Notes From an Emergency: Tech Feudalism

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Yves here. This is a wide-ranging, lively, sobering talk about the implications of tech feudalism and what we can do about it.

By Maciej Cegłowski,  a painter and computer guy who lives  in San Francisco and runs a bookmarking site called Pinboard. Originally published at Idle Words

This is the text version of a talk I gave on May 10, 2017, at the re:publica conference in Berlin.

The good part about naming a talk in 2017 ‘Notes from an Emergency’ is that there are so many directions to take it.

The emergency I want to talk about is the rise of a vigorous ethnic nationalism in Europe and America. This nationalism makes skillful use of online tools, tools that we believed inherently promoted freedom, to advance an authoritarian agenda.

Depending on where you live, the rise of this new right wing might be nothing new. In the United States, our moment of shock came last November, with the election of Donald Trump.

The final outcome of that election was:

65.8 million for Clinton
63.0 million for Trump

This was the second time in sixteen years that the candidate with fewer votes won the American Presidency. There is a bug in the operating system of our democracy, one of the many ways that slavery still casts its shadow over American politics.

But however tenuously elected, Trump is in the White House, and our crisis has become your crisis. Not just because America is a superpower, or because the forces that brought Trump to power are gaining ground in Europe, but because the Internet is an American Internet.

Facebook is the dominant social network in Europe, with 349 million monthly active users. Google has something like 94% of market share for search in Germany. The servers of Europe are littered with the bodies of dead and dying social media sites. The few holdouts that still exist, like Xing, are being crushed by their American rivals.

In their online life, Europeans have become completely dependent on companies headquartered in the United States.

And so Trump is in charge in America, and America has all your data. This leaves you in a very exposed position. US residents enjoy some measure of legal protection against the American government. Even if you think our intelligence agencies are evil, they’re a lawful evil. They have to follow laws and procedures, and the people in those agencies take them seriously.

But there are no such protections for non-Americans outside the United States. The NSA would have to go to court to spy on me; they can spy on you anytime they feel like it.

This is an astonishing state of affairs. I can’t imagine a world where Europe would let itself become reliant on American cheese, or where Germans could only drink Coors Light.

In the past, Europe has shown that it’s capable of identifying a vital interest and moving to protect it. When American aerospace companies were on the point of driving foreign rivals out of business, European governments formed the Airbus consortium, which now successfully competes with Boeing.

A giant part of the EU budget goes to subsidize farming, not because farming is the best use of resources in a first-world economy, but because farms are important to national security, to the landscape, to national identity, social stability, and a shared sense of who we are.

But when it comes to the Internet, Europe doesn’t put up a fight. It has ceded the ground entirely to American corporations. And now those corporations have to deal with Trump. How hard do you think they’ll work to defend European interests?

The Feudal Internet

The status quo in May 2017 looks like this:

There are five Internet companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Together they have a market capitalization just under 3 trillion dollars.

Bruce Schneier has called this arrangement the feudal Internet. Part of this concentration is due to network effects, but a lot of it is driven by the problem of security. If you want to work online with any measure of convenience and safety, you must choose a feudal lord who is big enough to protect you.

These five companies compete and coexist in complex ways.

Apple and Google have a duopoly in smartphone operating systems. Android has 82% of the handset market, iOS has 18%.

Google and Facebook are on their way to a duopoly in online advertising. Over half of the revenue in that lucrative ($70B+) industry goes to them, and the two companies between them are capturing all of the growth (16% a year).

Apple and Microsoft have a duopoly in desktop operating systems. The balance is something like nine to one in favor of Windows, not counting the three or four people who use Linux on the desktop, all of whom are probably at this conference.

Three companies, Amazon, Microsoft and Google, dominate cloud computing. AWS has 57% adoption, Azure has 34%. Google has 15%.

Outside of China and Russia, Facebook and LinkedIn are the only social networks at scale. LinkedIn has been able to survive by selling itself to Microsoft.

And outside of Russia and China, Google is the world’s search engine.

That is the state of the feudal Internet, leaving aside the court jester, Twitter, who plays an important but ancillary role as a kind of worldwide chat room.

Google in particular has come close to realizing our nightmare scenario from 1998, a vertically integrated Internet controlled by a single monopoly player. Google runs its own physical network, builds phone handsets, develops a laptop and phone operating system, makes the world’s most widely-used browser, runs a private DNS system, PKI certificate authority, has photographed nearly all the public spaces in the world, and stores much of the world’s email.

But because it is run by more sympathetic founders than Bill Gates, because it builds better software than early Microsoft did, and because it built up a lot of social capital during its early “don’t be evil” period, we’ve given it a pass.

Security

It’s not clear that anyone can secure large data collections over time. The asymmetry between offense and defense may be too great. If defense at scale is possible, the only way to do it is by pouring millions of dollars into hiring the best people to defend it. Data breaches at the highest levels have shown us that the threats are real and ongoing. And for every breach we know about, there are many silent ones that we won’t learn about for years.

A successful defense, however, just increases the risk. Pile up enough treasure behind the castle walls and you’ll eventually attract someone who can climb them. The feudal system makes the Internet more brittle, ensuring that when a breach finally comes, it will be disastrous.

Each of the big five companies, with the important exception of Apple, has made aggressive user surveillance central to its business model. This is a dilemma of the feudal internet. We seek protection from these companies because they can offer us security. But their business model is to make us more vulnerable, by getting us to surrender more of the details of our lives to their servers, and to put more faith in the algorithms they train on our observed behavior.

These algorithms work well, and despite attempts to convince us otherwise, it’s clear they work just as well in politics as in commerce. So in our eagerness to find safety online, we’ve given this feudal Internet the power to change our offline world in unanticipated and scary ways.

Globalism

These big five companies operate on a global scale, and partly because they created the industries they now dominate, they enjoy a very lax regulatory regime. Everywhere outside the United States and EU, they are immune to government oversight, and within the United Statesl the last two administrations have played them with a light touch. The only meaningful attempt to regulate surveillance capitalism has come out of the European Union.

Thanks to their size and reach, the companies have become adept at stonewalling governments and evading attempts at regulation or oversight. In many cases, this evasion is noble. You don’t want Bahrain or Poland to be able to subpoena Facebook and get the names of people organizing a protest rally. In other cases, it’s purely self-serving. Uber has made a sport of evading all authority, foreign and domestic, in order to grow.

Good or bad, the lesson these companies have drawn is the same: they need only be accountable to themselves.

But their software and algorithms affect the lives of billions of people. Decisions about how this software works are not under any kind of democratic control. In the best case, they are being made by idealistic young people in California with imperfect knowledge of life in a faraway place like Germany. In the worst case, they are simply being read out of a black-box algorithm trained on God knows what data.

This is a very colonial mentality! In fact, it’s what we fought our American War of Independence over, a sense of grievance that decisions that affected us were being made by strangers across the ocean.

Today we’re returning the favor to all of Europe.

Facebook, for example, has only one manager in Germany to deal with every publisher in the country. One! The company that is dismantling the news industry in Germany doesn’t even care enough to send a proper team to manage the demolition.

Denmark has gone so far as to appoint an ambassador to the giant tech companies, an unsettling but pragmatic acknowledgement of the power relationship that exists between the countries of Europe and Silicon Valley.

So one question (speaking now as an EU citizen): how did we let this happen? We used to matter! We used to be the ones doing the colonizing! We used to be a contender!

How is it that some dopey kid in Palo Alto gets to decide the political future of the European Union based on what they learned at big data boot camp? Did we lose a war?

The lack of accountability isn’t just troubling from a philosophical perspective. It’s dangerous in a political climate where people are pushing back at the very idea of globalization. There’s no industry more globalized than tech, and no industry more vulnerable to a potential backlash.

China and Russia show us that the Internet need not be a world-wide web, that it can be subverted and appropriated by the state. By creating a political toolkit for authoritarian movements, the American tech giants may be putting their own future at risk.

Irreality

Given this scary state of the world, with ecological collapse just over the horizon, and a population sharpening its pitchforks, an important question is how this globalized, unaccountable tech industry sees its goals. What does it want? What will all the profits be invested in?

What is the plan?

The honest answer is: rocket ships and immortality.

I wish I was kidding.

The best minds in Silicon Valley are preoccupied with a science fiction future they consider it their manifest destiny to build. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are racing each other to Mars. Musk gets most of the press, but Bezos now sells $1B in Amazon stock a year to fund Blue Origin. Investors have put over $8 billion into space companies over the past five years, as part of a push to export our problems here on Earth into the rest of the Solar System.

As happy as I am to see Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos fired into space, this does not seem to be worth the collapse of representative government.

Our cohort of tech founders is feeling the chill breath of mortality as they drift into middle age. And so part of what is driving this push into space is a more general preoccupation with ‘existential risk’.

Musk is persuaded that we’re living in a simulation, and he or a fellow true believer has hired programmers to try to hack it.

Peter Thiel, our most unfortunate German import, has built a survival retreat for himself in New Zealand.

Sam Altman hoards gold in Big Sur.

OpenAI, a religious cult thinly disguised as a research institution, has received $1B in funding to forestall the robot rebellion.

The biggest existential risk, of course, is death, so a lot of money is going to make sure that our big idea men don’t expire before the world has been received the full measure of their genius.

Google Ventures founded the very secretive life extension startup Calico, with $1.5B dollars in funding. Google loses $4B a year on its various “moon shots”, which include life extension. They employ Ray Kurzweil, who believes we’re still on track for immortality by 2045. Larry Ellison has put $370M to anti-aging research, as anybody would want to live in a world with an immortal Larry Ellison. Our plutocrats are eager to make death an opt-out experience.

Now, I’m no fan of death. I don’t like the time commitment, or the permanence. A number of people I love are dead and it has strained our relationship.

But at the same time, I’m not convinced that a civilization that is struggling to cure male-pattern baldness is ready to take on the Grim Reaper. If we’re going to worry about existential risk, I would rather we start by addressing the two existential risks that are indisputably real—nuclear war and global climate change—and working our way up from there.

But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.

The tech industry enjoys tearing down flawed institutions, but refuses to put work into mending them. Their runaway apparatus of surveillance and manipulation earns them a fortune while damaging everything it touches. And all they can think about is the cool toys they’ll get to spend the profits on.

The message that’s not getting through to Silicon Valley is one that your mother taught you when you were two: you don’t get to play with the new toys until you clean up the mess you made.

