Author: Doc Searls (page 1 of 40)

Democracy vs. Surveillance

That’s the choice. We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.

That’s what Shoshana Zuboff says, in The Coup We Are Not Talking About.

What we have now—and have fallen into, largely unawares—is a surveillance society. We do not have democracies of the kind that founding thinkers and founders would want us to have. We do not even have the democracies we had, flawed as they all were, prior to our digital age. Specifically, Shoshana says, our lives are now governed by

surveillance empires powered by global architectures of behavioral monitoring, analysis, targeting and prediction that I have called surveillance capitalism. On the strength of their surveillance capabilities and for the sake of their surveillance profits, the new empires engineered a fundamentally anti-democratic epistemic coup marked by unprecedented concentrations of knowledge about us and the unaccountable power that accrues to such knowledge.

In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures.

Shoshana is the one who introduced surveillance capitalism into the lexicons of economics, social studies, policy, and other fields. Her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2019) is an international bestseller now in 23 languages, and essential reading for everyone involved in this fight.

And she will be with us to talk about this coup, and how to fight it, at the Ostrom Workshop’s Beyond the Web Salon one week from today, at 2pm Eastern Time. It’s free and you can get on at that link.

If you’re already fighting this coup (which we’ve been doing, in our own many different ways, in ProjectVRM), or if your own life is affected in any way by the struggle to break free of creepy systems that trash our privacy and nudge us into warring tribes, this is a can’t-miss event. See you there.

The Rise of Robot Retail

end of personal dealings
From Here Comes the Full Amazonification of Whole Foods, by Cecelia Kang (@CeceliaKang) in The New York Times:

…In less than a minute, I scanned both hands on a kiosk and linked them to my Amazon account. Then I hovered my right palm over the turnstile reader to enter the nation’s most technologically sophisticated grocery store…

Amazon designed my local grocer to be almost completely run by tracking and robotic tools for the first time.

The technology, known as Just Walk Out, consists of hundreds of cameras with a god’s-eye view of customers. Sensors are placed under each apple, carton of oatmeal and boule of multigrain bread. Behind the scenes, deep-learning software analyzes the shopping activity to detect patterns and increase the accuracy of its charges.

The technology is comparable to what’s in driverless cars. It identifies when we lift a product from a shelf, freezer or produce bin; automatically itemizes the goods; and charges us when we leave the store. Anyone with an Amazon account, not just Prime members, can shop this way and skip a cash register since the bill shows up in our Amazon account.

And this is just Amazon. Soon it will be every major vendor of everything, most likely with Amazon as the alpha sphincter among all the chokepoints controlled by robotic intermediaries between first sources and final customers—with all of them customizing your choices, your prices, and whatever else it takes to engineer demand in the marketplace—algorithmically, robotically, and most of all, personally.

Some of us will like it, because it’ll be smooth, easy and relatively cheap. It will also subordinate us utterly to machines. Or perhaps udderly, because we will be calves raised to suckle on the teats of retail’s robot cows.

This system can’t be fixed from within. Nor can it be fixed by regulation, though some of that might help. It can only be obsolesced by customers who bring more to the market’s table than cash, credit, appetites and acquiescence to systematic training.

What more?

Start with information. What do we actually want (including, crucially, to not be bothered by hype or manipulated by surveillance systems)?

Add intelligence. What do we know about products, markets, needs, and how things actually work than roboticized systems can begin to guess at?

Then add values, such as freedom, choice, agency, care for others, and the ability to collectivize in constructive and helpful ways on our own.

Then add tech. But this has to be our tech: customertech that we bring to market as independent, sovereign and capable human beings. Not just as “users” of others’ systems, or consumers (which Jerry Michalski calls “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”) of whatever producers want to feed us.

Time for solutions. Here is a list of fourteen market problems that can only be solved from the customers’ side.

And yes, we do need help from the sellers’ side. But not with promises to make their systems more “customer centric.” (We’ve been flagging that as a fail since 2008.) We need CRM that welcomes VRM. B2C that welcomes Me2B.

And money. Our startups and nonprofits have done an amazing job of keeping the VRM and Me2B embers burning. But they could do a lot more with some gas on those things.

The impossible fix

choice of captors

Imagine a world in which there are only mainframes, and all individuals have are mainframe terminals. Then imagine that personal rights (e.g. to privacy) are violated in many ways by the mainframes and their operators. Then imagine that these violations have attracted regulations meant to protect the rights of mainframe terminal users—and that those regulations have made things worse for users, because the violations haven’t stopped, and users now have to hurdle “consent” notices, usually by clicking “accept” to the mainframe’s continued privacy violations.

