Kassie Barroquillo on Are local newspapers necessary? via http://gnovisjournal.org/2013/11/17/local_newspapers_kmb/
on Why do neoliberal economics still dominate in a post-recession world? Philip Mirowski on BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed via http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1461
Lisa Wade, PhD
Harry C. Merritt
Florian Herzinger / Wikimedia
Members of the contemporary tech industry speak of cloud computing with such awe and reverence that one might think that they were referring to the Kingdom of Heaven. “The cloud is for everyone. The cloud is a democracy,” declared Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, a major business software company, in 2010.
Today, more and more companies are shifting their products and services to the cloud, most recently including Adobe with the successor to its Creative Suite of graphic design and editing software. Tech websites fill daily with articles arguing for businesses and individuals to transfer their data to the cloud. As Steve Jobs once commented, “I don’t need a hard disk in my computer if I can get to the server faster… carrying around these non-connected computers is byzantine by comparison.” Few in the industry would argue against the convenience and opportunities provided by the technology.
This consensus, however, is not without its discontents. Instead of functioning as a digital democracy, the net activist Jaron Lanier sees the cloud as more of a feudal kingdom. In his 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier illustrated the stratification of the digital world into “Peasants and Lords of the Clouds”: the lords own the digital architecture and are rewarded handsomely for it, while the creative class forms the peasantry, reduced to providing content for free and hoping for patronage.
To extend Lanier’s metaphor further, one might compare the emerging predominance of the cloud with the economic transition from feudalism to capitalism. As with their historical counterparts in the countryside during the emergence of capitalism, economic transition and technological improvements are transforming digital peasants into sharecroppers who must pay periodic fees under the lord’s terms for the privilege of utilizing software or viewing content. Historically, as today, elites used legal mechanisms combined with paeans to rights and efficiency to justify their new systems of rents and control at the expense of ordinary people.
The availability and accessibility of information over the past several centuries has, of course, increased enormously as common people have gained access to print, broadcast, and online media through new technological developments. Until recently, as each medium was introduced, it tended to complement rather than replace its predecessors. Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, newspaper circulation has grown fairly steadily (with declines in Europe and North America offset by growth in the developing world). Book sales continue to grow in all markets. Over 80 percent of the US population has a personal computer at home, and of those 93 percent have broadband internet access.
Cloud computing seems likely to overturn the personal ownership of those old forms of media like books, CDs, and DVDs. Instead, individuals use a client on an electronic device like tablets, smart phones, and e-book readers to access servers that contain the data they want to retrieve. Under Digital Rights Management (DRM), which form the technologies used to control access to content for the user, this includes streaming services for music like Spotify, film and TV like Netflix and Hulu, books like Kindle and Nook, and computer software and games. Increasingly, the model of “software as a service” is being adopted by both individuals, as with Google Apps, and businesses, as with Salesforce. For those with broadband, it’s faster, simpler, and relies less on the limitations of the hard disk space they possess.
But what does it mean when software is a service, delivering content without physical ownership for the consumer? Strangely, in 2012, the New York Review of Books, one of the flagships of print culture, published an essay entitled “E-books can’t burn.” Arguing that the e-book forms a more pure literary experience given the standardization in appearance and configuration:
the e-book’s ease of transport, its international vocation (could the Iron Curtain have kept out e-books?), its indestructibility (you can’t burn e-books), its promise that all books will be able to remain forever in print and what is more available at reasonable prices, and it becomes harder and harder to see why the literati are not giving the phenomenon a more generous welcome.
All very nice. True, e-books cannot be burned. But to remove content, one does not have to burn anything – content can simply be deleted from the server. In 2009, Amazon quietly erased an e-book version of 1984 from its servers and on the Kindles of customers who had paid for it. The issue in that case was one of licensing from the rights holder to the book’s copyright, but it illustrates how little recourse the ordinary customer has in the cloud against tech giants like Amazon.
Physical books can be held essentially in perpetuity, annotated and defaced as the owner sees fit, loaned to friends, and accumulated into a collection that can be inherited by one’s descendants. None of this is possible with data controlled centrally from a server and rented to customers remotely. The growth of personal book collections coupled with public libraries has given unprecedented access to print information; now, libraries face proposals to ditch circulating print collections in favor of loaning out e-books.
And the stranglehold of major book publishers is nothing compared to the power of e-book platform owners. In July 2013, a federal judge ruled that Apple had colluded with several major publishers to fix the price of e-books. Amazon’s dominance in the e-book market – a 90 percent share in 2010, still at 65 percent today – gives it the power to strong-arm publishers into predatory pricing.
But this is about more than just books – virtually every modern information and entertainment medium is facing the same pressures of shifting toward the cloud.
Previously, the owner of software like Adobe Creative Suite could use the program so long as they possessed a computer meeting the system requirements on which the software is installed. Now, however, Adobe CS has been phased out in favor of Adobe Creative Cloud, turning users into renters of the software, paying a subscription fee and periodically updating their operating system (OS) and hardware.
This doesn’t apply just for business software. Consider the 1998 real-time strategy game Starcraft. For over a decade after its release, it was enjoyed by gamers around the world, and effectively became a national sport in South Korea. The sequel, Starcraft II, is accessed primarily online through a relaunched platform called Battle.net, requiring users to upgrade their OS and even their hardware to continue accessing the game – even if they met the minimum system requirements when they originally purchased it.
In this shift to the cloud, consumers of media are being transformed from effective owners, still legally subject to licensing restrictions but in physical possession of media, to renters, held captive by the whims of corporate rentiers backed by a tightening intellectual property regime. As Peter Frase has argued, this emphasis on intellectual property and rents has been and will remain a defining feature of contemporary capitalism.