The circumstances that have given the tech industry all this power will not last long. There is a limited time in which our small caste of tech nerds will have the power to make decisions that shape the world. By wasting the talents and the energies of our brightest people on fantasy role play, we are ceding the future to a more practical group of successors, some truly scary people who will take our tools and use them to advance a very different agenda.

To recap: the Internet has centralized into a very few hands. We have an extremely lucrative apparatus of social control, and it’s being run by chuckleheads.

The American government is also being run by chuckleheads.

The question everybody worries about is, what happens when these two groups of chuckleheads join forces?

The Winter

For many Americans, the election was a moment of profound shock. It wasn’t just Trump’s policies that scared us. It was the fact that this unserious, cruel, vacant human being had been handed the power of the American presidency.

Scariest to me was how little changed. No one in the press or in social media had the courage to say “we fucked up.” Pundits who were stunned by the election result still made confident predictions about what would happen next, as if they had any claim to predictive power.

After the election both Facebook and Google looked at the mountains of data they had collected on everyone, looked at the threats the Trump Administration was making—to deport 11 million people, to ban Muslims from entering the country—and said to themselves, “we got this.”

The people who did worry were tech workers. For a moment, we saw some political daylight appear between the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the tech sector, and the small clique of billionaires who run it. While the latter filed in to a famously awkward meeting with Trump and his children at the top of his golden tower, the former began organizing in opposition, including signing a simple but powerful pledge to resign rather than help Trump fulfill one of his key campaign promises: barring Muslims from the United States.

This pledge was a small gesture, but it represented the first collective action by tech workers around a political agenda that went beyond technology policy, and the first time I had ever seen tech workers come out in open defiance of management.

A forest of new organizations sprung up. I started one, too, called Tech Solidarity, and started traveling around the country and holding meetings with tech workers in big cities. I had no idea what I was doing, other than trying to use a small window of time to organize and mobilize our sleepy industry.

That feeling of momentum continued through when Trump took office. The Women’s Marchin January brought five million people out onto the streets. America is not used to mass protests. To see the streets of our major cities fill with families, immigrants, in many cases moms and daughters and grandmothers marching together, that was a sight to take your breath away.

Hard on the heels of it came the travel ban, an executive order astonishing not just in its cruelty—families were split at airports; in one case a mom was not allowed to breastfeed her baby—but in its ineptitude. For a week or two lawyers were camped out at airports, working frantically, sleeping little, with spontaneous efforts to bring them supplies, get them funding, to do anything to help. We held a rally in San Francisco that raised thirty thousand dollars from a room of a hundred people. Some of the organizations we were helping couldn’t even attend, they were too busy at the airport. It didn’t matter.

The tech companies did all they could to not get involved. Facebook has a special ‘safety check‘ feature for exactly this kind of situation, but never thought of turning it on at airports. Public statements out of Silicon Valley were so insipid as to be comical.

Employees, however, were electrified. It looked like not only visitors but permanent residents would be barred from the United States. Google employees staged a walkoutwith the support of their management; Facebook (not wishing to be left behind) had its own internal protest a couple of days later, but kept it a secret. Every time the employees pushed, management relented. Suddenly top executives were going on the record against the travel ban.

People briefly even got mad at Elon Musk, normally a darling of the tech industry, for his failure to resign from the President’s advisory council. The silent majority of tech employees had begun to mobilize.

And then… nothing happened. This tech workforce, which had gotten a taste of its own power, whose smallest efforts at collective action had produced immediate results, who had seen just how much sway they held, went back to work. The worst of Trump’s travel ban was blocked by the court, and we moved on. With the initial shock of Trump in office gone, we now move from crisis to crisis, but without a plan or a shared positive goal.

The American discomfort with prolonged, open disagreement has set in.

When I started trying to organize people in November, my theory was that tech workers were the only group that had leverage over the tech giants.

My reasoning went like this: being monopolies or near-monopolies, these companies are impervious to public pressure. Boycotts won’t work, since opting out of a site like Google means opting out of much of modern life.

Several of these companies are structured (unusually for American corporations) in such a way that the board can’t control the majority of votes. At Google and Facebook, for example, the ultimate say goes to the founders. And since Google and Facebook are the major online publishing outlets, it’s unlikely that the press would ever criticize them, even if journalists were capable of that kind of sustained attention.

So that leaves just one point of leverage: employees. Tech workers are hard to find, expensive to hire, take a long time to train, and can have their pick of jobs. Tech companies are small compared to other industries, relying heavily on automation. If even a few dozen workers on an ops team acted in concert, they would have the power to shut down a tech giant like Google. All they had to do was organize around a shared agenda.

Workers seemed receptive to the argument, but confused about how they could make collective action a reality. Trade unions in the United States have been under attack for decades. There is almost no union culture in technology. Our tech workers are passive and fatalistic.

So here I am in Europe, wondering, what on Earth can we do?

And I keep coming back to this idea of connecting the tech industry to reality. Bringing its benefits to more people, and bringing the power to make decisions to more people.

Closing the Loop

After Communism collapsed in Poland, I started visiting the country every eight months or so. Even in the darkest period of the 1990’s, it was striking to see people’s material standard of living improve. Suddenly people had cars, phones, appliances. These gains were uneven but broad. Even farmers and retirees, though they were the hardest hit, had access to consumer goods that weren’t available before. You could see the change in homes and in public spaces. It was no longer necessary for office workers in Kraków to change their shirts at lunchtime because of soot in the air. The tap water in Warsaw went from light brown to a pleasant pale yellow.

For all the looting, corruption, and inefficiency of privatization, enough of the new wealth got through that the overall standard of living went up. Living standards in Poland in 2010 had more than doubled from 1990.

In the same time period, in the United States, I’ve seen a whole lot of nothing. Despite fabulous technical progress, practically all of it pioneered in our country, there’s been a singular failure to connect our fabulous prosperity with the average person.

A study just out shows that for the median male worker in the United States, the highest lifetime wages came if you entered the workforce in 1967. That is astonishing. People born in 1942 had better lifetime earnings prospects than people entering the workforce today.

You can see this failure to connect with your own eyes even in a rich place like Silicon Valley. There are homeless encampments across the street from Facebook headquarters. California has a larger GDP than France, and at the same time has the highest poverty rate in America, adjusted for cost of living. Not only did the tech sector fail to build up the communities around it, but it’s left people worse off than before, by pricing them out of the places they grew up.

Walk the length of Market Street (watch your step!) in San Francisco and count the shuttered store fronts. Take Caltrain down to San Jose, and see if you can believe that it is the richest city in the United States, per capita. The massive increase in wealth has not connected with a meaningful way with average people’s lives even in the heart of tech country, let alone in the forgotten corners of the country.

The people who run Silicon Valley identify with progressive values. They’re not bad people. They worry about these problems just like we do; they want to help.

So why the failure to do anything?

Like T.S. Eliot wrote:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

As I said earlier, the tech industry hates messy problems. We’d rather dream up new problems we can solve from scratch.

One reason nothing happens is a culture of tax evasion. There’s a folk belief in American business that if you pay full taxes, you’re not doing your fiduciary duty, and your board will fire you.

Apple now has a quarter trillion dollars offshore that it refuses to put into direct productive use in the United States. Apple boasts that its products are designed in California—they will sell you a $300 book called Designed By Apple In California. But they do their damndest to make sure that California never sees a penny of their overseas profits.

You in the EU are all too familiar with this brand of tax evasion. Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft have all been under investigation or in court on charges of evading European taxes.

Another reason good intentions don’t translate is that capitalism, especially venture capital, doesn’t work very well when there is vast wealth inequality.

The richest 20 people in tech control a fortune of half a trillion dollars in personal wealth, more than the GDP of Sweden.

This small subculture of wealthy technophiles promotes investment into luxury goods for rich people, or into “mom as a service” types of companies that cater to spoiled workaholics in the tech industry. And so we end up with things like a $120M juice squeezer, or three startups competing to deliver organic baby food.

Silicon Valley brings us the worst of two economic systems: the inefficiency of a command economy coupled with the remorselessness of laissez-faire liberalism.

One reason it’s been difficult to organize workers in the tech industry is that people have a hard time separating good intentions from results. But we have to be cold-blooded about this.

Tech companies are run by a feckless leadership accountable to no one, creating a toolkit for authoritarianism while hypnotized by science-fiction fantasy.

There are two things we have to do immediately. The first is to stop the accelerating process of tracking and surveillance before it can do any more harm to our institutions.

The danger facing us is not Orwell, but Huxley. The combo of data collection and machine learning is too good at catering to human nature, seducing us and appealing to our worst instincts. We have to put controls on it. The algorithms are amoral; to make them behave morally will require active intervention.

The second thing we need is accountability. I don’t mean that I want Mark Zuckerberg’s head on a pike, though I certainly wouldn’t throw it out of my hotel room if I found it there. I mean some mechanism for people whose lives are being brought online to have a say in that process, and an honest debate about its tradeoffs.

I’m here today because I believe the best chance to do this is in Europe. The American government is not functional right now, and the process of regulatory capture is too far gone to expect any regulations limiting the tech giants from either party. American tech workers have the power to change things, but not the desire.

Only Europe has the clout and the independence to regulate these companies. You can already point to regulatory successes, like forcing Facebook to implement hard delete on user accounts. That feature was added with a lot of grumbling, but because of the way Facebook organizes its data, they had to make it work the same for all users. So a European regulation led to a victory for privacy worldwide.

We can do this again.

Here are some specific regulations I would like to see the EU impose:

  • A strict 30 day time limit on storing behavioral data.
  • The right to opt out of data collection while continuing to use services.
  • A ban on the sale or transfer of behavioral data, including to third-party ad networks.
  • A requirement that advertising be targeted strictly to content, not users.

With these rules in place, we would still have Google and Facebook, and they would still make a little bit of money. But we would gain some breathing room. These reforms would knock the legs out from underground political ad campaigns like we saw in Brexit, and in voter suppression efforts in the US election. They would give publishers relief in an advertising market that is currently siphoning all their earnings to Facebook and Google. And they would remove some of the incentive for consumer surveillance.

The other thing I hope to see in Europe is a unionized workforce at every major tech company. Unionized workers could demand features like ephemeral group messaging at Facebook, a travel mode for social media, a truly secure Android phone, or the re-imposition of the wall between Gmail and DoubleClick data. They could demand human oversight over machine learning algorithms. They could demand non-cooperation with Trump.

And I will say selfishly, if you can unionize here, it will help us unionize over there.

If nothing else, we need your help and we need you to keep the pressure on the tech companies, the Trump Administration, and your own politicians and journalists, so that the disaster that happened in the United States doesn’t repeat itself in Germany.

