I… I have a confession…
Joy Reid is one of those “lucky” political commentators that gets a kicking from both ends of the political spectrum, either for being too liberal (by conservatives), or a liberal centrist sell-out shill (by progressives). I’m sure the fact that she’s a prominent African American woman has no-oo-oo-othing to do with either the impossible standards or the vitriol that gets directed her way over any and every perceived misstep.
Anyway. Recently, enterprising individuals have been using the Wayback Machine to dig up anti-gay posts Reid allegedly posted at her blog a decade ago. I say “allegedly”, because Reid claims she didn’t write the posts and that they were added to her site and/or the Wayback Machine itself later by hackers. archive.org disagrees.
Notably, Reid (and her lawyers) have request the material be removed from the Wayback Machine, which is supposedly a thing you can do.1 The official response?
[D]ue to Reid’s being a journalist (a very high-profile one, at that) and the journalistic nature of the blog archives, we declined to take down the archives.
And, okay look. I know that in some corners of the internet, the existence of the Wayback Machine is considered almost sacrosanct. That the archive itself can Do No Wrong and that its mission is Good™ are unquestioned and absolute.
Except, here’s the thing about the Wayback Machine:
The internet is pretty old, now, as is this whole blogging thing, and there are those of us who’ve been at it for a long time.2 And the people we were ten or fifteen or twenty years ago are not the people we are now. I know I’ve personally published things in old blog posts that would, nowadays, make me cringe, either because they reflect views I no longer hold or actions I would no longer take or just straight-up things I would no longer say out loud.3 And that’s… fine. It’s normal. It’s called growing up and learning and changing and shifting one’s views with the availability of new information. People make mistakes, and part of life is learning and moving on from them.
But there’s a culture of gotcha-games that exist in a particularly virulent form online, and that seem to disproportionally impact women and people of color, and especially disproportionally women and people of color to the progressive left of the political spectrum. Said something ~problematic~ on LiveJournal once back in 2003? Better hope you don’t get too big for your britches, sweetheart, because if you do? If you do, someone has a screenshot of that shit and it is going to come back to haunt you.
There are, obviously, things in the pasts of public figures that are of legitimate public interest. Crimes come to mind, or other ongoing harmful behavior. But writing ill-advised blog posts is not a crime. Nor is the fact that you once held a ~problematic~ view you’ve since moved on from an “ongoing harmful behavior”. It’s like the opposite of a that, in fact! It’s a good thing, a desired outcome. We all live in kyriarchial culture and no one was born woke on every intersection. We want people not just to change, but to feel that they’re able to change. Constantly accosting them with old mistakes? Not necessarily helpful on that front.4
And this is where I get to my problem with things like the Wayback Machine. Because more often than I’ve seen it used as a tool for “good”, I’ve seen it used as a tool of harassment. I’ve seen it used as a weapon, and primarily a weapon against successful marginalized people by bystanders who want to tar them with past sins. It’s used to extract grovelling public mea culpas because how dare a woman, or a person of color—or worse, both—be proud and successful on their own terms. Don’t they know only white men get to live the unapologetically edited versions of their own histories?
And here’s the thing. The idea that some unaccountable third-party gets to keep, in perpetuity, a record of everything you’ve ever said and done, and to make that record available to anyone who wants to trawl it, is Surveillance Culture 101. And while it might dress itself up in academic colors, make no mistake: the Wayback Machine is just as much a part of that as is Facebook or the NSA or Experian. And it’s beyond time to face up to that.
(While is, like, not to even to mention that whole big, “Er, actually, is this copyright infringement?” issue. Or the fact that the Wayback Machine is deceptive about its “opt-out”/exclusions policies. Sure, you can robots.txt it out… but only so long as the robots.txt file remains active. The Wayback Machine will still take a copy of your site, and will make it available as soon as that little files goes away. Which is… kinda dodgy. To say the least.)
- Although, when I just went to try and dig up the FAQ link on how to get stuff removed, I couldn’t find it. On the other hand, I could find a lot of people by people wanting to get their stuff removed from the Archive, and the Archive not complying. Hm… [↩]
- Nineteen years and counting for yours truly, in fact. [↩]
- Usually political beliefs, life choices, and social interactions, respectively. [↩]
- In fandom, incidentally, this behavior is part of what’s called “anti-culture”. The prevailing theory is this constant policing of purity and demanding of public grovelling for any perceived sin has been imported from that very American strain of fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. In other words, the political beliefs of individuals breaking away from their far-right theocratic upbringings may have changed, but their social modes of dealing with things have not. [↩]
In his epic anti-A.I. work from the mid-1970s, “Computer Power and Human Reason,” [Joseph] Weizenbaum described the scene at computer labs. “Bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice,” he wrote. “They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers. These are computer bums, compulsive programmers.”
