Category Archives: Resources

The effect of social media and big tech on our society

In an article entitled “Big Tech’s Big Defector” in the current (12-2-19) issue of the New Yorker magazine, Brian Barth reviews Roger McNamee’s 2019 book Zucked, which criticizes social media and the corporations (Facebook and Google) that support it (note that Facebook includes Instagram and Google includes YouTube), as well as merchandisers (especially Amazon) that track our every digital movement.

A corporate investor, McNamee started cashing in on the personal-computer revolution in the early ‘80s, adding investments in Amazon in the ‘90s, and Facebook in 2009 and 2010. Initially seeing the tech industry as “an experiment in creative and profitable problem-solving,” he started questioning its ethics in 2012. “‘These guys all wanted to be monopolists,’ he said recently. ‘They all want to be billionaires.’ McNamee was still convinced that Facebook was different, but in February 2016, shortly after he retired from full-time investing, he noticed posts that purported to support Bernie Sanders but seemed fishy. That spring, the social-media-fueled vitriol of the Brexit campaign seemed like further proof that Facebook was being exploited to sow division among voters – and that company executives had turned a blind eye. The more McNamee listened to Silicon Valley critics, the more alarmed he became: he learned that Facebook allowed facial-recognition software to identify users without their consent, and let advertisers discriminate against viewers. (Real-estate companies, for example, could exclude people of certain races from seeing their ads. Ten days before the presidential election, McNamee sent an e-mail to Zuckerberg, saying, ‘Facebook is enabling people to do harm. It has the power to stop the harm. What it currently lacks is an incentive to do so.’ Zuckerberg assured McNamee that Facebook was working to address the issues he’d raised, and dispatched a Facebook executive, Dan Rose, to talk to him. Rose told McNamee that Facebook was a platform, not a publisher, and couldn’t control all user behavior. This dismissiveness rattled McNamee. ‘These were my friends. I wanted to give them a chance to do the right thing. I wasn’t expecting them to go, “Oh, my God, stop everything,” but I did expect them to take it seriously. It was obvious they thought it was just a P.R. problem.’ He hasn’t spoken to Zuckerberg (who declined to comment for this article) since, and now refers to him as an ‘authoritarian.’

As Russian election interference became increasingly apparent, McNamee published a series of op-eds – in the Guardian, USA Today, Time, and elsewhere – arguing that the social-media business model thrived on divisive rhetoric: the more extreme the content, the more users shared it, and the more the algorithms amplified it, the more ad revenue was generated. As lawmakers prepared for hearings about Russian meddling in the fall of 2017, McNamee put together a curriculum for them, which he jokingly called ‘Internet Platforms 101.’ Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, had been focused on foreign manipulation of social media, but, in a meeting, McNamee urged him to consider a broader problem – how the platforms were sowing discord among Americans. ‘Roger was really ahead of the curve,’ Schiff said, ‘and time has borne out his warnings.’

McNamee’s zeal for diagnosing problems soon evolved into a mission to devise a solution. He argued that piecemeal regulation would never get to the root of the problem: mining users’ private data for profit. In February 2019, he published Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, part memoir, part manifesto. He then embarked on a book tour that’s turned into an ongoing public-shaming campaign.

When interviewed, McNamee rattled off a frighteningly long list of things he believes have been ‘Zucked’: ‘your vote,’ ‘your rights,’ ‘your privacy,’ ‘your life,’ ‘everything.’ So far, the public is less alarmed. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that half of Americans think the tech industry is having a positive impact on society. (This view is on the decline, however: in 2015, seven in ten thought so.) Earlier this year, Google and Amazon came in second and third in a survey of millennials’ favorite brands. In general, people are more concerned about the behavior of banks and pharmaceutical companies, and most Americans have yet to meaningfully change their habits as tech consumers.

Using digital profiles to predict and influence our behavior is at the heart of Google’s and Facebook’s business models. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, published earlier this year, Shoshana Zuboff, an emerita professor at Harvard Business School, warns of a ‘rogue mutation of capitalism,’ in which tech behemoths surveil humans, and eventually control them. McNamee speaks often about surveillance capitalism, and credits Zuboff with informing his views and bringing academic clout to the cause of Silicon Valley reform.