You have elections coming soon. Please learn from what happened to us. Please stay safe.

And please regulate, regulate, regulate this industry, while you can.

Thank you.

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129 comments

  1. DJG

    Definitely worth reading and reading again. What popped on first reading is the description of the rise of income in Poland and the stagnation of income in the U S of A. What pops for me on seccond reading is these paragraphs about tax evasion and income inequality: >>

    One reason nothing happens is a culture of tax evasion. There’s a folk belief in American business that if you pay full taxes, you’re not doing your fiduciary duty, and your board will fire you.

    Apple now has a quarter trillion dollars offshore that it refuses to put into direct productive use in the United States. Apple boasts that its products are designed in California—they will sell you a $300 book called Designed By Apple In California. But they do their damndest to make sure that California never sees a penny of their overseas profits.

    You in the EU are all too familiar with this brand of tax evasion. Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft have all been under investigation or in court on charges of evading European taxes.

    Another reason good intentions don’t translate is that capitalism, especially venture capital, doesn’t work very well when there is vast wealth inequality.

    [Tax evasion isn’t just a folk belief: It is taught in U.S. law schools and in business schools, along with union busting.]

    Reply
    1. Jef

      What the author inadvertently points out is that capitalism, particularly the so called consumer capitalism that we have is like a board game;

      It has a begining when anything is possible.
      A middle when a broad spectrum of players prosper and there is extra money for infrastructure and public amenities.
      Then an end where wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and the waste stream has taken its toll.

      Reply
      1. diptherio

        Another reason good intentions don’t translate is that capitalism, especially venture capital, doesn’t work very well when there is vast wealth inequality.

        The author does not understand that capitalism creates vast wealth inequality: that’s the whole point. Inequality is a feature, not a bug, and so trying to save capitalism while eliminating vast wealth inequalities is working at cross-purposes, and only one of those aims can be successful…and guess which one it always is?

        Reply
        1. Wisdom Seeker

          “capitalism creates vast wealth inequality: that’s the whole point.”

          Not in Adam Smith’s world, nor Henry Ford’s. True capitalists prosper by creating wealth which improves the lives of everyone around them. Crony capitalists, the ones we have now, strip wealth from others. Witness today’s bubble-and-bust cycles rather than the prior widespread economic growth.

          The capitalism you see today is an abomination of the original concept, just as Mnuchin’s claim to support “Glass Steagall” is an abomination. And don’t get me started on the “Affordable” Care Act, or the “Patriot” act which gutted the Constitution…

          P.S. The original author’s article is riddled with glaring factual errors, but he has the big picture right: it’s time to restore Antitrust Law and apply it to the internet monopolists. And restore privacy rights… and… and… it’s a long list. Start fighting now, if you want anything to happen in your lifetime!

          Reply
          1. Carla

            The author’s central thesis strikes me as correct: that Europe provides the only hope for applying any brakes whatsoever to the American tech sector. I hope someone over there is listening, as prospects here seem utterly hopeless.

            Reply
          2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            Freedom means people should have reasonable alternatives, choices on any product, service or ideology.

            Today’s internet experience lacks that freedom aspect quite a bit.

            Reply
          3. diptherio

            Hokum. The “theory” is that it benefits everyone, but the reality is quite different. Tell me, when where these good old days, of “true” capitalism? Back when we were enslaving Africans? Back when we were hanging Wobblies? Back when we had to put nets around our factories to keep the workers from committing suicide? Please…the dictatorship of the proletariat worked out just fine in Marx’s theory, too.

            Reply
          4. clinical wasteman

            Another one for the gallery of glaring factual errors: “capitalists prosper by creating wealth”. Unless that was an epic typo for something like: “workers fail to prosper while creating wealth”.

            As for “the original concept” of “capitalism”, in which district of the astral plane did you find that? Apart from his anthropological sci-fi about the origins of money in “barter”, Adam Smith generally tried to write about the real world. Just like Marx, except that Smith was speaking for a different class interest, whose “moral philosopher” imagined himself to be. For that reason, “capital” and “capitalist”(n.) were important concepts for Smith and Marx alike, but “capitalism” — a sort of hybrid implying the social reality and the ideology cheerleading for it at once without ever really distinguishing between the two — is an abstraction that neither had much time for, and one that only really caught on once both were dead.

            Reply
            1. Wisdom Seeker

              Wasteman – for a start, unlike todays Cronyists, Adam Smith understood that capitalism would not function for the benefit of all unless monopolies were restrained by government:

              “The interest of the dealers [referring to stock owners, manufacturers, and merchants], however, in any particular branch of trade or manufacture, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, and absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. (Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991), pages 219-220)”

              See here for more details:
              https://machineryofpolitics.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/adam-smith-on-the-crisis-of-capitalism-2/

              Another interesting perspective is from J. K. Galbraith (sorry I lost the source) who pointed out that in an economy with healthy competition, profit margins are lower, but employment and wage income are necessarily higher.

              Reply
              1. diptherio

                And pray tell, who is it who will restrain the monopolists? Our elected officials, who just so happen to be under the control of those same capitalists? Which is possible due to the vast wealth inequalities that capitalism generates….

                Capitalists, almost without exception, do everything in their power to avoid competition. The idea is to make a profit and competition is antithetical to that.

                Lots of things are good in theory, like three-way relationships. Reality, on the other hand, feels no obligation to correspond with theory.

                Reply
                1. sierra7

                  Eventually the “sharpened pitchforks”…..the guillotine worked well during the French Revolution….we’re getting closer and closer!
                  As far as the rest of the article you may as well as put a bag over you’re head if you pay attention to all the things that these giants of the internet (and our fed government) are doing daily.
                  We all make choices; I choose to use the internet only for information, not banking or real personal transactions. I could give a hoot on what they gather as far as their algorithmic interpretations of my roaming the internet. I purchase extremely small and really insignificant items thru the internet.
                  I choose not to participate wholly in contemporary life. I’m fortunate; been retired for more than 20 years; moved away from Silicon Valley and if I can help it only commune with the squirrels and other forms of nature.
                  All the “giants” of capitalism have been eventually toppled; big steel; big coal; big rail; big anything….they all go down….eventually. And I won’t weep a tear if JBezos or others strap a rocket onto their asses an blast off into space….good riddance.

                  Reply
              2. darthbobber

                But the “non-monopolist” capitalism in the Victorian era had incredibly stark poverty and starvation throughout a very broad swathe of the working class, so much so that government intervention on hours and conditions of work came to be seen as a military necessity because so many young workers suffered sufficient malnutrition and disease to be unsuitable for cannon fodder.

                Indeed, the rise of the socialist movement took place during a much more competitive era of capitalism than we have today.

                Reply
              3. clinical wasteman

                Didn’t mean to question Smith’s dislike of monopolists or the sincerity of his belief that he was writing moral philosophy throughout. In fact the earlier comment wasn’t intended polemically against him at all. His idea of “the public” is unlike mine in that it doesn’t seem to include the [90+?]% at the unlucky end of the division of labour, much less the unluckier indigenous inhabitants of “new territories” or the indentured (at best) workforce shipped out to replace them. But my point was more:
                1. that Smith, Ricardo and Marx wrote about capital and capitalists, not about “capitalism” as such, and:
                2. that it’s not true that capitalists — however benign and monopoly-averse they may mean to be — ever create wealth. Only labour can do that.
                Smith’s own articulation of a “labour theory of value” is in some ways more concise and easily explained to skeptics than Marx’s, but he also seems to have felt obliged to come up with a theory of the redeeming social utility of capitalists, because they and their immediate dependents constituted “the public” in his taxonomy of human sub-species. That doesn’t make him a fool or a bad guy, just a forthright spokesman for the “embattled” Scottish bourgeoisie of the 18th century.
                Most interestingly of all, there’s at least a case to be made that he theorized the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall” a century before Marx and maybe even “perpetual primitive accumulation” two centuries before Autonomist Marxists [http://www.midnightnotes.org/index2.html]. And this theory of crisis (‘Wealth of Nations’, book 1, ch. 8/9: The wages of labour/The profits of stock) was not about monopolies but about ever more futile competition for diminishing returns on “stationary” capital. The only remedy for which was for some bold East/West India Company-type Public-Private Partnership to claim “new territory”, which would be fabulously profitable for a while until everyone else caught on and the whole thing had to be started over again somewhere “newer”. As in the scramble for the Caribbean in the late 18th century, for Africa in the late 19th/1st half of the 20th, or Eastern Europe post-1989. Or, less “successfully”, the Darien Scheme [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darien_scheme] of the 1690s, but that would probably not have been one of Smith’s favourite case studies.

                Reply
                1. skippy

                  Ain’t that the rub – new territories – so when the physical no longer affords…. a new territory must be created…

                  Reply
          5. Jason Dusek

            In Smith’s world, markets and trade created wealth. In so far as capitalism means just that, great; but it seems to be loaded with something else nowadays.

            Smith did not support unregulated markets; nor did he embrace the idea that what was good for capital was good for society. To Smith’s thinking, the cost of goods was made up of paying for:

            * Labor, the input of skill and effort;
            * Capital, the input of equipment and goods consumed;
            * Rent, the provision of appropriate space and access to water, roads, harbors, &c.

            These three components of price more or less correspond to three classes of person in Smith’s mind, people who earn their keep primarily with labor, capital or rent. Notably, Smith felt that those who relied on capital were the only ones whose interest was opposed to social welfare as a whole. A declining society meant an increasing relative value of the assets they possessed; whereas in a declining society what can be paid for rent or wages necessarily decreases.

            Reply
          6. Ruben

            Just one point of disagreement. I find it difficult to accept that those American tech companies are “internet monopolists”. Their power seems to be wildly exaggerated. The author says that without Google there is no modern life. Come on that’s preposterous. There are several choices in the internet search field. If people are lazy and don’t look around is their own fault. Same with Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. Choices are everywhere (Cyrillic and Chinese markets are dominated by other companies) and the option to opt out as well. Of those five MS is the most dangerous because it is a bit more difficult to switch from Windows to Linux, but still, there is Ubuntu.

            Reply
        2. Vatch

          capitalism creates vast wealth inequality

          Not exactly. Capitalism extends or expands existing inequality. It was the development of agriculture several thousand years ago that broke the approximate egalitarianism of the hunter gatherer lifestyle. Even that had some inequality, but not much. For more information, see the early chapters of The Great Leveler, by Walter Scheidel.

