Roland Paris and Jennifer Walsh have an excellent, and thought-provoking, column in the Globe and Mail where they argue that Western democracies need to adopt a ‘democratic support’ agenda. Such an agenda has multiple points comprising:
States getting their own democratic houses in order;
States defending themselves and other democracies against authoritarian states’ attempts to disrupt democracies or coerce residents of democracies;
States assisting other democracies which are at risk of slipping toward authoritarianism.
In principle, each of these points make sense and can interoperate with one another. The vision is not to inject democracy into states but, instead, to protect existing systems and demonstrate their utility as a way of weaning nations towards adopting and establishing democratic institutions. The authors also assert that countries like Canada should learn from non-Western democracies, such as Korea or Taiwan, to appreciate how they have maintained their institutions in the face of the pandemic as a way to showcase how ‘peer nations’ also implement democratic norms and principles.
While I agree with the positions the authors suggest, far towards the end of the article they delicately slip in what is the biggest challenge to any such agenda. Namely, they write:
Time is short for Canada to articulate its vision for democracy support. The countdown to the 2024 U.S. presidential election is already under way, and no one can predict its outcome. Meanwhile, two of Canada’s closest democratic partners in Europe, Germany and France, may soon turn inward, preoccupied by pivotal national elections that will feature their own brands of populist politics.1
In warning that the United States may be an unreliable promoter of democracy (and, by extension, human rights and international rules and order which have backstopped Western-dominated world governance for the past 50 years) the authors reveal the real threat. What does it mean when the United States is regarded as likely to become more deeply mired in internecine ideological conflicts that absorbs its own attention, limits its productive global engagements, and is used by competitor and authoritarian nations to warn of the consequences of “American-style” democracy?
I raise these questions because if the authors’ concerns are fair (and I think they are) then any democracy support agenda may need to proceed with the presumption that the USA may be a wavering or episodic partner in associated activities. To some extent, assuming this position would speak more broadly to a recognition that the great power has significantly fallen. To even take this as possible–to the extent that contingency planning is needed to address potential episodic American commitment to the agenda of buttressing democracies–should make clear that the American wavering is the key issue: in a world where the USA is regarded as unreliable, what does this mean for other democracies and how they support fellow democratic states? Do countries, such as Canada and others with high rule-of-law democratic governments, focus first and foremost on ‘supporting’ US democracy? And, if so, what does this entail? How do you support a flailing and (arguably) failing global hegemon?
I don’t pretend to have the answers. But it seems that when we talk about supporting democracies, and can’t rely on the USA to show up in five years, then the metaphorical fire isn’t approaching our house but a chunk of the house is on fire. And that has to absolutely be our first concern: can we put out the fire and save the house, or do we need to retreat with our children and most precious objects and relocate? And, if we must retreat…to where do we retreat?
The Financial Times has a good piece examining the how insurance companies are beginning to recalculate how they assess insurance premiums that are used to cover ransomware payments. In addition to raising fees (and, in some cases, deciding whether to drop insuring against ransomware) some insurers like AIG are adopting stronger underwriting, including:
… an additional 25 detailed questions on clients’ security measures. “If [clients] have very, very low controls, then we may not write coverage at all,” Tracie Grella, AIG’s global head of cyber insurance, told the Financial Times.
To be sure, there is an ongoing, and chronic, challenge of getting companies to adopt baseline security postures, inclusive of running moderately up-to-date software, adopting multi-factor authorization, employing encryption at rest, and more. In the Canadian context this is made that much harder because the majority of Canadian businesses are small and mid-sized; they don’t have an IT team that can necessarily maintain or improve on their organization’s increasingly complicated security posture.
