Book Review: “Move Fast and Break Things”

March 21, 2018

Global headlines this week about the follies of Facebook provided the perfect backdrop for reading Jonathan Taplin’s “Move Fast and Break Things” in which he describes the damage to culture and society caused by Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

Taplin is well placed to tell this story, having begun his multiple careers working with the Band and Bob Dylan before moving on to become a film producer (“Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End of the World”, etc). He joined the University of Southern California faculty in 2004 and is now the Director Emeritus of the Innovation Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The author is therefore well versed in the cultural aspects of his subject; however, early on, he notes that “[w]hat I mistook as only a culture war is an economic war … Monopoly, control of our data, and corporate lobbying are at the heart of this story.”

The Big Three (Facebook, Google/Alphabet, and Amazon) are rentiers of the classic type, with their monopolies of a scarce and valuable resource. Taplin notes that they have been allowed to become so powerful because “since the rise of the Internet, policy makers have acted as if the rules that apply to the rest of the economy do not apply to Internet monopolies.”  He explains this with an in-depth look at how the technology companies have mastered regulatory capture, which “is the process by which regulatory bodies eventually come to be dominated by the very industries they were charged with regulating.”

Mark Zuckerberg/Peter Thiel

Taplin spends some time discussing the Ayn Rand-style libertarianism of technology leaders such as Peter Theil, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerburg; and he provides a useful history of corporate dominance stretching from Hamilton’s victory over Madison and Jefferson through Robert Bork’s free market philosophy and on to the victory of the corporations in the Citizens United case. Noting that “the average citizen has voluntarily (though unknowingly) turned over to Google and Facebook far more personal information than the government will ever have,” he declares that the “tightening monopolization of US industry is rendering America an oligarchy” with profound and disturbing consequences for democracy.

Taplin quotes Robert McChesney: “many of the successful [Internet] giants … were begun by idealists who may have been uncertain whether they really wanted to be old-fashioned capitalists. The system in short order has whipped them into shape.”  And just this week, Roger B. McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “I couldn’t believe these guys I once knew so well had gotten so far off track.”

Move Fast” is larded with interesting vignettes from the music, film, and computer industries, many of which are written with first-hand experience. Taplin is an excellent writer, moving fluently from one part of the story to the next, never getting bogged down in the details but ensuring we have the necessary information.

The book finishes with Taplin’s proposals for how this situation could be reversed. He suggests a local control model such as in Chattanooga which controls broadband as a local utility; or turning telecommunications into a “natural utility” regulated by federal government agencies; or using a co-op model for all content creation. However, sadly, he doesn’t really succeed in convincing us that any of these solutions will happen anytime soon.

Move Fast and Break Things” (2017, Little Brown & Co) is available at the People’s Coop Bookstore on Commercial Drive.


I Love Colour

March 14, 2018

I love colour. I try to show this is in my art work and photographs with varying degree of success. The always valuable Creative Report brings me news of a new book called “The Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour” that really intrigues me.

The shelves of the Forbes Pigment Collection, based in Harvard University’s Art Museum buildings, are organised mostly by hue. The effect of this “curious chromatic ordering” ensures that the archive resembles “an installation exploring the very nature of painting”, as colour historian Victoria Finlay writes in the foreword to An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour, a new book that catalogues highlights from the collection. Published by Atelier Éditions, the Atlas features images by photographer Pascale Georgiev of a handful of the collection’s 2,500 rare pigments and examines their material composition, providence and application …

Violet de Cobalt

Many of the colours are rare and some are unlikely to be made ever again. Finlay writes that Indian Yellow, for example, originally came from the urine of cows that had been fed mango leaves, while Mummy Brown – as the name suggests – really was collected from the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians (and was still available in London in the 1920s, courtesy of Roberson).

Wonderful stuff!



