Tag: democracy

Form is the possibility of structure

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein with today’s quotation-as-title. I’m using it as a way in to discuss some things around city planning, and in particular an article I’ve been meaning to discuss for what seems like ages.

In an article for The LA Times, Jessica Roy highlights a phenomenon I wish I could take back and show my 12 year-old self:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014.

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

Jessica Roy

Some games are just awesome. SimCity is still popular now on touchscreen devices, and my kids play it occasionally. It’s interesting to read in the article how different people, now responsible for real cities, played the game, for example Roy quotes the Vice President of Transportation and Housing at the non-profit Silicon Valley Leadership Group

“I was not one of the players who enjoyed Godzilla running through your city and destroying it. I enjoyed making my city run well.”

Jason Baker

I, on the other hand, particularly enjoyed booting up ‘scenario mode’ where you had to rescue a city that had been ravaged by Godzilla, aliens, or a natural disaster.

This isn’t an article about nostalgia, though, and if you read the article in more depth you realise that it’s an interesting insight into our psychology around governance of cities and nations. For example, going back to an article from 2018 that also references SimCity, Devon Zuegel writes:

The way we live is shaped by our infrastructure — the public spaces, building codes, and utilities that serve a city or region. It can act as the foundation for thriving communities, but it can also establish unhealthy patterns when designed poorly.

[…]

People choose to drive despite its costs because they lack reasonable alternatives. Unfortunately, this isn’t an accident of history. Our transportation system has been overly focused on automobile traffic flow as its metric of success. This single-minded focus has come at the cost of infrastructure that supports alternative ways to travel. Traffic flow should, instead, be one goal out of many. Communities would be far healthier if our infrastructure actively encouraged walking, cycling, and other forms of transportation rather than subsidizing driving and ignoring alternatives.

Devon Zuegel

In other words, the decisions we ask our representatives to make have a material impact in shaping our environment. That, in turn, affects our decisions about how to live and work.

When we don’t have data about what people actually do, it’s easy for ideology and opinions to get in the way. That’s why I’m interested in what Los Angeles is doing with its public transport system. As reported by Adam Rogers in WIRED, the city is using mobile phone data to see how it can ‘reboot’ its bus system. It turns out that the people running the system had completely the wrong assumptions:

In fact, Metro’s whole approach turned out to be skewed to the wrong kinds of trips. “Traditionally we’re trying to provide fast service for long-distance trips,” [Anurag Komanduri, a data anlyst] says. That’s something the Orange Line and trains are good at. But the cell phone data showed that only 16 percent of trips in LA County were longer than 10 miles. Two-thirds of all travel was less than five miles. Short hops, not long hauls, rule the roads.

Adam Rogers

There’s some discussion later in the article about the “baller move” of ripping down some of the freeways to force people to use public transportation. Perhaps that’s actually what’s required.

In Barcelona, for example, “fiery leftist housing activist” Ada Colau became the city’s mayor in 2015. Since then, they’ve been doing some radical experimentation. David Roberts reports for Vox on what they’ve done with one area of the city that I’ve actually seen with my own eyes:

Inside the superblock in the Poblenou neighborhood, in the middle of what used to be an intersection, there’s a small playground, with a set of about a dozen picnic tables next to it, just outside a local cafe. On an early October evening, neighbors sit and sip drinks to the sound of children’s shouts and laughter. The sun is still out, and the warm air smells of wild grasses growing in the fresh plantings nearby.

David Roberts

I can highly recommended watching this five-minute video overview of the benefits of this approach:

So if it work, why aren’t we seeing more of this? Perhaps it’s because, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out on his blog, most of us are governed by incompetents:

An ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence. Indeed most right wing think tanks are designed to turn the ideology of neoliberalism into policy based evidence. It was this ideology that led to austerity, the failed health reforms and the privatisation of the probation service. It also played a role in Brexit, with many of its protagonists dreaming of a UK free from regulations on workers rights and the environment. It is why most of the recent examples of incompetence come from the political right.

