Wanted: a 21st-century version of the cowboy code for Silicon Valley and a cautionary popup for Facebook screens

 

cowboy -- from myth to reality -- SC -- postgutenberg@gmail.com.jpg
Above: Tribute in a California hardware store to real cowboys (not the techie kind), who do not refer to people who trust them with private information as ‘dumb *ucks’; below: Facebook’s true terms of service, by way of Private Eye: Issue No. 1467, 6-19 April 2018

Private Eye Issue No.1467 6-19 April 2018

[ Note to readers on mobile devices on 30 April: the site should be working normally again, thanks to kind ‘happiness engineers’ at WordPress. ]

It was once unremarkable to hear the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley called cowboys — as praise, not condemnation, at least as late as the 1980s. They were innovators, independent-minded risk-lovers who made the suits in big corporations look like cowardly dullards. They were the forerunners of the super-millionaires, then billionaires, that the internet spawned.

Real cowboys — the inspiration for the glamorous mythological kind that enchanted audiences around the world in Hollywood westerns — were typically poor hired hands looking after cattle in round-the-clock workdays, often in conditions no workers’ union would tolerate. They found their moral compass in an unwritten Code of the West. This has been summarised in different ways, some a little dated for the few remaining cattle-herders in America, who must travel not just on horseback but on wheels subject to rules of the road — ‘Always drink your whisky with your gun hand,’ for instance, which must follow ‘Always fill your whisky glass to the brim.’

In the less rambunctious version of the essence of the Code by a poet and scholar, E. Martin Pederson, this is the list of ideals which, he says, was intended to draw a firm line of distinction between cowboys and ‘the easy success of the thief or gambler’:

hospitality and assistance to others, faithfulness to the paternalistic employer (with some exceptions), care and affection for horses, a dislike for bragging or complaining, praise for bravery, and pride in skill with horse, rope and gun.

What could the de facto equivalent be for 21st-century technology cowboys?

After last week’s public interrogation in Washington of Mark Zuckerberg, the most famous entrepreneur in contemporary Silicon Valley, Julia Carrie Wong — an old Harvard classmate of his — said that his performance at that hearing showed how little he has changed from his 19 year-old self. She republished the record he unknowingly created for posterity of his own personal code as a student — in a private text exchange with a friend that was later leaked to Silicon Valley Insider. In this extract from it, he tells his friend about his new-found powers, thanks to the website he had launched a few weeks earlier — the project that would become Facebook:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks

Wong also reminded us that in 2004, the Facebook leader told the Harvard Crimson that his fledgling social network had ‘pretty intensive privacy options … People have very good control over who can see their information.’ His testimony in Washington did not supply any reason to believe the seemingly ashamed and repentant adult Zuckerberg, answering questions from senators, more than the teenage Zuckerberg, in identical false assurances.

Barely a day had passed after that drama than Facebook broke its promise to regulators in Europe not to use its facial recognition technology over there. This is software that lets the company identify you in photographs, alone or with other people, that you never placed on its platform or gave anyone permission to upload there, and proceed to using data capturing details of your appearance to track your movements across the internet. Your consent to its doing all this is taken for granted unless you sign up for a Facebook account — if you don’t already have one — and follow the steps in its opt-out procedure.

What difference could a code of ethics make to technology companies behaving so rottenly? In a paper written for economists**, Stuart Gilman, an international authority on rooting out corruption in public service has explained how the codification of model conduct can improve the government of countries. He notes:

Ethics codes are as old as antiquity. […] They often capture a vision of excellence, of what individuals and societies should be striving for and what they can achieve. […] Effective codes operate at two levels: Institutional and symbolic. Within institutions codes articulate boundaries of behavior as well as expectations for behavior. That is they provide clear markers as to what behavior is prohibited (bribery) and what behavior is expected (showing impartiality to all citizens). They are also highly symbolic. Subscribing to institutional codes is the way we define a model professional not only as we see ourselves but as we want to be seen by others.