As societies transitioned from feudalism to capitalism, the relationship of many peasants to the land was also altered from one of effective control to tenancy. Previously, even though serfs had obligations to their lords, they also possessed certain guarantees from them, such as food assistance in case of crop failure or famine. And despite the overall ownership of lords, many serfs maintained effective control over their own land and were free to farm as they wished once they had delivered a certain amount of goods to their own liege lord.
But as modernity dawned in Europe, British peasants lost their use rights as common lands were enclosed and made private under the Inclosure Acts. Such laws claimed to be “in the public interest,” but in reality empowered landlords to become industrial capitalists, using their lands for large-scale agricultural production or selling them to railroads or other ventures. The dispossessed peasants were left to work these lands as agricultural laborers. If peasants could not afford the increased rents after enclosure – typically doubling – they would have to flee to the cities to work as industrial proletarians.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russian peasants, too, faced encroachment on the authority of their self-governing communes (obshchina) from a modernizing state and profit-seeking landlords. The serfs shifted from people into commodities, whose “souls” couId be cynically bought, sold, and mortgaged, as in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. In all cases, the control and influence the aristocratic class exerted over the legal system enabled them to adapt to the changing economic situation, while disoriented ordinary people were subjected to new forms of exploitation. This does not appear to be different for the future of the cloud, as the tech sector’s increasingly massive lobbying efforts influence Congress to strengthen intellectual property laws in their favor.
In time, cloud computing will likely improve access to data for the general public and facilitate further technological progress. But, even ignoring general questions of data security and availability of broadband access, all the cloud seems to promise in the short run is spiraling costs for consumers who will need to update devices and pay rental fees as profits increase for tech companies that will function more as rentiers than innovators.
A sentiment some might consider “luddite,” perhaps. But even mainstream commentators like Paul Krugman are coming around to the idea that luddites have usually been ordinary people acting rationally to maintain their income and avoid cost increases in consumption, rather than simple technophobes. These days, it seems better to be a luddite with an unrestricted physical media collection than a sharecropper in the cloud, constantly beholden to tech companies for current hardware and access to software, information, and entertainment.
The 2013 results demonstrate that there is a leading group of organisations publishing large amounts of useful information on their current aid activities. The top ranking agency is U.S. MCC, scoring 88.9%, while China takes the last place scoring only 2.2%. At the top end, MCC (88.9%), GAVI (87.3%), UK DFID (83.5%) and UNDP (83.4%) are all nearly 10 or more percentage points ahead of the next highest donor. The average score for all organisations is comparatively low at 32.6%, with 25 organisations scoring less than 20%. As in previous years, larger organisations generally perform better overall. Multilaterals as a group tend to score higher than bilaterals, although the performance of individual organisations within each group varies significantly.
Several organisations, including the AfDB, Canada, EC ECHO, EC Enlargement, EC FPI, GAVI, Germany, UNDP, UNICEF, U.S. MCC and U.S. Treasury have made big improvements in 2013 by publishing more information in accessible and comparable formats such as IATI XML or CSV, leapfrogging others that have not made any significant changes to the amount of information they publish, or publish in less useful formats such as websites or PDFs. The top 27 agencies all publish at least some information in IATI XML. Some IATI publishers fall into the poor category however, because they are not publishing enough current or comprehensive information in IATI XML or in other formats.
Turning transparency promises into reality can be hard. The challenge now is to create a virtuous circle of more data use and higher data quality. Wide-ranging use of aid information is likely to bolster donors’ resolve in constantly improving the breadth and quality of their publication. Understanding how and why people use this data will continue to be a goal for all development actors – and will mean working closely with diverse partners to make a real difference.
We’re in the middle of an epic battle for power in cyberspace. On one side are the traditional, organized, institutional powers such as governments and large multinational corporations. On the other are the distributed and nimble: grassroots movements, dissident groups, hackers, and criminals. Initially, the Internet empowered the second side. It gave them a place to coordinate and communicate efficiently, and made them seem unbeatable. But now, the more traditional institutional powers are winning, and winning big. How these two side fare in the long term, and the fate of the rest of us who don’t fall into either group, is an open question — and one vitally important to the future of the Internet.
In the Internet’s early days, there was a lot of talk about its “natural laws” — how it would upend traditional power blocks, empower the masses, and spread freedom throughout the world. The international nature of the Internet bypassed circumvented national laws. Anonymity was easy. Censorship was impossible. Police were clueless about cybercrime. And bigger changes seemed inevitable. Digital cash would undermine national sovereignty. Citizen journalism would topple traditional media, corporate PR, and political parties. Easy digital copying would destroy the traditional movie and music industries. Web marketing would allow even the smallest companies to compete against corporate giants. It really would be a new world order.
This was a utopian vision, but some of it did come to pass. Internet marketing has transformed commerce. The entertainment industries have been transformed by things like MySpace and YouTube, and are now more open to outsiders. Mass media has changed dramatically, and some of the most influential people in the media have come from the blogging world. There are new ways to organize politically and run elections. Crowdfunding has made tens of thousands of projects possible to finance, and crowdsourcing made more types of projects possible. Facebook and Twitter really did help topple governments.
But that is just one side of the Internet’s disruptive character. The Internet has emboldened traditional power as well.
On the corporate side, power is consolidating, a result of two current trends in computing. First, the rise of cloud computing means that we no longer have control of our data. Our e-mail, photos, calendars, address books, messages, and documents are on servers belonging to Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and so on. And second, we are increasingly accessing our data using devices that we have much less control over: iPhones, iPads, Android phones, Kindles, ChromeBooks, and so on. Unlike traditional operating systems, those devices are controlled much more tightly by the vendors, who limit what software can run, what they can do, how they’re updated, and so on. Even Windows 8 and Apple’s Mountain Lion operating system are heading in the direction of more vendor control.
