Pluralistic: 21 Jun 2022

Today's links

Susie Bright at Come As You Are Co-operative 493 Queen Street West (Spadina) Toronto ON M5V 2B4 Canada.

The sex industry isn't technophilic (permalink)

The sex industry has pioneered every new communications tool since the printing press: in my own lifetime, I've watched it take the lead in VCRs, desktop publishing, BBSes, digital text, digital images, digital videos, live streaming services, cryptocurrency, and VR. It would be easy to conclude that being interested in sex is somehow correlated with being fascinated by technology.

But that's wrong. While there are lots of sex workers and sex industry participants who have an innate fascination with technology, there's no reason to think that being into sex is a predictor of being into tech. And yet, sex workers are the vanguard of every technological revolution. What gives?

Well, think about the other groups that make up that vanguard – who else is an habitual early adopter? At least four other groups also take the lead on new tech: political radicals, kids, drug users, and terrorists. There's some overlap among members of these groups, but their most salient shared trait isn't personnel, it's exclusion.

Kids, drug users, political radicals, sex workers and terrorists are all unwelcome in mainstream society. They struggle to use its money, its communications tools, and its media channels. Any attempt to do so comes at a high price: personal risk, plus a high likelihood that some or all of their interactions and transactions will be interdicted – their work seized and destroyed or blocked or deleted.

Using a new technology comes at a cost. If it's 1979 and you're Walt Disney Pictures, you've got no reason to explore the VCR. The existing system works great for you – and it works great for your audience. You can always find a movie theater willing to show your movies, your audience is happy to be seen entering that cinema, and the bank gladly accepts ticket revenues as deposits.

But if you're into smutty movies, none of that is true. Just mailing your 8mm films across state lines is risky – maybe it gets seized and incinerated, maybe a postal inspector shows up at your door with a search warrant. Most theaters won't show your movies, and most people don't want to be seen in the ones that will.

Given all those structural barriers, it makes sense that the technophiles who also happen to be involved in the sex trade will get a hearing from their colleagues – unlike the traditional media execs whose endorsement of the VCR made them persona non grata within their companies. That is, technophilia is a deficit if you're doing something socially acceptable, and an asset if you're doing something that's socially disfavored.

Which is why technophiles are leading figures among terrorists and kids and sex workers and drug users and political radicals. The kids who left Facebook for Instagram weren't looking for the Next Big Thing; they were looking for a social media service that their parents and teachers didn't use. The kids who were technophiles discovered Instagram and the others followed their lead. They endured the hassle of learning a new service and re-establishing social connections, because that hassle was less than the hassle of staying on Facebook, subject to scrutiny by the adult authorities in your life.

One corollary of this phenomenon is that technophile circles have disproportionate numbers of socially disfavored people. If you're a normie who just likes new tech, the services and systems you seek out will have higher-than-baseline numbers of people into sex, as well as radicals, kids, druggies and terrorists.

Another corollary of this phenomenon is that the founders of new technologies will always start out by courting these marginal groups – they are the vanguard, after all – and then, eventually, turn on them.

Sex workers know this story well. Sex workers' content and transactions turned companies from Tumblr to Instagram, Paypal to Twitch into multi-billion-dollar enterprises, whereupon these companies turned on sex workers and kicked them off the platform, seizing their money and destroying their creative work in the process.

No one knows this story better than Susie Bright, a pioneering sex-positive, high-tech feminist author, critic, educator and performer. Bright helped found the seminal lesbian magazine On Our Backs, practically invented serious film criticism for pornographic videos, edited many classic erotic books, and has used the courts to win justice for many sex-positive causes.

Bright is also a technophile. I met her on The WELL, an early online service, in the early 1990s. She was already a desktop publishing pioneer by then (On Our Backs was the first magazine to be laid out in Pagemaker). Since then, Bright has been at the forefront of every technological development and human rights struggle for sex workers.

Earlier this spring, Bright and colleagues presented a lecture series called "Radical Desire: Making On Our Backs Magazine" for Cornell Library:

As it does with other open access educational material, Cornell uploaded these lectures – presented by fully clothed lecturers – to Youtube. In response, Youtube deleted Cornell Library's entire channel – all of it: "lectures on higher mathematics and plate tectonics, fashion design and human ecology, Classical Greek and MBA best practices."

