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Is this the way you want your brand to look?

Digital advertising needs to sniff its own stench, instead of everybody’s digital butts.

A sample of that stench is wafting through the interwebs from  the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media, an ad industry bullphemism for yet another way to excuse the urge to keep tracking people against their wishes (and simple good manners) all over the digital world.

This new thing is a granfalloon conjured by the Association of National Advertisers (aka the ANA) and announced today in the faux-news style of the press release (which it no doubt also is) at the first link above. It begins,

AD INDUSTRY LAUNCHES “PARTNERSHIP FOR RESPONSIBLE ADDRESSABLE MEDIA” TO ENSURE FUTURE OF DIGITAL MEDIA FOR BUSINESSES & CONSUMERS
Governing Group of Industry Leaders Includes 4A’s, ANA, IAB, IAB Tech Lab, NAI, WFA, P&G, Unilever, Ford, GM, IBM, NBCUniversal, IPG, Publicis, Adobe, LiveRamp, MediaMath, The Trade Desk

NEW YORK (August 4, 2020) — Leading trade associations and companies representing every sector of the global advertising industry today joined together to launch the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media, an initiative to advance and protect critical functionalities like customization and analytics for digital media and advertising, while safeguarding privacy and improving the consumer experience. The governing group of the Partnership will include the most influential organizations in advertising.

I learned about this from @WendyDavis, who wrote this piece in MediaPostNiemanLab summarizes what she reports with a tweet that reads, “A new ad-industry group will lobby Google and Apple to let them track users just a wee bit more, please and thank you.”

Writes Wendy,

The group will soon reach out to browser developers and platforms, in hopes of convincing them to rethink recent decisions that will limit tracking, according to Venable attorney Stu Ingis, who will head the legal and policy working group.

“These companies are taking huge positions that impact the entire economy — the entire media ecosystem — with no real input from the media ecosystem,” Ingis says.

As if the “entire media ecosystem” doesn’t contain the billions of humans being tracked.

Well, here’s a fact: ad blocking, which was already the biggest boycott in world history five years ago, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Even though ad blockers had been available since 2004, use of them didn’t hockey-stick until 2012-13, exactly when adtech and its dependents in publishing gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was nothing more than a polite request, expressed by a browser, for some damn privacy while we go about our lives online. See this in Harvard Business Review:

Here’s another fact: the browser makers actually care about their users, some of whom are paying customers (for example with Apple and Microsoft). They know what we want and need, and are giving it to us. Demand and supply at work.

The GDPR and the CCPA also didn’t happen in a vacuum. Both laws were made to protect citizens from exactly what adtech (tracking based advertising) does. And, naturally, the ad biz has been working mightily to obey the letter of those laws while violating their spirit. Why else would we be urged by cookie notices everywhere to “accept” exactly what we’ve made very clear that we don’t want?

So here are some helpful questions from the world’s billions to the brands now paying to have us followed like marked animals:

Have you noticed that not a single brand known to the world has been created by tracking people and aiming ads at them—even after a $trillion or more has been spent on doing that?

Have you noticed that nearly all the world’s major brands became known through advertising that not only didn’t track people, but sponsored journalism as well?

Have you noticed that tracking people and directing personalized messages at them—through “addressable media”—is in fact direct marketing, which we used to call junk mail?

Didn’t think so.

Time to get the clues, ad biz. Brands too.

Start with The Cluetrain Manifesto, which says, if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

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

That year was 1999.

If advertising and marketing had bothered to listen back then, they might not be dealing today with the GDPR, the CCPA, and the earned dislike of billions.

Next, please learn (or re-learn) the difference between real advertising and the junk message business. Find that lesson in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff. An excerpt:

See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.

So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.

Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.

That’s what had happened to the ANA in 2018, when it acquired what had been the Direct Marketing Association (aka DMA) and which by then called itself the Data & Marketing Association.

The Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media speaks in the voice of advertising’s alien replica. It does not “safeguard essential values in advertising as a positive economic force.” Instead it wants to keep using “addressable” advertising as the primary instrument of surveillance capitalism.

Maybe it’s too late to save advertising from its alien self. But perhaps not, if what’s left of advertising’s soul takes the writings of Bob Hoffman (@AdContrarian) to heart. That’s the only way I know for advertising to clean up its act.

 

 

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 WhoTracksMe.com, 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.

This is the Ostrom Memorial Lecture I gave on 9 October of last year for the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. Here is the video. (The intro starts at 8 minutes in, and my part starts just after 11 minutes in.) I usually speak off the cuff, but this time I wrote it out, originally in outline form*, which is germane to my current collaborations with Dave Winer, father of outlining software (and, in related ways, of blogging and podcasting). So here ya go.

Intro

The movie Blade Runner was released in 1982; and was set in a future Los Angeles. Anyone here know when in the future Blade Runner is set? I mean, exactly?

The year was 2019. More precisely, next month: November.

In Blade Runner’s 2019, Los Angeles is a dark and rainy hellscape with buildings the size of mountains, flying cars, and human replicants working on off-world colonies. It also has pay phones and low-def computer screens that are vacuum tubes.

Missing is a communication system that can put everyone in the world at zero distance from everyone else, in disembodied form, at almost no cost—a system that lives on little slabs in people’s pockets and purses, and on laptop computers far more powerful than any computer, of any size, from 1982.

In other words, this communication system—the Internet—was less thinkable in 1982 than flying cars, replicants and off-world colonies. Rewind the world to 1982, and the future Internet would appear a miracle dwarfing the likes of loaves and fish.

In economic terms, the Internet is a common pool resource; but non-rivalrous and non-excludable to such an extreme that to call it a pool or a resource is to insult what makes it common: that it is the simplest possible way for anyone and anything in the world to be present with anyone and anything else in the world, at costs that can round to zero.

As a commons, the Internet encircles every person, every institution, every business, every university, every government, every thing you can name. It is no less exhaustible than presence itself. By nature and design, it can’t be tragic, any more than the Universe can be tragic.

There is also only one of it. As with the universe, it has no other examples.

As a source of abundance, the closest thing to an example the Internet might have is the periodic table. And the Internet might be even more elemental than that: so elemental that it is easy to overlook the simple fact that it is the largest goose ever to lay golden eggs.

It can, however, be misunderstood, and that’s why it’s in trouble.

The trouble it’s in is with human nature: the one that sees more value in the goose’s eggs than in the goose itself.

See, the Internet is designed to support every possible use, every possible institution, and—alas—every possible restriction, which is why enclosure is possible. People, institutions and possibilities of all kinds can be trapped inside enclosures on the Internet. I’ll describe nine of them.

Enclosures

The first enclosure is service provisioning, for example with asymmetric connection speeds. On cable connections you may have up to 400 megabits per second downstream, but still only 10 megabits per second—one fortieth of that—upstream. (By the way this is exactly what Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable, provides with its most expensive home service to customers in New York City.)

They do that to maximize consumption while minimizing production by those customers. You can consume all the video you want, and think you’re getting great service. But meanwhile this asymmetrical provisioning prevents production at your end. Want to put out a broadcast or a podcast from your house, to run your own email server, or to store your own video or other personal data in your own personal “cloud”? Forget it.

The Internet was designed to support infinite production by anybody of anything. But cable TV companies don’t want you to have that that power. So you don’t. The home Internet you get from your cable company is nice to have, but it’s not the whole Internet. It’s an enclosed subset of capabilities biased by and for the cable company and large upstream producers of “content.”

So, it’s golden eggs for them, but none for you. Also missing are all the golden eggs you might make possible for those companies as an active producer rather than as a passive consumer.