In the case of larger mid-sized, or just large, companies the activities of insurers like AIG could force them to modify their security practices for the better. Insurance is generally regarded as cheaper than security and so seeing the insurance companies demand better security to receive insurance is a way of incentivizing organizational change. Further change can be incentivized by government adopting policies such as requiring a particular security posture in order to bid on, or receive, government contracts. This governmental incentivization doesn’t necessarily encourage change for small organizations that already find it challenging to contract with government due to the level of bureaucracy involved. For other organizations, however, it will mean that to obtain/maintain government contracts they’ll need to focus on getting the basics right. Again, this is about aligning incentives such that organizations see value in changing their operational policies and postures to close off at least some security vulnerabilities. There may be trickle down effects to these measures, as well, insofar as even small-sized companies may adopt better security postures based on actionable guidance that is made available to the smaller companies responsible for supplying those middle and larger-sized organizations, which do have to abide by insurers’ or governments’ requirements.1
While the aforementioned incentives might improve the cybersecurity stance of some organizations the key driver of ransomware and other criminal activities online is its sheer profitability. The economics of cybercrime have been explored in some depth over the past 20 years or so, and there are a number of conclusions that have been reached that include focusing efforts on actually convicting cybercriminals (this is admittedly hard where countries like Russia and former-Soviet Republic states indemnify criminals that do not target CIS-region organizations or governments) to selectively targeting payment processors or other intermediaries that make it possible to derive revenues from the criminal activities.
Clearly it’s not possible to prevent all cybercrime, nor is it possible to do all things at once: we can’t simultaneously incentivize organizations to adopt better security practices, encourage changes to insurance schemas, and find and address weak links in cybercrime monetization systems with the snap of a finger. However, each of the aforementioned pieces can be done with a strategic vision of enhancing defenders’ postures while impeding the economic incentives that drive online criminal activities. Such a vision is ostensibly shared by a very large number of countries around the world. Consequently, in theory, this kind of strategic vision is one that states can cooperate on across borders and, in the process, build up or strengthen alliances focused on addressing challenging international issues pertaining to finance, crime, and cybersecurity. Surely that’s a vision worth supporting and actively working towards.
To encourage small suppliers to adopt better security practices when they are working with larger organizations that have security requirements placed on them, governments might set aside funds to assist the mid-sized and large-sized vendors to secure down the supply chain and thus relieve small businesses of these costs. ↩︎
There were a pair of features that most jump out to me.
First, that the proposed legislation will compel Chinese companies “to police the personal data practices across their platforms” as part of Article 57. As noted by the team at Stanford,
“the three responsibilities identified for big platform companies here resonate with the “gatekeeper” concept for online intermediaries in Europe, and a requirement for public social responsibility reports echoes the DMA/DSA mandate to provide access to platform data by academic researchers and others. The new groups could also be compared with Facebook’s nominally independent Oversight Board, which the company established to review content moderation decisions.”
I’ll be particularly curious to see the kinds of transparency reporting that emerges out of these companies. I doubt the reports will parallel those in the West, which tend to focus on the processes and number of disclosures from private companies to government and, instead, the Chinese companies’ reports will focus on how companies are being ‘socially responsible’ with how they collect, process, and disclose data to other Chinese businesses. Still, if we see this more consumer-focused approach it will demonstrate yet another transparency report tradition that will be useful to assess in academic and public policy writing.
Second, the Stanford team notes that,
“new drafts of both the PIPL and the DSL added language toughening requirements for Chinese government approval before data holders in China cooperate with foreign judicial or law enforcement requests for data, making failure to gain permission a clear violation punishable by financial penalties up to 1 million RMB.”
While not surprising, this kind of restriction will continue to raise data sovereignty borders around personal information held in China. The effect? Western states will still need to push for Mutual Legal Assistant Treaty (MLAT) reform to successfully extract information from Chinese companies (and, perhaps in all likelihood, fail to conclude these reforms).1
Nevertheless, as competing legal frameworks are established that place the West on one side, and China and Russia on the other, the effect will be further entrenching the legal cultures of the Internet between different economic and political (and security) regimes. At the same time, data will be easily stored anywhere in the world including out of reach of relevant law enforcement agencies by criminal actors that routinely behave with technical and legal savvy.
