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black hole

Last night I watched The Great Hack a second time. It’s a fine documentary, maybe even a classic. (A classic in literature, I learned on this Radio Open Source podcast, is a work that “can only be re-read.” If that’s so, then perhaps a classic movie is one that can only be re-watched.*)

The movie’s message could hardly be more loud and clear: vast amounts of private information about each of us is gathered constantly in the digital world, and is being weaponized so our minds and lives can be hacked by others for commercial or political gain. Or both. The movie’s star, Professor David Carroll of the New School (@profcarroll), has been delivering that message for many years, as have many others, including myself.

But to what effect?

Sure, we have policy moves such as the GDPR, the main achievement of which (so far) has been to cause every website to put confusing and (in most cases) insincere cookie notices on their index pages, meant (again, in most cases) to coerce “consent” (which really isn’t) to exactly the unwanted tracking the regulation was meant to stop.

Those don’t count.

Ennui does. Apathy does.

On seeing The Great Hack that second time, I had exactly the same feeling my wife had on seeing it for her first: that the very act of explaining the problem also trivialized it. In other words, the movie worsened the very problem it solved. And it isn’t alone at this, because so has everything everybody has said, written or reported about it. Or so it sometimes seems. At least to me.

Okay, so: if I’m right about that, why might it be?

One reason is that there’s no story. See, every story requires three elements: character (or characters), problem (or problems), and movement toward resolution. (Find a more complete explanation here.) In this case, the third element—movement toward resolution—is absent. Worse, there’s almost no hope. “The Great Hack” concludes with a depressing summary that tends to leave one feeling deeply screwed, especially since the only victories in the movie are over the late Cambridge Analytica; and those victories were mostly within policy circles we know will either do nothing or give us new laws that protect yesterday from last Thursday… and then last another hundred years.

The bigger reason is that we are now in a media environment summarized by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Medium is the Massage: “every new medium works us over completely.” Our new medium is the Internet, which is a non-place absent of distance and gravity. The only institutions holding up there are ones clearly anchored in the physical world. Health care and law enforcement, for example. Others dealing in non-material goods, such as information and ideas, aren’t doing as well.

Journalism, for example. Worse, on the Internet it’s easy for everyone to traffic in thoughts and opinions, as well as in solid information. So now the world of thoughts and ideas, which preponderate on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are vast floods of everything from everybody. In the midst of all that, the news cycle, which used to be daily, now lasts about as long as a fart. Calling it all too much is a near-absolute understatement.

But David Carroll is right. Darkness is falling. I just wish all the light we keep trying to shed would do a better job of helping us all see that.

_________

*For those who buy that notion, I commend The Rewatchables, a great podcast from The Ringer.


In 1995, shortly after she first encountered e-commerce, my wife assigned a cool project to the world by asking a simple question: Why can’t I take my shopping cart from site to site?

The operative word in that question is the first person possessive pronoun: my.

Look up personal online shopping cart and you’ll get nearly a billion results, but none are for a shopping cart of your own. They’re all for shopping carts in commercial websites. In other words, those carts are for sellers, not buyers. They may say “my shopping cart” (a search for that one yields 3.1 billion results), but what they mean is their shopping cart. They say “my” in the same coo-ing way an adult might talk to a baby. (Oh, is my diaper full?)

Shopping online has been stuck in this uncool place because it got modeled on client-server, which should have been called “slave-master” when it got named a few decades ago. Eight years ago here (in our September 2011 issue) I called client-server “calf-cow,” and illustrated it with this photo (which a reader correctly said was shot in France, because it was clear to him that these are French cows):

calf-cow

It began,

As entities on the Web, we have devolved. Client-server has become calf-cow. The client—that’s you—is the calf, and the Web site is the cow. What you get from the cow is milk and cookies. The milk is what you go to the site for. The cookies are what the site gives to you, mostly for its own business purposes, chief among which is tracking you like an animal. There are perhaps a billion or more server-cows now, each with its own “brand” (as marketers and cattle owners like to say).

