- Don't believe Obama's Big Tech criti-hype: They're not evil geniuses (they're not geniuses, period).
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Don't believe Obama's Big Tech criti-hype (permalink)
Obama's Stanford University speech this Thursday (correctly) raised the alarm about conspiratorial thinking, and (correctly) identified that Big Tech was at the center of that rise – and then (wildly incorrectly) blamed "the algorithm" for it.
Obama was committing the sin of criti-hype, Lee Vinsel's incredibly useful term for criticism that repeat the self-serving myths of the subject of the critique. Every time we say that Big Tech is using machine learning to brainwash people, we give Big Tech a giant boost:
You may have heard that the core of Big Tech's dysfunction comes from the ad-supported business model: "If you're not paying for the product, you're the product." This is a little oversimplified (any company that practices lock-in and gouges on repair, software and parts treats its customer as the product, irrespective of whether they're paying – c.f. Apple and John Deere), but there's an important truth to it.
The hundred of billions that Google and Facebook (or Meta, lol) rake in every year do indeed come from ads. That's not merely because they have a duopoly that has cornered the ad market – it's also because they charge a huge premium to advertise on their platforms:
Why do advertisers pay extra to place ads with Googbook? Because Googbook swears that their ads work really well. They say that they can use machine learning and junk-science popular psychology ("Big 5 Personality Types," "sentiment analysis," etc) to bypass a user's critical faculties and control their actions directly. It boils down to this: "Our competition asks consumers to buy your product, we order them to."
This is a pretty compelling pitch, and of course, ad buyers have always been far more susceptible to the ad industry than actual consumers. Think of John Wannamker's famous quote, "Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half." How wild is it that Wanamaker was convinced he was only wasting half his ad spending?!
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the evidence for the efficacy of surveillance advertising is pretty thin. When Procter and Gamble decided to stop spending $100,000,000 per year in online advertising, they saw no drop in their sales:
Every time someone tries to get an accounting of the online ad market, they discover that it's a cesspit of accounting fraud – Googbook lie about how many ads they show, and to whom, and how much money changes hands as a result:
This is where criti-hype does Big Tech's job for it. It's genuinely weird to look at Big Tech's compulsive lying about every aspect of its ad business and conclude that the only time these companies are telling the truth is when they assert that their products work really, really well and you should pay extra to use them.
After all, everyone who's ever claimed to have invented a system of mind-control was either bullshitting us, or themselves, or both. From Rasputin to Mesmer, from MK Ultra to pick-up artists, the entire history of mind-control is an unbroken chain of charlatans and kooks.
It's entirely possible that Big Tech believes they have a mind control ray. Think of Facebook's hilarious voter turnout experiment. The company nonconsensually enrolled 61m users in a psychological experiment to see if they could be manipulated into voting in a US election rather than staying home.
The experiment worked! 280,000 people whom the experimenters predicted would not vote actually voted! 280,000 people is a lot of people, right?
Well, yes and no. 280,000 votes cast in a single precinct or even a single state would have been enough to change the results of many high-salience elections over the past couple of decades (US politics are generally balanced on a knife-edge and tip one way or another based on voter turnout). But Facebook didn't convince 280,000 stay-homers in one state to vote: they convinced 280k people out of 61m to vote. The total effect size: 0.39%.
US elections are often close run, but they aren't decided by 0.39% margins! The average US precinct has 1,100 voters in it. In the most optimistic projection, Facebook showed that they could get 4.29 extra voters per precinct to turn out for an election by nonconsensually exposing them to psychological stimulus.
Now, it's possible that Facebook could improve this technique over time – but that's not how effects in psych experiments usually work. Far more common is for the effectiveness of a novel stimulus to wear away with repetition – to "regress to the mean" as we adapt to it.
Remember how interesting Upworthy headlines were when they arrived? Remember how quickly they turned into a punchline? Remember that the first banner ad had a 44% click-through rate!
So Facebook performed a nonconsenusal psych experiment on 61m people and learned that they could improve voter turnout by 4 votes per precinct, with an intervention whose effectiveness will likely wane over time. What does that say about Facebook?
