Notes on a U.S. congressional hearing: turning antitrust guns on Big Tech will not shield us from Orwellian puppeteering. Why did the politician-legislators choose the wrong focus?

‘Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills … …’postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘… Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills …’: William Empson

Notes scribbled after the second day of grilling this week for the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google by the U.S. Congress’s antitrust judiciary committee: 

Can protecting citizen-consumers really be the point of telling Big Tech chiefs that they have too much power, when this is news to no one?

If yes: horse, barn door; 

problem has gone viral — the uncontrolled proliferation of harm to citizen-consumers (not Covid-19; the commercial surveillance virus);

hardly any citizen-consumers understand this or implications.

Conclusion: too late to save us so we’re doomed — barring lucky accident of stupendous dimensions.

1. In the frightening background to the hearing, unenlightened citizens: 

A disturbingly high proportion of consumers in six countries surveyed by the San Francisco technology security firm Okta this year have no idea of the degree to which they are being tracked by companies. They are equally oblivious to being milked for their personal data. Though ‘people don’t want to be tracked, and they place a high value on privacy42% of Americans do not think online retailers collect data about their purchase history, and 49% do not think their social media posts are being tracked by social media companies. … Nearly 4 out of 5 American respondents (78%) don’t think a consumer hardware provider such as Apple, Fitbit, or Amazon is tracking their biometric data, and 56% say the same about their location data.’

With those findings, the reason why rich Big Tech is only getting richer in a pandemic-battered US economy is obvious. It is just as clear that the average citizen cannot be expected to grasp that the execrable business practices of the technology leaders — including deceptive ‘privacy settings in devices sold by the most successful brands or guaranteed by popular platforms — are being copied by every type and size of business. 

2. Shouldn’t Congress’s focus be on eg., the unfair risks in installing apps — used to turn citizens into pawns of corporate surveillance?

Businesses once never thought of in connection with digital technology are forcing surveillance and tracking tools on us, mostly in the form of apps — but also when we think we are just popping in and out of their web sites. 

You can, for instance, log on to the site of a credit card company you trust and for the fifth month in a row, have to complain to the IT support desk about error messages obstructing you from completing your task. Finally — with an embarrassed acknowledgment of your loyalty to the brand — an unusually honest tech support supervisor confesses that the site’s glitches are not accidental but part of an effort to push customers towards installing the company’s app, and conduct their transactions on their smartphones. You say exasperatedly, ‘Oh, to track what I do all day long?’ The techie does not answer directly, only laughs and says that although most customers seem to love the app, he would not install it on his phone. He promises to notify colleagues responsible for the manipulation that you will never install the app. The site goes back to working perfectly for you. (Note: that was an actual, not an imagined, experience.)

3. The companies will not stop at tracking, data-gathering, and individually targeted advertisements

As in this site’s testament two years ago about another low-tech company, the esteemed media organ we called ACN.com, — ‘Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us …’  — businesses are proceeding from spying on us and selling or sharing their discoveries with third parties to using them to limit or redirect our choices, and even scolding us for legal and reasonable behaviour that does not suit them. The ACN manager we argued with in that incident said that his organisation had ’special software tools’ that monitored every click and keystroke by visitors to its web site. In fact, the newspaper had graduated from unremitting surveillance to: 

demanding that we make personal contact with our monitors; insisting that we submit to interrogation by these monitors, and account for our actions; cross-questioning us about our answers, and about why we say that the obtuse interpretations by monitors — inadvertently or tactically — of what we are doing are mistaken.

Imagine what that would mean in even more intrusive and unscrupulous hands.

4. Politicians in both parties campaigning in the U.S. presidential election are copying the methods of commercial surveillance: is this why antitrust rather than tracking and data-gathering was the focus of the Congressional hearing?

On 14 July, the U.S. president’s digital campaigning strategist Brad Parscale boasted on Twitter about a ‘biggest data haul’ on supporters and prospective voters. That was done with the same nasty spying technology, software apps. The Republicans are not alone, here. The campaign of the Democratic front-runner has its own equivalent. In fact, an article published by the MIT Technology Review on 21 June said that across the globe, politicians are using apps to organize support, manipulate supporters and attract new voters. Many are using the particular app developed for the Indian prime minister in his last campaign — which ‘was pushed through official government channels and collected large amounts of data for years through opaque phone access requests.’ To be perfectly clear, electioneering software used ‘“just like a one-way tool of propaganda”’ is also being used to govern India.

