Dangerous Connections

When “UltraFast”,  “SuperHighway”, “LightSpeed” networks turn into voracious black holes.

Have you ever reflected on the notion that information is physical? Probably not. The idea seems pretty immaterial to most of us, especially to all those preoccupied in subsisting from day to day. However the notion is the essence of civics if it is indeed true. It therefore involves our survival as a species and we ignore its wisdom at our peril.

3D image of the universe

So what is does it mean if information is physical? It means experts in thermodynamics can measure and argue about the amount of heat involved when information changes. It means we can perceive the universe as a massive information system. It means words and other symbols are as physical as bricks and so, for instance, our teachers need to use language founded in the principles of physics. Currently many of our educators believe it is OK to use a particular metaphor because it is “convenient”. This can be the equivalent of builders making the foundation bricks of a house out of air because they believe it is convenient too.

This brief essay explores the implications of information being physical on our use of our homes – in particular the civics of our wiring and “wireless” systems.

House wiring systems for the reticulation of electrical products used in lighting and telephony first occurred about the 1890s. Powerful merchant bankers, such as J P Morgan, immediately saw these systems as a potent means of controlling people and gaining vast personal profit. They have waged constant war ever since on our general sentience of these information systems. Thus we perceive our home’s reticulation systems in a most fragmented and confused way now.

In brief, we see our telephone system as completely distinct from our 230-volt system. Most people believe the prime value of these networks resides in their visible manifestation – their nuts, bolts, wires, poles, pipes, switches, radio transmitters, voltage adapters etc. Most people are also aware that there is significant value in the products being reticulated by the networks. This value may be measured in terms of duration of the phone call, the quantity of data transferred or the Kilowatts used.

However only a very few people understand that, by far, the prime value of these systems resides in their information potential. These few people include the oligarchy of a few powerful merchant bankers alluded to. They are acutely aware of this value. They employ all manner of means to ensure their control of our sentience of these systems. These include enforcing copyright and “commercial sensitivity” regimes, intensive lobbying of legislatures, mass advertising, all manner of sponsorship and providing rafts of “free” education programmes.
Thus most people now accept without question the existence of global empires called “Energy Corporations” and “Telecom Corporations”. They cannot imagine alternative social constructs.

In reality, individually and collectively, these supposed disparate and competing corporations are the same thing. They are best understood as a vast, integrated information system. The current feudal nature of this vital information system means it is fundamentally hostile to civics and is unsustainable.

exterior meter box
The control console of the house’s 230-volt system. Most people are barely aware of its existence.

I devote a section of www.truehope.info to the evolution of our sentience of the dwelling 230-volt control console – you may know the console as your home’s “switchboard” or “meter box” or “power board”.

For most people it is an object of mystery, a black box that resides in some obscure place in your dwelling. I explain why, unlike your cell phone or PC, this console is almost certainly not an intimate object in your life though its information is even more personal and potent than that of your cell phone and PC.

This personal alienation from our 230-volt control console is reflected in the silence of the institutions charged with preserving our rights. There is almost no national discussion of the civics of meter ownership compared to the constant debate about the rights of cell phone and PCs users. www.truehope.info explains how the 230-volt wires of our dwellings are alive with valuable information and the mains meter is the dwelling’s interface with the global information system. Thus the owner of the meter has potent control over the design and use of our dwellings and appliances. The ownership structure in turn shapes our society.

This was not such an inherent problem in New Zealand prior to 1993. For most of last century citizens had enjoyed some form of direct democratic ownership of their dwelling meter. By contrast the new generation of “smart” dwelling meters are owned by unaccountable feudal corporations and this is very problematic. The meters too easily become disempowering, debt-generating devices.

This is why it is important to distinguish between “smart” and “intelligent” grids/meters. The essential difference is that voting+paperdemocracy is integral to truly intelligent systems: citizens own the information of their homes and all participants in the local network have an equal say in how it is used. Intelligent networks are defined by their inclusive systems. However without democracy these “smart” information systems become truly dumb because the conversation is exclusive and one directional.
In brief, ownership of the meter determines the degree to which the state of civics prevails in a community network.

