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Monthly Archives: July, 2015

The Internet Anti-Revolution

“The Internet” is often lionized for its effects on what are, to the well-off people who can even use them, trivialities. Parsing the praise for services from Uber to Airbnb, the depoliticized reader can just imagine the sheer horrors of the bygone dystopia in she had to dial taxi services (on a phone, no less!) or put up with the indignities of hotel reservations. Few have popped this Internet hype balloon with more aplomb than Ha-Joon Chang, who in a sublime chapter in his book “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism,” convincingly argued that the washing machine was a more important and socially progressive invention than “the Interne,” since the latter has mostly benefited our leisure lives. Has “the Internet” really sparked a “revolution” because of its ability to ease the discovery of nearby tapas joints?

I have put “the Internet” as well as “revolution” in quotes for a reason:

  • First, although it is by default discussed as a non-political, reified force, “the Internet” is a social relation, built and managed by humans in accordance with the politics and class systems of their societies. “The Internet” is not a thing; it does not exist in nature and there is nothing inevitable about its character. As such, discussions of its abilities to influence human relations (this phrasing alone shows just how reified it has become) cannot simply trace its history of technological updates – e.g., the creation of Ethernet, the introduction of TCP/IP, the advent of Wi-Fi, etc. – but must also include the circumstances that attended these changes.
  • Second, “revolution” is an odd choice by the technology commentariat for a descriptor of “the Internet”‘s impact, considering that revolutions are political affairs and often  – as in the case of the ones that occurred in Russia and China last century – anticapitalist. Nevertheless, bloggers such as Ben Thompson of Stratechery conceive of an “Internet Revolution” that will rival the Industrial Revolution in scope and lasting power. I wonder if he and others realize that the Industrial Revolution only brought about the polished bourgeoise world of “tech” by centuries of class domination. As Lenin once said, “Advances in in the spheres of technology and science in capitalist society are but advances in the extortion of sweat.”

It is empirically the case that the world’s Ubers and Airbnbs, its Googles and Facebooks, and its iPhones and Fitbits, are only possible via a vast often unseen (or ignored) store of labor – Marx’s “hidden abode of production” – that cannot possibly compete with the “noisy sphere of consumption.” Whether 1099 contractors (your Uber driver), unpaid “content” contributors (everyone on every social network ever), or literal slaves (the children and poor who extract the metals that go into many consumer electronics), it’s safe to say that the actual grunt-work of the so-called “Internet Revolution” is not being put in by programmers logging “80” hours a week (see Peter Fleming’s breezy takedown of the overwork culture from a few months ago) but instead by the massive global underclasses.

Revolution and “normal people”
I just finished Astra Taylor’s excellent book “The People’s Platform,” which I discovered from a review on Fredrik deBoer’s website (which I essentially binge-read this past week). I could not recommend it more highly – it is a sober, well-researched, impeccably written corrective to the idea that “the Internet” will inevitably enable an egalitarian makeover of society because of how its users now have “open” access to so much information, each one with a smartphone in her pocket to become her own filmmaker or reporter.

John Pat Leary expressed similar sentiments in a brief piece for Salon recently, going after the buzzword of all buzzwords: “innovation”:

“[I]nnovation transforms processes and leaves structures intact. Thus, instead of reinventing housing or transit, “innovators” mostly develop new processes to monetize the dysfunctional housing and transit we already have, via companies like Airbnb and Uber.  It’s one thing, therefore, to celebrate novelty indiscriminately — as if meth labs and credit-default swaps are not innovative — but what if the new isn’t even very new at all?”

Uber introduced a smartphone-accessible CRM on top of the existing taxi and limo infrastructure. Airbnb has done something similar with tons of rental units. But against these technically trivial changes to the topmost layers of huge social systems of labor (i.e., transportation and housing), Thompson et al still hold out hope for a techno-utopia:

“At the risk of painting too broad a stroke, it seems to me that much of the opposition to changes wrought by the Internet undervalue the positive impact said changes have on normal people. For example, people despair over newspapers closing without appreciating the explosion in quality content freely available to anyone anywhere in the world, the net result of which means those who choose to be can be far more informed about far more things than just a few years ago. Others gripe about Facebook’s frivolity or it and Google’s collection of data without acknowledging that both have fundamentally changed how we relate to both those we know as well as anything we wish to know.”