Well, on the one hand, it says that they're a deeply unethical company that shouldn't be trusted to run a lemonade stand, much less the social lives of 4 billion people. On the other hand, it shows that they're not very good at this mind-control business.
That's where Obama's Stanford speech comes in. When Obama blames "the algorithm" for "radicalizing" people, he does Googbook's work for them. If Mark Zuckerberg invented a mind-control ray to sell your nephew fidget-spinners, then Robert Mercer stole it and used it to make your uncle into a Qanon, then Zuck must have a really amazing advertising platform!
But like I said, Obama's correct to observe that we're in the midst of a conspiratorialism crisis, and Big Tech has a lot to do with it. But Obama – and other criti-hypers – have drastically misunderstood what that relationship is, and their own contribution to it.
Let's start with the ontology of conspiracy – that is, what kind of belief is a conspiratorial belief? At its root, conspiracy is a rejection of the establishment systems for determining the truth. Rather than believing that scientists are telling us the truth about vaccine safety and efficacy, a conspiracist says that scientists and regulators are conspiring to trick us.
We live in an transcendentally technical world. You cannot possibly personally resolve all the technical questions you absolutely need to answer to be safe. To survive until tomorrow, you need to know whether the food safety standards for your dinner are up to the job. You need to know whether the building code that certified the joists holding up the roof over your head were adequate.
You need to know whether you can trust your doctor's prescription advice. You need to know whether your kid's teachers are good at their jobs. You need to know whether the firmware for the antilock brakes on your car is well-made. You need to know whether vaccines are safe, whether masks are safe, and when and how they're safe. You need to know whether cryptocurrencies are a safe bet or a rampant scam.
If you get on a Southwest flight, you need to know whether Boeing's new software for the 737 Max corrects the lethal errors from its initial, self-certified, grossly defective version (I live under the approach path for a SWA hub and some fifty 737 Maxes fly over my roof every day, so this really matters to me!).
You can't possibly resolve all these questions. No one can. If you spent 50 years earning five PhDs in five unrelated disciplines, you might be able to answer three of these questions for yourself, leaving hundreds more unanswered.
The establishment method for resolving these questions is to hold truth-seeking exercises, which we call "regulation." In these exercises, you have a neutral adjudicator (if they have a conflict of interest, they recuse themselves). They hear competing claims from interested parties – experts, the public, employees and executives of commercial firms. They sort through these claims, come to a conclusion and publish their reasoning. They also have a process to re-open the procedure when new evidence comes to light.
In 99% of these exercises, we can't follow the actual cut-and-thrust of the process, but we can evaluate the process itself. Honest regulation is a black box (because most of us can't understand the technical matters at issue), but the box itself can be understood. We can check to see whether it is sturdy, honest and well-made.
The box isn't well made.
The regulatory process has been thoroughly captured, and is now more auction than truth-seeking exercise. Regulators themselves are drawn from the executive ranks of the companies they are regulating. How could it be otherwise? 40 years of antitrust malpractice has led to incredible concentration in nearly every industry:
When five (or four, or two) companies control an industry, the only people who truly understand that industry are the executives at those companies. What's more, all of those executives are awfully cozy with one another, even if they're notionally bitter competitors. An industry with just a few companies is one in which most executives have worked at most of those companies at some point in their careers. They are godparents to each other's children; they're executors of each others' estates. Hell, they're married to each other.
This coziness – between competing companies, and between industries and regulators – makes regulation incredibly susceptible to capture. And since the administrative agencies (not Congress) have the most immediate and profound effect on your quality of life, this matters.
How did the Sackler family start the opioid epidemic that has killed 800,000 Americans (and counting) and walk away with billions? Their regulator slept on their transparently bullshit claims that their blockbuster drug Oxycontin was effective and non-addictive.
When someone tells you they won't trust vaccines because Big Pharma is full of profit-maddened murderers who don't care who they kill to make a buck, and their regulators are in on the scam – they're not wrong.
From aerospace to pharma, agriculture to transportation, labor to the environment, privacy to broadband, the administrative branch has failed us again and again – and every time, the process itself is grossly, obviously rigged.
