AEP 72: Artificial Whiteness with Yarden Katz

A discussion of the book Artificial Whiteness, by Yarden Katz

Step off of the Artificial Intelligence hype train with me and my guest Yarden Katz. Yarden is the author of Artificial Whiteness: Politics and Ideology in Artificial Intelligence. AI is a squishy concept, and under scrutiny it is full of imperialist and racial assumptions. We go over some of the many ideas in this idea-packed book, which I highly recommend.

#HackedTeam & Colombia: How Surveillance Helps a Violent State

In the past few years, debates about universal surveillance, software and internet freedom, privacy and civil liberties have opened through the efforts and sacrifices of people like Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Anonymous. The governments and private security industry that have been exposed through leaks, hacks, and whistleblowing, have been forced to respond. Some of these responses involved attacking and prosecuting the messengers. Others have involved denial, apology, and the perpetually fresh doctrine of the “change of course”: “yes, we used to violate people’s rights, but that’s all over now”. Some public figures attempted to argue against privacy on principle: “If you have nothing to hide, why should you need privacy?” But, as Glenn Greenwald wrote, none of these anti-privacy people were willing to give him their email passwords on television, despite having nothing to hide.

A small number of those implicated in surveillance violations took a defiant stance, as in: “yes, we violate privacy, and we are very good at it.” One security company, dedicated to offensive hacking, stood out as particularly defiant: The Italy-based Hacking Team, headed by David Vincenzetti. Go to their website today and watch the banners flash along: “DEFEAT encryption.” “Total control over your targets.” “Thousands of encrypted communications per day. Get them. In the clear.” While many of Hacking Team’s competitors were more sheepish, or at least discrete, about their violations of people’s privacy rights, Hacking Team staked out a marketing space based on flamboyance.

With such a casual attitude to violating citizens privacy on behalf of their clients, the hack against Hacking Team that occurred on July 5 was almost inevitable, and it is very difficult to find any sympathy for Hacking Team’s cries that their privacy has been violated. The hashtag #HackedTeam trended for quite a while, along with others like #IsHackingTeamAwakeYet.

The hackers released into the public domain the specialized software that Hacking Team uses to violate people’s systems, exploits HT had discovered and were keeping secret to sell, as well as 400GB of email archives, presentations and documents. Wikileaks speedily made the email archives searchable online.

The main piece of software, Remote Control System or RCS, that Hacking Team sells, allows the client to monitor someone else’s computer. Such a system is of great interest to repressive governments and agencies of all types, and that’s why Hacking Team’s client list includes Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia (about which University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab wrote a report) and many other human rights violators.

In the Americas, Mexico is the biggest client, but HT does substantial business both with, and in Colombia. In Bogota, HT works with the US Embassy and the DEA. Much of the RCS business with Colombia is done through the Israeli surveillance firm, NICE. A series of 2013 emails discuss a $60M deal with Colombia’s directorate of police intelligence (DIPOL). Many emails report on the success of demonstrations of the software. A 2009 email discusses the demo method that later became standard:

“Anti Narcotics Police is very interested in the product. Have you been able to advance on the demo over the Internet. As we discussed the idea would be to infect a computer (and maybe a phone) here in Colombia and have it connected to the > Internet. We would be watching your server using Adobe Connect, we let the customer play with the infected computer, write documents, email, surf the web, chat, Skype, etc, and at the same time we are showing them the info come up on the server. I would really like to be able to do a demo soon, please let me know.”

HT has promised that they don’t sell their systems to anyone responsible for gross human rights violations (how they define gross is unknown). Their job is to sell software, in any case, so they presumably don’t track or know what is done with their systems once sold – even if, like the machines IBM custom-built for the Nazis (see “IBM and the Holocaust” by Edwin Black) the technology is hardly neutral. Because HT is just selling the software and not running it for their clients, we probably won’t be able to tell from their email archives what exactly Colombia (or any other government) has done with HT’s software, and who they are doing it to.

