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Let’s say the world is going to hell. Don’t argue, because my case isn’t about that. It’s about who saves it.

I suggest everybody. Or, more practically speaking, a maximized assortment of the smartest and most helpful anybodies.

Not governments. Not academies. Not investors. Not charities. Not big companies and their platforms. Any of those can be involved, of course, but we don’t have to start there. We can start with people. Because all of them are different. All of them can learn. And teach. And share. Especially since we now have the Internet.

To put this in a perspective, start with Joy’s Law: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Then take Todd Park‘s corollary: “Even if you get the best and the brightest to work for you, there will always be an infinite number of other, smarter people employed by others.” Then take off the corporate-context blinders, and note that smart people are actually far more plentiful among the world’s customers, readers, viewers, listeners, parishioners, freelancers and bystanders.

Hundreds of millions of those people also carry around devices that can record and share photos, movies, writings and a boundless assortment of other stuff. Ways of helping now verge on the boundless.

We already have millions (or billions) of them are reporting on everything by taking photos and recording videos with their mobiles, obsolescing journalism as we’ve known it since the word came into use (specifically, around 1830). What matters with the journalism example, however, isn’t what got disrupted. It’s how resourceful and helpful (and not just opportunistic) people can be when they have the tools.

Because no being is more smart, resourceful or original than a human one. Again, by design. Even identical twins, with identical DNA from a single sperm+egg, can be as different as two primary colors. (Examples: Laverne Cox and M. Lamar. Nicole and Jonas Maines.)

Yes, there are some wheat/chaff distinctions to make here. To thresh those, I dig Carlo Cipolla‘s Basic Laws on Human Stupidity (.pdf here) which stars this graphic:

The upper right quadrant has how many people in it? Billions, for sure.

I’m counting on them. If we didn’t have the Internet, I wouldn’t.

In Internet 3.0 and the Beginning of (Tech) History, @BenThompson of @Stratechery writes this:

The Return of Technology

Here technology itself will return to the forefront: if the priority for an increasing number of citizens, companies, and countries is to escape centralization, then the answer will not be competing centralized entities, but rather a return to open protocols. This is the only way to match and perhaps surpass the R&D advantages enjoyed by centralized tech companies; open technologies can be worked on collectively, and forked individually, gaining both the benefits of scale and inevitability of sovereignty and self-determination.

—followed by this graphic:

If you want to know what he means by “Politics,” read the piece. I take it as something of a backlash by regulators against big tech, especially in Europe. (With global scope. All those cookie notices you see are effects of European regulations.) But the bigger point is where that arrow goes. We need infrastructure there, and it won’t be provided by regulation alone. Tech needs to take the lead. (See what I wrote here three years ago.) But our tech, not big tech.

The wind is at our backs now. Let’s sail with it.

Bonus links: Cluetrain, New Clues, World of EndsCustomer Commons.

And a big HT to my old buddy Julius R. Ruff, Ph.D., for turning me on to Cipolla.

When some big outfit with a vested interest in violating your privacy says they are only trying to save small business, grab your wallet. Because the game they’re playing is misdirection away from what they really want.

The most recent case in point is Facebook, which ironically holds the world’s largest database on individual human interests while also failing to understand jack shit about personal boundaries.

This became clear when Facebook placed the ad above and others like it in major publications recently, and mostly made bad news for itself. We saw the same kind of thing in early 2014, when the IAB ran a similar campaign against Mozilla, using ads like this:

That one was to oppose Mozilla’s decision to turn on Do Not Track by default in its Firefox browser. Never mind that Do Not Track was never more than a polite request for websites to not be infected with a beacon, like those worn by marked animals, so one can be tracked away from the website. Had the advertising industry and its dependents in publishing simply listened to that signal, and respected it, we might never have had the GDPR or the CCPA, both of which are still failing at the same mission. (But, credit where due: the GDPR and the CCPA have at least forced websites to put up insincere and misleading opt-out popovers in front of every website whose lawyers are scared of violating the letter—but never the spirit—of those and other privacy laws.)

The IAB succeeded in its campaign against Mozilla and Do Not Track; but the the victory was Pyrrhic, because users decided to install ad blockers instead, which by 2015 was the largest boycott in human history. Plus a raft of privacy laws, with more in the pipeline.

We also got Apple on our side. That’s good, but not good enough.

What we need are working tools of our own. Examples: Global Privacy Control (and all the browsers and add-ons mentioned there), Customer Commons#NoStalking term, the IEEE’s P7012 – Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms, and other approaches to solving business problems from the our side—rather than always from the corporate one.

In those movies, we’ll win.

Because if only Apple wins, we still lose.

Dammit, it’s still about what The Cluetrain Manifesto said in the first place, in this “one clue” published almost 21 years ago:

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings — and out reach exceeds your grasp.
deal with it.

