Social media critics who do not separate their objections are cooking up an anti-Big Tech jambalaya confusing regulators about the ‘surveillance capitalism’ that Google did not pioneer

 

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We have to discriminate carefully between light and dark elements of social media platforms

Here is an indirect reply to a tweet from @nikluac to @postgutenbergB, a few days ago  — which contained a link to a New York Times opinion piece by Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita of the Harvard Business School. Flashing red lights set off by a single paragraph in her essay led to post-Gutenberg.com [pG] ’s first investigation of Professor Zuboff’s hugely influential, best-selling book published a year ago, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. 

That work, which offers ‘little by way of a concrete agenda’ for internet-centred reform according to Evgeny Morozov, and other reviewers, is on a very different mission from this pG site — which argues for a specific scheme. The professor has succeeded uniquely and brilliantly at her task of so-called ‘consciousness-raising’. In seven hundred pages, her book explains and condemns the extent and precise mechanisms of what she and other analysts have named surveillance capitalism. 

It is the same phenomenon to which pG has been drawing attention since August of 2013  — with no claims of pioneering insight — in the course of campaigning for a proposal for the democratisation of publishing. This involved — in part — pointing out that like the Big Tech social media platforms, powerful newspapers were also spying on their readers without notification or consent. In posts here, digital invasions of privacy have been referred to variously as commercial surveillance or the surveillance business model — or, for anorexic attention spans incapable of absorbing more than a long header, as the ‘“free” surveillance/advertising-centred/data-cow business model’, or ‘the ‘pay-to-be-spied-on contract for e-commerce.’

Why did the following paragraph in Professor Zuboff’s NYT essay in late January — in the context of its headline and theme — set alarm bells jangling?

You Are Now Remotely Controlled

Surveillance capitalists control the science and the scientists, the secrets and the truth.

Only repeated crises have taught us that these platforms are not bulletin boards but hyper-velocity global bloodstreams into which anyone may introduce a dangerous virus without a vaccine. This is how Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, could legally refuse to remove a faked video of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and later double down on this decision, announcing that political advertising would not be subject to fact-checking. 

That is an intensely emotive jambalaya, and not a logical argument. It is a fact that the platforms do indeed serve as ‘bulletin boards’ for useful, unobjectionable and frequently important messages from millions of users, every day. The article unreasonably conflates the ‘hate speech’ debate — about the platforms as carriers of social viruses — with the discussion of what needs to be done about regulating commercial surveillance and the theft of our personal data. Professor Zuboff somehow blurs the refusal of social media platforms such as Facebook to control what some individual users post there with not one but two unrelated questions — first, about whether paid political advertising on those sites should be curbed or forbidden; secondly, about what limits should be placed on information-gathering about platform users.

In her book she mashes all those together on the grounds that refusing to censor their users means that the social media platforms attract more users; can keep them on their sites for longer to gather more information about them; and, by growing their audiences in this way, earn more advertising dollars. 

While that is all undoubtedly true, it does not add up to an argument for treating the platforms like the owners of newspapers that are responsible for the work of their employees. Besides, there is something far more critical at stake, here.

Professor Zuboff mostly ignores or pays only cursory attention to the indispensable role that the platforms have assumed for most of us as cyberspace equivalents of town halls, libraries, coffee houses, debating clubs, pubs and soapboxes, and of pamphleteering and other printed means of disseminating facts and opinions — among other institutions and media. 

In an interview with the editor in chief in the latest issue of Wired, the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, endorses the idea of access to the internet as a basic human right. He explains:

People are saying all the voices must be heard. The idea of a very small group of people can decide for everything is now being put into question very seriously. … [I]n each country, the trigger is different. In some cases it’s an economic-driven occasion, in others it’s pressure on the political system, in others corruption, and people react. But I see more and more people wanting to assume responsibility, wanting their voices to be heard. And that is the best guarantee we have that political systems will not be corrupted.

Here, pG — which has so far been among Facebook’s most relentless critics, most recently, for its new practice of selectively handing out gigantic pots of cash to famous newspapers and magazines — must concede that Mark Zuckerberg is right to say that ‘People of varied political beliefs are trying to define expansive speech as dangerous because it could bring results they don’t accept,’ and that he believes that ‘this is more dangerous to democracy in the long term than almost any speech.’ His idea of trying out ‘a court-style board to rule on site content’ — staffed not by Facebook managers but independent outsiders — is also a good one, as long as the arbiters are genuinely independent, and expensive professional lawyers from the rickety U.S. legal system do not get involved in the sorting out of complaints.

