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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Who is going to start a movement to stop the social media giants from milking us like witless data cows? (Why a keiretsu-cooperative could be a better idea)

indoor rainbow 2 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

Indoor rainbow, through a crack in a glass pane

Will the conversation about forcing Big Tech — especially Facebook and Google — to pay us for stripping our lives of personal information they sell to advertisers lead to a revised business model for newspaper publishing?

We launched this site in 2011 with a proposal that newspaper and other media websites share with commenters (then referred to as ‘bloggers’) the economic value that they add with their comments — a scheme we have updated intermittently since we first outlined it in 2010 as ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing’.

In a paper released at the close of 2017, ** five scholars and computer experts at elite U.S. institutions are calling for social media users to unite to demand payment for the streams of data about us that have made Big Tech rich, and insist on our right to determine where that information goes and on what terms.

That is the essence of the boldest conclusion of those thinkers, collaborating over the fence from these places: the School of Engineering and the Department of Economics at Stanford; Columbia’s Department of Economics; Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the Department of Economics and Law School at Yale.

Their justification for their call to action is technical, apparently aimed at mandarins (wonks) drafting economic policy, whom they hope to persuade that governments must shift ‘ownership rights in data to the users that generate them.’ (About time, we say.) They couch their arguments in basic economic theory — the theory of the firm — whose jargon and quasi-mathematical symbols obscure concepts that are easy to express in plain English. The overall impression is of rabbis presenting scriptural sanction that they felt obliged to seek in the Talmud to bolster a commonsensical moral argument: social media users must not accept being milked for our data without compensation or control.

How likely are we to see the birth of a movement with such a rallying cry? Not very, we suspect. For a start, hardly anyone seems to have heard of its ivory tower recommendation or the paper in which that was made. We only learnt of this document’s publication by chance, browsing on the site of The Financial Times [ ft.com ]. There, the final paragraph of John Thornhill’s helpful outline and commentary reminds us that the exploited have historically got the attention of their exploiters by going on strike — and suggests ‘digitally picketing social media groups under the slogan: “No posts without pay!”’

In his column’s comments section, some readers urged the FT to set an example. This one, for instance:

FTcom reader's comment on John Thornhill column

Organising movements and keeping up their momentum can be frustrating enough to drive surpassingly patient saints to distraction. Time and patience are scarce, and we have all grown used to instant gratification on the net. Anyone can sign up for an account on Twitter and broadcast a maiden tweet in minutes. A newcomer to WordPress could write and publish a first blog post in less than an hour. By contrast, although launchers of a movement to get us paid for our data could use, say, Change.org’s tools to collect signatures for petitions, that would only be the first stage of years of hard graft, gathering political support for drafting laws to regulate the ownership and sale of users’ data.

Media organisations implementing our own proposal for treating users fairly could get results faster and lead in setting standards for post-Gutenberg economic equity. These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

What would be the attractions of a scheme like this for today’s corporate media owners?

• It would reduce their dependence on advertising, which social media giants have been diverting into their coffers.

• Offering readers co-ownership of a site where they read and contribute comments would give the keiretsu publishers an edge over Facebook — which, as we have argued in this space repeatedly, should be a cooperative owned by its users.

• Drawing up rules for paying readers and commenters for each individual contribution would be a lot more complicated than allowing them to buy stakes in the meta-site. Making them co-owners would ensure their loyalty and give them an incentive to return to participate often — making the site more attractive to advertisers.

We have laid out other advantages and other dimensions of our proposal here: ‘Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!’

Despite our reservations about it, a movement to end social media’s data theft is guaranteed our whole-hearted support.

** ‘Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond “Free,”’ Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Leonard Goff, Diego Jiménez Hernández, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, American Economic Association Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 1, (forthcoming).

Farewell, phenomenal Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco top of NYT home page (1)

[ late addition below ]

A yellowing copy of ‘The Novel as Status Symbol,’ a 1989 book review by Alexander Stille not available on the net, happened to be lying on this desk when the divine imp Umberto Eco died on Friday. For several weeks, we had smiled every time we came across it, hunting for other pieces of paper. It made finding him honoured with an obituary portrait at the top of the home page of The New York Times a sad pleasure: he deserved no less.

What Stille recounted of the great semiotician-novelist’s fiction writing philosophy was quite wicked enough a quarter-century ago, when marketing chieftains in publishing companies were well on their way to wresting supreme veto power from editor-tsars. In our new age of scribes, book-promoters and whole literary communities bowing low to likey/no-likey social media, it is not impossible to envisage someone like Eco being burned at the stake for heresy, some day.