But we have other information that can provide us with some ideas. What would Colombia do with the Remote Control System? Will they be using it to catch cyber criminals? What kind of regime is Colombia? It has elections, after all. It has elected politicians from across the political spectrum. It is currently in negotiations to end its long civil war. Its 1991 Constitution is progressive in many ways. So, why shouldn’t Colombia’s police get some help trying to catch cyber criminals?

Unfortunately, Colombia’s civil war is not a 19th-century civil war of armies battling against each other on a field. It’s a modern war of a state and paramilitaries killing civilians and controlling territories for profit, and guerrillas that took up arms defensively decades ago and have turned them against the people far too many times since.

The targets of state violence (and surveillance) in Colombia – when state violence is targeted at all, and not generalized – are unionists, human rights defenders, journalists; indigenous, afro-Colombian, women, and peasant leaders. If it were possible to find out whose computers were infected by HT’s malware, I would wager that most of the infected devices would belong to such people.

But, as Human Rights Watch documented again just last month, violence isn’t always targeted. The ‘false positives’ scandal in Colombia involved military units capturing ordinary people, killing them, and dressing them up as guerrilla combatants to present high casualty numbers. It is hard to imagine a more evil, statistics-driven exercise. The commanders in charge of the units committing these atrocities are still in charge, and some have risen through the ranks on the bodies of those killed as false positives.

The Colombian state didn’t need HT’s software to murder peasants and dress them up as guerrillas. But to anticipate and prepare for human rights criticism? To stay one step ahead of the FARC at the negotiating table? To target and surveil the country’s many remarkable unarmed movement activists – and put targets on them for murderous paramilitaries? For any of these – all proven tactics of the Colombian regime – HT’s systems sure would come in handy.

First published on TeleSUR english:–Colombia-How-Surveillance-Helps-a-Violent-State-20150720-0015.html

Online Privacy Is Worth The Extra Work

This past week, Laura Poitras’s documentary, Citizen Four, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. When he provided the documents that revealed the details of universal spying by the US National Security Agency (NSA), the subject of the documentary, Edward Snowden, wrote an accompanying manifesto. His “sole motive”, he wrote, was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. The U.S. government, in conspiracy with client states, chiefest among them the Five Eyes – the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – have inflicted upon the world a system of secret, pervasive surveillance from which there is no refuge.” (1)

Snowden, who made careful plans to try to avoid capture before he could get the materials out, nonetheless assumed that he was going to be spending the rest of his life in prison. Even though his greatest wish was for the public to know about the surveillance programs, he was pessimistic about the possibility that the programs would be reformed through the existing political system. His manifesto concluded with the repurposing of a quote from Thomas Jefferson about the U.S. Constitution: “Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography.”

In other words, maybe if the public found out, they would find the idea of being surveilled by unaccountable powers unappealing, or maybe they would not. If they rejected universal surveillance, they might demand that the program end. But maybe the political system was in fact so closed, undemocratic, and unresponsive that it could not change in response to such a demand. But even then, the public had options: the public could change their behaviour in order to make universal surveillance more difficult. How? What are these “chains of cryptography” to which Snowden referred?

In a lecture at the 31c3 conference late last year (2), Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras showed the systems that the NSA have so far been unable to crack. Taken together, and used carefully, these systems offer the continued possibility of privacy, a fundamental right, a right which enables people to form their personalities, their philosophies, and their politics, a right which has been taken away by spy agencies for their own grandiose plans.

What are these systems? They include public key (GPG) encryption for email, onion routing (Tor) for web browsing, and Off-The-Record (OTR) protocols for online chatting. Importantly, all of these tools are free software/software libre (3), which means that their source code is published and can be studied, so that bugs and problems can be identified and fixed by the community of users and developers. Security experts like Bruce Schneier (4) have long emphasized that no user should trust any product that promises online privacy or security that is not free software. Unless the source code is published, there could easily be “backdoors” built in – and, as Snowden’s documents have shown, they often are. Richard Stallman of the GNU free software project made the argument connecting free software to online privacy and security at his own lecture at 31c3 (5).

