I haven’t voluntarily used something made by Microsoft (as opposed to acquired by it) for… about 20 years?
⏳ You Can Set Screen-Time Rules That Don’t Ruin Your Kids’ Lives— “Bear in mind that the limits you set need not be a specific number of minutes. Try to think of other, more natural ways of breaking up their activities. Maybe your kids play one game before tackling homework. Also, consider granting them one day per weekend with fewer restrictions on screen-time socializing. Giving them more autonomy over their weekends helps approximate the fun and flexibility of their pre-COVID world, and lets them unwind and hang out more with their friends.”
This has been really hard to managed as a parent, and it’s easy to think that you’re always doing it wrong.
💬 Why do we keep on telling others what to do?— “Usually starting a conversation out with telling people what you feel they are doing wrong is going to make it a negative conversation all in all, and I tend to believe that it’s better to follow “the campfire rule”, try to make all people taking part in a conversation end up a bit better off than what they were when they started the conversation, and telling people what to do or what not to are going straight against this.”
Post-therapy, I’m much better at focusing on changing myself than trying to change others. I’d recommend therapy, but that might be construed as an implicit instruction…
🙌 Twitter Considers Subscription Fee for Tweetdeck, Unique Content— “To explore potential options outside ad sales, a number of Twitter teams are researching subscription offerings, including one using the code name “Rogue One,” according to people familiar with the effort. At least one idea being considered is related to “tipping,” or the ability for users to pay the people they follow for exclusive content, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are internal. Other possible ways to generate recurring revenue include charging for the use of services like Tweetdeck or advanced user features like “undo send” or profile-customization options.”
This is fantastic news. It would destroy Twitter as it currently stands, but that’s fine as it’s much worse than it was a decade ago.
🔒 Do lockdowns work? — “It’s absurd thinking, but the sceptics have finally found an argument that cannot be categorically disproved. Lockdowns have a scientific rational: you can’t transmit a virus to people you don’t meet. Contrary to what Toby says in his article, they also have historic precedents: during the Spanish Flu, cities such as Philadelphia closed shops, churches, schools, bars and restaurants by law (they also made face masks mandatory). And now we have numerous natural experiments from around the world showing that infection rates fall when lockdowns are introduced.”
There will always be idiots who try and use their influence and eloquence to ensure they’re heard. Thankfully, there are people like this who can dismantle their arguments brick-by-brick.
⚒️ That which is unique, breaks — “The more finished goods become commodities, the fewer opportunities an individual has to generate new creation. The ability to mass-produce removes the opportunity for the great many to learn to produce at all. From such a thought, a future full of consumption-only hobbies might come as no surprise.”
🎭 The ‘Batman Effect’: How having an alter ego empowers you — “Self-distancing seems to enable people to reap these positive effects by leading them to focus on the bigger picture – it’s possible to see events as part of a broader plan rather than getting bogged down in immediate feelings. And this has led some researchers to wonder whether it could also improve elements of self-control like determination, by making sure that we keep focused on our goals even in the face of distraction.”
🦇 New lessons for stealth technology — “Optical metamaterials that refract and scatter light in adaptive ways are already familiar in the living world, for example in the photonic crystals found on strongly coloured, microstructured insect cuticles or butterfly wings. Now it appears that acoustic stealth technology too was discovered first by natural selection. Neil et al. report evidence that the intricate array of scales on some moth wings acts as an acoustic metamaterial to reduce echoes from ultrasound6. This, they say, is probably an adaptive property that reduces the visibility of moths to the sonar searches of their predators, bats.
🥱 Misinformation fatigue sets in — “It turns out maybe people don’t actually care about being lied to. And little is likely to change in 2021 unless and until platforms take actual responsibility for the way people gather and organize on them — admitting that their algorithms already guide what we see, who we speak to, what we buy, and what we believe, and working with outside experts to instead curate an experience that undoes a bit of the pollution that they’ve made.”
Quotation-as-title from Baltasar Gracián. Image from top-linked post.