Reason #231 NOT to use Facebook

February 15, 2018

Facebook’s latest “data protection” gizmo actually tracks everything you do online, might store it forever, and definitely feeds all the information to the company for its own use. An article in WIRED explains that Onavo

“falls far short of the privacy protections that VPN users reasonably expect … Onavo is more pervasive than standard VPNs, and attempts to be on all the time instead of just when you want a little extra protection. This seems like a way for the app, and by extension Facebook, to track your browsing all the time, not just when you’re on the social network …

‘Onavo collects your mobile data traffic,’ reads the App Store description. ‘This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analyzing your use of websites, apps and data. Because we’re part of Facebook, we also use this info to improve Facebook products and services, gain insights into the products and services people value, and build better experiences.’ If you’re looking for the privacy benefits of a VPN, this is not what you want to hear …

‘Unlike other providers, Onavo Protect tries to keep the VPN connected all the time, and channel all internet traffic,’ says Ankur Banerjee, a technology architecture delivery team lead at the management consulting firm Accenture. ‘Even turning the VPN off is buried deep inside the settings of the app rather than making it front-and-center on the app home page. They could spin this as saying they’re trying to keep the customer protected all the time, but the obvious thing they are perhaps trying to do here is ensure that the user forgets Onavo even exists’.”

Sounds like business as usual for Facebook.

Previous Reasons NOT to use Facebook

The Scythe, Modernity, and the Crash To Come

February 4, 2018

For those of you who are keen on fighting back against the tyranny of modern technology, you could do a lot worse than read Dark Ecology” by Paul Kingsnorth.  It is a fairly long piece (by internet standards) but worth every minute you spend with it.

Each summer, Kingsnorth teaches the use of scythes in England and Scotland and in this article he uses the scythe as a surrogate for other simple tools when compared to modern machinery.  He explains the delight one gets in using a scythe, but remarks that most people use brushcutters these days:

“Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better; they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point: the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.”

He really hits the nail on the head when he confronts critics who claim that he and those like him are simple-minded back-to-the-earth idealist dreamers:

“Romanticizing the past” is a familiar accusation, made mostly by people who think it is more grown-up to romanticize the future. But it’s not necessary to convince yourself that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers lived in paradise in order to observe that progress is a ratchet, every turn forcing us more tightly into the gears of a machine we were forced to create to solve the problems created by progress…

Critics confuse “a desire for human-scale autonomy, and for the independent character, quirkiness, mess, and creativity that usually results from it, with a desire to retreat to some imagined ‘golden age.’ It’s a familiar criticism, and a lazy and boring one. Nowadays, when I’m faced with digs like this, I like to quote E. F. Schumacher, who replied to the accusation that he was a ‘crank’ by saying, ‘A crank is a very elegant device. It’s small, it’s strong, it’s lightweight, energy efficient, and it makes revolutions’.”

Kingsnorth looks closely at the “green movement” of the last century, noting how badly it failed:

“The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing.”

Worse, he says, we now have neo-environmentalism, often described as simple “ecopragmatism” but which is “something rather different” as described by the PR blurb for Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, one of the movement’s canonical texts

For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature.

Or, as Peter Kareiva, says:

“Humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment, and 80 percent of the time it recovers pretty well.” Trying to protect large functioning ecosystems from human development is mostly futile; humans like development, and you can’t stop them from having it. Nature is tough and will adapt to this: “Today, coyotes roam downtown Chicago, and peregrine falcons astonish San Franciscans as they sweep down skyscraper canyons. . . . As we destroy habitats, we create new ones.” Now that “science” has shown us that nothing is “pristine” and nature “adapts,” there’s no reason to worry about many traditional green goals such as, for example, protecting rainforest habitats. “Is halting deforestation in the Amazon . . . feasible?” he asks. “Is it even necessary?”

Kingsnorth responds:

“If this sounds like the kind of thing that a right-wing politician might come out with, that’s because it is. But Kareiva is not alone. Variations on this line have recently been pushed by the American thinker Stewart Brand, the British writer Mark Lynas, the Danish anti-green poster boy Bjørn Lomborg, and the American writers Emma Marris, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger. They in turn are building on work done in the past by other self-declared green “heretics” like Richard D. North, Brian Clegg, and Wilfred Beckerman.”

Kingsnorth argues that these neo-conservatives are misunderstanding the problem, probably deliberately:

“What do we value about the Amazon forest? Do people seek to protect it because they believe it is “pristine” and “pre-human”? Clearly not, since it’s inhabited and harvested by large numbers of tribal people, some of whom have been there for millennia. The Amazon is not important because it is “untouched”; it’s important because it is wild, in the sense that it is self-willed. It is lived in and off of by humans, but it is not created or controlled by them. It teems with a great, shifting, complex diversity of both human and nonhuman life, and no species dominates the mix. It is a complex, working ecosystem that is also a human-culture-system, because in any kind of worthwhile world, the two are linked.”