Ultimately, the raising of regional and national digital borders is a topic to watch, both to keep an eye on what the forthcoming legal regimes will look like and, also, to assess the extents to which we see languages of ‘strong sovereignty’ or nationalism creep functionally into legislation around the world.
Jason Healey and Robert Jervis have a thought provoking piece over at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The crux of the argument is that, as a result of overclassification, it’s challenging if not impossible for policymakers or members of the public (to say nothing of individual analysts in the intelligence community or legislators) to truly understand the nature of contemporary cyberconflict. While there’s a great deal written about how Western organizations have been targeted by foreign operators, and how Western governments have been detrimentally affected by foreign operations, there is considerably less written about the effects of Western governments’ own operations towards foreign states because those operations are classified.
To put it another way, there’s no real way of understanding the cause and effect of operations, insofar as it’s not apparent why foreign operators are behaving as they are in what may be reaction to Western cyber operations or perceptions of Western cyber operations. The kinds of communiques provided by American intelligence officials, while somewhat helpful, also tend to obscure as much as they reveal (on good days). Healey and Jervis write:
General Nakasone and others are on solid ground when highlighting the many activities the United States does not conduct, like “stealing intellectual property” for commercial profit or disrupting the Olympic opening ceremonies. There is no moral equivalent between the most aggressive US cyber operations like Stuxnet and shutting down civilian electrical power in wintertime Ukraine or hacking a French television station and trying to pin the blame on Islamic State terrorists. But it clouds any case that the United States is the victim here to include such valid complaints alongside actions the United States does engage in, like geopolitical espionage. The concern of course is a growing positive feedback loop, with each side pursuing a more aggressive posture to impose costs after each fresh new insult by others, a posture that tempts adversaries to respond with their own, even more aggressive posture.
Making things worse, the researchers and academics who are ostensibly charged with better understanding and unpacking what Western intelligence agencies are up to sometimes decline to fulfill their mandate. The reasons are not surprising: engaging in such revelations threaten possible career prospects, endanger the very publication of the research in question, or risk cutting off access to interview subjects in the future. Healey and Jervis focus on the bizarre logics of working and researching the intelligence community in the United States, saying (with emphasis added):
Think-tank staff and academic researchers in the United States often shy away from such material (with exceptions like Ben Buchanan) so as not to hamper their chances of a future security clearance. Even as senior researchers, we were careful not to directly quote NSA’s classified assessment of Iran, but rather paraphrased a derivative article.
A student, working in the Department of Defense, was not so lucky, telling us that to get through the department’s pre-publication review, their thesis would skip US offensive operations and instead focus on defense.
Such examples highlight the distorting effects of censorship or overclassification: authors are incentivized to avoid what patrons want ignored and emphasize what patrons want highlighted or what already exists in the public domain. In paper after paper over the decades, new historical truths are cumulatively established in line with patrons’ preferences because they control the flow and release of information.
What are the implications as written by Healey and Jervis? In intelligence communities the size of the United States’, information gets lost or not passed to whomever it ideally should be presented to. Overclassification also means that policy makers and legislators who aren’t deeply ‘in the know’ will likely engage in decisions based on half-founded facts, at best. In countries such as Canada, where parliamentary committees cannot access classified information, they will almost certainly be confined to working off of rumour, academic reports, government reports that are unclassified, media accounts that divulge secrets or gossip, and the words spoken by the heads of security and intelligence agencies. None of this is ideal for controlling these powerful organizations, and the selective presentation of what Western agencies are up to actually risks compounding broader social ills.
Legislative Ignorance and Law
One of the results of overclassification is that legislators, in particular, become ill-suited to actually understanding national security legislation that is presented before them. It means that members of the intelligence and national security communities can call for powers and members of parliament are largely prevented from asking particularly insightful questions, or truly appreciate the implications of the powers that are being asked for.