This is par for the course: Facebook banned Bright simply for posting an announcement of the upcoming lecture series.

As Bright notes, "this banning/terminating/deleting troll crap has been going on since I first got my modem in 1986." She says that tech companies are vulnerable to blue-nosed prudes who seek out sex-positive material and mass-report it to hosting companies and other intermediaries.

Bright doesn't take this lying down (ahem): she's litigated questions of sex-positivity in the public sphere all the way to the Supreme Court.

Despite having been kicked off of "Apple, Amazon, FB, Twitter, Microsoft, AOL," at one time or another, Bright still has a big platform, and she used it to get Cornell Library's Youtube channel reinstated.

But Bright's story is instructive to consider in this moment. When we allow a small number of companies to dominate our digital lives, their choices about who is allowed to speak take on outsized importance. Their bad choices affect millions or even billions of users.

What's more, people who blithely insist that Youtube's lack of pornography is proof that other platforms could remove other sorts of "bad content" – harassment, conspiratorialism, etc – fail to appreciate that sex workers and other margnizalized users are the dolphins in content-moderation's tuna nets. The reason Youtube is porn-free is because it's willing to tolerate accidentally removing an Ivy League university's entire public archive of academic materials as acceptable collateral damage in the sex wars.

Now, as Bright's story shows, it's possible for public pressure to change the content moderation policies of big companies, but this is unreliable. The most popular alternative to this right now are legal proposals forcing big companies to carry material they want to remove (this is a favorite proposition of the right, who view it as a way to get Trump and Alex Jones back onto Big Tech's platforms).

This is a terrible idea. The Big Tech platforms definitely wield the censor's pen. The pedantic excuse that "it's only censorship when the government does it" ignores the impact on speech that comes from government inaction – when the government allows a couple of companies to corner the market on speech forums, their private action affects our public discourse as surely as if the state were to ban or require certain speech.

There is a lot of room for improvement in how the platforms govern our speech. Important documents like the Santa Clara Principles set out actionable demands for improvement on that score:

But making the Big Tech platforms work better will only get us so far. More important is to make them fail better – to ensure that no one wields the kind of unaccountable power over speech that the platforms have gathered into their hands through campaigns of anti-competitive mergers and acquisitions:

The tech companies who court and then betray sex workers deserve public shaming, but sex workers shouldn't have to rely on tech bros' largely nonexistent sense of shame in order to continue to transact and communicate. For that, we need lots of platforms, not just better ones.

(Image: Come As You Are Co-operative, CC BY 2.0)

An Apple Itunes license agreement window with a Buy on Itunes button superimposed on it.

Schroedinger's streaming service just died (permalink)

When you buy a vinyl record, cassette or CD, you own it, thanks to copyright law's "first sale" principle. I have real criticisms of copyright law, but at least it's a law, created by a democratically accountable legislature. When you buy a digital download of a song, your use of it is governed by private terms of service, not copyright law.

These terms of service are outrageous. Not only are they incredibly long and dull, but they confiscate all the rights that Congress reserved to the public when they crafted copyright law. You can donate your old CDs to a library, you can leave your mix-tapes to your kid, you can divide your CDs in a divorce, but none of that stuff is on the table with digital media.

Virtually no one has ever read these terms of service. That makes sense – not only are they written to be impenetrably soporific, but they're also so manifestly unfair that just trying to parse them risks an aneurysm. Perhaps the only way to read the Itunes ToS with your sanity intact is via R Sikoryak's incredible graphic novel (!) adaptation:

The confiscation of your rights to your digital media depends on the fiction that you are licensing the music, not buying it. The fact that there's a giant "buy now" button on the interface notwithstanding, tech and entertainment companies maintain that you are engaged in a licensing deal, like an advertiser buying synch rights for a hamburger commercial.

The digital media industry wants to eat its cake and have it, too. Even as they tell you that you've just bought a "license" and therefore have no rights under copyright, they tell their workforce – the creative laborers who composed, arranged and performed the music – that you're buying your music, not licensing it.