          Reply
          1. diptherio

            Hence the “vast” part. I’m not so silly as to think that before capitalism there was not wealth inequality. But not the type where a few hundred people control more wealth than a few billion. It would seem to me, on just a gut level based on a little reading, that whereas systems like feudalism were unequal but relatively stable*, i.e. the level of inequality stayed the same generation to generation, capitalism’s dynamics have caused inequality to skyrocket, both nationally and globally.

            *Or at least cyclically stable, as with regular debt jubilees in Sumer.

            Reply
            1. Vatch

              2000 years ago wealth inequality was vast in the Roman empire and in the Chinese Han empire, both of which were pre-capitalistic. You’re correct that European feudalism was less extreme than modern capitalism. That’s one of the points of Scheidel’s book: state collapse sometimes leads to greater equality, and the collapse of the Roman empire is an example.

              Reply
          2. darthbobber

            Yes. Inability to produce a surplus above subsistence in the first place does indeed obviate the problem of somebody appropriating more than their share of said surplus.

            Reply
    2. HBE

      “Living standards in Poland in 2010 had more than doubled from 1990.”

      This sentence annoyed me to no end.

      Yes, the reason that is true is because every capitalist country in the world worked to smash and destroy communism without pause for its entire life and then internal and external oligarchs snatched up everything.

      Living standards increased over that period in Poland but so did inequality and poverty.

      So the country got some shiny new consumer goods (which the author seems enamored by) while the populations poverty rate continues to climb.

      Thank god for privatization (“Suddenly people had cars, phones, appliances” and suddenly poverty surged as well), and the end of those no good dirty commies, right?

      Reply
      1. vlado

        Yeah, it’s really a pity that author of such a well-written piece confuses GDP with living standards. If that was the case people wouldn’t vote for nationalist and populists.

        In any case, despite very good performance of Polish economy, its convergence to West Europe at least in terms of GDP (PPP) is questionable as the cases of Czech Republic and Slovenia show. See the article The convergence dream 25 years on in Bruegel

        Reply
      2. visitor

        There is a reason why people voted for the populist PiS and ousted the liberals who had made such a great job at bringing Poland into the EU and its “market society”.

        Reply
      3. Yves Smith Post author

        It is neither helpful nor logically sound to engage in black and white thinking.

        And you have NO basis whatsoever to dispute the claim that living standards have increased in Poland when Cegłowski has seen it happen over his regular visits there. I have a friend who is Polish (undergrad degree there, grad degree from MIT) and she also says things have improved a great deal This is clearly the case for the former East Germany, Hungary, and Czech Republic.

        You discredit yourself with factually unfounded, knee-jerk reactions.

        Reply
  2. justanotherprogressive

    A long but brilliant article that everyone should take the time to read! I want all the techies in my family to read it because it points out some of the uneasiness even techies feel about the their industry.

    My favorite paragraph (although there were many close seconds):

    “But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.”
    Yep…….

    Reply
    1. diptherio

      I found it an odd mix of straight-talk and naivete. The NSA can’t spy on Americans without a warrant? Go ahead, pull the other one. Talking about the “collapse of representative government” as if we’ve ever had one. All very cute, and very silly.

      His suggestions for putting the brakes on are good, but insufficient. My ideas as to how to go about, “connecting the tech industry to reality. Bringing its benefits to more people, and bringing the power to make decisions to more people,” is here:

      http://threadingthepearls.blogspot.com/2014/11/youre-doing-it-wrong-politics-as-if.html

      Imagine a political party with no national platform—a party where local rank-and-file members select candidates from among themselves, and dictate the policies those candidates will support. [2] Imagine a political party whose candidates are transparent; one that guarantees every member an equal voice in shaping the actual policy proposals—and the votes—of their representatives. Imagine a political party whose focus is on empowering the rank-and-file members, instead of the charismatic con-artists we call politicians. Imagine a political party that runs on direct democracy, from bottom to top: open, transparent and accountable…. we’ll need an app…maybe two

      The app already exists, actually, and it’s called Loomio. Podemos uses it, along with a lot of other people:

      https://www.loomio.org/

      Reply
      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        That popular vote comment is misleading as well.

        A previous example was given about a hypothetical House vote, where, in yes-districts, voters are split 51-49 yes (assuming that is so…lots of times, congress persons vote ‘their conscience’) and voters in no-districts are 90-10 for no. Yes votes win by one.

        In that case, the popular vote actually is for No.

        And that has nothing to do with slavery.

        It’s how the math works in a representative voting system.

        Reply
        1. PhilM

          Before responding to MLTPB, I’d like to voice my opinion that the OP article is thoughtful and reflects a decent level of awareness of the reality of the world, along with positive solutions that would be achievable in a polity that had the public good as its aim.

          As for MLTPB’s opinion on the vote, I beg to differ: it has everything to do with slavery. That’s how the numbers work in our system, which is imperial, not representative. It’s a bitch when instead of Augustus you get Caligula, but it doesn’t change the basic reality of how the system works, and has worked since Ike. In our imperial system, it does not matter to the people whether they vote, or how; it matters, occasionally, to the contestants’ position in the power structure, but nothing more than that.

          Here is the reality: the people in any office in our federal government—basically everyone who lives in or around Washington DC—have the same relationship to American people as they have to Russian, Chinese, or Indian people: that of serving their own interests; predation, if you will; animal husbandry, if you prefer. They will act so as to extract the maximum value consistent with not-killing-the-goose-that-lays-the-golden-eggs from every person, wherever they are located, whatever their religion, whatever their nationality, as long as they are powerless, which means everyone who is a private citizen, however rich, or a small business; everyone who is not a Forbes 500 corporation.

          The notion that the federal government is somehow tied to “Americans,” or even to the geographical entity now known as the USA, much less to the values expressed in the so-called “founding documents,” is a child’s bedtime story.

          It’s amusing that it took the election of Trump to bring this realization about; but really, that is why some of us actually voted for Trump: to rub the idiots’ noses in the reality of their political environment. (Not me, mind you; because I do not bother to vote: when I want something done, I write a check, like any experienced consumer of government services.)

          There is a cure, but it is not changing the election mechanism so the choice of president results from the popular vote totals in a population of 300 million. No, it means changing it so there are 1000 presidents and 100,000 representatives and 1000 supreme courts, and 1000 republics. Those are the numbers that would achieve representative government the way it was designed to function by people who knew. Alternatively, you could reduce federal taxation to 1/10th of its current level, and assign all other taxation to the township, with a population limit of 20,000. Now you would have something that is no longer imperial.

          But since most people since the dawn of history have lived under organizations that are imperial with perfect happiness, the appropriate course of action is not to struggle in futility for change, which would almost certainly do more harm than good, and result in an outcome that would just use up the world’s resources more swiftly in the chaos of consumption and war. The optimum course is to watch reruns of amusing sitcoms and eat good food; to gratify the animal pleasures and such pleasures of the mind as remain to aging bodies mistreated by pharmaceuticals; and to die as quickly and painlessly as the authorities permit.

          Reply
          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            In our imperial system, it does not matter to the people whether they vote, or how; it matters, occasionally, to the contestants’ position in the power structure, but nothing more than that.

            In that case, the popular vote question is not a question anymore (with the current 1 president, instead of 1,000 setup), as you point out here:

            There is a cure, but it is not changing the election mechanism so the choice of president results from the popular vote totals in a population of 300 million.

            I have mentioned before that Rome had, at one time, 2 or 4 co-emperors. You suggest 1,000 presidents, as a solution. That’s nothing to do with slavery, except in the sense that we’re all serfs or slaves. It about making one’s voice heard within a smaller group, having someone representing you along with fewer constituents.

            The inherent problem of having representatives vote, versus direct voting, is still here, as in the example given above. The math scales up and down.

            Reply
            1. PhilM

              Thanks for your thoughtful response. I meant just what you did in terms of “slavery” in the sense that we all are slaves if we have no effective representation. It was a word in common use by the Founders before the revolution, who often described themselves as “slaves,” with staggering hypocrisy, considering how many of them actually held human beings as property. It was a hypocrisy frequently pointed out at the time.

              The math scales badly if representation is sufficiently distant to be theoretical, not actual. The math of the Founders, originally set at 1 year and 30,000 souls per “representative,” was intended so that the people voting in the house would give a true picture of the intent of their constituency. The idea was that no man would pay a tax he did not agree with. How many people could say that they would pay their taxes willingly today? And yet that was the standard of the time: pay only for those things that the majority agree is worth buying for the public good.

              Reply
  3. Thomas Williams

    Nice piece: Two things to note
    – The Clintons, Bush & Obama presided over this mess and aided in it’s creation but the albatross of abuse is being hung on Trump.
    – He shares an enormous egotistical blind spot common to tech workers. He wants unionization and strength for tech workers but seems to advocate for a globalized work force. More than anything else, foreign workers are responsible for wage suppression in the US. Is he saying ‘Tech workers are special and should be pampered but others should work for $1.85 per day”?
    – The above points are not germaine to his central theme, which is important and well written. But it does raise questions about his values.

    Reply
    1. Anna Zimmerman

      Nicely put, Thomas Williams. I was waiting for someone to point out how fatuous it is to exaggerate Trump’s role in what has been a general trend for decades; what a shame that I had to scroll down through so many comments before it materialised. The other great howler in what is for the most part a useful, informative article is the now routine demonization of nationalist movements. I am sick and tired of the illogicality of those who decry the evils of globalization (and this article does exactly that, albeit with regard to a specific subject) yet are unable/unwilling to distinguish between good and bad nationalism. Perhaps we should start talking about sovereignty and employment movements, which is really what motivates most people who vote for such parties? This should prove harder to attack, given that ‘nationalism’ has turned into one of those buzz words that makes the MSM run around screaming and rending their clothes..

      Reply
  4. Jacobite_In_Training

    “…Boycotts won’t work, since opting out of a site like Google means opting out of much of modern life….”

    Good….Opt out of modern life. Now. Get as far away from it as you possibly can. You’ll be the better person for it. There was a time I felt ‘modern life’ was the place to be….Now the older me realizes ‘modern life’ is a sham, an illusion, and a trap.

    A very cleverly designed trap, and one in which the cattle to be slaughtered all believe they are choosing their own destiny even as they are herded inexorably closer to the slaughterhouse.

    Amusingly, although my younger naive and idealistic self had a significant part to play in the great tech revolutions and evolutions through the 90’s and early 2000’s (for which I will be eternally regretful and ashamed, given how the creations we labored on have been whored out by the pimps in the oligarchy and government) I was also incredibly lucky to have grown up on a farm…and learned how to use a hoe, a hand powered washing machine, how to gather eggs…and grow things.