The above tools – GPG, Tor, and OTR – may be cracked one day by the NSA, or declared illegal by oppressive governments (including that of the US). The important point is that they are tools that were created by the free software community and offered to the public as ways to try to achieve the right to privacy. Unlike corporations, the writers of free software don’t try to control users in order to profit from them. But nor do they have the resources to create vast call centres to do customer service, and indeed all free software comes with a warning that it has no warranty or guarantee. Although the difficulties are often exaggerated, the free software versions of many programs can be difficult to use. What this means is that the price of freedom, or of privacy, online, is not measured in dollars or even in suffering, but in convenience and patience.

Greenwald recounts in his book, No Place to Hide, that Snowden tried to contact him many times before finally reaching him through Laura Poitras. Greenwald didn’t want to go through the inconvenience of learning GPG, and Snowden wouldn’t write him any specifics without it. Even now, most people, including journalists and activists, don’t take the extra time to learn these tools, or to learn about the free software movement. Until Snowden, this included even Greenwald, the very reporter who ended up breaking the story. The ‘crypto party’ movement has arisen to make it possible for people to get together and help each other learn the tools (6). If only a tiny group of people attempt to exercise their rights to online privacy, it will be easier for governments to isolate them. On the other hand, if people assume they have the right to privacy and join the free software movement, it is better for everyone. By exercising your right to freedom, you are making it easier for others to exercise theirs. If you are already using a computer anyway, isn’t it worth some inconvenience?

NOTE: If you are having difficulty getting to a crypto party, but are willing to put in some time and effort to learning the tools for online anonymity that we do have, some of the principles of online privacy and security, and some of the principles of free software, please consider joining the Z School course (7) on the topic, which will begin in April 2015.

First published at TeleSUR English March 2/15:


(1) The manifesto is quoted in its entirety in Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide.

(2) See the talk, “Reconstructing Narratives”, here:

(3) Free software, or software libre, is software that gives its users the freedoms to view, share, modify, and use the code as they wish, and it is regulated by very carefully constructed licenses, especially the GNU Public License or GPL.

(4) See Scheneir’s blog:

(5) See the talk, “Freedom in your computer and in the net”:

(6) In my city, for example, there’s Toronto Crypto: Find out if there’s one in your city.

(7) The course opens in April 2015. Details will be posted on:

Taylor Swift’s Millions Aren’t Worth a Single Prison Term

At an awards show at the end of 2014, musician Taylor Swift accepted her award saying that 2014 was an important year because it was the year she stood up for herself as an artist. In July 2014, she wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry. (1) Swift makes economic arguments about the value of an artist’s work: “the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace.” She reasons as follows: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.”

What does Swift blame for society’s failure to recognize this value? “Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically,” she writes. By blaming piracy, file sharing, and streaming, Swift has adopted what author Rob Reid called in 2012 “Copyright Math”, in which the movie industry claims that the “economic loss” from file sharing of movies amounts to US$58 billion dollars – more than most of the value of US agriculture (2).

Unfortunately, as outrageous as it is, copyright math is no joke. In the same year the millionaire Taylor Swift stood up for herself as an artist, one of the best known, and most defiant, file sharing sites, The Pirate Bay, saw its founders arrested in an international manhunt. The three file-sharers, Fredrek Neij, Gottfrid Warg, and Peter Sunde, were handed prison sentences by a Swedish court in 2009 (3). They went into hiding. Sunde was arrested in June in Sweden and is serving an 8-month jail term. Warg was arrested in Cambodia and is serving three and a half years. Neij was arrested in November 2014 in Thailand. The investigation into the Pirate Bay was extensive, the seizures of equipment massive, and the attempt to shut the site down has been thorough and vindictive (4). The Pirate Bay is being made an example of.

Taylor Swift isn’t responsible for the Pirate Bay’s founders being in jail. But when artists make claims about file-sharing reducing their “value” as artists, these claims are political, and they are part of the political climate that makes the persecution of file-sharing politically acceptable.