The Trump campaign app seeks permission from those who install it for — among other startling invasions of privacy — confirming identity and searching for user accounts on devices; reading, writing or deleting data on devices; getting into USB storage; preventing the device from sleeping.

The authors of the piece, Jacob Gursky and Samuel Woolley, say: ‘As researchers studying the intersection of technology and propaganda, we understand that political groups tend to lag behind the commercial ad industry. But when they catch up, the consequences to truth and civil discourse can be devastating.’

How strange that there has not apparently been the smallest whisper about any of this in connection with the politicians’ heroic interrogations of Big Tech leaders this week … or is it, really?

5. Is poetry all we will have left for comfort?

Society is being hurt by these technologies and practices in damage going deep and acquiring subtle dimensions, inexpressible except in poetry — as in these lines from the 20th-century poet William Empson:

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills …

.

… It is not your system or clear sight that mills

Down small to the consequence a life requires;

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

‘Missing Dates’

Or there are the 1992 predictions of the late Leonard Cohen, in a song last quoted here a few months ago in a different context just as apt:

… There’ll be the breaking of the ancient

Western code

Your private life will suddenly explode …

.

… Give me absolute control
Over every living soul …

‘The Future’

 

Big Tech dangers we are not talking about — especially, how the theft of our personal data is opening the way to future subjugation and control at the scale of masses, not just individuals

 

dark cloud looming -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

This week marks the first anniversary of an attempt by the Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger to organise a social media strike. It did not attract the support it deserved. That was largely because mainstream media — including nearly all the best-known newspaper sites in the UK and US — declined to publicise it. Indeed they did not mention it at all, even though the BBC and the online version of The Daily Mail — two of the most-frequented news sites in the English-speaking world — ran reports about the plan and call to action. This site outlined the probable reason why: ‘ Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook.

Grassroots tweeting and similar advertisements by the general public could — conceivably — have made up for the media silence. They did not. One reason why — probably outweighing all the others — is that in this ironic Information Age, we seem increasingly less able to absorb information and assess the reliability of its sources, especially when it is about risks and threats to our safety. 

We have to find new ways of establishing credibility. What could be better than handing out tools to let people run their own tests of any assertion? Read side-by-side, the two public-interest comments below show how helpful this can be — in the context of Big Tech’s siphoning of our personal data, the subject of innumerable posts, here (this one, for example). The first is a statement about a trend to which this site has been trying to draw attention since 2011. The second offers a way to assess its substance. They are recent, actual comments by readers on the Financial Times site (whose real-life identities pG does not know) made a few days apart, on different Big Tech-related articles there. 

The highlights are pG’s:

PiotrG

Big/Bug Tech relies on an ever-expanding expropriation of personal data to make money. Its endgame is to turn people into trained monkeys whose behaviour can be predicted and ultimately directed towards specific objectives. For now the objectives are commercial, but they could become social or political. That is the problem, and it won’t be solved by antitrust laws alone. 

However, concentration and excessive market power make the problem worse. A world where 10 people own information on 3-6 billion “customers” and manage to kill market competition, avoid supervision and remove internal (stakeholder) control is a perfect Orwellian nightmare.

Frederick E.

Anyone who thinks that it is easy to escape surveillance should install a pfsense router, or some equivalent. Set up firewall logging, even better deep packet inspection (including https via certificate installation). Then set up your privacy settings on your devices  they way you think is max what you need. Use them for a week as you would normally. Then check the firewall logs on your router. You will be surprised to see how much info from simple DNS, or DNS via https to much more detailed surveillance both facebook, google, microsoft or apple carry out. 

An average home with a computer, three phones and a tablet, plus roku (boy does that thing spy) and smart speakers leaks an inordinate amount of data even when privacy settings are set to max. 

Privacy settings are a false sense of security. Smart devices as well as computers are now designed to spy at the core OS level, no firewall, or app/plugin is going to stop it – these are higher level process that cannot override core level ones. 