This is not what the Net’s founders had in mind. Nor was it what Tim Berners-Lee meant for his World Wide Web of hypertext documents to become. But it’s what we’ve got, and it’s getting worse.

In February 2011, Eben Moglen gave a landmark speech to the Internet Society titled “Freedom in the Cloud”, in which he unpacked the problem. In the beginning, he said, the Internet was designed as “a network of peers without any intrinsic need for hierarchical or structural control, and assuming that every switch in the Net is an independent, free-standing entity whose volition is equivalent to the volition of the human beings who want to control it”. Alas, “it never worked out that way”. Specifically:

If you were an ordinary human, it was hard to perceive that the underlying architecture of the Net was meant to be peerage because the OS software with which you interacted very strongly instantiated the idea of the server and client architecture.

In fact, of course, if you think about it, it was even worse than that. The thing called “Windows” was a degenerate version of a thing called “X Windows”. It, too, thought about the world in a server-client architecture, but what we would now think of as backwards. The server was the thing at the human being’s end. That was the basic X Windows conception of the world. It served communications with human beings at the end points of the Net to processes located at arbitrary places near the center in the middle, or at the edge of the Net…

No need to put your X Windows hat back on. Think instead about how you would outfit your own shopping cart: one you might take from store to store.

For this it helps to think about how you already outfit your car, SUV or truck: a vehicle that is unambiguously yours, even if you only lease it. (By yours I mean you operate it, as an extension of you. When you drive it, you wear it like a carapace. In your mind, those are my wheels, my engine, my fenders.)

Since you’ll be driving this thing in the online world, there’s a lot more you can do with it than the one obvious thing, which is to keep a list of all the things you’ve put in shopping carts at multiple websites. Instead start with a wish list that might include everything you ought to be getting from e-commerce, but can’t because e-commerce remains stuck in the calf-cow model, so the whole thing is about cows getting scale across many calves. Your personal shopping cart should be a way for you to get scale across all of e-commerce. Depending on how much you want to kit up your cart, you should be able to—

  1. Keep up with prices for things you want that have changed, across multiple sites
  2. Intentcast to multiple stores your intention to buy something, and say under what conditions you’d be willing to buy it
  3. Subscribe and unsubscribe from mailings in one standard way that’s yours
  4. Keep up with “loyalty” programs at multiple sites, including coupons and discounts you might be interested in (while rejecting the vast majority of those that are uninteresting, now or forever)
  5. Keep records of what you’ve bought from particular retailers in the past, plus where and when you bought those things, including warranty information
  6. Let stores know what your privacy policies are, plus your terms and conditions for dealing with them, including rules for how your personal data might be used
  7. Have a simple and standard way to keep in touch with the makers and sellers of what you own—one that works for you and for those others, in both directions
  8. Have a way to change your contact information for any or all of them, in one move
  9. Mask or reveal what you wish to reveal about yourself and your identity, with anonymity as the default
  10. Pay in the fiat or crypto currency of your choice
  11. Use your own damn wallet, rather than using a Google, Apple or a Whatever wallet
  12. Everything else on the ProjectVRM punch list, where you’ll find links to work on many of the ideas above.

Yes, I know. All those things fly in the face of Business As Usual. They’ll be fought by incumbents, require standards or APIs that don’t yet exist, and so on. But so what. All those things also can be done technically. And, as Marc Andreessen told me (right here in Linux Journal, way back in 1998), “all the significant trends start with technologists.” So start one.

You also don’t need to start with a shopping cart. Anything on that list can stand alone or be clustered in some other… well, pick your metaphor: dashboard, cockpit, console, whatever. It might also help to know there is already development work in nearly all of those cases, and an abundance of other opportunities to revolutionize approaches to business online that have been stuck for a long time. To explain how long, here is the entire text of a one-slide presentation Phil Windley gave a few years ago:

HISTORY OF E-COMMERCE

1995: Invention of the Cookie

The End

Now is the time to break out of the cookie jar where business has been stuck for an inexcusably long time.

