Pluralistic: 19 Apr 2021

Today's links

The G(AN)-8 (permalink)

A GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) is a peculiar species of machine learning: it uses two models to sharpen one another. One model (the generator) creates things – like faces – based on its training, while the other (the discerner) scores them based their convincingness.

"G(AN) 8" is a new ML art-piece from Shardcore. He trained GANs with images of leaders from the G-8 bloc of countries and then asked a GAN to "find" the leaders in combination with different emotional tags, like "sad."

These tags come from internet captions, both specific ("Boris Johnson looking sad") and generic (images from the CLIP network); the generator uses this input to make a leader's face within a certain emotional range, and the discerner tells it if it's doing a good job.

Shardcore projects his virtual affective world leaders on a screens flaking a virtual meeting hall, watched over by a smattering of synthetic people. It's quite a strange and lovely 5-minute video.

Says Shardcore: "Increasingly we find AI systems are chained together – the output of one, fed into the next. An ouroboros of impenetrable signs, invisibly passed around until a simplified, human-readable, response is produced. Inside the system the machines talk in their own internal language to which we are not party. Perhaps we should keep an eye on that."

Facebook's tonsils (permalink)

Facebook's moderators are legendarily traumatized; they spend endless hours having the very worst humanity has to offer being rammed into their eyeballs. Facebook frequently claims that it's doing better by its moderators, but that's a shell-game.

To understand the shell-game, consider Facebook's highly selective view of vertical integration. On the one hand, Facebook insists it has to own its supply chain, buying up hundreds of companies doing everything from data-centers to ad-tech to rival systems like Instagram.

But on the other hand, Facebook – a company whose ambitions range from dominating VR to issuing its own currency – insists that some functions are so specialized it can't possibly run them in-house.

I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but these functions it insists on outsourcing to low-waged subcontractors are also the impossible-to-perform, high-stakes tasks.

You see, when you use anticompetitive practices to become the arbiters of the social lives of 2.6 billion users, you will end up destroying many of those users. The problem with FB's moderation isn't merely that it's incoherent and under-resourced, it's that it's impossible.

"Create and enforce a set of speech policies that is fair for 2.6 billion people speaking 300 languages in 150 countries" is not a sexy startup idea. Pitch that to a VC and they'll point out that it's a) impossible and b) a surefire money-loser and c) a PR nightmare.

But again, I'm sure that it's totally a coincidence that a company that insists on owning its entire, vertically integrated supply-chain has decided that it should leave it to others tender competitive bids to clean up the grotesque messes that monopolistic system produces.

This outsourcing allows FB to play a shell-game: it can speak of improving the lives of "its moderators" without specifying whether or not this includes the lives of outsourced moderators.

It's not a particularly imaginative scam: Amazon uses it to confuse the issue of labor conditions for drivers and warehouse workers; Google and Apple use it to shuffle around labor practices for their armies of "green-badge" contractors, etc.

The brutalization of FB's outsource moderators is unprecedented in the kind of psychological trauma it inflicts. How many rape- and beheading videos can you watch per day before you end up with serious, long-term mental health effects?

To understand how the shell-game lets FB absolve itself of responsibility for this trauma, check out the leaked farewell memo from an Accenture-employed, Austin-based Facebook moderator that Buzzfeed's Ryan Mac published:

The memo describes how the band-aid measures FB and Accenture provide are just window-dressing. It's fine to have "wellness coaches" who give you visualization tips that let you get back to work when the trauma gets to be too much.

But "wellness" is more than "being able to do your job." To address mental health (rather than job performance), this system would have to consider the lives of moderators when their shift is over: the sleepless nights and the haunted days afterward.

This is not part of the package. Indeed, the idiotic NDAs moderators must sign – broad and nonspecific, which the company refuses to answer contractors' questions about – mean that when they're off the clock, they can't talk to loved ones about what's going on with them.

There's no good reason for these NDAs to be as broad as they are. The material that moderators see is, by definition, mostly public already. The NDAs don't keep secret things secret – rather, they gag the people best poised to understand how bad things truly are.

Reading the memo makes the lie of the "wellness program" obvious: moderators get wellness coaches, but not therapy and their bosses use "wellness coaches" to get them to finish their shifts but not help with their mental health when the shifts end.