I have previously characterized this model of computing as “feudal.” Users pledge their allegiance to more powerful companies who, in turn, promise to protect them from both sysadmin duties and security threats. It’s a metaphor that’s rich in history and in fiction, and a model that’s increasingly permeating computing today.
Medieval feudalism was a hierarchical political system, with obligations in both directions. Lords offered protection, and vassals offered service. The lord-peasant relationship was similar, with a much greater power differential. It was a response to a dangerous world.
Feudal security consolidates power in the hands of the few. Internet companies, like lords before them, act in their own self-interest. They use their relationship with us to increase their profits, sometimes at our expense. They act arbitrarily. They make mistakes. They’re deliberately — and incidentally — changing social norms. Medieval feudalism gave the lords vast powers over the landless peasants; we’re seeing the same thing on the Internet.
It’s not all bad, of course. We, especially those of us who are not technical, like the convenience, redundancy, portability, automation, and shareability of vendor-managed devices. We like cloud backup. We like automatic updates. We like not having to deal with security ourselves. We like that Facebook just works — from any device, anywhere.
Government power is also increasing on the Internet. There is more government surveillance than ever before. There is more government censorship than ever before. There is more government propaganda, and an increasing number of governments are controlling what their users can and cannot do on the Internet. Totalitarian governments are embracing a growing “cyber sovereignty” movement to further consolidate their power. And the cyberwar arms race is on, pumping an enormous amount of money into cyber-weapons and consolidated cyber-defenses, further increasing government power.
In many cases, the interests of corporate and government powers are aligning. Both corporations and governments benefit from ubiquitous surveillance, and the NSA is using Google, Facebook, Verizon, and others to get access to data it couldn’t otherwise. The entertainment industry is looking to governments to enforce its antiquated business models. Commercial security equipment from companies like BlueCoat and Sophos is being used by oppressive governments to surveil and censor their citizens. The same facial recognition technology that Disney uses in its theme parks can also identify protesters in China and Occupy Wall Street activists in New York. Think of it as a public/private surveillance partnership.
What happened? How, in those early Internet years, did we get the future so wrong?
The truth is that technology magnifies power in general, but rates of adoption are different. The unorganized, the distributed, the marginal, the dissidents, the powerless, the criminal: They can make use of new technologies very quickly. And when those groups discovered the Internet, suddenly they had power. But later, when the already-powerful big institutions finally figured out how to harness the Internet, they had more power to magnify. That’s the difference: The distributed were more nimble and were faster to make use of their new power, while the institutional were slower but were able to use their power more effectively.
So while the Syrian dissidents used Facebook to organize, the Syrian government used Facebook to identify dissidents to arrest.
All isn’t lost for distributed power, though. For institutional power, the Internet is a change in degree, but for distributed power it’s a qualitative one. The Internet gives decentralized groups — for the first time — the ability to coordinate. This can have incredible ramifications, as we saw in the SOPA/PIPA debate, Gezi, Brazil, and the rising use of crowdfunding. It can invert power dynamics, even in the presence of surveillance censorship and use control. But aside from political coordination, the Internet allows for social coordination as well to unite, for example, ethnic diasporas, gender minorities, sufferers of rare diseases, and people with obscure interests.
This isn’t static: Technological advances continue to provide advantage to the nimble. I discussed this trend in my book Liars and Outliers. If you think of security as an arms race between attackers and defenders, any technological advance gives one side or the other a temporary advantage. But most of the time, a new technology benefits the nimble first. They are not hindered by bureaucracy — and sometimes not by laws or ethics either. They can evolve faster.
We saw it with the Internet. As soon as the Internet started being used for commerce, a new breed of cybercriminal emerged, immediately able to take advantage of the new technology. It took police a decade to catch up. And we saw it on social media, as political dissidents made use of its organizational powers before totalitarian regimes did.
This delay is what I call a “security gap.” It’s greater when there’s more technology, and in times of rapid technological change. Basically, if there are more innovations to exploit, there will be more damage resulting from society’s inability to keep up with exploiters of all of them. And since our world is one in which there’s more technology than ever before, and a faster rate of technological change than ever before, we should expect to see a greater security gap than ever before. In other words, there will be an increasing time period during which nimble distributed powers can make use of new technologies before slow institutional powers can make better use of those technologies.
This is the battle: quick vs. strong. To return to medieval metaphors, you can think of a nimble distributed power — whether marginal, dissident, or criminal — as Robin Hood; and ponderous institutional powers — both government and corporate — as the feudal lords.
So who wins? Which type of power dominates in the coming decades?
Right now, it looks like traditional power. Ubiquitous surveillance means that it’s easier for the government to identify dissidents than it is for the dissidents to remain anonymous. Data monitoring means easier for the Great Firewall of China to block data than it is for people to circumvent it. The way we all use the Internet makes it much easier for the NSA to spy on everyone than it is for anyone to maintain privacy. And even though it is easy to circumvent digital copy protection, most users still can’t do it.
The problem is that leveraging Internet power requires technical expertise. Those with sufficient ability will be able to stay ahead of institutional powers. Whether it’s setting up your own e-mail server, effectively using encryption and anonymity tools, or breaking copy protection, there will always be technologies that can evade institutional powers. This is why cybercrime is still pervasive, even as police savvy increases; why technically capable whistleblowers can do so much damage; and why organizations like Anonymous are still a viable social and political force. Assuming technology continues to advance — and there’s no reason to believe it won’t — there will always be a security gap in which technically advanced Robin Hoods can operate.