It’s time to start working for customers, and making them more than just “users” or “consumers.” Think Me2B and not just B2C. Make customertech and not just salestech, adtech and martech. Give every customer leverage:

By doing that, you will turn the whole marketplace into a Marvel-like universe where all of us are enhanced.

For inspiration, think about what Linux did against every other operating system. Think about what the Internet did to every LAN, WAN, phone company and cable company in the world. Think about what the Web did to every publishing system.

Linux, the Net and the Web each had something radical in common: they extended the power of individual human beings before they utterly reformed every activity and enterprise that came to depend on them.

If you’re interested in any of those projects above, talk to me. Or just start working on it, and tell me about it so I can help the world know.

Go to the Alan Turing Institute. If it’s a first time for you, a popover will appear:

Among the many important things the Turing Institute is doing for us right now is highlighting with that notice exactly what’s wrong with the cookie system for remembering choices, and lack of them, for each of us using the Web.

As the notice points out, the site uses “necessary cookies,” “analytics cookies” (defaulted to On, in case you can’t tell from the design of that switch), and (below that) “social cookies.” Most importantly, it does not use cookies meant to track you for advertising purposes. They should brag on that one.

What these switches highlight is that the memory of your choices is theirs, not yours. The whole cookie system outsources your memory of cookie choices to the sites and services of the world. While the cookies themselves can be found somewhere deep in the innards of your computer, you have little or no knowledge of what they are or what they mean, and there are thousands of those in there already.

And yes, we do have browsers that protect us in various ways from unwelcome cookies, but they all do that differently, and none in standard ways that give us clear controls over how we deal with sites and how sites deal with us.

One way to start thinking about this is as a need for cookies go the other way:

I wrote about that last year at Linux Journal in a post by that title. A nice hack called Global Consent Manager does that.

Another way is to think (and work toward getting the sites and services of the world to agree to our terms, and to have standard ways of recording that, on our side rather than theirs. Work on that is proceeding at Customer Commons, the IEEE, various Kantara initiatives and the Me2B Alliance.

Then we will need a dashboard, a cockpit (or the metaphor of your choice) through which we can see and control what’s going on as we move about the Web. This will give us personal scale that we should have had on Day One (specifically, in 1995, when graphical browsers took off). This too should be standardized.

There can be no solution that starts on the sites’ side. None. That’s a fail that in effect gives us a different browser for every site we visit. We need solutions of our own. Personal ones. Global ones. Ones with personal scale. It’s the only way.

The answer is, we don’t know. Also, we may never know, because—

  • It’s too hard to measure (especially if you’re talking about the entire Net)
  • Too so much of the usage is in mobile devices that vary enormously
  • The browser makers are approaching ad blocking and tracking protection in different and new ways that change frequently, and the same goes for ad-blocking and tracking-protecting extensions and add-ons. One of them (Adblock Plus) is actually in the advertising business (which Wikipedia politely calls ad filtering)
  • Some of the most easily sourced measures are surveys, yet what people say and what they do are very different things
  • Some of the most widely cited findings are from sources with conflicted interests (for example, selling anti-ad-blocking services), or which aggregate multiple sources that aren’t revealed when cited
  • Actors good and bad in the ecosystem that ad blocking addresses also contribute to the fudge

But let’s explore a bit anyway, working with what we’ve got, flawed though much of it may be. If you’re a tl;dr kind of reader, jump down to the conclusions at the end.

Part 1: ClarityRay and Pagefair

Between 2012 and 2017, the most widely cited ad blocking reports were by ClarityRay and PageFair, in that order. There are no links to ClarityRay’s 2012 report, which I cited here in 2013. PageFair links to their 2015, 2016 (mobile) and 2017 reports are still live. The company also said last November that it was at work on another report. This was after PageFair was acquired by Blockthrough (“the leading adblock recovery program”). A PageFair blog post explains it.