So a quick word about civics. Civics is the art of living sustainably i.e. our actions conserve the maximum options for all human beings, including those not yet born. The art of civics arises from the experience of compassion, in which we enjoy inclusiveness, sharing, honesty and trust.

Our New Zealand legislation is notable for its lack of the language of compassion. It is characterized by psychopathic qualities. For instance, its imperatives are the enhancement of the short-term profits of the principal shareholders in privatized corporations, enforcing copyright and conserving corporate confidentiality. It effectively makes energy efficiency practice illegal.

NZNEC Fraework
Even the New Zealand National Education Curriculum Framework, like other Anglo-American frameworks lacks mention of compassion and it is structured to destroy this vital state of being.

This psychopathic regime is necessarily self-destructive and is a recipe for misery. Without trust and honesty the smartest technology renders us dumb and impoverished. Perhaps the conundrum our household currently faces can illustrate this truth.

broaband-news Government
“The rollout of ultrafast broadband is a priority for Wellington’s economic growth” – NZ Government advertisement

As usual this month our airwaves have been full of the chatter and debate of our policy makers, “energy experts” and “information technology” gurus.
They argue about “lines charges” and the amount of direct profit the owners of these networks should be allowed to make.
They state with great conviction that “all this corporate competition has gotta be good”, oblivious to the fact that most of us are now barred from participating in markets in an intelligent way.
There is broad consensus that more pipes and wires must increase wealth. So the debate is mainly about the rate of construction of, for instance, super fast broadband networks.

Meanwhile in my house this month we are discussing if we can continue to risk remaining connected to our local optic-fibre and 230v networks. The reason is simple: we have lost all trust in this information system.

We buy 40 GB a month, of which we generally use only about 20 GB. Thus we were startled in June to begin receiving emails every two hours or so warning us of yet another excess charge of $3. One day this amounted to over $30 for the day i.e. a potential bill of $900 a month. The bills were almost entirely for information being transferred from our home. And much of it was occurring while we slept. There began our wee nightmare.

usageChart.gif 19 June
In one day the usage meter registers 11.47 GBs. See the orange: almost all is upstream i.e. transfers of data from our home.

An optic-fibre network was installed in our street about 1997 and I have been connected to it nearly all that time. A pattern is emerging: the letterhead on our bill changes every five years or so. With great fanfare yet another multinational corporation announces it has purchased our local optic-fibre network and promises us a brilliant future ablaze with amazing opportunities. The reality is raised charges to fund their leveraged buyout and an even denser, less intelligible call centre.

So while the current owner is nominally a global “telecommunications” corporation it is almost impossible to communicate with a human being in it. Their answer phone system repeatedly informs me that there is “unusual demand” on their help line and there will be an estimated 45 minute delay. Time and again I endure an hour of punishing music while I wait for service in vain till the battery on my phone dies or some mysterious force simply drops me out of the queue, leaving me stranded and helpless listening to the disconnect tone.

I worked for decades at the public interface of large institutions and know personal interaction can achieve in a few minutes what may take hours writing letters and making phone calls. So I visit thetelecom 3 storefront of my broadband “service provider”. Alas I learn the store is an equally dumb facade. Staff members are not trusted with access to my broadband usage. They are just smiling automatons programmed to sell stuff without care. Their problem solving capacity is disabled.

Suddenly the staid, stuffy NZ Post Office I worked in during the 1970s seems a shining beacon of civics, intelligence and hope. As I stand stranded and helpless in this store I see beyond the glittering facade of neon lights, beyond the arrays of gleaming cell phones, beyond the brilliant colours and alluring graphics on the large flat screens and beyond all the other high tech glitter to a rather miserable, dark future as I grow old. I see dystopia for our children.
I enter the storefront of my broadband “service provider” in hope. I depart despondent and enraged.

The sense of helplessness and distrust in our household continues to grow. We stop watching short videos and listening to the world’s music on the Internet. Still our data usage graphs continue to show large transfers of data from our home.

Enphase 1
The Enphase monitor of the photovoltaic array plugs into any wiring socket in the house and wirelessly sends all the data to the Internet via the household modem.

