Pluralistic: 24 Feb 2021

Today's links

Bossware and the shitty tech adoption curve (permalink)

Just as the Texas blackouts were a payday for energy companies that profit from human misery, the pandemic is a gold-rush for the #bossware companies that spy on workers required to convert their homes to rent-free office space to their employers.

Bossware's origins are Taylorism, the time-motion/scientific management fad of the late 19th century, when charlatans dressed up in science-coats and micromanaged skilled tradespeople with humiliatingly detailed proscriptions.

The digital age is a fantastic boon to bosses who want to spy on and punish working people, and following the shitty technology adoption curve, they tried bossware first on the low-waged, precarious workers who lack the social power to push back against it.

These workers didn't take it lying down. As Jamie K. McCallum writes in The American Prospect , laundry workers fought the "electronic whip" of "gamified" bossware; long-haul truckers "slow rolled" to protest "electronic location devices," etc.

The theory of the shitty tech adoption curve predicts that vendors use resistance from low-status subjects to find and remove rough edges from abusive technology, then move the smoothed-over tech up the social power gradient to higher-status workers.

Work-from-home (AKA "live at work") is a perfect opportunity to refine the shitty technology of bossware, a bonanza for collaborators like "ActivTrak, Avaza, VeriClock, Boomr, Hubstaff, TSheets, StaffCop, Time Doctor, DeskTime Pro, TrackView, InterGuard and Wiretap."

Pre-lockdown, these tools were already logging keystrokes, intercepting email, logging clicks, capturing still images and videos of workers at their desks, and transmitting workers' locations in and out of work hours.

Now, with bosses in a panic at the thought of workers "stealing" the time to look after kids, cook a meal, or take a leisurely toilet break, bossware is an easy sell. Companies like Interguard report 300% revenue growth through the pandemic, a profiteering success story.

Interguard is just one of many bossware vendors that has learned the lesson of the laundry workers and their fight against the electronic whip: its product is designed to be stealth-installed and to run without the worker's knowledge or consent.

This makes it especially well-suited as a punitive technology, and indeed, Interguard markets its products as a means to "conduct covert investigations and bullet-proof evidence gathering without alarming the suspected wrongdoer."

Back in 1987, Congress's Office of Technology Assessment sounded the alarm, warning that in the absence of unions, bossware would lead to "unfair or abusive monitoring" (shortly thereafter, Newt Gingrich shot the OTA in the head and left its corpse to rot).

When white-collar workers encounter bossware, it's often dressed up as "metrics" – a putatively neutral statistical exercise that might even benefit workers by helping them improve their output. But the pitch to bosses is all about finding and firing the low-performers

The joke's on them. Bossware like Office 365 (which gathers exhaustive data on workers) deliver proprietary commercial intelligence to Microsoft – control-freak bosses trade the store to a convicted monopolist in exchange for worker surveillance.

Remember, OTF predicted unionization could prevent bossware abuses. Unsurprisingly, bossware is key to union-busting, with bosses using it to discover and punish union organizers in the workplace – at the very moment that tech workers are using digital tools to join unions.

Meanwhile, precarious workers – the disproportionately Black, woman workers tricked into signing up for the call-center service Arise, are kept from fighting the worker misclassification that forces them to pay "cancellation fees" to quit their jobs.

It's as neat an example of the shitty technology adoption curve as you could ask for, and it demonstrates the need for solidarity among all workers. Bossware got rolled out against precarious, low-status workers first because they lack the political power to fight it.

If elite/high-waged workers had raised a stink then and joined their blue collar comrades in fighting back, they might have strangled bossware in its cradle – but now it's too late. Bossware is literally in their homes, watching them with a baleful, unblinking eye.

I'm an sf writer, so I know that no one can predict the future and only fools and charlatans claim to know what the future will bring. But I also know that there are leading indicators, waves that follow a predictable pattern in their sweep.

Abusive tech starts with asylum seekers, prisoners, parolees; moves up to kids, people on benefits and mental patients; then to blue-collar workers, then white-collar workers, then everybody, even first class fliers being watched by seatback cameras.

Solidarity is the preventative and the cure: not just in empathy, but also in self-interest. We have to fight abusive tech wherever we find it, because if we don't, we'll have to fight it when it reaches us – and by then, there may be no one left to fight it with us.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

EVs as distributed storage grid (permalink)

The Texas blackouts weren't caused by renewables – rather, by a deregulated system that failed to winterize both its wind power (obviously: there are wind-farms in Norway and northern Canada), and its fossil fuel facilities.

Texas's grid needs weatherization, redundant connections to other grids, and better planning. Regulation, in other words.

That said, complex systems have lurking failure modes that can't be fully accounted for. Good engineers don't just make systems that work well, they also turn make systems that fail well. Not doing this is how you get the decision not to put enough lifeboats on the Titanic.