But take Taylor Swift’s question seriously for a moment. What is the value of an artist? Taylor Swift has a net worth of US$200 million because tens of millions of people listen to her music. Most of these people first heard Taylor Swift’s music for free, maybe on the radio or online, and much later, decided to pay some money to buy recordings of her songs or albums, or to see her in concert. Almost no one buys an album without hearing some of the songs first. Without the free distribution channels, no one would know who Taylor Swift was, no one would have bought her album, no one would have gone to her concerts, no one would have known her value as an artist, and she would have none of her millions.

Or take a step back from that, and ask, did Taylor Swift develop her musical style on a deserted island and come to her American audiences, completed albums in hand? Or did she develop her songs based on influences by hundreds of other artists whose music she heard constantly, for free, throughout her childhood and adolescence? When I heard the wind instruments in her song, “Shake it Off”, for example, I thought of the bridge from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. For a more direct connection, artists have been telling their listeners to “Shake It” since at least the 1970s (5). Swift would never claim that the phrases “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate” were original to her or to her song. And so on, and on. Musicians, indeed all artists, borrow from one another, are influenced by one another, learn, and add their own little original pieces to the culture. Some artists are more graceful than others in acknowledging influences or samples. I only knew that 2Pac had done a song called Me & My Girlfriend (6), which is pretty much the same song as Jay Z and Beyonce’s song, “03 Bonnie and Clyde” (7), when a friend played 2Pac’s (relatively obscure) version for me years after ’03 Bonnie and Clyde.

Without the chance to borrow and incorporate other people’s music into theirs, would Jay Z and Beyonce be able to refer to themselves as “a billion dollars in an elevator” (8)? Probably not. Without the ability to freely listen and share, there would be no Taylor Swift, no Jay Z, no Beyonce, none of the massive fortunes that these industry players are now trying to use, along with the legal system and their cultural influence, to stop file sharing.

No one can deny that these artists are talented. But talent is not so rare as Taylor Swift’s op-ed would suggest. There are millions of people, just as talented, that are toiling away in obscurity, putting their music out on the web, hoping one day to find audiences. Even for those who manage to put together a livelihood from their work, they might make thousands of dollars per year. Does Taylor Swift really believe she is ten thousand times more talented than one of these artists? Does she really believe that she has ten thousand times more heart and soul to pour into her work? Such beliefs are not to be celebrated. Like Beyonce’s talk of a “billion dollars in an elevator”, they are a celebration of an inequality that has become so pervasive that we forget how vulgar it is.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould, wrote in his book “The Panda’s Thumb” that he was “somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Taylor Swift’s millions are of a lot less interest than the millions of Taylor Swifts whose talent will never be known.

A few decades ago, when I was a kid, I used to sit next to a stereo system that had a radio and a cassette tape recorder attached, waiting for one of my favorite songs to come on, so that I could press “record” at exactly the right time and get a recording that I could listen to over and over again. Worse, I would use these recordings to make mix-tapes that I would share with friends from my school. In the world of Swift and of copyright math, I was stealing, contributing to an early version of the multi-billion dollar economic losses that file-sharing represents today.

There are much better ways that society could support artists, giving all artists a good living and the chance to find audiences. There are better frameworks, like the Creative Commons (, to facilitate artists being able to share and also get recognition for their work.

Taylor Swift cannot get what she thinks she’s worth without a whole framework of laws that control how we listen, watch, and read, without surveillance on all of us to ensure we comply with these laws, without the police to hunt down and arrest people who seek to share the products of the culture we live in, without jail terms and demonstrative punishments for those who defy these rules. It isn’t worth it.

First published at TeleSUR English.


Some have asked, “who pays artists?” I have no problem with audiences paying artists – for concerts, for merchandise, even for music, if they choose to. The problem is the monitoring and persecution of file-sharing, which is enabled by the defining of sharing music (or other information or cultural products) as a form of “theft”. It is a strange kind of theft where the person stolen from still has the item after the theft. We all know that sharing is a good thing, and that sharing is very different from “theft”. The vast majority of artists have no fortunes to protect by persecuting people who share their work. It is the millionaire artists who are trying to kick away the ladder of free music they climbed up on that this essay argues against.