The second enclosure is through 5G wireless service, currently promoted by phone companies as a new generation of Internet service. The companies deploying 5G promise greater speeds and lower lag times over wireless connections; but is also clear that they want to build in as many choke points as they like, all so you can be billed for as many uses as possible.

You want gaming? Here’s our gaming package. You want cloud storage? Here’s our cloud storage package. Each of these uses will carry terms and conditions that allow some uses and prevent others. Again, this is a phone company enclosure. No cable companies are deploying 5G. They’re fine with their own enclosure.

The third enclosure is government censorship. The most familiar example is China’s. In China’s closed Internet you will find no Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Reddit. No Pandora, Spotify, Slack or Dropbox. What you will find is pervasive surveillance of everyone and everything—and ranking of people in its Social Credit System.

By March of this year, China had already punished 23 million people with low social credit scores by banning them from traveling. Control of speech has also spread to U.S. companies such as the NBA and ESPN, which are now censoring themselves as well, bowing to the wishes of the Chinese government and its own captive business partners.

The fourth enclosure is the advertising-supported commercial Internet. This is led by Google and Facebook, but also includes all the websites and services that depend on tracking-based advertising. This form of advertising, known as adtech, has in the last decade become pretty much the only kind of advertising online.

Today there are very few major websites left that don’t participate in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, and Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger call, in their book by that title, Re-engineering Humanity. Surveillance of individuals online is now so deep and widespread that nearly every news organization is either unaware of it or afraid to talk about it—in part because the advertising they run is aimed by it.

That’s why you’ll read endless stories about how bad Facebook and Google are, and how awful it is that we’re all being tracked everywhere like marked animals; but almost nothing about how the sites publishing stories about tracking also participate in exactly the same business—and far more surreptitiously. Reporting on their own involvement in the surveillance business is a third rail they won’t grab.

I know of only one magazine that took and shook that third rail, especially in the last year and a half.  That magazine was Linux Journal, where I worked for 24 years and was serving as editor-in-chief when it was killed by its owner in August. At least indirectly that was because we didn’t participate in the surveillance economy.

The fifth enclosure is protectionism. In Europe, for example, your privacy is protected by laws meant to restrict personal data use by companies online. As a result in Europe, you won’t see the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post in your browsers, because those publishers don’t want to cope with what’s required by the EU’s laws.

While they are partly to blame—because they wish to remain in the reader-tracking business—the laws are themselves terribly flawed—for example by urging every website to put up a “cookie notice” on pages greeting readers. In most cases clicking “accept” to the site’s cookies only gives the site permission to continue doing exactly the kind of tracking the laws are meant to prevent.

So, while the purpose of these laws is to make the Internet safer, in effect they also make its useful space smaller.

The sixth enclosure is what The Guardian calls “digital colonialism.” The biggest example of that is  Facebook.org, originally called “Free Basics” and “Internet.org”

This is a China-like subset of the Internet, offered for free by Facebook in less developed parts of the world. It consists of a fully enclosed Web, only a few dozen sites wide, each hand-picked by Facebook. The rest of the Internet isn’t there.

The seventh enclosure is the forgotten past. Today the World Wide Web, which began as a kind of growing archive—a public set of published goods we could browse as if it were a library—is being lost. Forgotten. That’s because search engines are increasingly biased to index and find pages from the present and recent past, and by following the tracks of monitored browsers. It’s forgetting what’s old. Archival goods are starting to disappear, like snow on the water.

Why? Ask the algorithm.

Of course, you can’t. That brings us to our eighth enclosure: algorithmic opacity.

Consider for a moment how important power plants are, and how carefully governed they are as well. Every solar, wind, nuclear, hydro and fossil fuel power production system in the world is subject to inspection by whole classes of degreed and trained professionals.

There is nothing of the sort for the giant search engine and social networks of the world. Google and Facebook both operate dozens of data centers, each the size of many Walmart stores. Yet the inner workings of those data centers are nearly absent of government oversight.

This owes partly to the speed of change in what these centers do, but more to the simple fact that what they do is unknowable, by design. You can’t look at rows of computers with blinking lights in many acres of racks and have the first idea of what’s going on in there.

I would love to see research, for example, on that last enclosure I listed: on how well search engines continue to index old websites. Or to do anything. The whole business is as opaque as a bowling ball with no holes.

I’m not even sure you can find anyone at Google who can explain exactly why its index does one thing or another, for any one person or another. In fact, I doubt Facebook is capable of explaining why any given individual sees any given ad. They aren’t designed for that. And the algorithm itself isn’t designed to explain itself, perhaps even to the employees responsible for it.

Or so I suppose.

In the interest of moving forward with research on these topics, I invite anyone at Google, Facebook, Bing or Amazon to help researchers at institutions such as the Ostrom Workshop, and to explain exactly what’s going on inside their systems, and to provide testable and verifiable ways to research those goings-on.

The ninth and worst enclosure is the one inside our heads. Because, if we think the Internet is something we use by grace of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and “providers” such as phone and cable companies, we’re only helping all those companies contain the Internet’s usefulness inside their walled gardens.

Not understanding the Internet can result in problems similar to ones we suffer by not understanding common pool resources such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and the Earth itself.

But there is a difference between common pool resources in the natural world, and the uncommon commons we have with the Internet.

See, while we all know that common-pool resources are in fact not limitless—even when they seem that way—we don’t have the same knowledge of the Internet, because its nature as a limitless non-thing is non-obvious.

For example, we know common pool resources in the natural world risk tragic outcomes if our use of them is ungoverned, either by good sense or governance systems with global reach. But we don’t know that the Internet is limitless by design, or that the only thing potentially tragic about it is how we restrict access to it and use of it, by enclosures such as the nine I just listed.

So my thesis here is this: if we can deeply and fully understand what the Internet is, why it is fully important, and why it is in danger of enclosure, we can also understand why, ten years after Lin Ostrom won a Nobel prize for her work on the commons, that work may be exactly what we need to save the Internet as a boundless commons that can support countless others.

The Internet

We’ll begin with what makes the Internet possible: a protocol.

A protocol is a code of etiquette for diplomatic exchanges between computers. A form of handshake.

What the Internet’s protocol does is give all the world’s digital devices and networks a handshake agreement about how to share data between any point A and any point B in the world, across any intermediary networks.

When you send an email, or look at a website, anywhere in the world, the route the shared data takes can run through any number of networks between the two. You might connect from Bloomington to Denver through Chicago, Tokyo and Mexico City. Then, two minutes later, through Toronto and Miami. Some packets within your data flows may also be dropped along the way, but the whole session will flow just fine because the errors get noticed and the data re-sent and re-assembled on the fly.

Oddly, none of this is especially complicated at the technical level, because what I just described is pretty much all the Internet does. It doesn’t concern itself with what’s inside the data traffic it routes, who is at the ends of the connections, or what their purposes are—any more than gravity cares about what it attracts.

Beyond the sunk costs of its physical infrastructure, and the operational costs of keeping the networks themselves standing up, the Internet has no first costs at its protocol level, and it adds no costs along the way. It also has no billing system.

In all these ways the Internet is, literally, neutral. It also doesn’t need regulators or lawmakers to make it neutral. That’s just its nature.

The Internet’s protocol called is called TCP/IP, and by using it, all the networks of the world subordinate their own selfish purposes.

This is what makes the Internet’s protocol generous and supportive to an absolute degree toward every purpose to which it is put. It is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

In retrospect we might say the big networks within the Internet—those run by phone and cable companies, governments and universities—agreed to participate in the Internet because it was so obviously useful that there was no reason not to.

But the rising-tide nature of the Internet was not obvious to all of them at first. In retrospect, they didn’t realize that the Internet was a Trojan Horse, wheeled through their gates by geeks who looked harmless but in fact were bringing the world a technical miracle.

