The trouble with social media

The problem with main$tream social media isn’t the fact that it’s closed source, but the fact that it’s for-profit. I’m happy to see that people are interested in creating alternatives that incorporate some combination of decentralization, software freedom, or user governance, but I’m dismayed that seemingly none of them are going for the jugular and attempting a non-monetized implementation of the capabilities associated with social media. One promising example is the Okuna website and one of the items on the nav bar is “angel,” and of course I get that sinking feeling. I click it, and sure enough, I scroll two thirds of the way down to the bottom of the page and confirm that sinking feeling that that’s angel as in investor.

I believe the ubiquity of spyware and spam is a consequence of a technical ecosystem (if you want to call it that) in which monetization is a prerequisite for anything happening. I do of course know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even if you’re willing to code for free, someone has to pay the hosting bill. Thing is if the monthly hosting bill is a few dollars (rather than a few tens or hundreds of dollars) there will probably be any number of middle class (or even low income) hobbyists who will eat that cost, with an attitude that it’s well worth it if it means I can put an ad-free site online, or post my writings without answering to editorial authority, or whatever other noncommercial communications goals one might have. So it is that there was a renaissance of DIY ethos during the era of dial-up ISP’s, whose 5, 10, 20 clam a month plans customarily included a few megs of filespace for at least some static HTML content. I think the death of the blogosphere (and the corresponding rise in commercial “social media” as a replacement communication outlet) really kicked into high gear around 2008, with the recession, and a growing number of people reaching the conclusion that they don’t have the luxury of NOT monetizing their hobbies. But the thing about monetization is that it is a do-or-not-do proposition. Once the camel’s nose is in the tent, EVERYTHING that’s cool about noncommercial feats of creativity is instantly a lost cause. You can’t implement monetization in digital media without tamperproofing the technology, basically DRM, but tamperproofing also includes ad-n*[blocker]s for even values of n. In turn, you can’t tamperproof paywalls (or adwalls or whatever) without killing general purpose computing.

I must ask why we aren’t focusing mainly on federated networks, which slice the network into pieces small enough (we would like to hope) to fit into consumer-level hosting plans (we would also like to hope) in ways that still allow more or less frictionless search for and access to people and content throughout the network.

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Quotebag #126

Aral Balkan:
In the PC 1.0 era, individuals had ownership and control of their machines. If, for example, you installed an app and it used your 9600 baud modem to phone home and report on your behaviour, we called it a Trojan – and we understood it to be malware. Today, we call a far more sophisticated and ubiquitous version of this the extremely lucrative business model of Silicon Valley.
It’s no use having a plan to conquer the fucking galaxy if society is optimizing itself to devise ever more clever ways to con people into clicking on ads.
Cory Doctorow:
Once upon a time, the internet teemed with experimental, personal publications.
also there is categorically never a market under capitalism in which power relations are equal enough for a fair deal


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Should I sign Larry Sanger’s Declaration of Digital Independence?

I’m of two minds on the subject. I agree with everything in Larry’s declaration of digital independence and as far as I know, I agree with the petition language (although I haven’t yet followed the link to But as they say in Leftbook these days, self care means don’t read the comments. I don’t know which breaks my heart more irreparably, the fact that the Internet I once loved has degenerated into a cesspit of monetization gimmicks and aggressive spyware, or the fact that the open source movement I once loved has degenerated into a frat house, a Tucker Carlson fandom, basically a dumpster fire.

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Autistic representation in media

I used to sometimes joke (somewhat tastelessly I’m sure) that there are three categories of autistic people systematically underrepresented in media, at least news media. Those being

  1. autistic adults
  2. autistic girls
  3. autistic boys whose name is something other than Daniel

The last one probably never had any basis in fact, but a decade or so ago I could have sworn I could have made a regular drinking game around the autistic boy in the inspiration porn turns out to be Daniel someone or other. I think the news media have (as was inevitable) discovered autistic adults. But I think that this has come with a very strict editorial policy that the definition of autism (for journalistic purposes) basically amounts to dual-diagnosis cases that include an autism spectrum disorder and also an intellectual disability. (I hope I didn’t use a functioning label). It seems one of the hard constraints on American society, and the American economy in particular, is that disability (for occupational purposes) has to include at least one of physical or intellectual. There is no such thing as a non-physical, non-intellectual disability. If there were, then certain people would be able to “double dip”, that is, benefit from programs for people with disabilities, ranging from sheltered employment to SSI to school accommodations and more, but also enjoy some measure of “the life of the mind”, whether that means leading a somewhat examined life, having a few opinions of one’s own, being a serious candidate for a job with responsibilities, or the simple dignity of having the baseline level of credibility that comes with the functioning label called “competent.” More to the point, if there were such an area of overlap, such a Venn-diagram intersection to put it in the nerd vernacular, it would be hard not to ask the question of whether there’s anything meritocratic about a job market in which virtually all paid employments at all levels come with social filters such as job interviews, let alone a de-facto requirement for “networking” or even something as aggressive as “elevator pitches.” It would be hard to maintain the pretense inherent in saying “earning a living” when one means “winning a living.”

