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Essays on Technology and Culture

Your Privacy is Worth More than what Tech is Selling

I’ve had debates online about the theory Apple needs to weaken their stance on privacy if they want to be a leader in consumer AI products. My stance on this is simple: no. If anything, Apple should strengthen their stance on user privacy, both as good practice and as a way to protect its customers against the incoming Presidential administration. And if this means Apple can’t compete in the AI and machine learning space with Google, Facebook, Amazon, or whoever, I am more than happy to accept that.

Why? For one, I’m skeptical that all of this data is actually giving us better products. Big data, AI, and ML may certainly be useful in specialized applications, but in the consumer space, I’m not seeing the benefits. All you need do is look at the current space of consumer AI and ML. There are two main consumer-level applications, and both have the same general purpose in mind: getting you to consume things. It’s obvious in the case of the ad-supported model used by Facebook and Google. The more data they collect, the more accurate the ads will be. Whether this is the case or not is up to you, but the last thing I need is more ads telling me to buy shit I don’t need based on some random link I clicked.

The second is in the realm of home virtual assistants, of which the Amazon Echo is the most popular. Google’s also entered the game with the Google Home. The last thing I need is a hot microphone to Amazon or Google’s data centers living in my apartment, but let’s explore just what the heck these things actually do. At a fundamental level, these are devices that compel you to consume more from the companies that make them, along with their partners. The Amazon Echo lets you buy things (from Amazon), play music (from Amazon), and control various smart home devices you likely bought through Amazon. Google Home is similar, though I don’t know if its e-commerce functionality is as built out as Amazon’s.

Every command you issue: “Alexa, order more paper towels,” or “Hey, Google, start playing my Christmas playlist” is stored, analyzed, attributed to your profile, and used to sell you more stuff. And would be quite surprised if Amazon doesn’t have an agreement with whoever makes your various smart home devices to share usage data. The whole thing is a home spying device designed to build a profile of its users that will be monetized. It’s just given a servile, yet slightly snarky personality to make you feel at ease when you give up another useful nugget of personal data. And for what? To make it easier to buy paper towels, or control the lights?

We keep being promised us better products, if we just give up more data. We give up more data, and we still get crap that’s only better at selling us more crap. It’s crap all the way down. A more accurate playlist of music recommendations only keeps you paying $9.99 a month for more music—of which the artists only sees pennies. Better Alexa speech recognitions means you can order paper towels with the water running in the kitchen. Big whoop.

But all this data can also be used for more disturbing things down the line, and that’s what bothers me most.

In a 2015 talk, Maciej Cegłowski made the apt comparison of user data to nuclear waste, and notes

“The data we’re collecting about people has this same odd property. Tech companies come and go, not to mention the fact that we share and sell personal data promiscuously.

“But information about people retains its power as long as those people are alive, and sometimes as long as their children are alive. No one knows what will become of sites like Twitter in five years or ten. But the data those sites own will retain the power to hurt for decades.”

By way of an example, Maciej uses LiveJournal, and how a “gay blogger in Moscow” who started a LiveJournal account in 2004 is now at risk of being outed because “[I]n 2007, LiveJournal [was] sold to a Russian company…” And, well, we know how the current Russian government feels about homosexuality right?

Even a company that is generally on the good side of user privacy, like Apple, could change its tune at any moment. Tomorrow, Tim Cook could step off the wrong curb, and get hit by a bus. Or, Wall Street could decide they’ve had enough and kick him out in favor of a CEO who is more willing to work with the Federal Government and the Trump Administration. Having sanctions slapped on every iPhone imported from Shenzhen isn’t going to be great for the stock price.

But we don’t even have to wait. Right now, a member of Facebook’s board, Peter Thiel, has the ear of a President-Elect who promised to deport Muslims, even those who were born in this country. Don’t tell me Thiel wouldn’t compel Facebook to help. They’ve already said they would do it if asked. Facebook is the largest of the tech data brokers we surrender our personal data to, wittingly or not. They promise us relevance, and they’ve given us filter bubbles full of fake news stories. This is what I’m paying my privacy for?

It’s not hard to imagine how all this data could be turned against us. Imagine a suspicious explosion in a major city. The FBI compels Apple and Google to hand over location data on every iPhone and Android device in the area before the explosion, along with device owners email addresses. (Currently Apple deletes last known location data after two hours, but as noted, this could change.) Run that data against everyone who has identified themselves as Muslim on Facebook. Then, scan all the profile and tagged pics of those Facebook users and compare them with the camera footage picked up by Peter Thiel-founded Palantir—who is already working with the NYPD. Now you have your suspects, ready for “enhanced interrogation” and potential imprisonment or deportation.

Creeped out yet?

And it’s all because you wanted better location-aware alerts and suggestions on what crap to buy. When giving up privacy is worth only crap products and enabling government and corporate surveillance, it’s not worth it. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted, before “our online lives run on data.” We can no more extricate ourselves from the web of services that collect and store our personal data than we can extricate ourselves from the plumbing in our houses. At least the water company isn’t analyzing our leavings to find new things to sell to us Yet.

