Pluralistic: 01 Jun 2020

Today's links

Podcast: How Big Tech distorts our discourse (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my EFF Deeplinks essay, "How Big Tech Monopolies Distort Our Public Discourse." We hear a lot of exotic explanations for "polarization" and other modern ills.

The commonest one is that Big Tech isn't lying when they tell the marketers they hope to woo as customers that they can use machine learning and surveillance data to change peoples' minds.

But evil political operators have hijacked a mind-control machine designed to sell us fidget spinners and used it to sell us conspiracism, white nationalism and fascism.

I think this is an extraordinary claim with poor evidence, not least because everyone who's ever claimed to have perfected mind-control – from the CIA to pick-up artists to stage mesmerists – turned out to be a fraud and/or self-deluded.

But that doesn't mean that our discourse isn't in a sorry state, nor does it mean Big Tech doesn't deserve the blame. I just think we can find less incredible explanations that don't require us to attribute superhuman feats of genius to the mediocrities that run Big Tech.

Like monopoly.

If you operate the only place people search for answers, you can give people the wrong answers, and if they don't know enough about the subject to spot it, you can change their minds. That's just lying, not mind control.

And the answer isn't to insist that operating a search engine comes with an obligation to never be wrong (something no search engine could attain, and the attempt of which will bankrupt everyone except Google).

It's to ban the monopolistic practices that left us with one dominant search-engine: acquisition of nascent rivals, merger with large competitors, the creation of vertical monopolies. It's to reverse the damage those practices have done.

A monopoly on answers is just one of the ways that digital monopolization distorts our discourse; many others are enumerated in the piece.

The thing is, we can either (try to) fix Big Tech or we can fix the internet.

That is, either we deputize Big Tech to be an arm of the state and make it perform the duties we'd expect of a government, or we make Big Tech smaller and make its mistakes less salient to people.

But we can't do both. When the US government turned AT&T; into a regulated monopoly – rather than breaking it up – they created powerful government stakeholders that intervened to fight any future actions to weaken AT&T.;

For example, in 1956, the Pentagon intervened to keep the DoJ from breaking up AT&T;, saying that without an intact, monopolistic Bell System, they couldn't fight the war in Korea. AT&T; remained intact for nearly 30 more years.

If we want parts of the internet run by the government, that's one thing – at least something like municipal broadband holds out the potential for democratic control. But regulated monopolies are the worst of both worlds.

They become an arm of the state without the accountability of a state (whatever that accountability might be). They sidestep the strictures on corporations (competition, consumer protection) and the strictures on states (transparency, the rule of law).

Here's the podcast episode page:

Here's a direct link to the MP3 (thanks, as always, to the Internet Archive for hosting):

And here's my podcast feed:

EFF statement on Black Lives Matter (permalink)

A statement from EFF begins: "Black lives matter on the streets. Black lives matter on the Internet.

"EFF stands with the communities mourning the victims of police homicide. We stand with the protesters who are plowed down by patrol cars. We stand with the journalists placed in handcuffs or fired upon while reporting these atrocities. And we stand with all those using their cameras, phones and digital tools to make sure we cannot turn away from the truth."

Internally we sometimes talk about EFF being the plumbers of freedom – dedicated to protecting the rights of activists and marginalized communities to communicate in private, and to communicate to the world.

The mission keeps getting more urgent, from life in lockdown to defending Black lives in the streets.

"The pandemic management technology being pushed by companies and governments over the last few months is primed to be deployed as a surveillance and control apparatus."

"Protest movements often bring out the worst in constitutional abuse. We’ve seen police surveillance tools grow and metastasize, with law enforcement officials specifically targeting the Black-led movement to end racist police violence."

EFF has a version of its surveillance self-defense guide specifically for protesters, explaining how to keep your devices, data, communications, and social relations safe from official incursions on your right to seek redress:

And EFF will be keeping that up to date as new tactics emerge. It's ready to serve as plumbers for the rest of the movement: "To our racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice allies, EFF is here to help when you need hands who understand tech and the law."

"And to everyone, we pledge to redouble our efforts to beat back police surveillance and abuse, and to build and protect the tools that allow you to organize, assemble, and speak securely and without censorship."

Why quarantine is getting harder (permalink)

Writing in The Conversation, CMU scholars Gretchen Chapman (psych) and George Loewenstein (econ) discuss the hard problem of maintaining pandemic vigilance (handwashing, distancing, masks, etc) as time wears on.

Fundamentally, it's just hard to maintain attuned to things that aren't changing. That's why you notice the refrigerator hum when it starts (even finding it unbearable) but cease to notice it until it stops, leaving behind ringing silence.

