Tim Bray takes a stand

Tim Bray, now ex-VP in Amazon, quit his job in protest at the treatment of the warehouse workers:

Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.

Don’t say it can’t be done, because France is doing it.

Poison · Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets. It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison. ¶

What about AWS? · Amazon Web Services (the “Cloud Computing” arm of the company), where I worked, is a different story. It treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance, struggles to move the diversity needle (and mostly fails, but so does everyone else), and is by and large an ethical organization. I genuinely admire its leadership. ¶

Of course, its workers have power. The average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better.

Spot a pattern? · At the end of the day, it’s all about power balances. The warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and (in the US) job-linked health insurance. So they’re gonna get treated like crap, because capitalism. Any plausible solution has to start with increasing their collective strength. ¶

Worth reading in full.

Surveillance Capitalism

Councils are sharing your data in the UK with whoever wants it, basically (” https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/feb/04/councils-let-firms-track-visits-to-webpages-on-benefits-and-disability “).

Wolfie Christl, a technologist and researcher who has been investigating the ad-tech industry, said: “Public sector websites and apps should not use invasive third-party tracking at all.”

Johnny Ryan, the chief policy officer at the anonymous web browser Brave, who analysed council websites and shared the findings with the Guardian, said: “Private companies embedded on council websites learn about you. This happens even on the most sensitive occasions, when you might be seeking help from your council.”

Imagine someone was standing outside a council office taking note of the people entering and leaving, maybe what they wear, which department they went to, we’d revolt at the intrusion. This cookie stuff is just less visible, it’s no different.

“We are in an abusive relationship with our phones”

This is an illuminating way of looking at what the relationship really is like between us and our smartphones, and more generally with the you-are-the-product companies that provide so many of the services we use on smartphones or other devices nowadays.

What our smartphones and relationship abusers share is that they both exert power over us in a world shaped to tip the balance in their favour, and they both work really, really hard to obscure this fact and keep us confused and blaming ourselves. Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:

– They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact — ‘user engagement’ — that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.

– They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.

– They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.

– They love-bomb us when we try to break away, piling on the free data or device upgrades, making us click through page after page of dark pattern, telling us no one understands us like they do, no one else sees everything we really are, no one else will want us.

– It’s impossible to just cut them off. They’ve wormed themselves into every part of our lives, making life without them unimaginable. And anyway, the relationship is complicated. There is love in it, or there once was. Surely we can get back to that if we just manage them the way they want us to?

Nope. Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true.

Maria Farrell

You need to be able to see the box you’re in before you can start thinking outside it. It doesn’t have to be this way – “to get out of an abusive relationship you first have to see it for what it is”.

via Bruce Schneier & Memex

Letting your mind breathe

Modern life is making us anxious:

Keeping calm in modern life is difficult and even our sleep is under threat from a surprising source. “I love watching Netflix and streaming TV shows, but that’s having an impact on our sleep. Recently the head of Netflix said that his main competitor isn’t another TV company – it’s sleep,” says Matt.

“Sleep is where they can make their money. If people aren’t going to bed until 2am because they’re watching the latest show, that will boost their business model.”

The market driven world we live in has put vast amounts of time and effort into attracting and keeping your attention. I think it’s important to remember that there’s a vast array of dedicated, skilled people employed at thousands of companies, all working to take you attention and keep it. So don’t feel bad for losing yourself in your twitter stream or tumblr, but when you do, put it down. Make space for your mind to be free.

1,200 people in Europe will die prematurely due to Volkswagen

The stark reality of the ‘cheating’ on emissions by Volkswagen:

“The researchers estimate that 1,200 people in Europe will die early, each losing as much as a decade of their life, as a result of excess emissions generated,” said the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which took part in the study.

The European Environment Agency estimates that more than 400,000 people die prematurely every year due to outdoor air pollution in urban Europe – about half of it from traffic emissions.Volkswagen’s rigged cars emitted NOx at levels that were on average four times the European limit, said the MIT statement.The researchers combined data on Volkswagen emissions, how far and often Germans drive their cars, and pollution-impacting weather phenomena such as wind and rainfall.They produced a map of pollution which they overlaid on population density charts of Europe.With these, they calculated Europeans’ exposure to German-derived excess emissions from the Volkswagen deceit, and their increased risk of premature death.

“It ends up being about a one percent extra risk of dying early in a given year, per microgram per metre cubed of fine particles you’re exposed to,” Barrett explained.
Typically, that means that someone who dies early from air pollution ends up dying about a decade early.
Excess emissions are calculated as the difference between the limits set by European authorities, and actual pollution that took place under the fraud.

So, how much corporate and shareholder profit was gained by killing people? This isn’t cheating, it’s killing fellow humans for profit.

Source: Study finds pollution from rigged Volkswagens will kill 1,200 people in Europe

Stress is not the default or How to Succeed in Business and then Die Anyway

How To Succeed In Business And Then Die Anyway

Jennifer O’Connell says it well in the IT (“Jennifer O’Connell: Being an adult does not mean being stressed and anxious all the time”)when she denounces the high-stress, always-on, anxiety culture which is accepted as the ‘norm’ and even lauded as a goal by some. Stress is a short term thing, it’s not meant to be the default, and constant stress is a debilitating condition, no matter if you think you can ‘handle it’ or not. And what’s the point?

To spend your one and only life like a hamster on a wheel, running faster and faster just to stay on, would be a terrible waste. There are no prizes for being the busiest, the one who manages to inflict the highest degree of stress-induced cellular damage on their body in the shortest amount of time. Chronic stress is not a natural condition. Stress and insomnia are precursors to many significant illnesses, from depression to Alzheimer’s.

Mozart: Still got it after all these years… ?