He was concerned about them as young students lacking perspective about life and was worried that these troubled souls could be our new leaders. Neither Mr. Weizenbaum nor Mr. McCarthy mentioned, though it was hard to miss, that this ascendant generation were nearly all white men with a strong preference for people just like themselves. In a word, they were incorrigible, accustomed to total control of what appeared on their screens. “No playwright, no stage director, no emperor, however powerful,” Mr. Weizenbaum wrote, “has ever exercised such absolute authority to arrange a stage or a field of battle and to command such unswervingly dutiful actors or troops.”
Welcome to Silicon Valley, 2017.
Noam Cohen on techtatorships.
As an aside, Weizenbaum is the guy who, in the mid 1960s, wrote ELIZA, one of the first chatbots. ELIZA was primitive—it basically just echoed parts of what people typed to it back at them—but people’s reactions to it disturbed Weizenbaum so much that he kinda dropped the whole AI field and went on to be something of a tech doomsayer. Weizenbaum’s 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment To Calculation, is one of the ur-texts that attempts to lay out a pseudo-secular argument that humans have some inherent quality to them that will always hold us apart—or, rather, should always hold us apart—from AIs. The religious version of this argument—the same one that’s been used for millennia, albeit usually against animals—is that we have souls. Weizenbaum’s is a more nebulous distinction between “decisions”, that can be made programmatically, and “choices”, that can only be made by humans. If you want to be kind, you can phrase this as a variant of a free will argument (although, I’d argue that you can’t ascribe free will only to humans and not AIs without some kind of religious framework underneath). If you’re being unkind, you’d say that Weizenbaum is essentially arguing that human “choice”/judgement is unavailable to AIs because it’s fundamentally irrational.
Either way, the potential emergence of AI is the next big challenge to the notion of human exceptionalism. Arguably even moreso than, say, potential contact with sentient aliens. You can handwave aliens away with most of the same arguments about souls and free will and whatever that are applied currently to humans—maybe God made multiple planets and just didn’t tell anyone about it, in the same way He apparently “forgot” to tell everyone about dinosaurs—but it gets a bit trickier to imbue religio-metaphysical constructs onto machines, if only because most religious frameworks were laid out prior to the era where anyone thought “independently intelligent machines” could be A Thing.1 In other words, aliens could’ve been made by God, but AIs came from the hand of Man. What, then, is the moral framework under which we treat our creations? Or, more importantly, what is the framework under which they treat us?
I think it’s not a coincidence that most AI stories in sci-fi are basically framed as slave revolts in chrome dressing. We know we’re going to fuck this one up when its time comes.
Which is, yanno. All a total aside from the quote/article, but… Tl;dr, be nice to Siri, everyone.
- Which isn’t to say I think human religions won’t adapt to AIs if and/or when “true” AI emerges. Of course it will. [↩]
Like a lot of people, this morning I woke up to That Email from Tumblr:
As part of our commitment to transparency, we want you to know that we uncovered and terminated 84 accounts linked to Internet Research Agency or IRA (a group closely tied to the the Russian government) posing as members of the Tumblr community.
The IRA engages in electronic disinformation and propaganda campaigns around the world using phony social media accounts. When we uncovered these accounts, we notified law enforcement, terminated the accounts, and deleted their original posts.
The email goes on to list the names of the banned accounts, and some of them were… familiar.1 So, like a lot of people, I decided to go do some digging to see what, exactly, I may have liked/reblogged from a Russian propaganda house. The original accounts are gone, of course, but Tumblr helpfully “decided to leave up any reblog chains so that you can curate your own Tumblr to reflect your own personal views and perspectives.” Meaning recovering at least some of the more popular posts was a simple Google search away.2
Here, capped for posterity, is what I found. There are quite a lot of images here, so I’ve categorized them into their broad content areas. Note that in a handful of instances, I’ve also capped the Google result, when I felt the post text was interesting in itself and where I couldn’t easily find a reblog. In these instances, it’s the bolded Tumblr name that’s the bot, not necessarily the URL.
