Pluralistic: 24 May 2020

Today's links

Bloomberg editorial calls for a supersized New Deal (permalink)

Sometimes, you can actually see the Overton Window shifting. This month is one of those times, with Bloomberg running a Noah Smith op-ed calling for a new New Deal, arguing that the main problem with the last one is that it didn't go far enough.

Smith devotes a fair chunk of his column to debunking New Classical economists who claim that the New Deal lengthened the Great Depression, an idea that has been comprehensively demolished by careful empirical work, and is only cited today by plute-lovin' motivated reasoners.

Though Smith doesn't write the words "Modern Monetary Theory," it's hard not to see them waiting just off to one side – the idea that inflation is causedby government spending on things the private sector is trying to but – not by deficits.

With the corollary that when the private sector stops buying things – especially the labor of tens of millions of people – the private sector can buy those things without creating inflation.

In other words, everyone can have a job. Everyone should have a job. Not giving people jobs is bad for the economy. An economic system that has a "natural level of unemployment" is cruel and unworthy of our loyalty.

A Database of Ruin (permalink)

This week marks the publication of Barton Gellman's "Dark Mirror," an important addition to the canon of books about the Snowden revelations. Earlier this week, The Atlantic ran a fascinating excerpt about how spy agencies targeted Gellman.

Today in Wired, we get another taste – a long excerpt about the "Database of ruin" – the NSA's system for mapping the "social graphs" of every person in America using phone billing record.

This system was handwaved by GW Bush, who said, "if somebody is talking to al Qaeda, we want to know why" – but as Gellman discovered, that's not what the "Stellarwind" program did. This wasn't about getting terrorists' call records to see who they talked to.

It was about "six degrees of separation," finding everyone who talked to someone that a terrorist talked to, then everyone they talked to, and so on and so on. Exponential growth (a subject we've become much more familiar with) means that soon, you're looking at everyone.

The computational intensity of this task meant that the trillions of records the NSA ingested weren't inert on a hard-drive, waiting to be pulled after an attack so that cops could find confederates of the attacker. Rather, they were constantly, continuously recomputed.

For decades, the NSA was created these algorithmic webs of suspicion, seemingly in ignorance of Cardinal Richilieu's Law: "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."

This is what made it a "database of ruin." Because just as predictive policing doesn't predict crime (it predicts whom the police will suspect of crime), so did Mainway/Stellarwind perfectly predict whom the NSA would suspect – but it did not predict who was a terrorist.

And it's what made the system a "dark mirror" – the NSA knew who we talked to and when, but we never knew who they talked to and when. It was one-way glass.

Gellman: "If the power implications do not seem convincing, try inverting the relationship in your mind: What if a small group of citizens had secret access to the telephone logs and social networks of government officials?"

"How might that privileged knowledge affect their power to shape events? How might their interactions change if they possessed the means to humiliate and destroy the careers of the persons in power?"

In 2008 – a few years after the Mark Klein revelations (the events that precipitated Snowden's own whistleblower journey), I was so struck by this concern that I wrote a short story about it.

In "The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away," I imagine a system of automated, universal suspicion, abetted by a cadre of willfully blind, technically excellent and brilliant prodigies in monasteries.

Rather than raising honeybees or making wine, their monastic order processes data for the security agencies. "Weak and Strange" follows one of these monks as he confronts who he is and what he does.

Living in our present moment requires enormous compartmentalization skills – there is no "ethical consumption," so either you don a hairshirt of material privation, or you try not to dwell on the oceans of blood just below the surface.

It's why I'm so interested in whistleblowers like Snowden, and anyone who confronts the reality of their own complicity in the indefensible. Even if you don't have to go into exile as a result of your actions, you still pay a giant psychic price for it.

I re-read Weak and Strange the other day, after reading Matt Web's post about neurodiversity (I wrote the story after a car-ride in which Patrick Nielsen Hayden proposed that monasteries were the medieval way of managing neurodiversity).

It reminded me that I've been thinking about the subject of confronting complicity for a long time.

Which was something of a revelation, because my next novel, ATTACK SURFACE (AKA Little Brother 3) is all about this.

Somehow, I'd forgotten about Weak and Strange for the years I spent on that book (!). But again, that is the satisfying and sometimes frightening thing about writing: it tells you stuff about yourself you've forgotten or never noticed.