The only way to block stuff at home is at the router level, but when you do so, many things simply stop working. The deal is be spied on, or don’t use it. This goes for free stuff or paid.

Unfortunately, where there should be discussion of what @PiotrG and @Frederick E. are trying to protect us from, there is precisely none about any such specifics.

¡Hola! Here comes the Micrashell pandemic futuresuit — a stage-designer’s computerised protective costume from Spain and L.A., … and cyber life’s next leap?

 

+++ Micrashell pandemic futuresuit ON DRAFTING TABLE postgutenberg@gmail.com

Miguel Risueño’s Micrashell half-suit — on the top half of the mannequin — is on virtual (software) drafting boards, somewhere between a concept and prototype-in-progress. This is a Production Club image interpreted by pG

There has been a blizzard of reminders lately that crises can jump-start social transformations — can, for instance, do what World War I did for the Suffragettes with whom the women’s movement began. Right or wrong, here is pG’s prediction for the biggest technology-mediated change in our everyday existence to emerge from this pandemic seemingly set to rage on and on, now that scientists interviewed by The Verge, CNN  and The Guardian are warning us that we may never get acceptably risky, or safe — or any — vaccines against Covid-19: Fighting this virus will bounce us to the long-expected next stage of the digital revolution — ‘body-borne’ or ‘wearable’ computing.

The Wikipedia credits the invention of computing attached to our bodies to a Canadian engineer, Steve Mann, in the late 1970s. We have already met some of its components, if we don’t own them, as smartwatches and fitness trackers. These could well be followed by a larger constituent, if not a whole garment — a ‘half-body’ suit called a Micrashell, now somewhere between a concept and a prototype dreamt up by a Spanish stage-designer in the entertainment business, Miguel Risueño. Search engines’ earliest record of its launch appears to be a post on 29 April on CDM.link ** — just four weeks after pG’s first post about a virus-shielding, one-piece, whole-body outfit tentatively named a flusuit.

Risueño is in charge of inventions at Production Club, which is a studio based in Los Angeles and Spain that specialises in creating ‘immersive experiences’ for the raver-clubber-gamer class in electronic music and dancing.  Explosive interest in the Micrashell among other specialists in imagining and aesthetics is clear in the excitement in posts on scores of websites everywhere, including one on Architectural Digest India noting that the pandemic ‘has inspired artists and designers all over the world to create avant-garde Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) not only for frontline workers, but also for the general population.’ 

Risueño and his team say that they will first be selling their idea to businesses, not consumers, because the Micrashell’s yet-to-be-decided price tag will be high —  like those of the first components of the internet and computer revolution, which were paid for by the U.S. military. The first buyers Production Club has in mind are concert organisers and promoters and other specialists in giant live events whose audiences have vanished in the lockdowns. Risueño envisages these companies renting his half-suits to concert-goers, and being responsible for sterilising them between rentals and events.

A childhood friend of pG who used to conduct experiments in telepathy with her younger brother, each stationed in a different room in their house, would end their tests hoping to create a record of segments of thoughts that they — on rare occasions — apparently succeeded in transmitting to each other. If telepathy had been scientifically confirmed as real, it might explain the following curious overlaps between the entries here about a pandemic-protective futuresuit and announcements by the Risueño dream factory:

GETTING PHYSICAL

Whereas most others speculating about how the pandemic will alter ordinary human life are focusing on virtual solutions — such as offices in the ether, and moving various branches of the performing arts online — the suit idea is about physical adaptation. Both pG and Production Club see it as a way to make social distancing more effective, but also of ending the suffering and harmful consequences of lockdowns, preserving familiar human connections and freedom of movement as far as possible.

ADDING COMPUTING TO CLOTHES

Both Production Club and pG — in the 1 April post here  — have in different ways described garments with smartphone capabilities and high-tech sensors to monitor the suit-wearer’s environment and safety.

INCLUDING A RESPIRATORY SHIELD

Both the pG and Production Club envisionings equip a futuresuit with an N-95-grade respiratory mask, although p-G’s is replaceable and Production Club’s includes a sophisticated system of air filtration.