Taylor Swift,July 7, 2014. “For Taylor Swift, the Future of Music is a Love Story.” Wall Street Journal.
Rob Reid, the $8 billion iPod. TED talks,February 2012.
Jon Russell, “Police Finally Arrest the Third and Final Founder of the Pirate Bay” TechCrunchNovember 4, 2014.
Andy, “Police seized 50 servers in Pirate Bay raid”,January 23,, “10 Biggest ‘Shake’ Singles in Billboard Hot 100 History”.
2Pac, “Me & My Girlfriend” – for now, listen at:
Jay Z and Beyonce, “’03 Bonnie and Clyde”– part of what Beyonce sings in this song is also taken from TLC’s song, “If I was your girlfriend” -
TMZ “Beyonce raps about elevator fight”.August 3, 2014.


A review of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: the Many Faces of Anonymous, by Gabriella Coleman. First published at TeleSUR English.

On December 17, independent journalist Barrett Brown, who has been in jail for two years without trial, had his first sentencing hearing (see the report by The Intercept). Barrett Brown was threatened with one hundred years in prison for analyzing documents that were hacked from private security companies HBGary and Stratfor. Brown never hacked anything – he received the documents and was reporting on them.

Interesting points emerge from a posting by Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who reacted to the sentencing hearing. Assange pointed out that the charges against Brown were of two kinds: the first, pertaining to his reporting on the Stratfor documents, which should be protected under free expression. The other, pertaining to things he said when the FBI threatened to charge his mother unless he turned over his source material. The worst thing Brown said about the FBI agent was a tweet that read, “illegally shoot the son of a bitch”. Assange pointed out that this tweet was Brown quoting Fox News’s Bob Beckel, who called for Assange’s assassination. (Assange posted this link as proof.) Beckel has faced no FBI investigation, no legal consequences, no arrests. Barrett Brown, who quoted him, has been in jail for two years and is threatened with many more. Brown and his lawyers have gag orders against them – the prosecution told the court that Brown has shown “intent to continue to manipulate the public through press and social media comments,” thus undermining the enormously powerful government’s right to a fair chance of obtaining a harsh conviction against this independent journalist.

The Stratfor emails got into Barrett Brown’s possession by way of Jeremy Hammond, a hacker who is now serving a 10-year sentence for stealing the secrets of the private intelligence company. Stratfor is a part of a $350 billion security industry that seamlessly links government, police, and private intelligence networks. The Stratfor emails provided, in Gabriella Coleman’s words, “solid nuggets of proof that Stratfor profited from morally dubious practices, such as corporate propaganda dressed as public relations and the monitoring of activists.” One of Stratfor’s founders, Ronald Duchin, devised the “Duchin formula” for attacking movements, published by journalist Steve Horn and quoted in Coleman’s book: “isolate the radicals, ‘cultivate’ the idealists and ‘educate’ them into becoming realists. Then co-opt the realists in agreeing with industry.”

Government and corporate intelligence agencies are extraordinarily non-transparent. What the public knows about them is known almost entirely because of hackers like Hammond and Assange, independent journalists like Brown (and Poitras and Greenwald), and whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden. People like Hammond, Snowden, and Manning took tremendous risks to get these materials to the public, and Hammond and Manning and Brown, among others, are suffering greatly for it.

Neither Hammond nor Manning were caught because they made technical mistakes, even though both of them obtained their data through some technically sophisticated means. Manning’s mistake was befriending someone named Adrian Lamo, who informed on her to the FBI. Hammond was a part of Anonymous, and interacted throughout the hacks with Hector Monsegur, aka “Sabu”, who helped entrap Hammond and many other hackers when Sabu became an FBI informant.