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Innovation=entrepreneurship, another repeat-until-true meme

Part of the problem is that at some point the hype machine made a regular meme campaign of using the words innovation and entrepreneurship interchangeably. I can only assume that the goal of this aggressive framing is to create a social consensus that unmonetized innovation doesn’t count. Maybe it’s Team Capitalism’s response to those of us in the Tesla-was-more-of-an-innovator-than-Edison camp. Because entrepreneurship is a very competitive winner-take-all arena of combat, and because history is written by the winners, all our stories about innovation are in hindsight, about the one in ten startups that don’t fail, and the structure and format of these stories has become very predictable and cliche, to the point that they’re telling the same story over and over. Basically the stock news story that has come to be called “entrepreneurship porn,” like inspiration porn, except about entrepreneurship/innovation (again framed as being two words for the same thing) instead of disability. One can make a regular drinking game around instances of entrepreneurship porn appearing in a news broadcast and the enterprise in question turns out to be cupcakes.

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Data ownership is the problem, not the solution

Please see this discussion between Isabella DiMichelis and Evgeny Morozov, moderated by Maria Mazzucato.

I’m concerned less with the right to monetize than the option of not monetizing. I miss the days when many Internet participants chose not to monetize. That pretty much got lost in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, DIY hacker ethos died and FYPM (fuck you, pay me) ethos took its place. Now everyone is a mercenary, very careful to avoid “working for free,” and all content is monetized, and all monetization gimmicks are very cynical and rely on some gotcha placement of a toll booth, but also of course rely on Digital Restrictions Management, which means the end of general purpose computing.

Isabella DiMichelis points out that:

  • Can’t have innovation without data.
  • Can’t have a lot of data without consumers being engaged.
  • Can’t have a lot of data with too much privacy.

There are too few innovation opportunities because data flows from individuals to businesses and not the other way. This is by design. Websites and mobile apps are very intentionally designed to transmit signal (such as empirical and often actionable observations of individual behavior) in one direction and noise (basically bloat) in the other.

Consumers may or may not be engaged, but are stuck in a passive rather than active role in use of data because the data they generate are not for their own use, and are not available to them in a usable, machine-readable form.

Privacy is a lost cause anyway. The issue now is information asymmetry, namely those one-way informational valves that send signal one way and noise the other.

DiMichelis, again:

  • We can change way users perceive their value
  • We are not calling for change in how data exchange is implemented
  • Individuals are suppliers, not just consumers
  • Individuals need to know the value of the data they supply, but this is not transparent
  • The intent is to have new services for the consumer, new wealth for society, new innovation, etc.
  • The means by which this is monetized is artificial scarcity (well, no shit, Sherlock)

This is where I very much disagree.

I am very much calling for change in how data exchange is implemented. The systems for this need to be replaced with nonproprietary systems. If the businesses will not go along with this, noncommercial alternatives must be created, or the interfaces with those businesses must be reverse engineered. Individuals need to bear in mind that they are suppliers of information, but also need to feel empowered to make creative use of the data they (and perhaps others) generate. There seems to be an assumption that the innovation takes place in the businesses, and that whatever innovations they create with it are proprietary, and that the consumer public are passive consumers of these innovations and products, and of course also compensated for their informational contribution to them, but I think DiMichelis is possibly underestimating the consumers’ potential intellectual contribution to this innovation. More than ownership of their data (which is an artificial construct, anyway), consumers should get access to their data. The reason why the transparency needed for individuals to know the value of their data does not exist is because the way the data exchange is implemented is proprietary. If the data does have exchange value, as DiMichelis points out, that would be due to artificial scarcity, which is another house of cards for the legal system to prop up. It’s certainly telling that DiMichelis uses (time index 41:34) the copyright lobby as one of the agencies of collective bargaining in place in the European Union. She seems to think that, between Google, Uber, Amazon and Apple, a consumer can decide to make their data available to zero, one, two, three or all four. But if you made your data available to one of those entities, how would you know they didn’t share it with one of the other ones? How would the consumer (or the legal system) enforce this exclusivity?

