Every User a Neo

We can start the biggest revolution in 200 years. Or we can stay in the dreamland of business as usual.

In April 1999, a few weeks after the first Matrix movie came out, the entire Linux Journal staff watched it in a theater not far from our headquarters at the time, in Seattle's Ballard district. While it was instantly clear that The Matrix was geek classic (hell, the hero was an ace programmer), it was also clear to us that it was an allegory for many things.

Some were religious. Neo was the Christ-like savior, resurrected by a character named Trinity who played the Holy Spirit role after Neo got killed by the Satan-like Agent Smith—all while the few humans not enslaved by machines lived in an underground city called Zion.

When the second and third installments came out in following years, more bits of the story seemed borrowed from other religions: Buddhism, Gnosticism, Hinduism. Since the Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed the films, have since become the Wachowski sisters, you also can find plenty of transgender takes on the series.

Then there's the philosophical stuff. Humanity in the Matrix is trapped in a faked-up world built and maintained by machines. Prisoners of the Matrix believe the world they inhabit is real, much as prisoners in Plato's allegory of the cave believe the real world is the shadows of a fire they see on the wall in front of their faces. In Plato's story, one prisoner is set free to visit the real world. In The Matrix, that one prisoner is Neo, his name an anagram for the One whose job is to rescue everybody, or at least save Zion. (Spoiler: he does.)

But I didn't buy any of that.

To me, The Matrix is a metaphor for marketing, or at least for the idealized world marketing wants to make for us in the digital age, where they "deliver experiences" mostly meant to "acquire", "control" and "manage" us. This was already marketing's clear intention when we posted The Cluetrain Manifesto on the web that very same month.

But, popular as Cluetrain was (especially with marketers, for some reason), it didn't stop marketing from building a matrix for us.

We live there now. Unless you have your hardware and software rigged for absolute privacy while roaming about the online world (and can you really be sure?), you're in in that matrix.

The obvious parts of it are maintained by Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Amazon and other "platforms". Much more of it is provided by names you never heard of. If you haven't already, equip your browser with a form of tracking protection that identifies tracking sources (examples: Baycloud Bouncer, Disconnect, Ghostery, PrivacyBadger and RedMorph). Then point that browser to the website of a publisher whose business side has been assimilated by the Agent Smith of advertising called "adtech"—The Los Angeles Times, for example. Then check the tracking protection tool's list of all the entities trying to spy on you. Here are some of the 57 suspects that Privacy Badger just reported to me:

  • yieldmo.com
  • trbas.com
  • trbimg.com
  • trbdss.com
  • steelhousemedia.com
  • teads.tv
  • trb.com
  • truste.com
  • revjet.com
  • rflhub.com
  • rubiconproject.com
  • steelhousemedia.com
  • moatads.com
  • ntv.io
  • openx.net
  • postrelease.com
  • keewee.co
  • krxd.net
  • mathtag.net
  • ml314.net
  • indexwww.com
  • ixiaa.com
  • ensighten.com
  • everesttech.net
  • tronc.com
  • sitescout.com
  • jquery.com
  • bootstrapcdn.com
  • bouncexchange.com
  • chartbeat.com
  • cloudfront.net
  • agkn.com
  • adsrvr.org
  • gomnit.com
  • responsiveads.com
  • postrelease.com

Many of those appear more than once, with different prefixes. I've also left off variants of google, doubleclick, facebook, twitter and so on.

It's interesting that when I look a second, third or fourth time, the list is different—I suppose because third-party ad servers are busy trying to shove trackers into my browser afresh, as long as a given page is open.

I just went to look up one of those trackers, chosen at random, on Google: moatads.com (specifically, https://www.google.com/search?&q=moatads). As far as I can tell, in the five minutes I've put into it, most of my 1,820,000 search results are about how moatads is bad news. Here are the four results that come up ahead of moat.com, which (says the index page) "measures real-time Attention Analytics over 33 billion times per day":

  • Moatads Malware Removal (What is moatads?) — Virus Removal
  • What is z.moatads.com? — Webroot Community
  • Remove Moatads virus (Removal Guide) — Oct 2017 update
  • How to remove Moatads.com fully — It-Help.info

Clearly there is no Architect or Oracle building this matrix, or it wouldn't suck so bad. That's to our advantage, but we're still stuck in an online world where spying is the norm rather than the exception, and our personal autonomy is mostly contained by the platforms of giant service providers, "social networks" and makers of gear.

Way back in 2013, Shoshana Zuboff called on us to "be the friction" against "the New Lords of the Ring". In later essays, she labeled the whole spying-fed advertising system both surveillance capitalism and The Big Other. If things go according to plan, her new book, Master or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, will have come out in August 2018 (see the Amazon link).

People are already fighting back. PageFair's 2017 Adblock Report says at least 11% of the world's population is now blocking ads on at least 615 million devices. GlobalWebIndex says 37% of all the world's mobile users were blocking ads by January of 2016, and another 42% wanted to. Statista says the number of mobile phone users in the world would reach 4.77 billion at some point this past year. Combine those last two numbers and you get more than 1.7 billion people blocking ads already—a sum exceeding the population of the Western Hemisphere. All of which is why I called ad blocking the world's biggest boycott, way back in 2015

Today I'd rather think of it as a slave revolt.

But being non-slaves isn't enough. We need to be, as Shoshana says, masters of our own lives, and of all the relationships we have online.

In the first Matrix movie, Morpheus asks the still-captive Neo if he believes in fate. "No", Neo says, "because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life."

We can't be in control of our lives as long as those lives are contained by platforms and we lack the tools for mastery over our virtual bodies and minds online.

It doesn't matter if Facebook, Google and the rest have no malicious intent, or if they really do want to "bring the world closer together", or to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" or to "develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible". We need to be free and independent agents of our selves.

That can't happen inside the client-server systems we've had online since 1995 and earlier—systems that might as well be called slave-master. It can't happen as long as we always have to click "accept" to the terms and conditions of the online world's incumbent systems. It can't happen as long as everything useful in the online world requires a login and a password. Each of those norms are walls in what Morpheus called "a prison for your mind".

We have to think and work outside all the walls in that prison.

We have to make everyone a Neo, able to operate both within and outside the controlling matrices of the world.

My own work right now is with Customer Commons, on terms each of us can assert, and that sites and services of the world can agree to: the exact reverse of what we've had since forever on the web. We're getting help from law students at Harvard and elsewhere, but we need geek help too.

I believe making every user a Neo is not only do-able, but the most world-changing revolution since the industrial one, which was when subordinating personal power to the requirements of big business began.

Digital technology and the internet were designed for freedom, and not just for more enslavement on the industrial model. If you want to help make everyone a Neo, talk to me.

Or keep munching that blue pill.

Doc Searls is editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, where he has been on the masthead since 1996. He is also co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Basic Books, 2000, 2010), author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), a fellow of the Center for Information Technology & Society (CITS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an alumnus fellow of the Berkman Klien Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He continues to run ProjectVRM, which he launched at the BKC in 2006, and is a co-founder and board member of its nonprofit spinoff, Customer Commons. Contact Doc through ljeditor@linuxjournal.com.

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