Some extracts from the most enthralling sketch we have ever read of the author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum:

Last June, Eco — a medieval scholar and a professor of semiotics at Italy’s University of Bologna — stood on the dais of the cavernous ballroom in the Washington Hilton before a crowd of more than a thousand American booksellers.

In open defiance of the usual laws of marketing, Eco told the booksellers, he had written his first novel for about a thousand readers and decided to write the second for five hundred. ‘With my first book I was criticized for putting in too many quotations in Latin, so I started my new book with a long quotation in Hebrew. That’s my challenge.’ But Eco is not a naïve professor who was catapulted to stardom by an unlikely turn of fate. As a professor of semiotics (the theory of signs), a former publishing executive, a journalist, and the author of some twenty books, Eco is an expert on mass media and the machinery of popular fiction. ‘The world of media is full of free gifts, wash-and-wear philosophy, and instant ecstasy,’ he explained to the booksellers. ‘Readers want a little more; they want to be discouraged in order to be respected.’

… Since its publication in Italy last fall Foucault’s Pendulum has provided several new twists to what has come to be known as the Eco phenomenon. The novel has sold more quickly than any book in Italian publishing history, while becoming the center of a fierce national controversy.

Rumors than Eco was working on the book were eagerly picked up by the Italian press as early as two years before the book appeared … Anticipation built up to such an extent that when the book finally appeared, 500,000 copies were sold before the first buyers had a chance to grapple with it and tell their friends what they thought.

But within several weeks the Eco phenomenon boomeranged. Readers who had bought the book for faddish reasons gave up when confronted with the labyrinthine complexities of a novel that explores the mysteries of the Jewish cabala, hermetic philosophy, and a thousand years of esoteric thought. Eco was accused of having shrewdly manipulated the press in a plot to push sales. ‘Eco is a genius of our culture,’ one critic wrote, ‘a genius of self-promotion.’ To his dismay, Eco has become a kind of literary Midas: everything he does makes news and sells copies. Even his decision not to appear on television was perceived as another clever maneuver to attract attention. But the attacks, predictably, only had the effect of selling more copies …

Harper’s, November 1989

But, as we discovered not long after we posted those Stille quotations, Eco hardly spared the editor-tsars. We had long wondered how any editor, no matter how skilled and revered, could have had any idea of how to edit his novels — known whether to add or substract as much as a comma — which could define idiosyncratic. What did Eco think of their role? On the site of The New York Review of Books, there was his concise answer to that question, in 1994: ‘Case for Textual Harrassment’. Skim-read it at your peril: after we stopped to re-read it with closer attention, we were shaking so excessively that we had to lie down for a minute-and-a-half. Unless you know Philip Larkin’s and T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems, you will not understand. (The ‘rites of vegetation,’ William Weaver’s translation of whatever Eco wrote in the Italian original, is a master-stroke. Oh, you poor lilacs …)

The miniature essay begins:

These days, especially in the United States, implacable copy editors demand of authors not only stylistic revisions but even changes in plot, new endings, whatever commercial necessity dictates. But … can we honestly say that they ordered things so differently in the past?

Take the usually overlooked fact that the first version of a well-known poem by Philip Larkin originally went: “They do you harm, your father and mother.” It was only the insistence of Larkin’s editor that inspired the now famous variant. And the first draft of Eliot’s Waste Land opened: “April is the cruelest month. And March isn’t all that great, either.” Weakened in its impact by this peevish insistence on climactic details, the earlier text denied April any implied link with the rites of vegetation. As everyone knows, Ariosto at first submitted to his publisher a very brief poem that went: “Of women and knights, arms, loves, courtly rituals, and bold ventures I have nothing to say.” And that was that. “How about developing it a bit?” the editor suggested. And Master Ludovico, who was having enough trouble as civil governor of a remote Tuscan province, said, “What’s the use? There are dozens of epics of chivalry already. Leave it. I want to urge poets to try new genres.” And the editor replied, “Yes, of course, I understand, and, personally, I agree with you. But why not try approaching the form from another angle? With irony, for instance. Anyway, we can’t sell a onepage book, particularly one with only two verses on the page. It looks like imitation Mallarmé. It would have to be a limited, numbered edition. So unless we can get Philip Morris to sponsor it, we’re screwed.” …