A pluralist democracy has checks and balances in part to guard against incompetence by a government or ministers. That is one reason why Trump and the Brexiters so often attack elements of a pluralist democracy. The ultimate check on incompetence should be democracy itself: incompetent politicians are thrown out. But when a large part of the media encourage rather than expose acts of incompetence, and the non-partisan media treat knowledge as just another opinion, that safegurd against persistent incompetence is put in danger.

Simon Wren-Lewis

We seem to have started with SimCity and ended with Trump and Brexit. Sorry about that, but without decent government, we can’t hope to improve our communities and environment.


Also check out:

  • ‘Nation as a service’ is the ultimate goal for digitized governments (TNW) — “Right now in Estonia, when you have a baby, you automatically get child benefits. The user doesn’t have to do anything because the government already has all the data to make sure the citizen receives the benefits they’re entitled to.”
  • The ethics of smart cities (RTE) — “With ethics-washing, a performative ethics is being practised designed to give the impression that an issue is being taken seriously and meaningful action is occurring, when the real ambition is to avoid formal regulation and legal mechanisms.”
  • Cities as learning platforms (Harold Jarche) — “For the past century we have compartmentalized the life of the citizen. At work, the citizen is an ‘employee’. Outside the office he may be a ‘consumer’. Sometimes she is referred to as a ‘taxpayer’. All of these are constraining labels, ignoring the full spectrum of citizenship.

Exit option democracy

This week saw the launch of a new book by Shoshana Zuboff entitled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. It was featured in two of my favourite newspapers, The Observer and the The New York Times, and is the kind of book I would have lapped up this time last year.

In 2019, though, I’m being a bit more pragmatic, taking heed of Stoic advice to focus on the things that you can change. Chiefly, that’s your own perceptions about the world. I can’t change the fact that, despite the Snowden revelations and everything that has come afterwards, most people don’t care one bit that they’re trading privacy for convenience..

That puts those who care about privacy in a bit of a predicament. You can use the most privacy-respecting email service in the world, but as soon as you communicate with someone using Gmail, then Google has got the entire conversation. Chances are, the organisation you work for has ‘gone Google’ too.

Then there’s Facebook shadow profiles. You don’t even have to have an account on that platform for the company behind it to know all about you. Same goes with companies knowing who’s in your friendship group if your friends upload their contacts to WhatsApp. It makes no difference if you use ridiculous third-party gadgets or not.

In short, if you want to live in modern society, your privacy depends on your family and friends. Of course you have the option to choose not to participate in certain platforms (I don’t use Facebook products) but that comes at a significant cost. It’s the digital equivalent of Thoreau taking himself off to Walden pond.

In a post from last month that I stumbled across this weekend, Nate Matias reflects on a talk he attended by Janet Vertesi at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Vertesi, says Matias, tried four different ways of opting out of technology companies gathering data on her:

  • Platform avoidance,
  • Infrastructural avoidance
  • Hardware experiments
  • Digital homesteading

Interestingly, the starting point is Vertesi’s rejection of ‘exit option democracy’:

The basic assumption of markets is that people have choices. This idea that “you can just vote with your feet” is called an “exit option democracy” in organizational sociology (Weeks, 2004). Opt-out democracy is not really much of a democracy, says Janet. She should know–she’s been opting out of tech products for years.

The option Vertesi advocates for going Google-free is a pain in the backside. I know, because I’ve tried it:

To prevent Google from accessing her data, Janet practices “data balkanization,” spreading her traces across multiple systems. She’s used DuckDuckGo, sandstorm.io, ResilioSync, and youtube-dl to access key services. She’s used other services occasionally and non-exclusively, and varied it with open source alternatives like etherpad and open street map. It’s also important to pay attention to who is talking to whom and sharing data with whom. Data balkanization relies on knowing what companies hate each other and who’s about to get in bed with whom.

