Software as politics: How the power of tech can be held accountable

Software as politics: How the power of tech can be held accountable

Software is politics. I wrote that back in 2016, arguing that the digital services we all rely on should not just be designed for ease of use–they also need to be understandable, accountable, and trusted.

Viewing software as politics is about more than tech, and it’s about more than ethics. It’s about the idea that, if politics is about the distribution of power in society, then software is inherently political. How that power is managed and the choices about who it is put to work for are the political questions of our age.

If 2016 was the year it became impossible to ignore the power software exerts on society, then today, in 2018, we can start to identify some signals about what the levers of control might be. Are there reasons to be optimistic? Which companies are using trust as a competitive advantage? What organizations are showing how the power of tech can be held to account? Here are six themes that are emerging.

Read more (FastCompany)

Money laundering via author impersonation on Amazon

Money laundering via author impersonation on Amazon

Patrick Reames had no idea why Amazon.com sent him a 1099 form saying he’d made almost $24,000 selling books via Createspace, the company’s on-demand publishing arm. That is, until he searched the site for his name and discovered someone has been using it to peddle a $555 book that’s full of nothing but gibberish.

The phony $555 book sold more than 60 times on Amazon using Patrick Reames’ name and Social Security number.

Reames is a credited author on Amazon by way of several commodity industry books, although none of them made anywhere near the amount Amazon is reporting to the Internal Revenue Service. Nor does he have a personal account with Createspace.

But that didn’t stop someone from publishing a “novel” under his name. That word is in quotations because the publication appears to be little more than computer-generated text, almost like the gibberish one might find in a spam email.

Read more (Krebs on Security)

The rise of virtual citizenship

The rise of virtual citizenship

“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means,” the British prime minister, Theresa May, declared in October 2016. Not long after, at his first postelection rally, Donald Trump asserted, “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.” And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has increased his national-conservative party’s popularity with statements like “all the terrorists are basically migrants” and “the best migrant is the migrant who does not come.”

Citizenship and its varying legal definition has become one of the key battlegrounds of the 21st century, as nations attempt to stake out their power in a G-Zero, globalized world, one increasingly defined by transnational, borderless trade and liquid, virtual finance. In a climate of pervasive nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, and ever-building resentment toward those who move, it’s tempting to think that doing so would become more difficult. But alongside the rise of populist, identitarian movements across the globe, identity itself is being virtualized, too. It no longer needs to be tied to place or nation to function in the global marketplace.

Hannah Arendt called citizenship “the right to have rights.” Like any other right, it can be bestowed and withheld by those in power, but in its newer forms it can also be bought, traded, and rewritten. Virtual citizenship is a commodity that can be acquired through the purchase of real estate or financial investments, subscribed to via an online service, or assembled by peer-to-peer digital networks. And as these options become available, they’re also used, like so many technologies, to exclude those who don’t fit in.

Read more (The Atlantic)

“You’re Fake News”: the unfortunate reality of the Ad Hominem

When Donald Trump tweets, stock prices can tumble. Trump can wield greater influence with 280 characters than some world leaders can with entire economies. Reaching the public directly, Trump is able to personally attack an individual, agency, or company, and impact the news cycle for days, if not weeks, at a time. How can Trump’s attacks be so effective if the restrictions imposed by Twitter’s character limit leave so little room to formulate an argument?

Anyone who followed the bitter presidential race between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 could be excused for thinking the evidence is already in. Trump and Fox spent months ceaselessly browbeating CNN and Clinton with attacks on their integrity, their associations, and their alleged motivations. Attacks ranged from accusations of corruption and criminality to anti-American intent. Clinton and CNN responded in kind, drawing parallels between Trump and Hitler, and painting him as exploitative and predatory in his business practices, narcissistic, sexist and racist.

Behind these shouting matches, various news channels were busily scrutinizing every statistic, accusation, and proposal, consulting experts and available data to ‘fact check’ these accusations on behalf of the American people. But, despite these attempts at accuracy, Americans’ trust in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has reached its lowest level in polling history, with only 32 percent of respondents claiming they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the mass media. It appears that, armed with ad hominems and an insatiable blood lust, news organisations on all sides have engaged in all-out partisan warfare which has cost them dearly.