This is why I was sympathetic to, but skeptical of, the insistence after the 2016 election that we couldn't "normalize Trump." People in prisons, in abusive relationships, in concentration camps, all report on how it just becomes normal eventually.

And speaking as someone with debilitating chronic pain, I'm here to tell you that it's perfectly possible to lose track of how much pain bad posture is inflicting on you until you finally move and start to notice. Given all that, how could we NOT normalize Trump?

Back to public health. Handwashing, distancing, etc, are all important and evidence-based, but their effects are invisible. You can't tell if you are contaminated with virus particles, and you can't tell if you've washed them away.

You bear an upfront cost for your vigilance, but any benefits you realize are speculative and in the future (not getting coronavirus at some unspecified future date).

So getting lax on handwashing after you've gone a few months without getting sick is related to the phenomenon where people who finally get an effective antidepression drug dose dialed in stop taking their meds because they feel better.

I started smoking when I was 14, and I quit when I was 32, with the help of a hypnotherapist with a background as a psychologist an emergency medicine MD (he was amazing).

He told me that the hardest part of staying quit would be denying myself the immediate benefit of a cigarette by focusing on a future benefit of not getting cancer in 30 years. He told me that if I was going to stay off cigarettes, I'd need a more immediate reason.

I realized that I was spending two laptops/year on cigs, and the money was going straight to companies whose mission was to murder me for profit, and moreover, that those companies had invented and perfected the science-denial playbook now used by every evil industry.

I quit and stayed quit, and I buy myself a new laptop every year (and I'm still one laptop/year ahead of the game).

The behavioral scientists from CMU suggest that the way to get better at pandemic mitigation is to keep it up long enough that handwashing, distancing and masks become unconscious habits. That is, to keep it up until they disappear into the background.

And the challenge for attaining that is that the point at which mitigation becomes a habit may come long after the perception of risk fades into the background – turns into an inaudible refrigerator hum.

To bridge the gap, they point to a peer-reviewed study on the impact of small penalties (taxes on plastic bags) on changing ingrained behaviors, implying that similar penalties might yield comparable results.

It'd be interesting to see what that looks like in practice – maybe when you go to a store without a mask, they offer to sell you a disposable mask for $0.25 or a "mask for life" for $5?

Writing while Black (permalink)

In "Riot Baby," Tochi Onyebuchi tells a riveting, moving, complicated Afrofuturist story about American structural racism and Black resilience. The story's starting-gun is the Rodney King uprising, and its beats are the uprisings that came since.

Now, in a beautiful and moving essay for called "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The Duty of the Black Writer During Times of American Unrest," Onyebuchi meditates on the role of a Black writer in one of those uprisings.

Onyebuchi describes the tension between the need to process the fear and anger of police executions of Black people by writing, with the expectation that Black people have to help the rest of the world understand their experience, with the emotional price of that expectation.

Having written a seminal book that uses a seminal uprising to create an important and enduring work of art, Onyebuchi now has to confront art's insufficiency in either healing wounds or creating change.

Spectacle – the scenes of Black people being executed by cops – is powerful and incoherent. Onyebuchi compares it to the beheading videos that Isis uploaded – a rallying point for outrage, a recruiting tool for monsters, and, above all, a reduction of a human life to symbol.

Some people try to find sense in senseless by converting their heartbreak to a symbol, to snatch a pebble of positive motion from an avalanche of wickedness. Mamie Till put her mutilated son's body on display, saying, "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby."

Such an act of bravery and sorrow. Can we ask that of people? Can we deny people who demand that we honor their losses?

To be alive now is to be in contradictory states, anger, sorrow, hope and fear.

"It’s about your safety, you see. Encourage the RTs about cross-racial solidarity. Don’t worry about whether the work is being done off-screen. It’s advised, also, that you not point out the hypocrisy in cheering revolution on screen while vilifying it outside your window."

To have staked a place in the discussion of injustice and its remedies is to have put yourself out there as a source of hope: "[When] that audience member raises their hand and is called on and asks their question, they’re not looking for answers, they’re looking for hope."

This: "It feels irresponsible to be publicly pessimistic at a time like this."

But this, too: "In the face of an Aggressive Menace dripping with contempt for your humanity and wishing, when it cannot exploit you, to punish you, to terrorize you, what use is hope?"

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago MPAA won't get Broadcast Flag in digital TV bill!

#10yrsago Fish: kids' pirate adventure book is great for adults too

#10yrsago India seeking other countries to oppose secret, rich-countries-only copyright treaty negotiations

#10yrsago Digital Economy Act sets UK gov't on the path to ever-more-punitive Internet laws

#5yrsago A startup that will feed you while making airplane noises

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: 529 words (21044 total).

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

Latest podcast: How Big Tech Monopolies Distort Our Public Discourse

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: Get a personalized, signed copy 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:

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

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