A Digital Radical in the Alaskan Wild

Jacob Gursky

November 26, 2019

View of Rural Alaska with Mountains

Sitting on my duffel bag in front of the gas station, the only thing in the town of Cantwell, Alaska besides 100 people (on a good day) and the post office, I waited for Mike to arrive. A large black pickup truck pulled up. Snowblinded eyes behind sunglasses, with a trademark mustache and a grey plaid shirt that had seen better days, he rolled down the window.

You Jacob?

Yeah.

The door popped open. Mike looks down at me, indiscernible through his sunglasses. This was the first full sentence that he ever said to me:

You got any callouses on those hands?

No, sir. But Im ready to get some.

He took a drag of his Kool blue cigarette and smiled as he said, slowly, Touchdown.

If you met me in person, one of the first things that you would probably ask me (it happens all the time) is why I dont carry a smart phone. I carry a tracfone dumbphone that has no camera and uses minutes. I dont use a GPS, I like getting lost, and I like to take the battery out of my phone for extended periods. People joke all of the time that I am going to go off the grid,but I would argue that the modern gridis a bit too griddy.” My brother periodically asks me how, when I inevitably fake my death, I will communicate to him that I am still alive. I tell him that if I die at sea, that means that Im still kicking somewhere.

Not using social media means that I am left out of a lot. I try to find a friend or two in each of my circles that is willing to text me when things are happening. Eventually, I started going dancing once or twice a week, and my social world really blossomed. But I remember days in the quad where everyone was dressed up to go out, following their phones like divining rods, and I was left behind feeling miserable and cheated and cursed that I had to coexist in a world with cell phones and social media. Even when I go dancing, there comes a point where someone takes out their phone and tapes the entire dance floor. I end up on Instagram every week, even without an account.

I have been obsessed (probably unhealthily) with computer privacy since I was 16 years old, and it’s all Penn’s fault. As a sophomore in high school, I did a three-week summer program studying Network and Social Systems Engineering (NETS). It introduced me to the basics of network science, which underlies a lot of modern technology and is a rapidly growing field. It taught me that the connections between things can be just as illuminating as the things themselves. That same summer was the summer that Edward Snowden released the documents revealing the extent of the US Government’s warrantless spying. The arguments quickly became focused on the difference between “data” and “metadata.” The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, committed perjury in front of Congress to protect the program, making it clear that, when it came to surveillance, there was no respect for the balance of powers. When the executive branch “collects the haystack in case they need to find the needle,” they come to embody all three branches of government because they are able to construct any narrative necessary to retrospectively justify their actions. Thanks to a Supreme Court case from the 70s involving a payphone and a stalker, metadata collection was warrantless, but data collection was not. The president himself argued that the collection of metadata was permissible because it did not involve the content of the calls, only who-called-who and the call’s duration. The argument passed from the headlines, but, at the time, I rejected the logic because of what I had learned about network science. My world was shaken (that’s not hard to do when you’re 16) and I asked myself for the first time, “Do I live in a surveillance state?” It didn’t help that we were reading 1984 at the time. I never really recovered from that. I remember in civics class we were learning about the “social contract,” the idea that I allow myself to be governed because those who govern me agree to follow certain rules, and I to this day cannot reconcile the extent of surveillance in this country with the mutual respect between governed and government required to maintain the social contract.

At Penn, I started a privacy activism group (associated with the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and we hosted workshops on campus and in Philadelphia to help people avoid corporate and government surveillance. I completed more of the NETS courses and learned about the extent of corporate surveillance.

I was auditing Penn Law’s Privacy and Law course, and I had the opportunity to meet General Michael Hayden, the man who started the radical metadata collection program. I asked him directly: “Is there a difference in what you can figure out about people’s lives between data and metadata?” He looked at me, paused, and gave a very frank answer: “No, but if you give us the opportunity, we will take it as far as you will let us.” I am not a fan of General Michael Hayden.

I also became more interested in the extent of modern corporate surveillance and the enormous, invisible data broker industry. If you are interested, I recommend Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Author pictured with General Michael Hayden

A while ago, I went on a date. It went well, and we had a lot of fun. About a week afterwards, I received an email from the other person. They emailed my school account, which is a Gmail account. Gmail reads through your emails and builds psychographic profiles of you. It is arguably the most invasive surveillance tool ever invented. Even if you dont have an account, they build profiles if you email someone with Gmail (which is basically everyone). Before I read the email, I looked at the automated responses on the bottom of the message:

[Ok]    [Sounds good]    [That’s great, thanks!]

Then I read the message – my date informed me that they had oral herpes and that I may need to be tested.