Read more (Quillette)

Russia's information warfare project is a masterclass in digital marketing

Russia's information warfare project is a masterclass in digital marketing

In the US, the investigative work of Robert Mueller has so far scalped 19 people and three companies. Although none have said that they have worked with Russian people, organisations or indeed the Russian Government directly, the latest findings - a charge against a Russian organisation - makes for some extraordinary reading.

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How I cracked Facebook’s new algorithm and tortured my friends

Last Saturday — 12 days ago now — I shared a cringeworthy video on Facebook: a six-minute clip of a twentysomething white woman showing off her small, blandly decorated Brooklyn apartment. Sort of the pumpkin spice latte version of MTV Cribs — innocuous, but annoying. Ever since, this video has been waging a reign of terror over my friends and family, showing up at the top of their feeds every single day, over and over and over. They are complaining to me on Facebook. They are complaining to me in real life. They are tweeting me about it and emailing me. Begging me to remove this cursed video that greets them each time they open Facebook.

And of course, they commented on my post. And then people commented on the comments. The more people commented, the more the video showed up on other people's feeds. As the rage around this post intensified, so did the comments. Coworkers I sit next to commented. College friends commented. Someone I went to preschool with commented. A vicious, algorithmically delicious cycle.

After a few days, the comments shifted from “I hate this woman’s apartment” to “why is this video constantly at the top of Facebook?” or “please, I beg you, delete this video,” and eventually, my boss commenting “please write about this.”

Read more (BuzzFeed)

Web Curios 23/02/18

Even by the standards of a pretty fcuking febrile 2018, this one's been a doozy. Things I have seen or heard about this week, and this is just a small selection - teachers should have guns, we're letting Assad getting away with (lots of murder), Jezzus is a spy, Jezzus isn't a spy, Darpa want to weaponise sea creatures, you can now buy a dildo which will order you a pizza, sex robots.

Jesus, the sex robots. I have to have a phonecall about them now, as it happens, so I'll leave you here with this week's hand-selected cornucopia of links, spilling ripely into your lap, pregnant with promise. Or at least you presume it's promise; then again, that swelling could be gases released by decay. Only one way to tell - BITE IN! Enjoy your latest tasty mouthful of Curios - IT'S LOVELY TO SEE YOU AGAIN!

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Rhesus macaques form preferences for brand logos through sex and social status based advertising

Like humans, monkeys value information about sex and status, inviting the hypothesis that our susceptibility to these factors in advertising arises from shared, ancestral biological mechanisms that prioritize social information. To test this idea, we asked whether rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) show choice behavior that is similar to humans in response to sex and social status in advertising. Our results show that monkeys form preferences for brand logos repeatedly paired with images of macaque genitals and high status monkeys. Moreover, monkeys sustain preferences for these brand logos even though choosing them provided no tangible rewards, a finding that cannot be explained by a decision mechanism operating solely on material outcomes. Together, our results endorse the hypothesis that the power of sex and status in advertising emerges from the spontaneous engagement of shared, ancestral neural circuits that prioritize information useful for navigating the social environment. Finally, our results show that simple associative conditioning is sufficient to explain the formation of preferences for brand logos paired with sexual or status-based images.

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Web Curios 16/02/18

Web Curios 16/02/18

OH GOD IT'S LATE AGAIN. I started doing this at 6am and now it's 1243 and I'm unshaven and filthy and CHRIST ALIVE I HAVE STUFF I AM MEANT TO BE DOING. Anyone would think that writing this rubbish is less of a hobby and more of a sort of overwhelming, life-consuming pointless timesink. 

So with no further ado, let's get ON with it - this week has once again been a rolling cavalcade of horrors, but here's hoping that you at least got a plastic rose out of it. Now lie back, close your eyes and await the familiar sensation of being coated in a thin film of webspaff that it'll take you all weekend to wash off - THIS IS WEB CURIOS!

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Unilever pulls investment from toxic online platforms

Unilever pulls investment from toxic online platforms

Unilever, the multinational FMCG conglomerate behind fashionable brands including Omo, Lifebuoy, Badedas and Brut (is this right? - Ed) has announced that it will stop using and investing in digital platforms that run counter to an inclusive society.