But the arrests and jail terms were not the end of Anonymous. Anonymous’s main twitter feed, @YourAnonNews, has 1.36 million followers. Having maintained a media presence for years, Anonymous is now a powerful media organization in its own right. In addition to the Stratfor hacks, Anonymous can claim credit for exposing abusive police during Occupy, for exposing rapists and rape culture in Canada and the US, and for participating in the Arab Spring in operations against Tunisia’s dictatorship. They are currently highly active against murderous police in the US, in Ferguson and NYC. They have an uncanny ability to land on the side of the oppressed, even where many progressives flounder – as in Israel’s recent massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.

As the arrests and jail sentences show, Anonymous is just as subject to vengeance by the powerful as any other group of activists in history. And yet, Anonymous’s mystique is hard to resist: the Guy Fawkes masks, the idea of some huge number of people everywhere, with extraordinary technical skills, able to frighten the powerful, avenge wrongs, and get away with it. How could anyone begin to understand such a phenomenon?

The starting point would be to do what Gabriella Coleman did for her book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: the Many Faces of Anonymous: spending time in the Anonymous’s IRC chat rooms, getting to know them, studying what they do and how they do it. Coleman’s methods are anthropological, the same methods she used in her previous book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. In Hacker, Hoaxer, Coleman helps her readers make sense of the bewildering array of actions, statements, and reprisals that have occurred in this relatively new field of activism and the unique group that has brought it so much attention.

Coleman shows how Anonymous emerged from what she calls some of the most “abject forms of trolling”, in which people anonymously did bizarre and malicious things on the internet, just for the lulz (a variation of “lols”, or “laughs out loud”). She explains the idea of the lulz the way an anthropologist would: in terms of a universal trickster figure present in most human cultures. The internet trolling done by the precursors of Anonymous, like that done in stories of mythological stories of tricksters, is mischievous, malicious, and not obviously done for any gain by the trickster (or troll). But when the lulz-seeking behaviour was turned against the powerful, what emerged was something very interesting indeed.

It started, as Coleman documents, with a campaign against the church of Scientology – a lulzy campaign that got more serious as Anons learned more about Scientology’s outrages. Anonymous’s Tunisia operations were the next big step, and Coleman immortalizes the IRC chat log of the decision to attack the Tunisian dictatorship’s servers:

: why are we hitting up tunisia?

: Because they’e just passed a law which says the media can’t say what they want and banned them from mentioning wikileaks

: K-rad, thank you! time to own tunisia then

Coleman follows Anonymous through the Tunisia operations, through the formation of specialized hacker groups LulzSec and AntiSec (because not all Anons are hackers), through to the FBI attacks on Anonymous and the arrests of many of its members, much of which was due to entrapment by the FBI informant Sabu.

In addition to the lulzy, trickster aspect of Anonymous, Coleman describes and explains several other fascinating aspects of the Anons. One of the most powerful aspects is the way the Anons eschew celebrity culture and apply severe social pressure to those who try to use Anonymous to become famous or build their own names. This built-in disavowal of celebrity culture, I believe, helps explain Anonymous’s credibility and, despite some of its more “abject trolling”, it also helps explain how a group of tricksters and hackers can somehow become a moral voice on a chaotic, celebrity-obsessed, and increasingly proprietary internet. Exerting effort to be anonymous on the internet is also good privacy and security practice, another issue that Anonymous has brought to light (as have activist collectives like Riseup and non-anonymous people like Lawrence Lessig, Bruce Schneier, and Richard Stallman).

In all of these respects – mischief and trickery directed at the right targets; eschewing celebrity culture; fighting for freedom and for anonymity on the internet – Anonymous shows us all, and especially leftists, things we can learn.