McNamee offers himself as a case study in how to be Google-free. He uses DuckDuckGo, a search engine that presents itself as a privacy-oriented alternative to Google, and has largely renounced Gmail, Maps, Docs, and the company’s other apps. He argues that Facebook should be used for staying in touch with friends and family rather than for political debates, which the platform alchemizes into screaming matches. ‘Outrage and fear are what drive their business model, so don’t engage with it,’ he told me. ‘I was as addicted as anybody, but we have the power to withdraw our attention.’ His life is made easier by the fact that he has relatively few complaints about Apple, which he praises for taking steps to protect user privacy. Since 2017, the company’s Safari browser has blocked third-party cookies, one ubiquitous tool for gleaning personal data. And its new Apple Card, unlike many other credit cards, including American Express and Mastercard, doesn’t share transaction histories with third parties. On the other hand, researchers have found that iPhones send a steady stream of personal data to third parties, much as the Android phones McNamee decries do. The company is also a pioneer in Bluetooth beacons, tiny devices used by retailers which glean data from phones as people move about in public spaces.

The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal is the quintessential example of how people can be turned into puppets. By collecting data from Facebook without user consent, the company was able to identify micro-populations of voters, then serve up customized ads encouraging them to vote for Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica obtained user data through duplicitous means, but similar data sets are widely and legally available; micro-targeting is commonplace on nearly all political campaigns. One of the most popular answers to this is that antitrust law should be used to take on Big Tech’s power. Elizabeth Warren, who’s met with McNamee and called him ‘one of the clearest voices’ on tech reform, has made the breakup of tech giants a central part of her campaign. Bernie Sanders has also pledged to press the antitrust issue if elected; Joe Biden has said that he’ll investigate it. In March, McNamee was invited to give a lecture at the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. In the following months, the D.O.J. and the F.T.C., along with various state legislatures and congressional committees, announced antitrust investigations aimed at Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple.

Several data-privacy bills circulating in Congress draw inspiration from California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which goes into effect on January 1st, and from Europe’s recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation. Such laws expand consumers’ control over their data and give them new legal tools for holding companies accountable. Many privacy advocates, including McNamee, argue that they’re critically flawed, however. Under G.D.P.R. rules, companies must ask users to opt in before their data can be processed by third parties, but, as soon as consumers consent, it’s more or less back to business as usual. And the rules are relatively loose when it comes to metadata. Even if the contents of a phone call are protected, the time of the call or the parties involved might not be. This is more revealing than it seems: as a memo by the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, a tech giant that doesn’t know your name might still ‘know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, then called an abortion clinic’s number.’

McNamee believes antitrust action will be effective only after comprehensive privacy reforms are enacted – otherwise, it’ll simply create smaller companies that behave in the same ways the big ones do now. ‘I want to prevent the data from getting into the system in the first place,’ he told me. The reform that would really have teeth, he says, is one that would ‘ban all third-party commerce in private information – financial information, location information, health information, browser history, and scanning of e-mail.’ Companies would be allowed to collect data needed for their services, but nothing else: a wellness app could store your height or weight but not the location of your gym – and none of this information could be shared with Facebook. The idea, McNamee explained, is that you could log a workout without then being bombarded by ads for nearby Zumba classes. Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, has pointed out that few of the current proposed policies would have any effect on whether a company can collect private data, only on how it can be used. Under McNamee’s plan, most of Google’s and Facebook’s revenues would disappear overnight, since nearly 90% of both companies’ money comes from ads. (Tech companies that don’t depend on targeted-ad revenue would remain relatively unaffected.)”

Barth concludes that the tech-reform movement can be hard to take seriously when some of its most prominent activists are also some of the most prominent tech-company shareholders,” and notes that “McNamee ends his talks by saying that the solution will be the ‘biggest business opportunity’ ever.”

