The old, good internet deserves a new, good internet

A trio of public toilet stalls, each fitted with a pay toilet coin-op lock. The middle lock’s mechanism has been replaced with the menacing, staring red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ The space around and beneath the stalls is filled with a ‘Code Rain’ effect from the credit sequences of the Wachowksis’ ‘The Matrix.’
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers. –Socrates

Nostalgia is a toxic impulse. –Judge John Hodgman

I’m an official Old Person (I turned 52 last month). According to the AARP, that means that I am now officially entitled to complain that back in my day, things used to be better.

I am suspicious of this impulse! When I started dialing BBSes in the early 1980s, the Old Hands there told me that it was all downhill after acoustic couplers and that modems were degrading the noosphere into a fallen paradise.

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Fool Me Twice We Don’t Get Fooled Again

There’s a crucial difference between federatable and federated.

A pair of fake screenshots, one from Threads, the other from Bluesky. The top one is from a verified account called “gwb1946” whose avatar is George W Bush’s flightsuit-clad crotch. The post reads, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you.” The second post is from an account whose handle is “Regimechange,” and whose userid is @missionaccomplished.failson. It reads “Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

“Are you on Bluesky?”

Friends, colleagues and strangers have emailed me to ask whether I’ve set up on the new, federatable social media incubated at Twitter and spun out, which many view as a viable Twitter successor.

“Are you on Threads?”

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Microincentives and Enshittification

How the Curse of Bigness wrecked Google Search.

A clip from a Jenga ad showing a dad knocking over the Jenga tower.

It’s hard to convey just how revolutionary Google Search was when it debuted in 1998. It blew rivals — from AskJeeves and Altavista to Yahoo — out of the water. It was so good, it was almost spooky, surfacing the best of the web with just a few clicks.

Today, Google owns the search market, controlling more than 90 percent of searches. Its worth hovers in the trillion-dollar range, and it employs some 180,000 people in offices all over the world. Almost every online journey we take starts with a Google search.

And here’s the thing: Google Search suuuuucks.

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When the Town Square Shatters

Once again, science fiction fandom shows us how to use the internet.

An undated early flier for GEnie’s Science Fiction Round Table.

When it comes to the social internet, chances are that science fiction fans got there first. The first non-technical discussion forums on the internet — ancient mailing lists — were devoted to sf. The original high-traffic non-technical Usenet groups? Also sftnal. (This isn’t always something to be proud of — long before Donald Trump’s dank meme army, before Gamergate, sf’s “Rabid Puppies” and “Sad Puppies” were figuring out how to combine pop culture, the internet and far-right conspiratorialism into a vicious harassment machine).

Sf’s mix of technophilia, subculture, and its long tradition of gluing together a distributed community with written materials made it a natural for digital, networked communications.

Long before Twitter created — and then destroyed — a single, unified conversation that linked practitioners with the people who normally lived far downstream of their work, science fiction had created a single, unified “town square.”

And decades before a mediocre billionaire uncaringly smashed that unified conversation into a million flinders, sf fans and writers were living through their own Anatevka moment.

Twitter users bemoaning the end of the “unified conversation,” I am here from your future to tell you what happens next.

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“Everybody hates this idea, so it must be great.”

A pizzaburger: a fat, juicy beef patty with lettuce, onion and tomatoes, sandwiched between two crudely photoshopped pizzas.

I encountered the work of political communications strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio through The Persuaders, an important book about how people change one another’s minds that Anand Giridharadas published in 2022.

Shenker-Osorio helps politicians and movements develop “messages,” but unlike the tradition concept of messaging as a way of bypassing the audience’s critical faculties, Shenker-Osorio wants to engage them.

That is, rather than tricking you into supporting an issue by, say, linking it with motherhood and apple pie, Shenker-Osorio wants to actually convince you that a given issue deserves your support.

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The Shitty Tech Adoption Curve Has a Business Model

It is difficult to get a public procurement officer to understand something, when a vendor’s salary depends on his not understanding it.