That's because all the record deals from the prehistory of digital music have two different royalty rates: when a musician's work is sold, they get a low royalty rate (12%-22%). When that same work is licensed, they get a 50% royalty.

When the digital music industry was getting started, they invented a new form of quantum indeterminacy. When a customer paid $0.99 for an Itunes track, they were engaged in a license. When that transaction was recorded on the artist's royalty statement, it was a sale. Like Schroedinger's alive/dead cat, digital music was in superposition, caught in a zone between a sale and a license.

Because only music executives were allowed to open the box and collapse the wave, they could ensure that it always collapsed into a state favorable to the record label and its tech partners. If a listener was involved, the wave collapsed into a license transaction, and the listener was deprived of the rights the legislature promised them. If a musician was involved, the wave collapsed into a sale transaction, and the musician was deprived of the majority of the money their contracts guaranteed them.

Now, a musician has managed to drag digital music into the realm of classical physics, ending its quantum indeterminacy. Electronica pioneer Four Tet has successfully wrung a settlement out of his label, Domino, who will now be forced to treat his digital recordings as licenses and pay a 50% royalty, rather than the 13.5% they'd insisted on.

Four Tet will get ÂŁ56,921.08 and 5% interest compounded over all the years the label was screwing him: "I really hope that my own course of action encourages anyone who might feel intimidated by challenging a record label with substantial means."

It's great to see Four Tet get some fundamental justice. One way that heritage acts can get some justice of their own without going to court is through copyright termination. In the US, artists can terminate their copyright deals after 35 years and get their rights back:

This has enabled many creative workers to cut through legal messes; for example, George Clinton was was able to terminate copyright assignments to 1,413 of his works, comprehensively ending the otherwise endless litigation against an unscrupulous manager whom Clinton accused of stealing his catalog:

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Perl is Internet Yiddish

#20yrsago The invention of Warchalking,3605,740098,00.html

#20yrsago Punk sounds for babies

#15yrsago Email gets fourth amendment protection again

#15yrsago Gold farming makes the NYT

#15yrsago Fix the FCC or die

#15yrsago North American Broadcasters Association knifes NPR and PBS at the United Nations anti-podcasting treaty negotiation

#10yrsago DMZ is finished: Brian Wood nailed the ending

#10yrsago G4S boss predicts mass privatisation of UK police forces

#10yrsago Bacigalupi: cyberpunk saved sf

#10yrsago Drugs Without the Hot Air: the most sensible book about drugs you’ll read this year

#10yrsago Fanfic inspired by the apocalyptic state of a ten-year-old Civilization II game

#10yrsago How stupid is Charles Carreon’s lawsuit against The Oatmeal, IndieGoGo, the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation? Really, really stupid

#10yrsago Oatmeal to Charles Carreon: calm down before you get yourself into trouble

#10yrsago Aaron Swartz reviews Twilight of the Elites, an indictment of meritocracy

#10yrsago Young man with autism sees off the Snow White ride at Walt Disney World

#10yrsago FunnyJunk’s lawyer sues American Cancer Society and National Wildlife Federation

#10yrsago Falsehoods programmers believe about time

#5yrsago A right-wing Dem Senator who voted to sell weapons to Saudi is being primaried by an environmental activist

#5yrsago New media noncompetes are destroying the careers of young journalists

#5yrsago Every year, Starbucks sends 4 billion nonrecyclable paper cups to landfills

#5yrsago Truck-driving is a modern form of indentured slavery

#5yrsago Canon Jesus was way better than fandom Jesus

#5yrsago Israeli company’s spyware used to target corruption-fighting journalists and lawyers in Mexico

#5yrsago SXSW condemns Texas’s state-level law banning “sanctuary cities” like Austin

#5yrsago My Favorite Thing is Monsters: a haunting diary of a young girl as a dazzling graphic novel

#5yrsago The Big Bad Fox: hilarious tale of predators, parenting, and poultry

#1yrago How to cheat on your taxes: The rich are different from you and me

#1yrago The doctrine of dynastic wealth: Abigail Disney on tax evasion and the American caste system

#1yrago The gig economy's dark-money, astroturf "community groups"

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

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