    Real things, things that can feed people. But more importantly….how to grow things like spirit and independence that do not rely on any flow of electrons to come to glorious fruition.

    I also so much better understand what that prophet Edward Abbey was trying to warn us about all those decades ago….

    “…Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell…”

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Indeed. The promise of technology has devolved into Clickbait Nation — where millions mindlessly click on endless deceptive headlines like rats pushing levers in a giant Skinner box.

      Reply
    2. justanotherprogressive

      Is “opting out” really an option? Are we willing to opt out out of modern medicine too?
      Whether we like it or not, we aren’t opting out of using the internet, so we aren’t opting out of anything this author talked about…….

      Sooooo……..wouldn’t a better idea be to learn as much as we can about this technology and get involved in its decision making, so that we can control it and make it work for rather than against us?

      Reply
      1. Jacobite_In_Training

        I’ve had that debate before, people typically starting with the ‘well, you are posting using the Internet so you aren’t really opting out of anything’, but thats a simplistic approach, and the process of opting out is a matter of degrees – it is never a binary on/off.

        One can continue ‘opting out’ of aspects of society, and technology, to as extreme a position as you wish….even back to the stone age, should you choose. (sort of the ultimate boycott)

        Tradeoffs are inherent to the process, no argument there….just be aware that the experience of opting out is itself liberating. You realize all these shiny objects, and expensive things, and
        complicated processes that you have been raised to think of as critical necessities that cannot ever EVER be parted with….may not be so critical as you think.

        Sometimes the tradeoffs will be negative, more often – in my experience – (once you have solved the problems presented by improvising/adapting/overcoming) …you will find the ‘tradeoffs’ are a net positive.

        You are, of course, a creature with free will and free to do what you choose…. opt in, opt out….as you will. :)

        Reply
        1. Thuto

          Agreed, there are several gradations to this whole opting out thing. I for one am completely absent from any social media platform and feel no loss whatsoever because of this. It takes a committed group of independent thinkers to deconstruct and debunk this whole narrative that you’re either “all-in” with these internet platforms or you opt out and life passes you by as you’re consigned to an existence of irrelevance and ignorance about the world around you.

          Reply
          1. MoiAussie

            Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you are very selective about the social media in which you participate.

            Reply
            1. Thuto

              If by social media we are talking facebook, instagram et al, then I have never participated in any of those. To be sure, this is not meant to sound like I take a dim view on those who do, the point is the narrative is typically framed, at least in my part of the world, as an all-in/opt-out binary in which participation in social media platforms is a prime determinant in who “remains relevant” and who doesn’t…

              Reply
          2. justanotherprogressive

            I’m not sure what you think you are opting out of. If you are on the internet, then you have to have a carrier – Verizon, Comcast, etc. Do you think their data collection systems are different than what Google, Facebook, or any other social media does?

            Reply
          3. jrs

            Yea I think the truly open minded probably try many of the internet platforms just to see what they are like and then delete their accounts (this does not need to entail posting one’s entire private life there needless to say). Not a lot of open mindedness out there really though, it’s all extremes: rigid abstinence from it all, or hopeless addiction to it.

            I mean I understand a priori rejection of the majority of what capitalism produces (except if it’s necessary to life then well), but it is a pretty uninformed position from which to criticize (as is being addicted to it really).

            Reply
        2. PKMKII

          Even if you opt out personally, you’re still going to be interacting with a lot of people, businesses, governments, etc., that are dependent on the Five Horsemen. Pay cash at the local business, but travel down the supply chain that brought the goods there and you’ll run into someone using cloud storage, social media, consumer surveillance data, etc.

          Reply
      2. Wisdom Seeker

        Regarding “get involved in its decision making” –

        Ordinary folks have really only two ways to do this. One is in their consumer choices. Avoid or boycott companies that abuse their customers – hit them in their wallets. The other is in their voting and political participation push privacy rights, antitrust enforcement, etc. higher on the political agenda.

        It’s entirely possible to be comfortably social without “social media”. Personally, I boycott Facebook, Twitter, and (as much as possible) Google and Ebay. Google is tough because they have infiltrated the schools with Google Classroom (which has value, but do we really want an internet advertising company to be gathering data on our children?). Microsoft is tough because of the Office monopoly, but just because I have to use it at work doesn’t mean I need to pay them any money anywhere else in my life… There are also ways to buy online without using Amazon.

        Reply
        1. lyman alpha blob

          There are other search engines, browsers, email services, etc. besides those operated by the giants. DuckDuckGo, protonmail, and the Opera browser (with free built-in VPN!) work well for me.

          The problem is, if these other services ever do get popular enough, the tech giants will either block them by getting their stooges appointed to Federal agencies and regulating them out of existence, or buy them.

          I’ve been running from ISP acquisitions for years, as the little guys get bought out I have to find an even littler one. Luckily I’ve found a local ISP, GWI, that I’ve used for years now. They actually came out against the new regulations that would allow them to gather and sell their customers’ data. Such anathema will probably wind up with their CEO publicly flayed for going against all that is good and holy according to the Five Horsemen.

          Reply
    3. Mel

      There are two sides to opting out.
      When net neutrality is gone, then capital and market concentration will transform the internet into what cable TV is now, and nobody will need it much.
      Contrariwise the big tech companies are taking over the implementation of major social functions:
      – if you can’t vote without the internet
      – if you can’t spend your money without the internet
      – if you can’t contact your friends without the internet
      – if you can’t get news without the internet — this has already happened — just look at us all here.
      – if you can’t join a political party without liking it on your Facebook page and following it on Twitter — there are rumors that the Federal Liberal Party in Canada is exploring this.
      As I said somewhere else, all this would amount to an uncontracted and unspecified public/private partnership (various ones, actually) and all entered into unexamined. Time to examine them while they’re still easy to change.

      Reply
      1. HotFlash

        there are rumors that the Federal Liberal Party in Canada is exploring this.


        Interesting. Are they going to get us all free internet? If not, I think they will find a big surprise.

        Reply
    4. jrs

      To assume that workers in ANY Industry (including tech where we know the big players have rigged the labor market against tech workers) have more power than consumers seems pretty unrealistic to me. Of course consumer power is one dollar one vote and hardly democratic but at least consumers do have options and some power. The employee role is a powerless one in the U.S..

      Reply
  5. Kris Alman

    We can either continue on the knowledge economy road, where our personal data is commodified. Or we could fight for a knowledge society, where we collectively access knowledge while protecting our identity and privacy. I vote for the latter.

    Google would plant a chip in every child if they could. Short of that, they have insinuated themselves in public schools, hoping that every kid in America will consummate their relationship with this giant after they graduate from k-12. See this NY Times article from last weekend: How Google Took Over the Classroom

    It’s hard to mitigate their reach. In a landmark student privacy law passed in California (with an even weaker version passed in my state of Oregon), they built in what I call a Google exemption clause.

    (8) Nothing in this section shall be construed to impose a duty upon:
    (a) A provider of an electronic store, gateway, marketplace or other means of purchasing or downloading software or applications to review or enforce compliance with this section by those applications or software; or
    (b) A provider of an interactive computer service to review or enforce compliance with this section by third-party content providers. As used in this paragraph, “interactive computer service” means any information service, system or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such services or systems operated or offered by libraries or educational institutions.
    (9) This section does not apply to general audience Internet websites, general audience online services, general audience online applications or general audience mobile applications, even if login credentials created for an operator’s site, service or application may be used to access those general audience sites, services or applications.

    The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Child and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy (a group with which I have worked) just put out a Parent Toolkit for Student Privacy.

    Patient Privacy Rights has an upcoming international summit that is free. Stream it! See: https://patientprivacyrights.org/health-privacy-summit/

    Reply
    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We can either continue on the knowledge economy road, where our personal data is commodified. Or we could fight for a knowledge society, where we collectively access knowledge while protecting our identity and privacy. I vote for the latter.

      When I am not accessing knowledge, I would still prefer to remain private.

      For example, what videos I access for entertainment should private. It’s not knowledge I access, just something to pass time.

      That those activities should b protected as well.

      Privacy-protected-society is probably a broader term than knowledge society.

      Reply
    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      And the Google exemption clause reads like a Facebook exemption clause as well (or Amazon or Warner Cable exemption clause).

      Reply
  6. Huey Long

    This piece is absolutely fantastic! Not to nit pick, but I do disagree with the author about the following passage:

    Even if you think our intelligence agencies are evil, they’re a lawful evil. They have to follow laws and procedures, and the people in those agencies take them seriously.

    But there are no such protections for non-Americans outside the United States. The NSA would have to go to court to spy on me; they can spy on you anytime they feel like it.

    We know from the Church and Pike committees that this is patently false, and I highly doubt that this has changed much since then, especially in light of Iran-Contra and the made-up intel used to justify the Iraq invasion.

    I know I probably sound like a broken record as I often cite the Church and Pike reports in my NC comments, but they’re just so little known and so important that I feel compelled to do so.

    I encourage the entire commenteriat to at least skim some of these documents to get a better understanding of the kinds of sickening things perpetrated by the intel community in the past and then ask yourself if the veil of secrecy that surrounds them is to keep secrets from the enemy or to keep the American public from vomiting.

    Reply
    1. diptherio

      Agree, there are a few howlers in there. As with everything, it’s a mixed bag. I myself have been known to make unsubstantiated and just downright false statements here and irl, despite being, in general, correct about everything ;-D.

      Reply
    2. JustAnObserver

      I had the same reaction to that passage, at least initially. However what I think the author might mean by this is that to have the means to combat this evil 2 things are necessary:

      o Laws and/or procedures that place limitations on the actions of these agencies – NSA, CIA, DHS etc.

      o and, much much more important, the means to ensure those laws/procedures are *enforced* as to both statute and intent.

      USians have at least the first part even if the second, enforcement, has rotted to the extent of being no more than a cruel joke. non-USian have neither.

      Note that the lack of enforcement thing extends far beyond the IC agencies into anti-trust, environmental regulation, Sarbanes-Oxley, etc. etc.. Even the ludicrous botch called Dodd-Frank could work marginally better if there was some attempt to actually enforce it.

      Reply
      1. Wisdom Seeker

        “Dodd-Frank could work marginally better if there was some attempt to actually enforce it.”

        Unenforceable and unenforced laws are a feature, not a bug, and demonstrate the corruption of the system.

        Reply
      2. Michael Fiorillo

        It’s a fine and entertaining piece, but flawed.