I can support that claim by noting that even though phone and cable companies of the world now make trillions of dollars because of it, they never would have invented it.

Two reasons for that. One is because it was too damn simple. The other is because they would have started with billing. And not just billing you and me. They would have wanted to bill each other, and not use something invented by another company.

A measure of the Internet’s miraculous nature is that actually billing each other would have been so costly and complicated that what they do with each other, to facilitate the movement of data to, from, and across their networks, is called peering. In other words, they charge each other nothing.

Even today it is hard for the world’s phone and cable companies—and even its governments, which have always been partners of a sort—to realize that the Internet became the world-wide way to communicate because it didn’t start with billing.

Again, all TCP/IP says is that this is a way for computers, networks, and everything connected to them, to get along. And it succeeded, producing instant worldwide peace among otherwise competing providers of networks and services. It made every network operator involved win a vast positive-sum game almost none of them knew they were playing. And most of them still don’t.

You know that old joke in which the big fish says to the little fish, “Hi guys, how’s the water?” and one of the little fish says to the other “What’s water?” In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a legendary commencement address at Kenyon College that I highly recommend, titled “This is water.”

I suspect that, if Wallace were around today, he’d address his point to our digital world.

Human experience

Those of you who already know me are aware that my wife Joyce is as much a companion and collaborator of mine as Vincent Ostrom was of Lin. I bring this up because much of of this talk is hers, including this pair of insights about the Internet: that it has no distance, and also no gravity.

Think about it: when you are on the Internet with another person—for example if you are in a chat or an online conference—there is no functional distance between you and the other person. One of you may be in Chicago and the other in Bangalore. But if the Internet is working, distance is gone. Gravity is also gone. Your face may be right-side-up on the other person’s screen, but it is absent of gravity. The space you both occupy is the other person’s two-dimensional rectangle. Even if we come up with holographic representations of ourselves, we are still incorporeal “on” the Internet. (I say “on” because we need prepositions to make sense of how things are positioned in the world. Yet our limited set of physical-world prepositions—over, under around, through, beside, within and the rest—misdirect our attention away from our disembodied state in the digital one.)

Familiar as that disembodied state may be to all of us by now, it is still new to human experience and inadequately informed by our experience as embodied creatures. It is also hard for us to see both what our limitations are, and how limitless we are at the same time.

Joyce points out that we are also highly adaptive creatures, meaning that eventually we’ll figure out what it means to live where there is no distance or gravity, much as astronauts learn to live as weightless beings in space.

But in the meantime, we’re having a hard time seeing the nature and limits of what’s good and what’s bad in this new environment. And that has to do, at least in part, on forms of enclosure in that world—and how we are exploited within private spaces where we hardly know we are trapped.

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan says every new medium, every new technology, “works us over completely.” Those are his words: works us over completely. Such as now, with digital technology, and the Internet.

I was talking recently with a friend about where our current digital transition ranks among all the other transitions in history that each have a formal cause. Was becoming ditital the biggest thing since the industrial revolution? Since movable type? Writing? Speech?

No, he said. “It’s the biggest thing since oxygenation.”

In case you weren’t there, or weren’t paying attention in geology class, oxygenation happened about 2.5 billion years ago. Which brings us to our next topic:

Institutions

Journalism is just one example of a trusted institution that is highly troubled in the digital world.

It worked fine in a physical world where truth-tellers who dig into topics and reported on them with minimized prejudice were relatively scarce yet easy to find, and to trust. But in a world flooded with information and opinion—a world where everyone can be a reporter, a publisher, a producer, a broadcaster, where the “news cycle” has the lifespan of a joke, and where news and gossip have become almost indistinguishable while being routed algorithmically to amplify prejudice and homophily, journalism has become an anachronism: still important, but all but drowning in a flood of biased “content” paid for by surveillance-led adtech.

People are still hungry for good information, of course, but our appetites are too easily fed by browsing through the surfeit of “content” on the Internet, which we can easily share by text, email or social media. Even if we do the best we can to share trustworthy facts and other substances that sound like truth, we remain suspended in a techno-social environment we mostly generate and re-generate ourselves. Kind of like our ancestral life forms made sense of the seas they oxygenated, long ago.

The academy is another institution that’s troubled in our digital time. After all, education on the Internet is easy to find. Good educational materials are easy to produce and share. For example, take Kahn Academy, which started with one guy tutoring his cousin though online videos.

Authority must still be earned, but there are now countless non-institutional ways to earn it. Credentials still matter, but less than they used to, and not in the same ways. Ad hoc education works in ways that can be cheap or free, while institutions of higher education remain very expensive. What happens when the market for knowledge and know-how starts moving past requirements for advanced degrees that might take students decades of their lives to pay off?

For one example of that risk already at work, take computer programming.

Which do you think matters more to a potential employer of programmers—a degree in computer science or a short but productive track record? For example, by contributing code to the Linux operating system?

To put this in perspective, Linux and operating systems like it are inside nearly every smart thing that connects to the Internet, including TVs, door locks, the world’s search engines, social network, laptops and mobile phones. Nothing could be more essential to computing life.

At the heart of Linux is what’s called the kernel. For code to get into the kernel, it has to pass muster with other programmers who have already proven their worth, and then through testing and debugging. If you’re looking for a terrific programmer, everyone contributing to the Linux kernel is well-proven. And there are thousands of them.

Now here’s the thing. It not only doesn’t matter whether or not those people have degrees in computer science, or even if they’ve had any formal training. What matters, for our purposes here, is that, to a remarkable degree, many of them don’t have either. Or perhaps most of them.

I know a little about this because, in the course of my work at Linux Journal, I would sometimes ask groups of alpha Linux programmers where they learned to code. Almost none told me “school.” Most were self-taught or learned from each other.

My point here is that the degree to which the world’s most essential and consequential operating system depends on the formal education of its makers is roughly zero.

See, the problem for educational institutions in the digital world is that most were built to leverage scarcity: scarce authority, scarce materials, scarce workspace, scarce time, scarce credentials, scarce reputation, scarce anchors of trust. To a highly functional degree we still need and depend on what only educational institutions can provide, but that degree is a lot lower than it used to be, a lot more varied among disciplines, and it risks continuing to decline as time goes on.

It might help at this point to see gravity in some ways as a problem the Internet solves. Because gravity is top-down. It fosters hierarchy and bell curves, sometimes where we need neither.

Absence of gravity instead fosters heterarchy and polycentrism. And, as we know, at the Ostrom Workshop perhaps better than anywhere, commons are good examples of heterarchy and polycentrism at work.

Knowledge Commons

In the first decade of our new millenium, Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess—already operating in our new digital age—extended the commons category to include knowledge, calling it a complex ecosystem that operates as a common: a shared resource subject to social dilemmas.

They looked at ease of access to digital forms of knowledge and easy new ways to store, access and share knowledge as a common. They also looked at the nature of knowledge and its qualities of non-rivalry and non-excludability, which were both unlike what characterizes a natural commons, with its scarcities of rivalrous and excludable goods.

A knowledge commons, they said, is characterized by abundance. This is one way what Yochai Benkler calls Commons Based Peer Production on the Internet is both easy and rampant, giving us, among many other things, both the free software and open source movements in code development and sharing, plus the Internet and the Web.

Commons Based Peer Production also demonstrates how collaboration and non-material incentives can produce better quality products, and less social friction in the course of production.

I’ve given Linux as one example of Commons Based Peer Production. Others are Wikipedia and the Internet Archive. We’re also seeing it within the academy, for example with Indiana University’s own open archives, making research more accessible and scholarship more rich and productive.

