Now, Put It Back!

What the tech giants' content replacement systems tell us about our free expression priorities

A CRT television in a darkened room, turned to static; on the screen is a drawing of a butler with a towel folded over his arm; his head has been replaced with the “sad Youtube” icon displayed for content that’s been taken offline.
Samy Menai/Noun Project/CC BY (modified)

Last week, the leftist British Novara Media (disclosure, I have been a guest on some Novara programs) was kicked off YouTube for “repeated violations” of the service’s policies. Novara’s workers were alarmed, dismayed and outraged in equal measure. After all, the channel had only ever attracted one violation warning from YouTube, and that had been an error — something YouTube itself had acknowledged after further investigation.

A few hours later, Novara’s channel was restored. The New York Times took notice, saying that the incident “shows [YouTube’s] power over media.” Which, you know, fair enough. YouTube is dominant, thanks to its parent company (Google, masquerading as a holding company called Alphabet that exists as an account fiction). Google is able to self-preference by giving pride of place to YouTube in its search results, and it is able to plug YouTube into its rigged ad-auction business, where it illegally colludes with Facebook to maximize its profits from ads while minimizing the amount it passes on to the creators who make the videos those ads run on.

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Pluralistic: 29 Oct 2021

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  • LaserWriter II: Tamara Shopsin's celebration of the heroic era of the Mac.
  • This day in history: 2001, 2006, 2011, 2016, 2020
  • Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading

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Pluralistic: 28 Oct 2021

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Pluralistic: 27 Oct 2021

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Pluralistic: 26 Oct 2021

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Pluralistic: 25 Oct 2021

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The Traitorous Eight and the Battle of Germanium Valley

How California’s ban on non-competes saved the tech industry from eugenics.

A circuit board with the silhouette of a hooded Klansman, his robes covered in circuit traces.
Image; Adam Jones, Ph.D./CC BY-SA (modified)

In 1956, the Nobel prize in physics went to William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain for their work on silicon transistors. Shockley, a Bell Labs alum, had already gone to work commercializing this invention, moving from New Jersey to Mountain View, California and founding Shockley Semiconductors, the first “silicon” company in Silicon Valley. In an important sense, Shockley invented Silicon Valley.

He was a terrible person.

After the Nobel, Shockley turned brooding and paranoid. He installed wiretaps to spy on his engineers and family members and administered polygraph tests to employees.

He lost interest in semiconductors and threw himself into eugenics and the extermination of “inferior” people. He offered cash bounties to Black women who underwent sterilizing surgeries. He toured the US, debating biologists to prove that the human race needed to be purified through “race science” to preserve and refine the superior genes of the very best white people.

All of this would have posed a significant barrier to inventing the commercial silicon transistor, of course. But even without the racism and paranoia, Shockley was a genuinely terrible manager. He was prone to starting and then halting projects, switching up the corporate priorities based on his whims without regard to the work that his employees had put into work that he was scrapping or de-emphasizing.

Within a year of the company’s founding, eight of its top engineers had had enough. They quit Shockley Semi and founded their own rival, Fairchild Semiconductor. Less than a year after that, Fairchild launched its first silicon transistor, the 2N696, dooming the germanium transistor to the scrap heap of history. Silicon Valley was finally making silicon.

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Pluralistic: 24 Oct 2021

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Pluralistic: 21 Oct 2021

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Pluralistic: 20 Oct 2021

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