Indeed, in the Canadian context it’s not uncommon for parliamentarians to have debated a national security bill in committee for months and, when asked later about elements of the bill, they admit that they never really understood it in the first place. The same is true for Ministers who have, subsequently, signed off on broad classes of operations that have been authorized by said legislation.
Part of that lack of understanding is the absence of examples of how powers have been used in the past, and how they might be used in the future; when engaging with this material entirely in the abstract, it can be tough to grasp the likely or possible implications of any legislation or authorization that is at hand. This is doubly true in situations where new legislation or Ministerial authorization will permit secretive behaviour, often using secretive technologies, to accomplish equally secretive objectives.
Beyond potentially bad legislative debates leading to poorly understood legislation being passed into law and Ministers consenting to operations they don’t understand, what else may follow from overclassification?
Nationalism, Miscalculated Responses, and Racism
To begin with, it creates a situation where ‘we’ in the West are being attacked by ‘them’ in Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, or other distant lands. I think this is problematic because it casts Western nations, and especially those in the Five Eyes, as innocent victims in the broader world of cyber conflict. Of course, individuals with expertise in this space will scoff at the idea–we all know that ‘our side’ is up to tricks and operations as well!–but for the general public or legislators, that doesn’t get communicated using similarly robust or illustrative examples. The result is that the operations of competitor nations can be cast as acts of ‘cyberwar’ without any appreciation that those actions may, in fact, be commensurate with the operations that Five Eyes nations have themselves launched. In creating an Us versus Them, and casting the Five Eyes and West more broadly as victims, a kind of nationalism can be incited where ‘They’ are threats whereas ‘We’ are innocents. In a highly complex and integrated world, these kinds of sharp and inaccurate concepts can fuel hate and socially divisive attitudes, activities, and policies.
At the same time, nations may perceive themselves to be targeted by Five Eyes nations, and deduce effects to Five Eyes operations even when that isn’t the case. When a set of perimeter logs show something strange, or when computers are affected by ransomware or wiperware, or another kind of security event takes place, these less resourced nations may simply assume that they’re being targeted by a Five Eyes operation. The result is that foreign government may both drum up nationalist concerns about ‘the West’ or ‘the Five Eyes’ while simultaneously queuing up their own operations to respond to what may, in fact, have been an activity that was totally divorced from the Five Eyes.
I also worry that the overclassification problem can lead to statements in Western media that demonizes broad swathes of the world as dangerous or bad, or threatening for reasons that are entirely unapparent because Western activities are suppressed from public commentary. Such statements arise with regular frequency, where China is attributed to this or to that, or when Russia or Middle Eastern countries are blamed for the most recent ill on the Internet.
The effect of such statements can be to incite differential degrees of racism. When mainstream newspapers, as an example, constantly beat the drum that the Chinese government (and, by extension, Chinese people) are threats to the stability and development of national economies or world stability, over time this has the effect of teaching people that China’s government and citizens alike are dangerous. Moreover, without information about Western activities, the operations conducted by foreign agencies can be read out of context with the effect that people of certain ethnicities are regarded as inherently suspicious or sneaky as compared to those (principally white) persons who occupy the West. While I would never claim that the overclassification of Western intelligence operations are the root cause of racism in societies I do believe that overclassification can fuel misinformation about the scope of geopolitics and Western intelligence gathering operations, with the consequence of facilitating certain subsequent racist attitudes.
A colleague of mine has, in the past, given presentations and taught small courses in some of Canada’s intelligence community. This colleague lacks any access to classified materials and his classes focus on how much high quality information is publicly available when you know how and where to look for it, and how to analyze it. Students are apparently regularly shocked: they have access to the classified materials, but their understandings of the given issues are routinely more myopic and less robust. However, because they have access to classified material they tend to focus as much, or more, on it because the secretive nature of the material makes it ‘special’.