He quotes the practical justification of Adam Smith — a founding father of economics (1723-90) — for setting high ethical standards:

To be amiable and to be meritorious; that is, to deserve love and to deserve reward, are the great characters of virtue; and to be odious and punishable, of vice. But all these characters have an immediate reference to the sentiments of others. Virtue is not said to be amiable, or to be meritorious, because it is the object of its own love, or of its own gratitude; but because it excites those sentiments in other men.

In the neverending Facebook scandals, a truly disruptive technology company would impress us — YEEHA! — by making a radical commitment to behaving well and altruistically without any pressure from governments. It would take too long for legislators and the law to catch up with what these companies are doing and the extent of their incursions into the intimate realms of our lives.

The politicians who did not understand the business model or technologies behind the social media heavyweight were widely mocked for not knowing how to grill Zuckerberg  in his appearance before Congress. Facebook reforming itself would have the fastest transformative effect and would change Silicon Valley’s culture for good. How likely is that, on the evidence so far? Fat chance.

It is time to sing this site’s refrain — that Facebook should rightly be owned by its users, to whose data this company has been helping itself liberally for dubious purposes, without the fully-informed permission of those users.

In the meanwhile, we do not expect the US or EU to be capable of much more than slapping a warning on users’ Facebook screens — a popup in the same spirit as the health cautions on bottles of alcohol and cigarette packets. Sadly, government notices are never witty, or we would propose simply borrowing the warning about Facebook’s true terms of service thoughtfully composed by editors in the London offices of Private Eye (above). It should be blown up into a poster plastered everywhere on public transport and, in the company’s home territory in California, where buses and trains are scarce, on extra-large billboards on freeways and interstate highways.

** ‘Ethics Codes And Codes Of Conduct As Tools For Promoting An Ethical And Professional Public Service: Comparative Successes and Lessons’, Stuart C. Gilman, OECD, 2005 https://www.oecd.org/mena/governance/35521418.pdf

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Whether or not the YouTube shooter’s videos were inspired by Klimt’s explorations of dark facets of femininity, did they deserve to be demonetised for not being ‘advertiser-friendly’?

+ Nasim Aghdam - Adele Bloch-Bauer SC postgutenberg@gmail.com

Left: Nasim Khagdam, who killed herself after wounding workers at YouTube’s headquarters; right: Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907)

left Gustav Klimt's Judith; right Nasim Aghdam - SC - postgutenberg@gmail.com

Left, detail from Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901; see below); right: Nasim Aghdam, her neck ornamented like Judith’s


[ Note added on 12. 4. 2018:  An earlier version of the text reflected a mistake in several early news reports: Nasim Aghdam does not appear to have left behind a husband in Iran, in fact, or to have ever married. ]

Social media giants are entering worrying territory when they interfere with the self-images that people are taking pains to devise online — people not accused of hate speech, aggressive political extremism or terrorism. One obvious conclusion from last week’s nightmare attack on helpless YouTube workers by the would-be assassin, Nasim Khagdam, is that social media sites have to start weighing potentially profound psychological effects of changes in their rules for participation and algorithms.

Another conclusion is that forensic psychologists assisting in the investigation of the 37 year-old Iranian shooter’s motives and state of mind might want to glance at a 1907 painting by the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. Might. Reader, be warned: most of this post is an exercise in speculation and conjecture intended as an illustration or example. We’d like to suggest a line of enquiry: can social media serve the deeper human needs that some users are trying to satisfy on these platforms when the ‘business model’ of the companies that own them makes attracting advertisers their supreme objective?

As we were watching clips from the fitness-promoting, animal-rights and vegan-advocacy videos Aghdam had been posting on YouTube, in which she is the only human being on-screen, we were overcome by a strange certainty that we had seen her before. Not just her face but the particular dress she is wearing in one clip. Not a face in a crowd or belonging to a fellow passenger in the same train compartment somewhere but in a close-up. After a mysterious flash of association, we found replications of Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on the net — a picture that last changed hands, in 2016, for $150 million. And there she was. That is, the woman Aghdam seems to have been impersonating in a video — whose topic was exactly what, we cannot say, because she was speaking in Farsi.