Every one of those examples comports with Lin Ostrom’s design principles:

  1. clearly defined group boundaries;
  2. rules governing use of common goods within local needs and conditions;
  3. participation in modifying rules by those affected by the rules;
  4. accessible and low cost ways to resolve disputes;
  5. developing a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior;
  6. graduated sanctions for rule violators;
  7. and governing responsibility in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

But there is also a crisis with Commons Based Peer Production on the Internet today.

Programmers who ten or fifteen years ago would not participate in enclosing their own environments are doing exactly that, for example with 5G, which is designed to put the phone companies in charge of what we can do on the Internet.

The 5G-enclosed Internet might be faster and more handy in many ways, the range of freedoms for each of us there will be bounded by the commercial interests of the phone companies and their partners, and subject to none of Lin’s rules for governing a commons.

Consider this: every one of the nine enclosures I listed at the beginning of this talk are enabled by programmers who either forgot or never learned about the freedom and openness that made the free and open Internet possible. They are employed in the golden egg gathering business—not in one that appreciates the goose that lays those eggs, and which their predecessors gave to us all.

But this isn’t the end of the world. We’re still at the beginning. And a good model for how to begin is—

The physical world

It is significant that all the commons the Ostroms and their colleagues researched in depth were local. Their work established beyond any doubt the importance of local knowledge and local control.

I believe demonstrating this in the digital world is our best chance of saving our digital world from the nine forms of enclosure I listed at the top of this talk.

It’s our best chance because there is no substitute for reality. We may be digital beings now, as well as physical ones. There are great advantages, even in the digital world, to operating in the here-and-now physical world, where all our prepositions still work, and our metaphors still apply.

Back to Joyce again.

In the mid ‘90s, when the Internet was freshly manifest on our home computers, I was mansplaining to Joyce how this Internet thing was finally the global village long promised by tech.

Her response was, “The sweet spot of the Internet is local.” She said that’s because local is where the physical and the virtual intersect. It’s where you can’t fake reality, because you can see and feel and shake hands with it.

She also said the first thing the Internet would obsolesce would be classified ads in newspapers. That’s because the Internet would be a better place than classifieds for parents to find a crib some neighbor down the street might have for sale. Then Craigslist came along and did exactly that.

We had an instructive experience with how the real world and the Internet work together helpfully at the local level about a year and a half ago. That’s when a giant rainstorm fell on the mountains behind Santa Barbara, where we live, and the town next door, called Montecito. This was also right after the Thomas Fire—largest at the time in recorded California history—had burned all the vegetation away, and there was a maximum risk of what geologists call a “debris flow.”

The result was the biggest debris flow in the history of the region: a flash flood of rock and mud that flowed across Montecito like lava from a volcano. Nearly two hundred homes were destroyed, and twenty-three people were killed. Two of them were never found, because it’s hard to find victims buried under what turned out to be at least twenty thousand truckloads of boulders and mud.

Right afterwards, all of Montecito was evacuated, and very little news got out while emergency and rescue workers did their jobs. Our local news media did an excellent job of covering this event as a story. But I also noticed that not much was being said about the geology involved.

So, since I was familiar with debris flows out of the mountains above Los Angeles, where they have infrastructure that’s ready to handle this kind of thing, I put up a post on my blog titled “Making sense of what happened to Montecito.” In that post I shared facts about the geology involved, and also published the only list on the Web of all the addresses of homes that had been destroyed. Visits to my blog jumped from dozens a day to dozens of thousands. Lots of readers also helped improve what I wrote and re-wrote.

All of this happened over the Internet, but it pertained to a real-world local crisis.

Now here’s the thing. What I did there wasn’t writing a story. I didn’t do it for the money, and my blog is a noncommercial one anyway. I did it to help my neighbors. I did it by not being a bystander.

I also did it in the context of a knowledge commons.

Specifically, I was respectful of boundaries of responsibility; notably those of local authorities—rescue workers, law enforcement, reporters from local media, city and county workers preparing reports, and so on. I gave much credit where it was due and didn’t step on the toes of others helping out as well.

An interesting fact about journalism there at the time was the absence of fake news. Sure, there was plenty of fingers pointing in blog comments and in social media. But it was marginalized away from the fact-reporting that mattered most. There was a very productive ecosystem of information, made possible by the Internet in everyone’s midst. And by everyone, I mean lots of very different people.

Humanity

We are learning creatures by nature. We can’t help it. And we don’t learn by freight forwarding

By that, I mean what I am doing here, and what we do with each other when we talk or teach, is not delivering a commodity called information, as if we were forwarding freight. Something much more transformational is taking place, and this is profoundly relevant to the knowledge commons we share.

Consider the word information. It’s a noun derived from the verb to inform, which in turn is derived from the verb to form. When you tell me something I don’t know, you don’t just deliver a sum of information to me. You form me. As a walking sum of all I know, I am changed by that.

This means we are all authors of each other.

In that sense, the word authority belongs to the right we give others to author us: to form us.

Now look at how much more of that can happen on our planet, thanks to the Internet, with its absence of distance and gravity.

And think about how that changes every commons we participate in, as both physical and digital beings. And how much we need guidance to keep from screwing up the commons we have, or forming the ones we don’t, or forming might have in the future—if we don’t screw things up.

A rule in technology is that what can be done will be done—until we find out what shouldn’t be done. Humans have done this with every new technology and practice from speech to stone tools to nuclear power.

We are there now with the Internet. In fact, many of those enclosures I listed are well-intended efforts to limit dangerous uses of the Internet.

And now we are at a point where some of those too are a danger.

What might be the best way to look at the Internet and its uses most sensibly?

I think the answer is governance predicated on the realization that the Internet is perhaps the ultimate commons, and subject to both research and guidance informed by Lin Ostrom’s rules.

And I hope that guides our study.

There is so much to work on: expansion of agency, sensibility around license and copyright, freedom to benefit individuals and society alike, protections that don’t foreclose opportunity, saving journalism, modernizing the academy, creating and sharing wealth without victims, de-financializing our economies… the list is very long. And I look forward to working with many of us here on answers to these and many other questions.

Thank you. 

Sources

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press, 1990

Ostrom, Elinor and Hess, Charlotte, editors. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons:
From Theory to Practice, MIT Press, 2011
https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/understanding-knowledge-commons
Full text online: https://wtf.tw/ref/hess_ostrom_2007.pdf

Paul D. Aligica and Vlad Tarko, “Polycentricity: From Polanyi to Ostrom, and Beyond” https://asp.mercatus.org/system/files/Polycentricity.pdf

Elinor Ostrom, “Coping With Tragedies of the Commons,” 1998 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7c6e/92906bcf0e590e6541eaa41ad0cd92e13671.pdf

Lee Anne Fennell, “Ostrom’s Law: Property rights in the commons,” March 3, 2011
https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/articles/10.18352/ijc.252/

Christopher W. Savage, “Managing the Ambient Trust Commons: The Economics of Online Consumer Information Privacy.” Stanford Law School, 2019. https://law.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Savage_20190129-1.pdf

 

________________

*I wrote it using—or struggling in—the godawful Outline view in Word. Since I succeeded (most don’t, because they can’t or won’t, with good reason), I’ll brag on succeeding at the subhead level:

As I’m writing this, in Febrary, 2020, Dave Winer is working on what he calls writing on rails. That’s what he gave the pre-Internet world with MORE several decades ago, and I’m helping him with now with the Internet-native kind, as a user. He explains that here. (MORE was, for me, like writing on rails. It’ll be great to go back—or forward—to that again.)