I placed a lot of trust in PageFair’s work, mostly because I respected Dr. Johnny Ryan (@JohnnyRyan), who left PageFair for Brave in 2018. I also like what I know about Matthew Cortland, who was also at PageFair, and may still be. Far as I know, he hasn’t written anything about ad blocking research (but maybe I’ve missed it) since 2017.

Here are the main findings from PageFair’s 2017 report:

  • 615 million devices now use adblock
  • 11% of the global internet population is blocking ads on the web

Part 2: GlobalWebIndex

In January 2016, GlobalWebIndex said “37% of mobile users … say they’ve blocked ads on their mobile within the last month.” I put that together with Statista’s 2017 claim that there were then more than 4.6 billion mobile phone users in the world, which suggested that 1.7 billion people were blocking ads by that time.

Now GlobalWebIndex‘s Global Ad-Blocking Behavior report says 47% of us are blocking ads now. It also says, “As a younger and more engaged audience, ad-blockers also are much more likely to be paying subscribers and consumers. Ad-free premium services are especially attractive.” Which is pretty close to Don Marti‘s long-standing claim that readers who protect their privacy are more valuable than readers who don’t.

To get a total ad blocking population from that 47%, one possible source to cite is Internet World Stats:

Note that Internet World Stats appears to be a product of the Miniwatts Marketing Group, whose website is currently a blank WordPress placeholder. But, to be modest about it, their number is lower than Statista’s from 2016: “In 2019 the number of mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.68 billion.” So let’s run with the lower one, at least for now.

Okay, so if 47% of us are using ad blockers, and Internet World Stats says there were 4,312,982,270 Internet users by the end of last year (that’s mighty precise!), the combined numbers suggest that more than 2,027,101,667 people are now blocking ads worldwide. So, we might generalize, more than two billion people are blocking ads today. Hence the headline above.

Perspective: back in 2015, we were already calling ad blocking The biggest boycott in human history. And that was when the number was just “approaching 200 million.”

More interesting to me is GlobalWebIndex’s breakouts of listed reasons why the people surveyed blocked ads. Three in particular stand out:

  • Ads contain viruses or bugs, 38%
  • Ads might compromise my online privacy, 26%
  • Stop ads being personalized, 22%

The problem here, as I said in the list up top, is that these are measured behaviors. They are sympathies. But they’re still significant, because sympathies sell. That means there are markets here. Opportunities to align incentives.

Part 3: Ad Fraud Researcher

I rely a great deal on Dr. Augustine Fou (@acfou), aka Independent Ad Fraud Researcher, to think and work more deeply and knowingly than I’ve done so far here (or may ever do).

Looking at Part 2 above (in an earlier version of this post), he tweeted, “I dispute these findings. ASKING people if they used an ad blocker in the past month is COMPLETELY inaccurate and inconsistent with people who ACTUALLY USE ad blockers regularly.” Also, “Source: GlobalWebIndex Q3 2018 Base: 93,803 internet users aged 16-64, among which were 42,078 respondents who have used an ad-blocker in the past month”. Then, “Are you going to take numbers extrapolated from 42,078 respondents and extrapolate that to the entire world? that would NOT be OK.” And, “Desktop ad blocking in the U.S. measured directly on sites which humans visit is in the 8 – 19% range. Bots must also be scrubbed because bots do not block ads and will skew ad blocking rates lower, if not removed.”

On that last tweet he points to his own research, published this month.There is lots of data in there, all of it interesting and unbiased. Then he adds, “your point about this being the ‘biggest boycott in human history’ is still valid. But the numbers from that ad blocking study should not be used.”

Part 4: Comscore

Among the many helpful tweets in response to the first draft of this post was this one by Zubair Shafiq (@zubair_shafiq), Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, where he researches computer networks, security, and privacy. His tweet points to Ad Blockers: Global Prevalence and Impact, by Matthew Malloy, Mark McNamara, Aaron Cahn and Paul Barford, from 2016. Here is one chart among many in the report:

The jive in the Geo row is explained at that link. A degree in statistics will help.