These are all linked. You can’t demand a company roll back user privacy in one area without compromising everything. It’s not immediate, but like a single torn thread in a pair of jeans, that hole is going to stretch and tear more threads with every movement. You won’t be terribly happy when something gets through that you didn’t intend. I suppose I’d be less skeptical if someone could show me one useful product that genuinely improves lives beyond offering new things to consume, and does so in a way that won’t put the lives of its users at risk. Right now, we don’t have it, just a bunch of vague promises that could be broken in a heartbeat. If the alternative means that we have no AIs in our pockets and homes, well, that’s a trade I’d be happy to make.

From Gamergate To Pizzagate

It was an assault rifle being fired in a pizzeria that signaled the severity of Facebook’s fake news problem. Call it Pizzagate – a right-wing conspiracy theory based on a baseless lie by 4chan. The rifle being fired was far from the only danger to employees and the owner of Comet Ping Pong – they’ve faced death threats and violations of their private lives for weeks. The harassment and threats have now spilled over to affect neighboring businesses and the people who own and work in them.

Brianna Wu – Pizzagate: American politics get the Gamergate treatment

The same tactics used against women in gaming, fueled by a vague, nonsensical internet conspiracy, are being used to fuel political violence. Just as Gamergate was fueled by a non-existent review of a video game, Pizzagate uses equally false information to drive a violent harassment campaign. Now, it has spilled into real-world gun violence, and shows no signs of stopping.

If you think what happens in digital spaces has no bearing in the “real world” this is your wake-up call. Answer it.

The Racists Have Gamed Google’s Algorithm

At The Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr has noticed something disturbing about Google search suggestions:

Neither Google or Facebook make their algorithms public. Why did my Google search return nine out of 10 search results that claim Jews are evil? We don’t know and we have no way of knowing. Their systems are what Frank Pasquale describes as “black boxes”. He calls Google and Facebook “a terrifying duopoly of power” and has been leading a growing movement of academics who are calling for “algorithmic accountability”. “We need to have regular audits of these systems,” he says. “We need people in these companies to be accountable. In the US, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, every company has to have a spokesman you can reach. And this is what needs to happen. They need to respond to complaints about hate speech, about bias.”

Google, democracy and the truth about internet search

This is disturbing and terrifying. We know search algorithms can be gamed, but white nationalists and racists have taken it to a whole new level. That Google seems to not even think it’s a problem is even worse. It is Google’s responsibility to ensure its results are accurate, and linking to Daily Stormer and other hateful organizations when asking about the Holocaust, or stats on black crime is abdicating that responsibility. There is no neutrality when a system can be twisted to promote one group’s horrifying ideology.

The Great Medium Experiment

I’ve been running an experiment with my last few longer-form pieces of crossposting them to Medium. I’ve done it on the occasional, ad-hoc basis when I write something that I feel needs to reach an audience outside of my circle. This includes the expanded, and revised version of “A View From Inside the Welfare System”, which went viral. I’ve also written at least one piece, explicitly for Medium, “Geek Culture and its Discontents”. So far, it’s not had much of an impact, but it might also be too early to tell.

But why Medium? I’ve been, and remain skeptical of Medium as a platform, and I’m not the only one. Ownership of my words is important, even if I’m making a sum total of six bucks a month from them. (If you want to change that, you can become a subscriber here.) I’d be happy making nothing, if I knew I was reaching people, but I’m sometimes not even sure of that. It’s a tough time to be putting words on the Internet.

So, instead of trying to branch out into other media—because that worked out so well last time—cross-posting seems to be the best of the options. No matter what happens to medium, my writing will remain at this URL until EMPs wipe out all technology. Yet, I also exist on the largest platform for long-form writing. My name, profile, photo, are all out there, hopefully to be discovered. Maybe they’ll follow the links back to the source and start clicking around. Plus, Medium makes it a lot easier to share things. I’m not willing to install tracking scripts for Facebook and Twitter just for the sake of a few clicks—though I am willing to set up a Facebook page for my writing.

The goal of crossposting to Medium is to, I suppose, re-capture the lightning in a bottle moment of the most successful independent writing I’ve ever done: the aforementioned “A View From Inside the Welfare System.” It was not only a Medium Editor’s Pick, but made it to the front page of MetaFilter, which made me super-happy. The only thing I didn’t like is that nothing long-term came of it. I had nothing else to say about my time working for the Welfare Office, and it was off my usual—for lack of a better word—beat, anyway.

I just wish Medium’s WordPress plugin was more effective. It seems that scheduled posts and anything published through the WordPress API doesn’t get sent to Medium. This sucks, as I like to line stuff up ahead of time for publishing. At least tagging posts works, though I’ve never used the post tagging feature in WordPress since I relaunched the current version of Sanspoint six years ago. Perhaps the Medium folks will see this and fix it. Or, perhaps I’ll give up on this experiment after a few more weeks, and then I stop worrying about it. In the meantime, like and share, I suppose.