The time I’ve spent doing these things was time I was not being productive, nor was it time I was spending with my wife and kids. It’s easy to roll your eyes at people “trading privacy for convenience” but it all adds up.

Talking of family, straying too far from societal norms has, for better or worse, negative consequences. Just as Linux users were targeted for surveillance, so Vertisi and her husband were suspected of fraud for browsing the web using Tor and using cash for transactions:

Trying to de-link your identity from data storage has consequences. For example, when Janet and her husband tried to use cash for their purchases, they faced risks of being reported to the authorities for fraud, even though their actions were legal.

And then, of course, there’s the tinfoil hat options:

…Janet used parts from electronics kits to make her own 2g phone. After making the phone Janet quickly realized even a privacy-protecting phone can’t connect to the network without identifying the user to companies through the network itself.

I’m rolling my eyes at this point. The farthest I’ve gone down this route is use the now-defunct Firefox OS and LineageOS for microG. Although both had their upsides, they were too annoying to use for extended periods of time.

Finally, Vertesi goes down the route of trying to own all your own data. I’ll just point out that there’s a reason those of us who had huge CD and MP3 collections switched to Spotify. Looking after any collection takes time and effort. It’s also a lot more cost effective for someone like me to ‘rent’ my music instead of own it. The same goes for Netflix.

What I do accept, though, is that Vertesi’s findings show that ‘exit democracy’ isn’t really an option here, so the world of technology isn’t really democratic. My takeaway from all this, and the reason for my pragmatic approach this year, is that it’s up to governments to do something about all this.

Western society teaches us that empowered individuals can change the world. But if you take a closer look, whether it’s surveillance capitalism or climate change, it’s legislation that’s going to make the biggest difference here. Just look at the shift that took place because of GDPR.

So whether or not I read Zuboff’s new book, I’m going to continue my pragmatic approach this year. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to mute the microphone on the smart speakers in our house when they’re not being used, block trackers on my Android smartphone, and continue my monthly donations to work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Rights Group.

Source: J. Nathan Matias

Cory Doctorow on the corruption at the heart of Facebook

I like Cory Doctorow. He’s a gifted communicator who wears his heart on his sleeve. In this article, he talks about Facebook and how what it’s wrought is a result of the corruption at its very heart.

It’s great that the privacy-matters message is finally reaching a wider audience, and it’s exciting to think that we’re approaching a tipping point for indifference to privacy and surveillance.

But while the acknowledgment of the problem of Big Tech is most welcome, I am worried that the diagnosis is wrong.

The problem is that we’re confusing automated persuasion with automated targeting. Laughable lies about Brexit, Mexican rapists, and creeping Sharia law didn’t convince otherwise sensible people that up was down and the sky was green.

Rather, the sophisticated targeting systems available through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other Big Tech ad platforms made it easy to find the racist, xenophobic, fearful, angry people who wanted to believe that foreigners were destroying their country while being bankrolled by George Soros.

So, for example, people seem to think that Facebook advertisement caused people to vote for Trump. As if they were going to vote for someone else, and then changed their mind as a direct result of viewing ads. That’s not how it works.

Companies such as Cambridge Analytica might claim that they can rig elections and change people’s minds, but they’re not actually that sophisticated.

Cambridge Analytica are like stage mentalists: they’re doing something labor-intensive and pretending that it’s something supernatural. A stage mentalist will train for years to learn to quickly memorize a deck of cards and then claim that they can name your card thanks to their psychic powers. You never see the unglamorous, unimpressive memorization practice. Cambridge Analytica uses Facebook to find racist jerks and tell them to vote for Trump and then they claim that they’ve discovered a mystical way to get otherwise sensible people to vote for maniacs.

This isn’t to say that persuasion is impossible. Automated disinformation campaigns can flood the channel with contradictory, seemingly plausible accounts for the current state of affairs, making it hard for a casual observer to make sense of events. Long-term repetition of a consistent narrative, even a manifestly unhinged one, can create doubt and find adherents – think of climate change denial, or George Soros conspiracies, or the anti-vaccine movement.