One intriguing idea for distributed grid tech that came out of the Texas blackouts is using electric vehicles as a power-source. Nicholas Littlejohn used his 2011 Nissan Leaf to power his house's heat, lights, and wifi.

EVs are rolling batteries, and there have been many renewables plans that modeled using EVs to store excess solar and wind during the day and then discharge it at night. Texas has 22m cars on the road, and it would only take 10m EVs to match the grid's terawatt capacity.

Reading Gregory Barber's Wired story on EVs as distributed, grid-scale storage, I was reminded of another Texan's speculative plan for renewable storage with vehicles.

It's an idea from a speech Bruce Sterling gave during the Viridian project days:

Sterling pointed out that the American Great Plains states experience enough wind to power the whole nation, but lack enough storage even to meet their own needs.

Sterling observed that the GW Bush administration was pushing hard on hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, which were considered impractical because fuel-cells are bulky – a hydrogen vehicle with serious range would need to be huge.

Putting these two facts together, Sterling mooted the hilarious, delicious idea of switching from scolding midwesterners for driving massive SUVs to insisting that they upgrade to monster trucks with huge fuel-cells.

All day long, midwestern wind-farms would supply power to the grid, and store any excess to hydrogen, using the power to electrolyze water into O2 and H, pumping the H into these massive vehicles.

At the end of the work-day, you'd drive your monster-truck home and plug your house into it, as it powered all your needs and comforts.

The Viridian schtick was finding ways to make saving the planet immediately desirable and pleasurable.

Sterling's vision of a world where environmental sustainability meant driving the largest vehicles imaginable has stayed with me ever since.

(Image: Ken Lund, CC BY-SA, modified)

The Mauritanian (permalink)

Last night, I attended a (virtual) press-screening of The Mauritanian, a film adaptation of Mohamedou Ould Salahi's 2015 memoir "Guantánamo Diary," the true story of Salahi's 14 years of Gitmo detention and torture.

It was a harrowing and moving experience. It wasn't just the big names (Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch): Tahar Rahim's performance as Salahi was stunning, especially combined with the direction and camerawork that brought the abuse and torture of Gitmo to vivid life.

Salahi was kidnapped from Mauritania at the order of Donald Rumsfeld, who was acting on coerced testimony that falsely identified him as the recruiter behind the 9/11 attacks. He was then repeatedly brutalized, sexually assaulted, tortured and nearly murdered by Gitmo guards.

Eventually, after the guards threatened to have his elderly mother brought to Gitmo for sexual torture by other prisoners, Salahi signed false confessions in which he admitted to all the crimes he'd been accused of.

Salahi's case was taken up by Nancy Hollander (played by Foster), a NM civil rights litigator at a white-shoe firm whose security clearance and outrage at the Bush administration's suspension of habeas corpus made her the right person to do the pro-bono work.

Hollander's opposite number was Lt Col V Stuart Couch (played by Cumberbatch), a Marine Corps lawyer and ex-airman who had been close friends with one of the 9/11 pilots and who approached the case as an opportunity to get justice and vengeance for his friend.

The movie brilliantly plays out both Hollander and Couch's discovery of the brutal conditions at Gitmo, culminating in Couch's refusal to try the case on the grounds that Salahi's torture meant that his confession could not be trusted.

The interplay of brutality and bureaucracy are at the core of the film, a banality of evil tale that contrasts the US establishment's stated commitment to law and order with the lawless, ruthless, incoherent violence of Gitmo and the rendition program.

This film's release comes at an important moment. First, because the Trump years were an opportunity for GW Bush to rehabilitate his image. Today, we're asked to cast GWB as a "normal" politician from the right – to forget his torture and murder program.

To forget the forever war he lied the world into, which still rages today, fought by the grown children of the soldiers he sent into battle 20 years ago, 18 years after he strapped on a codpiece and posed with a "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" banner.

GWB may be Ellen's cuddly pal, Michelle Obama's buddy with a cough drop, he may be a retired amateur portraitist, but he's also one of history's great monsters, a president who did worse things to the world than Trump ever did.

Not, of course, because Trump was a better man than GW – but because Trump was so chaotic and mercurial that none of the swamp creatures he surrounded himself with (and then purged) were able to execute on their plans the way Rumsfeld and Cheney did.

But this is also a timely movie for another reason: Hollander used Salahi's moving testimony of the torture he faced to secure his release in 2010. But he was held for another SIX years.

Because Obama's DoJ appealed the release.

Salahi was held for eight years because of GWB's monstrous decisions. He was held for six more because of Obama's monstrousness – a six years detention without charge or conviction that deprived Salahi of the chance to see his mother before she died.

