Pluralistic: Ad-tech is a bezzle; Google's unionizing; The Data Detective; Damon Knight's Why Do Birds is back; Endorsing the Forward 43 slate (04 Jan 2021)

Today's links

Ad-tech is a bezzle (permalink)

There are lots of problems with ad-tech:

  • being spied on all the time means that the people of the 21st century are less able to be their authentic selves;

  • any data that is collected and retained will eventually breach, creating untold harms;

  • data-collection enables for discriminatory business practices ("digital redlining");

  • the huge, tangled hairball of adtech companies siphons lots (maybe even most) of the money that should go to creators and media orgs; and

  • anti-adblock demands browsers and devices that thwart their owners' wishes, a capability that can be exploited for even more nefarious purposes;

That's all terrible, but it's also ironic, since it appears that, in addition to everything else, ad-tech is a fraud, a bezzle.

Bezzle was John Kenneth Galbraith's term for "the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it." That is, a rotten log that has yet to be turned over.

Bezzles unwind slowly, then all at once. We've had some important peeks under ad-tech's rotten log, and they're increasing in both intensity and velocity. If you follow Aram Zucker-Scharff, you've had a front-row seat to the fraud.

Time and again, everything in the ad-tech stack has been demonstrated to be fraudulent: fake audiences firing fake clicks at fake videos on fake sites that suck real dollars out of advertisers' accounts.

This was masterfully elucidated in Tim Hwang's short 2020 book SUBPRIME ATTENTION CRISIS, whose thesis is: we must deflate the ad-tech bubble intentionally, lest we get a messy rupture that destroys many of the good things the parasite has colonized.

The ad-tech fraud is many-layered. On the surface, there's the counting frauds: fake clicks, fake sites, fake videos, etc. But there's a deeper fraud, a theory fraud, the fraud that with enough surveillance data and machine learning, ad-tech can sell anyone anything.

That is: even if we count accurately, ads are still overvalued and underperforming. This is also a lesson whose examples are coming with increasing tempo, as when Ebay simply stopped buying Google search ads and saw no decrease in sales.

In a piece for Forbes, marketer-turned-antifraud-auditor Dr Augustine Fou rounds up some of the grossest things festering under the ad-tech log.

Like that time in 2018 when Procter and Gamble – inventors of "brand marketing" – turned off $200m worth of ad-tech buys and saw no change to their sales. Or when Chase killed 95% of its advertising and kept all of its business.

Most interesting is the tale of how Uber allowed itself to be defrauded of $150m/year, for years, by ad-tech intermediaries. It's a story told in detail by former Uber head of "performance marketing" Kevin Frisch on the Marketing Today podcast:

It starts with the revelation that $50m of its annual spend on customer acquisitions – money paid when an ad leads to a new Uber customer downloading the app, entering payment details and taking their first ride – was fraudulent.

Here's how that worked: scummy marketers fielded low-quality apps (like battery monitors) that requested root access. These apps spied on every app you installed. If you installed Uber, they "fired a click" to the system to report you as having been "converted" by an ad.

After clearing $50m of fraud, Frisch continued to dig into the system. In the end, about $120m of the $150m was being stolen, pocketed for fake clicks on fake sites by fake users.

In a fascinating turn, Frisch describes how his colleagues were indifferent or actively hostile to his efforts. Uber was in "growth mode," trying to beef up its numbers prior to the IPO where suckers would relieve its Saudi royal investors.

Uber is a company that will never, ever be profitable. It, too, is a bezzle. It only "works" if outside investors – marks – can somehow be convinced to buy the insiders' stock, which requires the appearance of growth – AKA "A pile of shit this big must have a pony under it!"

So execs like Frisch were required to "spend to budget" – to maintain the appearance of growth, including (especially) the growth of its "precision analytics" marketing, where ad-tech spends turned into directly attributable customer acquisitions.

This is the story that keeps on giving, because it all starts with Sleeping Giant's campaign to force Uber to stop advertising on Breitbart, and Uber's inability to get its ad-tech "partners" to definitively switch off Breitbart ads.

The system's layers of misdirection – there to hide the fraud – meant that it behaved nondeterministically and couldn't fulfil simple requests, which triggered the search.

There's a theory that the reason Big Tech spies on us so much is that they're really good at turning data into sales (and, by extension, influence, as in elections, referenda, etc). But it is increasingly apparent that Big Tech's spying is part of a bezzle.

That is, we're being surveilled, doxed, placed under automated suspicion and digitally discriminated against all to put on a show that separates marks from their dollars.

This is the theme of my 2020 book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM:

Namely, that we are under constant surveillane because monopolies can get away with obviously fraudulent and dangerous conduct by mobilizing their monopoly profits to buy political outcomes that serve their ends.