Look at the first set of images we have pasted in side-by-side. Aghdam, in the screen-grab on the left, has arranged her hair not unlike Bloch-Bauer’s in the painting on the right, above eyes and eyebrows that are strikingly similar. Now look at the pattern of the fabric clinging to the shooter’s body and note that it appears to have been directly inspired by the mosaic that Bloch-Bauer was not actually dressed in. The garment in the picture was an invention of Klimt’s, and as you might expect of a leading exponent of both the Symbolist and Art Nouveau styles of painting, the motifs on it are heavily symbolic. In The Age of Insight, a present from a friend we suddenly remembered downloading into our Kindle three years ago, we re-read the explanation by its author, Eric Kandel — a neuroscientist who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 2000 — that the ‘small iconographic images on Adele’s dress’ are meant to be ‘symbols of male and female cells: rectangular sperm and ovoid eggs.’ Both women are wearing strappy evening dresses that are not dissimilar, even if Aghdam’s is not dripping gold leaf and has only a velvety hint of luxury about it.

It is unlikely that Bloch-Bauer herself interested Aghdam beyond the curious physical resemblance between them that could have sparked her original interest in the picture and its artist. The portrait’s subject was a rather boring, rich, society woman married to the Viennese banker and sugar manufacturer who commissioned it. She looks vacant, verging on bored. By contrast, anger is virtually the only emotion Aghdam’s face expresses in one video clip after another — when it is not determinedly blank and unsmiling — and she seems intent on cloaking her messages in an aura of deadly seductiveness.

judith and the head of Holofernes WIKI

Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901)

But what could sexuality possibly have to do with protecting small animals like the anxious grey rabbit she is holding in some of her tableaux, or with explaining the joys of veganism to the unconverted? Nothing. What it does fit, though, is Klimt’s obsession with not just seduction but malign feminine eroticism. You do not see this in the portrait Aghdam apparently sought to mimic, but in another painting for which art experts say Klimt borrowed Bloch-Bauer’s face and expressions — and whose subject was a female killer. This was Judith, from the Bible, a pious young widow who deployed her beauty to lure a general in an army bent on conquering her people into sleeping with her, and after he falls asleep, uses his sword to lop off his head. The Wikipedia entry for Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) describes the expression on her face as a blend of ‘voluptuousness and perversion,’ designed to convey ‘the greatest degree of intensity and seduction.’

Those words fit the persona Aghdam adopted for her videos — and if there was any actual connection between that choice and the picture, YouTube’s managers could hardly have been expected to perceive or understand it. Did she choose it before or after they enraged her by demonetising her videos — that is, cutting off payments she had been receiving from the company for advertisements that appeared with her productions posted under the user name Nasime Sabz?

Perhaps we have missed the answer in some news report to the question of when she became the chronically infuriated woman in her videos. We suspect that she was angry even before the shock of her demonetisation; and that her fury about her life and fate found an outlet not just in making her videos for the causes she championed, but in the chances her YouTube creations gave her to escape her actual identity and circumstances when she let Klimt’s fixations take over her imagination, what Kandel describes as quintessentially male ‘nightmares about […] the relationship between sex and aggression, life and death.’

YouTube is said to have de-linked her videos from its money-making scheme for users of its site — or ‘content creators’ — because they were not ‘advertiser-friendly.’ The decision apparently followed from a change of users’ terms and conditions by the company in 2016 that distressed a number of other small-scale, independent producers like her, according to Recode. Before that, she does not appear to have been subjected to any constraints on her choice of material. In the weeks before she shot and killed herself at the end of her rampage at YouTube’s headquarters, Aghdam claimed that Google, which owns YouTube, had also made it impossible for her audience to find her web site with some obstruction resembling a ‘page not found’ dead end. In the absence of any statement about their relationship with her by either company, so far, it looks as if her accusation could have been justified.