USING AESTHETICS AND COLOUR FOR ALLURE

The startling resemblance between the photograph of the suit used to announce the Micrashell (above) and the image in pG’s second post about an anti-Covid-19 suit  — bright, vibrant colours against a black background — fit a shared recognition that aesthetic allure will make it more likely that young early adopters will want a futuresuit. Whereas pG pointed out that users would not necessarily have to look like astronauts and might be offered fitness-flaunting suits made of transparent materials, Risueño told NBC Los Angeles that his suit ‘is a little bit more of a fashion piece than something that looks like a medical device.’ 

There the similarities more or less end. Production Club’s version lacks pG’s disposable stick-on-strip-off double-gloves and soles for shoes, and suggestion of biodegradability as a bonus — but in all other respects, is a far more intricate and elaborate conception. It includes, for example, battery-powered sound and messaging systems described in detail in the comprehensive Globetrender report about it. It has provisions for eating and drinking by a suit-wearer, and anticipates that what goes in must eventually come out — the notorious loo-break nuisance of jumpsuits — which explains why it ends at the waist.

But a top-only half-suit like the Micrashell must inevitably sacrifice anti-virus protection to some degree and will surely have to be reconsidered. As thrilling as it is for the futurists among us, the Production Club prototype is bound to lose a few — probably, a lot — of its features to be manufacturable in the near future.

Something about Risueño is reminiscent of the spirit and pan-directional imagining of Steve Jobs — in conversations with him around 1980 — who emerged seemingly from nowhere to reorient the computer business for ordinary people. He paid unprecedented attention to elegant usability and fashion, giving these as much importance as technical minutiae in an era in which giant established computer-makers bored outsiders with jargon-laden droning about megaflops and ‘OEM’-marketing strategies (no, you really don’t want to know about those). 

Miguel Risueño could be an imaginer too far ahead of his time, which is just as problematic as being a laggard (and in this respect too, would be a pG fellow-traveller). His name could be forgotten even six months from now. Or he — or someone very like him, from somewhere no one is expecting — could be the first of the new guard in the next transformation of computing.

..

** A fact-checking post-publication Google search on 29 May has turned up a Fast Company report on 27 April.

A parallel in contraception for the mass-produceable, anti-Covid-19 garment we need to end the lockdown — with or without help from Silicon Valley — while waiting for vaccines

(2) from a photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com (2)

The ingenuity and Aladdin’s Cave-like inventions of Silicon Valley belong, first, to the realm of the abstract and immaterial — far removed from the skills of builders and manufacturers

NO SURPRISE IN 2020: in all sorts of organisations, colleagues as far apart as polar bears and penguins at their separate poles are talking to each other in virtual meetings through services like Zoom that almost make them feel as if they are in the same room. Thanks to lockdowns, technology originally referred to as picturephones or videotelephony — waiting for take-off since a World Fair in New York in 1964  — has finally come into its own.

A VERY BIG SURPRISE IN 2020: almost everywhere, the people in charge have been shown up as incompetent by their inability to supply straightforward physical barriers  — clothing and equipment referred to as PPE — to protect doctors, nurses, and others falling ill and dying while trying to save lives on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic. This makes no sense. Human beings are estimated to have started wearing clothes somewhere between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago, and clothing made of highly adaptable synthetic materials dates back to the 1930s and ‘40s, when chemists invented nylon and polyester. 

As our days on earth are being reshaped by the all-pervading digital revolution, it has been natural to look to California’s equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave for ingenious technological solutions and magicians, since the pandemic began. But that has so far been pointless. The Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen has cast the blame for his country’s disastrous lack of physical virus-blockers and medical equipment elsewhere, on what he calls a collective failure to ‘build’ in America — in a recent post on the site of his venture capital firm. In that diagnosis being widely discussed, he says, ‘I think building is how we reboot the American dream.’ 