Personal time off rules are vague and ever shifting and workers who can't hack it are told they should quit and get another job, but aren't paid enough to build up a buffer that would let them survive in the times between jobs.

Most tellingly, there is no direct path for moderators to feed back into the moderation policies that come down from on-high. At best, they can "raise issues to QA who can raise them to Facebook FTEs."

Facebook has built a bloodless, bureaucratic system that internally fobs off feedback from the people best-poised to describe the problems with its systems, which also silences those people so they can't tell anyone else.

That's not the actions of a company interested in improvement – it's the actions of of a company interested in plausible deniability.

A company that cared about its moderators would heed eminently sensible suggestions like allowing workers who deal with "safety" (the worst material) to rotate in and out of that role, spending half their time on less toxic chores.

The anonymous author of the leaked memo calls themself and their colleagues "the tonsils of the internet, a constantly bombarded first line of defense against potential trauma to the userbase."

FB is a company that says it can do everything – operate local offices in more than 100 countries, field a major VR platform, issue a currency. But when it comes to moderation, it is rendered helpless before the enormity of the task.

The "we must outsource" explanation grows ever thinner, while the "tonsils" hypothesis has enormous explanatory power.

(Image: Klem, CC BY, modified)

Podcasting How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (permalink)

This week on my podcast, the third part of a six (?) part serialized reading of my 2020 One Zero book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, a book arguing that monopoly – not AI-based brainwashing – is the real way that tech controls our behavior.

The book is available in paperback:

and DRM-free ebook :

and my local bookseller, Dark Delicacies, has signed stock that I'll drop by and personalize for you!

Here's the podcast episode:

And here's part one:

And part two:

And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the RSS feed for my podcast:

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Crad Kilodney Homepage

#20yrsago The CueJack FAQ

#15yrsago The novel Heinlein would have written about GW Bush’s America

#15yrsago Hilarious hijinx with security guards who hate building-photographers

#15yrsago How AT&T wants to turn the Internet into mere TV

#10yrsago US, EU want to delay copyright treaty to help blind people for 3-5 years

#10yrsago Seeds: comic-book memoir of father’s cancer is moving, sweet

#10yrsago China’s “Jasmine Revolution”: anonymous out-of-country bloggers troll the politburo

#10yrsago AT&T future of telcoms video 1962, directed by Jetsons writer

#10yrsago Shit Harper Did: Canada’s Prime Ministerial ignominy

#10yrsago China’s housing bubble: ghost malls, ghost highrises, and ghost cities

#10yrsago Motorcycles made from watch parts

#10yrsago More watch-part motorcycles

#10yrsago TSA considers being upset at screening procedures to be an indicator of terrorist intentions

#10yrsago Save Google Video before it goes dark!

#10yrsago NZ MP votes for anti-piracy law hours after tweeting about her love of pirated music

#10yrsago Privacy, Facebook, politics and kids

#5yrsago Ben and Jerry arrested at Democracy Spring demonstration in DC

#5yrsago Chicago Police Accountability Task Force Report: racism, corruption, and a “broken system”

#5yrsago Hacking Team supplied cyber-weapons to corrupt Latin American governments for human rights abuses

#5yrsago Supreme Court sends Authors Guild packing, won’t hear Google Books case

#5yrsago No, tax-havens aren’t good for society (duh)

#5yrsago Something New: frank, comedic, romantic memoir of a wedding in comic form

#5yrsago George Clooney’s neighbor threw a $27/plate Sanders fundraiser to counter Clooney’s $33K/head Hillary event

#5yrsago What is neoliberalism?

#5yrsago Heads of UK’s tax havens to Her Majesty’s Government: go fuck yourself

#1yrago Ellen DeGeneres's union crew takes paycuts while Ellen records from home with non-union contractors

#1yrago Charlie Stross on how we'll screw up the "re-opening"

#1yrago Gilead, the remdesivir welfare queens

#1yrago 80% of the stimulus tax break will go to 43,000 people

#1yrago Delivery services are gouging restaurants to death

#1yrago ICANN pauses selloff of .ORG registry

#1yrago The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act

#1yrago Rural swing-state voters' social media show growing disapproval for Trump

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (

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  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." Friday's progress: 4950 words (67476 total). – FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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