O happy day! The ‘free’ surveillance/advertising-centred/data-cow business model has been superseded by the pay-to-be-spied-on contract for e-commerce

+++ dog + blonde postgutenberg@gmail.com

A watchful pair: he was too intent on his task to move a single canine muscle **

The tale of Big Brother at A Certain Newspaper (ACN.com), the last entry on this site,  omitted a crucial fact because it deserves its own post.

It is this: access to the visitor-sleuthing, visitor-interrogating ACN site is not free, but requires a subscription. Reader, if you haven’t noticed, this should tell you that things have gone from bad to dire — well beyond the normalisation of the surveillance business model’s (SBM) unwritten contract, in which the actual cost of ‘free’ admission and use of a site’s services is the loss of our privacy.

Bowing to the SBM meant accepting that when we pay no cash to use  Facebook — and innumerable other web services, including search engines — these companies can make records of our every click and cursor twitch. In many cases they do worse, following us wherever we go on the net, even after we have signed out of their domains. We have effectively told them, do come in and help yourselves to anything you’d like to know about us — or, as post-Gutenberg has observed before: by all means, please milk us like dumb data cows.

In the SBM’s successor, the pay-to-be-spied-on model for e-commerce that we are now bowing to in an almost imperceptible transition, we are giving them money to exploit us. In our delight with the discount on sub-zero winter boots and free shipping that the online retailer offers us, we do not object to being hooked up to the automated data-milking machines that our cash helps to finance ***.

The media version of this shift entails a striking switch in the terms of trade that our ACN.com encounter dramatised. In the old days of print, a newspaper handed over pages filled with news and analysis in exchange for our coins — and those paper pages had countless secondary uses. The exchange between buyer and seller ended, there. Today, a newspaper can believe that the sum billed to a credit card entitles it to monitor and record exactly how the owner of that plastic rectangle reads its online pages — to facilitate ‘personalising content and ads,’ as the ACN.com site informs visitors, ‘and to analyse how our sites are being used’ — today, tomorrow, … whenever.

What we call data-milking is blandly referred to by digital commerce specialists as ‘data-gathering.’ One such expert, Josh Bernoffwrites about ‘the data equation’ — implying that there is a fair and just equivalence in Facebook users paying with undefined ‘data and attention’ to upload what they want to communicate or ‘share’ on the social media platform. But saying ‘equation’ is applying a misleading euphemism to what the average Facebook user grasps, since that user does not understand the SBM, or know that it is also the advertising business model. Users do not understand how they enrich social media giants by letting them hawk facts about their behaviour and demographic and psychological profiles to other companies that use the information to maximise their advertisements’ ability to seduce them into buying their products.

In a perceptive post on Medium.com, Bernoff suddenly swerves sharply from tip-toeing around the sensitivities of e-commerce giants to making the critical point that users ‘are happy to give up an infinite amount of data’ to social media platforms and predicts — sadly, without exaggeration — that most of them will not stop doing this until ‘Facebook starts taking naked pictures of everyone in the shower and posting them without permission.’

That was a point made in his ruminations in early October about whether the software that Tim Berners-Lee (TBL) has been developing to return control of their data to internet users will be usable and used by enough people to reverse the soaring trend of exploitation, manipulation and restriction. Bernoff concludes that this will not happen unless a rich, dominant company can adopt and deploy it to support TBL’s project.

He nominates Apple for the task.

We cannot imagine a better use for Apple’s cash mountains than destroying the surveillance business model. But surely putting Apple in charge of creating ‘new devices, new experiences, new apps, and new ways to entertain yourself and experience life without requiring you to give up all your data’ would be a move in the wrong direction — further centralising power, when TBL is trying to take the web back to the freeing open space it was originally?

Today’s Tim Cook-led Apple appears to have high ethical standards, but what guarantee is there that this company’s tremendous potential for doing good would not be misused if he were replaced by — say, someone like Mark Zuckerberg, whose actions seldom match the high humanitarian ideals he claims to believe in, and who chronically breaks promises about protecting and respecting the privacy of Facebook users?

What might be more compatible with TBL’s aims? Putting Apple’s cash and managerial resources behind social media platforms that their users jointly own. Apple could assist with and finance their design and launch. 

See: ‘The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook …’ An extract:

[L]ast 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.’

[ continues here … ]      

** like any other well-trained ceramic dog

*** Why are we permitting this? See John Logan’s reference, in his comment on the last post-Gutenberg post, to soma — the drug crucial to subjugating the masses in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which creates ‘a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds’. Imagining themselves as ‘celebrities’ on their Facebook pages, and riding waves of happiness from online shopping discounts that let them buy-buy-buy probably works a similar dark magic on real, live, people in our time.