Also in this month’s issue of Wired, Gideon Lewis-Kraus argues in an excellent meditation on the Big Tech controversy that … 

The opportunity to vent on social media, and occasionally to join an outraged online mob, might relieve us of our latent desire to hurt people in real life. It’s easy to dismiss a lot of very online rhetoric that equates social media disagreement with violence, but […] the conflation might reflect an accurate perception of the symbolic stakes: On this view, our tendency to experience online hostility as “real” violence is an evolutionary step to be cheered.

[…] 

To worry about whether a particular statement is true or not, as public fact-checkers and media-literacy projects do, is to miss the point. It makes about as much sense as asking whether somebody’s tattoo is true.

By all means let’s urgently make rules or draft laws for curtailing user surveillance and data-gathering by Big Tech. Devious impersonations such as sophisticated, digitally-manipulated misrepresentations of people — such as the fake Nancy Pelosi video mentioned by Professor Zuboff — should be prosecuted like any other form of identity theft. If anything is making people angry enough to ensure all that, it is The Age of Surveillance — succeeding where earlier books drawing attention to the same or similar problems have had no remotely comparable impact.

Among them is one published in 1997 by the Harvard Business School Press — Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never-Satisfied Customer.** In it, the Silicon Valley marketing innovator and investor Regis McKenna shows Professor Zuboff to be mistaken in one of her central assertions, which is that surveillance capitalism was ‘pioneered and elaborated through trial and error’ by Google in 2001.

While search engine technology allowed for a massive refinement of commercial surveillance and made it incommensurably insidious when misused, at least one other company actually hacked out the path to it. Real Time drew attention to ‘an excellent illustration of the shades of interactivity to come.’  This was in a six-month interlude in 1996, in which PepsiCo offered teenage and Generation X consumers of Mountain Dew fizzy drinks radically discounted electronic beepers to use with no communication charges. 

They were also given access to a toll-free telephone hookup over which they could listen to interviews with sports heroes — and the chance to get discounts from twenty other companies keen to sell this demographic group things ranging from tortilla chips to snowboards. PepsiCo paged the 50,000 participants in its scheme once a week to ask them questions in a ‘real-time dialogue with them,’ and anticipated eventually creating ‘an enormous, nonstop, electronic focus group at a remarkably low cost.’ Unfortunately, as Real Time noted, this soon led to ‘a firestorm of unanticipated criticism’ of the soft drink producer,’ for exploitation:

The company had assumed that this, of all communications technologies, would be irresistible to parents — helping two-career couples worried about their children’s whereabouts to keep in touch with them. Instead, the promotion was denounced as disturbingly manipulative by parents and children’s advocates — like the Center for Media Advocacy in Washington, D.C., a watchdog group, and Action for Children’s Television.

The New York Times report on the project said that ‘soliciting information from youths through the Internet and pagers also raises privacy questions.’

A quarter-century later we know that the anxiety was prescient — but now we also have free speech protection to worry about, separately.

** Real Time was a short-order project, a book researched, written and edited on a brutal schedule, in less than six months, in 1996 — with the assistance of pG’s writer, who thanks @nikluac for the tweet that led to this excursion into the past.

Do drugs explain George Orwell’s ability to ‘communicate with the future’ from 1949 — and if so, have micro-dosing technologists or other intellectuals shown any sign of matching it?

 

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Through a glass, darkly: dystopian anxiety casts a pall of dread over the most innocent scenes, these days

A question for everyone ready to scream from the tedium of seeing George Orwell’s name coupled yet again with dystopia: yes, yes, but have you tried re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four lately?  If for instance you, like the writer of this pG entry, last immersed yourself in it decades ago, aged about fourteen, shouting with laughter as you read out to your mother passages that struck you as fiendishly funny, which nearly always mentioned Big Brother, an outlandish caricature you couldn’t conceive of as connected in any way to your own rather boring life? 

At the start of 2020, there is not much to laugh about in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It has become too alarming and depressing to re-read voluntarily. Why? Because of its underestimations of the nastiest possibilities of intimate Big Brother surveillance, for one thing; and because we have no believable protection from its deployment by either governments or oversized corporations.