        That bit about tech workers defying management to protest Trump’s travel ban seems demonstrably untrue, as the companies want that human capital pipeline kept open, and they can simultaneously wrap themselves in muliti-cultural virtue as they defend their employment practices.

        Also, and I know people here will disagree or think it irrelevant, but the “They’re not bad people,” thing is wrong; I think people such as Thiel, Kalanick, Zuckerberg, Ellison, add-your-own-candidates, seem like pretty awful people doing a lot of awful things, whatever their brilliance, business acumen, and relentlessness.

        Finally, while as a union guy I was pleased to see the importance he gave it, the idea of tech workers unionizing in this country seems like social science fiction, whatever their European counterparts might hopefully do.

        Reply
    3. TheCatSaid

      I, too, stumbled / choked when I read those paragraphs. They are provably false in so many dimensions I hardly know where to begin. It made it hard to read past.

      I will try again because so many commenters are so positive. But the author’s credibility sinks when a piece starts with such blindness or misinformation or pandering.

      Reply
      1. PhilM

        On the one hand, it’s probably some pandering, because he knows he is being watched. We all throw that same bone once in a while. From Vergil, it is called “a sop to Cerberus.” On the other hand, he is correct, too: it is a “lawful evil” because it functions using tax money, which is money extorted by force with the sanction of law, rather than “chaotic evil,” which is money extorted by force or fraud without that sanction. So in that positive-law-philosophy way of thinking, he has a point, even if it’s a pandering point.

        Reply
  7. knowbuddhau

    >>>”They have to follow laws and procedures, and the people in those agencies take them seriously.”

    This caught my eye earlier. Had to come back to it. Especially after reading Mike Whitney’s latest http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/05/19/seth-rich-craig-murray-and-the-sinister-stewards-of-the-national-security-state/ . In it, he details how seriously Clapper, Brennan et al. take those “laws and procedures.”

    Taking a recent and relevant example, remember the ICA, the “Intelligence Community Assessment”? Whitney quotes a Fox news article detailing the many ways in which it’s production varied sharply from normal procedures. And of course there was all that “stove-piping” of “intel” that helped make the bogus case for the 2003 war of aggression against Iraq.

    I appreciate the author’s point: it would be harder to surveil a particular American than a European. I’m sure rank & file people by & large respect law and procedure. But don’t worry, if there’s a political will to get you, there’s a way. Ask Chelsea Manning.

    Whitney concludes by quoting an especially apt question posed by Michael Glennon in the May issue of Harper’s: “Who would trust the authors of past episodes of repression as a reliable safeguard against future repression?”

    People who think they’re immune to said repression, for one. Or who don’t know or believe it happened/is happening at all. IOW political elites and most Americans, that’s who. I think there’s a good chance the soft coup will work, and most Americans would even accept a President-General.

    So while I see the author’s point, I see it this way. They take laws and procedures seriously like I take traffic laws seriously. Only their solution is to corrupt law enforcement, not follow the law.

    “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face, it’s just a goddamned piece of paper!” — President George W. Bush

    Silicon Valley elites apparently think the same.

    Reply
    1. TheCatSaid

      Mike Whitney’s article you linked to was interesting. George Webb’s ongoing YouTube series is going further still, as he is uncovering numerous anomalies with Seth Rich’s death and the circumstances and “investigation”. It turns out that nothing in this story is what it seems (the “school play” scenario).

      Disturbingly, there are similarities and patterns that connect up with numerous other patterns discussed earlier in this 208-day (so far) odyssey, which started with looking at irregularities around oil pipelines and drugs shipments, and ended up including numerous additional criminal enterprises, all with direct links to high-up government staff and political staff from both major parties, with links among key participants going back over decades in some cases.

      To return to your observation–knowing what I know now–personal as well as second-hand, I don’t think it’s harder to surveil an american than a european. The compromises of law enforcement, justice and intelligence and rogue contractors have no international boundaries. The way the compromises are done vary depending on local methods, and the degree of public awareness may vary, but the actuality and ease–no different overall.

      Reply
      1. knowbuddhau

        Glad you liked it. Lily Tomlin applies: “No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.”

        Reply
        1. TheCatSaid

          That says it all. The rabbit holes are many and deep. As a society we are in for many rude awakenings. I don’t expect soft landings.

          Reply
  8. mwbworld

    Lots of great stuff in here, but I’ll raise a slight objection to:

    three or four people who use Linux on the desktop, all of whom are probably at this conference.

    We’re now up to easily 5 or 6 thank you very much, and I wasn’t at the conference. ;-)

    Reply
    1. HotFlash

      Eight, nine and ten in this household. I don’t use any Google-stuff and have hard-deleted my Facebook account. At least they told me had, I should ask a friend to check to see if I am still there ;)

      Reply
    2. voislav

      But we all know that a Linux user is worth only 3/5 of a regular user, so we are back to 6. Writing this from a 2003 vintage Pentium 4 machine running Linux Mint 17.

      Reply
      1. knowbuddhau

        8. Built this thing myself 5 years ago. It’s a quad core on an MSI mobo. Or maybe I only count as a half, since it’s a dual boot with Linux Mint 17.3/Win7 Pro.

        Reply
  9. Disturbed Voter

    A history lesson. The PC brought freedom from the IT department, until networking enslaved us again. The freedom was temporary, we were originally supposed to be serfs of a timeshare system connected to a mainframe. France was ahead of the US in that, they had MiniTel. But like everything French … is was efficient but static. In Europe, like in the US, the PC initially liberated, and then with networking, enslaved. Arpanet was the predecessor of the Internet … it was a Cold War system of survivable networking, for some people. The invention of HTTP and the browser at CERN democratized the Arpanet. But it also greatly enabled State-sponsored snooping.

    We are now moving to cloud storage and Chrome-books which will restore the original vision of a timeshare system connected to a mainframe, but at a higher technical standard. What was envisioned in 1968 will be achieved, but later than planned, and in a round about way. We are not the polity we used to be. In 1968 this would have been viewed by the public with suspicion. But after 50 years later … the public will view this as progress.

    Reply
    1. Huey Long

      In 1968 this would have been viewed by the public with suspicion. But after 50 years later … the public will view this as progress.

      50 years of being force fed Bernays Sauce will tend to do that to a people :-(.

      Reply
      1. LT

        One thing just as dangerous and limiting as the idealized past of the conservative mindset is the idealized sense of progress of the the liberal mindset.

        Reply
    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      You have ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing.’

      Then you have the Andromeda Strain that is toxic within a small PH range.

      That is to say, nothing is inherently good or bad. It depends on when, where, what and how much.

      And so the PC brought freedom and now it doesn’t.

      I suspect likewise with left-wing ideas and right-wing ideas. “How much of it? When?”

      Reply
  10. duck1

    SV tech owners (think about) . . . the cool toys they’ll spend profits on . . . run by chuckle heads . . . identify with progressive values . . . they want to help . . . run by a feckless leadership accountable to no one . . .
    Can’t send them to Mars quick enough, I say.

    Reply
  11. Oregoncharles

    .” Even if you think our intelligence agencies are evil, they’re a lawful evil. They have to follow laws and procedures, and the people in those agencies take them seriously.”

    This is standup comedy?

    Reply
    1. Huey Long

      This is standup comedy?

      To the NCer, yes.

      To the general public who have swallowed what I like to call the “Jack Ryan Narrative” of how things are at the CIA, no.

      Reply
      1. duck1

        The real kneeslapper was. . . American government (also) run by chuckle heads . . . what happens when these two groups . . . join forces?
        Knock me over with a feather, let us know when that happens. How many Friedman units will we have to wait?

        Reply
  12. Oregoncharles

    “And outside of Russia and China, Google is the world’s search engine.”

    How can this be? I don’t use it except very rarely; my wife does, but complains about it bitterly, and so do people here at NC, presumably tech-savvy. My wife is using it out of pure habit; what about the rest of them?

    Reply
  13. Oregoncharles

    “Given this scary state of the world, with ecological collapse just over the horizon, and a population sharpening its pitchforks, ”
    And unfortunately, that’s the likeliest solution. (The family blogging “L” on this keyboard doesn’t work right, so make some allowances.)

    Despite my nitpicks above, this is a very important speech and a frightening issue. In particular, I’ve long been concerned that so much organizing depends on giant corporations like Faceborg and Twitter. They have no reason to be our friends, and some important reasons, like this speech, to be our enemies. Do we have a backup if FB and Google decide to censor the Internet for serious?

    Reply
    1. different clue

      Several years ago John Robb at Global Guerillas wrote a speculative piece about how Ham Radio Operators could work with computer people to figure out how to send dots and dashes over Ham Radio in such a way as to be understandable as “0s” and “1s” and used to code for simple things . . . perhaps even Ham Radio broadcastable text. Perhaps that article still exists somewhere in the Global Guerillas archives.

      A Ham RadioNet, if one wills.

      Also, re-standalone-ing millions of personal PC machines and figuring out how to record stuff onto discs, thumb drives or other memory storage devices. And then moving such devices around by human courier or land mail or carrier pigeon or other methods.

      And of course people could go back to writing and sending landletters by landmail. The amount of information sendable by landletter would be so small by comparison to digital methods that people would learn to send only the most important information.

      Reply
      1. MoiAussie

        Ham Radio Operators could work with computer people to figure out how to send dots and dashes over Ham Radio in such a way as to be understandable as “0s” and “1s”

        John Robb seems an ignorant patronising idiot. Ham radio types have been doing digital communication since the 70s – it’s called packet radio. And building networks on top of that.

        Reply
        1. different clue

          I am but an analog refugee in this digital world. So I may not understand you correctly.

          I am understanding your comment to be saying that the Ham Radio community knew all about this theoretical capability waiting to be exploited years before John Robb wrote about it. If so, then we do indeed have a way to end-run around the coming Feudal Internet Lockdown. Material can be broadcast all over the Ham RadioNet and various Ham Radio operators could then load these packet radio broadcasts onto various portable storage devices which could then be hand-couriered to radio-ignorant computer users for reading and replicating to further waves of radio-ignorant computer users.

          So perhaps John Robb was “post-maturely right” ( a play on pre-maturely anti-fascist). Perhaps John Robb is post-maturely right about some other things and I can only find out about them from John Robb because I have zero knowledge of or about the people who already know all about these things from before John Robb.

          Reply
          1. Orv

            Hams have been using digital modes as long as there have been digital modes. The earliest was RTTY (radio teletype) using surplus military equipment, which used frequency-shift keying at 45.45 baud. There are now modes developed for high speed (relatively speaking), and for robustness. There are some particularly amazing examples of the latter, which are routinely used for “moonbounce” contacts (earth-moon-earth) and can be decoded even when below the audible noise floor.