In an 11-28-19 Guardian article entitled “There’s only one way to take on big tech: by reining in big money and big state,” Evgeny Morozov says that “the Warren-style critique of big tech rests on a powerful myth of domestic politics gone wrong.” He adds that “it’s easy to mistake Warren’s populist stance – let’s just break up the tech giants! – for some kind of leftism; but all it really is is a repetition of the (neo)liberal creed that well-policed, competitive markets yield prosperity. A Warren-style critique presents the rise of big tech as a series of policy errors by distracted or corrupt technocratic regulators, rather than the result of careful policy planning by Washington elites keen to use every tool possible to consolidate America’s global power. Focused almost entirely on domestic affairs, the Warren-style account rarely situates big tech alongside big money – Saudi Arabia, SoftBank and JP Morgan – and the big state – the Pentagon, with its massive contracting orders, and the NSA, with its massive spying apparatus. Positioned properly inside this troika, big tech emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of global financialized and militarized capitalism.

Not surprisingly, Warren’s account remains blind to the real reason American big tech isn’t smaller: big money and the big state need it to remain big — the former to make sure Wall Street can recoup its loss-making investments, the latter to ensure that America’s defense and intelligence needs are met swiftly, efficiently, and on the cheap. Positioned properly inside this troika, big tech emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of global financialized and militarized capitalism. Making big tech smaller, thus, can only be accomplished by trying to rein in the powers of Wall Street and the Pentagon and accepting that America should play a humble role in the global order. None of this is likely to happen, especially given American anxieties about China’s global ascent in all three dimensions – technology, finance, and military might. Smaller tech would mean America losing its ability to project its power geopolitically; and the odds that the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley – let alone the ‘America first’ Trump administration – would agree to this are nil. They’ll probably remain nil even if someone like Warren – whose foreign policy views are rather conventional, even by Washington standards – gets elected.

The powers of the nefarious troika of the big tech, big money, and big state could – and should be – contested. But this has to be done directly – by explicitly invoking and contesting the links between the financial, military, and technology dimensions of US power – and not indirectly, by discussing tendencies towards monopolization in digital capitalism. The first approach lends itself to a properly progressive political agenda; the second only to the utopian expectations that a new generation of technocrats might resolve some of the contradictions of global capitalism. In the absence of such a program, leftists should ditch the ‘big tech vs small tech’ dichotomy and speak of corporate vs non-corporate tech instead. The ownership – not just of companies but also of sensors, networks, data and services – is more important than the size of the key players. This doesn’t mean we should follow the likes of Warren in treating them as utilities, however; to do so would be to impose a ban on the kind of institutional imagination that the rise of digital technologies should have provoked – but still hasn’t – on the left.

The utilities model is problematic for many reasons, the chief of which is that data – the intimate residue of our intellectual, social and political life – unlike water, gas, and electricity, is suffused with meaning, lending itself to a multiplicity of interpretations and action plans. How this total ensemble of meanings and actions get assembled, by whom, and with what rationale isn’t a question that can be answered with any certainty in advance. The data ensemble can, as it does now, empower the advertising industry, feed virtual disinformation campaigns, and help banks extend more loans – i.e., ensure that the wheels of capitalism roll smoothly. It could also seed non-market behaviors grounded in solidarity and mutual respect, doing for the knowledge society what the welfare state once did for industrial society: create durable foundations for human flourishing. By shoving solutions to the problem of big tech into the institutional straitjacket of the utilities model, we’re giving up the opportunity to create a radically new institutional landscape – one which will de-commodify everyday life the same way the welfare state de-commodified working life almost a century earlier. This genuinely leftwing agenda doesn’t provide a simplistic, clean, but ultimately utopian answer along the lines of ‘small’ or ‘humane’ tech. But in calling out big tech as a function of American corporate power it at least gets the diagnosis right.”

 

Apple News Sucks!

In my last post, I criticized TV news, and suggested searching for alternative text or online news sources. You can access news via phone and tablet apps, and those based on a subscription to a newspaper can be useful (I use one for my local paper). Other news apps that you think might be good give you mostly ads and junky articles, however. Apple News is a good example of this – and of my love-hate relationship in general with Apple. It claims to personalize the news in your feed and allow you to order the subjects you’re interested in, but it doesn’t, and it’s full of ads for Apple’s $9.99 a month magazine subscription service, some of which actually prevent you from reading articles. Flipboard is also problematic. I’ve decided to try Google News, Feedly, and a few more radical sites instead. P.S. To read magazines for free on your phone or tablet, see if your local library is connected with RBDigital, an app for reading magazines your library subscribes to.

