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.

A Civil Rights Company?

Photo by Youssef Sarhan on Unsplash

Much has been made of Tim Cook’s advocacy on issues of privacy and gay rights. The most recent iteration of Safari that was unveiled at WWDC will incorporate techniques that hinder, though won’t entirely stop, advertisers and websites from tracking users across the Internet. And Apple continues to support and promote gay rights; the most evident manifestations of this is Apple selling pride-inspired Apple Watch bands and a matching pride-based watch facealong with company’s CEO being an openly gay man.

It’s great that Apple is supporting these issues. But it’s equally important to reflect on Apple’s less rights-promoting activities. The company operates around the world and chooses to pursue profits to the detriment of the privacy of its China-based users. It clearly has challenges — along with all other smartphone companies — in acquiring natural mineral resources that are conflict-free; the purchase of conflict minerals raises fundamental human rights issues. And the company’s ongoing efforts to minimize its taxation obligations have direct impacts on the abilities of governments to provide essential services to those who are often the worst off in society.

Each of the above examples are easily, and quickly, reduced to assertions that Apple is a public company in a capitalist society. It has obligations to shareholders and, thus, can only do so much to advance basic rights while simultaneously pursuing profits. Apple is, on some accounts, actively attempting to enhance certain rights and promote certain causes and mitigate certain harms while simultaneously acting in the interests of its shareholders.

Those are all entirely fair, and reasonable, arguments. I understand them all. But I think that we’d likely all be well advised to consider Apple’s broader activities before declaring that Apple has ‘our’ backs, on the basis that ‘our’ backs are often privileged, wealthy, and able to externalize a range of harms associated with Apple’s international activities.


The Roundup for January 20-26, 2018 Edition

Terminus, 2018, Toronto by Christopher Parsons

I’ve been thinking about how high technology is continuing to develop at a pace that outruns the least well off in our Western societies. I think that this was best crystallized in Amazon’s opening of its first Amazon Go store, which does away with cashiers and replaces them with cameras and sensors that automatically identify what you acquire for purchase and charge you as you leave the space. There are at least three (immediate) concerns that strike me with regard to these kinds of technologies:

  1. As noted by Hanna Brooks Olsen, these are inherently cashless technologies. Consumers will enter the store with their smartphones, cameras and sensors will track them, and be billed automatically to their debit or credit card(s) associated with the Amazon account. For persons who have a hard time acquiring a smartphone, or having it repaired when damaged, or opening a bank account or obtaining a credit card, or possessing a language barrier, or without access to a convenient and reliable place to charge their devices, or those who rely on the cash economy, these kinds of ‘convenient’ stores are nearly impenetrable fortresses. Those who cannot enter and purchase goods in the stores will be those who are often the least privileged and, rather than being confronted by the diversity of the human population, shoppers in Amazon Go-type stores will have some portion of society’s diversity simply deleted from their shopping experience. As stated by Olsen, “cashless life … is necessarily one of privilege.”
  2. These are anti-labour technologies. In promoting ‘convenience’ Amazon Go and equivalent technologies remove a certain portion of low skill jobs that many people depend on for their livelihoods. While the popular conception is that it’s just students who have these kinds of jobs, simply looking at service jobs belies this point: the age groups which have sales or sales service jobs are rising, and this is exacerbated by an older population who has to work longer into their retirement years simply to survive, let alone thrive. By removing, or at least significantly reducing, the number of low-skill jobs the numbers of persons who are struggling and unable to find work will increase and their social hardships be exacerbated.1
  3. Cashless systems and those which remove labourers are inherently political technologies. They are technologies designed for a particular set of people, to solve what one group in society regards as ‘problems’, and which could significantly reshape how elements of society operate. Should these technologies cease to be ‘technology’ per se and be normalized as ‘infrastructure’ then it will be challenging to ‘reformat and replace’ the technology and ameliorate its long-term social impacts.2 Transforming cashless into infrastructure threatens to deepen the the aforementioned difficulties.