A jail cell, seen through the bars. Bundles of US $100 bills are piled up on the floor of the cell.
Flying Logos/CC BY-SA 4.0 (modified)

In the “Shitty Technology Adoption Curve,” oppressive technologies are first imposed on people who don’t get to complain — prisoners, migrants, children, mental patients, benefits recipients — in order to normalize these tools and sand down their rough edges. Once the technology has been rendered a little more acceptable, it crawls up the privilege gradient, bit by bit, until even the most socially powerful among us are using it.

In other words: 20 years ago, if you ate dinner under a CCTV’s unblinking eye, you were probably dining in a supermax prison. Today, you’re likely just someone who bought some luxury surveillance, like a “home automation” system from Google, Apple, Amazon or Facebook.

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Ayyyyyy Eyeeeee

The lie that raced around the world before the truth got its boots on.

A portrait of OpenAI founder Sam Altman. It has been altered so that his eyes are replaced with the glaring red eye of HAL9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He is holding a flashlight under his chin and is shrouded in darkness.
Jasleen Kaur/CC BY-SA 2.0; TechCrunch/CC BY 2.0; Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

It didn’t happen.

The story you heard, about a US Air Force AI drone warfare simulation in which the drone resolved the conflict between its two priorities (“kill the enemy” and “obey its orders, including orders not to kill the enemy”) by killing its operator?

It didn’t happen.

The story was widely reported on Friday and Saturday, after Col. Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton, USAF Chief of AI Test and Operations, included the anaecdote in a speech to the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) Summit.

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Ideas Lying Around

Milton Friedman was a monster, but he wasn’t wrong about this.

A workbench with a pegboard behind it. from the pegboard hang an array of hand-tools.
btwashburn/CC BY 2.0

Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

-Milton Friedman, 1972

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Rich People’s Gain is Worth Less Than Poor People’s Pain

A new way to think about utilitarianism, courtesy of the Office of Management and Budget.

A faded, halftoned image of the US Capitol Dome, surmounted by a balance scale. The lower part of the scale is weighed down by a towering Oliver Twist figure, porridge-bowl extended in supplication. He is raising up a scale holding a fan of caricature drawings of a business-suited plutocrat with a dollar-sign-emblazoned money-bag for a head.

Utilitarianism — the philosophy of making decisions to benefit the most people — sounds commonsensical. But utilitarianism is — and always has been — an attractive nuisance, one that invites its practitioners to dress up their self-serving preferences with fancy mathematics that “prove” that their wins and your losses are “rational.”

That’s been there ever since Jeremy Bentham’s formulation of the concept of utilitarianism, which he immediately mobilized in service to the panopticon, his cruel design for a prison where prisoners would be ever haunted by a watcher’s unseeing eye. Bentham seems to have sincerely believed that there was a utilitarian case for the panopticon, which let him declare his sadistic thought-experiment (thankfully, it was never built during Bentham’s life) to be a utility-maximizing act of monumental kindness.

Ever since Bentham, utilitarianism has provided cover for history’s great monsters to claim that they were only acting in service to the greater good.

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Google’s AI Hype Circle

We have to do Bard because everyone else is doing AI; everyone else is doing AI because we’re doing Bard.

An anatomical cutaway of a man’s head in cross-seciton. His brains have been replaced by a computer mainboard. In the center of the board is a virtuous circle diagram of three arrows pointing to one another. Each arrow features a flailing sillhoutted figured whose head has been replaced by the glaring red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ In the center of the circle is the multicolored G Google logo.
Trevor Parscal/CC BY-SA 3.0; Cryteria/CC BY 3.0; modified

The thing is, there really is an important area of AI research for Google, namely, “How do we keep AI nonsense out of search results?”

Google’s search quality has been in steady decline for years. I blame the company’s own success. When you’ve got more than 90 percent of the market, you’re not gonna grow by attracting more customers — your growth can only come from getting a larger slice of the pie, at the expense of your customers, business users and advertisers.

Google’s product managers need that growth. For one thing, the company spends $45 billion every year to bribe companies like LG, Samsung, Motorola, LG and Apple to be their search default. That is to say, they’re spending enough to buy an entire Twitter, every single year, just to stay in the same place.

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