This is also what happened with California's Proposition 22, the most expensive ballot initiative in US history: Uber didn't spearhead a $200m campaign to legalize worker misclassification to become profitable.

Uber will never be profitable.

All that money was spent to maintain the fiction, the fraud, the bezzle – it was an appeal to rescue the wholly fictional pony underneath that gigantic pile of shit.

Google's unionizing (permalink)

Google workers have announced their intention to form a union, under the auspices of CWA Local 1440. The union is called The Alphabet Workers Union (Google maintains the legal and accounting fiction that it is a division of a holding company called "Alphabet").

Speaking of legal fictions, the union is opening membership to "TVCs" – temps, vendors and contractors – employees who have been deliberately misclassified so as to avoid paying them benefits or extending normal workplace protections to them.

It's a bold move, a countermeasure to thwart the other commercial advantage from worker misclassification: by creating multiple categories of workers, bosses can pit employees against one another, by dangling privileges in front of one group but not the other.

But it comes at a high price: to gain official legal recognition, more than 50% of eligible workers must join the union. By including more workers, the union is setting a higher bar for official status.

But the union has momentum: a series of high-profile googler uprisings – driven by official tolerance for sexual misconduct, complicity in US military drone programs, secret collaboration with Chinese surveillance and censorship, and more – show how radicalized googlers are.

Google's management – who cultivated an air of participatory, cuddly collaboration – have arrived at a point where the contradictions between their "values" and the company's profits can no longer be reconciled.

In Dec 2020, Google fired Timnit Gebru, an eminent Black AI scientist who refused to retract a paper critical of its profitable Big Data research. Management compounded their sins by making false claims about Gebru's dismissal.

The unionization drive is under the CWA's #CODE (Coalition to Organize Digital Employees) project. Though CODE is no stranger to conflict, Google represents a serious challenge, thanks to its partnership with notorious union-busters IRI Consultants.

(IRI's tactics pale in comparison to the mercenaries that Amazon has hired to bust its unions: the Pinkerton company, who have spilled rivers of workers' blood in their murderous history):

For important context on the drive, check out Collective Action in Tech's article on the announcement, which explains why googlers have formed a "non-contract union" that does not yet have official recognition.

"Non-contract unions embody the idea that worker power does not come from legal processes, but rather through building power through solidarity."

The Data Detective (permalink)

Publishing works on long schedules, which means that long-planned books can be overtaken by events…like covid.

2020 was tough for those of us with books in trail, especially nonfiction. But for a few lucky writers, covid imparted a terrible salience to their books.

One such writer is Tim Harford, host of BBC Radio 4's More or less, which is hands-down the greatest statistical literacy program in the world, using the numbers in each week's headlines to impart statistical lessons and render the news in perspective.

Harford's latest book is THE DATA DETECTIVE (published as HOW TO MAKE THE WORLD ADD UP in the UK), which should really have been entitled HOW TO TRUTH WITH STATISTICS.

You've likely heard of Darrell Huff's 1954 classic HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS, a classic, accessible guide to statistical malpractice in service to pushing an agenda. What I didn't know (until I heard Harford discourse on it) was that Huff himself had an ulterior motive.

Huff was a shill for the tobacco industry, which, in 1954, was deliberately muddying the waters about the link between cancer and smoking. Huff's book isn't just a guide to statistical malpractice – it's a broadside against cancer science.

(Huff's followup volume, HOW TO LIE WITH CANCER STATISTICS, was never published)

Huff and his paymasters at Big Tobacco created the scientific doubt playbook – a system that weaponizes critical thinking by demonizing inconvenient science as junk science.

Superficially, Harford's work – especially More or Less – is a critique of bad stats (certainly, it's grimly fun to listen to Harford and his colleagues reveal the bad math behind the UK government's covid spin), but as this book demonstrates, there's more going on there.

What Harford and More or Less strive for isn't merely debunking – it's discovering truth. His brand of statistical sleuthing isn't merely a critique, it's a fact-finding mission, a campaign to find out, to the greatest possible extent, what is actually happening.

That's where Harford and Huff's approaches diverge. Huff's book is a sharp critical toolsuite, but it's also a counsel of despair. Huff tells you how to lie with statistics – but he never tells you how to use statistics to discover the truth.

To read Huff – and his successors in various denial and doubt movements – is to conclude that the world is unknowable. It is nihilism packaged up as mathematics.

Enter THE DATA DETECTIVE: a book about statistical best practice AND malpractice.