Aren’t there solutions to the aforementioned problems? Of course there are. But any solutions will likely impose costs on those who are developing, advocating for, and using convenience technologies that detrimentally affect the least well off or privileged. Solutions might entail:

  • establishing a guaranteed way for all persons to obtain banking accounts with diminished identification or language requirements;3
  • providing either a basic living wage or reducing the barriers to accessing social welfare benefits, to offset the reduction of low-skill employment opportunities; or
  • reducing educational costs or fully subsidizing such costs so that we as a society can improve the educational status of many of those affected by shrinking low-skill labour. However, education is often seen as the silver bullet when it should be regarded as a tarnished and dented brass shield instead: educational requirements for mid-skilled labour may be too onerous for some persons who have mental, psychological, or physical challenges. Similarly, if there is a major gap between initial education and when it is (re)required, such as when a middle income person loses their job after 25+ years of performing the same tasks, then a short 6- or 12-month course may be insufficient. Education may help to address some job loss linked to convenient technologies but education, alone, is insufficient to ‘solve’ the social challenges linked with such technologies and infrastructures.

It’s pretty rare that major news reports about novel and emerging technologies are accompanied with real-work implications of the technologies, should they transform to infrastructure. It’s even rarer for minor news reports to consider the social, ethical, or political implications of new technologies. Instead, the focuses tend to be on whether a new user interface is ‘fun’ or ‘convenient enough’ or ‘fast enough’. Those are the concerns of the majority. We need to far more seriously consider how our developing technologies will affect those least well off, or else risk further stratifying social and economic divides and widening the rift between the most and least privileged members of society.

Quotation of the Week

“We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

– Ruth Messinger

Great Photography Shots

I really appreciated the humour in these urban camouflage shots!

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things


  1. The current Amazon Go location does have employees working there, just not as cashiers, and the company hasn’t taken the population of would-be-cashiers and moved them to other locations. The very point is to remove cashiers as an occupation and number of employees from the experience.
  2. If you’re interested in this line of analysis — that technology is inherently political — I’d suggest reading Langdon Winner’s book, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in the Age of High Technology.
  3. One of the challenges to obtaining a bank account is that customers may require a fixed address, telephone number, or other identifiers. While such identifiers are often stable and available to the majority of the population they are fluid for those who lack secure housing, employment, and other ‘normal’ components of daily living.

… our own attempts to obtain policies governing assertion of state secrets privilege met with failure, inasmuch as there appear to be no policy guidelines on the use of the privilege in any major department or agency of the executive branch. Freedom of Information Act requests to some three dozen agencies and their various subcomponents yielded nothing in the way of documentation of guidance for use of the privilege. And limitations on assertion of the privilege appear to be self-imposed by the individual agencies, and use of the privilege seems to be carried out ad hoc at the discretion of department heads and their assistants. Perhaps the general feeling of administrators concerning the privilege was summed up in a Department of the Navy memorandum: it concluded that “there is nothing but good news about the state secrets privilege” as a tool to prevent disclosure of information.

* William G. Weaver and Robert M. Pallitto, “State Secrets and Executive Power,” Political Science Quarterly 120 (1).

Lawyers are trained in reading, understanding, interpreting and advising on laws and legal compliance programs, and defending their clients from litigants and regulators. Privacy laws, everywhere in the world, are vague, so they leave much room for legal interpretations. The lawyers’ skill set is becoming more and more central to the role of privacy leadership. Moreover, lawyers benefit from attorney-client privileged communications internally, which is becoming an absolutely essential mechanism for privacy lawyers to have deep, unfettered, unfiltered exchanges of information and advice with their clients.

Of course, non-legal disciplines will always play an essential role in safeguarding privacy at companies, e.g., the vital role played by security engineers. Privacy will always be a cross-disciplinary project. I’m not saying that the rise of the lawyer-privacy-leader is necessarily the best thing for “privacy”. Yet in the face of rampant litigation, discovery orders, vague laws, political debates, regulatory actions, threats of billion dollar fines, companies will be looking to their privacy lawyers for a lot more than drafting a privacy policy. It’s a great profession, if you like stretch goals.

* Peter Fleischer, “Stretch Goals for Privacy Lawyers