I’m not sure who these “normal people” are – perhaps they are inserted as a semantic complement to the “revolution” terminology often thrown around in these contexts, to exploit the notion of a pleased proletariat yet one that is diminished by being reduced to being a set of passive consumers (of services like Uber) rather than active citizens (who would have the political legs to bargain against more powerful interests). I think Thompson overestimates the demographic variety of “Internet” users, many of whom are well-off males using services designed by others like them. Anyway, the rest of the paragraph is chock-full of the types of arguments that Taylor spend her entire book debunking:

  • Many newspapers have closed, but the likes of BuzzFeed (a Thompson favorite) and HuffPo (to name but two) have hardly replaced the investigative journalism and noncommercial writing (i.e., research and reporting that knows nothing of a world of “sponsored content” or other euphemisms for payola) that they performed. There has been a change in incentives, to say the least.
  • “Freely available” is a misnomer. It’s free to the person who navigates to the site, in that she doesn’t have to pay for access. But she pays a huge price in attention-drain (ads), privacy (tracking from ads), and social safety nets and programs (from the downward pressure on wages of writers, created by giving away so much stuff for “free”).
  • It is naive to think that “the explosion in quality content” (there’s that word again) means that everyone is going to be an adept hunter-gatherer of the precise items needed to be informed in a democratic society. Instead, there’s the echo chamber facilitated by Google and Facebook, which show us mostly what we have already seen (what a depressing lack of imagination), and the lingering effects of churnalism – tons of articles cranked out by writers toiling for fractions of a cent per word – meant to play to the profit-driven “platforms” of the major Web companies rather than the public interest.
  • If this seems abstract, imagine if say the police department in your community were dissolved tomorrow and replaced by an “explosion” of “law enforcement content.” So instead of a publicly-funded, equal opportunity service offered to the community for the price of their taxes, the replacement would be an abundance of private sector for-profit law enforcement agencies that would have no motive other than to make as much money as possible. It would soon become evident that this incentive does not align with basic principles of health, safety, or community.
  • Similarly, “the normal people” who ostensibly benefit from the convenience of a service like Uber end up paying a price in the privatization of basic services such as transportation. Capitalist organizations, unlike public agencies, are incentivized to accumulate capital but not necessarily to act in the public interest or even be fair to all customers.
  • To continue with Leary’s observation, “innovative” services indeed carry over and magnify the flaws of the systems that they purport to replace, to the extent that for every convenience they unlock they seemingly burden someone else with a new injustice (more extortion of sweat indeed). That could take the form of increasingly long, low-paying hours or new wrinkles such as disregard for disability laws in the case of Uber, despite the latter’s much-ballyhooed elimination of the old-school discrimination of cabbies passing up fares whose appearance they didn’t like.
  • Anecdotes decrying the workings of Uber, Facebook, et al are often dismissed out of hand by the technology commentariat – Thompson himself talks of “countless anecdotal stories about how a company valued at tens of billions of dollars is taking advantage of drivers earning tens of dollars per hour at best” and sets it aside by dismissively asking “what drivers ought to do otherwise.” This sort of preemptive exasperation is common in tech-Twitter and on like-minded blogs – this idea that unions, labor bargaining, and more equal distribution for workers cannot be part of any Serious Conversation about the issues (I’m using “Serious” in the delightfully derisive Paul Krugman sense here).
  • And yet, these writers’ same anecdotes – Thompson’s piece has one about his own stay in Airbnb and how using a hotel would have been personally prohibitive – are often used to show how great the Internet-enabled services in questions actually are!

What I am ultimately getting at is there is a clear structure to all towering talk of how “the Internet” is “revolutionizing” every field from medicine to education to journalism. That is, there is a surface layer consisting of examples such as Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, etc. that have tackled recreational concerns – these are the trivialities I discussed earlier. Beneath that, there is the layer of the much more substantial changes of uprooted labor, unpaid toil, and erosion of the power of public institutions, all of which are being effectively obscured by the bourgeoise “problems” that the most prominent Internet services solve.

We extol Uber’s “disruption” (I hate this word – only a hyper-capitalist would be fascinated by how pushing down labor costs can make products more competitive!) of a telephone- and thumb-enabled good with an Internet-enabled one, speaking of a minor change in ordering/billing infrastructure as if it were world-altering. We do this when the big change is really the degradation of the cabbie profession, the privatization of transportation options, and the continued dominance of capital over labor. We are paying a huge price for what amounts to trivial advances for the upper classes…

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Asking hard questions of Google’s neural nets

What is the point of tech journalism? Actually, what is the point of journalism writ large in 2015?

Let’s start with the latter – as Matt Bruenig helpfully noted on his blog a while back, many journalists insist that they “work for the public” by covering hard stories like the rationale behind ISIS or, to cite a classic example, the secrecy of the Pentagon Papers. Journalists seem to imagine a wall between themselves and the ‘lesser’ folks who work in fields such as content marketing and especially public relations. Those people might write merely to please other businesses or spin new products, but we journalists – the journalists seem to say – we are fulfilling a higher calling.