We have to make them deal. All of them. Not just Apple. We need code, protocols and standards, and not just regulations.

All the projects linked to above can use some help, plus others I’ll list here too if you write to me with them. (Comments here only work for Harvard email addresses, alas. I’m doc at searls dot com.)

If you listen to Episode 49: Parler, Ownership, and Open Source of the latest Reality 2.0 podcast, you’ll learn that I was blindsided at first by the topic of Parler, which has lately become a thing. But I caught up fast, even getting a Parler account not long after the show ended. Because I wanted to see what’s going on.

Though self-described as “the world’s town square,” Parler is actually a centralized social platform built for two purposes: 1) completely free speech; and 2) creating and expanding echo chambers.

The second may not be what Parler’s founders intended (see here), but that’s how social media algorithms work. They group people around engagements, especially likes. (I think, for our purposes here, that algorithmically nudged engagement is a defining feature of social media platforms as we understand them today. That would exclude, for example, Wikipedia or a popular blog or newsletter with lots of commenters. It would include, say, Reddit and Linkedin, because algorithms.)

Let’s start with recognizing that the smallest echo chamber in these virtual places is our own, comprised of the people we follow and who follow us. Then note that our visibility into other virtual spaces is limited by what’s shown to us by algorithmic nudging, such as by Twitter’s trending topics.

The main problem with this is not knowing what’s going on, especially inside other echo chambers. There are also lots of reasons for not finding out. For example, my Parler account sits idle because I don’t want Parler to associate me with any of the people it suggests I follow, soon as I show up:

l also don’t know what to make of this, which is the only other set of clues on the index page:

Especially since clicking on any of them brings up the same or similar top results, which seem to have nothing to do with the trending # topic. Example:

Thus endeth my research.

But serious researchers should be able to see what’s going on inside the systems that produce these echo chambers, especially Facebook’s.

The problem is that Facebook and other social networks are shell games, designed to make sure nobody knows exactly what’s going on, but feels okay with it, because they’re hanging with others who agree on the basics.

The design principle at work here is obscurantism—”the practice of deliberately presenting information in an imprecise, abstruse manner designed to limit further inquiry and understanding.”

To put the matter in relief, consider a nuclear power plant:

(Photo of kraftwerk Grafenrheinfeld, 2013, by Avda. Licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Nothing here is a mystery. Or, if there is one, professional inspectors will be dispatched to solve it. In fact, the whole thing is designed from the start to be understandable, and its workings accountable to a dependent public.

Now look at a Facebook data center:

What it actually does is pure mystery, by design, to those outside the company. (And hell, to most, maybe all, of the people inside the company.) No inspector arriving to look at a rack of blinking lights in that place is going to know either. What Facebook looks like to you, to me, to anybody, is determined by a pile of discoveries, both on and off of Facebook’s site and app, around who you are and what to machines you seem interested in, and an algorithmic process that is not accountable to you, and impossible for anyone, perhaps including Facebook itself, to fully explain.

All societies, and groups within societies, are echo chambers. And, because they cohere in isolated (and isolating) ways it is sometimes hard for societies to understand each other, especially when they already have prejudicial beliefs about each other. Still, without the further influence of social media, researchers can look at and understand what’s going on.

Over in the digital world, which overlaps with the physical one, we at least know that social media amplifies prejudices. But, though it’s obvious by now that this is what’s going on, doing something to reduce or eliminate the production and amplification of prejudices is damn near impossible when the mechanisms behind it are obscure by design.

This is why I think these systems need to be turned inside out, so researchers can study them. I don’t know how to make that happen; but I do know there is nothing more large and consequential in the world that is also absent of academic inquiry. And that ain’t right.

BTW, if Facebook, Twitter, Parler or other social networks actually are opening their algorithmic systems to academic researchers, let me know and I’ll edit this piece accordingly.

December 10, 2020: This matter has been settled now, meaning Flickr appears not to be in trouble, and my account due for renewal will be automatically renewed. I’ve appended what settled the matter to the bottom of this post. Note that it also raises another question, about subscriptions. — Doc

I have two Flickr accounts, named Doc Searls and Nfrastructure. One has 73,355 photos, and the other 3,469. They each cost $60/year to maintain as pro accounts. They’ve both renewed automatically in the past; and the first one is already renewed, which I can tell because it says “Your plan will automatically renew on March 20, 2022.”

The second one, however… I dunno. Because, while my Account page says “Your plan will automatically renew on December 13, 2020,” I just got emails for both accounts saying, “This email is to confirm that we have stopped automatic billing for your subscription. Your subscription will continue to be active until the expiration date listed below. At that time, you will have to manually renew or your subscription will be cancelled.” The dates match the two above. At the bottom of each, in small print, it says “Digital River Inc. is the authorized reseller and merchant of the products and services offered within this store. Privacy Policy Terms of Sale Your California Privacy Rights.”