Part 5: Statista

Statista seems serious, but Ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020 is behind a paywall. Still, they do expose this hunk of text: “The statistic presents data on ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020. It was found that 25.2 percent of U.S. internet users blocked ads on their connected devices in 2018. This figure is projected to grow to 27.5 percent in 2020.”

Provisional Conclusions

  1. The number is huge, but we don’t know how huge.
  2. Express doubt about any one large conclusion. Augustine Fou cautions me (and all of us) to look at where the data comes from, why it’s used, and how. In the case of Statista, for example, the data is aggregated from other sources. They don’t do the research themselves. It’s also almost too easy to copy and paste (as I’ve done here) images that might themselves be misleading. The landmark book on misleading statistics—no less relevant today than when it was written in 1954 (and perhaps more relevant than ever)—is How to Lie With Statistics.
  3. Everything is changing. For example, browsers are starting to obsolesce the roles played by ad blocking and tracking protection extensions and add-ons. Brave is the early leader, IMHO. Safari, Firefox and even Chrome are all making moves in this direction. Also check out Ghostery’s Cliqz. For some perspective on how long this is taking, take a look at what I was calling for way back in 2015.
  4. The market is sending a massive message.  That message is that advertising online has come to have massively negative value. Ad blocking and tracking protection are legitimate and eloquent messages from demand to supply. By fighting that message, marketing is crapping on most obvious and gigantic clue it has ever seen. And the supply side of the market isn’t just marketers selling stuff. It’s developers who need to start working for the hundreds of millions of customers who have proven their value by using these tools.

The Spinner* (with the asterisk) is “a service that enables you to subconsciously influence a specific person, by controlling the content on the websites he or she usually visits.” Meaning you can hire The Spinner* to hack another person.

It works like this:

  1. You pay The Spinner* $29. For example, to urge a friend to stop smoking. (That’s the most positive and innocent example the company gives.)
  2. The Spinner* provides you with an ordinary link you then text to your friend. When that friend clicks on the link, they get a tracking cookie that works as a bulls-eye for The Spinner* to hit with 10 different articles written specifically to influence that friend. He or she “will be strategically bombarded with articles and media tailored to him or her.” Specifically, 180 of these things. Some go in social networks (notably Facebook) while most go into “content discovery platforms” such as Outbrain and Revcontent (best known for those clickbait collections you see appended to publishers’ websites).

The Spinner* is also a hack on journalism, designed like a magic trick to misdirect moral outrage toward The Spinner’s obviously shitty business, and away from the shitty business called adtech, which not only makes The Spinner possible, but pays for most of online journalism as well.

The magician behind The Spinner* is “Elliot Shefler.” Look that name up and you’ll find hundreds of stories. Here are a top few, to which I’ve added some excerpts and notes:

