Two thousand miles away, in an apartment in Bogotá’s upscale Chicó Navarra neighborhood, Andrés Sepúlveda sat before six computer screens. Sepúlveda is Colombian, bricklike, with a shaved head, goatee, and a tattoo of a QR code containing an encryption key on the back of his head. On his nape are the words “</head>” and “<body>” stacked atop each other, dark riffs on coding. He was watching a live feed of Peña Nieto’s victory party, waiting for an official declaration of the results.
When Peña Nieto won, Sepúlveda began destroying evidence. He drilled holes in flash drives, hard drives, and cell phones, fried their circuits in a microwave, then broke them to shards with a hammer. He shredded documents and flushed them down the toilet and erased servers in Russia and Ukraine rented anonymously with Bitcoins. He was dismantling what he says was a secret history of one of the dirtiest Latin American campaigns in recent memory.
For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. With a budget of $600,000, the Peña Nieto job was by far his most complex. He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory. On that July night, he cracked bottle after bottle of Colón Negra beer in celebration. As usual on election night, he was alone.
Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.
2. Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories
The filter bubble—the idea that online recommendation engines learn what we like and thus keep us only reading things we agree with—has evolved. Algorithms, network effects, and zero-cost publishing are enabling crackpot theories to go viral, and—unchecked—these ideas are impacting the decisions of policy makers and shaping public opinion, whether they are verified or not.
First it is important to understand the technology that drives the system. Most algorithms work simply: Web companies try to tailor their content (which includes news and search results) to match the tastes and interests of readers. However as online organizer and author Eli Pariser says in the TED Talk where the idea of the filter bubble became popularized: “There’s a dangerous unintended consequence. We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.”
Facebook’s news feed and personalized search delivers results that are tailored just to us because a social network’s business is to keep us interested and happy. Feeling good drives engagement and more time spent on a site, and that keeps a user targetable with advertisements for longer. Pariser argues that this nearly invisible editing of the Internet limits what we see—and that it will “ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.”
In his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin describes a world where our ability to technologically shape reality is so sophisticated, it overcomes reality itself. “We risk being the first people in history,” he writes, “to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”
3. The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice
Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.
Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.
During my depression, there was one friend who truly helped. With my permission, Bill came to my house every day around 4:00 PM, sat me down in an easy chair, and massaged my feet. He rarely said a word. But somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition.
By offering me this quiet companionship for a couple of months, day in and day out, Bill helped save my life. Unafraid to accompany me in my suffering, he made me less afraid of myself. He was present — simply and fully present — in the same way one needs to be at the bedside of a dying person.
4. A New 50-Trillion-Pixel Image of Earth, Every Day
But it’s Planet Labs and Terra Bella who seem to be driving the small-satellite industry. Both are born of and based in Bay Area business culture. (Terra Bella’s founders often speak of the Stanford class where they met.) Both companies are now non-negligible in size: Planet Labs has more than 330 employees, evenly split between space-operations and product engineering; Terra Bella numbers more than 180. For reference, DigitalGlobe employs 1,300 people.
And, despite both manufacturing satellites, Planet Labs and Terra Bella both downplay their importance. Dan Berkenstock, Terra Bella’s CEO, even implied its why the company is changing its name: “I think Skybox, in many ways, came to be equated with satellite imaging,” he told me. “And satellite imaging is great—but that’s one piece of the puzzle.” (I also wonder if Skybox sounded too much like the similarly geospatial-minded Mapbox or the recently devalued Dropbox.)
Instead, both companies now talk about how imagery fits into their “Earth information platforms” that bring together lots of different kinds of data about the planet. Both companies offer APIs, aiming to provide something like “cloud” services for Earth information. (As opposed to “cloud” services for the Earth—that would be something else entirely.) Both companies are also cagey about what kind of non-imagery data could get included in these platforms, but meteorological and climate data would make sense.
“The product is information processing—real-time, fact-based data,” says Robbie Schlinger, co-founder of Planet Labs.
For Terra Bella, the uses of its eventual platform revolve around “economic transparency.” Their satellites have sufficiently high resolution to see vehicles, and they record high-definition video, not still frames. They mention executives working on logistics problems, or people checking on a construction project far away, when discussing their project. Their satellites’ resolution also puts a solution to “the Walmart parking-lot problem” in reach: an almost-infamous idea that financiers could scry the direction of the U.S. economy by tabulating how many cars obscure the blacktops of the nation’s big-box retailer.
Planet Labs tends to focus on different situations. As recently as last summer, it was a “unicorn,” valued at more than $1 billion. And unlike Terra Bella, which has leased out some of its manufacturing, Planet Labs still builds all of its extra-large Cubesats in its South of Market headquarters in San Francisco. Next month, the company will begin constructing 120 of them in a six-week span, the fastest manufacture of satellites in history, according to Schlinger.
Its satellites are a better fit for observing land use: the health and types of agricultural crops, the extent of logging and deforestation, the availability of water and the plumpness of reservoirs. (You can still often discern car and truck-sized objects in its photos.) Last year, it started giving imagery of newsworthy areas, like the Syria-Turkey border, to outlets like The New York Times.
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