Utopian/dystopian novels, part 2

I’ve now created a section under “Resources” in the top menu bar for fiction books, including utopian/dystopian novels. There you’ll find a list of my favorites and notes on Octavia Butler’s two Parable novels, Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, and Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. The notes will give you a flavor of these great fiction works, and are better than nothing if you can’t read them in their entirety, but I hope at some point you will, since they function so well as positive, alternative visions for us as we live into our (currently) dystopian future. Such visions, especially so vividly expressed in fiction, also act as healing balms when we’re discouraged by what’s going on around us – which for me is most of the time.

You will see that Butler’s novels detail what the further extension of our dystopia could be like, that Starhawk’s trilogy, including the prequel Walking to Mercury and sequel, The City of Refuge, is a communal vision, and that Le Guin’s book is both a detailed description of an ideal future agrarian society and the individual story of someone born into that society who also lived in its mirror opposite for a time.

I find it interesting that all of these novels are set in northern California, though they also range a bit further afield. Perhaps the Cascadia of another visionary novelist, Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging) will actually emerge as the seedbed for a better world.

As noted on Wikipedia, “Cascadia is a bioregion and proposed country that would consist of the Canadian province of British Columbia and the US states of Washington and Oregon. At its maximum extent, Cascadia would stretch from coastal Alaska in the north into northern California in the south, and inland to include parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, as far southeast as Colorado, and the Yukon. More conservative advocates propose borders that include the land west of the crest of Cascade Range, and the western side of British Columbia. As measured only by the combination of present Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia statistics, Cascadia would be home to slightly more than 16 million people, and by land area would be the 20th largest country in the world.

There are several reasons why the Cascadia movement aims to foster connections and a sense of place within the Pacific Northwest region and strive toward independence. The main reasons stated by the movement include environmentalism, bioregionalism, privacy, civil liberties, and freedom, increased regional integration, and local food networks and economies. The designer of the Doug flag, Alexander Baretich, claims that Cascadia is not necessarily about secession but is rather about survival of peak oil, global warming, and other pending environmental and socioeconomic problems.

In 1956, groups from Cave Junction, Oregon and Dunsmuir, California threatened to tear southern Oregon and northern California from their respective state rulers to form the State of Jefferson.

Ernest Callenbach’s environmental utopian novel Ecotopia (1975) follows an American reporter, William Weston, on his tour through a secretive republic (the former Washington, Oregon, and northern California) 20 years after their secession from the U.S. Weston is shown a society that has been centrally planned, scaled down, and readapted to fit within the constraints of environmental sustainability.

A research study by the Western Standard in 2005 found that support for exploring secession from Canada was at 35.7% in British Columbia, and 42% in Alberta. While difficult to gauge support specifically in Washington and Oregon, because no research has been done for those states, a nationwide poll by Zogby International in 2008 found that 22% of Americans support a state’s or region’s right to peacefully secede from the United States, the highest rate since the American Civil War. However, none of these studies are specifically about forming an independent Cascadia. The movement saw much discussion in the 1990s, and while the increase in security and American nationalism after the September 11 attacks set back the movement’s momentum for some time, the concept has continued to become more ingrained into society and the public consciousness. In January 2011, Time magazine included Cascadia number eight on a list of ‘Top 10 Aspiring Nations,’ noting it ‘has little chance of ever becoming a reality.’

Also making this list is the Second Vermont Republic, a secessionist group within the U.S. state of Vermont which seeks to restore the formerly independent status of the Vermont Republic (1777–91). It describes itself as ‘a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank opposed to the tyranny of corporate America and the U.S. government, and committed to the peaceful return of Vermont to its status as an independent republic and more broadly the dissolution of the Union.’ The organization was founded in 2003 by Thomas Naylor (1936–2012), a former Duke University economics professor and co-author of the 1997 book Downsizing the U.S.A.”

