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How we measure changes not only what is being measured but also the moral scaffolding that compels us to live toward those standards. Innovations like assembly-line factories would further extend this demand that human beings work at the same relentlessly monotonous rate of a machine, as immortalized in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times. Today, the control creep of self-tracking technologies into workplaces and institutions follows a similar path. In a “smart” or “AI-driven” workplace, the productive worker is someone who emits the desired kind of data — and does so in an inhumanly consistent way.


Sun-ha Hong, “Control Creep: When the Data Always Travels, So Do the Harms
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A Clubhouse for Whom?

(Photo by Stephen Crowley on Unsplash)

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.

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The Dangers of Policy Learning

Via the New York Times:

Seizing on immigration as the cause of countless social and economic problems, Mr. Trump entered office with an agenda of symbolic but incompletely thought-out goals, the product not of rigorous policy debate but of emotionally charged personal interactions and an instinct for tapping into the nativist views of white working-class Americans.

Donald Trump isn’t so much tapping into ‘nativist’ views as, instead, exploiting citizens’ unawareness of the benefits of both immigration and trade. Immigrants contribute to the tax base, take less time off, and their direct descendants also contribute more to the tax base than ‘long-term’ citizens. Immigration is a net gain for ‘regular’ American workers but they haven’t been told just how, and why, their own lives and the social benefits they draw on are significantly improved by immigration into America.

Even as the administration was engaged in a court battle over the travel ban, it began to turn its attention to another way of tightening the border — by limiting the number of refugees admitted each year to the United States. And if there was one “deep state” stronghold of Obama holdovers that Mr. Trump and his allies suspected of undermining them on immigration, it was the State Department, which administers the refugee program.

The State Department is a core centre of American soft power; it’s programs, educational efforts, international outreach, and more are responsible for spreading American values around the world.1 That the administration is hollowing out the department is the truest evidence that the Trump administration is unaware of how, and why, America has managed to maintain its position in the world. While American military might is significantly responsible for the development and maintenance of its imperial stature in the world, this stature is solidified and extended through an adoption of American values. Such values are more than those associated with the military; they’re linked with those spread by staff from State who promote American values in more formal diplomatic efforts as well as the other range of activities undertaken by consular and embassy staff throughout the world.

It is incredibly hard to believe that the Trump administration is barely one year into a four year term. Given the lasting damage the administration has already done to America’s ability to project power around the world, it’s hard to imagine just what America’s stature will be in a few more years. But what’s most significant is that his administration has learned so quickly how to engage in the deliberate hollowing out of the institutions which have long been hallowed to Americans. This kind of learning is indicative that the administration might be successful on more of its more outrageous campaign promises, promises which are being supported by the Congress and Senate, and thus indicative of a broader series of values (or lack thereof) which are held by many American politicians.

  1. In the interests in disclosure: I will personally be enrolled in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in the coming fall.
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…PETs are a technological fix to a sociological problem … [they] introduce another dimension of social hierarchy into cyberspace, not one that aggravates the divide between the information rich and poor, but between those with technological savvy to assert their personal preferences and those who do not possess such expertise…An over-emphasis on PETs leaves the surveillance imperatives being designed into information infrastructures unscathed, while fostering particularistic struggles over the uses of technologies.

* Dwayne Winseck, “Netscapes of power: convergence, network designed, walled gardens, and other strategies of control in the information age”
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Reality turned out to be much more complicated. What we forgot is that technology magnifies power in both directions. When the powerless found the Internet, suddenly they had power. But while the unorganized and nimble were the first to make use of the new technologies, eventually the powerful behemoths woke up to the potential – and they have more power to magnify. And not only does the Internet change power balances, but the powerful can also change the Internet. Does anyone else remember how incompetent the FBI was at investigating Internet crimes in the early 1990s? Or how Internet users ran rings around China’s censors and Middle Eastern secret police? Or how digital cash was going to make government currencies obsolete, and Internet organizing was going to make political parties obsolete? Now all that feels like ancient history.

* Bruce Schneier, “Power and the Internet
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It saddens me that America’s so-called government for the people, by the people, and of the people has less compassion and enlightenment toward their fellow man than a corporation. Having been a party myself to subsequent legal bullying by other entities, I am all too familiar with how ugly and gut-wrenching a high-stakes lawsuit can be. Fortunately, the stakes in my cases were not as high, nor my adversaries as formidable as Aaron’s, otherwise I too might have succumbed to hopelessness and fear. A few years ago, I started rebuilding my life overseas, and I find a quantum of solace in the thought that my residence abroad makes it a little more difficult to be served.

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It’s not good to be on Power’s bad side, however. When you are on that side, Power piles on charges rather than shrugging off felonies as simple mistakes. Especially if what you do falls into the gray area of enforcing the letter as opposed to the principles of the law.

You can file all the petitions you like with the powers that be. You can try to make Power –whether in the form of wiretapping without warrants or violating international conventions against torture — follow its own laws. But Power is, as you might suspect, on the side of Power. Which is to say, Power never pleads guilty.