Hmmm. The Digital River link goes here, which appears to be in Ireland. A look at the email’s source shows the mail server is one in Kansas, and the addressing doesn’t look spoofed. So, it doesn’t look too scammy to me. Meaning I’m not sure what the scam is. Yet. If there is one.

Meanwhile, I do need to renew the subscription, and the risk of not renewing it is years of contributions (captions, notes, comments) out the window.

So I went to “Manage your Pro subscription” on the second one (which has four days left to expiration), and got this under “Update your Flickr Pro subscription information”

Plan changes are temporarily disabled. Please contact support for prompt assistance.

Cancel your subscription

The Cancel line is a link. I won’t click on it.

Now, I have never heard of a company depending on automatic subscription renewals switching from those to the manual kind. Nor have I heard of a subscription-dependent company sending out notices like these while the renewal function is disabled.

I would like to contact customer support; but there is no link for that on my account page. In fact, the words “customer” and “support” don’t appear there. “Help” does, however, and goes to, where I need to fill out a form. This I did, explaining,

I am trying to renew manually, but I get “Plan changes are temporarily disabled. Please contact support for prompt assistance.” So here I am. Please reach out. This subscription expires in four days, and I don’t want to lose the photos or the account. I’m [email address] for this account (I have another as well, which doesn’t renew until 2022), my phone is 805-705-9666, and my twitter is @dsearls. Thanks!

The robot replied,

Thanks for your message – you’ll get a reply from a Flickr Support Hero soon. If you don’t receive an automated message from Flickr confirming we received your message (including checking your spam folders), please make sure you provided a valid and active email. Thanks for your patience and we look forward to helping you!

Me too.

Meanwhile, I am wondering if Flickr is in trouble again.

I wondered about this in 2011 and again in 2016, (in my most-read Medium post, ever). Those were two of the (feels like many) times Flickr appeared to be on the brink. And I have been glad SmugMug took over the Flickr show in 2018. (I’m a paying SmugMug customer as well.) But this kind of thing is strange and has me worried. Should I be?

[Later, on December 10…]

Heard from Flickr this morning, with this:

Hi Doc,

When we migrated your account to Stripe, we had to cancel your subscription on Digital River. The email you received was just a notice of this event. I apologize for the confusion.

Just to confirm, there is no action needed at this time. You have an active Pro subscription in good standing and due for renewal on an annual term on December 14th, 2020.

To answer your initial question, since your account has been migrated to Stripe, while you can update your payment information, changes to subscription plans are temporarily unavailable. We expect this functionality to be restored soon.

I appreciate your patience and hope this helps.

For more information, please consult our FAQ here:

Before this issue came up, I hadn’t heard of Digital River or Stripe. Seems they are both “payment gateway” services (at least according to Finances Online). If you look down the list of what these companies can do, other than payment processing alone—merchandising, promotions, channel partner management, dispute handling, cross-border payment optimization, in-app solutions, risk management, email services, and integrations with dozens of different tools, products and extensions from the likes of Visa, MasterCard, Sage and many other companies with more obscure brand names—you can understand how a screw-up like this one can happen when moving from one provider to another.

Now the question for me is whether subscription systems really have to be this complex.

(Comments here only work for Harvard people; so if you’re not one of those, please reply elsewhere, such as on Twitter, where I’m @dsearls.)

The goal here is to obsolesce this brilliant poster by

I got launched on that path a couple months ago, when I got this email from  The_New_Yorker at

Why did they “need” a “confirmation” to a subscription which, best I could recall, was last renewed early this year?

So I looked at the links.

The “renew,” Confirmation Needed” and “Discounted Subscription” links all go to a page with a URL that began with…, followed by a lot of tracking cruft. Here’s a screen shot of that one, cut short of where one filled in a credit card number. Note the price:

I was sure I had been paying $80-something per year, for years. As I also recalled, this was a price one could only obtain by calling the 800 number at

Or somewhere. After digging around, I found it at…, which is where the link to Customer Care under My Account on the NewYorker website goes. It also required yet another login.

So, when I told the representative at the call center that I’d rather not “confirm” a year for a “discount” that probably wasn’t, she said I could renew for the $89.99 I had paid in the past, and that the deal would be good  through February of 2022. I said fine, let’s do that. So I gave her my credit card, said this was way too complicated, and added that a single simple subscription price would be better. She replied,  “Never gonna happen.” Let’s repeat that:

Never gonna happen.

Then I got this by email:

This appeared to confirm the subscription I already had. To see if that was the case, I went back to the website and looked under the Account Summary tab, where it said this:

think this means that I last renewed on February 3 of this year, and what I did on the phone in August was commit to paying $89.99/year until February 10 of 2022.

If that’s what happened, all my call did was extend my existing subscription. Which was fine, but why require a phone call for that?