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Why hiring the best people produces the least creative results

Why hiring the best people produces the least creative results

While in graduate school in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took a logic course from David Griffeath. The class was fun. Griffeath brought a playfulness and openness to problems. Much to my delight, about a decade later, I ran into him at a conference on traffic models. During a presentation on computational models of traffic jams, his hand went up. I wondered what Griffeath – a mathematical logician – would have to say about traffic jams. He did not disappoint. Without even a hint of excitement in his voice, he said: "If you are modelling a traffic jam, you should just keep track of the non-cars.’"

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Diesel creates a real fake store

Diesel creates a real fake store

Italian fashion brand Diesel has gone one better after its Go with the flaw campaign of last year. As part of its new campaign, Go with the fake, it has created a store selling supposedly counterfeit goods in New York, which turned out to be selling the real thing.

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Welcome to the post-text future

Welcome to the post-text future

I’ll make this short: The thing you’re doing now, reading prose on a screen, is going out of fashion.

We’re taking stock of the internet right now, with writers who cover the digital world cataloging some of the most consequential currents shaping it. If you probe those currents and look ahead to the coming year online, one truth becomes clear. The defining narrative of our online moment concerns the decline of text, and the exploding reach and power of audio and video.

THIS MULTIMEDIA INTERNET has been gaining on the text-based internet for years. But last year, the story accelerated sharply, and now audio and video are unstoppable. The most influential communicators online once worked on web pages and blogs. They’re now making podcasts, Netflix shows, propaganda memes, Instagram and YouTube channels, and apps like HQ Trivia.

Consider the most compelling digital innovations now emerging: the talking assistants that were the hit of the holidays, Apple’s face-reading phone, artificial intelligence to search photos or translate spoken language, and augmented reality — which inserts any digital image into a live view of your surroundings.

These advances are all about cameras, microphones, your voice, your ears and your eyes.

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Web Curios 09/02/18

HI EVERYONE! I have a confession to make - this week’s Curios, due to my having really screwed up my timings this week, was in part written in advance, hence you may miss the slightly breathless, race-against-time-oh-god-my-fingers-are-bleeding intensity of the usual offerings. Or, more likely, you may not. We will see.

Anyhow, I have places to go and people to see and thus NO TIME to ruminate on the CAR IN SPACE or the rest of the world’s madness and insanity. Instead I ask that you wish me luck and that you enjoy this week’s Curios which I lay before you now much like a cat might lay the freshly-gutted viscera of a small animal at your feet in hopeful supplication; hold your nose, hide your distaste and try at least to pretend to be grateful. This, as ever, is WEB CURIOS!

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Invasive nonhuman actors: In conversation with Saša Spačal and Heather Barnett

Invasive nonhuman actors: In conversation with Saša Spačal and Heather Barnett

Late last year, the new Art Laboratory space in Berlin ran a conference and exhibition entitled Nonhuman Agents.  Focussed on contemporary philosophical approaches to anthropomorphism, topics included object-oriented ontology, human-nonhuman encounters, and the wider philosophical space of nonhuman agency.

We invited Heather Barnett, an artist and researcher at Central St. Martins, and Ljubjuana-based artist Saša Spačal to talk about these concepts and how they mix into the work that they exhibited during the event.

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Umair Haque: How advertising blew its biggest chance since the Mad Men

Umair Haque: How advertising blew its biggest chance since the Mad Men

Media’s in cataclysmic shape these days — publishers closing big and small, newspapers going out of business, consolidation and layoffs everywhere — and it’s easy to blame technology.

There was a war that happened here — and media lost. Who won? Well, the truth is that no one did. The monopolies that Google and Facebook made money, sure — but now they face a steep backlash, social ridicule, oversight, and regulation. A pyrrhic victory, if you ask me.

Who started this war for attention? What was at the heart of it? Who should have ended it? The truth is that the lion’s share of responsibility for a fatally broken media industry lies with advertising, not technology. Let us think about it one step at a time.