Whatever. Jennifer Pan penned a great article for Jacobin about the PR/journalism row, looking at the extraordinary, thankless emotional labor expended by non-“journalists,” mostly women. This work is every bit as “real” as Wesley Lowery going to Ferguson so that he could then endlessly brag about it on Twitter, and it is increasingly the norm for white collar workers everywhere who, overwhelmed with task, are under the gun to channel their emotions into deadline-driven writing.

The plight is shared. Trying to draw these particular lines is just another form of capitalism’s shameful culture of work-prestige, in which we humiliate workers doing thankless jobs to survive, and especially the unemployed who, even if they don’t want or need to work, face unbelievable cultural scorn simply because their efforts are not remunerated! Some day this attitude will be seen for the antisocial embarrassment that it is.

In this context, “journalist” becomes a moral and normative, rather than a descriptive, term.”Journalist” is to the language-intensive fields what “entrepreneur” is to the tech sector: a loaded word for dressing up ultimately mundane labor, which is everywhere. The entrepreneur runs businesses, and the journalist writes words that target a specific demographic favorable to advertisers. Doesn’t sound so extraordinary, does it?

Are Vox, BuzzFeed, and even The New York Times now anything more than vehicles for precisely paired ads and text? Look, here’s a mansplainer about coal power plants, alongside a tasteful banner ad for Hulu. Journalists imagine the traditional wall between their work and the business itself, but even this separation has its limits. I doubt The Verge is going to do a deep-dive series on the merits of Leninism or on the unremarkable hypercapitalism of Google, Facebook et al.

Which brings me back to the original question – what do tech journalists do?

The likes of The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo or even one-man operations like Stratechery’s Ben Thompson and others from the Web’s most trafficked sites often create work that is indistinguishable from press releases. I mean, Manjoo once talked about how Spotify encourages “a musical culture that more closely resembles a cocktail buffet than a sit-down dinner,” without asking if this is a good thing, why it happened, or what is means for the people producing the music. Thompson’s posts, while typically more nuanced, rarely challenge what firms from Uber to Apple do, instead viewing these companies as essentially apolitical entities that move with all the impersonal intractability of something like the weather or time itself. A typical paragraph reads:

“When you think about it that way — that Netflix isn’t so much a network as they are a type of marketplace in which consumers can give their attention to creators — it becomes apparent that Netflix isn’t that far off from Uber or Airbnb or any of the other market-makers that are transforming industry-after-industry.”

Netflix isn’t just some company that put videos on its servers, no – it’s one of the new “market-makers,” an enviable godlike position in a world in which “the market” is still treated as a fact of nature rather than, as John Pat Leary has so elegantly noted, “a political instrument and a historical notion.” Companies are really just people – laborers, beholden to capitalists – but tech journalism makes them seem like persons – i.e., autonomous, cohesive entities with their own histories and personalities. The U.S. Supreme Court would be proud.

To get a real sense of just how completely tech journalists and reporters have capitulated to the propaganda, though, you have to have read its recent hysteria about Google’s neural nets. Basically, Google fed random images to its custom cloud infrastructure and got some “weird” results that the tech press thought were cool. Here’s Business Insider’s hot take:

“Google’s artificial neural networks are supposed to be used for image recognition of specific objects like cars or dogs. Recently, Google’s engineers turned the networks upside down and fed them random images and static in a process they called “inceptionism.”

In return, they discovered their algorithms can turn almost anything into trippy images of knights with dog heads and pig-snails.”

Bleh. Even the grouchy Gizmodo couldn’t muster much more than some linked tweets and images and an invitation to try it out for yourself. So Freddie de Boer was right when he noted:

“I still have not seen a single piece on this “Google’s dreams” thing that asks a single hard question or brings an ounce of skepticism.”

So in that spirit, I’m going to ask some hard questions of my own (I figure my skepticism is more than implied throughout this entire piece):

  • What does this mean for facial recognition technology? Is Google preparing its neural nets to catalog all human faces with identities? What if someone doesn’t want this?
  • Google is an advertising company. Is it planning to run psychology experiments on its users by showing them subtly “modified” images that are just click-traps?
  • We hear a lot about how Google, Microsoft, and others face a “skills gap” that prevents them from hiring U.S. workers. This is bullshit, but how much do these companies actually benefit from using this vulnerable labor from India and other places to fuel the development of questionable, antisocial projects, like these neural nets?
  • We’re often told that superhuman AI is not only inevitable, but necessary. If these ‘dreams’ are the basis for what we’re creating – super fast image recognition – is there really so much promise in this technology, though? Better ads, quicker load times – that’s it?

I could keep going, but all of this is tedious I realize. Just as journalists are increasingly at the mercy of advertisers – to the point that even great outfits like iMore are inseparable from the annoying ad engines that keep their lights on – tech journalists are more subtly ruled over by the motives of reified firms that seemingly none of them dare question.