Journalism’s biggest problem (as I’ve said before) is what it’s best at: telling stories. That’s what Thomas B. Edsall (of Columbia and The New York Times) does in Trump’s Digital Advantage Is Freaking Out Democratic Strategists, published in today’s New York Times. He tells a story. Or, in the favored parlance of our time, a narrative, about what he sees Republicans’ superior use of modern methods for persuading voters:

Experts in the explosively growing field of political digital technologies have developed an innovative terminology to describe what they do — a lexicon that is virtually incomprehensible to ordinary voters. This language provides an inkling of the extraordinarily arcane universe politics has entered:

geofencingmass personalizationdark patternsidentity resolution technologiesdynamic prospectinggeotargeting strategieslocation analyticsgeo-behavioural segmentpolitical data cloudautomatic content recognitiondynamic creative optimization.

Geofencing and other emerging digital technologies derive from microtargeting marketing initiatives that use consumer and other demographic data to identify the interests of specific voters or very small groups of like-minded individuals to influence their thoughts or actions.

In fact the “arcane universe” he’s talking about is the direct marketing playbook, which was born offline as the junk mail business. In that business, tracking individuals and bothering them personally is a fine and fully rationalized practice. And let’s face it: political campaigning has always wanted to get personal. It’s why we have mass mailings, mass callings, mass textings and the rest of it—all to personal addresses, numbers and faces.

Coincidence: I just got this:

There is nothing new here other than (at the moment) the Trump team doing it better than any Democrat. (Except maybe Bernie.) Obama’s team was better at it in ’08 and ’12. Trump’s was better at it in ’16 and is better again in ’20.*

However, debating which candidates do the best marketing misdirects our attention away from the destruction of personal privacy by constant tracking of our asses online—including tracking of asses by politicians. This, I submit, is a bigger and badder issue than which politicians do the best direct marketing. It may even be bigger than who gets elected to what in November.

As issues go, personal privacy is soul-deep. Who gets elected, and how, are not.

As I put it here,

Surveillance of people is now the norm for nearly every website and app that harvests personal data for use by machines. Privacy, as we’ve understood it in the physical world since the invention of the loincloth and the door latch, doesn’t yet exist. Instead, all we have are the “privacy policies” of corporate entities participating in the data extraction marketplace, plus terms and conditions they compel us to sign, either of which they can change on a whim. Most of the time our only choice is to deny ourselves the convenience of these companies’ services or live our lives offline.

Worse is that these are proffered on the Taylorist model, meaning mass-produced.

There is a natural temptation to want to fix this with policy. This is a mistake for two reasons:

  1. Policy-makers are themselves part of the problem. Hell, most of their election campaigns are built on direct marketing. And law enforcement (which carries out certain forms of policy) has always regarded personal privacy as a problem to overcome rather than a solution to anything. Example.
  2. Policy-makers often screw things up. Exhibit A: the EU’s GDPR, which has done more to clutter the Web with insincere and misleading cookie notices than it has to advance personal privacy tech online. (I’ve written about this a lot. Here’s one sample.)

We need tech of our own. Terms and policies of our own. In the physical world, we have privacy tech in the forms of clothing, shelter, doors, locks and window shades. We have policies in the form of manners, courtesies, and respect for privacy signals we send to each other. We lack all of that online. Until we invent it, the most we’ll do to achieve real privacy online is talk about it, and inveigh for politicians to solve it for us. Which they won’t.

If you’re interested in solving personal privacy at the personal level, take a look at Customer Commons. If you want to join our efforts there, talk to me.

_____________
*The Trump campaign also has the enormous benefit of an already-chosen Republican ticket. The Democrats have a mess of candidates and a split in the party between young and old, socialists and moderates, and no candidate as interesting as is Trump. (Also, I’m not Joyce.)

At this point, it’s no contest. Trump is the biggest character in the biggest story of our time. (I explain this in Where Journalism Fails.) And he’s on a glide path to winning in November, just as I said he was in 2016.

Here’s the popover that greets visitors on arrival at Rolling Stone‘s website:

Our Privacy Policy has been revised as of January 1, 2020. This policy outlines how we use your information. By using our site and products, you are agreeing to the policy.

That policy is supplied by Rolling Stone’s parent (PMC) and weighs more than 10,000 words. In it the word “advertising” appears 68 times. Adjectives modifying it include “targeted,” “personalized,” “tailored,” “cookie-based,” “behavioral” and “interest-based.” All of that is made possible by, among other things—

Information we collect automatically:

Device information and identifiers such as IP address; browser type and language; operating system; platform type; device type; software and hardware attributes; and unique device, advertising, and app identifiers

Internet network and device activity data such as information about files you download, domain names, landing pages, browsing activity, content or ads viewed and clicked, dates and times of access, pages viewed, forms you complete or partially complete, search terms, uploads or downloads, the URL that referred you to our Services, the web sites you visit after this web site; if you share our content to social media platforms; and other web usage activity and data logged by our web servers, whether you open an email and your interaction with email content, access times, error logs, and other similar information. See “Cookies and Other Tracking Technologies” below for more information about how we collect and use this information.

Geolocation information such as city, state and ZIP code associated with your IP address or derived through Wi-Fi triangulation; and precise geolocation information from GPS-based functionality on your mobile devices, with your permission in accordance with your mobile device settings.

The “How We Use the Information We Collect” section says they will—

Personalize your experience to Provide the Services, for example to:

  • Customize certain features of the Services,
  • Deliver relevant content and to provide you with an enhanced experience based on your activities and interests
  • Send you personalized newsletters, surveys, and information about products, services and promotions offered by us, our partners, and other organizations with which we work
  • Customize the advertising on the Services based on your activities and interests
  • Create and update inferences about you and audience segments that can be used for targeted advertising and marketing on the Services, third party services and platforms, and mobile apps
  • Create profiles about you, including adding and combining information we obtain from third parties, which may be used for analytics, marketing, and advertising
  • Conduct cross-device tracking by using information such as IP addresses and unique mobile device identifiers to identify the same unique users across multiple browsers or devices (such as smartphones or tablets, in order to save your preferences across devices and analyze usage of the Service.
  • using inferences about your preferences and interests for any and all of the above purposes

For a look at what Rolling Stone, PMC and their third parties are up to, Privacy Badger’s browser extension “found 73 potential trackers on www.rollingstone.com:

tagan.adlightning.com
 acdn.adnxs.com
 ib.adnxs.com
 cdn.adsafeprotected.com
 static.adsafeprotected.com
 d.agkn.com
 js.agkn.com
 c.amazon-adsystem.com
 z-na.amazon-adsystem.com
 display.apester.com
 events.apester.com
 static.apester.com
 as-sec.casalemedia.com
 ping.chartbeat.net
 static.chartbeat.com
 quantcast.mgr.consensu.org
 script.crazyegg.com
 dc8xl0ndzn2cb.cloudfront.net
cdn.digitru.st
 ad.doubleclick.net
 securepubads.g.doubleclick.net
 hbint.emxdgt.com
 connect.facebook.net
 adservice.google.com
 pagead2.googlesyndication.com
 www.googletagmanager.com
 www.gstatic.com
 static.hotjar.com
 imasdk.googleapis.com
 js-sec.indexww.com
 load.instinctiveads.com
 ssl.p.jwpcdn.com
 content.jwplatform.com
 ping-meta-prd.jwpltx.com
 prd.jwpltx.com
 assets-jpcust.jwpsrv.com
 g.jwpsrv.com
pixel.keywee.co
 beacon.krxd.net
 cdn.krxd.net
 consumer.krxd.net
 www.lightboxcdn.com
 widgets.outbrain.com
 cdn.permutive.com
 assets.pinterest.com
 openbid.pubmatic.com
 secure.quantserve.com
 cdn.roiq.ranker.com
 eus.rubiconproject.com
 fastlane.rubiconproject.com
 s3.amazonaws.com
 sb.scorecardresearch.com
 p.skimresources.com
 r.skimresources.com
 s.skimresources.com
 t.skimresources.com
launcher.spot.im
recirculation.spot.im
 js.spotx.tv
 search.spotxchange.com
 sync.search.spotxchange.com
 cc.swiftype.com
 s.swiftypecdn.com
 jwplayer.eb.tremorhub.com
 pbs.twimg.com
 cdn.syndication.twimg.com
 platform.twitter.com
 syndication.twitter.com
 mrb.upapi.net
 pixel.wp.com
 stats.wp.com
 www.youtube.com
 s.ytimg.com

This kind of shit is why we have the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and California’s CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). (No, it’s not just because Google and Facebook.) If publishers and the adtech industry (those third parties) hadn’t turned the commercial Web into a target-rich environment for suckage by data vampires, we’d never have had either law. (In fact, both laws are still new: the GDPR went into effect in May 2018 and the CCPA a few days ago.)