I can’t think of a worse company than Facebook than to be creating a IRL surveillance panopticon. But, I have to say, it’s entirely on-brand.
On Wednesday, the company announced a plan to map the entire world, beyond street view. The company is launching a set of glasses that contains cameras, microphones, and other sensors to build a constantly updating map of the world in an effort called Project Aria. That map will include the inside of buildings and homes and all the objects inside of them. It’s Google Street View, but for your entire life.
We’re like slowly-boiling frogs with this stuff. Everything seems fine. Until it’s not.
The company insists any faces and license plates captured by Aria glasses wearers will be anonymized. But that won’t protect the data from Facebook itself. Ostensibly, Facebook will possess a live map of your home, pictures of your loved ones, pictures of any sensitive documents or communications you might be looking at with the glasses on, passwords — literally your entire life. The employees and contractors who have agreed to wear the research glasses are already trusting the company with this data.
Who has access to see the data from this live 3D map, and what, precisely, constitutes private versus public data? And who makes that determination? Faces might be blurred, but people can be easily identified without their faces. What happens if law enforcement wants to subpoena a day’s worth of Facebook’s LiveMap? Might Facebook ever build a feature to try to, say, automatically detect domestic violence, and if so, what would it do if it detected it?
I woke up today to the news that, in the UK, the police will get access to to the data on people told to self-isolate on a ‘case-by-case basis’. As someone pointed out on Mastodon, this was entirely predictable.
They pointed to this article by Yuval Noah Harari from March of this year, which also feels like a decade ago. In it, he talks about post-pandemic society being a surveillance nightmare:
You could, of course, make the case for biometric surveillance as a temporary measure taken during a state of emergency. It would go away once the emergency is over. But temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon. My home country of Israel, for example, declared a state of emergency during its 1948 War of Independence, which justified a range of temporary measures from press censorship and land confiscation to special regulations for making pudding (I kid you not). The War of Independence has long been won, but Israel never declared the emergency over, and has failed to abolish many of the “temporary” measures of 1948 (the emergency pudding decree was mercifully abolished in 2011).
Remember the US ‘war on terror’? That led to an incredible level of domestic and foreign surveillance that was revealed by Edward Snowden a few years ago.
The trouble, though, is that health is a clear and visible thing, a clear and present danger. Privacy is more nebulous with harms often being in the future, so the trade-off is between the here and now and, well, the opposite.
Even when infections from coronavirus are down to zero, some data-hungry governments could argue they needed to keep the biometric surveillance systems in place because they fear a second wave of coronavirus, or because there is a new Ebola strain evolving in central Africa, or because . . . you get the idea. A big battle has been raging in recent years over our privacy. The coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health.
For me, just like Harari, the way that governments choose to deal with the pandemic shows their true colours.
The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.
People often ask me about my stance on Facebook products. They can understand that I don’t use Facebook itself, but what about Instagram? And surely I use WhatsApp? Nope.
Given that I don’t usually have a single place to point people who want to read about the problems with WhatsApp, I thought I’d create one.
WhatsApp is a messaging app that was acquired by Facebook for the eye-watering amount of $19 billion in 2014. Interestingly, a BuzzFeed News article from 2018 cites documents confidential documents from the time leading up to the acquisition that were acquired by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They show the threat WhatsApp posed to Facebook at the time.
As you can see from the above chart, Facebook executives were shown in 2013 that WhatsApp (8.6% reach) was growing rapidly and posed a huge threat to Facebook Messenger (13.7% reach).
So Facebook bought WhatsApp. But what did they buy? If, as we’re led to believe, WhatsApp is ‘end-to-end encrypted’ then Facebook don’t have access to the messages of users. So what’s so valuable?
Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp (and a man who got very rich through its sale) has gone on record saying that he feels like he sold his users’ privacy to Facebook.
Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks”—a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”
Facebook also wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once businesses were on board, Facebook hoped to sell them analytics tools, too. The challenge was WhatsApp’s watertight end-to-end encryption, which stopped both WhatsApp and Facebook from reading messages. While Facebook didn’t plan to break the encryption, Acton says, its managers did question and “probe” ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users in an encrypted environment.
