Pluralistic: 25 Nov 2020

Today's links

Tech in SF (permalink)

Today on the Attack Surface Lectures (8 panels exploring themes from the third Little Brother book, hosted by Tor Books and 8 indie bookstores): Tech in SF with Annalee Newitz and Ken Liu, recorded on Oct 16 by Interabang.

You can watch it without Youtube's surveillance courtesy of the Internet Archive:

Or get the audio as an MP3:

Earlier instalments in the series:

I. Politics and Protest (Eva Galperin and Ron Deibert, hosted by The Strand):

II. Cross-Media Sci-Fi (Amber Benson and John Rogers, hosted by the Brookline Booksmith):

III. Race, surveillance and tech (Meredith Whittaker and Malkia Devich-Cyril, hosted by The Booksmith):

IV. Cyberpunk & Post-Cyberpunk (Christopher Brown and Bruce Sterling, hosted by Anderson's Bookshop)

V. Little Revolutions (Tochi Onyebuchi and Bethany C Morrow, hosted by Skylight Books)

VI. Opsec and Personal Cybersecurity (Window Snyder and Runa Sandvik, hosted by Third Place Books)

VII. Sci-Fi Genre (Sarah Gailey and Chuck Wendig, hosted by Fountain Books)

VIII. Tech in SF (Annalee Newitz and Ken Liu, hosted by Interabang)

Here's a master post with all the media:

And you can also get this as it's posted on my podcast feed – search for "Cory Doctorow podcast" in your podcatcher or use the RSS:

Office 365 spies on employees for bosses (permalink)

The Shitty Tech Adoption Curve describes the process by which oppressive technology is normalized and distributed through all levels of society. The more privilege someone has, the harder it is to coerce them to use dehumanizing tech, so it starts with marginalized people.

Asylum seekers, prisoners and overseas sweatshop workers get the first version. Its roughest edges are sanded off against their tenderest places, and once it's been normalized a little, we inflict it on students, mental patients, and blue collar workers.

Lather, rinse, repeat: before long, everyone's been roped in. If your meals were observed by a remote-monitored CCTV 20 years ago, it was because you were in a supermax prison. Today, it's because you bought a home video surveillance system from Google/Apple/Amazon.

The lockdown has been a powerful accelerant for shitty technology adoption curve: the combination of an atomized polity that can't have in-person solidarity conversations and overall precarity has kicked off a powerful shock doctrine for tech surveillance.

Pre-pandemic, work-from-home call-center workers (mostly poor Black women) lived under surveillance that transformed "work from home" to "live at work." The tech preserved the fiction that these misclassified employees were "independent contractors."

Within days of the lockdown, this technological oppression raced up the privilege gradient in the form of "invigilation" software like Proctorio, cruel surveillance tools inflicted on university students. The company is pursuing its critics in court.

Now, every remote worker is in line to get the treatment previously reserved for misclassified employees and college kids. Microsoft has rolled out on-by-default workplace surveillance for Office 365.

The tool tracks every click and interaction by employees and presents managers with leaderboards showing relative "productivity" of each employee, down to how many mentions they get in workplace emails.

As Wolfie Christie points out in his thread, the arbitrary metrics that Microsoft has chosen will have a hugely distorting effect on workplace behavior. Remember Goodhart's Law: "Any measure becomes a target, and then ceases to be a useful measure."

This is the quantitative fallacy on steroids: software can't measure qualitative factors like whether your work accomplished "soft goals" like "a better product" or "a conceptual breakthrough."

So they blithely vaporize these qualitative elements and do math on the dubious quantitative residue left behind. It's the data scientist's version of looking for your keys under the lamp-post: "We can't do math on it, so we won't consider it."

It's a far cry from the early days of Microsoft, when Bill Gates mocked IBM for paying programmers by how many lines of code they produced, calling it "the race to build the world's heaviest airplane."

I wonder if the programmers who built this feature are subjected to it themselves? And if not, I wonder when they will be.

I mean, they won't be in the EU. This shit is radioactively illegal under the GDPR. But Americans have freedom.

Now, you may be thinking, "I bet the managers who use this tool will regret it when their bosses start using it on them."

You're thinking too small. Microsoft has ambition: they're not subjecting managers to this, they're subjecting companies to it.

Microsoft incentivizes companies to turn on an industry-wide comparison "feature" that sends all your employee data to Microsoft and then gives you a chart telling you how your employees fare against their counterparts elsewhere.

You get a chart. Microsoft gets fine-grained data on your company's operations – data it can sell, or mine, or you know, just lose control over and leak all over the internet. That's some unprecedented Shitty Tech Adoption Curve accelerationism right there.

Not since the day when Amazon convinced Borders Books (RIP) to use it for all digital ordering and fulfilment (giving Amazon 100% access to all Borders' customer data) has a tech company offered a shadier B2B deal.

Last year, Slate's Future Tense and ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination asked me to write some fiction illustrating the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve. The result it "Affordances," a story that grows dismally more relevant with each passing day.

A state-owned Amazon (permalink)

In most of the world, the lockdown has destroyed small businesses while increasing the profits of Big Tech intermediaries like Amazon, who control access to customers on one side, and access to merchants on the other.