Of course, you don’t need to imagine any of that, because this is the world we are in today. Our browsers and apps are terminals of mainframes operated by the sites and services of the digital world. And no regulations will give us the tools we need to create and sustain our independence and freedom, and to create a better economy than the one we have, in which freedom is “your choice of captor.”

This status quo will persist as long as our work is confined to fixing it. Because it can’t be fixed. By design.

What should our work be? Start here: We need customertech. Simple as that. Then read back through this blog.


Image by Hugh McLeod.

How yours is your car?

Peugeot

I’ve owned a lot of bad cars in my decades.  But some I’ve loved, at least when they were on the road. One was the 1965 Peugeot 404 wagon whose interior you see above, occupied by family dog Christy, guarding the infant seat next to her. You’ll note that the hood is open, because I was working on it at the time, which was constantly while I owned it.

I shot that photo in early 1974, not long after arriving at our new home in Graham, North Carolina. The trip down from our old home in far northern New Jersey was one of the most arduous I’ve ever taken, with frequent stops to fix whatever went wrong along the way, which was plenty.

Trouble started when a big hunk of rusted floor fell away beneath my feet, so I could see the New Jersey Turnpike whizzing by down there, while worrying that the driver’s seat itself might fall to the moving pavement, and my ass with it.

The floor had rusted because rainwater would gather in the air vents between the far side of the windshield and the dashboard, and suddenly splat down on one’s feet, and the floor, soon as the car began to move.  (The floor was prepared for this with a drainage system of tubes laminated between layers of metal, meant to carry downward whatever water fell on top. Great foresight, I suppose. But less prepared was the metal itself, which was determined to rust.)

Later a can attached to the exhaust manifold blew to pieces so sound and exhaust straight from the engine sounded like a machine gun and could be heard to the horizons in all directions, and echoed into the cabin off the pavement through the new hole in the floor. I am sure that the hearing loss I have now began right then.

I replaced the lost metal with an emptied V8 juice can that I filled with steel wool for percussive exhaust damping, and fastened into place with baling wire that I carried just in case of, well, anything. I also always carried a large toolbox, because you never know. If you owned a cheap used car back in those days, you had to be ready for anything.

The car did have its appeals, some of which were detailed by coincidence a month ago by Raphael Orlove in Jalopnik, calling this very model the best wagon he’s ever driven. His reasons were correct—for a working car. The best feature was a cargo area was so far beyond capacious that I once loaded a large office desk into it with room to spare. It also had double shocks on the rear axle, to help handle the load, plus other arcane graces meant for heavy use, such as a device in the brake fluid line to the rear axle that kept the brakes from locking up when both rear wheels were spinning but off the ground. This, I was told, was for drivers on rough dirt roads in Africa.

While the Peugeot 404 was not as weird in its time as the Citroën DS or 2CV (both of which my friend Julius called “triumphs of French genius over French engineering”), it was still weird as shit in some remarkably impractical ways.

For example, screw-on hubcaps. These meant no tire machine could handle changing a tire, and you had to do the job by hand with tire irons and a sledgehammer. I carried those too. For unknown reasons, Peugeot also also hid spark plugs way down inside the valve cover, and fed them electricity through a spring inside a bakelite sleeve that was easy to break and would malfunction even if they weren’t broken.

I could go on, but all that stuff is beside my point, which is that this car was, while I had it, mine. I could fix it myself, or take it to a mechanic friendly to the car’s oddities. While some design features were odd or crazy, there were no mysteries about how the car worked, or how to fix or replace its parts. More importantly, it contained no means for reporting its behavior or use back to Peugeot, or to anybody.

It’s very different today. That difference is nicely unpacked in A Fight Over the Right to Repair Cars Turns Ugly, by @Aarian Marshall in Wired. At issue are right-to-repair laws, such as the one currently raising a fuss in Massachusetts.

See, all of us and our mechanics had a right to repair our own cars for most of the time since automobiles first hit the road. But cars in recent years have become digital as well as mechanical beings. One good thing about this is that lots of helpful diagnostics can be revealed. One bad thing is that many of those diagnostics are highly proprietary to the carmakers, as the cars themselves become so vertically integrated that only dealers can repair them.

But there is hope. Reports Aarian,

…today anyone can buy a tool that will plug into a car’s port, accessing diagnostic codes that clue them in to what’s wrong. Mechanics are able to purchase tools and subscriptions to manuals that guide them through repairs.

So for years, the right-to-repair movement has held up the automotive industry as the rare place where things were going right. Independent mechanics remain competitive: 70 percent of auto repairs happen at independent shops, according to the US trade association that represents them. Backyard tinkerers abound.