What John A. A. Logan, master of the literary thriller noir, adds to startling revelations about the gender dance by Alison Wolf, ace public policy scholar

Shoes have illuminating walk-on parts in both The XX Factor and Agency Woman - photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Shoes have illuminating walk-on parts in both The XX Factor and Agency Woman
– photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

It is to a new novel that we at post-Gutenberg find ourselves turning to answer the question of whether the human race can continue by sexual reproduction – now that men and women have begun to live and work in ways growing ever less distinguishable.

In The XX Factor: How Seventy Million Working Women Created a New Society, published last year, Alison Wolf tells us that among the trend-setting elite of educated, high income-earning couples in the West, and for both men and women …

The new graduate norm is a full-time job, whether you are single or part of a couple. With no old-style wife to come home to.

Men in this social tier, she says, ‘put in more unpaid household work … the more educated the women.’ Will the shrinking gender gap, we wondered – scrolling through XX with musings about domestic goddesses still trailing from our last post – mean that mutual erotic interest will continue to decline, in these partnerships? A February article in The New York Times by Lori Gottlieb, a writer and couples therapist, quoted — to stunning effect — researchers reporting their discovery that, as one put it, ‘The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.’ Gottlieb herself was blunter: ‘In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.’

XX, in its details, contains equally startling revelations. It is so unlike the usual book by a scholar of Wolf’s standing – she is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, in addition to other directorships and lofty responsibilities — that to try to cherry-pick its discoveries and stimulating ideas, to recommend it to other readers, is to feel crushed, too soon, by the weight of a whole cherry orchard.

Overall, XX offers not the faintest glimmer of hope for anyone hoping to walk back the gender revolution in futuristic households. It shows brainy young women drawn from all over the East to the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh with exactly the same aim as their counterparts at Oxford – to climb to the highest attainable rungs on career ladders closed, in the recent past, to women. Female hunger for education is so extreme that …

Almost 60 per cent of medical students in the UK are now female; in US medical schools, women have made up just under half of entering students for the last ten years. And in the developed world it is now the norm for law faculties to have a majority of female students.

And the result? XX’s findings are arrestingly filtered through the review in last month’s New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell – a 74 year-old doctor and Harvard professor whose other formidable accomplishments include serving as the first woman editor of the American medical bible, The New England Journal of Medicine. The most striking passage of her assessment said, in part:

Upper-middle-class couples also give up home-cooked meals and spotless households, as documented by Wolf. Very little time is now spent on cleaning and other household drudgery (which still tends to be done mainly by wives), and even less on cooking. […] In the 1970s, there were ads for Wisk detergent that featured women who felt mortified because their husband had “ring around the collar.” Nowadays almost no one would be mortified, and certainly not the wife. In a New York Times article titled “The Case for Filth,” Stephen Marche concludes, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.” Despite the hyperbole, there is something to this view. Since housework takes time these couples just don’t have, I think lowering neatness standards is sensible, …

Women pay a price, where housecleaning standards remain high and exacting. ‘Italian inequality,’ Wolf says, ‘exists almost entirely because of the amount of time Italian women spend on unpaid work. More specifically, they spend world-record amounts of time cleaning the house.’ All across the developed world, at all levels of society, ‘there was a fall in the time women spent on unpaid household work.’

In one of many engaging glimpses she offers into her own life, she admits that on weeknights, she is liable to be found picking up ready-made dinners for her family from a railway station branch of the catering arm of Marks & Spencer in London – ‘a regular in their long lines of suited commuters, male and female, calculating time to checkout against time to the next train.’ With more than two dozen pages of tables and charts in her statistical appendix, and the confidence of a scholar long recognised for her rigour, she is free to have fun – as in disagreeing, tongue in cheek, with a high-ranking female American lawyer about the undesirability of ‘some of the nation’s most … powerful women’ being ‘stranded in cab lines and late for meetings,’ as they teeter in shoes with dizzyingly high heels. With an amused shrug, she classes these women with historical subjects of ‘swagger portraits,’ such as ‘wealthy seventeenth-century burghers of Holland’s golden years [who] wore Calvinist black and showed off their wealth with the size and fine quality of their lace ruffs and shirt cuffs’.

reds dOWNWe have those shoes to thank for the mental leap to Agency Woman, John A. A. Logan’s latest thriller noir — on which we had started a few weeks ago, and set aside for want of the right sort of reading time — to consider far more important parallels between XX and what this irresistible story has to say about the sexual revolution. In one of its early pages, the woolgathering of a character sitting on a bench in a train station in the Scottish Highlands is invaded by vivid sensations of being a knight on horseback when his eye is caught by a mesmerising woman shod in red high heels.