This is not a unique issue and, in fact, has been raised in the academic literature. When someone has access to special or secret knowledge they are often inclined to focus in on that material, on the assumption that it will provide insights in excess of what are available in open source. Sometimes that’s true, but oftentimes less so. And this ‘less so’ becomes especially problematic when operating in an era where governments tend to classify a great deal of material simply because the default is to assume that anything could potentially be revelatory to an agency’s operations. In this kind of era, overvaluing classified materials can lead to less insightful understandings of the issues of the day while simultaneously not appreciating that much of what is classified, and thus cast as ‘special’, really doesn’t provide much of an edge when engaging in analysis.
The solution is not to declassify all materials but, instead, to adopt far more aggressive declassification processes. This could, as just an example, entail tying declassification in some way to organizations’ budgets, such that if they fail to declassify materials their budgets are forced to be realigned in subsequent quarters or years until they make up from the prior year(s)’ shortfalls. Extending the powers of Information Commissioners, which are tasked with forcing government institutions to publish documents when they are requested by members of the public or parliamentarians (preferably subject to a more limited set of exemptions than exist today) might help. And having review agencies which can unpack higher-level workings of intelligence community organizations can also help.
Ultimately, we need to appreciate that national security and intelligence organizations do not exist in a bubble, but that their mandates mean that the externalized problems linked with overclassification are typically not seen as issues that these organizations, themselves, need to solve. Nor, in many cases, will they want to solve them: it can be very handy to keep legislators in the dark and then ask for more powers, all while raising the spectre of the Other and concealing the organizations’ own activities.
We do need security and intelligence organizations, but as they stand today their tendency towards overclassification runs the risk of compounding a range of deleterious conditions. At least one way of ameliorating those conditions almost certainly includes reducing the amount of material that these agencies currently classify as secret and thus kept from public eye. On this point, I firmly agree with Healey and Jervis.
Even before the pandemic, many researchers in academia were struggling with poor mental health. Desiree Dickerson, an academic mental-health consultant in Valencia, Spain, says that burnout is a problem inherent in the academic system: because of how narrowly it defines excellence, and how it categorizes and rewards success. “We need to reward and value the right things,” she says.
Yet evidence of empathetic leadership at the institutional level is in short supply, says Richard Watermeyer, a higher-education researcher at the University of Bristol, UK, who has been conducting surveys to monitor impacts of the pandemic on academia. Performative advice from employers to look after oneself or to leave one day a week free of meetings to catch up on work is pretty superficial, he says. Such counsel does not reduce work allocation, he points out.
Academia has a rampant problem in how it is professionally configured. To get even a short term contract, now, requires a CV that would have been worthy of tenure twenty or thirty years ago. Which means that, when someone is hired as an assistant professor (with a 3-6 year probation period) they are already usually more qualified than their peers of the past and have to be prolific in the work that they contribute to and output, and do so with minimal or no complaints so as to avoid any problems in their transition from assistant to associate professor (i.e., full-time and sometimes protected employee).
Once someone has gone through the gauntlet, they come to expect that others should go through it as well: if the current generation can cut it, then surely the next generation of hires should be able to as well if they’re as ‘good’ as the current generation. Which means that those who were forced into an unsustainable work environment that routinely eats into personal time, vacation time (i.e., time when you use vacation days to catch up on other work that otherwise is hard to get done), child rearing time, and so forth, expect that those following them do the same.
Add into this the fact that most academic units are semi-self governing, and those in governorship positions (e.g., department chairs, deans) tend to lack any actual qualifications in managing a largely autonomous workforce and cannot rebalance work loads in a systemically positive way so as to create more sustainable working environments. As a result of a lack of formal management skills, these same folks tend to be unable to identify the issues that might come up in a workforce/network of colleagues, and they are also not resourced to know how to actually treat the given problem. And all of this presumes they are motivated to find and resolve problems in the first place. This very premise is often found faulty, given that those who are governing are routinely most concerned with the smooth running of their units and, of course, may keep in mind any junior colleagues who happen to cause ‘problems’ by expecting assistance or consideration given the systemic overwork that is the normal work-life imbalance.