Parmy Olson (Forbes)
The other way Facebook wanted to make money was to sell tools to businesses allowing them to chat with WhatsApp users. These tools would also give “analytical insights” on how users interacted with WhatsApp.
Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp (and Instagram) despite fears around monopolistic practices. This was because they made a promise not to combine data from various platforms. But, guess what happened next?
In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19b, and promised users that it wouldn’t harvest their data and mix it with the surveillance troves it got from Facebook and Instagram. It lied. Years later, Facebook mixes data from all of its properties, mining it for data that ultimately helps advertisers, political campaigns and fraudsters find prospects for whatever they’re peddling. Today, Facebook is in the process of acquiring Giphy, and while Giphy currently doesn’t track users when they embed GIFs in messages, Facebook could start doing that anytime.
All of this creates a profile. So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you’ve started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you’ve started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.
Do I have to connect the dots here? This is a company that sells targeted adverts, the kind of adverts that can influence the outcome of elections. Of course, Facebook will never admit that its platforms are the problem, it’s always the responsibility of the user to be ‘vigilant’.
So you might think that you’re just messaging your friend or colleague on a platform that ‘everyone’ uses. But your decision to go with the flow has consequences. It has implications for democracy. It has implications on creating a de facto monopoly for our digital information. And it has implications around the dissemination of false information.
The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.
A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.
William Davies (The Guardian)
I cannot control the decisions others make, nor have I forced my opinions on my two children, who (despite my warnings) both use WhatsApp to message their friends. But, for me, the risk to myself and society of using WhatsApp is not one I’m happy with taking.
Today’s title comes from Edward Snowden, and is a pithy overview of the ‘nothing to hide’ argument that I guess I’ve struggled to answer over the years. I’m usually so shocked that an intelligent person would say something to that effect, that I’m not sure how to reply.
When you say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about this right.’ You’re saying, ‘I don’t have this right, because I’ve got to the point where I have to justify it.’ The way rights work is, the government has to justify its intrusion into your rights.
This, then, is the fifth article in my ongoing blogchain about post-pandemic society, which already includes:
It does not surprise me that those with either a loose grip on how the world works, or those who need to believe that someone, somewhere has ‘a plan’, believe in conspiracy theories around the pandemic.
What is true, and what can easily be mistaken for ‘planning’ is the preparedness of those with a strong ideology to double-down on it during a crisis. People and organisations reveal their true colours under stress. What was previously a long game now becomes a short-term priority.
For example, this week, the US Senate “voted to give law enforcement agencies access to web browsing data without a warrant”, reports VICE. What’s interesting, and concerning to me, is that Big Tech and governments are acting like they’ve already won the war on harvesting our online life, and now they’re after our offline life, too.
I have huge reservations about the speed in which Covid-19 apps for contact tracing are being launched when, ultimately, they’re likely to be largely ineffective.
We already know how to do contact tracing well and to train people how to do it. But, of course, it costs money and is an investment in people instead of technology, and privacy instead of surveillance.
There are plenty of articles out there on the difference between the types of contact tracing apps that are being developed, and this BBC News article has a useful diagram showing the differences between the two.
TL;DR: there is no way that kind of app is going on my phone. I can’t imagine anyone who I know who understands tech even a little bit installing it either.
Whatever the mechanics of how it goes about doing it happen to be, the whole point of a contact tracing app is to alert you and the authorities when you have been in contact with someone with the virus. Depending on the wider context, that may or may not be useful to you and society.
However, such apps are more widely applicable. One of the things about technology is to think about the effects it could have. What else could an app like this have, especially if it’s baked into the operating systems of devices used by 99% of smartphone users worldwide?
The above diagram is Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which is a useful frame for thinking about the impact of technology on society.
Big Tech and governments have our online social graphs, a global map of how everyone relates to everyone else in digital spaces. Now they’re going after our offline social graphs too.
The general reaction to this seemed to be one of eye-rolling and expressing some kind of Chinese exceptionalism when this was reported back in January.