The owner of those heels turns out to be a powerful, high-ranking, female spy – seemingly a ‘better man’ in every respect than the book’s chief male character who, in this scene, is a dissolute, aimless, and troubled wanderer. Other readers surely asked themselves, as we did: will this woman, Lucy, plausibly become this man’s, or any man’s, heart’s desire – or be restricted to acting out the role of a sexual fascinator and dominatrix? For much of the book, it seems as if that could indeed be her fate, at her creator’s hands, judged by fragments like these:

I wish there was more gentleness in her, more kindness. She seems so intent on meeting life head on, smashing into it like a hammerhead shark rupturing its way through the water.

… and …

It’s the information, going into her … She believes it now. She’s processing it. Female computer with blood on her hands.

But, no … John Logan is not remotely a simple-minded thriller-writer – say, Dan Brown, whose female heroine in The Da Vinci Code has all the complexity of a soap dish. For reasons impossible to explain without trampling all over this surreal, often very funny story’s masterly unfolding, we realised, at the end of Agency Woman, that men John’s age – fortysomethings – take for granted, as Alison Wolf says in The XX Factor, that ‘Highly educated women are far more likely to have developing careers, jobs they find fulfilling, jobs that are part of their core identity.’

He writes like a choreographer effortlessly adding new steps to the dance of the sexes, in a novel that has echoes of both John Buchan’s grand, whimsical yarn, The Thirty-Nine Steps – because of chase scenes in rural Scotland, and a spirit of high adventure – and of a 1978 film about America’s Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter, because of excruciating, long-drawn-out ordeals of suffering and endurance inflicted on a reluctant conscript.

The message from Agency Woman about how instinctively astute men are coping with female incursions into traditionally male territory is neither new nor different from the critical prescription for any life: try never to lose your sense of humour. There is a splendid illustration of the right way forward in one encounter between the sexes in this book:

‘It must have been a glacier,’ is all I can think to say. We’ve passed the row of white houses and we’re back at the top of the hill now, just above where the bus dropped us off. We’re looking out over the sea and the sea is obviously sitting in some great depression, long and deep and scooped out from the land. I know nothing about geology or the history of the formation of the earth, but only two thoughts had entered my head when I looked down at the sea and the steep hillside that rose from the edges of the channelled water. First thought: huge dinosaur footprint, the footprint of some giant dinosaur with long, long bunny feet. Second thought: glacier. So I kept the dinosaur bunny feet private and expressed my certainty that this channel had been cut into earth by a mass of ice. A glacier. I know that she has her strong social side. I know that glaciers are socially acceptable, because current scientific theory approves of them, and they are taught in schools. I want her approval so I say, ‘It must have been a glacier.’ In my heart though, I hope it was a dinosaur bunny that did it, running after some dinosaur girl-bunny through this treeless zone. ‘I don’t think this warm weather is very usual up here,’ she replies. ‘The view too, I think this much sunshine is a real rarity up here.’

… No, not for a moment are we supposing that Agency Woman settles the question about reproduction with which this post began, proving Lori Gottlieb wrong – only, that it is strongly suggestive of how Alison Wolf’s research findings are playing out in some actual lives, and in the male psyche, in particular.

Or, as the rascally John Updike – an unreconstructed male supremacist, if ever there was one — put it in one of his last novels, Toward the End of Time: ‘We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis.’ Only a first-rate novelist can show what he means — now.

reds BRIGHT

Support your favourite inkjet-stained wretches! Send an indie e-book — or three — for the price of a birthday card

red plate starburst 1

red and white 1

He grew red roses and white lilies on the edges of deep shade in his lush garden — the owner of the page for today in every diary that was ever ours — and the birthday card we could have sent him, if he were still here, might have been a salute to his green thumb.

But birthday cards addressed in familiar scripts on stamped envelopes have been making their way to the same old-media life-after-life as floppy disks. E-cards are a thin substitute. We have seen scarcely any not designed for mass appeal in styles that remind us of our multimedia-artist friend LCM’s opinion of the look of the Facebook site: ‘It’s like walking into Walmart.’ Paper cards, in the decade or two before they began to vanish, came in an infinite variety – from Hallmark-treacly and bland to clever, quirky, idiosyncratic and even cryptic, if you knew where to look. It was easy to find an offering that let you tell recipients what they meant to you either through a perfect reading of their taste, or some blend of graphics and words at a happy junction of their sense of aesthetics and yours.

What is better than an e-card in 2014?