What’s required is a full-scale revolt in the very structure of university departments if work-life balance is to be truly valued, and if academics are to be able to satisfy their teaching, service, and research requirements in the designated number of working hours. While the job is often perceived as very generous–and it is, in a whole lot of ways!–because you (ideally) have parts of it that you love, expecting people to regularly have 50-75 hour work weeks, little real downtime, little time with family and friends, and being placed on a constant treadmill of outputs is a recipe for creating jaded, cynical, and burned out professionals. Sadly, that’s how an awful lot of contemporary departments are configured.
This long form photoessay showcases the absences that have been wrought by the pandemic in my city of Toronto, Ontario. The essay provides a meditation on a world of social isolation and distancing, and how the spaces that have historically united and bound Toronto’s residents have been left empty or made safe in response to being associated with risk and disease. Throughout, people are represented as separate from one another in their efforts to socially and physically distance, with individuals, pairs, or very small groups standing in juxtaposition to the much larger built world they inhabit.
All of the images were created using a combination of a Fuji X100f, Sony rx100ii, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro. Images were edited to taste using Apple Photos (for cropping) and Darkroom; two images had some healing applied using Snapseed.
For the past year, the Toronto Star has repeatedlyrunarticles that take mobility data from mobile device advertisers, to then assess the extent to which Torontonians are moving too much. Reporting has routinely shown how people are moving more or less frequently, with articles often suggesting that people are moving too much when they’re supposed to be staying put.
The problem? The ways in which ‘too much’ is assessed runs contrary to public health advice and lacks sufficient nuance to inform the public. In the most recent reporting, we find that:
Between Jan. 18 and Feb. 28, average mobility across Ontario increased from 58 per cent to 65 per cent, according to the marketing firm Environics Analytics. Environics defines mobility as a percentage of residents 15 or older who travelled 500 metres or more beyond their home postal code.
To be clear: in Ontario the provincial and local public health leaders have strongly stated that people should get outside and exercise. That can involve walking or other outdoor activities. Those activities are not supposed to be restricted to 500 metres from your home, which was advice that was largely provided in more restrictive lockdowns in European countries. And we know that mobility data is often higher in areas with higher percentages of BIPOC residents because they tend to have lower-paying jobs and must travel further to reach their places of employment.
As has become the norm, the fact that people have moved around more frequently as (admittedly ineffective) restrictions have been raised, and that people are ‘region hopping’ by going from more restricted zones to less restricted ones, is being tightly associated with personal or individual failures. From a quoted expert, we find that:
“It shows that once things start to open, people just seem to do whatever, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
I would suggest that what we are seeing is a pent up, pretty normal, human response: the provincial government has behaved erratically and you have some people racing around to get stuff done before returning to another (ineffective) set of restrictions, and a related set of people who believe that if the government is letting them move around then things must be comparatively safer. To put it another way, in the former case you have people behaving rationally (if, in some eyes, selfishly) whereas in the latter you have a failure by government to solve a collective action problem by downloading responsibility to individuals. In both cases you are seeing an uptick in behaviour which is suggestive that they believe it’s safer to do things, now, than weren’t before when the government assumed some responsibility and signalled that moving was less safe and actively discouraged it by keeping businesses and other ‘fun’ things shut down.
Throughout the pandemic response in Ontario, what has been evident is that the provincial government simply cannot develop and implement effective policies to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. The result of muddling through things has been that the public, and especially small business, has suffered extraordinarily whilst the gains have been meagre. The lack of paid sick leave, as an example, has seriously stymied the ability of lower-income workers to actually keep themselves apart from others while they wait for diagnoses and, if positive, recover from their infections.
To be fair, the Toronto Star and other outlets have covered paid sick leave issues, along with lots of other failures by the provincial government in its handling of the pandemic. And there is certainly some obligation on individuals to best adhere to public health advice. But we’ve long known these are collective action problems: there is a need to move beyond downloading responsibility to individuals and for governments to behave effectively, coherently, and accountably throughout major crises. The provincial government has failed, and continues to fail, on every one of these measures to the effect that individuals are responding to the past, present, and expected future actions of the government: more unpredictability and more restrictions on their daily lives as a result of government ineptitude.