Coronagrifting and other bad design fictions (permalink)

My favorite kind of humor turns on sharp analytic observations, which is why some of my favorite non-comedic writing comes from very funny people. Exhibit A is Kate "McMansion Hell" Wagner, whose superb dunks of bougie architecture are always a highlight of my day.

As good as those are, I'm even more fond of Wagner's writing about other subjects – the wider social context she draws on for her signature humor pieces.

In a new piece in this vein, Wagner outdoes herself, coining "coronagrifting" to describe a particularly odious form of "design fiction" in which design and architecture firms photoshop unworkable, fanciful "inventions" for a post-pandemic world.

From Burger King's cardboard crowns to a conversion of Berlin's half-built Brandenberg airport into a pandemic ward to torso-shielding glass bubbles for restaurants, coronagrifting is a symbiosis between moribund design studios and revenue-starved ad-supported media.

Wagner traces their lineage to "paper architecture," a 1960s/70s trend where designers and architects switched from designing buildings to drawing pictures of buildings that couldn't ever exist.

But while paper architecture was "radical, critical and playful," it was eventually sapped of this spirit in the 1980s with the "aesthetic hegemony of Postmodernism," which reinvented paper architecture as "PRchitecture."

PRchitecture: "architecture and design content that has been dreamed up from scratch to look good on instagram feeds or, more simply, for clicks." When starchitects like Bjarke Ingels photoshop designs like "Oceanix," it begets TED Talks, not buildings.

And those TED Talks land Ingels contracts with fascist dictators like Jair Bolsonaro – not contracts to build ecotopian post-global warming floating cities.

PRchitecture, in turn, was the larval form of coronagrifting: creating fanciful, impossible coronavirus designs that get seized upon by the ad-supported, click-driven design press, as a way of sustaining both design firms and their press during the economic apocalypse.

If so, what's the big deal?

Wagner: "You may be asking, “What’s the harm in all this, really, if it projects a good message?” And the answer is that people are plenty well encouraged to stay home due to the spread of a deadly virus at the urging of health authorities."

"These tone-deaf art world creeps are using such a crisis for shameless self promotion and the generation of clicks and income, while providing little to no material benefit to those at risk and on the frontlines."

IOW, Wagner is a true believer in design and architecture and she wants it to DO BETTER. This is where Wagner's critical and comedic work converges, with the idea that this could turn out great…if we don't screw it up.

(this is basically my motto for tech, which may be why I love her work so much)

Wagner: "I’m also extremely sure there are interventions that can be made at the social, political, and organizational level, like campaigning for paid sick leave, organizing against layoffs and for decent severance or an expansion of public assistance, or generally fighting the rapidly accelerating encroachment of work into all aspects of everyday life – that would bring much more good and, dare I say, progress into the world than a cardboard desk captioned with the hashtag #StaytheFuckHome."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Alan Moore tells DC Comics to get bent;=2153

#15yrsago Thurl Ravenscroft, RIP: voice of Haunted Mansion and Grinch song, Tony the Tiger

#10yrsago Schneier at the airport

#10yrsago Peter Watts discusses his arrest at US border

#10yrsago Ireland's largest ISP begins disconnecting users who are accused of piracy

#5yrsago What Sony and Spotify's secret deal really looks like

#1yrago Real estate title insurance company exposed 885,000,000 customers' records, going back 16 years: bank statements, drivers' licenses, SSNs, and tax records

#1yrago Germany demands an end to working cryptography

#1yrago Comcast fights shareholder call for lobbying transparency, saying that it would be "burdensome" to reveal how much it spends lobbying states

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 543 words (18963 total).

Currently reading: The Case for a Job Guarantee, Pavlina Tcherneva

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 03)

Upcoming appearances: Discussion with Nnedi Okorafor, Torcon, June 14

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commerically, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

One thought on “Pluralistic: 24 May 2020”

  1. How very apt, your remark about monasteries and neuro-diversity. I had a similar discussion with a colleague after seeing a ruined castle near Mercatale di Cortona 20 years ago. The question I had was what the modern day equivalent, in non-theistic form, of a monastery could be and if it could focus on open source software. The universities have become too popularized and even more political to serve the same purpose.

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