  • For $29, This Man Will Help Manipulate Your Loved Ones With Targeted Facebook And Browser Links, by Parmy Olson @parmy in Forbes. Excerpt: He does say that much of his career has been in online ads and online gambling. At its essence, The Spinner’s software lets people conduct a targeted phishing attack, a common approach by spammers who want to secretly grab your financial details or passwords. Only in this case, the “attacker” is someone you know. Shefler says his algorithms were developed by an agency with links to the Israeli military.
  • For $29, This Company Swears It Will ‘Brainwash’ Someone on Facebook, by Kevin Poulson (@kpoulson) in The Daily Beast. A subhead adds, A shadowy startup claims it can target an individual Facebook user to bend him or her to a client’s will. Experts are… not entirely convinced.
  • Facebook is helping husbands ‘brainwash’ their wives with targeted ads, by Simon Chandler (@_simonchandler_) in The Daily Dot. Excerpt: Most critics assume that Facebook’s misadventures relate only to its posting of ads paid for by corporations and agencies, organizations that aim to puppeteer the “average” individual. It turns out, however, that the social network also now lets this same average individual place ads that aim to manipulate other such individuals, all thanks to the mediation of a relatively new and little-known company…
  • Brainwashing your wife to want sex? Here is adtech at its worst., by Samuel Scott (@samueljscott) in The Drum. Alas, the piece is behind a registration wall that I can’t climb without fucking myself (or so I fear, since the terms and privacy policy total 32 pages and 10,688 words I’m not going to read), so I can’t quote from it.
  • Creepy company hopes ‘Inception’ method will get your wife in the mood, by Saqib Shah (@eightiethmnt) in The Sun, via The New York Post. Excerpt: “It’s unethical in many ways,” admitted Shefler, adding “But it’s the business model of all media. If you’re against it, you’re against all media.” He picked out Nike as an example, explaining that if you visit the brand’s website it serves you a cookie, which then tailors the browsing experience to you every time you come back. A shopping website would also use cookies to remember the items you’re storing in a virtual basket before checkout. And a social network might use cookies to track the links you click and then use that information to show you more relevant or interesting links in the future…The Spinner started life in January of this year. Shefler claims the company is owned by a larger, London-based “agency” that provides it with “big data” and “AI” tools.
  • Adtech-for-sex biz tells blockchain consent app firm, ‘hold my beer’, by Rebecca Hill (@beckyhill) in The Register. The subhead says, Hey love, just click on this link… what do you mean, you’re seeing loads of creepy articles?
  • New Service Promises to Manipulate Your Wife Into Having Sex With You, by Fiona Tapp (@fionatappdotcom) in Rolling Stone. Excerpt: The Spinner team suggests that there isn’t any difference, in terms of morality, from a big company using these means to influence a consumer to book a flight or buy a pair of shoes and a husband doing the same to his wife. Exactly.
  • The Spinner And The Faustian Bargain Of Anonymized Data, by Lauren Arevalo-Downes (whose Twitter link by the piece goes to a 404) in A List Daily. On that site, the consent wall that creeps up from the bottom almost completely blanks out the actual piece, and I’m not going to “consent,” so no excertoing here either.
  • Can you brainwash one specific person with targeted Facebook ads? in TripleJ Hack, by ABC.net.au. Excerpt: Whether or not the Spinner has very many users, whether or not someone is going to stop drinking or propose marriage simply because they saw a sponsored post in their feed, it seems feasible that someone can try to target and brainwash a single person through Facebook.
  • More sex, no smoking – even a pet dog – service promises to make you a master of manipulation, by Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) in The New Zealand Herald. Excerpt: On one level, The Spinner is a jape, rolled out as a colour story by various publications. But on another level it’s a lot more sinister: apparently yet another example of Facebook’s platform being abused to invade privacy and manipulate thought.
  • The Cambridge Analytica of Sex: Online service to manipulate your wife to have sex with you, by Ishani Ghose in meaww. Excerpt: The articles are all real but the headlines and the descriptions have been changed by the Spinner team. The team manipulating the headlines of these articles include a group of psychologists from an unnamed university. As the prepaid ads run, the partner will see headlines such as “3 Reasons Why YOU Should Initiate Sex With Your Husband” or “10 Marriage Tips Every Woman Needs to Hear”.

Is Spinner for real?

“Elliot Shefler” is human for sure. But his footprint online is all PR. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The word “Press” (as in coverage) at the top of the Spinner website is just a link to a Google search for Elliot Shefler, not to curated list such as a real PR person or agency might compile.

Fortunately, a real PR person, Rich Leigh (@RichLeighPR) did some serious digging (you know, like a real reporter) and presented his findings in his blog, PR Examples, in a post titled Frustrated husbands can ‘use micro-targeted native ads to influence their wives to initiate sex’ – surely a PR stunt? Please, a PR stunt? It ran last July 10th, the day after Rich saw this tweet by Maya Kosoff (@mekosoff):

—and this one:

The links to (and in) those tweets no longer work, but the YouTube video behind one of the links is still up. The Spinner itself produced the video, which is tricked to look like a real news story. (Rich does some nice detective work, figuring that out.) The image above is a montage I put together from screenshots of the video.