In Anna Merlan's excellent Republic of Lies, she illuminates the relationship of trauma to conspiratorialism. When you are injured – especially by a corrupt process – you are no longer able to trust the process. But you still need some way of resolving complex questions you yourself aren't qualified to answer:
This produces a condition of epistemological chaos: you no longer trust the process, but you don't have anything to fill it. Into this void rushes conspiratorialism, communities of people who attempt to answer the brutal logic of "caveat emptor" by "doing the research" themselves.
Obama presided over eight years of extremely consequential regulatory failings, starting with his decision to continue bailing out the banks instead of borrowers. That led to the foreclosure crisis, financial consolidation and the finance sector's bid to corner the market on housing.
Obama's FDA failed to stem the opioid crisis. Obama's DoJ and FTC permitted waves of mergers and acquisitions, from Facebook/Instagram to Dow/Dupont to United/Raytheon to Heinz/Kraft.
Big Tech's mergers and misdeeds during the Obama years were especially grave, and Obama himself was extremely deferential to Big Tech's claims to be benign, efficient, and (especially) brilliant. When Obama accuses Big Tech of fueling conspiratorialism through algorithmic radicalization, he's merely restating his belief in their genius.
But they're not geniuses. As I explained in my 2020 book, "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism," the role that surveillance plays in conspiratorialism is in finding people, not convincing people.
That is the actual mechanic of Googbook's advertising efficacy: by spying on us all the time, Big Tech is able to target ads. So if you want to sell cheerleading uniforms, Big Tech can show your ads to cheerleaders. That is a big change in advertising, but it's not mind control.
The internet is a system that allows people to find each other – for better and for worse. If you hold a socially disfavored view ("gender is a spectrum," "Black lives matter"), tech will help you locate others who share that view, without requiring you to go public with it and risk social sanction. Unfortunately, this also lets people who hold odious views ("Jews will not replace us") do the same thing.
What's more, the ad-tech parts of the system help grifters locate and target vulnerable people. If you want to sell anti-vax (which has its own line of products, from fake vaccine cards to quack remedies), ad-tech will put your message in front of people who participate in conspiratorial communities.
And yes, Big Tech makes people vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking – but not by bypassing their cognitive faculties to put outlandish ideas in their heads. Rather, Big Tech – like all monopolies – creates the conditions for epistemological chaos, by demonstrating, day after day, that our regulatory process is an auction, not a truth-seeking exercise. Every day that goes by without the US having a federal privacy law with a private right of action is a day that wins converts for conspiratorialism.
Upton Sinclair said that "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Obama would prefer to believe that Big Tech has a mind control ray because the alternative is recognizing that deference to corporate power has plunged the world into political chaos.
This is where the centrist/liberal world overlaps with the far right. Recall that when England erupted with a racial uprising in 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron – a far right ideologue – insisted that the whole thing was down to "criminality, plain and simple."
This is effectively mysticism. "Criminality" in this view, is some kind of defect that naturally occurs. It has no causal relationship to the outside world. It can't be measured (though maybe if it could, we could precrime all the people who have it and put them in jail?). As a political philosophy, the idea that problems arise from "criminality, pure and simple" is about as useful as blaming problems on demonic possession.
Likewise Obama's thesis, that Qanons are the result of Big Tech mind-control, and not material circumstances. It poses Big Tech's leaders not as mediocre, sociopathic monopolists, but as evil sorcerers who must be tamed. It forecloses on weakening the companies by denying them their illegitimate market power, and it deflects any inquiry into why people are vulnerable to conspiratorialism.
All of this is to Big Tech's advantage. If you're Google, Obama's condemnation of your powers of mind control is something you can add to your sales literature: "We have a data-advantage that makes our ads unstoppable – even Obama says so!"