I’m in California, where the CCPA gives me the right to shake down the vampiretariat for all the information about me they’re harvesting, sharing, selling or giving away to or through those third parties.* But apparently Rolling Stone and PMC don’t care about that.

Others do, and I’ll visit some of those in later posts. Meanwhile I’ll let Rolling Stone and PMC stand as examples of bad acting by publishers that remains rampant, unstopped and almost entirely unpunished, even under these new laws.

I also suggest following and getting involved with the fight against the plague of data vampirism in the publishing world. These will help:

  1. Reading Don Marti’s blog, where he shares expert analysis and advice on the CCPA and related matters. Also People vs. Adtech, a compilation of my own writings on the topic, going back to 2008.
  2. Following what the browser makers are doing with tracking protection (alas, differently†). Shortcuts: Brave, Google’s Chrome, Ghostery’s Cliqz, Microsoft’s Edge, Epic, Mozilla’s Firefox.
  3. Following or joining communities working to introduce safe forms of nourishment for publishers and better habits for advertisers and their agencies. Those include Customer CommonsMe2B AllianceMyData Global and ProjectVRM.

______________

*The bill (AB 375), begins,

The California Constitution grants a right of privacy. Existing law provides for the confidentiality of personal information in various contexts and requires a business or person that suffers a breach of security of computerized data that includes personal information, as defined, to disclose that breach, as specified.

This bill would enact the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. Beginning January 1, 2020, the bill would grant a consumer a right to request a business to disclose the categories and specific pieces of personal information that it collects about the consumer, the categories of sources from which that information is collected, the business purposes for collecting or selling the information, and the categories of 3rd parties with which the information is shared. The bill would require a business to make disclosures about the information and the purposes for which it is used. The bill would grant a consumer the right to request deletion of personal information and would require the business to delete upon receipt of a verified request, as specified. The bill would grant a consumer a right to request that a business that sells the consumer’s personal information, or discloses it for a business purpose, disclose the categories of information that it collects and categories of information and the identity of 3rd parties to which the information was sold or disclosed…

Don Marti has a draft letter one might submit to the brokers and advertisers who use all that personal data. (He also tweets a caution here.)

†This will be the subject of my next post.

A few weeks ago, in Where journalism fails, I wrote about how journalism, for all its high-minded (and essential) purposes, is still interested only in stories. I explained that stories have just three requirements—characterproblem, and movement—and that, by focusing on those three requirements alone, journalism excludes a boundless volume of facts, many of which actually matter. I also point out that story-telling is vulnerable to manipulation by experts at feeding journalism’s appetites.

In this post my focus is on the near-infinite abundance of stories that have never been told, have been forgotten, or both, but some of which might still matter to somebody, or to the world.

You’ll find pointers to billions of those in cemeteries. Every headstone marks the absence of countless stories as lost and buried as the graves’ occupants. All the long-buried were characters in their own lives’ stories, and within each of those lives were countless other stories. But the characters in those stories are gone, their problems are over, and movement has ceased. All have been, or will soon be, erased by time and growing disinterests of the living—even of surviving friends and heirs.

So I want to surface a few stories of deceased ancestors and relatives of my own, whose bodies are among the 300,000+ occupants of just one cemetery: Woodlawn, in The Bronx, New York. We’ll start with my great-grandfather, Henry Roman EnglertThat’s him with his first four daughters, above. Clockwise from top left are Loretto (“Loretta”), Regina (“Gene”), Ethel (my grandma Searls), and Florence. Here’s Henry as a younger man:

Here are the same four girls in the top picture, at the Jersey shore in 1953, ten years after Henry died:

All those ladies lived long full lives. The longest was Grandma (second from right), who made it to a few days short of 108.

Here’s henry his granddaughter, Grace (née Searls) Apgar, my father’s sister, ten years before that:

And here is his headstone, placed ten years after the shot above:

Henry R. Englert headstone

Some biography:

Henry was a fastidious dude, meaning highly disciplinary as well as disciplined. Grandma told a story about how her father, on arriving home from work, would summon his four daughters (of which she was one) to appear and stand in a row… He would then run his white glove over some horizontal surface and wipe it on a white shoulder of a daughter’s dress, expecting no dust to leave a mark on either glove or girl.

Henry was the son of German immigrants: Christian Englert and Jacobina Rung, both of Alsace, then of Bavaria and now part of France. They were brewers, and had a tavern on the east side of Manhattan on 110th Street. (Though an 1870 census page calls Christian a “laborer.”) Jacobina was a Third Order Carmelite nun, and was buried in its brown robes. Both were born in 1825. Christian is said to have died in 1886 while picking hops in Utica. Jacobina died in 1904.

Here’s more:

  1. Henry was sometimes called “HRE.”
  2. He headed (or was said to have headed) the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in New York—and was put out of business by mechanization, like many others in his trade. I don’t know what else he did after that. Perhaps he lived off savings.
  3. He was what his daughter (my grandma) called a “good socialist.”
  4. He had at least seven daughters and one son (Henry Jr., known as Harry, who died at age four).
  5. He was married twice, and outlived both his wives and three of his kids, all by long margins.
  6. His second wife, Teresa, was (again, by lore) both an alcoholic and kinda crazy. Still, she produced several children.
  7. It was said that he died after having his first dentistry—a tooth pulled, at age 87. I don’t know if that was correct, but it’s one story about him.
  8. He rarely visited the families of children by his first wife: the Knoebels (by daughter Regina, known as Gene), the Searls (by daughter Ethel, my grandma) or the Dwyers (by daughter Florence), though there seem to be plenty of pictures of him with those families.
  9. Nobody alive can say why the graves of the wives and kids buried with him are unmarked, or why Henry’s is the only headstone. Here’s some detail on who lies where in his plot:

Henry Roman Englert, wives and kids

My grandmother and her sisters used to take their families on picnic trips to this plot when it was unmarked. Why did they not mark it before Henry died? Nobody who knew is alive to say.

About 80 feet away is an older three-grave plot occupied by Henry’s parents, plus one of his brothers and three cousins and in-laws named Fehn*:

Woodlawn’s own records say this about the distribution of the graves and their occupants

Left:

  1. Theresa M. Fen, 10 mos 8/2/1887
  2. Agnes Fen, 1 yr

Center:

  1. Annie T. Englert, 29 yrs, 4/12/1881 Bellview Hosp. NYC
  2. Christian Englert, 60 yrs, 10/4/1886, 16 Devereux St. Utica, NY
  3. Jacobina Englert, 78 yrs & 7′ deep, 3/1/04 110 e. 106th St. NYC

Right:

  1. Christian P. Englert, 33 yrs 4/12/1891 Bellview Hosp. NYC
  2. Henry W. Fehn, 85 yrs 10/23/1948 Am Vet

A hmm here: to bury Jacobina 7 feet deep,  they surely would have had to dig past her husband (dead 18 years) and daughter (dead 23 years), and to have encountered bones along the way. I can say that, because I’ve seen evidence

—that bones survive well in glacial till (about which more later). So I suspect that this three-person grave is seven feet deep, with the final occupant stacked on top.