CLICK *[That’s great, thanks!]*

Ultimately, it was non-issue; student health told me that they don’t even test for oral herpes, and the emailer and I are on good terms. But I was worried at the time I read the message. The thing is, there was a level of violation here beyond what happened on my date. I would be hard pressed to imagine something more intimate being discussed, and Google was reading through this message for profit? Was I going to start seeing ads based on oral herpes? It was disturbing to me that I lived in a world where this kind of violation is normalized.

When people ask me why I don’t carry a smartphone, or why I don’t use social media, or why I try to use printed directions instead of GPS, or, on a larger scale, why I’m obsessed with privacy, I’m never sure where to start. I give the only answer that a person obsessed with something can ever give: “How are you not?”

Man with Chainsaw

Why was I spending my summer working for an Iditarod racer in the Alaskan wilderness? I decided that, to understand my relationship with technology, I should try to live without it. Following the expectations of the people around me, I left that grid behind.

Another reason to go off the grid was that I had spent the summer before my Alaskan adventure at the UC Santa Barbara Network science laboratory studying Milo Yiannopoulos and altright groups on Twitter. After spending three months neck deep in that world, I did not want to touch another computer. I decided I needed to get closer to nature.

At UC Santa Barbara, I stayed in student housing with other interns. We all lived on top of each other, and wed throw parties in some of the dorms throughout the week. Once, about 15 of us were sitting in a circle, drinking and playing NeverHaveIEver.If you are not familiar, this is a game where players attempt to get other people in the circle to reveal intimate secrets about themselves.

A few minutes in, one of my friends realized she forgot something, left the room, and returned with a strange object that she placed in the center of the table. Other people were excited that she had brought it. I asked her what it was.

Its a 360 camerashe said, So I can remember all of my friends and this moment.

After I revealed that I was uncomfortable, the camera was removed. My friend removed it happily, but in a placating way. It was kind; they demonstrated that they valued my friendship and respected my views, but I dont think that I had ever felt more confused and out of place. My friends decided that hanging out with me was worth the inconvenience of my personal preference. But, it was obvious that my personal preference was inconveniencing the group, as if I was a vegetarian who refuses to even be in the presence of meat. My perspective was this: we were playing a game specifically designed to elicit secrets, in a circle filled with underage drinkers, and, somehow, I was the strange one for not wanting it recorded.

I have difficulty accepting what has been normalized by my peers in how they approach technology. Part of it is selffulfilling because I run in circles that are actively involved in these issues. For example, because of the research I have been exposed to and talking to professors like Penns Joseph Turow, when I see those new scooters that people unlock with their cell phonesall I can think about are the huge trails of data they are leaving behind them like an enormous binary slug. I feel isolated because there is no way for me to use them without a smartphoneI wonder how long it will be before I am with five or six friends and they want to hop on them and I will be the only one who cant. And, all the while, I still cant wrap my head around why people just dont care that when they use those things their adventures are being tracked and cataloged and analyzed by complete strangers who are essentially unregulated in what they can use that information for.

In other circles, sometimes my friends have YouTube parties,where they project YouTube on a big screen and we all do our best to find embarrassing videos of each other, many of which were not posted by us. Google catalogs our lives without our consent, sometimes as early as elementary school, indelibly and forever, so that it is available to anyone. The response of the people around me is to turn it into something fun. I guess there’s a beauty in that, but I don’t think I have the distance to appreciate it. Maybe my peers have accepted this surveillance and access to their lives as inevitable and have decided to make the best of it. It could be that they are much wiser than me and that I am holding onto something that died with the first iPhone, or that never existed at all. I honestly don’t know.

Adult and child on side of Alaskan road

In Alaska, I had no access to the internet and I spent most of my free time staring at mountains. It was very lonely at times, but I wouldnt exchange the experience for anything.

My boss, Mike, had been mushing dogs since he was 18 years old. Obsessed with polar explorers, he and his wife, Caitlin (the hardest working person Ive ever met – when things are rough I tell myself to follow her example), moved to Cantwell, Alaska and rebuilt one of the first Denali homesteads by hand. Like something out of a legend, Mike moved his house onto a new foundation 40 feet away, by hand, a few inches a day, with a rope comealong. He chopped down trees on his property, dragged them back on a sled, and built by hand the tourist theater that is his livelihood. Together, with their 5yearold son, Max, Mike and Caitlin have created a life for themselves in a place where others would crumble.

When we had time off, we would put down the buckets of dog food and take the four wheelers on trips into the wild around Denali National Park, sometimes in rivers up to my waist. Often, wed go fly fishing, but other times wed go just to be in nature. One day in particular, I was sitting on a flat stone by the edge of a river at the bottom of a valley, staring at another rock jutting up from the center of the river.