And in this context, Helen Lewis’s review of Hacker, Hoaxer for the New Statesman misses the point. There is much more to Anonymous, and much more to Coleman’s book, than the fact that the Anons don’t know one another, and much more to their exploits than what happened with Sabu and the FBI. Counterposing Anonymous with the “strong ties” cited by Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker essay about the civil rights movement, as Lewis does, doesn’t make sense. There have been very strong ties indeed (up to and including marriages, Coleman cites) made in Anonymous. And the FBI has destroyed movements based on personal relationships and strong ties using the same methods they used against the Anons: infiltration, entrapment, suborning people and turning them into informants. Finally, the civil rights movement was a different era. As Lawrence Lessig argued in his lecture about Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide when he faced 35 years for taking journal articles from a university server because he wanted to make scientific research universally accessible (transcript here):

“Compare: Martin Luther King, the civil disobedient, was arrested on scores of misdemeanors. He was only ever charged with two felonies and acquitted by an all-white jury of those two felonies because the basis for the claims were so outrageous. He did jail time, scores of days in jail. Compare him with Aaron, charged with 13 felonies, giving a federal judge the right to sentence him to up to 35 years in jail.”

Given the shocking prosecutorial zealotry in cases against hackers, it is hard to fault Anonymous (or Assange or Snowden) for not wanting to get caught trying to make the world a better place. And, as Coleman points out, even after Sabu and the FBI raids, quite a few Anons never did get caught, and are still out there.

Coleman’s book helps us understand Anonymous by revealing it to be another form of political activism: people coming together to try to fight for a better world, using, in this case, their computers and direct action, sometimes illegally (as people who do civil disobedience do). Their fights – for free expression in a world of suppression, for privacy in a world of universal surveillance, for the non-alienated use of technology in a world of corporate control, against the abuse of power in a world of police and corporate impunity – are not going away. Neither will the system, which depends on people to run it, ever be completely invulnerable against people who develop skills within it and hold on to some semblance of their conscience. There will be a need for Anonymous for the foreseeable future. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, can show you where it came from.

I am not a gadget

Jaron Lanier, author of “You are not a gadget”, is very well-informed about what he is writing about, which is some of the social consequences of the internet, and some of the implicit ideologies that are built into the internet as we are living with it today. Lanier was one of the early minds behind virtual reality and has helped create a lot of the technology that shapes how we live and how we think. In his book, “You are not a gadget” (Knopf NY 2010) he offers some reflections on this technology, recent trends and coming trends, and the relationship of the technology to society.

Continue reading “I am not a gadget”

Thoughts on Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

After a couple of recommendations from a couple of different directions, I read Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains”. It combines neuroplasticity research (which I read about in Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself”) with ideas about a literary, print-based culture versus an electronic media-based culture. The book was mentioned in Tapscott & Williams’s “Macrowikinomics” and in Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class”. Hedges also criticizes electronic media based culture and laments the death of print-based culture in his “Empire of Illusion”.

The basic argument of “The Shallows” is that the web is good for associating bits of information but print was good for deep reading, thinking, and contemplation. My friend Michael Albert focused on the attention span aspect of the argument in a recent blog post on ZNet: that attention spans decrease as online information flow increases.

Here’s a hopeful aspect: neuroplasticity goes both ways. If lots of internet use can reprogram us to lose our attention spans, practice thinking and contemplating can reprogram us to be reflective and thoughtful.

The other point that I’ve been thinking about is where Carr quotes Neil Postman, a very interesting writer on technology and society. On pg.151-2, Carr quotes Postman’s book “Technopoly”, who in turn was describing the key elements of scientific management. The six assumptions of Taylorism, or scientific management, as Postman writes – quoted in Carr:

“that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

Carr uses this quote in a discussion about Google’s philosophy, and corrects the sixth assumption for the case of Google: “Google doesn’t believe that the affairs of citizens are best guided by experts. It believes that those affairs are best guided by software algorithms”.

This does take me back to Douglas Hubbard, who I mentioned in my post about Norberto Bobbio and democracy. Hubbard’s business book “How to Measure Anything”, is, if anything, an argument for good measurement and not bad measurement. His more recent book called “The Failure of Risk Management”, is even more explicitly a plea for using techniques that have some rigor and justification as opposed to subjective illusions of measurement and quantification.

What I wonder about though is, does even good measurement have possibly perverse effects? Does even good measurement crowd out important ways of thinking, like ethical reasoning or historical comparison? I am genuinely not sure about this point. Another question – if it comes to social conflict, can networked thinkers beat deep thinkers, or does it go the other way?