In the novel’s opening pages, when its protagonist Winston Smith starts a diary in a blank notebook — an out-of-date and semi-illicit ‘compromising possession’ — he can carefully seat himself in his living room outside the field of the spying telescreen that is capable of receiving and transmitting simultaneously: ‘Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it.’ Extrapolating from today’s ‘internet of things,’ there will soon be nowhere for a Winston Smith or any of us to hide, as any number of networked ordinary household objects could be doing the telescreen’s job. On the page before that scene, he turns back from the window where he has been reflecting on the malign, barbed wire-clad Ministry of Love and, on his way to his kitchen, ‘set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen,’ on which Big Brother could be watching him. 

Only last month, a prominent UK newspaper reported behind its paywall, that ‘emotion recognition is the latest thing in surveillance,’ and that systems designed for this form of monitoring have been installed in the Chinese province of Xinjiang to ‘identify signs of aggression and nervousness as well as stress levels …’.

Orwell, writing in the late 1940s, has Winston worrying, as he begins his diary and considers its prospective readers far off in time, ‘How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible.’ He fears that it could be so different from the present as to make his dystopian predicament ‘meaningless’. Very much to the contrary, as we nearly all realise by now, it could hardly be more significant. Winston’s creator has no equal for writerly prescience about our moment, almost anywhere on the globe, even if one participant in an online discussion last January, @WMD, remarked that in the West, ‘we do seem to be much closer to the drug-induced, zonked out, sheep-like mentality’ of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Worldwhich was published in 1932, nearly two decades before Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Narcotics, the indispensable element in Huxley’s nightmare future — his imaginary drug called soma, used by World Controllers to lull the population into blissful, hazy, submissive detachment from the consequences of their manipulations — came to mind recently in an untidy clump of wondering about how reminders of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and only that work of futuristic literary fiction, become more unavoidable each day. This led naturally to the question of what explains the steel-tipped accuracy of so much of its envisioning. Recalling Orwell’s four years as an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (Myanmar) in the 1920s was part of the associative clump, and trailing in its wake came thoughts of opium, of which Burma was then and is to this day a dominant producer. Ah! But then, what was the generally accepted understanding among Orwell experts about any connection — or lack thereof — between George and this narcotic, or any other mind-altering substance stronger than nicotine, caffeine or alcohol? 

The specific trigger for the meditation was probably a casual, intermittent discussion over several weeks about a friend who made a first pilgrimage to Burning Man last summer, and reportedly came away impressed by the high-wattage brainiacs from Silicon Valley, investment banking, and academia with whom he shared an ultra-exclusive tent for the duration of the celebration in the Nevada desert — with some of those minds seemingly amplified by full doses of psychedelics, not the micro-dosing said to be part of the ordinary work week at the office, for many of them. 

Imagine the surprise of finding no consideration by Orwell scholars of any role that drugs might have played in shaping Orwell’s flow of ideas about Nineteen Eighty-Four — unless anything like that is beyond easy reach, through search engines. Nothing, that is, except for a diligently researched, persuasive argument on the website of Darcy Moore  — an Australian school administrator, Orwell-admirer and memorabilia collector — that the novelist almost certainly had more than theoretical and imaginative experience of opium use. It reminds us that because Sonia Orwell, his widow, ensured at his request that no one was able to write his biography for over thirty years after he died, attempts to sift through his personal habits were obstructed while the information about them was still fresh. 

Among the facts Moore has assembled are these:

• Orwell’s father spent his working life as a supervisor of opium production, quality control and trade in India, when it was part of the British Empire.

• Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘has the protagonist agreeing “to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases…” before being given a political manifesto which mentions “the truth-producing effects of drugs”.’

• In reviewing the memoir of a well-known opium addict of his time, Orwell said that the bliss of using this substance was ‘indescribable,’ and Moore asks — reasonably — whether a man ‘who was prepared to quit his career against his father’s wishes to become a writer, steel himself to go down a coal mine with working men, get purposefully arrested, associate with a criminal underclass in Paris and London, spend time with the poor and homeless as well as risk his life in a time of civil war in Spain …’ would have hesitated to sample the drug himself. 