These are long, slow processes, though, that make tiny changes in public opinion over the course of years, and they work best when there are other conditions that support them – for example, fascist, xenophobic, and nativist movements that are the handmaidens of austerity and privation. When you don’t have enough for a long time, you’re ripe for messages blaming your neighbors for having deprived you of your fair share.

Advertising and influencing works best when you provide a message that people already agree with in a way that they can easily share with others. The ‘long, slow processes’ that Doctorow refers to have been practised offline as well (think of Nazi propaganda, for example). Dark adverts on Facebook are tapping into feelings and reactions that aren’t peculiar to the digital world.

Facebook has thrived by providing ways for people to connect and communicate with one another. Unfortunately, because they’re so focused on profit over people, they’ve done a spectacularly bad job at making sure that the spaces in which people connect are healthy spaces that respect democracy.

There’s an old-fashioned word for this: corruption. In corrupt systems, a few bad actors cost everyone else billions in order to bring in millions – the savings a factory can realize from dumping pollution in the water supply are much smaller than the costs we all bear from being poisoned by effluent. But the costs are widely diffused while the gains are tightly concentrated, so the beneficiaries of corruption can always outspend their victims to stay clear.

Facebook doesn’t have a mind-control problem, it has a corruption problem. Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.

That last phrase is right on the money.

Source: Locus magazine

Platform censorship and the threat to democracy

TorrentFreak reports that Science Hub (commonly referred to as ‘Sci-Hub’) has had its account with Cloudflare terminated. Sci-Hub is sometimes known as ‘the Piratebay of Science’ as, in the words of Wikipedia, it “bypasses publisher paywalls by allowing access through educational institution proxies”:

Cloudflare’s actions are significant because the company previously protested a similar order. When the RIAA used the permanent injunction in the MP3Skull case to compel Cloudflare to disconnect the site, the CDN provider refused.

The RIAA argued that Cloudflare was operating “in active concert or participation” with the pirates. The CDN provider objected, but the court eventually ordered Cloudflare to take action, although it did not rule on the “active concert or participation” part.

In the Sci-Hub case “active concert or participation” is also a requirement for the injunction to apply. While it specifically mentions ISPs and search engines, ACS Director Glenn Ruskin previously stressed that companies won’t be targeted for simply linking users to Sci-Hub.

Cloudflare is a Content Delivery Network (CDN), and I use their service on my sites, to improve web performance and security. They are the subject of some controversy at the moment, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation note:

From Cloudflare’s headline-making takedown of the Daily Stormer last autumn to YouTube’s summer restrictions on LGBTQ content, there’s been a surge in “voluntary” platform censorship. Companies—under pressure from lawmakers, shareholders, and the public alike—have ramped up restrictions on speech, adding new rules, adjusting their still-hidden algorithms and hiring more staff to moderate content. They have banned ads from certain sources and removed “offensive” but legal content.

It’s a big deal, as intermediaries that are required for the optimisation in speed of large website succumb to political pressure.

Given this history, we’re worried about how platforms are responding to new pressures. Not because there’s a slippery slope from judicious moderation to active censorship — but because we are already far down that slope. Regulation of our expression, thought, and association has already been ceded to unaccountable executives and enforced by minimally-trained, overworked staff, and hidden algorithms. Doubling down on this approach will not make it better. And yet, no amount of evidence has convinced the powers that be at major platforms like Facebook—or in governments around the world. Instead many, especially in policy circles, continue to push for companies to—magically and at scale—perfectly differentiate between speech that should be protected and speech that should be erased.

We live in contentious times, which are setting the course for a digitally mediate future. For every positive development (such as GDPR), there’s stuff like this…

Sources: TorrentFreak / EFF

Facebook is under attack

This year is a time of reckoning for the world’s most popular social network. From their own website (which I’ll link to via archive.org because I don’t link to Facebook). Note the use of the passive voice:

Facebook was originally designed to connect friends and family — and it has excelled at that. But as unprecedented numbers of people channel their political energy through this medium, it’s being used in unforeseen ways with societal repercussions that were never anticipated.