Most people, though, are stuck in the middle. These are people who have don’t have the technical ability to evade either the large governments and corporations, avoid the criminal and hacker groups who prey on us, or join any resistance or dissident movements. These are the people who accept default configuration options, arbitrary terms of service, NSA-installed back doors, and the occasional complete loss of their data. These are the people who get increasingly isolated as government and corporate power align. In the feudal world, these are the hapless peasants. And it’s even worse when the feudal lords — or any powers — fight each other. As anyone watching Game of Thrones knows, peasants get trampled when powers fight: when Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon fight it out in the market; when the US, EU, China, and Russia fight it out in geopolitics; or when it’s the US vs. “the terrorists” or China vs. its dissidents.
The abuse will only get worse as technology continues to advance. In the battle between institutional power and distributed power, more technology means more damage. We’ve already seen this: Cybercriminals can rob more people more quickly than criminals who have to physically visit everyone they rob. Digital pirates can make more copies of more things much more quickly than their analog forebears. And we’ll see it in the future: 3D printers mean that the computer restriction debate will soon involves guns, not movies. Big data will mean that more companies will be able to identify and track you more easily. It’s the same problem as the “weapons of mass destruction” fear: terrorists with nuclear or biological weapons can do a lot more damage than terrorists with conventional explosives. And by the same token, terrorists with large-scale cyberweapons can potentially do more damage than terrorists with those same bombs.
It’s a numbers game. Very broadly, because of the way humans behave as a species and as a society, every society is going to have a certain amount of crime. And there’s a particular crime rate society is willing to tolerate. With historically inefficient criminals, we were willing to live with some percentage of criminals in our society. As technology makes each individual criminal more powerful, the percentage we can tolerate decreases. Again, remember the “weapons of mass destruction” debate: As the amount of damage each individual terrorist can do increases, we need to do increasingly more to prevent even a single terrorist from succeeding.
The more destabilizing the technologies, the greater the rhetoric of fear, and the stronger institutional powers will get. This means increasingly repressive security measures, even if the security gap means that such measures become increasingly ineffective. And it will squeeze the peasants in the middle even more.
Without the protection of his own feudal lord, the peasant was subject to abuse both by criminals and other feudal lords. But both corporations and the government — and often the two in cahoots — are using their power to their own advantage, trampling on our rights in the process. And without the technical savvy to become Robin Hoods ourselves, we have no recourse but to submit to whatever the ruling institutional power wants.
So what happens as technology increases? Is a police state the only effective way to control distributed power and keep our society safe? Or do the fringe elements inevitably destroy society as technology increases their power? Probably neither doomsday scenario will come to pass, but figuring out a stable middle ground is hard. These questions are complicated, and dependent on future technological advances that we cannot predict. But they are primarily political questions, and any solutions will be political.
In the short term, we need more transparency and oversight. The more we know of what institutional powers are doing, the more we can trust that they are not abusing their authority. We have long known this to be true in government, but we have increasingly ignored it in our fear of terrorism and other modern threats. This is also true for corporate power. Unfortunately, market dynamics will not necessarily force corporations to be transparent; we need laws to do that. The same is true for decentralized power; transparency is how we’ll differentiate political dissidents from criminal organizations.
Oversight is also critically important, and is another long-understood mechanism for checking power. This can be a combination of things: courts that act as third-party advocates for the rule of law rather than rubber-stamp organizations, legislatures that understand the technologies and how they affect power balances, and vibrant public-sector press and watchdog groups that analyze and debate the actions of those wielding power.
Transparency and oversight give us the confidence to trust institutional powers to fight the bad side of distributed power, while still allowing the good side to flourish. For if we’re going to entrust our security to institutional powers, we need to know they will act in our interests and not abuse that power. Otherwise, democracy fails.
In the longer term, we need to work to reduce power differences. The key to all of this is access to data. On the Internet, data is power. To the extent the powerless have access to it, they gain in power. To the extent that the already powerful have access to it, they further consolidate their power. As we look to reducing power imbalances, we have to look at data: data privacy for individuals, mandatory disclosure laws for corporations, and open government laws.
Medieval feudalism evolved into a more balanced relationship in which lords had responsibilities as well as rights. Today’s Internet feudalism is both ad-hoc and one-sided. Those in power have a lot of rights, but increasingly few responsibilities or limits. We need to rebalance this relationship. In medieval Europe, the rise of the centralized state and the rule of law provided the stability that feudalism lacked. The Magna Carta first forced responsibilities on governments and put humans on the long road toward government by the people and for the people. In addition to re-reigning in government power, we need similar restrictions on corporate power: a new Magna Carta focused on the institutions that abuse power in the 21st century.
Today’s Internet is a fortuitous accident: a combination of an initial lack of commercial interests, government benign neglect, military requirements for survivability and resilience, and computer engineers building open systems that worked simply and easily. Corporations have turned the Internet into an enormous revenue generator, and they’re not going to back down easily. Neither will governments, which have harnessed the Internet for political control.
We’re at the beginning of some critical debates about the future of the Internet: the proper role of law enforcement, the character of ubiquitous surveillance, the collection and retention of our entire life’s history, how automatic algorithms should judge us, government control over the Internet, cyberwar rules of engagement, national sovereignty on the Internet, limitations on the power of corporations over our data, the ramifications of information consumerism, and so on.
Data is the pollution problem of the information age. All computer processes produce it. It stays around. How we deal with it — how we reuse and recycle it, who has access to it, how we dispose of it, and what laws regulate it — is central to how the information age functions. And I believe that just as we look back at the early decades of the industrial age and wonder how society could ignore pollution in their rush to build an industrial world, our grandchildren will look back at us during these early decades of the information age and judge us on how we dealt with the rebalancing of power resulting from all this new data.