But new vehicles are now computers on wheels, gathering an estimated 25 gigabytes per hour of driving data—the equivalent of five HD movies. Automakers say that lots of this information isn’t useful to them and is discarded. But some—a vehicle’s location, how specific components are operating at a given moment—is anonymized and sent to the manufacturers; sensitive, personally identifying information like vehicle identification numbers are handled, automakers say, according to strict privacy principles.

These days, much of the data is transmitted wirelessly. So independent mechanics and right-to-repair proponents worry that automakers will stop sending vital repair information to the diagnostic ports. That would hamper the independents and lock customers into relationships with dealerships. Independent mechanics fear that automakers could potentially “block what they want” when an independent repairer tries to access a car’s technified guts, Glenn Wilder, the owner of an auto and tire repair shop in Scituate, Massachusetts, told lawmakers in 2020.

The fight could have national implications for not only the automotive industry but any gadget that transmits data to its manufacturer after a customer has paid money and walked away from the sales desk. “I think of it as ‘right to repair 2.0,’” says Kyle Wiens, a longtime right-to-repair advocate and the founder of iFixit, a website that offers tools and repair guides. “The auto world is farther along than the rest of the world is,” Wiens says. Independents “already have access to information and parts. Now they’re talking about data streams. But that doesn’t make the fight any less important.”

As Cory Doctorow put it two days ago in Agricultural right to repair law is a no-brainer, this issue is an extremely broad one that basically puts Big Car and Big Tech on one side and all the world’s gear owners and fixers on the other:

Now, there’s new federal agricultural Right to Repair bill, courtesy of Montana Senator Jon Tester, which will require Big Ag to supply manuals, spare parts and software access codes:

 https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/2…

The legislation is very similar to the Massachusetts automotive Right to Repair ballot initiative that passed with a huge margin in 2020:

 https://pluralistic.net/2020/09/03/rip-d…

Both initiatives try to break the otherwise indomitable coalition of anti-repair companies, led by Apple, which destroyed dozens of R2R initiatives at the state level in 2018:

 https://pluralistic.net/2021/02/02/eutha…

It’s a bet that there is more solidarity among tinkerers, fixers, makers and users of gadgets than there is among the different industries who depend on repair price-gouging. That is, it’s a bet that drivers will back farmers’ right to repair and vice-versa, but that Big Car won’t defend Big Ag.

The opposing side in the repair wars is on the ropes. Their position is getting harder and harder to maintain with a straight face. It helps that the Biden administration is incredibly hostile to that position:

 https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/07/instr…

It’s no coincidence that this legislation dropped the same week as Aaron Perzanowski’s outstanding book “The Right to Repair” — R2R is an idea whose time has come to pass.

 added this in a follow-up newsletter and post:

…remember computers are intrinsically universal. Even if manufacturers don’t cooperate with interop, we can still make new services and products that plug into their existing ones. We can do it with reverse-engineering, scraping, bots – a suite of tactics we call Adversarial Interoperability or Competitive Compatibility (AKA “comcom”):

 https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/10/ad…

These tactics have a long and honorable history, and have been a part of every tech giant’s own growth…

Read all three of those pieces. There is much to be optimistic about, especially once the fighting is mostly done, and companies have proven knowledge that free customers—and truly free markets—are more valuable than captive ones. That has been our position at ProjectVRM from the start. Perhaps, once #R2R and #comcom start paying off, we’ll finally have one of the proofs we’ve wanted all along.

Salon with Robin Chase

Robin Chase, co-founder and original CEO of Zipcar and author of Peers Inc: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, will speak at the Ostrom Workshop s Beyond the Web Salon Series at Indiana University at 2:00 PM Eastern this coming Monday, February 7, 2022. The event link is here, where you’ll also find the Zoom link.

The full theme of the salon series is Beyond the Web: Making a platform-free online marketplace for goods, ideas and everything else, about which you can read more here.

Robin’s work with transportation and peer production has been VRooMy from the start, and especially consistent with our work with the Ostrom Workshop on the Intention Byway in Bloomington, Indiana.

Upcoming speakers in the Salon Series (mark your calendars) are Ethan Zuckerman and Shoshana Zuboff. Both are BKC veterans and, like Robin, devoted to moving beyond status quos that vex us all. Ethan will be with us on March 7 and Shoshana on April 11. Days and times for both are Mondays at 2:00 PM Eastern. Details at those links.<

These events are all participatory, informative, challenging and fun. Please join us.

Shall we commit advercide?