Hey look at this (permalink)
- Help this "Ghost Class" of speculative fiction writers get to the Clarion Writer's Workshop https://boingboing.net/2022/04/19/help-this-ghost-class-of-speculative-fiction-writers-get-to-the-clarion-writers-workshop.html
Wet Leg's debut album, like the Breeders meet Sonic Youth, with a dash of Tom Tom Club https://www.wetlegband.com/ (h/t Taylor Jessen)
This day in history (permalink)
#20yrsago Bruce Sterling's Computers, Freedom and Privacy keynote https://web.archive.org/web/20020603002557/http://www.interesting-people.org/archives/interesting-people/200204/msg00191.html
#20yrsago Lethem’s "You Don't Love Me": daffy and precise love story about art-rockers https://memex.craphound.com/2007/04/21/lethems-new-novel-daffy-and-precise-love-story-about-art-rockers/
#15yrsago Mayor of Boston bans Boing Boing http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/001190.html
#10yrsago Daniel Pinkwater explains his role in the mystery of the NY State reading test pineapple race kerfuffle https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-METROB-15069
#10yrsago Mule-based bookmobiles for remote Venezuelan communities http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6929404.stm
#10yrsago TSA program to turn jumped-up mall cops into mind-readers didn’t work https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2012/04/tsa_behavioral.html
#10yrsago Eurocrat in charge of digital agenda: disconnecting people from the Internet is not a just punishment http://www.commentneelie.eu/speech.php?sp=SPEECH/12/275
#10yrsago Interview with MAD’s Al Jaffee https://www.cnet.com/culture/al-jaffee-snappy-answers-to-not-stupid-questions/
#5yrsago Portland hotel magnate withdraws overt Trump donation, funnels $1M through front companies instead https://theintercept.com/2017/04/21/portland-executive-covertly-donates-1-million-to-inauguration-after-being-shamed-over-trump-support/
#5yrsago Canada upholds net neutrality, bans zero-rating https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/crtc-zero-rating-differential-pricing-decision-videtron-net-neutrality-2017-1.4077717
#5yrsago Universal punchcard-based Turing machine implemented in Powerpoint animations https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNjxe8ShM-8
#5yrsago A look inside the shady world of Flexispy, makers of “stalkerware” for jealous spouses https://www.vice.com/en/article/aemeae/meet-flexispy-the-company-getting-rich-selling-stalkerware-to-jealous-lovers
#5yrsago A gorgeous book-trailer for Walkaway https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsu_J6XwrRc
#5yrsago John Deere just told the copyright office that only corporations can own property, humans can only license it https://www.wired.com/2015/04/dmca-ownership-john-deere/
#1yrago EFF sues Proctorio over copyfraud https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/22/ihor-kolomoisky/#copyfraud
#1yrago Fighting FLoC is compatible with fighting monopoly https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/22/ihor-kolomoisky/#not-that-competition
#1yrago Moxie hacks Cellebrite https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/22/ihor-kolomoisky/#petard
#1yrago Banks made bank on covid overdraft charges https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/22/ihor-kolomoisky/#usurers
#1yrago The awesome destructive power of a billionaire https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/22/ihor-kolomoisky/#force-multiplier
#1yrago Some thoughts on GWB's call for truth in politics: Mission accomplished https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/21/re-identification/#seriously-fuck-that-guy
#1yrago What's wrong with EU's trustbusters: And how to fix it https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/21/re-identification/#eu-antitrust
Today's top sources: Slashdot (https://slashdot.org).
- Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 511 words (86429 words total).
A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW
Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION
Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE
A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED
A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED
Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.
Latest podcast: Big Tech Isn’t Stealing News Publishers’ Content
- Wikiworkshop, Apr 25
Imagining better futures, now! with Edward Ongweso, Jr, MidMountain, Apr 25:
The Power of Utopia, The Center for Artistic Activism Apr 28
OpenJSWorld Austin Keynote, Jun 8
UK Competition and Markets Authority Data Technology and Analytics conference, Jun 15-16
- Launch for Jennifer Egan's "Candy House" (Vancouver Public Library)
Surveillance Capitalism, Borders, and the Police (Tech Workers Coalition San Diego)
Breaking Free From the Corporate Matrix (Audiblegate podcast)
- "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The Washington Post called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html
"How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59 (print edition: https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism/9781736205907) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)
"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html
"Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1562/_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer.html.
- Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022
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