Our daily routine now ends with a rigorous regime of ensuring all PCs, laptops, cell phones are turned off. I pull the plug completely on the Enphase system monitoring the photovoltaic array on the roof.

To no avail. Often we awake next morning to find that all night someone has been transferring Gigabytes of data out of our home while we sleep. Even as I write I observe with alarm the rate at which this can occur. Yesterday a transfer of 4 GB of data occurred in an hour. Then for the last three days we are completely in the dark because our provider’s usage meter has not been operating. Our “Lightspeed” service is beginning to feel like an all devouring black hole.

Last week I made one more desperate attempt to ring my broadband/phone provider. I was almost startled off my chair when a human being answered. I was able to report in the subsequent emailed feedback request that my technical adviser was clear, concise, courteous and ultimately unhelpful because the corruption continues unabated.

She advises we need to get all the dozen or so devices connected to the Internet forensically checked. Already we pay hundreds of dollars a year for security systems. Forensic analysis could cost thousands of dollars and prove nothing. I have no way of knowing if, for instance, the new heat pump or our TV modem has a data logger in it that can be hacked.

Smart dumb meter. I buy. I install. I pay for certification. Meridian Energy owns all the information.

Worse. I have no way of knowing what information my house’s new “smart” but dumb 230-volt meter is logging.

Though I had to purchase the meter and pay for its installation the NZ Electricity Authority has deemed all its information, including the information of the household, is the property of private corporations, in this case Meridian Energy. It is a very corrupt and untrustworthy device.

I suggest to the call centre adviser that we can collaborate to see how and where exactly all the data is being transferred. She informs me in most virtuous way that the corporation cannot possibly do this because it would be an infringement of my privacy.
Again I almost fall off my chair, this time from laughing. I have long believed that the real reason for the privatization of our information networks is so all their content can be “perverse routed”, scrutinized and meta-analyzed by agencies acting in the interests of a few greedy, powerful merchants. The recent Edward Snowden revelations simply confirm what I have long known: New Zealand remains an Anglo-American colonial artefact.

I have been shown data tracking programs that enable citizens and their “broadband service providers” to cooperate and identify sources of infiltration. So her expression of corporate “concern” for my privacy seems a deceit and a cop-out. The corporation is effectively endorsing and profiting from the continuing theft of our household money.  While immoral this is not illegal in New Zealand. Indeed, like other corporations, our legislation charges it and all other corporations with maximizing profit for their principal shareholders. Thus the imperative of any privatized corporation is to look after large business clients. Care of individual New Zealand citizens can be so unprofitable that it is effectively illegal.

This deceit about civil rights concerns and the offloading of responsibility become a secondary cause for distrust. It too is a force generating despair about the future of the Internet and the future of our children in New Zealand.

I would like to make it clear that the privacy considerations are huge. I am aware that Government agencies such as our Commerce Commission, the Electricity Authority, the Privacy Commissioner, Consumer NZ et al are ill-equipped to protect our civil rights. The reality is that most New Zealanders remain oblivious to or simply accept the whole-scale surveillance, commoditization and general abuse of their personal communications over phones and the Internet. Most of us remain connected to these corrupt networks despite the risks. We tell ourselves the personal convenience of these information systems outweighs the risks and costs of exploitation.

However attitudes and behaviour will quickly change when the prime disruptive force takes effect and most people are confronted with sudden huge bills and the high risk of personal bankruptcy. Then the systematic corruption of their home’s information system will hit people with a sickening thump. The major loss of trust will trigger disruptive behavioural change that will ultimately benefit no one.

I hope I am making these ideas clear:
-The wires and “wireless” systems of our houses are essentially the same information system. The recent great confluence of technology conceivably links every electrical device in our house.
-The current regime is hopeless because the vital personal information of citizens is now fragmented and controlled by private corporations. In other words, the information system is fundamentally corrupted.
-Only democratic community ownership provides the overview and imperatives to detect and ameliorate the corruption. In other words, only democratic ownership by municipalities and community trusts can sustain the essential trust required for the 230volt-optic fibre information system to enable true energy efficiency practice that sustains us all.