“The neo-environmentalists, needless to say, have no time for this kind of fluff. They have a great big straw man to build up and knock down, and once they’ve got that out of the way, they can move on to the really important part of their message. Here’s Kareiva, giving us the money shot in Breakthrough Journal with fellow authors Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz:

Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people. . . . Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.

There it is, in black and white: the wild is dead, and what remains of nature is for people. We can effectively do what we like, and we should.”

He looks at the future through the eyes of the past:

“Look at the proposals of the neo-environmentalists in this light and you can see them as a series of attempts to dig us out of the progress traps that their predecessors knocked us into. Genetically modified crops, for example, are regularly sold to us as a means of “feeding the world.” But why is the world hungry? At least in part because of the previous wave of agricultural improvements—the so-called Green Revolution, which between the 1940s and 1970s promoted a new form of agriculture that depended upon high levels of pesticides and herbicides, new agricultural technologies, and high-yielding strains of crops. The Green Revolution is trumpeted by progressives as having supposedly “fed a billion people” who would otherwise have starved. And maybe it did; but then we had to keep feeding them—or should I say us?—and our children. In the meantime it had been discovered that the pesticides and herbicides were killing off vast swaths of wildlife, and the high-yield monoculture crops were wrecking both the health of the soil and the crop diversity, which in previous centuries had helped prevent the spread of disease and reduced the likelihood of crop failure.

It is in this context that we now have to listen to lectures from the neo-environmentalists and others insisting that GM crops are a moral obligation if we want to feed the world and save the planet: precisely the arguments that were made last time around.”

“What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of ongoing collapse, which will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green “solutions” being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it. I don’t believe now that anything can break this cycle, barring some kind of reset: the kind that we have seen many times before in human history. Some kind of fall back down to a lower level of civilizational complexity. Something like the storm that is now visibly brewing all around us.”

This is a sad pass we have come to.  Humanity has been too clever by half.

Reason #230 NOT to Use Facebook

January 22, 2018

According to a fascinating piece by Cory Doctorow, the dictatorship in Cambodia has been using Facebook to undermine the opposition in that country, by suppression, false news, and violence.

“The Cambodian government has cultivated a deep expertise in Facebook’s baroque acceptable conduct rules, and they use this expertise to paint opposition speech as in violation of Facebook’s policies, using the company’s anti-abuse systems to purge their rivals from the platform. Offline, the government has targeted the independent press with raids and arrests, shutting down most of the media it does not control.”

And they seem to have been directly aided by Facebook itself.

“[L]ast October, Facebook used Cambodia in an experiment to de-emphasize news sources in peoples’ feeds — a change it will now roll out worldwide — and hid those remaining independent reporters from the nation’s view.

Opposition figures have worked with independent researchers to show that the government is buying Facebook likes from clickfarms in the Philippines and India, racking up thousands of likes for Khmer-language posts in territories where Khmer isn’t spoken. They reported these abuses to Facebook, hoping to get government posts downranked, but Facebook executives gave them the runaround or refused to talk to them. No action was taken on these violations of Facebook’s rules …

[T]he decisions made by Facebook can seem mysterious and arbitrary. But for the Cambodian government, that process has been streamlined by Facebook. Duong said every couple of months, his team would email an employee they work with at Facebook to request a set of accounts be taken down, either based on language they used or because their accounts did not appear to be registered to their real names, a practice Facebook’s rules forbid. Facebook often complies, he said.”

The Cambodian regime is anti-democratic and is well-known for suppressing human rights and for its corruption. Facebook obviously doesn’t care.


Other reasons NOT to use Facebook.

Constant Surveillance

January 18, 2018

I have never had a cell phone, smart or otherwise (*), or a Facebook account; nor do I take marketing surveys, especially those on the (landline) telephone. I use several apps on my computer to limit the tracking that can occur online. I realise that these days it is impossible NOT to be tracked to some extent (I know that every purchase I make at Costco and Amazon, for example, or using VISA, is carefully tabulated and added to my profile in their records) but I avoid whatever I can.

I avoid tracking because of a deep reluctance to allow governments or corporations to know what I am doing, beyond anything I specifically choose to tell them (census, taxes, prescriptions, etc). It is none of their business and I prefer to keep them out of my life so far as possible. My privacy and security is far more important to me than any marginal convenience smart phones, for example, might grant me.

And then there are cars. I haven’t owned a car for twenty-seven years. This had nothing to do with privacy and everything to do with maintenance costs and the utter inconvenience of parking in town.  However, were I thinking about buying another car I would have serious second thoughts after reading this article with the provocative headline “Why your car company may know more about you than your spouse“.