Here’s some more of what Rich found out:

  • Elliot – not his real name, incidentally, his real name is Halib, a Turkish name (he told me) – lives, or told me he lives, in Germany

  • When I asked him directly, he assured me that it was ‘real’, and when I asked him why it didn’t work when I tried to pay them money, told me that it would be a technical issue that would take around half an hour to fix, likely as a result of ‘high traffic. I said I’d try again later. I did – keep reading

  • It is emphatically ‘not’ PR or marketing for anything

  • He told me that he has 5-6,000 paying users – that’s $145,000 – $174,000, if he’s telling the truth

  • Halib said that Google Ads were so cheap as nobody was bidding on them for the terms he was going for, and they were picking up traffic for ‘one or two cents’

  • He banked on people hate-tweeting it. “I don’t mind what they feel, as long as they think something”, Halib said – which is scarily like something I’ve said in talks I’ve given about coming up with PR ideas that bang

  • The service ‘works’ by dropping a cookie, which enables it to track the person you’re trying to influence in order to serve specific content. I know we had that from the site, but it’s worth reiterating

Long post short, Rich says Habib and/or Elliot is real, and so is The Spinner.

But what matters isn’t whether or not The Spinner is real. It’s that The Spinner misdirects reporters’ attention away from what adtech is and does, which is spy on people for the purpose of aiming stuff at them. And that adtech isn’t just what funds all of Facebook and much of Google (both giant and obvious targets of journalistic scrutiny), but what funds nearly all of publishing online, including most reporters’ salaries.

So let’s look deeper, starting here: There is no moral difference between planting an unseen tracking beacon on a person’s digital self and doing the same on a person’s physical self.

The operational difference is that in the online world it’s a helluva lot easier to misdirect people into thinking they’re not being spied on. Also a helluva lot easier for spies and intermediaries (such as publishers) to plausibly deny that spying is what they’re doing. And to excuse it, saying for example “It’s what pays for the Free Internet!” Which is bullshit, because the Internet, including the commercial Web, got along fine for many years before adtech turned the whole thing into Mos Eisley. And it will get along fine without adtech after we kill it, or it dies of its own corruption.

Meanwhile the misdirection continues, and it’s away from a third rail that honest and brave journalists† need to grab: that adtech is also what feeds most of them.

______________

† I’m being honest here, but not brave. Because I’m safe. I don’t work for a publication that’s paid by adtech. At Linux Journal, we’re doing the opposite, by being the first publication ready to accept terms that our readers proffer, starting with Customer CommonsP2B1(beta), which says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.”

In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.

This is a game for our time. I play it on New York and Boston subways, but you can play it anywhere everybody in a crowd is staring at their personal rectangle.

I call it Rectangle Bingo.

Here’s how you play. At the moment when everyone is staring down at their personal rectangle, you shoot a pano of the whole scene. Nobody will see you because they’re not present: they’re absorbed in rectangular worlds outside their present space/time.

Then you post your pano somewhere search engines will find it, and hashtag it #RectangularBingo.

Then, together, we’ll think up some way to recognize winners.

Game?

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I want to point to three great posts.

First is Larry Lessig‘s Podcasting and the Slow Democracy Movement. A pull quote:

The architecture of the podcast is the precise antidote for the flaws of the present. It is deep where now is shallow. It is insulated from ads where now is completely vulnerable. It is a chance for thinking and reflection; it has an attention span an order of magnitude greater than the Tweet. It is an opportunity for serious (and playful) engagement. It is healthy eating for a brain-scape that now gorges on fast food.

If 2016 was the Twitter election — fast food, empty calorie content driving blood pressure but little thinking — then 2020 must be the podcast election — nutrient-rich, from every political perspective. Not sound bites driven by algorithms, but reflective and engaged humans doing what humans still do best: thinking with empathy about ideals that could make us better — as humans, not ad-generating machines.