Whereas the journalists could have cast what Ontarians are doing as a semi-natural response to the aforementioned government failings, instead those individuals are being castigated. We shouldn’t be blaming the victims of the pandemic, but I guess that’s what happens when assessing mobility data.
I’d been deliberately putting off reading Ming Thein’s last several blog posts. Not because I wasn’t excited but because they seemed to have stopped being published. I feared that either something had happened to him, or that the blog had reached an end.
Fortunately he continues to do well. Sadly, his blog is done.
Ming has been writing for a whole lotta years, and has focused his blog on photography writ large. There’s some gear reviews but the real thing I learned, and still learn, from his work is how to think more deeply about making images, about telling stories with them, and letting narratives emerge as years of images are collected, edited, and set aside until a time they should be made public.
His explanation for ending the blog is, well, that he’d written everything. There was no topic he hadn’t covered, and he stated that:
… I’ve done enough thinking and dissection about how and why I shoot that the whole enormous mass has become intuitive – and I want to go back to applying that and shooting the things that interest me, for me, without feeling the need to create content for the entertainment of somebody else.
His blog isn’t alone—I was inspired to blog more than two decades ago by blogs and bloggers that are long-lost to the link rot of the Internet—but is the most recent of the sites that are just over. He plans to keep it alive and running for the foreseeable future but, as the Internet has taught us, it’ll eventually fade away from sight.
On the one hand I’m a bit morose about this state of affairs, and feel like maybe our digital artifacts should just operate this way: as present, delightful, and ephemeral. But, on a more positive note, I guess I see it as an author hanging up their keyboard because a given work is concluded. As a professional writer I can appreciate and respect, and deeply understand, why that happens even as I wish the writing would just continue ad infinitum.
Mark Stenberg has a good assessment of the challenges facing Clubhouse, the newest ‘hot’ social media app that involves individuals having audio discussions in real-time with one another in rooms that are created on the platform. He suspects that Clubhouse may work best in quarantine:
A glimpse of Instagram brings a fleeting burst of serotonin, but a second’s worth of Clubhouse is meaningless. Will you then, at night, leave your family in the other room so you can pop your headphones in and listen to strangers swapping their valuable thoughts on the news of the day?
When commutes and daily life return, people will once again have a few parceled-off periods of the day in which they can listen to audio entertainment. If there are no good Clubhouse conversations at those exact times, the app is far less valuable than a podcast platform or music-streaming service. The very characteristic that makes it so appealing — its real-time nature — will make it challenging for listeners to fold it into their lives when reality returns.
Whether a real-time app that depends on relative quiet and available time, and which is unsuitable for multitasking, survives in its current form as people emerge from their relative isolation will be interesting to measure in real-time once vaccines are widely spread throughout society. But, equally interesting (to my mind) are the assumptions baked into that very question: why not just ask people (e.g., essential workers) who continue to commute en mass and inquire about whether they are, or will be, using Clubhouse? Why not ask those who do not have particularly fungible or quiet lives at the moment (e.g., parents who are homeschooling younger children while working their day jobs) whether the app is compelling during quarantine periods?
To put it another way, the very framing of Clubhouse presupposes a number of affordances that really mostly pertain to a subset of relatively privileged members of society. It’s lovely that some tech workers, who work from home, and journalists who have similar lifestyles are interested in the app. But that doesn’t mean that it’ll broadly interest people, just as most people are dismissive of text-based social media applications (e.g., Twitter) and even visual-based apps (e.g., Instagram).
But, at the same time, this may not matter. If the founders are aiming for growing and sustaining the existing platform and not for the typical Silicon Valley viral growth, then their presently suggested modes of deriving profits might work. Specifically, current proposals include, “tipping, subscriptions, and ticketing” which, if adopted, could mean this is a social networking platform that doesn’t rely on the normal advertising or data brokerage models which have been adopted by most social media platforms and companies.