DATA DETECTIVE proffers ten rules for getting stats right:

I. Vaccinate yourself against motivated reasoning by examining your emotional reaction to any statistical finding; use this check-in to adjust your intuition about whether a claim is true or false

II. Neither the quantitative statistical picture ("bird's eye view") nor the qualitative lived experience ("worm's eye view") is sufficient: to understand a stat, you need both

III. Check carefully to determine what a statistical label refers to (for example, in stories about links between "violent behavior and violent video games," how are "violent behavior" and "violent games" defined?)

IV. Get "comparisons and context" – numbers with a lot of zeroes after them sound big, but are they? For example, if a bridge will cost $10m to build, is that an expensive bridge, or a cheap one?

V. Understand survivor bias: if someone tells you that "every successful business does X," find out whether every failed business also does X.

VI. Investigate statistical measurements for what's not being measured – are mortality stats broken out by age? Sex? Was a study conducted on a representative random sample, or just a bunch of grad students whose prof ordered them to fill in a survey?

VII. Theory-free machine-learning algorithms have specific, pernicious, and possibly irredeemable failure modes. Between bad training data, spurious correlations, and opacity, they are a source of continuous mischief.

VIII. Understand the "bedrock statistics" – censuses and other important, widely relied-upon measures, generally produced by governments, and defend the statisticians who produce them from political interference and retaliation.

IX. Data visualization is a powerful tool for illuminating the meaning of data, but also for convincing (and misleading) people. Learn to parse visualizations and to spot their implicit arguments.

X. Curiousity (and its correlate, humility about the things you think you know) is the best tonic against being deceived – by others, or yourself.

Harford is a gifted science communicator, a wonderful and sprightly writer. He's spent many years teaching millions of people to consume statistics critically – but with this book, he's doing something nobler:

He's teaching us to consume statistics wisely.

Damon Knight's Why Do Birds is back (permalink)

In the last days of 2018, my family rode our bikes over the Iliad Bookshop, a treasure of a local bookstore. There I spotted an impeccable first edition hardcover of one of my all-time favorite novels, Damon Knight's 1992 WHY DO BIRDS? I bought it on the spot.

Three hours later, I'd re-read it and posted a review. It was every bit as fantastic as I remembered:

In 2002, a mysterious man is arrested for illegally occupying a hotel room: he says his name is Ed Stone, and that he was kidnapped by aliens from the same hotel room in 1931 and has just been returned to Earth, not having aged a day.

The aliens have told him that Earth will be destroyed in 12 years and that before then, the entire human race has to put itself in a giant box (presumably for transport to somewhere else, though Ed is a little shaky on the details).

To help Ed with this task, the aliens have given him a ring that makes anyone who touches it fill with overwhelming good feelings for him and a desire to help him.

Knight was an absurdist of the first order, a gifted author whose economy and humor rival the likes of Kurt Vonnegut. Why Do Birds was his penultimate novel, and I haven’t read it in more than 20 years, but I have never forgotten key details.

There’s a great scene straight out of The Space Merchants where marketing executives for The Cube Project discuss how they will float rumors that poor people will not be allowed in The Cube, in order to spark a mass movement demanding entry into the giant box.

Then there’s the scene where they figure out the rate at which humanity will be reproducing itself as it is marshalled into great loading docks for suspended animation and insertion into The Cube).

There are more laugh aloud moments galore in this, but also some really fantastic, first-rate technical speculation, and wry political commentary, and satirical pokes at the “golden age” of science fiction pulps.

It’s not like any novel you’ve ever read, and it blends much of what was wonderful about the early years of science fiction with a literary sophistication that came from a distinguished writer at the peak of his powers.

Knight founded the Science Fiction Writers of America and its "Grandmaster" prize is named for him – a fitting tribute, given the generations of writers he mentored along with Kate Wilhelm during the decades they ran the Clarion Writers Workshop (he was one of my teachers, and a friend).

When I posted my review, WHY DO BIRDS was technically still in print, with paperback copies available at normal retail price on Amazon. But within minutes, those copies had sold out and the pricing bots had driven the cost of used books up to $75 and more.

They eventually stabilized, but, more importantly, there's new edition of the book, from Reanimus Press:

Endorsing the Forward 43 slate (permalink)

Hey, Los Angeles comrades! It's time to elect our delegates for District 43, and there's a slate of excellent, progressive DSA activists running for the spot: Forward 43.

Forward 43's platform treats housing, education and healthcare as human rights. I won't be a US citizen until later this year, but if I could vote for them, I would!

I wholeheartedly endorse Forward 43.

You can get your ballot here:

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Thomas Piketty on Thomas Piketty

Colophon (permalink)

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Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Dec 16th's progress: 522 words (94687 total).

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