And WTF was that “Account Confirmation Required” email about? I assume it was bait to switch existing subscribers into paying $50 more per year.

Then there was this, at the bottom of the Account summary page:

This might explain why I stopped getting Vanity Fair, which I suppose I should still be getting.

So I clicked on”Reactivate and got a login page where the login I had used to get this far didn’t work.

After other failing efforts that I neglected to write down, I decided to go back to the New Yorker site and work my way back through two logins to the same page, and then click Reactivate one more time. Voila! ::::::

So now I’ve got one page that tells me I’m good to March 2021 next to a link that takes me to another page that says I ordered 12 issues last December and I can “start” a new subscription for $15 that would begin nine months ago. This is how one “reactivates” a subscription?  OMFG.

I’m also not going into the hell of moving the print subscription back and forth between the two places where I live. Nor will I bother now, in October, to ask why I haven’t seen another copy of Vanity Fair. (Maybe they’re going to the other place. Maybe not. I don’t know, and I’m too weary to try finding out.)

I want to be clear here that I am not sharing this to complain. In fact, I don’t want The New YorkerVanity Fair, Wred, Condé Nast (their parent company) or to do a damn thing. They’re all FUBAR. By design. (Bonus link.)

Nor do I want any action out of Spectrum, SiriusXM, Dish Network or the other subscription-based whatevers whose customer disservice systems have recently soaked up many hours of my life.

See, with too many subscription systems (especially ones for periodicals), FUBAR is the norm. A matter of course. Pro forma. Entrenched. A box outside of which nobody making, managing or working in those systems can think.

This is why, when an alien idea appears, for example from a loyal customer just wanting a single and simple damn price, the response is “Never gonna happen.”

This is also why the subscription fecosystem can only be turned into an ecosystem from the outside. Our side. The subscribers’ side.

I’ll explain how at Customer Commons, which we created for exactly that purpose. Stay tuned for that.

Two exceptions are Consumer Reports and The Sun.

In New Digital Realities; New Oversight SolutionsTom Wheeler, Phil Verveer and Gene Kimmelman suggest that “the problems in dealing with digital platform companies” strip the gears of antitrust and other industrial era regulatory machines, and that what we need instead is “a new approach to regulation that replaces industrial era regulation with a new more agile regulatory model better suited for the dynamism of the digital era.” For that they suggest “a new Digital Platform Agency should be created with a new, agile approach to oversight built on risk management rather than micromanagement.” They provide lots of good reasons for this, which you can read in depth here.

I’m on a list where this is being argued. One of those participating is Richard Shockey, who often cites his eponymous law, which says, “The answer is money. What is the question?” I bring that up as background for my own post on the list, which I’ll share here:

The Digital Platform Agency proposal seems to obey a law like Shockey’s that instead says, “The answer is policy. What is the question?”

I think it will help, before we apply that law, to look at modern platforms as something newer than new. Nascent. Larval. Embryonic. Primitive. Epiphenomenal.

It’s not hard to think of them that way if we take a long view on digital life.

Start with this question: is digital tech ever going away?

Whether yes or no, how long will digital tech be with us, mothering boundless inventions and necessities? Centuries? Millenia?

And how long have we had it so far? A few decades? Hell, Facebook and Twitter have only been with us since the late ’00s.

So why start to regulate what can be done with those companies from now on, right now?

I mean, what if platforms are just castles—headquarters of modern duchies and principalities?

Remember when we thought IBM, AT&T and the PTTs in Europe would own and run the world forever?

Remember when the BUNCH was around, and we called IBM “the environment?” Remember EBCDIC?

Remember when Microsoft ruled the world, and we thought they had to be broken up?

Remember when Kodak owned photography, and thought their enemy was Fuji?

Remember when recorded music had to be played by rolls of paper, lengths of tape, or on spinning discs and disks?

Remember when “social media” was a thing, and all the world’s gossip happened on Facebook and Twitter?

Then consider the possibility that all the dominant platforms of today are mortally vulnerable to obsolescence, to collapse under their own weight, or both.

Nay, the certainty.

Every now is a future then, every is a was. And trees don’t grow to the sky.

It’s an easy bet that every platform today is as sure to be succeeded as were stone tablets by paper, scribes by movable type, letterpress by offset, and all of it by xerography, ink jet, laser printing and whatever comes next.

Sure, we do need regulation. But we also need faith in the mortality of every technology that dominates the world at any moment in history, and in the march of progress and obsolescence.

Another thought: if the only answer is policy, the problem is the question.

This suggests yet another another law (really an aphorism, but whatever): “The answer is obsolescence. What is the question?”

As it happens, I wrote about Facebook’s odds for obsolescence two years ago here. An excerpt:

How easy do you think it is for Facebook to change: to respond positively to market and regulatory pressures?

Consider this possibility: it can’t.