Will any of this work? Who knows. Most social media companies are here today, gone tomorrow, and I bet that Clubhouse is probably in that category. But, at the same time, it’s worth thinking through who these kinds of apps are designed for so that we can appreciate the politics, privilege, and power which are imbued into the technologies which surround us and the ways that we talk about those technologies.
He goes on to discuss some of the things that could make the Apple TV a bit better, including turning it into a kind of gaming system, make it better at doing HomeKit things, or maybe even something to do with WiFi. Key is that as Apple’s content has migrated to other platforms and AirPlay 2 has rolled out to manufacturers’ TVs there is less and less need to have an Apple TV to actually engage with Apple’s own content.
I think that Snell’s analysis misses out on a lot of the value add for Apple TV. It’s possible that some of the following items are a bit niche, but nevertheless I think are important to subsets of Apple customers.
Privacy: Smart TVs have an incredibly bad rap. They can monitor what you’re doing nor are they guaranteed updates for a long-time. Sure, some are ok, but do I trust a TV company to protect my privacy or do I trust a company that has massively invested its brand credibility in privacy? For me, I choose Apple over TCL, Sony, LG, or the rest.
Photo Screensavers: I use my Apple TV to display my photos, turning that big black box in my living room into a streaming photo frame. Whenever people are over they’re captivated to see my photos, and frankly I like watching photos go by and remind me of places I’ve been, people I’ve shared time with, and memories of past times. There’s nothing like it on any Smart TV on the market.
Reliable Updates: As Apple develops new features they can integrate them with TV environments vis-a-vis the Apple TV, meaning they’re not reliant on TV manufacturers to develop and push out updates that enable features that Apple thinks are important. Moreover, it means that when a security vulnerability is identified, Apple can control pushing out updates and, thus, reduce the likelihood that their customers are exploited by nefarious parties. TV manufacturers just don’t have the same class of security teams as Apple does.
Family Friendly: Look, it’s great that lots of TVs can stream Apple content and that you can throw your screen/content onto Smart TVs using AirPlay 2. But what about when not everyone has an iPhone on them, or you don’t want to let people onto the same wireless network that your TV is on? In those cases, an Apple TV means that people can find/show content, but avoid the aforementioned frustrations.
HomeKit: I know that Snell mentioned this, but I really think that it cannot be emphasized enough. Apple TV—and especially an updated one that may support Thread—will further let people control their Internet of Things in their home. Assuming that Thread is included in the new Apple TV, that’ll also make the Apple TV yet another part of the local mesh network that is controlling all the other things in the home and that’s pretty great.
Decent Profits: Apple TV has long been a premium product. While Apple won’t earn as much on the sale of an Apple TV as on an iPhone, they’ll earn a lot more than what is being made when someone buys a Sony, TCL, or LG TV.
Brand Lock-in: Let’s face it, if you have a lot of Apple products you’re increasingly likely to keep buying Apple products. And providing an alternative to Google or TV manufacturers’ operating systems is just another way that Apple can keep its customers from wandering too far outside of their product line and being tempted by the products developed and sold by their competitors.
On the whole, I think that there continues to be a modest market for Apple TV. I’d bet that the biggest challenge for Apple is convincing those who have abandoned their Apple TVs to come back, and for those who are using their Smart TVs to pick up an Apple TV that offers a lot of similar uses as their existing TV operating systems. That’ll be a bit easier if there are cool new things associated with a new Apple TV—such as positioning it as a gaming platform with AAA gaming titles—but regardless there is value in the Apple TV. The challenge will be communicating that value to Apple’s current and potential customers but, given their track record, I’m confident that’s a challenge that Apple’s teams can rise to!
Update: Snell catalogues many of the above reasons to get an Apple TV–as well as some others–in a new post based on what his readers told him.
I actually really like the remote, but recognize I’m in the minority. ↩︎