I think it’s drones that concern me most of all. Places like Baltimore were already planning overhead surveillance pre-pandemic, and our current situation has only accelerated and exacerbated that trend.
In that case, it’s US Predator drones that have previously been used to monitor and bomb places in the Middle East that are being deployed on the civilian population. These drones operate from a great height, unlike the kind of consumer drones that anyone can buy.
However, as was reported last year, we’re on the cusp of photovoltaic drones that can fly for days at a time:
This breakthrough has big implications for technologies that currently rely on heavy batteries for power. Thermophotovoltaics are an ultralight alternative power source that could allow drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles to operate continuously for days. It could also be used to power deep space probes for centuries and eventually an entire house with a generator the size of an envelope.
Linda Vu (TechXplore)
Not only will the government be able to fly thousands of low-cost drones to monitor the population, but they can buy technology, like this example from DefendTex, to take down other drones.
That is, of course, if civilian drones continue to be allowed, especially given the ‘security risk’ of Chinese-made drones flying around.
It’s interesting times for those who keep a watchful eye on their civil liberties and government invasion of privacy. Bear that in mind when tech bros tell you not to fear robots because they’re dumb. The people behind them aren’t, and they have an agenda.
I’ve spent a lot more time on Twitter recently, where my feed seems to be equal parts anger and indignation (especially at Andrew Adonis) on the one hand, and jokes, funny anecdotes, and re-posted TikToks on the other.
In amongst all of that, and via Other Sources™, I’ve also found the following, some of which I think will resonate with you. Let me know on Twitter, Mastodon, or in the comments if that’s the case!
So, what happens now that we’re all doing school and work from home?
Well, for one thing, schools are going to be under even more pressure to buy surveillance software — to prevent cheating, obviously, but also to fulfill all sorts of regulations and expectations about “compliance.” Are students really enrolled? Are they actually taking classes? Are they doing the work? Are they logging into the learning management system? Are they showing up to Zoom? Are they really learning anything? How are they feeling? Are they “at risk”? What are teachers doing? Are they holding class regularly? How quickly do they respond to students’ messages in the learning management system?
Audrey Watters (Hack Education)
Good stuff, as always, by Audrey Watters, who has been warning about this stuff for a decade.
Of course this government are failing to deal with a pandemic. At the fag end of neoliberalism, they don’t exist to do much more than transfer public assets into private hands. What we’re living through is exactly what would happen if we’d elected a firm of bailiffs to cure polio. That’s not to say that they won’t use this crisis, as they would any other, to advance a profoundly reactionary agenda. The austerity they’ll tell us they need to introduce to pay for this will make the last decade seem like Christmas at Elton John’s house.
There’s an old joke about a guy going to hell. The Devil shows him round all the rooms where people are being tortured in a variety of brutal ways. Eventually, they come to a room where everybody is standing knee-deep in shit and drinking cups of tea. The guy chooses this as the place to spend eternity, and the Devil shouts “Tea break’s over lads, back on your heads!” That, I suppose, is how I feel when I hear people crowing about how the government are being forced to implement socialist policies. Pretty soon, we’ll all be back on our heads.
Frankie Boyle (The Overtake)
As comedy has become more political over the last decade, one of the most biting commentators has been the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle. I highly recommend following him on Twitter.
A few keen readers have turned to essay collections, short stories or diaries, which are less demanding on the memory and attention, but video games may also offer a way back into reading during these difficult times. Here are 12 interesting puzzle and adventure games that play with words, text and narratives in innovative ways, which may well guide you back into a reading frame of mind.
Keith Stuart (The Guardian)
I hadn’t heard of any of the games on this list (mobile/console/PC) and I think this is a great idea. Also check out the Family Video Game Database.
The company is not your family. Some of the people in the company are your friends in the current context. It’s like your dorm in college. Hopefully some of them will still be your friends after. But don’t stay because you’re comfortable.