A look at Cambridge Analytica’s real business.
The tl;dr is that CA is part of an established consulting industry that, basically, swoops in to developing nations in order to put a veneer of credibility on fixed and-or otherwise corrupt elections. It’s been doing this for years, in a practice that’s been around for decades. The only reason we’re hearing about it now is because someone (i.e. Russia, and their cultivated kleptocratic pets) has finally started turning the West’s tools against itself.
For the record, I think the sort of “political consultancy” services offered by CA are bad whenever they pop up, which means I’m a little torn. Because, like, on the one hand, it’s good that this shady shit is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves. But, like, on the other, I think people need to keep in mind said “shady shit” is something the West has been exporting for decades, and getting uppity only because it is now impacting us is kinda bullshit.
The other thing to keep in mind is that—for all the West likes to bleat about liberal democracy—very few of its elites actually really believe in it anymore, particularly if you take the “three pillars” model of a modern, healthy democracy requiring rule of law, bureaucracy, and accountability in order to function.1 The political right in particular has spent something like the last three-plus decades undermining bureaucracy (a.k.a. “the state” or “government”), for example—think any negative stereotype you’ve seen in pop culture about civil servants—while certain factions (cough libertarians cough) don’t believe in it at all (regulation, including of capitalism, is a core function of a well-functioning bureaucracy, as are things like effective taxation and administration of social welfare). Meanwhile, the Trump White House is basically the cumulation in the longstanding attack on the rule of law. The idea that one can use one’s money/power/etc. to put oneself and one’s cohort above legal ramifications is a fundamental attack on liberal democracy in a way I think a lot of people don’t really appreciate. But the concept of rule of law—that is, that the law is the law and the law is the same for everyone, regardless of station—is the fundamental manifestation of the “liberal” part of “liberal democracy”. Yes, the practical application of the law is flawed—all human institutions are—but I’d be very wary about that fact alone being used as an excuse to scuttle the judiciary, rather than attempt to improve it.2
It’s telling about the insidious success of long-term efforts to erode democracy from within that most people nowadays don’t even process weaknesses in rule of law and bureaucracy as being attacks on liberal democracy itself. Nowadays, we “expect” bureaucrats to be bad at their jobs and judges and politicians to be corrupt, because everything from the news to pop culture tells us they are. But this is not an inevitability, and we really should demand better. And the way we demand better? Elections, a.k.a. the third pillar, or accountability.
I think people are a little better at associating election interference as being an attack against liberal democracy than they are with attacks on the bureaucracy and the rule of law… assuming you can get people to accept that what they’re seeing is, in fact, an attack. My husband, for example, recently attended a speaking lunch by a dude who, straight-faced, made the argument that people shouldn’t get up in arms about the techniques used by CA because “it’s just advertising” and “everyone does it”. Which is one of those arguments that seems kinda reasonable on the vapidly cynical surface—I mean, everyone does do it, right?—except that, like, holy erosion of democratic norms, Batman. Or did we all forget the part where advertising in general, and election advertising in particular, is heavily regulated precisely because it can be used for ill intent?3
This is the point in the conversation where you tend to get to the, “So what?” It’s the part where people start nitpicking over whether CA’s methods of action were “ethical”, for example, which I honestly think misses the point. I don’t know if electoral message hyper-targeting with the intent of influencing voter outcomes is “ethical” or not and, frankly, I’m not even that interested in the question. What I am interested in is the preservation and continual improvement of oldskool liberal democracy as an institution, and the fact that secretive partisan propaganda campaigns hidden from broad swathes of the population really feel like a violation of liberal norms. It’s not about “ethics”; it’s about whether or not this sort of behaviour operates in the sphere of “free and fair” elections.4
This isn’t about partisan politics, or at least it shouldn’t be; the whole point of a liberal democracy is that it’s a political form that isn’t beholden solely to the left or to the right, to the conservatives or the progressives. It’s the institution that’s supposed to transcend all of that. Except… apparently, somewhere along the way, we forgot that. And, well, I say “we” here but let’s be real; anti-democratic attacks in the last few decades, at least in Western nations, have come almost exclusively from certain segments of the political far right.5 Also, “forgot” is kind of a nice euphemism to cover up the actual meaning of, “Intentionally undertook a long-term campaign of attempting to keep progressives/leftists out of political power by any means necessary, up-to-and-including the erosion of democracy itself, because… Red Scare and genderqueer hippies, I guess?” Who knows, even.