            However, in spite of the vast technical expertise, ham radio is not a reasonable replacement for the Internet, at least not as long as the FCC still exists. Regulations forbid two key activities:

            – Commercial use.
            – Encryption. All communications must be in cleartext.

            The latter, in particular, pretty much relegates it to being a toy, not a tool — which was always the intent. Hams are allowed to occupy some very valuable radio spectrum because they don’t represent competition to commercial interests.

            Reply
            1. different clue

              I don’t think Robb was thinking of Ham RadioNet as a replacement for the Info-Commercial Super-Sewer. He was thinking of a skeletal way to move some text-renderable information fast from Ham to Ham and then down to computers to be able to read it when it was recast into letters-on-a-background form.

              He was thinking of it as an emergency way for people to keep in touch with eachother and with some information when the BizGov Industrial Complex killswitched-off the Internet and made it Go Dark and Stay Dark for good.

              He may have been wrong to think that, but that is what he was thinking.

              Reply
  14. Thuto

    Excellent post, except for the bit, as some other readers have commented, about American intelligence agencies being law abiding. Europe, and much of the world, crumbled without resistance in the face of the tech juggernauts because of the PR fetishization of anything that came out of silicon valley. The laxity of lawmakers and regulators was partly because of their unwillingness to be seen as standing in the way of “progress”. A public drunk on the need to be in with the new, “disruptive” kids on the block who were “changing the world” would have teamed up with the disruptors to run rough shod over any oversight mechanisms proposed by regulators. Hence the silicon valley PR machine always prioritises the general public as the first targets of intellectual capture, because an intellectually captured public loath to give up the benefits and convenience of “progress and disruption” is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of tech giants in their global war against regulation. And the insidious nature of the damage of overreach by these tech giants isn’t just limited to online interactions anymore, but the real world is also now experiencing disruption in the true sense of the word with gig economy companies reshaping the dynamics of entire markets and squeezing the most vulnerable members of society to the periphery of said markets, if not pushing them out entirely. In my own city of cape town south africa, a housing crisis is brewing as locals are being squeezed out of the housing market because landlords profit more from airbnb listings than making their properties available for long term rentals. Asset prices are being pushed up as “investors” compete to snap up available inventory to list on airbnb. And city officials seem more interested in celebrating cape town’s status as “one of the top airbnb destinations” than actually protecting the interests of their own citizens. Intellectual capture, and the need to be “in with the cool disruptive kids” is infecting even public sector organizations with severe consequences for the public at large, but the public is blind to this as they’ve binged on the “disruption, changing the world” cool-aid…

    Reply
    1. Bill Smith

      “PR fetishization of anything that came out of silicon valley”

      It had nothing to do with individuals thinking this stuff had value? Cell phones -> iPhone (smartphone) for example.

      Reply
      1. Thuto

        While individuals might derive value from “this stuff”, the tech companies providing the stuff use said value, allied with massive amounts of PR spin to render regulators impotent in providing safe guards to stop the techies from morphing from value providers into something akin to encroachers for profit/power/control (e.g. encroaching upon our right to privacy by selling off our data). Providing value to the public shouldn’t be used as a cloak under which the dagger used to erode our rights is hidden…

        Reply
  15. LT

    In the links today, there is a Guardian story on Tesla workers with the quote: “Everything feels like the future but us.”

    I’m reminded of another Guardian article about an ideology underpinning the grievances in Notes From An Emergency. It’s imperative to understand the that the system we find ourselves in is a belief system – an ideology – and the choices to be made in regards to challenging it.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/11/accelerationism-how-a-fringe-philosophy-predicted-the-future-we-live-in/
    An excerpt:
    “Accelerationists argue that technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified – either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative. Accelerationists favour automation. They favour the further merging of the digital and the human. They often favour the deregulation of business, and drastically scaled-back government. They believe that people should stop deluding themselves that economic and technological progress can be controlled. They often believe that social and political upheaval has a value in itself.

    Accelerationism, therefore, goes against conservatism, traditional socialism, social democracy, environmentalism, protectionism, populism, nationalism, localism and all the other ideologies that have sought to moderate or reverse the already hugely disruptive, seemingly runaway pace of change in the modern world…”

    Be sure to catch such quotes as this:
    “We all live in an operating system set up by the accelerating triad of war, capitalism and emergent AI,” says Steve Goodman, a British accelerationist…

    That should remind one of this:
    “Musk is persuaded that we’re living in a simulation, and he or a fellow true believer has hired programmers to try to hack it….”

    Reply
  16. Oregoncharles

    “Boycotts won’t work, since opting out of a site like Google means opting out of much of modern life.”

    I wish he wouldn’t keep dropping into openly delusional statements like that. Granted, i use Google News, but there are alternatives.

    Reply
    1. jrs

      Yes I know, it’s ridiculous. And we use them to “protect” us he claims. But about the only place where “protect” makes any sense in his whole argument is actually Amazon. It is pretty safe to buy from Amazon (or using Amazon-pay) if you fear a credit card being hacked from on online purchase. That much has some truth.

      But how does using Facebook protect anyone? How does Google protect anyone? Ok Android security is a different debate, but I really don’t understand how issues of “security” etc. applies to using a Google search as opposed to any other.

      Reply
  17. David, by the lake

    Lost me right at the opening by bringing up the popular vote and the bemoaning of a “broken” system. We are a federal republic of states and I’d prefer to keep it that way. Ensuring that the executive has the support of the populations of some minimal number of states is a good thing in my view.

    Reply
    1. craazyman

      so much to read. so little time.

      that’s when I bailed too. What drek. If a reader has half a mind, they slip and fall on a greasy doo doo in the first 15 seconds? No way can I stand to wade through the rest of what seems like a tortured screed (although I did speed read it). Turns out, I may agree in a minor way with some points, but I’ll never know. I have time to waste in the real world, and I can’t waste it if I’m reading somebody’s internet screed about Donald Trump. God Good almighty. Enough.

      Authors watch your words. They matter! LOL. And always remember — sometimes less is more. Not NC’s finest post evah. And post author’s shouldn’t refer to people’s heads on pikes in their hotel room as being something they wouldn’t object to. I mean really. That’s not even junior high school humor. I give this post a 2.3 on a scale of 1-10. 1 is unbearable. 3 is readable. 10 is genius.

      Reply
  18. PKMKII

    The people who run Silicon Valley identify with progressive values

    Nope. There are some true progressives in the industry, yes, but they’re few and far between. Understanding the dominant mindset in Silicon Valley is vital to understanding why there hasn’t been pushback on all this. Sure, they like their neoliberal IdPol as it appeals to their meritocracy worship (hence the protests against the travel ban), but not with any intersectionality, especially with regards to women (the red pill/MRA mind virus infects a lot of brains in SV). Socio-economics, though, it’s heavy on the libertarianism, albeit with some support for utopian government concepts like UBI, plus a futurist outlook out of that Rationality cult; Yudkowsky and his LessWrong nonsense have influence over a lot of players, big and small, in the bay area. So what you get is a bunch of people deluded into thinking they’re hyperlogical while giving themselves a free pass on the begged question of where their “first principles” emerged out of. It’s not just their sci-fi bubble that needs a poppin’, it’s their Rothbardian/Randite one as well.

    Reply
    1. Sue

      +1,000
      “The people who run Silicon Valley identify with progressive values”
      True! I’ve seen some smoking weed while talking machine language and screwing half of humanity

      Reply
      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Better still, they micro-dose on psychedelics while coding our binary chains: how cool is that!

        Reply
    2. TheCatSaid

      The points you raise are accurate. And even long before those things existed, Silicon Valley arose as conscious, deliberate high-level government strategy (or beyond-government deep state).

      The sources of new technology and funding have been deliberately obscured, at least as far as the general public debate goes. It has nothing to do with “innovation” and “entrepreneurship”. It is amazing to see all countries around the world hop onto the innovation, let’s-imitate-Silicon-Valley bandwagon, with no awareness that SV was no accident of a few smart/lucky individual entrepreneurs.

      Reply
      1. Sue

        I believe its birth could be traced to a very humble and smart individual named Bill Gates out of his home garage. Since then hundreds of creative Americans have parked their cars on their driveways and have made the Nasdaq flourish through their garage operations.

        Reply
    3. Rosario

      It is strange how running en masse to the “individual” end of the social spectrum ends up dumping people at an inversion of a collectivized order. There is no greater horror then a bureaucracy run by libertarians.

      Reply
  19. jfleni

    NOBODY has to join buttBook, review slimy effing GIGGLE, and especially use MICROSWIFT; ALTERNATIVES are easy and often more effective and especially annoying to the rich slime.

    When Balmer was Billy-Boy’s Ceo he actually preached that Linux was a nefarious plot to deprive clowns like him of their well deserved “emoluments”. Fortuneately, all he has to do now is sell beer and hot dogs, and make sure the cheerleaders keep their clothing on. Good job for him.

    Decide NOT to be a lemming; instead be a BOLSHIE and hit ’em hard. YOU and the whole internet will benefit.

    Reply
  20. ginnie nyc

    I think some of the naivete of this talk is based on a superficial knowledge of American history. Things like his remark about the Women’s DC March – “America is not used to large demonstrations…” Oh really.

    The writer, though intelligent, is apparently unaware of massive demos during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-Iraq war marches, the Bonus March etc etc. Perhaps his ignorance is a function of age, and perhaps the fact he was not born here, vis a vis his name.

    Reply
  21. Jack Sparrow

    This piece is sophisticated neoliberal propaganda dressed up to look like something else. Bahrain and Poland getting in the way of protesters? Poland’s government is resisting the dictates of the EU so who in fact would be protesting that?

    Reply
  22. different clue

    I will reply to an almost tangential little something which Maciej Ceglowski wrote near the beginning of his piece.

    ” 65.8 million for Clinton
    63.0 million for Trump

    This was the second time in sixteen years that the candidate with fewer votes won the American Presidency. There is a bug in the operating system of our democracy, one of the many ways that slavery still casts its shadow over American politics.”

    Really? A bug in the operating system of our democracy? That sounds like something a Clintonite would say. It sounds like something that many millions of Clintonites DID say, over and over and over again.

    Clinton got more popular votes? She got almost all of them in California. So Mr. Ceglowski thinks Clinton should be President based on that? That means Mr. Ceglowski wants the entire rest of America to be California’s colonial possession, ruled by a President that California picked. And don’t think we Midwestern Deplorables don’t understand exACTly how Ceglowski thinks and what Ceglowski thinks of us out here in Deploristan.