Possibly, an e-book, preferably an indie e-book, an undiscovered gem spotted on the wayside in your net wanderings. If it is a text you love, you have the satisfaction of helping the writer to earn the cash for another manuscript. Unlike print greeting card artists who collect only a shockingly small fraction of what their publishers charge us, a scribbler brave enough to try independent e-publishing at this turbulent and nerve-wracking stage of its evolution can collect as much as 70 per cent of royalties on the U.S. site of the Amazon publishing platform.

Fiction delivered as an e-book now sets you back by no more than the price of a print construction on an ever more scantily-stocked supermarket greeting card shelf. It can cost embarrassingly less. Recently, when we sent two birthday e-books to someone whose cards chosen for us over a span of thirty years have a habit of falling out of books in our personal library, we were afraid that she might think us stingy – but could not decide what other title she might like.

Indie e-books already range from pulp to work that meets the most exacting literary standards. Really? We note the dubious pitch of that question, the arched eyebrow. Admittedly, first-rate literature by e-publishing indies is not easy to find. The well-known print reviews that most time-pressed connoisseurs of good writing still rely on to shrink the universe of reading possibilities to negotiable proportions still shun e-only works, and do not look at the exploding numbers of them without intermediaries in conventional publishing.

Anyone worried – rightly so – about falling into the error of prejudice against the future could, like us, try John A. A. Logan’s new novel, Agency Woman, which we have just started reading. ‘A dark, Scottish tale of conspiracy, espionage, murder and terrorism, with an existential edge,’ is its description on the author’s web site.

The few pages we have had a chance to absorb — in a time of seemingly unending chaos — are intriguing and, in the best way, nonconformist and unslottable. The tone is thriller-noir, but the sleuth-like main character is no whisky-soaked Inspector Rebus or Kurt Wallander getting by on a diet of microwaved cholesterol. He is a sensitive, dreamy, drifter who copes with being imprisoned in a chair for most of a day and night with ropes cutting into his skin by doing yoga breathing exercises. Offered food after hours of starvation, he asks if he can have something vegetarian. When a character we have so far assumed to be a villain quotes Kierkegaard, it does not seem to be intellectually pretentious tarting-up in place of characterisation, but fits the story’s half-real, half-otherworldly, atmosphere.

Taste tests have no equal for introducing writers, in our opinion, so we will end this post with the first paragraph of Agency Woman. It has a certain grand, leisurely, philosophical majesty, as well as poetic beauty – but soon, in a succession of subtle and deft transitions, the story’s pace accelerates and we are somewhere that both is and isn’t gritty modern Scotland, observed with a keen hawk’s eye; something like Antonioni’s London in Blowup — as in our second short extract, consecutive snippets from a tense sequence.

… Before we leave you to sampling: to say that John is proving a new medium and ‘business model’ for literary publishing is not unlike praising Graham Greene or Mikhail Bulgakov for raising the standard of ‘content’ created by combining stationery and typewriters. But with most members of the intellectual establishment still sceptical and, or, sour about e-publishing, that is a point that needs making. John is a pioneer who stands out.

Over to his mysterious Agency Woman — who wears high-heeled red shoes:

Agency Womanol

Extract One:

The old stories don’t need to be repeated endlessly. The ancient knights can be allowed to fall from their horses, lumpenly, and die. Even the horses, though with more grace, can be allowed to fall over and turn limp on the grass. Thus, in a moment, they are permitted their release from this arena. Their struggles forever on record, for perusal later, at a safe distance.

Extract Two

On the Scottish mainland, this month, for example, there are only twenty-seven of our agents in operation. Unlikely, then, to meet one in Tommy’s Café. And then there’s the head. Ten years ago, even five, there would never have been an agent with a head like that. The agent would always have been one of the other people in the café, one of the men or women I hadn’t even noticed. They would be from the Scottish Agency, and they would have been watching me ever since I came in today and sat down. But I have to remember that times have changed. Now, these days, anyone can be with the Agency. Anyway, here he comes. […] I don’t want him to sit with me. I want to sit alone, in peace.

His voice is shaking. There’s an edge to his voice like a dying rodent screaming. He punches the table-top right beside my mug. I feel the reactions of the thirty other customers who are sitting all round, openly watching the situation unfolding at our table. This man with the swollen head wants to explode. I look at his eyes for a few moments, but there is nothing there. Not even pain. I glance away from him, scan the faces at the other tables as they watch. If I speak too readily, I could easily say the wrong thing, and give him the release into action he is craving. If his story is real, then he wants me to react to his violent presence, give him an excuse to start something in the café. That way he’ll not have to make that court appointment. If the story’s a fabrication, if he’s an agent, then he’ll still use the story as the excuse for exploding.

 […]

 After a minute of silence I say,

 ‘I don’t mind talking to you but, I need to know, are you going to make trouble at any moment, maybe hit me? …