I jumped – suddenly Mike was behind me.

What are you thinking about?

Im trying to imagine how that rock got there.

And?

I dont know, maybe it rolled down the side of the hill or maybe a glacier put it there.

Mike laughed at me. It was an embarrassingly short theory for the amount of time that I had been sitting there. But in that one, stupid moment, I had a revelation: I have trouble ever believing that I am truly alone. That I am not being watched. I always feel like I am performing – that there is a camera pointed at me or that Im only a second away from a camera being produced from someones pocket to record me and share it with the world without my permission. At this point, I cant tell if my obsessive quest to understand privacy has warped my brain, like a germaphobe who studies to be a doctor, or if constant performance and surveillance is just the reality of modern life. I dont know if it really matters, one way or another. 

But, in that moment, by the river, something happened. No one, I thought to myself, can take staring at a rock in a river away from you.

Man holding puppies

This may sound innocuous, but for me it was a revelation. What it meant was that at this spot, by this river, there were no 360 cameras. No one was looking me up in a facial recognition database, like they do at the Fresh Grocer on Penns campus. There was no cell service, so my location wasnt being bounced off of cell towers. For me, when these things happen, its like a tiny piece of myself is being removed and swept away to a server somewhere. Its like someone is capturing my soul.

Having my daily life recorded is an affront to my personal autonomy, even if nothing is done with the data. (In contrast, people always tell me, I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to fear.”) I think that this might be what makes my views on privacy and technology seem radical to my peers. Surveillance of any form is, quite simply, offensive and dangerous to my ability to exist as a human being at the point of collection. And currently, in the Faustian bargain of modern surveillance capitalism and digital feudalism (in which you are the product, not the consumer), everyone – governments, corporations to whom data is the new oil, parents with tracking apps, universities that use RFID cards to track your locations believes they have an inherent right to collect aspects of my life.

And they can all, quite frankly, fuck off.

But here, at this river in the Alaskan wild, I could just exist. This may sound melodramatic, and I think that it would be if I was writing this 20 years ago. But I ask you to really think about the last time you existed without a piece of yourself being removed and whisked away to a server or a cell tower. I had to go all the way to Alaska to find that experience, but I found it, and it meant the world to me. People ask me if Im going back to Alaska, and the option is there, but staying wasnt really the point. Right now, I do not want to leave the grid behind and become a dog musher. I found exactly what I was looking for in that one stupid moment, and knowing that it exists gives me the strength to try and tackle some of the toughest problems of the technological era. I dont hate technology and social media; I honestly think its wonderful, but I think that we need to work to develop technology that respects human dignity, privacy, and personal autonomy. If we do this, then instead of escaping to those corners of the world where you can just exist, we can foster them and expand them in conjunction with technology, like an endangered species being reintroduced to the forest to grow and flourish.

If anyone knows how to deal with feeling like they were born in the wrong decade, or rather, century, its a dog musher. Later that day, further down the river where it opens to a view of the mountains, I asked Mike how he deals with it, to which he replied:

Avoid people and drink lots of alcohol.

I grew very quiet.

He softened and answered, more seriously:

Find something you love and find a way to make a living doing it.

I stopped to think about this man for whom I feel so much admiration. Even he isn’t out of the reach of modern life. His business is dependent on TripAdvisor reviews, and the tourists from whom he makes his living carry a sea of phone cameras. But, by embracing it for four months of the year, he is free to spend the other eight exploring the wilderness with his wife and son and dogs throughout some of the most beautiful and untouched land in the world. I think that, if Mike has found his balance, I can, too.

One of my former NETS professors was approached by an incoming freshman student who was interested in hosting computer privacy workshops. I was a senior at this point, and he pointed her in my direction. We met and I told her about the work I was doing and we shared our frustrations with our peersdependence on social media (she doesnt use them either), and I gave her what advice I could. I dont know if anything I shared helped her, but I know that it would have meant the world to me when I was a freshman and feeling the same way to have had the conversation that we had. It is difficult to adjust to a new place, and it can be even worse when everyone else is connected to a social web that you have no access to. I hope the interaction meant half as much to her as it did to me; I am proud of how far Ive come in my relationship with technology and with my peers.

In the fall I’m applying to a master’s program in Privacy Engineering, but if that doesn’t work out, I’m sure I can find a rock in a river somewhere.

Jacob Gursky (jgursky@sas.upenn.edu) finished his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019. He doesn’t believe that surveillance should be a viable business model. If you want to learn how to encrypt your email, he will gladly help you.