Also, since Jacobina was a Carmelite nun, I call her “Nun of the Below.”

Further digging of the research kind, done my my aunt Katherine (née Dwyer) Burns (daughter of Florence Englert), turns up an 1870 census page that says this about the Englert family at that time:

  1. Christian, from Bavaria, a laborer, age 45
  2. Jacobina, from Bavaria, “keeps houses,” age 45
  3. Henry, “(illegible) engraver,” age 15
  4. Christian, age 12
  5. Annie, age 9
  6. Mary, age 7*
  7. Andrew, age 4

*Mary, I gather, married a Fehn. Here’s a clue. [Later…] Ah! I found a better one:

Mary A Fehn (born Englert), 1863 – 1957

(This is from Geni.com, which wants money to reveal details at those links.)

Mostly I’m impressed that, among Christian and Jacobina’s kids, Mary and Henry alone lived long lives.

Here are Christian and Jacobina, in life, perhaps around the time of the 1870 census:

And here are their three sons, with Henry’s first three daughters, the future Grandma Searls on the right:

There are differences between the caption I wrote under that photo eight years ago (based on what I knew, or thought I knew, at the time), Grace’s comment below it, posted when she was 100 years old. (Grace rocked. Here’s her 100th birthday party, in Maine.) In that comment, Grace says she thinks the one on the left is Andrew, and the one in the middle is Christopher, by which I’m sure she means Christian (the younger). Both died not long after this photo was taken. Not clear whether Christian or Andrew was the one who died of a terminal cold acquired while working in a frozen food warehouse or something.

While he’s not in the Englert plot above, he is in an unmarked one nearby, which Woodlawn identifies thus:

  1. Andrew J. Englert, 35 yrs, 5/29/1901
  2. Annie C. Englert, 67 yrs, 11/17/1935

I suppose, since his sister Annie (named Anna) is buried with her parents and brother Christian (among various Fehns), that she was Andrew’s wife. Here is a shot of that grave.

And here is a Google Earth GPS trace of a visit to all three gravesites: Henry at B, his parents Christian and Jacobina + sibs Anna (Annie) and Christian at A, and Andrew + (wife?) Annie at C:

At D in that shot is a collection of headstones for New York’s Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females, which occupied a beautiful Victorian gothic building in Harlem that is now home to a youth hostel. The Wikipedia entry at the last link fails to mention the cemetery. (I should correct that.)

Last is the Knoebel plot, nearby. Bigger than any of the Englert plots, it is first in a way, because Regina Knoebel was the Eldest of Henry Englert’s many children. It looks like this:

From the caption under that photo:

The six-grave, twelve-body Knoebel plot is described by Woodlawn Cemetery here. Since the descriptions of those graves that don’t quite agree with some of the headstones (for example, with spellings), I’ve combined the two in the description below.

First, behind the main monument are three graves. Left to right, they are—

1
Lillian (Lillie) Raichle, 1876-3/3/1958, 81 years
Lillian W. Raichle, 1902-1907, 5 years
Herman Raichle, 1877-1933

2
Sarah Bladen, 1864 to 1926, 61 years

3
Henry Vier, 8 years
Rita P. Knoebel, 81 years, 2/15/92

All three have headstones.

In front of the monument are three more graves, left to right, those are:

4
John E. Knoebel, 78 years 9/4/50
John E. Knoebel, 84 years, 12/25/2000
Regina Knoebel, 80 years, 1/6/1960, exhumed on 10/7/70 and reburied in Fairview Cemetery in New Jersey

5
John E. Knoebel, 61 years

6
Louis F. Knoebel, 50 years, 11/11/2013
Anastasia Knoebel, 60 years

Note that grave 4 is a bit sunken. This is the one from which Regina (née Englert) Knoebel (Aunt Gene), who was married to one of the John E. (“Johnny”) Knoebels, and whose son John E. was, apparently, buried in her stead.

A story I recall about Aunt Gene is almost certainly apocryphal, but still interesting, is that she once climbed a spire of rock in New Jersey’s Palisades and carved her initials, “RE,” near the top—and that these were later visible from the George Washington Bridge, because it was built right next to the spire. (On the North side.)

Lending credence to this story is an absent fear of heights that runs in my father’s family (his mom was Gene’s younger sister Ethel). Pop also grew up on the Palisades and was a cable rigger working on the Bridge itself. (Here he is.) And I do at least recall Aunt Gene as the most alpha (being the eldest) of the four Englert sisters; so it kinda seemed in character that she might do such a thing. But … I have no idea. I’ve been by there many times since then, and the whole face of the Palisades is so overrun with greenery now that it’s hard to tell if a spire is even there. I do recall that there was one, though.

Yet the sad but true summary of all this is that today none of these people matter much to anybody, even though most or all of them mattered to others a great deal when they were alive. Living relatives, including me, are all way too busy with stories of their own, and long since past caring much, if at all, about any of the departed here.

A measure of caring about the preservation of graves at Woodlawn is whether or not the headstone is “endowed,” meaning maintained in its original upright and above-ground condition. The elder Englerts’ stone, as we see in the shot above, is endowed. Henry’s, I suppose, is not, but appears to be holding up. So far.

Many of those not endowed are sinking into the Earth. See the examples here, here and here. The last of those is this:

The gravestone business calls its products memorials, defined as “something, especially a structure, established to remind people of a person or event.” The headstone above may have reminded some people a century ago of Henry Kremer and his infant namesake, but today I find nothing about either online. And soon this stone, like so many others around it, will be buried no less than the graves they once marked, simply because most of Woodlawn, like much of New York City itself, is barely settled glacial till, and so soft you can dig it with a spoon. (In fact, New York’s glacial history is far more interesting today than the lives of nearly all the inhabitants of its cemeteries. That’s why it makes the great story at that last link.)

Archeology is “the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.” These days we do much of that online, in digital space. It’s what I’m doing here, in some faith that at least a few small bits of what I tossed out in the paragraphs above will prove useful to story-tellers among the living.

And I suggest that this, and not just telling the usual stories, needs to be a bigger part of journalism’s calling in our time.

newspaperIn a Columbia Journalism Review op-ed, Bernie Sanders presents a plan to save journalism that begins,

WALTER CRONKITE ONCE SAID that “journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” He was absolutely right, which is why today’s assault on journalism by Wall Street, billionaire businessmen, Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump presents a crisis—and why we must take concrete action.

His prescriptive remedies run ten paragraphs long, and all involve heavy government intervention. Rob Williams (@RobWilliamsNY) of MediaPost provides a brief summary in Bernie Sanders Has Misguided Plan To Save Journalism:

Almost two weeks after walking back his criticism of The Washington Post, which he had suggested was a mouthpiece for owner Jeff Bezos, Sanders described a scheme that would re-order the news business with taxes, cross-subsidies and trust-busting…

Sanders also proposes new taxes on online targeted ads, and using the proceeds to fund nonprofit civic-minded media. It’s highly doubtful that a government-funded news provider will be a better watchdog of local officials than an independent publisher. Also, a tax-funded news source will compete with local publishers that already face enough threats.

Then Rob adds,

Sanders needs to recognize that the news business is subject to market forces too big to tame with more government regulation. Consumers have found other sources for news, including pay-TV and a superabundance of digital publishers.