This won’t be an easy period for us as we try to work these issues out. Historically, no shift in power has ever been easy. Corporations have turned our personal data into an enormous revenue generator, and they’re not going to back down. Neither will governments, who have harnessed that same data for their own purposes. But we have a duty to tackle this problem.
I can’t tell you what the result will be. These are all complicated issues, and require meaningful debate, international cooperation, and innovative solutions. We need to decide on the proper balance between institutional and decentralized power, and how to build tools that amplify what is good in each while suppressing the bad.
This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic.
Lisa Wade, PhD
In many parts of the Western world, Halloween (for adult women, and increasingly for girls too) has morphed into an opportunity or imperative to dress sexy. These costumes for women and girls are par for the course, where men usually go for scary, funny, or creative. Brandi H., however, found a link to “sexy costumes for men” at msn.com that claims “There are sexy options for men, too.”
Let’s take a look. While women’s sexy costumes are typically decidedly sexy (tight with lots of exposed skin), these men’s “sexy” costumes are simply suggestive. In two cases, they “suggest” that men should be sexually serviced or played with (the “breathalyzer” and the “ring toss”):
In a third, the joke is that he is a perfect candidate for casual sex (the “one night stand”):
In a fourth, the costume is simply sexy because it’s related to (stereotypes) about prostitution (the “hustler”):
So, when women go sexy for Halloween, it usually means being seen as a sex object for others. When men go sexy, it means joking about how men should be sexually serviced, have access to one night stands, or being in charge of and profiting from women’s bodies. A different type of “sexy” entirely.
The other two costumes are simply non-sensical in context. I suppose policemen (and men in uniform in general) are supposed to be sexy in American culture. And I guess bunnies are related to Playboy bunnies? But the costume certainly misses the mark.
Cross-posted at Ms.; originally posted in 2010.
The easy narrative about Adbusters, accepted by its friends and enemies alike, is that it’s, at heart, an anarchist project. To those wishing it well, the magazine is one of the cornerstones of the Left, a wellspring of anti-authoritarian tools meant to revive progressive activism and shake things up for the greater good. For curmudgeonly detractors, “culture jamming” is little more than a powerless rehash of old Yippie protest tactics. Yet anarchism, nearly everyone assumes, is either the best or the worst part of Adbusters.
But those explanations miss a much weirder side of the magazine’s underlying politics.
This March, Adbusters jumped into what ought to seem like a marriage made in hell. It ran a glowing article on Beppe Grillo – Italy’s scruffier answer to America’s Truther champion Alex Jones – calling him “nuanced, fresh, bold, and committed as a politician,” with “a performance artist edge” and “anti-austerity ideas… [C]ountries around the world, from Greece to the US, can look to [him] for inspiration.” Grillo, the piece gushed, was “planting the seed of a renewed – accountable, fresh, rational, responsible, energized – left, that we can hope germinates worldwide.”
Completely unmentioned was the real reason Grillo is so controversial in Italy: his blog is full of anti-vaccination and 9/11 conspiracy claims, pseudoscientific cancer cures and chemtrail-like theories about Italian incinerator-smoke. And, as Giovanni Tiso noted in July, Grillo’s “5-Star Movement” also has an incredibly creepy backer: Gianroberto Casaleggio, “an online marketing expert whose only known past political sympathies lay with the right-wing separatist Northern League.” Casaleggio has also written kooky manifestoes about re-organizing society through virtual reality technology, with mandatory Internet citizenship and an online world government.
Adbusters could have stopped flirting with Grillo at that point, but it didn’t. Another Grillo puff-piece appeared in its May/June issue. Then the magazine’s outgoing editor-in-chief, Micah White (acknowledged by the Nation as “the creator of the #occupywallstreet meme”) recently went solo to form his own “boutique activism consultancy,” promising clients a “discrete service” in “Social Movement Creation.” Two weeks ago, in a YouTube video, White proposed that the next step “after the defeat of Occupy” should be to import Grillo’s 5-Star Movement to the US in time for the 2014 mid-term elections:
After the defeat of Occupy, I don’t believe that there is any choice other than trying to grab power by means of an election victory … This is how I see the future: we could bring the 5-Star Movement to America and have the 5-Star Movement winning elections in Italy and in America, thereby forming an international party, not only with the 5-Star Movement, but with other parties as well.
The day after Adbusters ran its first pro-Grillo article, Der Spiegel compared Grillo’s tone – and sweeping plans to restructure Italy’s parliamentary system – to Mussolini’s rhetoric. Ten days before that, a 5-Star Movement MP, Roberta Lombardi, faced a media scandal after writing a blog post praising early fascism for its “very high regard for the state and protection of the family.”
Most progressives might reconsider their glowing assessment of a party as “the seed for a renewed left” when its leaders peddle absurd conspiracy theories and praise fascists. No such signs from Adbusters or White.
But Grillo may be more than a random ally for the gang at Culture Jammers HQ.
Just where did Adbusters get its defining philosophy? Why was it always so obsessed with ads and consumerism, while hardly focusing on class dynamics until the financial crisis?
In 1989, Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn claimed to have had an epiphany in a supermarket and started a movement to fight branding and advertisement. This wasn’t to be a repeat of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book!-style anarchism, with roots in Proudhon’s famous “property is theft” dictum. Culture jammers weren’t acting to communalize most products, but to “uncool” them by taking on those products’ ads, with their own slickly-produced spoofs.