One reason is structural. Facebook is comprised of many data centers, each the size of a Walmart or few, scattered around the world and costing many $billions to build and maintain. Those data centers maintain a vast and closed habitat where more than two billion human beings share all kinds of revealing personal shit about themselves and each other, while providing countless ways for anybody on Earth, at any budget level, to micro-target ads at highly characterized human targets, using up to millions of different combinations of targeting characteristics (including ones provided by parties outside Facebook, such as Cambridge Analytica, which have deep psychological profiles of millions of Facebook members). Hey, what could go wrong?

In three words, the whole thing.

The other reason is operational. We can see that in how Facebook has handed fixing what’s wrong with it over to thousands of human beings, all hired to do what The Wall Street Journal calls “The Worst Job in Technology: Staring at Human Depravity to Keep It Off Facebook.” Note that this is not the job of robots, AI, ML or any of the other forms of computing magic you’d like to think Facebook would be good at. Alas, even Facebook is still a long way from teaching machines to know what’s unconscionable. And can’t in the long run, because machines don’t have a conscience, much less an able one.

You know Goethe’s (or hell, Disney’s) story of The Sorceror’s Apprentice? Look it up. It’ll help. Because Mark Zuckerberg is both the the sorcerer and the apprentice in the Facebook version of the story. Worse, Zuck doesn’t have the mastery level of either one.

Nobody, not even Zuck, has enough power to control the evil spirits released by giant machines designed to violate personal privacy, produce echo chambers beyond counting, amplify tribal prejudices (including genocidal ones) and produce many $billions for itself in an advertising business that depends on all of that—while also trying to correct, while they are doing what they were designed to do, the massively complex and settled infrastructural systems that make all if it work.

I’m not saying regulators should do nothing. I am saying that gravity still works, the mighty still fall, and these are facts of nature it will help regulators to take into account.

door knocker

Remember the dot com boom?

Doesn’t matter if you don’t. What does matter is that it ended. All business manias do.

That’s why we can expect the “platform economy” and “surveillance capitalism” to end. Sure, it’s hard to imagine that when we’re in the midst of the mania, but the end will come.

When it does, we can have a “privacy debate.” Meanwhile, there isn’t one. In fact there can’t be one, because we don’t have privacy in the online world.

We do have privacy in the offline world, and we’ve had it ever since we invented clothing, doors, locks and norms for signaling what’s okay and what’s not okay in respect to our personal spaces, possessions and information.

That we hardly have the equivalent in the networked world doesn’t mean we won’t. Or that we can’t. The Internet in its current form was only born in the mid-’90s. In the history of business and culture, that’s a blip.

Really, it’s still early.

So, the fact that websites, network services, phone companies, platforms, publishers, advertisers and governments violate our privacy with wanton disregard for it doesn’t mean we can’t ever stop them. It means we haven’t done it yet, because we don’t have the tech for it. (Sure, some wizards do, but muggles don’t. And most of us are muggles.)

And, since we don’t have privacy tech yet, we lack the simple norms that grow around technologies that give us ways signal our privacy preferences. We’ll get those when we have the digital equivalents of buttons, zippers, locks, shades, curtains, door knockers and bells.

This is what many of us have been working on at ProjectVRM, Customer Commons, the Me2B Alliance, MyData and other organizations whose mission is getting each of us the tech we need to operate at full agency when dealing with the companies and governments of the world.

I bring all this up as a “Yes, and” to a piece in Salon by Michael Corn (@MichaelAlanCorn), CISO of UCSD, titled We’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate. Subtitle: “It’s too late to conserve our privacy — but to preserve what’s left, we must stop defining people as commodities.”

Indeed. And we do need the “optimism and activism” he calls for. In the activism category is code. Specifically, code that gives us the digital equivalents of buttons, zippers, locks, shades, curtains, door knockers and bells

Some of those are in the works. Others are not—yet. But they will be. Inevitably. Especially now that it’s becoming clearer every day that we’ll never get them from any system with a financial interest in violating it*. Or from laws that fail at protecting it.

If you want to help, join one or more of the efforts in the links four paragraphs up. And, if you’re a developer already on the case, let us know how we can help get your solutions into each and all of our digital hands.

For guidance, this privacy manifesto should help. Thanks.

*Especially publishers such as Salon, which Privacy Badger tells me tries to pump 20 potential trackers into my browser while I read the essay cited above. In fact, according to, Salon tends to run 204 tracking requests per page load, and the vast majority of those are for tracking-based advertising purposes. And Salon is hardly unique. Despite the best intentions of the GDPR and the CCPA, surveillance capitalism remains fully defaulted on the commercial Web—and will continue to remain entrenched until we have the privacy tech we’ve needed from the start.

For more on all this, see People vs. Adtech.