On our mailing list, there is a suggestion that we need a browser that kills all the advertising it sees on the Web. Not just the rude kind, or the tracking-based kind. The idea is to waste it all. The business model is, “$10 a month for a browser which guarantees no adverts, ever. If you see an advert, you file a bug report.”

I dismissed the idea a few years ago, when it first came up, for what seemed good and obvious reasons: that lots of advertising is informative and useful, that good and honest (e.g. non-tracking-based) advertising supports most of the world’s journalism, and so on.

But now most advertising on the Web is tracking-based (“programmatic” mostly means tracking-based), and most of the businesses involved seem hellbent on keeping it that way.

As for regulations, the GDPR and CCPA mean well, but they’ve done little to stop tracking, and much to make it worse.  Search for gdpr+compliance on Google and right now and see how many results you get. (I get way over a billion.) Nearly all of the finds you’ll see are pitches for ways sites and services can obey the letter of the GDPR while screwing its spirit. In other words, the GDPR and the CCPA have created a giant market for working around them.

Clearly the final market for goods and services on the Net—that’s you and me, ordinary human beings—don’t like being tracked like marked animals, and all the lost privacy that tracking involves. And hell, ad blocking alone was the biggest boycott in world history, way back in 2015. That says plenty.

So why not give our market a way to speak? Why not incentivize publishers to start making money in ways that respect everyone’s privacy?

Also, we’re not alone. Dig CheckMyAds.org and their efforts, such as this one.

Comments work on this blog again, so feel free to weigh in.

 

Making Me2B happen

me2b symbol
The IEEE P7012 working group has been baking a Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms for the last two years. What’s original here is that these are terms that you proffer. Not ones that sites and services present on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. P7012 is one of several overlapping efforts that work on empowering you and me—customers, users, consumers, individual human beings—and not just entities selling us stuff, or requiring that everything we do with them is confined to an account they control.

Born in 2006, ProjectVRM is the oldest of these efforts. Customer Commons, spun out of ProjectVRM in 2013, is another. The most recent is the Me2B alliance, founded and run by Lisa LeVasseur, who now also chairs P7012.

Progress forward on all of these efforts is steady, incremental, and not nearly fast enough. But here is something that I hope will speed things up: supporting the Me2B label. The need for this was made clear by Lisa on our last P7012 call, when she explained that Me2B is its own thing. A category. A term of art. Meaning it’s not about the Me2B Alliance, just like VRM is not about ProjectVRM.

By now it should be clear that Me2B a better name for our category than VRM. As I said in VRM is Me2B, Me2B is blessed by containing an actual word: Me—a first-person singular pronoun we all use—and far better than the unclear V in the TLA that is VRM. It also doesn’t help that “vendor” is used more often in business to refer to B2B suppliers, rather than to B2C retailers or service providers.

We also have experience with tissue rejection of the VRM label within our own community. Throughout the history of ProjectVRM, not one developer has called what they do VRM. Worse, some have avoided using the VRM label because they were afraid competing developers would also use it.  In other words, VRM developers, across the board, would rather differentiate with exclusive offerings than establish VRM as a category. So our own internal market has spoken on that.

Meanwnhile, one of those companies did us a big favor by calling what they did “Me2B.” So did the analyst house CtrlShift, with The Me2B Opportunity. Then Lisa came up with Me2B independently. I think in all three cases we heard the market speaking.

So I encourage all of us to start talking about Me2B, rather than VRM.

To be clear, “VRM” won’t go away. It’s in Wikipedia as well as in the name of our project here. And it’s a good way to label the customer hand that a CRM system will need to shake. But it has proven inadequate as the name for the business category we wish to see cohere in the world, while Me2B shows promise to succeed at the same. We should support it.

Thoughts welcome.

Homeless on the Web

Do you have a home on the Web?

I mean a page or a site that is yours. Not one that belongs to some .com, .org or .edu. One that’s truly yours, with a name you gave to it, nobody else has, and you fully inhabit.

Some of us do. I’m one of those, but with nothing to brag about. Go to searls.com and you’ll find a placeholder I’ve been updating every couple of years since the mid-’90s.  Behind that façade is a garage full of files I keep stored online but blocked from search engines. That’s so I can find them from anywhere, or so I can point other people to them every once in a while.

Like the rest of us, most of what I’ve done on the Web are on the sites that belong others. The goods in those sites are mine in the sense that I’ve created them. But where they are is not mine. Not in the least.

Nearly all the pages called “home” are those of what in the trade we call enterprises. Mine here is in an enterprise called Harvard University. I thank it for that grace.