To them, the brand names bearing the coolness were more important than what the branded products did. It wasn’t drinking itself that their anti-Absolut vodka ads seemed to target, but glamorous logo-brands – as if smokers and alcoholics were hooked solely on label prestige.
The earliest Adbusters website on the Wayback Machine reads like a tamer, more Canadian, version of Alex Jones’ operation. Greeting you on the intro page is a Marshall McLuhan quote about “guerrilla information war.” Above its table of contents is the All Seeing Eye engraving from US currency.
“There’s a war on for your mind!” is the current InfoWars tagline. Not too far from the early Adbusters (the “Journal of the Mental Environment”) which promised to “take on the archetypal mind polluters – Marlboro, Budweiser, Benetton, Coke, McDonalds, Calvin Klein – and beat them at their own game.”
Oddly for a site now considered left-wing, Adbusters 1.0. was cheesily evasive about its political position, claiming to be “neither left nor right, but straight ahead.”
There’s good reason to be suspicious of anyone who pulls that “neither left nor right” line. Though Alex Jones’ InfoWars may not have been directly based on early-days Adbusters, the two were undeniably similar in sentiment. Both take a hostile view to mass media and widely-available consumer products, pushing readers towards an ascetic alternative lifestyle that insulates them from “The System” and its toxic worldliness.
And, as luck would have it, both are also the merchants of the (rarer, more expensive) alternative products needed to live this lifestyle. Alex Jones expounds the virtues of food-hoarding and drives Truthers to amass his survival packs, anti-fluoride filters, and nascent iodine drops; Adbusters flogs Blackspot shoes, Corporate America protest flags, and overpriced culture-jamming kits to “create new ambiences and psychic possibilities.”
With Lasn as its guru, culture jamming became popular among activists in the 1990s. Behind all those “subvertisements” lay one big assumption: regular sheeple were so brainwashed by consumerism that they couldn’t even snicker at rose-petally tampon ads without an enlightened jammer to spell everything out for them. Every adbuster got to feel like Morpheus, unplugging Sleepers from the Matrix with the Red Pill of Situationism.
This view of society wasn’t Marxist, left-liberal, or anarchist, so much as Don Draperist: “We are the cool-makers and the cool-breakers,” Kalle Lasn told an audience of advertising “creatives” in 2006. “More than any other profession, I think that we have the power to change the world.”
Lasn might claim not to believe in leaders, but he believes in elites: marketing professionals with a higher calling, responsible for shepherding public consciousness to save humanity from brands, from themselves.
And by exaggerating the mass media’s ability to zombify the public, jammers could imagine that they, too, had Svengali-like powers over ordinary proles. For all the “tools” Adbusters offered to sway public consciousness – stencilling, stickering, page defacement, supermarket trolley sabotage – there was never much emphasis on social skills, on persuading people with politics instead of bombarding them with theater or treating them like hackable machines.
More than anything, what sets culture jammers apart from social anarchism and weds them to the Grillo camp of quacks is a unifying emphasis on a theory called “mental environmentalism.” Mental environmentalism, Micah White explains, is “the core idea behind Adbusters, the essential critique that motivates our struggle against consumer society.”
For Adbusters, concern over the flow of information goes beyond the desire to protect democratic transparency, freedom of speech or the public’s access to the airwaves. Although these are worthwhile causes, Adbusters instead situates the battle of the mind at the center of its political agenda. Fighting to counter pro-consumerist advertising is done not as a means to an end, but as the end in itself. This shift in emphasis is a crucial element of mental environmentalism.
Mental environmentalism is an emergent movement that in the coming years will be recognized as the fundamental social struggle of our era. It is both a unifying struggle – among mental environmentalists there are everything from conservative Mormons to far-left anarchists – and a struggle that finally, concretely explains the cause of the diversity of ills that threaten us.
To escape the mental chains, and finally pull off the glorious emancipatory revolution the left has so long hoped for, we must become meme warriors who, through the use of culture jamming, spark a wave of epiphanies that shatter the consumerist worldview.
“The end in itself.” For culture jammers, posters and billboards don’t just represent exploitation, they are the tyranny (“the cause of the diversity of ills that threaten us”), and fighting them trumps all the progressive causes of their would-be allies.
That “neither left nor right” thing? It wasn’t just posturing. Not only is White equally willing to work with “far-left anarchists” and “conservative Mormons” but his mentor Lasn once hoped to guide Occupy into a merger with the Tea Party, producing a “hybrid party” that would transcend America’s “rigid left-right divide.”
White’s explanation of how mental pollution works sinks even deeper into conspiracy babble. Sounding a bit like a Scientologist, he tells us that humanity’s biggest problems are due to something called “infotoxins” which enter us through “commercial messaging”:
If a key insight of environmentalism was that external reality, nature, could be polluted by industrial toxins, the key insight of mental environmentalism is that internal reality, our minds, can be polluted by infotoxins. Mental environmentalism draws a connection between the pollution of our minds by commercial messaging and the social, environmental, financial and ethical catastrophes that loom before humanity. Mental environmentalists argue that a whole range of phenomenon from the BP oil spill to the emergence of crony-democracy to the mass extinction of animals to the significant increase in mental illnesses are directly caused by the three thousand advertisements that assault our minds each day. And rather than treat the symptoms, by rushing to scrub the oil-soaked beaches or passing watered-down environmental protection legislation, mental environmentalists target the root cause: the advertising industry that fuels consumerism.
Instead of blaming mental illness rates on obvious culprits – workplace stress, problems at home, school bullying, bad genes, changes to DSM criteria – the “mental environmentalists” at Adbusters pin it all on subliminal infotoxins polluting our precious bodily fluids. How do they prove it? About as well as you can prove rock albums are demon-infested or that 70-million-year-old thetans cause influenza. White has decided that “external” environmentalism just doesn’t go deep enough – only “mental environmentalists,” with their meme wars, are fighting the “root cause.”