The managers who effectively shut her down might have had no conception of what separating this YouTube user from her ability to earn money from her uploads and communicate with her audience meant to her — or could mean to someone in a position like hers, about which they are unlikely to have known very much before she died. By various accounts, she had been living in Southern California with her grandmother for some years after she left Iran, where her family was part of a persecuted minority, followers of the irenic Baha’i religion, which teaches that all the world’s religions have a common source. But in America she had soon become at least as unhappy as she was in her homeland.

As no occupation or vocation has been mentioned so far, nor any details of her education, she might not have had the benefit of any of these to anchor her to reality and connect her to embodied — as opposed to virtual, online — fellow human beings, other than members of her family. She could barely speak or write English. The reports that she slept in her car on the nights after she left Southern California for her journey to YouTube’s headquarters near San Francisco suggest that she was acutely short of cash and perhaps had no credit cards.

All in all, it looks as though her small success as a minor YouTube celebrity with a following mostly in Iran could have been the one bright patch in her life. Then YouTube pulled the plug on it, and she was swallowed up by darkness. Several reports quote her brother saying that she had complained endlessly that YouTube ‘ruined her life.’

There are almost certainly millions of other social media users whose internet presence is now essential to their sense of themselves; at least as important as Aghdam’s was to hers. Each presence is an interweaving of personal history, dreams, hopes, personal quirks and the great unconscious, the source of inspiration for the most sublime works in the history of art. Don’t lesser, even strictly aspirational artists deserve respect for what their creations mean to them — and to be free to display them online without consideration of their commercial usefulness?

Several of this tragic shooter’s videos look like crude, unpolished tributes to the more repulsive creations of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali. Other influences are detectable. The Aghdam persona strongly resembles Frida Kahlo’s in self-portraits by that painter, whose unibrow gives her an even angrier aspect. Would such artists have been permitted to earn whatever revenue they could on YouTube while still struggling to make their names and before the initial public reaction to their visions — intense revulsion — was succeeded by acceptance and even amused affection? Like Aghdam’s videos, the creations of the Surrealists and Kahlo were and still are commonly described as ‘bizarre’.

We doubt that answering the questions in this post should be left to executives at technology companies. They are crying out for public debate. In the meanwhile, policy makers for social media platforms should certainly consult psychologists and psychiatrists when they draft or contemplate alterations of their rules for users. Or, if they already employ these, perhaps consider hiring better ones.

The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook — but in curbing surveillance capitalism, let’s separate the baby from the bathwater

 

silly moos LESS SC postgutenberg@gmail.com.jpg

Social media users must do more than refuse to be stripped of their data like helpless moos — postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Let’s not forget — in imposing long overdue restrictions on data-gathering by the social media giants — that without the broadcasting platforms they have given us, the software engineer Susan Fowler might have got nowhere with bearing witness to sexual stalking and degradation at Uber. She might not have galvanised a movement with its silly ‘#metoo’ hash tag** and nonstop, numbing repetition of words like ‘harassment’ and ‘abuse,’ and lent it the gravitas it needed.

In other words, let’s not throw out a near-miraculous baby — direct, unmediated, all-points broadcasting — with the bathwater. Without internet chattering about her clear, self-evidently truthful account of her Uber managers’ attempts to bully her into choking down her anger with her persecutor and living with chronic persecution — because his work was seen as invaluable to the company — intermediaries like media editors and lawyers would have interfered with her choices of words and evidence, and put brakes on her telling us precisely what she wanted us to know.

She also had her well-deserved luck of perfect timing. This weekend, the old words about a voice crying in the wilderness are rattling around in the heads of those of us who grew up with them. They are an oddly perfect fit in a lowly, secular, incommensurably different context.