Morozov, in contrast, wants institutions that communicate to consumers in a language other than that of the marketplace. That is more my speed. He believes we can design non-market forms of cooperation and collaboration.

Lest I take sides, DiMichelis, to her credit, sees user passivity to be a problem and sees this as due to too few interoperability standards (none, really, for mobile apps) and too much vendor lock-in.

Apparently a hospital sold its data to Google in exchange for digitization of the same data, basically for data entry. This is all kinds of problematic. Data entry labor has cheapened to Amazon Turk levels. The service offered by Google is of low value. One might argue that hospital data is of a very personal nature and therefore protection of personal privacy is of utmost importance, so getting data digitization on the cheap could be a grievous error. This brings us to some of the problems in how the privacy issue is framed today. Nobody expects today’s privacy policies to protect confidentiality of personal data. That is correctly assumed by most to be a lost cause. It is assumed that the more reputable firms will safeguard against acquisition of personal data by cybercriminals, and successfully preventing data breaches could be considered a good outcome. People click “agree” resigned to the reality that the non-criminal uses to which the data will be put will aid the development of proprietary technologies, of asymmetric informational advantages in the marketplace (personalized prices calibrated to individuals’ “price points” or even “pain points”), or of manipulative simulacra such as filter bubbles. Donating the data to the public domain, to a data commons, would almost certainly do more for “innovation,” if nothing else because innovators are free to explore data without worrying whether they’re trespassing on someone’s intellectual property. The lowered costs due to free-as-in-beer data access couldn’t hurt, either, as well as opportunities to collaborate, not just compete, in the pursuit of novel applications of data.

One thing that is urgently needed is a nonproprietary, noncommercial implementation of trust metrics. The fact that the first reasonably good solutions to this problem have been proprietary is perhaps the largest threat to the hacker ethos, but hopefully not the final nail in its coffin. For a collaborative data commons to be possible:

  • Consumers must be able to contribute data to the commons without exposing themselves to criminal behavior.
  • Consumers must also get something of value in return for actionable data.

I propose that the assurances for each of these two concerns come from the nonproprietary nature of the data commons itself. To make data available to the public at large includes criminals. There’s no way around that, but hopefully in a highly transparent informational matrix it will be very difficult, almost impossible, to commit crimes undetected. Surveillance camera footage might or might not be watched by the guard in the guard shack, while sousveillance camera footage (where the camera is basically an open-access webcam) might or might not be watched by any number of people anywhere in the world. The idea here is applying the idea of sousveillance to many different forms of data; not just video.

By actionable data above I mean, broadly speaking, business intelligence. Particularly, I mean capacity to solve valuation problems, or recognize merchandise as overpriced or underpriced. If you’re using an app to guide you to what are touted as the most competitive supermarket prices or gasoline prices or something, I’m pretty sure you’re giving more than you’re getting when it comes to actionable data. A healthy data commons offers a marketplace in which price arbitrage makes less of a difference, where price discovery happens a lot faster, and where the “law of one price” is a much more accurate model. All cards face up on the table means you don’t get to play your cards close to the vest, but neither do your competitors. I suppose that is a nightmare scenario to those who think of shopping as a competitive sport. I’m kind of hoping they’re in the minority.

The problem with both of these arguments is that to have the relevant assurances to offer, the data commons must already be in place, so it will be a challenge to recruit some number of people to contribute the “seed data” around which to build this public infrastructure. The number of early participants must be large enough to form a critical mass of sorts.

This might be where national intermediaries (42:59) come in. One beautiful example of a public dataset curated by the public sector is the USDA‘s Food Composition Databases Nation states and their political subdivisions would do well to expand such data projects and add new ones. This may come as a surprise to long-time readers of the present blog. Suffice it to say that my political attitudes have shifted somewhat over the last few years. For example, antinationalism has replaced antistatism as the central pillar of my worldview. I’ve also become more tolerant of the regulatory aspect of statism as capitalist practices have become more and more indefensible and (apropos the present post) informational leverage becomes more and more concentrated in the commercial sector. It’s become more important to me that the power of business get checked soon than that it gets consigned to the ash heap eventually.


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Ethical consumption under capitalism

h/t /u/rbif
All three do all three of those things and more. There is no major variation in business practices between competitors. The role of competition in capitalism is not to see who can be innovative and come up with something new, in products or in practices. It is a competition to see who milks the business model most aggressively (and there is only one business model per industry).

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