Ad agencies had two roads before them, as the digital revolution dawned. One, go on selling the same old ads — nuisances, basically, that people had to put up with, in order to get to what they really valued — only in greater volume, because they would be cheaper. Two, innovate — and turn ads into things that people genuinely benefit from a little bit. Road one was an algorithmic, dehumanized road. Road two was the human, creative one.

Which road did the ad industry choose? The easy one, of course — the first one. It turned billboards into banners and glossy magazine ads into “microsites” and so on — at least at first. But nobody clicked. They tried more variations on the theme. Nothing worked. Ads just kept deflating in value — right down from thousands into pennies.

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James Stanford: Shimmering Zen

James Stanford: Shimmering Zen

Las Vegas-based artist James Stanford has a myriad of interests including religion (and artistic impressions of religion), spirituality, and metaphysical concepts including illusionistic fictive space. With work including photomontages and roles including Arts Commissioner for the city, he has recently come to London to show his most recent work. The series, Shimmering Zen, offers kaleidoscopic, almost hallucinotory, visions of real life, digitally adapted and modified. James reflects on his life, his home city, and his life in his home city, below.

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Web Curios 02/02/18

Crikey. For reasons you really don't want to know about but which can accurately be explained by the first picture in this week's Curios I am slightly up against it this week, timings and deadlines wise. 

So that means NO TIME to say a super-special HELLO to all the people who might have come here on Warren Ellis' very kind recommendation (I promise to buy everything you have ever written and will ever write in triplicate, Warren), no time to talk about Auntie May in China or the State of the Union or the honestly chilling sight last night of the Telegraph's Tim Stanley saying - honestly, he really did - that what this country really needs is Jacob Rees-Mogg as Prime Minister and a return to Thatcherism. NO TIME! Which is a shame. 

Still, there's just enough for me to say an extra WELCOME to all the people reading this on Matt Hancock, and to tell you to strap in tight - no, tighter, TIGHTER, by the time we get to the bottom you will practically RELISH the reduced bloodflow to your extremities. This, as ever, is ALL OF THE INTERNET (or the bits that I saw this week) in the form of Web Curios.

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Rachel Coldicutt: Women, Plandids, Power

Rachel Coldicutt: Women, Plandids, Power

I’m going to talk about clothes and body image and identity, and the way that Instagram and other kinds of new technology are changing and challenging how women are seen, and how we see ourselves. And about the importance of whose gaze we’re looking through: men’s, women’s, or robots.

What I’m going to call “the fashion internet” is interesting to me because it’s mostly out of sight of mainstream technology commentary.

From a technical perspective it’s understood that there is, at the moment, a single Internet — an open network of networks in which everything is connected. But not everyone has the same experience of those networks — there is not a single experience that defines the digital world.

It’s fashionable to call this a filter bubble, but it’s no more or less a bubble than the rest of our lives: the networks we inhabit are constructed by our interests, our backgrounds, the people we know. This isn’t simply a consequence of algorithms or personalisation, it’s also because no one can see everything — there’s no digital omniscience.

Read more (Hacker Noon)

Why many click farm jobs should be understood as digital slavery

Why many click farm jobs should be understood as digital slavery

The digital economy has created new opportunities and ways of working. But it has also created millions of tasks or jobs that involve intense competition, unregulated working conditions and extremely low rates of pay.

Driven by the rapid rise of cloud and algorithmic computing, the “platform economy” is dominated by operators such as Uber, Facebook and Google and Amazon Web services. Airbnb and Uber, for example, use the latest cloud tools like Amazon Web services to drive their dominance and cull competition in a wide range of sectors.

While workers in the “app-driven economy” do often make a decent wage, with some measure of legal protection, many others who do “crowdwork” or “micro-tasking” on platforms can find themselves being paid below the minimum wage and without the basic, ethical protections provided by mainstream employers. A growing body of research shows that large numbers of skilled and semi-skilled virtual workers routinely offer their services on such platforms for extremely low pay, with no recourse to the rights and protections accorded to “mainstream” workers and with little hope for alternative ways of making ends meet.

There is also evidence that a majority of these workers are young, relatively skilled and unable, for many reasons, to find decent work that pays a living wage. Sometimes called the “cybertariat”, these workers are unseen, unheard and paid very small amounts of money to do things like write a book or edit a document or manufacture “likes” on a web page.

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