Mozart has topped the CD sales chart for the year, according to qz.

The music business as we know it is dead. It’s fitting that the final nail in its coffin would be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—the 18th-century composer, long-dead himself—who this month became 2016’s top artist by CD sales.

Mozart owes the win to a boxed set of his music that was released Oct. 28 in celebration of the 225th anniversary of his death and went on to sell 1.25 million CDs in just five weeks. (Drake’s Views took twice that time to edge past 1 million sales, by comparison.) The compilation “is the fruit of years of scholarship, planning, and curation,” according to Universal Music Group.

It’s very different from when I was a kid. Or is it? These days I buy albums occasionally on vinyl because I like the feel of it, and it gives me the warm comfies that I’m directly supporting an artist (for what it’s worth). I also subscribe to Spotify, and listen to most of my music through that. I do it because it’s easy, and you get access to more music. 

Back when I was a lad (tell us a story, grandad!), the only way to get music was to go to a record shop or listen to what was filtered through the radio DJ. And in Ireland in the 80’s and early 90’s, there was precious few stations broadcasting. The official RTE 2FM station was in competition with itself and the poor reception of BBC Radio 1 on the AM band (complete with the whee-whurr-whucks, beeps and crackles that long range AM reception was prone to. Sometimes it was hard to know if it was part of the song or not. Especially when listening to early dance and ambient). Domestic competition was limited to the illegal pirate stations like Radio Caroline and Radio Sunshine, as far as I remember. When Atlantic252 (long wave*) launched, it was a real alternative, even if the playlist infamously consisted of the same 25 tracks on repeat.

Anyway, avenues to discover music were limited. Maybe it was different if you lived in a town or city, but out in the country I had precious few ways of discovering new bands and new sounds. Heavy metal, punk, classical, all were unknown countries to me, glimpsed fleetingly through the popular press. It’s only with the advent of the internet and recommendation engines like last.fm and Spotify, plus blogs and wiki’s that the opportunity to actually explore the music world has been possible. I’ve listened to bands I’d never have discovered back in the day. In fact, I know I’d never have discovered them because I didn’t – I’m now listening to bands that I didn’t get to listen to properly at the time – Pixies, Motörhead, Girlschool, Kate Bush, Arvo Pärt

Is the music industry dead? Not from where I’m standing. As a listener I’ve never had it so good. Maybe the industry is dead, but the music world isn’t. 
*[Aside: you could also pick up the station in your fridge, on your phone, from your computer speaker and so on in the locality. Which was hilarious at first, and then incredibly annoying. A lot of devices were replaced as a result.]

What’s rare is, reportable

Good points from John Naughton in the Guardian today about the recent Tesla car auto-pilot crash:

For that kind of discussion to be possible, however, mainstream media will have to change the way they report self-driving cars. Every time a Tesla or a Google car is involved in a crash, by all means report it. But also report all the “human error” crashes that occurred on the same day. It’s not rocket science, just balanced reporting

Unfortunately, rare or unusual events are more newsworthy than the mundane, even when the mundane is death. Road deaths are often sadly treated as background, some sort of par for the course. 

The Neoliberal Problem

Financialisation, as Andrew Sayer notes in Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, has had a similar impact. “Like rent,” he argues, “interest is … unearned income that accrues without any effort”. As the poor become poorer and the rich become richer, the rich acquire increasing control over another crucial asset: money. Interest payments, overwhelmingly, are a transfer of money from the poor to the rich. As property prices and the withdrawal of state funding load people with debt (think of the switch from student grants to student loans), the banks and their executives clean up.

Sayer argues that the past four decades have been characterised by a transfer of wealth not only from the poor to the rich, but within the ranks of the wealthy: from those who make their money by producing new goods or services to those who make their money by controlling existing assets and harvesting rent, interest or capital gains. Earned income has been supplanted by unearned income.

Source: Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems


Danah Boyd has an interesting piece on the Reality Distortion Field that is modern tech. Viewed through the original call of Cyberspace from 20 years ago, during the halcyon early days of the ‘net, it’s a glimpse into the future that awaits, and its not pretty.

At first I thought I had just encountered the normal hype/fear dichotomy that I’m faced with on a daily basis. But as I listened to attendees talk, a nervous creeping feeling started to churn my stomach. Watching startups raise downrounds and watching valuation conversations moving from bubbalicious to nervousness, I started to sense that what the tech sector was doing at Davos was putting on the happy smiling blinky story that they’ve been telling for so long, exuding a narrative of progress: everything that is happening, everything that is coming, is good for society, at least in the long run.

Shifting from “big data,” because it’s become code for “big brother,” tech deployed the language of “artificial intelligence” to mean all things tech, knowing full well that decades of Hollywood hype would prompt critics to ask about killer robots. So, weirdly enough, it was usually the tech actors who brought up killer robots, if only to encourage attendees not to think about them. Don’t think of an elephant. Even as the demo robots at the venue revealed the limitations of humanoid robots, the conversation became frothy with concern, enabling many in tech to avoid talking about the complex and messy social dynamics that are underway, except to say that “ethics is important.” What about equality and fairness?

What indeed? To the new Kings of Cyberspace, that’s a minor detail. What matters is that they have the solution, if only us pesky normals would get out of their way and let them do it. Oh, and maybe provide a bit of funding. Crowdsource your nation.

There is a power shift underway and much of the tech sector is ill-equipped to understand its own actions and practices as part of the elite, the powerful. Worse, a collection of unicorns who see themselves as underdogs in a world where instability and inequality are rampant fail to realize that they have a moral responsibility.

They fight as though they are insurgents while they operate as though they are kings.

Worth reading on full: https://points.datasociety.net/it-s-not-cyberspace-anymore-55c659025e97#.qpdm0jv91