But none of the known facts about the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World establish any direct connection between drug use and sublime artistic inspiration. Those of us who are abysmally ignorant about risky, habit-forming drugs — and who have been shocked by observing their worst effects directly — find it easier to relate to Aldous Huxley’s depictions of their deeply negative consequences in his famous futurama, apparently written before he had any personal experience of ingesting them. He did, however, become a radical convert to, and advocate of, the joys of psychedelics after he lost his virginity as an experimenter with controlled substances. Sadly for him, his novel Island, published in 1962, exactly three decades after Brave New World and a radical contradiction of it — since it depicts a drug-enhanced utopia — appears to have had few readers (not including this writer). The novelist and literary scholar Margaret Drabble has summed up the justifiable criticism by detractors of Huxley’s works — other than BNW — that they are ‘smart and superficial, a symptom rather than an interpretation of a hollow age.’

If only that were not so. If only experimenters with mind-expanding chemicals among today’s policy-shapers and influencers had more to offer us than testimonials virtually identical to Huxley’s about glorious, life-changing alterations in perspectives on the world and fellow human beings, but — also like him — with no specific great work in any field to point to for an illustration of such benefits. If only the British Psychological Society Research Digest, last August, had not concluded, about the most recent scientific investigations into this trend, that ‘no placebo-controlled study has found statistically significant effects of microdosing on creativity.’

If only the opposite were true, and someone was capable of writing, now, a counter-imagining of Nineteen Eighty-Four powerful enough and influential enough to accomplish what Orwell hoped to, when he wrote it — which was to head off the possibility of privacy-smashing, totalitarian mind control that instead, looks well set for conditioning our everyday existence in the not so distant future.

for 1. 1. 2020

 

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It was such places as this, such moments that he loved above all else in life; she knew that, and she also knew that he loved them more if she could be there to experience them with him. And although he was aware that the very silences and emptinesses that touched his soul terrified her, he could not bear to be reminded of that. It was as if always he held the fresh hope that she, too, would be touched in the same way as he by solitude and the proximity to infinite things. He had often told her: ‘It is your only hope,’ and she was never sure what he meant. Sometimes she thought he meant that it was his only hope, that only if she were able to become as he was, could he find his way back to love.

— Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

for 1.1.2020 postgutenberg@gmail.com

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H A P P Y    N E W    Y E A R 

 

for 25. 12. 2019 

 

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Was Charles Dickens turning vegetarian or fruitarian, if not vegan, when he wrote A Christmas Carol — in 1843? 

That thought is unlikely to have occurred to anyone before this year beginning to drift into the past, in which Tom Parker Bowles — the stepson of Britain’s apparent heir to the throne — has actually published a review of vegan alternatives to the traditional Christmas meats. ‘Ban this sick filth,’ his verdict on one offering, includes the word furky for reasons that anyone curious enough will want to read about independently. About a seemingly inoffensive butternut, almond and pecan nut roast, he thunders in deepest gloom: ‘If this looked at me in the street, I’d cross the road to avoid it.’ 

A quick trawl through Dickens’s Christmas story, in the hope of rereading a luscious tribute to a crisp-skinned, succulent, (de-)feathered beast — surely one appeared on the Cratchit family’s table to a chorus of oohs and aahs? —  proved pointless. It contains nothing of the kind. What Dickens says about ‘the Turkey’ that the newly reformed Scrooge buys at the novella’s end makes it merely a tragicomic victim of gigantism, or morbid obesity: ‘He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ‘em, short off, in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax.’ In the scene that Scrooge is served by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Queen Victoria’s favourite writer states simply — about the goose that the Cratchits feast on — that its ‘tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.’ 

No — hard as it is to believe — the foods for which Dickens reserved his peerless powers of evocation are virtually all fruits: 

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples clustered high in blooming pyramids, there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water, gratis, as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown: recalling in their fragrance ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shuffling, ankle deep, through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. 

Now, compare those enchanting flights of imagination with Dickens’s repetitive sizeism, whenever his Turkey is mentioned:

[ Scrooge ] was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell: bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! 

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head.

… ’What’s to day?’ cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

‘EH?’ returned the boy, with all his might of wonder. 

‘What’s to day, my fine fellow!’ said Scrooge.

‘Today!’ replied the boy. ‘Why, CHRISTMAS DAY!’

… ‘Do you know the Poulterer’s in the next street but one, at the corner?’ Scrooge inquired.

‘I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.

‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there; not the little prize turkey, the big one?’

‘What, the one as big as me!’ returned the boy.

‘What a delightful boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!’ 

H A P P Y     C H R I S T M A S

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