Note: there is precedent for this in the Municipal Electricity Departments and Power Boards throughout New Zealand till the 1990’s. They provided the civic framework essential for a sustainable 230volt-broadband information system. south is PBs_edited-1

north is PBs 1_edited-1The network of 60 community- owned, freehold grid enabled all citizens a direct democratic say in how their information was used.


My main point is that people may accept major intrusion on their privacy. People may tolerate and even remain oblivious to the manipulation of their lives. However the majority of New Zealanders will not be able to afford the risk of massive bills for data transfers through their household networks. People with little disposable income may well soon face the stark choices of disconnecting from their local 230-volt grid or optic fibre grid or both or risk bankruptcy because elements of their household wiring, including the mains meter, put them at risk of crippling bills from their “Telecommunications service provider”.
Such bills for stolen data transfer could far exceed their bills for 230-volt electrical products.

solar system australia social strata
Credit: RenewEconomy. Rooftop solar uptake still highest in low-income Australia

Already the feudal regimes of the Australian and New Zealand Electricity Industry Reforms have dumbed-down our local 230-volt grids and made them more inefficient. “Lines Charges” are becoming more and more excessive even as the price of energy efficient technology for houses is plummeting. Combine this expensive redundancy with general distrust and the scene is set for the alienation of the lower-middle class from either their local 230-volt grid or their optic fibre grid or both. Observe, for instance, how lower-middle class suburbs in Australia have the highest investment in household photovoltaic systems.

I was an electrical-meter reader for decades. I witnessed, for instance, the devastating impact of corrupt usage algorithms. These generated over-estimated bills that cause families to go hungry for a month and/or be evicted for failing to pay their rents. I witnessed the sad lives of households forced to disconnect from their local 230-volt grids. Many had few other means of heating, cooking, lighting etc.
I also observed how the ripples of such disconnections affected neighbourhoods. People with little disposable income realized deep in their guts that one excessive bill could tip their family over the edge too. They adopted risk-averse behaviour that puts everyone at risk, such as using very inefficient and polluting combustion systems to keep warm and/or crowding into one room or staying in bed all day.

In summary, distrust breeds disruptive behaviour that tends to be destructive of society. Defections and forced disconnections result in local and national electrical grids becoming less efficient and viable. Similarly the “Ultrafast”, “Superhighway”, “Lightspeed” optic-fibre networks currently under construction are redundant before they are completed because people cannot trust them either. They represent evil, not good.
Even the megalomaniacs that now fragment and own this vital information system will be losers.

All this is very sad and needless. My enforced disconnection of the “smart” Enphase information system exemplifies the wider malaise of our culture. My community and I can no longer make intelligent use of my home’s solar-electrical potential. I am discovering the US-based Enphase Energy corporation does not extend service to our region and my local supplier has departed with whatever knowledge he had of the Enphase information system. Their super smart inverters have been rendered dumb devices for the average citizen. Worse, they can still be hacked for all manner of evil causes.

The extreme action of disconnecting from local 230-volt and optic-fibre grids may reduce threats but it will not fully protect the citizen from the risk of bankruptcy. The household wiring and “wireless” networks used for data transfer in and out of the home remains essentially the same information system. For instance, devices like the cell phone charger, the satellite dish, the photovoltaic battery system and the TV all remain interconnected. The conundrum of distrust remains.

p-21613-atl Benmore dam
Preparing to flood more valleys with the Benmore Dam

This wider malaise is also manifest in the delusional beliefs of our Anglo-American culture that fossilized biomass exists for us to burn, forests exist for us to destroy, valleys exist for us to dam and the air, water and soil of this planet exists for us to pollute. It involves the complete denial of the principles of physics. Only ill can come from our failure to make intelligent use of our solar, electrical and other potential – as we are now finding. The consequent emerging Anthropocene is putting all humankind at peril.

It is time to embrace the notion that information is physical and to reshape our information systems in compassion. This is the only way we can transcend our information conundrum and halt the present spiral into distrust and misery. It is the shared experience of compassion with its qualities of honesty, trust and inclusiveness that generates the legislation, technology and other information systems that enable us to enjoy true wealth. With compassion our current dangerous connections can be transformed into trustworthy, affordable, sustaining networks.