If the GDPR did what it promised to do, we’d be celebrating Privmas today. Because, two years after the GDPR became enforceable, privacy would now be the norm rather than the exception in the online world.

That hasn’t happened, but it’s not just because the GDPR is poorly enforced.  It’s because it’s too easy for every damn site on the Web—and every damn business with an Internet connection—to claim compliance to the letter of GDPR while violating its spirit.

Want to see how easy? Try searching for GDPR+compliance+consent:

Nearly all of the ~21,000,000 results you’ll get are from sources pitching ways to continue tracking people online, mostly by obtaining “consent” to privacy violations that almost nobody would welcome in the offline world—exactly the kind of icky practice that the GDPR was meant to stop.

Imagine if there was a way for every establishment you entered to painlessly inject a load of tracking beacons into your bloodstream without you knowing it. And that these beacons followed you everywhere and reported your activities back to parties unknown. Would you be okay with that? And how would you like it if you couldn’t even enter without recording your agreement to accept being tracked—on a ledger kept only by the establishment, so you have no way to audit their compliance to the agreement, whatever it might be?

Well, that’s what you’re saying when you click “Accept” or “Got it” when a typical GDPR-complying website presents a cookie notice that says something like this:

That notice is from Vice, by the way. Here’s how the top story on Vice’s front page looks in Belgium (though a VPN), with Privacy Badger looking for trackers:

What’s typical here is that a publication, with no sense of irony, runs a story about privacy-violating harvesting of personal data… while doing the same. (By the way, those red sliders say I’m blocking those trackers. Were it not for Privacy Badger, I’d be allowing them.)

Yes, Google says you’re anonymized somehow in both DoubleClick and Google Analytics, but it’s you they are stalking. (Look up stalk as a verb. Top result: “to pursue or approach prey, quarry, etc., stealthily.” That’s what’s going on.)

The main problem with the GDPR is that it effectively requires that every visitor to every website opt out of being tracked, and to do so (thank you, insincere “compliance” systems) by going down stairs into the basements of website popovers to throw tracking choice toggles to “off” positions which are typically defaulted on when you get there.

Again, let’s be clear about this: There is no way for you to know exactly how you are being tracked or what is done with information gathered about you. That’s because the instrument for that—a tool on your side—isn’t available. It probably hasn’t even been invented. You also have no record of agreeing to anything. It’s not even clear that the site or its third parties have a record of that. All you’ve got is a cookie planted deep in your browser’s bowels, designed to announce itself to other parties everywhere you go on the Web. In sum, consenting to a cookie notice leaves nothing resembling an audit trail.

Oh, and the California Consumer Protection Privacy Act (CCPA) makes matters worse by embedding opt-out into law there, while also requiring shit like this in the opt-out basement of every website facing a visitor suspected of coming from that state:

CCPA notice

So let’s go back to a simple privacy principle here: It is just as wrong to track a person like a marked animal in the online world as it is in the offline one.

The GDPR and the CCPA were made to thwart that kind of thing. But they have failed. Instead, they have made the experience of being tracked online a worse one.

Yes, that was not their intent. And yes, both have done some good. But if you are any less followed online today than you were when the GDPR became enforceable two years ago, it’s because you and the browser makers have worked to thwart at least some tracking. (Though in very different ways, so your experience of not being followed is not a consistent one. Or even perceptible in many cases.)

So tracking remains worse than rampant: it’s defaulted practice for both advertising and site analytics. And will remain so until we have code, laws and enforcement to stop it.

So, nothing to celebrate. Not this Privmas.

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In the library of Earth’s history, there are missing books, and within books there are missing chapters, written in rock that is now gone. The greatest example of “gone” rock is what John Wesley Powell observed in 1869, on his expedition by boat through the Grand Canyon. Floating down the Colorado river, he saw the canyon’s mile-thick layers of reddish sedimentary rock resting on a basement of gray non-sedimentary rock, the layers of which at an odd angle from everything above. Observing this, he correctly assumed that the upper layers did not continue from the bottom one, because time had clearly passed between the basement rock and the floors of rock above it. He didn’t know how much time, and could hardly guess. The answer turned out to be more than a billion years. The walls of the Grand Canyon say nothing about what happened during that time. Geology calls that nothing an unconformity.

In the decades since Powell made his notes, the same gap has been found all over the world, and is now called the Great Unconformity. Because of that unconformity, geology knows close to nothing about what happened in the world through stretches of time up to 1.6 billion years long.

All of those stretches end abruptly with the Cambrian Explosion, which began about 541 million years ago, when the Cambrian period arrived, and with it an amplitude of history, written in stone.

Many theories attempt to explain what erased such a large span of Earth’s history, but the prevailing paradigm is perhaps best expressed in “Neoproterozoic glacial origin of the Great Unconformity”, published on the last day of 2018 by nine geologists writing for the National Academy of Sciences. Put simply, they blame snow. Lots of it: enough to turn the planet into one giant snowball, informally called Snowball Earth. A more accurate name for this time would be Glacierball Earth, because glaciers, all formed from accumulated snow, apparently covered most or all of Earth’s land during the Great Unconformity—and most or all of the seas as well.