Lasn’s “mental environment” writings are just as L. Ron Hubbard-ish as White’s. (His epiphanies spawned the concept, after all.) In 2006, he suggested to the Guardian that advertising may be the cause of “mood disorders, anxiety attacks and depressions.” Four years later, he co-wrote an article with White repeating the same claims, along with new fears that TV was poisoning us with too many sensual images of “pouty lips, pert breasts [and] buns of steel”:
Growing up in a violent, erotically-charged media environment alters our psyches at a bedrock level. … And the constant flow of commercially scripted, violence-laced, pseudo-sex makes us more voyeuristic, insatiable and aggressive. Then, somewhere along the line, nothing – not even rape, torture, genocide, or war porn – shocks us anymore.
The commercial media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment. A factory dumps pollution into the water or air because that’s the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel. A TV station or website pollutes the cultural environment because that’s the most efficient way to produce audiences. It pays to pollute. The psychic fallout is just the cost of putting on the show.
If “mental environmentalism” had a true ally in American political thought, it would be Allan Bloom, with his Platonist neocon fretting about Sony Walkmans and MTV reducing life to cultural impoverishment, a “nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.” You can’t as easily picture Lasn agreeing with the “Anonymous” brand of anarchism or its “Information wants to be free!” maxims: whenever volume comes up in these mental environment articles, more infomation is apparently worse.
White made this explicit in a July blog post, “Toxic Culture: A Unified Theory of Mental Pollution,” writing:
How do we fight back against the incessant flow of logos, brands, slogans and jingles that submerge our streets, invade our homes and flicker on our screens? We could wage a counteroffensive at the level of content: attacking individual advertisements when they cross the decency line and become deceptive, violent or overly sexual. But this approach is like using napkins to clean up an oil spill. It fails to confront the true danger of advertising … is not in its individual messages but in the damage done to our mental ecology by the sheer volume of its flood.
White has even theorized a much earlier spiritual forefather for Adbusters than Kalle Lasn: Emile Zola, “who wrote what may be the first mental environmentalist short story, Death by Advertising, in 1866” and offered “a deeper look at advertising’s role in inducing a consumerist mindset” with his later novel, Au Bonheur Des Dames. Yes, Zola the social reformer who devoted his career to chronicling the fecund depravity and bestial desires of the underclasses. The guy who wrote a twenty-novel cycle promoting determinist psychology and Second Empire theories about hereditary animal passions of the colonized. Au Bonheur Des Dames is a cautionary tale about the nervous excitation big department stores can wreak on women’s fragile senses.
White hopes to take some morals from Zola’s shorter fiction:
Like junk food can make us obese, junk thoughts and advertisements can make us moronic. …We are, in a literal way, poisoned each time we see an advertisement and that is the essential danger of a consumer society based upon advertising.
Zola glimpsed a hundred and forty years ago…that advertising has poisoned our minds and corrupted our culture. As we march toward collapse, the question remains whether we will go passively toward our death and remembered only as a foolish civilization killed by advertising, or whether there remains within us a spark of clarity from which a mental environment movement may catch flame.
Advertising, to culture jammers, is virtually the same kind of universal scapegoat psychiatry became for Scientologists: an insidious, corrupting Demiurge responsible for all evils. But you’ll rarely find paranoia without self-importance. The grander vision, for Lasn, White, and their associates, is a world where marketers have the power to save humanity or destroy it with their “carefully-crafted imagery.” Instead of “clearing” the planet with Hubbard’s E-meter auditing, they hope Zen subvertisments, Buy Nothing Days, and strange hybrid political parties will be the answer.
Given the focus of their psychosis, it can often seem like culture jammers have the same concerns as anarchists and socialists: saving the environment, fighting capitalist exploitation, building a popular movement. But if they hate some of the things leftists also hate, it’s for the wrong reasons – and worse, their solutions are quack ones.
So don’t be surprised by White’s new alliance with Grillo, or Lasn’s dashed hopes for a merger with the Tea Party: Adbusters was never on our side.
Allergies in October. Is that a thing? Because it feels like a thing…
With employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system on strike, the Silicon Valley tech elite has reminded us all that despite their enlightened Bay Area lifestyles, they are still, at root, a bunch of rich dudes. Corey Robin ably documents the reactionary politics and moral degeneracy of people who see themselves as heroic entrepreneurs and the people who get them to work as greedy parasites.
The combination of the strike and the government shutdown has shined a welcome light on the more delusional parts of the tech bro intelligentsia, who revel in government dysfunction and dream of stateless techno-utopias. It’s all the more amusing to see these would-be John Galts dismissing the need for government one moment, and bemoaning the shutdown of a public transit agency the next.
But the most revealing of the tech industry commentaries on the strike is this one, in which Gregory Ferenstein attempts to sort out what he sees as a difference of opinion about the virtues of technology and innovation. He asserts that “the very existence of unions threatens the kind of unpredictable disruption that fuels the knowledge economy,” and that what is at stake in the BART strike is not class struggle but rather the tech elite’s “legitimate philosophical differences that assume the benefits to innovation outweigh the short-term gains of protecting workers.”