“By monitoring his everyday movements, an automaker can vacuum up a massive amount of personal information about [a driver], everything from how fast he drives and how hard he brakes to how much fuel his car uses and the entertainment he prefers. The company can determine where he shops, the weather on his street, how often he wears his seat belt, what he was doing moments before a wreck — even where he likes to eat and how much he weighs …

The result is that carmakers have turned on a powerful spigot of precious personal data, often without owners’ knowledge, transforming the automobile from a machine that helps us travel to a sophisticated computer on wheels that offers even more access to our personal habits and behaviors than smartphones do.”

Governments at all levels and corporations have, of course, been tracking us for a long time. However, according to an article in Curbed, “two rapidly rising technologies—computer vision and machine learning—offer the potential to revolutionize” their ability to know exactly what you do outside your home.

“[T]he technology tracks intent and activity: what people pick up and read without purchasing, and even what they look at from across the store. Standard Cognition can follow shoppers in real time, across different cameras and from multiple perspectives simultaneously.”

This article focuses on what it considers the advantages of this technology in urban planning and rational retailing. However, it also notes that

“an October 2016 report by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology, The Perpetual Line-Up, found that national law-enforcement networks using facial-recognition technology include photos for half of all adults in the United States, and the technology was most likely to make mistakes on women, young children, and African Americans, “precisely the communities on which the technology is most likely to be used.”

But you  don’t have to leave home to be tracked. An article in BoingBoing describes security problems with hone devices such as Amazon’s Echo and similar devices by Microsoft and Google. Not only are these devices watching you and tabulating information for the corporation, the corporations are passing much of this data to the government — and keeping quiet about it:

“Amazon was the last major tech company to issue a “transparency report” detailing what kinds of law-enforcement requests they’d serviced, and where; when they finally did start issuing them, they buried them on obscure webpages deep in their corporate info site and released them late on Friday afternoons … Amazon’s latest report shows a crazily high spike in law enforcement requests, but the company will not say which products or services were implicated by these requests.”

And while you are relaxing at home, minding your own business, your television is doing a lot more than that:

TVs like mobile phones often betray our most intimate lives, often being located in the centre of our homes. They are often fitted with cameras and microphones, as well as internal memories, which can be used to monitor what we’re doing, saying and watching … Recent news has shown that everyone from manufacturers to advertisers to the intelligence services could be watching you through your TV.”

Big Brother is not just a myth. It is here today in a far more insidious and overwhelming manner than even George Orwell could have imagined. When all this is combined with a US President who spouts Newspeak, and technology companies which have monopoly positions that Standard Oil and US Steel could only have dreamed of, we have to wonder and worry what the future holds in store.


* for the sake of complete disclosure, I should note I was given a Blackberry when I was working but never bothered to learn how to switch it on.



The Long Lens of History

January 17, 2018

I’ve already lived through several generations of photography. My parents had a little Brownie box, and then I graduated to an SLR; we all had Polaroids of one kind or another, abandoned for digital a decade back; and now we have digital-SLRs and telephone cams of extraordinary clarity.

Of course, this sequence is just the latest in the surprisingly long history of photography. While the work of Fox Talbot and Dageurre from the 1830s and 1840s is quite well known, the latest thought is that experiments could go back a further generation, to the 1790s.

A print, “The Leaf”, due for auction, is now thought to be connected to Thomas Wedgwood and Henry Bright who were experimenting with “solar images”. Humphrey Davy (famous as the inventor of the miners’ safety lamp) wrote about these images in 1802.

Jill Quasha is the photo dealer and expert who bought “The Leaf” in 1989 as she was building the Quillan Collection, a group of world-renowned photographs that Sotheby’s sold (without the leaf print) for almost $9 million on April 7. She said that it was still too early to say exactly what type of research would be conducted on the image. Tests could include those to determine the age of the paper and to identify the chemical makeup of any substances on the paper. “I think it has to be done quickly and efficiently and with the least amount of damage to the photograph,” said Ms. Quasha, who added that she hoped the research could be completed within six months so that the print could be put up for auction again with a more iron-clad, and perhaps stunning, provenance. (As a Talbot, it was estimated to sell for $100,000 to $150,000; if it is determined to be older, it could bring substantially more.)

Interesting stuff for those us who follow cultural beginnings.