The Mauritanian is a reminder of the great stain on America's soul that Gitmo and the War on Terror represents, and it's a reminder that the centrist wing of the Democrats – who confirmed Bush's chief torturer Gina Haspel to run the CIA – are all-in on the Bush Program.

We're told that Biden learned from Obama's drones, austerity, surveillance, war on whistleblowers, billions for Wall Street and abandonment of Main Street, that this time, the Democrats will use their power to make things better at home and abroad.

America still runs the offshore torture camp at Gitmo, and onshore torture sites in the form of mass incarceration, the charnel houses of the pandemic. Making America great – or merely good – demands a reckoning with the nation's sins.

It demands we judge our leaders on their policies – not their portraiture or rhetoric. Trump's open racism and disdain for democracy deserve our condemnation, but so must his predecessors' willingness to shovel Black and brown bodies into war and torture's meat grinders.

Court rejects TSA qualified immunity (permalink)

Qualified immunity is a bizarre American legal doctrine that says that government officials (especially cops) that break the law aren't personally liable for their lawlessness unless the law they violate is "clearly established."

Practically speaking, it means that if a law enforcement officer breaks the law, they face no legal consequences – unless they break the law in precisely the way that some other cop was convicted for – "Your honor, that other cop broke a suspect's knee – I broke his elbow."

"Professional troublemaker" Jon Corbett is a lawyer who specializes in suing the TSA for civil rights violations, mostly due to the compulsory government genital massages they administer at airport checkpoints. He's just scored a major victory in a qualified immunity case.

Corbett's client is Dustin Dyer, who exercised his legal right to record a TSA search at Richmond International Airport. A TSA supervisor illegally ordered him to stop recording and forced him to delete his video (he was able to recover the deleted file later).

Dyer is suing the TSA and the officers, and the TSA invoked qualified immunity to get the case dismissed. Corbett argued that qualified immunity doesn't apply, and that the officers face the Bivens standard that allows monetary damages for Fourth Amendment violations.

Corbett successfully argued the point, and the judge turned down the TSA's motion. The case will now proceed to trial. Congratulations to Corbett and Dyer!

(Image: Michael Righi, CC BY, cropped)

Why Brits can no longer order signed copies of my books (permalink)

2020 was a big year for me as a writer: I had four new books come out! It was also a weird year for me as a writer: I couldn't tour with any of them. It was a big, weird year for me as a writer.

Thankfully, I have a secret weapon: Dark Delicacies, a great specialist indie bookstore just a few minutes' walk from my front door, where they are only too glad to get orders for signed copies of my books – I drop by and personalize 'em and they ship 'em out.

They got a shipment of 25 copies of the new paperback edition of HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM in last week and they sold like crazy; yesterday I dropped by to sign the last in-stock copies (don't worry, more are on the way).

Sue, one of the owners, said, "By the way, we can't ship to the UK anymore. Since Brexit there's a new requirement that we register to collect VAT and file quarterly paperwork with the British authorities. It's just not worth it to us, sorry."

I asked Sue for more details, and yup, there it is:

Consignments valued at ÂŁ135 or less: The seller must charge and account for VAT at the point of sale

Which involves determining the VAT category, registering for VAT, and filing a return.

That is to say, to ship this $14 paperback, they need to do something like ÂŁ100 worth of paperwork.

Brexit was supposed to be a way to "take Britain back" from the burdens of European paperwork.

To my British readers, I'm heartily sorry about this, but I can't blame Sue.

She's running a small business. After the crisis is over and I can come home to London to see my family, I'll be sure to sign all the bookstore stock I can get my hands on and I'll let you know where to order it from – but until then, I'm afraid the border is closed.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Princeton prof explains watermarks’ failures

#15yrsago Palm Beach County voting machines generated 100K anomalies in 2004

#15yrsago Cutting board marked with measurement guides

#10yrsago Visualizing the wealth of America’s super-rich ruling class

#10yrsago MPAA: record-breaking box-office year is proof that piracy is killing movies

#5yrsago Obama’s new Librarian of Congress nominee is a rip-snortin’, copyfightin’, surveillance-hatin’ no-foolin’ LIBRARIAN

#5yrsago A brief history of the surveillance debate

#5yrsago After appointed city manager illegally jacked up prices, Flint paid the highest water rates in America

#5yrsago Math denialism: crypto backdoors and DRM are the alternative medicine of computer science

#1yrago 81 Fortune 100 companies demand binding arbitration

#1yrago The Snowden Archive

#1yrago How "Authoritarian Blindness" kept Xi from dealing with coronavirus

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 526 words (114121 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Yesterday's progress: 284 words (7016 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability (Part 2)
Upcoming appearances:

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Latest book:

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