Still, in a literal sense, most of us are homeless here. In a literal way maybe all of us are, because we don’t own our domain names. We rent them. Searls.com will exist only so long as I, or my heirs, continue paying to keep it active.

This isn’t a bad thing. Hell, the benefits of the Web are enormous in the extreme. I’m not knocking those.

I am, however, saying we are homeless. Here.

Yet there is nothing about the Internet that says you can’t have a home there—which is a deeper here, underneath the Web.

This is important because we need to clearly and finally make a sharp distinction between the Web and the Internet. Because they are not the same. The Internet is what the Web sits on. And, big and broad as it is, the Web is not the only thing that can sit on the Internet. This was true for Web as it was in the first place,  for what we called Web 2 in the early ’00s, and for what we call Web 3 today.

The Internet is different.  And there are few limits to what the Internet can support, much as there are few limits to what can be built on land or float on ocean.

But there are limits to what we can build on the Web. One of those is a home for ourselves. A real home. One that does not require renting a domain name. One that lets us zero-base what we can do upon the infinite grace granted us by simply connecting to a worldwide network of networks that exists only to move packets of data from any end to any other end.

So let’s start thinking about that.

Some of us (present company included) are on the case already. We need more.

While we ponder that, here’s a thought: Maybe one reason VRM has been slow to happen is that we’ve been trying to do it on the Web.


The photo above is on Love Ranch Road, in the center of Wyoming. The story of the ranch, and the home now abandoned there, is central to John McPhee’s Rising from the Plains. I was there to shoot the solar eclipse of August 2017, which was at its totality there. The darkness on the horizon is the shadow of the moon, approaching from the west.

Beyond the Web

The Cluetrain Manifesto said this…

not

…in 1999.

And now, in 2021, it’s still not true—at least not on the Web.

If it was true, California’s CCPA wouldn’t call us mere “consumers” and Europe’s GDPR  wouldn’t call us mere “data subjects,” whose privacy is entirely at the grace of corporate “data processors” and “data controllers.” (While the GDPR does say a “natural person” can be either of those, the prevailing assumption says no. Worse, it assumes that what privacies we enjoy on the Web should be valved by choices we make when confronted with “consent” notices that pop up when we first visit a website, and which are recorded somewhere we don’t know and can’t audit or dispute.)

Simply put, we are not free, and our reach does not exceed their grasp. Again, on the Web.

But (this is key), the Web is not the Internet. It’s a haystack of stuff on the Net. It’s a big one, and hugely good in many ways. And maybe we can be really free there eventually. But why not work outside of it? That’s the question.

And that’s what some of us are answering. You might call what we’re doing a blue ocean strategy:

For example, Joyce and I are now in Bloomington, Indiana, embedded as visiting scholars at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop, where we are rolling out a new project called the Byway, for Customer Commons, ProjectVRM’s nonprofit spin-off. We will also be working with local communities of interest here in Bloomington. Stay tuned for more on that.

To find out more about what we’re up to—or just to discuss whatever seems relevant—please come to our first Beyond the Web salon, by Zoom, on Monday at 3pm Eastern time. The full link: https://events.iu.edu/ostromworkshop/event/264653-ostrom-salon-series-beyond-the-web

ProjectVRM at 15

This project started in September 2006, when I became a fellow at what is now the Berkman Klein Center. Our ambitions were not small.:

  1. To encourage development of tools by which individuals can take control of their relationships with organizations — especially in commercial marketplaces.
  2. To encourage and conduct research on VRM-related theories, usage of VRM tools, and effects as adoption of VRM tools takes place.

The photo above is of our first workshop, at Harvard Law School, in 2008. Here is another photo with a collection of topics discussed in breakout sessions:

Zoom in on any of the topics there (more are visible on the next photo in the album), and you will find many of them still on the table, thirteen years later. Had some prophet told us then that this would still be the case, we might have been discouraged. But progress has been made on all those fronts, and the main learning in the meantime is that every highly ambitious grassroots movement takes time to bear fruit.

One example is what we discussed in the “my red dot” breakout at the May 2007 Internet Identity Workshop (the 3rd of what next week will be our 33rd ) is now finally being done with the Byway, which is about to get prototyped by our nonprofit spin-off, Customer Commons, with help from the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University Bloomington, where Joyce and I are currently embedded as visiting scholars.

Our mailing list numbers 567 members, and is active, though it won’t hog your email flow. Check out the action at that link. And, if you like, join in.

You can also join in at our next gathering, VRM Day 2021b, which happens this coming Monday, 11 October.  We’ll visit our learnings thus far, and present progress and plans on many fronts, including

And we thank the BKC for its patience and faith in our project and its work.

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