There is hope here. We need to feed it.

I found that through a Radio Open Source email pointing to the show’s latest podcast, The New Normal. I haven’t heard that one yet; but I am eager to, because I suspect the “new normal” may be neither. And, as I might not with Twitter, I am foregoing judgement until I do hear it. The host is also Chris Lydon, a friend whose podcast pionering owes to collaboration with Dave Winer, who invented the form of RSS used by nearly all the world’s podcasters, and who wrote my third recommended post, Working Together, in 2019. That one is addressed to Chris and everyone else bringing tools and material to the barns we’re raising together. The title says it all, but read it anyway.

Work is how we feed the hope Larry talks about.

 

The original pioneer in space-based telephony isn’t @ElonMusk (though he deserves enormous credit for his work in the field, the latest example of which is SpaceX‘s 7,518-satellite Starlink network, and which has been making news lately). It’s the people behind the Iridium satellite constellation, the most driven and notorious of which was Ed Staiano.

Much has been written about Iridium’s history, and Ed’s role in driving its satellites into space, most of it negative toward Ed. But I’ve always thought that was at least partly unfair. Watching the flow of news about Iridium at the time it was moving from ground to sky, it was clear to me that Iridium would have remained on the ground if Ed wasn’t a tough bastard about making it fly.

My ad agency, Hodskins Simone & Searls, worked for Ed when he was at Motorola in pre-Iridium days. He was indeed a tough taskmaster: almost legendarily demanding and impatient with fools. But I never had a problem with him. And I believe it’s a testimony to Ed’s vision and persistence that Iridium is still up there, doing the job he wanted it to do, and paving the way for Elon and others (including @IridiumComm itself).

So hats off, Ed. Hope you’re doing well.

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We live in two worlds now: the natural one where we have bodies that obey the laws of gravity and space/time, and the virtual one where there is no gravity or distance (though there is time).

In other words, we are now digital as well as physical beings, and this is new to a human experience where, so far, we are examined and manipulated like laboratory animals by giant entities that are out of everybody’s control—including theirs.

The collateral effects are countless and boundless.

Take journalism, for example. That’s what I did in a TEDx talk I gave last month in Santa Barbara:

I next visited several adjacent territories with a collection of brilliant folk at the Ostrom Workshop on Smart Cities. (Which was live-streamed, but I’m not sure is archived yet. Need to check.)

Among those folk was Brett Frischmann, whose canonical work on infrastructure I covered here, and who in Re-Engineering Humanity (with Evan Selinger) explains exactly how giants in the digital infrastructure business are hacking the shit out of us—a topic I also visit in Engineers vs. Re-Engineering (my August editorial in Linux Journal).

Now also comes Bruce Schneier, with his perfectly titled book Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-Connected World, which Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times sources in A Future Where Everything Becomes a Computer Is as Creepy as You Feared. Pull-quote: “In our government-can’t-do-anything-ever society, I don’t see any reining in of the corporate trends.”

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, a monumental work due out in January (and for which I’ve seen some advance galleys) Shoshana Zuboff makes both cases (and several more) at impressive length and depth.

Privacy plays in all of these, because we don’t have it yet in the digital world. Or not much of it, anyway.

In reverse chronological order, here’s just some what I’ve said on the topic:

So here we are: naked in the virtual world, just like we were in the natural one before we invented clothing and shelter.

And that’s the challenge: to equip ourselves to live private and safe lives, and not just public and endangered ones, in our new virtual world.

Some of us have taken up that challenge too: with ProjectVRM, with Customer Commons, and with allied efforts listed here.

And I’m optimistic about our prospects.

I’ll also be detailing that optimism in the midst of a speech titled “Why adtech sucks and needs to be killed” next Wednesday (October 17th) at An Evening with Advertising Heretics in NYC. Being at the Anne L. Bernstein Theater on West 50th, it’s my off-Broadway debut. The price is a whopping $10.

 

 

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