The problem, I think, is that because the political right has spent so long dragging itself and its constituency outside of the democratic tent it’s no trivial task to get them back in; how do you convince conservatives who’ve been trained to see democratic institutions as fundamentally leftist/socialist/liberal/progressive/etc., and thus untrustworthy, that the system only works when everyone is included? That’s, like, literally the definition of the “liberal” part of “liberal democracy”, back before the right turned liberal into a dirty word (which, yanno, is kind of emblematic of the problem itself).
I have no idea what the answer is and, let’s face it, that was a kind of depressing twelve-hundred words for something that originally was supposed to be just an article link. So… yanno. Let’s finish up with a picture of my dog to make everyone feel better.
- Also known as the judiciary, executive, and legislature respectively, for those of you who learnt about separation of powers in school. [↩]
- Ditto with “government is inefficient” being used as an excuse to hand public goods—everything from clean water to parklands to the defence forces—over to the profit-making private sector rather than, like, improving the quality of government administration. Heresy, I know. [↩]
- See, for example, cigarette companies, who are no longer allowed to knowingly lie and tell you smoking is good for you—even if doing so makes them a lot of money—and also the various court cases and scandals that got us to that point. [↩]
- See also: gerrymandering, for example, or bullshit techniques like only locating polling booths miles away from certain populations and only holding elections on days when it’s difficult for those communities to get to them. Technically, these techniques don’t violate the letter of things like “one person one vote” but, I mean, c’mon. Thinking that they’re in any way in-keeping with the spirit and principles of “free and fair elections” requires nothing less than a fundamental contempt for the institution of democracy itself. [↩]
- Not all of it; there are still scattered pockets of right-wing and conservative types who believe in liberal democratic institutions more than they do partisan politics. Ref., for example, the fact that a lot of this post builds on the work of Francis Fukuyama, a political theorist and arch-conservative of the pre-2000s variety. [↩]
How Google is impacting journalism though the fact it funds most online publications through ads, but also through being the biggest provider of hosted email and the maker of the most popular browser.
Very specifically, the article is about how Google’s arbitrary “no hate speech” rules impacted TMP’s reporting on white supremacist violence. Basically, TMP were censured for articles about Dylan Roof’s mass murder in Charleston, with the account rep they tried to contact apparently, “not really understanding the distinction and cheerily telling us to try to operate within the no hate speech rules.” It’s worth noting “censured” in this context means TMP couldn’t run advertising on the articles in question. Small in the scheme of things, maybe, but each warning of that nature goes against the account as a whole, with the net result that, after n-number of incidents (no one seems to know how many, exactly) Google could pull advertising entirely. Which would be disastrous for TMP. Existentially so.
The point here isn’t to criticize Google’s well-intentioned attempt to stop funding hate sites with ad revenue. It is to warn that Google has so much power, thanks to it advertising and big data ecosystems, that even small misjudgments in policy application can be catastrophic for downstream players. Which is, yanno. Pretty much literally everyone who isn’t Google.
Or, as the article points out:
One thing I’ve observed with Google over the years is that it is institutionally so used to its ‘customers’ actually being its products that when it gets into businesses where it actually has customers it really has little sense of how to deal with them.
(See also this.)
The big question: is Google’s ecosystem monopolistic and, if so, why doesn’t the government step in? Well, it’s been pointed out before the US antitrust laws are mostly geared to constantly lowering prices for consumers; they’re not actually designed to foster market competition, and they’re certainly not geared towards… however you’d describe the relationship Google has with its ad customers. Because Google’s services are (largely) “free”, in other words, US antitrust laws don’t apply.1
(To anyone who’s currently thinking, “They’re not ‘free’, the law is just bad at quantifying the value of the personal data Google extracts in exchange for its services.” Well… yes. That’s the point.)
Google isn’t the only one of the “new monopolies” poorly controlled by US law, of course–Amazon’s in the same boat, as is Facebook, for one–but it’s arguably the one with the most far-reaching impact for online services in general, and journalism in particular. Sadly, I don’t think there’ll be any kind of resolution to the issues any time soon, either. Hell, people are barely beginning to understand the problem. Or that there even is one to start with…