The relevant fact about glaciers is that they don’t sit still. They push immensities of accumulated ice down on landscapes and then spread sideways, pulverizing and scraping against adjacent landscapes, abrading their ways through mountains and across hills and plains like a trowel through wet cement. In this manner, glaciers scraped a vastness of geological history off the Earth’s continents and sideways into ocean basins, so plate tectonics could hide the evidence. (A fact little known outside geology is that nearly all the world’s ocean floors are young: born in spreading centers and killed by subduction under continents or piled up as debris on continental edges here and there. Example: the Bay Area of California is ocean floor that wasn’t subducted into a trench.) As a result, the stories of Earth’s missing history are partly told by younger rock that remembers only that a layer of moving ice had erased pretty much everything other than a signature on its work.

I bring all this up because I see something analogous to Glacierball Earth happening right now, right here, across our new worldwide digital sphere. A snowstorm of bits is falling on the virtual surface of our virtual sphere, which itself is made of bits even more provisional and temporary than the glaciers that once covered the physical Earth. Nearly all of this digital storm, vivid and present at every moment, is doomed to vanish, because it lacks even a glacier’s talent for accumulation.

There is nothing about a bit that lends itself to persistence, other than the media it is written on, if it is written at all. Form follows function, and right now, most digital functions, even those we call “storage”, are temporary. The largest commercial facilities for storing digital goods are what we fittingly call “clouds”. By design, these are built to remember no more of what they once contained than does an empty closet. Stop paying for cloud storage, and away goes your stuff, leaving no fossil imprints. Old hard drives, CDs and DVDs might persist in landfills, but people in the far future may look at a CD or a DVD the way a geologist today looks at Cambrian zircons: as hints of digital activities may have happened during an interval about which otherwise nothing is known. If those fossils speak of what’s happening now at all, it will be of a self-erasing Digital Earth that began in the late 20th century.

This isn’t my theory. It comes from my wife, who has long claimed that future historians will look on our digital age as an invisible one, because it sucks so royally at archiving itself.

Credit where due: the Internet Archive is doing its best to make sure that some stuff will survive. But what will keep that archive alive, when all the media we have for recalling bits—from spinning platters to solid state memory—are volatile by nature?

My own future unconformity is announced by the stack of books on my desk, propping up the laptop on which I am writing. Two of those books are self-published compilations of essays I wrote about technology in the mid-1980s, mostly for publications that are long gone. The originals are on floppy disks that can be read only by PCs and apps of that time, some of which are buried in lower strata of boxes in my garage. I just found a floppy with some of those essays. (It’s the one with a blue edge in the wood case near the right end of the photo above.) If those still retain readable files, I am sure there are ways to recover at least the raw ASCII text. But I’m still betting the paper copies of the books under this laptop will live a lot longer than will the floppies or my mothalled PCs, all of which are likely bricked by decades of un-use.

As for other media, the prospect isn’t any better.

At the base of my video collection is a stratum of VHS videotapes, atop of which are strata of Video8 and Hi8 tapes, and then one of digital stuff burned onto CDs and stored in hard drives, most of which have been disconnected for years. Some of those drives have interfaces and connections no longer supported by any computers being made today. Although I’ve saved machines to play all of them, none I’ve checked still work. One choked to death on a CD I stuck in it. That was a failure that stopped me from making Christmas presents of family memories recorded on old tapes and DVDs. I meant to renew the project sometime before the following Christmas, but that didn’t happen. Next Christmas? Maybe.

Then there are my parents’ 8mm and 16mm movies filmed between the 1930s and the 1960s. In 1989, my sister and I had all of those copied over to VHS tape. We then recorded our mother annotating the tapes onto companion cassette tapes while we all watched the show. I still have the original film in a box somewhere, but I haven’t found any of the tapes. Mom died in 2003 at age 90, so her whole generation is now gone.

The base stratum of my audio past is a few dozen open reel tapes recorded in the 1950s and 1960s. Above those are cassette and micro-cassete tapes, plus many Sony MiniDisks recorded in ATRAC, a proprietary compression algorithm now used by nobody, including Sony. Although I do have ways to play some (but not all) of those, I’m cautious about converting any of them to digital formats (Ogg, MPEG or whatever), because all digital storage media are likely to become obsolete, dead, or both—as will formats, algorithms and codecs. Already I have dozens of dead external hard drives in boxes and drawers. And, since no commercial cloud service is committed to digital preservation in perpetuity in the absence of payment, my files saved in clouds are sure to be flushed after neither my heirs nor I continue paying for their preservation.