It’s pretty amazing that a Facebook spokesperson is saying things like this:

I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t. That’s why we have a moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil and trustworthy as possible.

What they are careful to do is to paint a picture of Facebook as somehow ‘neutral’ and being ‘hijacked’ by bad actors. This isn’t actually the case.

As an article in The Guardian points out, executives at Facebook and Twitter aren’t exactly heavy users of their own platforms:

It is a pattern that holds true across the sector. For all the industry’s focus on “eating your own dog food”, the most diehard users of social media are rarely those sitting in a position of power.

These sites are designed to be addictive. So, just as drug dealers “don’t get high on their own supply”, so those designing social networks know what they’re dealing with:

These addictions haven’t happened accidentally… Instead, they are a direct result of the intention of companies such as Facebook and Twitter to build “sticky” products, ones that we want to come back to over and over again. “The companies that are producing these products, the very large tech companies in particular, are producing them with the intent to hook. They’re doing their very best to ensure not that our wellbeing is preserved, but that we spend as much time on their products and on their programs and apps as possible. That’s their key goal: it’s not to make a product that people enjoy and therefore becomes profitable, but rather to make a product that people can’t stop using and therefore becomes profitable.

The trouble is that this advertising-fuelled medium which is built to be addictive, is the place where most people get their news these days. Facebook has realised that it has a problem in this regard so they’ve made the decision to pass the buck to users. Instead of Facebook, or anyone else, deciding which news sources an individual should trust, it’s being left up to users.

While this sounds empowering and democratic, I can’t help but think it’s a bad move. As The Washington Post notes:

“They want to avoid making a judgment, but they are in a situation where you can’t avoid making a judgment,” said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. “They are looking for a safe approach. But sometimes you can be in a situation where there is no safe route out.”

The article continues to cite former Facebook executives who think that the problems are more than skin-deep:

They say that the changes the company is making are just tweaks when, in fact, the problems are a core feature of the Facebook product, said Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook privacy operations manager.

“If they demote stories that get a lot of likes, but drive people toward posts that generate conversation, they may be driving people toward conversation that isn’t positive,” Parakilas said.

A final twist in the tale is that Rupert Murdoch, a guy who has no morals but certainly has a valid point here, has made a statement on all of this:

If Facebook wants to recognize ‘trusted’ publishers then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies. The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services. Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook’s profits but a major impact on the prospects for publishers and journalists.”

2018 is going to be an interesting year. If you want to quit Facebook and/or Twitter be part of something better, why not join me on Mastodon via social.coop and help built Project MoodleNet?

Sources: Facebook newsroom / The Guardian / The Washington Post / News Corp

Social media short-circuits democracy

I’m wondering whether to delete all my social media accounts, or whether I should stay and fight. The trouble is, no technology is neutral, it always contains biases.

It’s interesting how the narrative has changed since the 2011 revolutions in Iran and Egypt:

Because of the advent of social media, the story seemed to go, tyrants would fall and democracy would rule. Social media communications were supposed to translate into a political revolution, even though we don’t necessarily agree on what a positive revolution would look like. The process is overtly emotional: The outrage felt translates directly, thanks to the magic of social media, into a “rebellion” that becomes democratic governance.

But social media has not helped these revolutions turn into lasting democracies. Social media speaks directly to the most reactive, least reflective parts of our minds, demanding we pay attention even when our calmer selves might tell us not to. It is no surprise that this form of media is especially effective at promoting hate, white supremacy, and public humiliation.

In my new job at Moodle, I’m tasked with leading work around a new social network for educators focused on sharing Open Educational Resources and professional development. I think we’ll start to see more social networks based around content than people (think Pinterest rather than Facebook).

Source: Motherboard