 

Getting inspiration from utopian/dystopian fiction

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this for a long time, and reading Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (2013) has gotten me to actually do it! Womack says that in 2011 she “attended the Think Galacticon conference. Unlike the typical science fiction conference, its creators hoped to use science fiction as a platform for broader changes in society. Held at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, the conference brought activists, science fiction writers, and fans together to share perspectives on social change and privilege. Panels included talks on classism in fantasy novels (why don’t the paupers ever challenge the prince for power?), the growing black independent comic book scene, and personal growth tools for revolution.

In her workshop, noted activist Adrienne Maree Brown said, ‘It’s amazing to change the world, but it’s heartbreaking, bone-cracking work, and you don’t often see the change in real time. For me as an organizer, what gets me through has been immersing myself in certain sci-fi worlds.’ She uses sci-fi to frame an inspirational perspective for youth that she works with too. ‘Your life is science fiction,’ she tells them. ‘You’re Luke Skywalker, but way cooler; you’re trans and black and you’re surviving the world of Detroit.’

Brown began her activism work in college. She’s a former executive director of the Ruckus Socity, a nonprofit that specializes in environmental activism and guerilla communication, and is heavily involved with the League of Pissed Off Voters. A Detroit resident, she describes herself as an organizational healer, pleasure activist, and artist, obsessed with developing models for action and community transformation.

She’s also a sci-fi fan. After discovering Octavia Butler’s work, she was inspired to develop new work of her own. Brown is using Butler’s pivotal Parables series and its post-apocalyptic tale as a template for change agency in desperate communities. Her workshop at Galacticon was titled ‘Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategies.’ The workshop description read as follows: ‘“All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” These words of Octavia Butler’s have impacted people seriously on a personal level, but how do we apply her wisdom on a political organizing level? How would accepting and coming to love the emergent power of changing conditions affect our strategic planning? This session will be half popular organizational development training and half inquiry into what the future of organizational development and strategic planning will look like.’

As far as Brown is concerned, many abandoned urban communities in New York City, New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, Cincinnati, and Detroit are post-apocalyptic and ripe for community-borne transformation. Seeing supports and humanity in Detroit, her new home town, made Brown look at other cities with blighted communities differently. ‘There are people living in places that we associate with the end of the world, but it’s not the end of the world – it’s the beginning of something else. An economy based on relationships and not the monetary value you can place on someone else.’

Brown now teaches activists how to use strategies from Butler’s books (like community farming, building relationships with neighbors, and essential survival skills) to build communities in areas where resources are scarce. She emphasizes that people in troubled areas need to have self-determination over their food supply, harking back to the Acorn communities in the Parables – intentional communities, ‘places where people come in an intentional way to build a life together. They’re farming with accountability to one another. They have a spiritual community. This is a strategy that could enable people to survive a future where our resources are unsure. Another is door-to-door relationship building that’s nonjudgmental. After the Acorn community is trashed, the main character goes door-to-door and starts to build a community of believers who aren’t rooted in one place, but in a shared ideology. It’s very similar to the Zapatista ideology. They went around for ten years building relationships one by one. Now a lot of organizing is done around the internet and tweeting each other. If we weren’t able to do that, what would we do? We would work with whoever is there with us.’

Brown is also a big advocate of teaching basic survival skills, including gardening, care for the sick and wounded, and midwifery. ‘I’m also looking at building homes and bathrooms. How do you make a bathroom where there is none?’ Her main point is to generate solutions. ‘We shouldn’t spend the majority of our time trying to get someone else to be accountable for what happens in our communities. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you; provide the solutions yourself…

What is the biggest story we can imagine telling ourselves about our future? It can be a utopia or a dystopia, but we want to get a perspective from people who are actually trying to change the world today. What do they think will happen? What’s the best-case scenario? How do we get people to think of themselves as the creators of tomorrow’s story?’”

I’ve been inspired by Butler’s Parable novels too, and many others, including Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy. In the next few days, I’ll put notes on these books and a list of utopian/dystopian fiction in the Resources section (see top menu bar).

Let’s get inspired!

Looking into the Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats

Want to know whether the US should withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran or what’s involved in the upcoming negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons? Check out “War Games,” the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s “Intercepted” podcast, available on in the iTunes store or wherever you get your podcasts. You’ll learn a ton — all critical information in understanding today’s (and yesterday’s) world…Like which country or countries are currently the biggest threats to world peace?