Andreessen has had nothing more specific to offer than evidence of his heart being in the right place. He certainly did not happen to mention or explain why we have no convenient, one-piece, coverall garment capable of blocking and slowing down the transmission of the virus — such as the tentatively-named flusuit sketched here on pG, a suggestion for a streamlined, not necessarily unattractive version of a biohazard suit with both immediately feasible and futuristic elements. That has turned out to have interesting precedents. A post-publication search on ‘flusuit’ produced links for, for instance, a flu-and-radiation suit modelled by a German family in a wintry Hamburg in a 1969 Reuters-British Pathé video clip.  

Flu Suit 1969 Reuters-Pathé postgutenberg@gmail.com

German family dressed in flu/radiation suits, Hamburg, 1969, British Pathé Collection

A month after pG’s flusuit post, finding some way of making a garment like that — a pandemic- or pando-onesie? —  a permanent part of our wardrobes is even more urgent. Hardly anyone appears to be discussing any remedy like it — which is odd for these reasons:

• The uncertainty about vaccines and cures Most experts do not expect a vaccine or vaccines (for different strains of the virus) to be ready and available in sufficient quantities before a year from now, even with clever genetic engineering, according to the latest information on the subject, from Scientific American. No old or new medicine or therapy has so far been confirmed as fully effective and available as a cure for the range of symptoms caused by the new coronavirus — as promising as this week’s news about remdesivir looks. 

• The contraception parallel For blocking the most commonly cherished form of new life — children — physical barriers, however crude and imperfect, have proved useful for centuries. There was a 400-year wait for sophisticated chemical forms of contraception, starting with the birth control pill (in 1951), after the first documented use of a condom in Europe (in 1564). 

Certain religions frown on birth control, but who is likely to object to physical protection from the virus as a first defence? We are already gaping at the range of improvisations being devised by desperate people. Last week The New York Times interviewed reluctant air travellers wearing anything ‘from plastic ponchos to laboratory goggles to biohazard suits,’ for insulation, and worrying about the possibility that the virus would attach itself to their hair. One woman in the report flew from New York to Beijing in a ‘a rain jacket, hairnet, a mask and goggles,’ accompanied by a mother carrying plastic shower curtains for possible use as shields from aeroplane seats. A man dressed in ‘a disposable protective suit and goggles’ twice changed the N-95 mask he was also wearing for his 13-hour flight from London to Hong Kong last month, and told the newspaper that he felt glad about going to such extremes when he was notified about five fellow-passengers testing positive for the virus two days after his journey.

Why talk about whole bodysuits when the world is struggling to make enough coverings for faces? Because no expert has any idea of when the pandemic will end — and the gap between having enough masks but still no vaccines could feel interminable. There are experts predicting second waves of infection, and evidence from Germany that their anxiety is warranted.  

The millions of people pushed by the unavoidable lockdowns into dire economic straits and unemployment deserve a range of innovations capable of letting them get back to work and feel secure, there.

So Marc Andreessen could do worse than concentrate on finding ways to ‘build’ — mass-produce — an anti-coronavirus suit that many of us must now want as permanent additions to our clothes cupboards, like rain gear, for possible use in the future, even in far less deadly epidemics. A protective garment with a replaceable respiratory mask that is, ideally, biodegradable. 

Will he or anyone else in Silicon Valley actually give us one? 

Although nothing is less welcome than pessimism about the pandemic, it has to be said that this seems unlikely. The clue is in the thought-capsule in the top left-hand corner of the Andreessen Horowitz web site, which reads: ‘Software Is Eating The World.’ In a text posted there in 2011, Andreessen explained the reasoning behind it: ‘More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services.’ His list of examples included this one: ‘Today’s largest direct marketing platform is a software company — Google … joined by Groupon, Living Social, Foursquare and others … using software to eat the retail marketing industry.’

For decades, software has stolen sharp minds from projects related strictly to people and physical objects. It has devoured investment capital disproportionately, and been a gateway into the super-rich club for many more hundreds of thousands than old-fashioned businesses have. The technology superstars — Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Netflix — are all actual or virtual software companies. Speculation about their future evolution has consistently centred on their plans for artificial intelligence — and what is that if not more complex software? 

None of these companies have so far shown any sign of replicating their success in that ethereal, immaterial realm on the physical plane — the domain of things. But how wonderful it would be if they could.

'I'm going to the store' starbiz.com

‘”Going to the store” coronavirus meme,’ starbiz.com