Here’s a lightly edited copy of the comment I put up under Rob’s post:

Journalism as we knew it—scarce and authoritative media resources on print and air—has boundless competition now from, well, everybody.

Because digital.

Meaning we are digital now. (Proof: try living without your computer and smartphone.) As digital beings we float in a sea of “content,” very little of which is curated, and much of which is both fake and funded by the same systems (Google, Facebook and the four-dimensional shell game called adtech) that today rewards publishers for bringing tracked eyeballs to robots so those eyeballs can be speared with “relevant” and “interactive” ads.

The systems urging those eyeballs toward advertising spears are algorithmically biased to fan emotional fires, much of which reduces to enmity toward “the other,” dividing worlds of people into opposing camps (each an “other” for the “other”). Because, hey, it’s good for the ad business, which includes everyone it pays, including what’s left of mainstream and wannabe mainstream journalism.

Meanwhile, the surviving authoritative sources in that mainstream have themselves become fat with opinion while carving away reporters, editors, bureaus and beats. Brand advertising, for a century the most reliable and generous source of funding for good journalism (admittedly, along with some bad), is now mostly self-quarantined to major broadcast media, while the eyeball-spearing “behavioral” kind of advertising rules online, despite attempts by regulators (especially in Europe) to stamp it out. (Because it is in fact totally rude.)

Then there’s the problem of news surfeit, which trivializes everything with its abundance, no matter how essential and important a given story may be. It’s all just too freaking much. (More about that here.)

And finally there’s the problem of “the story”—journalism’s stock-in-trade. Not everything that matters fits the story format (character, problem, movement). Worse, we’re living in a time when the most effective political leaders are giant characters who traffic in generating problems that attract news coverage like a black hole attracts everything nearby that might give light. (More about that here.)

Against all those developments at once, there is hardly a damn thing lawmakers or regulators can do. Grandstanding such as Sanders does in this case only adds to the noise, which Google’s and Facebook’s giant robots are still happy to fund.

Good luck, folks.

So. How do we save journalism—if in fact we can? Three ideas:

  1. Start at the local level, because the physical world is where the Internet gets real. It’s hard to play the fake news game there, and that alone is a huge advantage (This is what my TED talk last year was about, by the way.)
  2. Whatever Dave Winer is working on. I don’t know anybody with as much high-power insight and invention, plus the ability to make stuff happen. (Heard of blogging and podcasting? You might not have if them weren’t for Dave. Some history herehere and here.)
  3. Align incentives between journalism, its funding sources and its readers, listeners and viewers. Surveillance-based adtech is massively misaligned with the moral core of journalism, the brand promises of advertisers and the privacy of every human being exposed to it. Bernie and too many others miss all that, largely because the big publishers have been chickenshit about admitting their role in adtech’s surveillance system—and reporting on it.
  4. Put the users of news in charge of their relationships with the producers of it. Which can be done. For example, we can get rid of those shitty adtech-protecting cookie notices on the front doors of websites with terms that readers can proffer and publishers can agree to, because those terms are a good deal for both. Here’s one.

I think we’ll start seeing the tide turn when when what’s left of responsible ad-funded online publishing cringes in shame at having participated in adtech’s inexcusable surveillance business—and reports on it thoroughly.

Credit where due: The New York Times has started, with its Privacy Project. An excellent report by Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) in that series contains this long-overdue line:”Among all the sites I visited, news sites, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, had the most tracking resources.”

Hats off to Farhad for grabbing a third rail there. I’ve been urging this for a long time, and working especially on #4, through ProjectVRMCustomerCommons and the IEEE’s working group (P7012) on Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms. If you want to roll up your sleeves and help with this stuff, join one or more of those efforts.

 

 

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: stories.

I was just 22 when I got my first gig as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around just three elements:

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

You need all three. Subtract one or more, and all you have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. So let’s unpack those a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, at least toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories, and many characters in many conflicts around many problems in stories, never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way.

For a case-in-point of how this can go very wrong, we have the problem-making character now serving as President of the United States. Please, if you can, set the politics aside and just look at the dude through the prism of Story.

He—clearly, deeply and instinctively—understands how stories work. He is experienced and skilled at finding or causing problems that generate conflict and enlarge his own character in the process.

He does this through constant characterization of others, for example with nicknames: “Little Mario,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Failing New York Times.”

He stokes the fires of conflict by staying on the attack at all times—a strategy he learned from Roy Cohn, a lawyer Frank Rich felicitously called “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” Talk about character: Cohn was absolutely interesting. As Politico puts it here, “Cohn imparted an M.O. that’s been on searing display throughout Trump’s ascent, his divisive, captivating campaign, and his fraught, unprecedented presidency. Deflect and distract, never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”

As for movement, every new problem Trump creates or intensifies is meant to generate an emotional response, which is movement in itself.

Look closely: the news Trump makes is deliberate, theatrical and constant. All of it is staged and re-staged, so every unavoidably interesting thing he says or does pushes the last thing he said or did off the stage and into irrelevance, because whatever he’s saying or doing now demands full attention, no matter what he said or did yesterday.

There is true genius to this, and it requires understanding and respect—especially by those who report on it.

You can call this trolling, or earned media coverage, meaning the free kind. Both are true. So is comparing Trump to The Mule in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (The Mule was a mutant with exceptional influence over the emotions of whole populations. It was by noting this resemblance that I, along with Scott Adams, expected Trump to win in 2016.)

Regardless of what one calls it, we do have two big fails for journalism here:

  1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.
  2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: We need to know more than stories can tell, yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story. Same goes for  “earned media coverage.” Both are features rather than bugs, because they cause much of journalism’s success, and debugging them has proven impossible.

I’ll illustrate those points with the killing fields of Cambodia. Those fields are the setting for a story well-known today, about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed genocide on a massive scale, wiping out between one and a half to two million people, or around twenty-five percent of the Cambodia’s population. And yet that story meant close to nothing until it became about one man with a problem rather than a whole population whose lives had ended.

A measure of how close-to-nothing that genocide meant to journalism at that time was delivered one evening in the late 1970s by Hughes Rudd, an anchor at the time of the CBS Morning News. Rudd said, almost offhandedly, that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. Rather than a story, this was just an item: too important to not mention but not interesting enough to say more about. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the same item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. It blew my mind: half a million dead, and no story.

What made it not a story was the absence of all three elements. There were no characters, no conflict that was easy to describe, no movement toward resolution. Just a statistic. It hardly mattered to journalistic institutions of the time that the statistic itself was a massive one.

The killing fields finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Schanberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had all three elements, and pulled in lots of relevant and interesting facts. Eventually it became the movie that gave Cambodia’s killing fields their name.

What matters for our current inquiry is that years went by, with a million or more people dying, before the killing fields became a big story.

And this was neither the first nor the last time massively important and consequential facts got too little attention in the absence of one or more of a story’s three elements. Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without characters to care about, or a conflict to focus interest, or movement toward resolution, at most you have have statistics that become cemeteries of facts. Sure, some of the storyless facts will be studied by academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists who care about the topics and publish what they learn wherever they can). But Big-J journalism will mostly be preoccupied elsewhere, by more interesting stuff. Including, unavoidably, the genius in the White House.

_________

*However, if you want good advice on how best to write stories about the guy, you can’t beat what @JayRosen_NYU tweets here. I suggest it also applies to the UK’s prime minister.

[19 July 2019 update…] I just copied* this piece over from its old placement in Medium. I can no longer edit it there, and the images in it have disappeared. This is also the case for other stuff I’ve published on Medium, alas.

*I also copied over all the HTML cruft that Medium is full of. It’ll take more time than I have to extract that. Meanwhile, it seems to look okay.

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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.”

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