The government of Argentina is trying to avert this fate. Their postal service is launching a "state-owned Amazon" called Correo Compras, which will offer low-cost ecommerce listings to businesses, and do fulfilment through postal workers.

Correo Compras competes directly with Mercadolibre, a latinamerican ecommerce titan with a well-deserved reputation for squeezing suppliers and workers – its deliveries are made by precarious gig economy drivers.

Correo Compras is making a bet: that by eliminating Mercadolibre's vast margin (45%!), it can pay workers a living wage, offer fair treatment to vendors, and still sell at competitive prices.

They're also rolling out digital payments (BNA+) provided by the Banco Nacion, competing with Mercadolibre's Mercadopagos, which has seen a surge in usage and profits (thanks to high fees) since the lockdown. BNA+ also builds in instalment payments.

In many ways, Argentina is well-situated to try the experiment: it has very high internet penetration, a thriving domestic tech industry, and high levels of technological literacy.

It also struggles with structural poverty, thanks in part to US vulture capitalists who absorb vast amounts of its GDP to service odious debts.

As Cecilia Rikap points out in her Open Democracy article on the venture, Correo Compras will give Argentine state planners access to important market information – data that currently sits in private hands thanks to digital surveillance.

But while data can improve industrial policy, it can also serve state oppression. The debt that is currently crushing the country is partly the price-tag for the former military dictatorship's program of mass surveillance, torture, murder and terror.

Data collected for beneficial purposes can be weaponized. The Dutch government collected data on minorities so that they could provide settlement services to them. Nazi occupiers used this data to locate minorities and ship them to camps.

This is not merely a historical fact. Australia's spy agencies were just caught tapping into data generated by covid exposure notification apps – data that Australians were promised would only be used for contact tracing.

It's not a mere historical fact. There are people alive in Argentina today who were spied upon, kidnapped and tortured by their government. Argentina could certainly come under the sway of a brutal dictator again – if it can happen in Brazil, it can happen in Argentina.

This isn't to condemn Correo Compras. It's an exciting experiment. But it's an experiment. We should try lots of experiments. We could end the practice of worker misclassification, turning low-waged Amazon workers into employees and allowing them to unionize.

That's already starting to happen. Amazon workers in Alabama – a viciously anti-union state – is having a union vote.

States could offer postal fulfilment and startup funding for worker co-ops. They could enforce structural separation, forcing companies like Amazon to either offer a platform or sell on it, but not both.

They could structure taxes so that profits from predatory listing fees were annihilated by tax liabilities. NIST could offer bug-bounties for a free/open source federated clone of Amazon's platform that any co-op could stand up and run.

As always, the trick is to decide what's "infrastructure" – public goods that need public ownership – and what's a "service" that should be pluralized among many hands to make it harder to gain and abuse power (even state power).

Random Penguin to buy Simon & Schuster (permalink)

Publishing is dominated by just five giant players: Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Harpercollins and Macmillan.

Within that five-company oligarchy, one company stands out as a true monopolist: Penguin Random House, the megafirm created when Random House's owner, Bertelsmann, executed a merger-to-monopoly by buying Penguin in 2013.

Now, Penguin is about to effect another monopolistic merger, by acquiring Simon & Schuster from Viacom, which bought the company in 1994. The acquisition was always a bad fit: it was driven by a desire to create a vertical monopoly.

Viacom leadership thought they could use the relatively small publishing company to provide raw material for the larger, more profitable TV and film divisions (the same logic that drove Time-Warner's acquisition of DC Comics). It never really panned out.

Within Viacom, S&S; has always borne the brunt of corporate scheming, protected from the princelings of the sprawling corporate empire by erstwhile CEO Les Moonves's indulgence and favoritism.

So when Moonves was drummed out of his job in the midst of a truly awful, disgusting #MeToo scandal, the writing was on the wall for S&S.; Not even a string of successful anti-Trump tell-all books could save it.

The $2.175b acquisition is contingent on regulatory approval.

It should not receive regulatory approval.

In a year in which the FTC, the Senate, the House, Republicans and Democrats have all taken up antitrust, there is no better test of whether they're serious about monopoly that this idiotic merger.

After all, we don't have to speculate about what Random House will do after it absorbs S&S.; We have the historical record of what it did when it bought Penguin: shut down imprints, fired workers, subjected writers to worse deals, put the screws to booksellers.

This didn't happen in the shrouded mists of ancient history: it is still happening right now. It's not a case of "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."

It's more: "When a firm called 'Monopolists, Inc' sends a legal team dressed as the Monopoly Guy to file regulatory documents printed on the back of Monopoly money, and challenges you to a friendly game of Monopoly before the meeting starts, assume they are monopolists."

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago London police brutally kettle children marching for education

#1yrago After Katrina, neoliberals replaced New Orleans’ schools with charters, which are now failing

#1yrago Networked authoritarianism may contain the seeds of its own undoing

#1yrago Leaked documents document China’s plan for mass arrests and concentration-camp internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang

#1yrago Library Socialism: a utopian vision of a sustaniable, luxuriant future of circulating abundance

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: ACAB For Cutie (, Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 525 words (87877 total).

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