Same goes for my photographs. My old photographs are stored in boxes and albums of photos, negatives and Kodak slide carousels. My digital photographs are spread across a mess of duplicated back-up drives totaling many terabytes, plus a handful of CDs. About 60,000 photos are exposed to the world on Flickr’s cloud, where I maintain two Pro accounts (here and here) for $50/year a piece. More are in the Berkman Klein Center’s pro account (here) and Linux Journal‘s (here). It is unclear currently whether any of that will survive after any of those entities stop paying the yearly fee. SmugMug, which now owns Flickr, has said some encouraging things about photos such as mine, all of which are Creative Commons-licensed to encourage re-use. But, as Geoffrey West tells us, companies are mortal. All of them die.

As for my digital works as a whole (or anybody’s), there is great promise in what the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons do, but there is no guarantee that either will last for decades more, much less for centuries or millennia. And neither are able to archive everything that matters (much as they might like to).

It should also be sobering to recognize that nobody owns a domain on the internet. All those “sites” with “domains” at “locations” and “addresses” are rented. We pay a sum to a registrar for the right to use a domain name for a finite period of time. There are no permanent domain names or IP addresses. In the digital world, finitude rules.

So the historic progression I see, and try to illustrate in the photo at the beginning of this post, is from hard physical records through digital ones we hold for ourselves, and then up into clouds that go away. Everything digital is snow falling and disappearing on the waters of time.

Will there ever be a way to save for the very long term what we ironically call our digital “assets?” I mean, for more than a few dozen years? Or is all of it doomed by its own nature to disappear, leaving little more evidence of its passage than a Digital Unconformity, when everything was forgotten?

I can’t think of any technical questions more serious than those two.

The original version of this post appeared in the March 2019 issue of Linux Journal.

A few days ago, in Figuring the Future, I sourced an Arnold Kling blog post that posed an interesting pair of angles toward outlook: a 2×2 with Fragile <—> Robust on one axis and Essential <—> Inessential on the other. In his sort, essential + fragile are hospitals and airlines. Inessential + fragile are cruise ships and movie theaters. Robust + essential are tech giants. Inessential + robust are sports and entertainment conglomerates, plus major restaurant chains. It’s a heuristic, and all of it is arguable (especially given the gray along both axes), which is the idea. Cases must be made if planning is to have meaning.

Now, haul Arnold’s template over to The U.S. Labor Market During the Beginning of the Pandemic Recession, by Tomaz Cajner, Leland D. Crane, Ryan A. Decker, John Grigsby, Adrian Hamins-Puertolas, Erik Hurst, Christopher Kurz, and Ahu Yildirmaz, of the University of Chicago, and lay it on this item from page 21:

The highest employment drop, in Arts, Entertainment and Recreation, leans toward inessential + fragile. The second, in Accommodation and Food Services is more on the essential + fragile side. The lowest employment changes, from Construction on down to Utilities, all tending toward essential + robust.

So I’m looking at those bottom eight essential + robust categories and asking a couple of questions:

1) What percentage of workers in each essential + robust category are now working from home?

2) How much of this work is essentially electronic? Meaning, done by people who live and work through glowing rectangles, connected on the Internet?

Hard to say, but the answers will have everything to do with the transition of work, and life in general, into a digital world that coexists with the physical one. This was the world we were gradually putting together when urgency around COVID-19 turned “eventually” into “now.”

In Junana, Bruce Caron writes,

“Choose One” was extremely powerful. It provided a seed for everything from language (connecting sound to meaning) to traffic control (driving on only one side of the road). It also opened up to a constructivist view of society, suggesting that choice was implicit in many areas, including gender.

Choose One said to the universe, “There are several ways we can go, but we’re all going to agree on this way for now, with the understanding that we can do it some other way later, thank you.” It wasn’t quite as elegant as “42,” but it was close. Once you started unfolding with it, you could never escape the arbitrariness of that first choice.

In some countries, an arbitrary first choice to eliminate or suspend personal privacy allowed intimate degrees of contract tracing to help hammer flat the infection curve of COVID-19. Not arbitrary, perhaps, but no longer escapable.

Other countries face similar choices. Here in the U.S., there is an argument that says “The tech giants already know our movements and social connections intimately. Combine that with what governments know and we can do contact tracing to a fine degree. What matters privacy if in reality we’ve lost it already and many thousands or millions of lives are at stake—and so are the economies that provide what we call our ‘livings.’ This virus doesn’t care about privacy, and for now neither should we.” There is also an argument that says, “Just because we have no privacy yet in the digital world is no reason not to have it. So, if we do contact tracing through our personal electronics, it should be disabled afterwards and obey old or new regulations respecting personal privacy.”

Those choices are not binary, of course. Nor are they outside the scope of too many other choices to name here. But many of those are “Choose Ones” that will play out, even if our choice is avoidance.

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