“Watch the Failson:” How the Internet is Radicalizing the Alt-Right

In the wake of the election, I took some time to read a few pieces of conservative commentary, and came across an interesting essay by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative comparing modern America to Weimar Germany. I’m don’t agree with all of Dreher’s points, especially as a queer atheist Liberal socialist, but a part of it caught my attention, and it makes the essay worth your time. Namely, Dreher links to a piece in The New Yorker on a podcast called “Chapo Trap House” that describes a phenomenon the podcast hosts call “failsons.”

The Chapo Trap House hosts describe a failson as “twenty-six,” in Community College, and more interested “gaming and masturbating” than spending time with their family at Thanksgiving. Or, more compassionately as “nonessential human beings who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborers… Some of them turn into Nazis… Others become aware of the consequences of capitalism.” [Emphasis mine.]

Reading this frightened me, because it rings true. As an example, Dreher identifies Dylann Roof, who committed a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston in 2015, as a failson and notes that:

“Sooner or later, somebody is going to find a way to radicalize those failsons. Some of the middle class failsons will gravitate to the Weimar Brooklyn worldview of the Chapo Trap House. Many other middle class white failsons, I suspect, will gravitate to the intellectualized neo-Nazism of Richard Spencer, highly educated and articulate son of Dallas’s posh Park Cities. The point is: watch the failson.”

What Dreher misses is that the failsons are already being radicalized. What are the meme squads and troll armies of the alt-right but failsons turned into radicalized digital shock troops for a modern fascist regime?

If you haven’t closed this essay already, let me explain by linking to a great Twitter thread by Siyanda Mohutsiwa. She draws a direct link between the racist alt-right, and men’s self-help spaces online. Jules Evans at Philosophy for Life goes into more detail on the same links. In particular, Evans notes how alt-right figureheads Mike Cernovich, Jack Donovan, and Roosh V wrote self-help books and pick-up artist guides before moving towards promoting the racist and sexist ideology that underpins the alt-right. Anyone who came to these men looking for a way to improve their lot likely ended up suckered into their hateful message.

It’s not all failsons in the alt-right, of course. There’s people with STEM degrees, and jobs who wouldn’t fit the failson stereotype, but they’re not usually the ones spending their days harassing people on social media or running disinformation campaigns. They’re more likely to operate like Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, away from the digital front lines. It’s also worth noting here that of all groups more likely to join terrorist groups, engineers are the most likely to become extremists. You can’t blame radicalization on being stupid.

But when you have a mass of under-employed and unemployed, poorly educated, white men who can’t get laid, they’re going to be very susceptible to anything that makes them forget their position—anything that gives them a target for their anger. Women, minorities, the LGBTQ community, and the progressives who promote their issues are the easy and obvious targets. And so the demagogues mobilize the failsons, point them to the target, and stand back as the horror unfolds. Because they never gave a direct order, they can keep their hands clean, whether it’s Milo Yiannopoulos using his Twitter followers to harass Leslie Jones, or Donald Trump saying he “disavows” the white supremacists using his election victory as an excuse for public hate.

All you need to do to see this phenomenon first-hand is take a peek into some of the various 4chan boards where it happens. Boards like /adv/, /r9k/, and /soc/, have built a support structure for young men who describe themselves as “NEETs”—“Not in Education, Employment or Training”. These are the failsons the Chapo Trap House hosts refer to. So much of the process occurs in public, from the initial steps into seeking a community of support, advice on love and life, and the slow redirection into alt-right radicalism. And it works. ISIS recruitment propaganda follows the same basic process. The only difference is that the alt-right is radicalizing white men, not Muslims.

Of course, one can hardly be blamed for not wanting to stick their nose into the cesspool of the various chan boards. But if anything is going to disrupt the radicalization of the failsons is disrupting that process. There’s already research under way to disrupt ISIS recruitment practices, but who’s taking up this mantle against white supremacy? The best we’ve seen is Twitter adding “hate speech” to their reporting process and banning several alt-right accounts, but this is too little, too late. It’s a band-aid on a plague sore.

This is a personal concern, not just because the people I love are at risk from what the radicalized failsons can do, but because it wasn’t that long ago when I too could have become a failson. Not long after I graduated college in 2008, I was unemployed, and struggling with my personal life and self-worth. I was lucky in that I had both a positive support network of family and friends, both online and off, that saved me from potential radicalization. I was also lucky in that this was before the toxic spaces of the internet like 4chan had fully mutated into their current form. But I know quite well the misery I was in, and how I longed for easy answers.

So, yes, I am watching the failsons. You should be too, because they’re going to play a major role in the next four years. They’re not the only cause or symptom of the new political climate, but they are motivated, they are inspired, and they are dangerous. Whether you are a Liberal or a Conservative, a new fascist movement is a danger to all of us. Even if the footsoldiers are hiding behind keyboards and seven proxies, what happens on the internet can and does bleed over into “real life.” We’ve seen it happen, before and it’ll happen again. It’s too late to stop the damage, but with luck and work, perhaps we can keep it contained.