In a way, this attempt to change the subject from class to technology is the mirror image of Gavin Mueller’s recent Jacobin essay, in which he takes me to task as a techno-utopian and suggests that “instead of depending on capitalism to give us all the machines we need for a socialism without scarcity or drudgery, we put the installation of technology on hold until ‘after the revolution.’” Rather than fight over how different kinds of technologies are implemented and how the losers from change are compensated, he suggests that we concentrate on “the disempowering effects of automation.” Thus manual control over the production process takes precedence over control over the workplace or the economy. But by portraying technical change under capitalism as always and only a nefarious plot to intensify exploitation and disorganize workers, Mueller affirms the gambit of those like Ferenstein who would prefer to debate the merits of innovation rather than the social relations of class and power. He thus makes an ideal foil from the perspective of the libertarian tech bro.
I have no intention of playing that part, however. I’m more interested in examining what the “innovation vs. worker rights” framing presupposes, and what it cedes.
Ferenstein insists that that there’s no need for unions for either the “lucky elite class of tech workers” who have “all the benefits and influence they could ever hope for,” or for the “army of freelance engineers that thrive on unpredictability.” As Scott Kilpatrick observed on Twitter, the “lucky elite” rests on top of a mass of precarious contractors and service employees who have little voice in companies like Google. But Ferenstein’s view is a telling indicator of the worldview of the tech elite, who breathlessly tout “disruption” and glamorize unpredictability and uncertainty. For this elite, losing your job only means moving on to the next startup, or retiring on a pile of stock options. It doesn’t mean prolonged unemployment, homelessness, or being cut off from health care.
For transit workers, of course, disruption and unpredictability have much more dire implications, but Ferenstein would prefer to distract us from that reality by portraying their concerns as the consequence of a philosophical objection to innovation. But instead of playing the straight man to this routine by extolling the virtues of stable employment, let’s ask instead what it would mean to make unstable labor relations the bearable and even pleasant experience that they can be for the elite. It would mean something like what the Danish Social Democrats call “flexicurity”: a system that protects workers rather than jobs, by providing a robust system of unemployment benefits and training programs to ease the burden of joblessness and the transition between jobs.
For the true believers in libertarian secession, such policy would no doubt amount to an intolerable state incursion on the freedom of the entrepreneur. But I’m more interested in the comment of UserVoice CEO Richard White, quoted by Andrew Leonard (and then re-quoted by Ferenstein): “Get ‘em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.”
This doesn’t quite get at the real substance of the dispute, which is more about work rules than about pay. In particular, the union wants to preserve a provision that requires mutual agreement between management and the union before an existing labor practice can be altered.
As is typical in disputes like this, the employer tries to portray the work rule under discussion as an absurd impediment to rational management, while the union raises its valid uses. So BART claims that this rule “makes it difficult to make technological changes like having station agents file reports by e-mail instead of writing them out longhand, using e-mail instead of fax machines to send documents and sending paycheck stubs to each work location electronically instead of hand-delivering them.” But it’s hard to see just why the union would object to this. More plausible is the union’s contention that the past practices rule is useful for things like “preventing BART management from making punitive work assignments to employees who have filed workplace complaints.”
This strike thus turns out to be an excellent example of the dynamic I wrote about some while back: the dialectical interplay between class struggle and technological development. I noted there that technology is two-sided under capitalism: it can increase material abundance, and it can also oppress and fragment workers, and often it does both at the same time. In that earlier post I posited that “the form that technological change takes is shaped by the strength and organization of workers.” This is what we see played out in the BART strike.
The transit workers’ union, SEIU Local 1021, has an interesting post describing their most recent settlement offer. Their proposal, they say, “allows for the continued use of new technology in the workplace but protects workers from changes in work rules that would lead to unsafe conditions.” The post goes on to note the recent fatal accident that occurred recently when two workers were killed by trains under the operation of BART managers. The union strategically positions itself not as an opponent of technology, but as an advocate for innovations that truly improve the transit system, rather than just providing ways for management to degrade the power of labor – whether by imposing unsafe working conditions or by using computer scheduling to disrupt the predictability of the workday, which is the example of anti-worker technology I cited in my earlier post.
In another post, the union notes that “the system is carrying more passengers than ever with fewer frontline workers than ever.” So it seems that the union is not even attempting to preserve all jobs for their own sake, which would be an understandable position but also one that could genuinely impede the introduction of productivity-enhancing changes. Instead, they are trying to shape the development of the labor process in a way that is less dehumanizing to the worker.
But if CEO White got his wish, and we truly did “figure out how to automate their jobs” entirely, the union leadership and the members would probably have some understandable objections eventually. Which is why, as I note in a different post, a viable compromise between labor-saving technology and the working class has to be worked out an economy-wide scale rather than in a single workplace or industry – the Danish model, in other words, or something even more audacious.
Still, the BART strike is a useful starting point for moving away from the technobabble and talking about class and politics. And the approach of “give the workers what they want, then figure out how to automate” is far preferable to the more common “hyper-exploit the workers, while hand-waving about some great innovation that’s going to come along in the future.” What the BART workers are doing can be considered part of the utopian strategy of making labor expensive. And if the tech industry could take on the challenge of transforming economic processes while accepting the rights and dignity of existing workers, that would be some truly disruptive innovation.
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As part of the comdev course I’m currently taking we (there’s three of us) are running this blog for the next month or so.
A few photos from the Northumbrian coast.
The rest are here.
Only 2 organisations rated as ‘good’ – the UK’s DFID and the World Bank. Canada scores not very well and UNICEF is near the bottom of the list.
Some progress, but aid is still not transparent.
72 organisations were selected. As well as bilateral and multilateral agencies, selected climate finance funds, humanitarian agencies, development finance institutions and private foundations were included, in order to test the transparency of wider development flows. The ATI showed a gradual improvement in aid transparency, but found that most aid information is still not published. The average agency score in 2012 was just 41% – a modest 7 percentage point rise from 2011.
For the full list see 2012 Index | Publish What You Fund.