When picking a job, yes, your manager matters. But if you have an amazing manager at a shit company you’ll still have a shit time. In some ways, it’ll actually be worse. If they’re good at their job (including retaining you), they’ll keep you at a bad company for too long. And then they’ll leave, because they’re smart and competent.
Chief of Stuff (Chief’s newsletter)
Most of this advice is focused on the tech sector, but I wanted to highlight the above, about ‘friends’ at work and the relative importance of having a good boss.
“You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on,” supposedly said Heraclitus. Time is like a river. If you’re too busy to enjoy life—too busy to spend time with friends and family, too busy to learn how to paint or play the guitar, too busy to go on that hike, too busy to cook something nice for yourself—these moments will be gone, and you will never get that time back.
You may think it’s too late. It’s not. Like many people, I personally experience time anxiety—the recurring thought that it’s too late to start or accomplish something new—but the reality is you probably still have many years in front of you. Defining what “time well spent” means to you and making space for these moments is one of the greatest gifts you can make to your future self.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff (Ness Labs)
Quality not quantity. Absolutely, and the best way to do that is to be in control of every area of your life, not beholden to someone else’s clock.
Labour officials ran a secret operation to deceive Jeremy Corbyn at last year’s general election, micro-targeting Facebook adverts at the leader and his closest aides to convince them the party was running the campaign they demanded.
Campaign chiefs at Labour HQ hoodwinked their own leader because they disapproved of some of Corbyn’s left-wing messages.
They convinced him they were following his campaign plans by spending just £5,000 on adverts solely designed to be seen by Corbyn, his aides and their favourite journalists, while pouring far more money into adverts with a different message for ordinary voters.
Tim Shipman (The Times)
This article by the political editor of The Times is behind a paywall. However, the above is all you need to get the gist of the story, which reminds me of a story about the CEO of AT&T, the mobile phone network.
At a time when AT&T were known for patchy coverage, technicians mapped where the CEO frequently went (home, work, golf club, etc.) and ensured that those locations had full signal. Incredible.
Poverty isn’t natural or inevitable. It is an artifact of the very same policies that have been designed to syphon the lion’s share of global income into the pockets of the rich. Poverty is, at base, a problem of distribution.
Jason Hickel (New Internationalist)
There’s some amazing data in this article, along with some decent suggestions on how we can make society work for the many, and not just the few. Also see this: wealth shown to scale.
Possessed of no such capacity for superior force, fairytale characters are given tasks that are often unfair verging on impossible, imposed by the more powerful—climb the glass mountain, sort the heap of mixed grain before morning, gather a feather from the tail of the firebird. They are often mastered by alliances with other overlooked and undervalued players—particularly old women (who often turn out to be possessed of supernatural powers) and small animals, the ants who sort the grain, the bees who find the princess who ate the honey, the birds who sing out warnings. Those tasks and ordeals and quests mirror the difficulty of the task of becoming faced by the young in real life and the powers that most of us have, alliance, persistence, resistance, innovation. Or the power to be kind and the power to listen—to name two powers that pertain to storytelling and to the characters these particular stories tell of.
Rebecca Solnit (Literary Hub)
What was it Einstein said? “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
The term ‘commons’ came into widespread use, and is still studied by most college students today, thanks to an essay by a previously little-known American academic, Garrett Hardin, called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968). His basic claim: common property such as public land or waterways will be spoiled if left to the use of individuals motivated by self-interest. One problem with his theory, as he later admitted himself: it was mostly wrong.
Our real problem, instead, might be called ‘the tragedy of the private’. From dust bowls in the 1930s to the escalating climate crisis today, from online misinformation to a failing public health infrastructure, it is the insatiable private that often despoils the common goods necessary for our collective survival and prosperity. Who, in this system based on the private, holds accountable the fossil fuel industry for pushing us to the brink of extinction? What happens to the land and mountaintops and oceans forever ravaged by violent extraction for private gain? What will we do when private wealth has finally destroyed our democracy?
Dirk Philipsen (Aeon)
Good to see more pushback on the notion of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. What we need to do is, instead of metaphorically allowing everyone to graze their own cows on the common, we need to socialise all the cows.