Four years ago, almost no one wanted to hear about the grave risks in the massive collection of intimate data about us by Facebook,  that we joined other critics in referring to as the surveillance business model. Almost no one was prepared to do anything about Facebook helping itself to this information without our permission, or offering any form of compensation for it. Or about the fact that this company actually rejected proposals for letting people pay subscriptions for the service it offered us, because it perceived the power in giving it to us in exchange for the unrestricted freedom to delve into our minds to construct detailed psychological profiles of us to sell to advertisers or anyone else prepared to pay for them — the capacity to use ‘likes,’ as John Naughton has reminded us today in The Observer, ‘to predict accurately a range of highly sensitive personal attributes, including sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age and gender.’

Few were moved, then, to support arguments that a Facebook based on other people’s information should rightly be owned by those people — in some form of mutualisation or cooperative venture, as we proposed on this site in 2012 in a post titled ‘A Better Facebook …’ republished here last November.

Five years later, last Wednesday, the New York Times presented, as if this were a brand new idea, the otherwise commendable suggestion by three scholars — Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms and separately, Nathan Schneider in 2016: ‘[W]hat if a social network was truly run by its users?’ In a newly published book they have written together, Heimans and Timms note the unfairness of what we — like many others — have been pointing out for years: the injustice of ‘the creative output of billions of people’ being turned ‘into a giant, centralized enterprise, with most users sharing none of the economic value they create and getting no say in the platform’s governance.’

Nathan Schneider was virtually repeating exactly what post-Gutenberg proposed in 2012, in telling the NY Times columnist that in ceding more control to users, Mark Zuckerberg ‘could show that he takes democracy seriously enough to start with his own baby’. We proposed, in a 14 February 2012 post  quoting a comment we had contributed to a discussion on The Guardian site: ‘… [A] new, improved Mark Zuckerberg wants to be perceived as a force for good in society — and [… is reportedly …] clashing with the strictly business-oriented senior executives in his company over this…. If he’s serious, why not acknowledge that Facebook’s users supply the personal information about themselves that he has exploited to get rich […] and flip ownership of his company over to Facebook’s members?’

A better justification of the NY Times’ reputation for fair and critically important reporting was in a recent story illustrating the ability of faraway foreign countries to use social media’s records of our exchanges with our friends and acquaintances to control us. No, it was not about evidence of Russia interfering in the U.S. presidential election or in the Brexit vote in Britain, but about China censoring commenters on its policies using social media platforms outside China, and owned by foreign companies, and punishing one company, Mercedes-Benz, for featuring the Dalai Lama in one of its advertisements.

The report by Paul Mozur began: ‘Within its digital borders, China has long censored what its people read and say online. Now, it is increasingly going beyond its own online realms to police what people and companies are saying about it all over the world.’

If the Chinese can do this, anyone can.

We apologise for the irritating, Cassandra-like, we-told-you-so tone of this entry, but post-Gutenberg predicted precisely such a consequence from data-gathering by social media companies — in 2013. As we noted here on 15 January 2014:

Not for ages has there been a pudding quite as over-egged as the one presented as the news story of 2013 – the Orwellian mass surveillance exposé which, as it unravels, shows the UK and US governments hardly initiating nonstop monitoring but, rather, striving to keep up with companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google in gathering intimate information about us and watching what we do.

[…]

Last September, this blog warned that the blinkers needed to come off too many commentators on the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ – to let them appreciate that we should be protesting not just about spooks but anyone amassing personal data about us. In an entry about reader-commenters on newspaper sites correcting the unbalanced coverage of mass surveillance, we said

Stores of information, once they are gathered, can acquire new owners. 

Lately, we have seen a suggestion on various sites that the social media giants should be turned into public utilities. This would be the wrong solution. We need distributed, decentralised ownership — by social media users — to avert the abuse of any form of centralised power. Abuse by surveillance capitalists, or our governments, or anyone else’s.

** We prefer the more constructive, spine-steeling, #NeverthelessShePersisted.