cables leading to the huge computer monitors and the hot metal cabinets where the silicon chips crunched. Asymmetrical, patchy beards, shirts part tucked, prescriptions for glasses powerful enough to find life on a distant planet. This was the new model of hippie nerd, supplanting the ascetic fellow with the pocket protector.

There were precious few girl nerds at the time. There was one who programmed a hit arcade game called Centipede for the first video game company, Atari, and a few others. There were, however, extraordinary female figures who served as the impresarios of social networking before there was an internet. It still seems wrong to name them, because it isn't clear if I would be talking about their private lives or their public contributions: I don't know how to draw a line.

These irresistible creatures would sometimes date alpha nerds, but mostly brought the act of socialising into a society where it probably would not have occurred otherwise. A handful of them had an extraordinary, often unpaid degree of influence over what research was done, which companies came to be, who worked at them and what products were developed.

That they are usually undescribed in histories of Silicon Valley is just another instance of what a fiction history can be. The advent of social networking software and oceans of digital memories of bits exchanged between people has only shifted the type of fiction we accept, not the degree of infidelity.

In retrospect, I cringe to think how naive and messianic the tech scene became amid all the post-1960s idealism. The two poles of San Francisco Bay Area 1960s culture - psychedelic hippies and leftist revolutionaries - became the poles of early computer culture.

In 1974, the philosopher Ted Nelson, the first person to propose and describe the programming of something like the web, published a large-format book composed of montages of nearly indecipherable small-print snippets flung in all directions, called Computer Lib/Dream Machines. If you turned the book one way, it was what Che Guevara would have been reading in the jungle if he had been a computer nerd. Flip it upside down, and you had a hippie-wow book with visions of crazy, far-out computation.

In fact, the very first description of the internet in any detail was probably E M Forster's The Machine Stops from 1909, decades before computers existed: "People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine." It might still be the most accurate description. How Forster did it remains a mystery. Later, in the 1940s, the engineer Vannevar Bush wrote "As We May Think", an essay imagining a utilitarian experience with a computer and internet of the future. Bush's essay is often cited as a point of origin, and he even delved a little into how it might work, using such pre-digital components as microfilm.

But Ted Nelson was the first person, to my knowledge, to describe how you could implement new kinds of media in digital form, share them and collaborate. Ted was working so early - from 1960 onwards - that he couldn't invoke basic notions such as storing images, and not just text, because computer graphics had not been described yet. (The computer scientist Ivan Sutherland saw to that shortly.)

Ted was a talker, a character, a Kerouac. He was more writer than hacker, and didn't always fit into the nerd milieu. Thin, lanky, with a sharp chin and always a smile, he looked good. He came from Hollywood parents and was determined to be an outsider because, in the ethics of the times, only the outsiders were "where it's at". He succeeded tragically, in that he is not as well known as he ought to be, and it's a great shame he was not better able to influence digital architecture directly. He lives today on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, one of the other luminous, numinous nodes of Bay Area geo-mythology.

The hippest thing in the late 1970s and early 1980s was to form a commune, or even a cult. I remember one around the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco which fashioned itself as the Free Print Shop. Members printed lovely posters for "movement" events in the spectral, inebriated, neo-Victorian visual style of the time. (How strange it was to hear someone recommended as "part of the movement". This honorary title meant nothing beyond aesthetic sympathy, but there was an infantile gravity to the word "movement", as though our conspiracies were consequential. They never were, except when computers were involved, in which case they were more consequential than almost any others in history.)

The Free Print Shop made money doing odd jobs, it included women and it enacted a formal process for members to request sex with one another through intermediaries. This was the sort of thing that seemed the way of the future and beckoned to computer nerds: an algorithm leading reliably to sex! I remember how reverently dignitaries from the Free Print Shop were welcomed at a meeting of the Homebrew Club at Stanford and other such venues where computer hobbyists shared their creations.

Ted had a band of followers or collaborators; it would have been uncool to specify what they were. They sometimes lived in a house here or there, or vagabonded about. They broke up and reconciled repeatedly, and were perpetually on the verge of presenting the ultimate software project, Xanadu, in some formulation that would have been remembered as the first implementation of the internet. Xanadu was a manifesto that never quite manifested.

If my tone has not been consistently reverent, please know that I am not cynical when it comes to my praise of Ted Nelson's ideas. As the first person on the scene, he benefited from an uncluttered view. Our huge collective task in finding the best future for the internet will probably turn out to be like finding our way back to where Ted was at the start.

In his conception, each person would be a free agent in a universal online market. Instead of separate stores of the kind run by Apple or Amazon, there would be one universal store, and everyone would be a first-class citizen, both buyer and seller. You wouldn't have to keep separate passwords or accounts for different online stores. That's a pain, and it guarantees that there can't be too many stores, thereby re-creating the kind of centralisation that shouldn't be inherited from physical reality.

This is an example of how thinking in terms of a network can strain intuition. It might seem as though having only one store would reduce diversity, yet it would increase it. When culture is privatised, as has happened recently online, you end up with a few giant players - the Googles and Amazons. It's better to put up with the rancour and pain of a single community, of some form of democracy, than to live in a world overseen by a few forces you hope will be benevolent. The stress of accommodation opens cracks from which brilliance emerges.

Ah, there it is - my idealism, still in your face after all these years. Silicon Valley remains idealistic, if sometimes narcissistic. We refer to uprisings in the Middle East as "Facebook revolutions" as if it's all about us. And yet, look. We code and scheme through the night, and then genuinely change the whole world within a few short years, over and over again. What other bunch of oddballs can say that?

Much has changed. Silicon Valley now belongs to the world. In a typical nerd cabal you will find recently arrived Indians, Chinese, Brits, Israelis and Russians. What is strangest in the recent waves of young arrivals in Silicon Valley is that they tend no longer to be downtrodden geniuses rejected in the playing of social status games, but sterling alpha males. Legions of perfect specimens seem to have grown up in manicured childhoods, nothing scrappy about them. When children started to be raised perfectly in the 1990s, chauffeured from one play date to the next, I wondered what world they would want as adults. Socialism? Facebook and similar designs seem to me continuations of the artificial order we gave children during the boom years.

Now we are entering a period of diminishing middle classes and economic dimming. What will Silicon make of this? Poorly conceived computer networks played central roles in many of our more recent troubles, particularly the 2008 financial crisis. Such tactics as high-frequency trading just pluck money out of the system using pure computation and without giving anything back.

Can we adjust the world, make it happier, merely by reprogramming computers? Perhaps. We continue to twiddle with human patterns from our weird suburb. Maybe, if we are able to echo the ancient idealism of those early days, we will do some good as the software grows.

Jaron Lanier is the author of "You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto" (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “Apple” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.