    Some Clinton supporters are smarter than that. Some were not surprised. Michael Moore was not surprised. He predicted that we Deploristani Midwesterners would make Trump President whether the digitally beautiful people liked it or not. Did Mr. Ceglowski support Clinton? Did the “tech workers in short-lived revolt” support Clinton? And did they support NAFTA back in the day? You thought you would cram Trade Treason Clinton down our throat? Well, we flung Trade Patriot Trump right back in your face.

    Reply
    1. different clue

      Other than that, of course, I like the article just fine. I wish EUrope luck in restraining the America-based Digital Feudalists, and I wish digital-rebel Americans luck in setting up tiny little digital “free towns” and “free republics” here and there.

      I suspect more operational freedom will be found in the Analog MeatSpace Real World. Every Dumm House without any BlooToof-enabled Internet Of Shit inside it is a castle of Freedom From Digital Feudalism, for example.

      Reply
    2. Orv

      I do consider it a bug that my vote counts for far less than the vote of someone in Wyoming. I’m tired of being dismissed as “not a REAL AMERICAN” by politicians elected by those rural states, and I resent their continual attempts to put me under their theocratic rule.

      Reply
      1. different clue

        Michigan is not a low-population rural state. Nor is Wisconsin. Nor is Ohio. Nor is Pennsylvania. These are the states that Michael Moore predicted would be the Brexit States which would elect Trump.

        Referrencing “the vote of someone in Wyoming” and whining about being dismissed as “not a REAL AMERICAN” by rural state politicians is a clever attempt at misdirection. It might work on some. But it didn’t work on me.

        We midwesterners are tired of being dismissed as “not a REAL HUMAN” by a pack of filthy stinking God Damned Trade Traitor Clintonite filth garbage filth in California.

        If you don’t like being able to put the rest of America under your Colonial Imperial rule, seccede. I promise not to support any efforts to prevent you. Take your 4 million popular votes for Clinton with you. We don’t need such vile sub-human pus infecting the American body politic.

        Reply
  23. Ulysses

    “I suspect more operational freedom will be found in the Analog MeatSpace Real World.”

    Yep. Might also be a good idea to do a little less “live-streaming” of everything that you see out in the Real World.

    Reply
  24. edr

    Wisdom Seeker
    May 19, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    “capitalism creates vast wealth inequality: that’s the whole point.”
    Not in Adam Smith’s world, nor Henry Ford’s. True capitalists prosper by creating wealth which improves the lives of everyone around them. Crony capitalists, the ones we have now, strip wealth from others. Witness today’s bubble-and-bust cycles rather than the prior widespread economic growth. …….time to restore Antitrust Law and apply it to the internet monopolists. And restore privacy rights… “

    APPLY THE ANTI-TRUST LAWS

    That’s exactly what’s needed. These ANTI-TRUST LAWS are on the books and stopped being rigorously enforced in the 70s, coinciding with the beginning of the drop in wages. The giant Corporations pull all the profits to a few centralized locations and accumulate the POWER that goes with it, POLITICAL BUYING POWER, which they’ve drained from the cities and small business people, reducing them to clerks instead of owners. Some of those anti-trust laws forbade any business from having more that 7% of the sales in any city; Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple and of course Walmart are way over those numbers. Monopolies are a huge threat to democracy.

    http://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/junejulyaug-2016/populism-with-a-brain/

    Restoring Privacy Rights and control over our own data is a very important aspect of what should be accomplished.

    Reply
  25. Kalen

    As usually very interesting and critical subject but the author however seems to be using it as a ploy to push some political agenda of one party wisdom over another or one phony economic or political remedy over the other while ignoring the fact that what’s happening is not accidental or a natural outcome of some economic conditions or technological innovations but a deliberate policies of globalists to obtain means of control of ever increasing world populations, technologies that were not needed just a century or two ago to execute the same exactness of the social control.

    This seeming progress and suppose it’s side effects are the core of the global effort, accumulation and centralization of wealth, power and control is not a just a sad unwanted, undesired element of glorious future but an essential objective, directed against world population at large.

    Here is an excerpt from:

    https://contrarianopinion.wordpress.com/2016/10/28/rise-of-social-machines-a-postscript-on-the-matrix-of-control-part-two/

    that address the issues of digital neo-feudalism as a rise of social machines.

    Some people are rightly skeptical and refuse to succumb to dehumanization hence there are introduced plenty of apologists, preprogrammed social machines unleashed onto the public selling ideas of illustrious progress pushing fantastic visions, hallucinations of AI robotic future emerging just around the corner and inevitable raise of robotic machines and glorious discarding [but in reality not replacing] of human beings as biopolitical entities that used to make profit for ruling oligarchy [in newspeak “having jobs”].

    However, if one listens closely to those pontificating magnificent future one would realize that they are not talking about replacing humans doing jobs with robots doing jobs, they are talking about replacing of the nature, type of tasks to be easily programmed for robots with AI label, in a feat to slowly reorient the very objective of production away from human being [needs or wants] who previously was an ultimate end of socioeconomic activity, more toward requirements of elements of machinic society that can no longer have a need to retain any human component in it.

    Reply
  26. none

    Past surveillance states failed because the resource overhead of having people spy on everyone all the time, maintain files on them, etc. grew too large. Modern computers, exabyte data centers, pervasive sensors (Amazon Alexa = a microphone in every bedroom!), face recognition and license plate readers everywhere, online monitoring, and AI/machine learning to identify the subversives will fix all that. Vision of future = a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

    Reply
    1. different clue

      I still like my slightly repurposed vision from the caption of Kliban’s cartoon . . .
      Vision of future = a dirty naked fat person sitting on a human face forever.

      Reply
    2. different clue

      Now people are tricked into spying on themselves and eachother via Twitter, MySpace, FaceBook , and every other social media opportunity for people to build dossiers on themselves.

      Reply
  27. Scott

    One cannot expect a single writer to give one all the answers. Eclecticism is damned hard.
    A free people, and we can look at two documents? Declaration of Human Rights that was mostly authored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and later the 1976 International Covenant of Civil & Political Rights that essentially gave the Declaration of Civil Rights the force of International Law.
    What we want is an economic system that creates more free people. What happens when more people in a nation have freedom is that they create more solutions to pressing problems either with systems or machines that enable those systems.
    The system ascendant now has been creating more tricks and traps for more people. Wage slavery certainly is more the desired outcome of even the academic system in the US.
    Rome, we are in the US doing Rome all over.
    Realistically one can see that repetitive aspects of the US empire in it’s greatness not for its advances in personal freedoms & health & happiness, but all of it dependent on a military industrial complex.
    The people are tricked and trapped and yes, the only way that they can stop it is to band together.
    Bert Stiles the bomber pilot wrote in his book Serenade to the Big Bird that “Economics is just a Hell of a Name for the way people live together.”
    From 30 thousand feet up he couldn’t see the borders, but they were there and defeating Scientific Socialism, that system had to be done first before there could be any better world, with a government of governments of which the UN was just a shadow.
    Capitalism is great, as long as it is regulated and then further if the goal is not just the exploitation of the weaknesses of others.
    Michael Hudson and those of the MMT school of economics are on the right track.
    Those now of the US Finance Banking System are exposed in what they intend to do to Puerto Rico.
    We need to band together and change the goal of the Finance banking System from what is the destruction of health, wellbeing, happiness of a US Territory to one that aims for those factors.
    It is a fight to pick.
    The other is to stop the Trump administration’s goal of taking more from the commons for private use and benefit.
    That fight is one to take up and is met in returning to us our Washington DC, post office.
    These two events illustrating polices of the people in charge & the system in place they use to concentrate wealth and power are worthy actual fights to organize to fight and reverse.
    All that the internet provides to me personally is what I wanted from SW radio. In that way it is great, and I love Twitter for that, though I loved CR4 pretty well.
    After the defeat of Carter, back at the tail end of “It’s the system.” All the fun of the fight for the idealists was taken out of the fight.
    The Reagan era started the era of lies and hypocrisy and secrecy of real intentions of our government even when exposed left us still all impotent.
    We don’t have to take it but we can’t win if we don’t pick our fights for both symbolic reasons and the reality of what they actually are.
    I’m leaving it with that, incomplete. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. different clue

      The food you can grow is the food you don’t need to work for others’ money to have the money to buy it from others.

      The heat you can trap within your own smart-designed passive solar house is the heat you don’t need to work for others to make the money to buy from others.

      The skywater you can harvest and store from falling on your roof is the water you don’t need to earn the money to buy.

      The waterless-compost-toilet body waste you can collect and sterilize for garden application in your own house and yard is the water you don’t have to waste feeding the toilet you don’t have to flush. Meaning that much less water you would have to buy.

      The less-electrically you can live, the less money you need to work for in order to buy the electricity you still need to live. The ideal would be to zero out electricity completely from anything which could be done without electricity. Reserve electricity for the things only electricity can do. And restrain one’s use of those things to the genuinely beneficial.

      Reply
  28. Rosario

    I’ll be the gadfly and ask a burning question, why do we need these monopolies/quasi-monopolies? What do Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. contribute at present that is not either built solely on their founding success or on the technological foundation built through government investment over the past 60 years? Case in point, the founding of Google. Developing one of the best of many search algorithms, using government money (NSF), to be used on a publicly funded technology (Internet) is innovative and possibly even a noble contribution to humanity, but cornering 90% of the global internet search market is no longer a result of that publicly funded algorithm. It is the ravenous consumption of market share through a perfect cocktail of a good idea mixed with a massive capital pool, an immense force of talented labor, timing (luck), and astute business maneuvering (I’m thinking Microsoft here as well). An analogy to another time is the Ford Motor Company, does anyone really believe Henry Ford made the best car? Was he the best at organizing the labor process? Seem a bit of a stretch, but his was a similar story to our modern tech giants. The snowball rolling down the hill that misses all the trees tends to get larger, not the other way around.

    The problem is, Maciej is wrestling with a more radical problem then I think he realizes. This is the cyclical nature of Capitalist progress. These monopolies are inevitable as far as history is concerned. Undermining them requires a level of democratically (or worse autocratically) directed intervention that I think would make him very uncomfortable.

    The first myth that needs to be dismantled is that innovation is the exclusive partner of the free enterprising individual. He touched on this with his labor discussion but I don’t think he went far enough. All the above companies are built on a massive foundation of labor. That labor keeps the machinery going. Not the billionaire founders. Much of that labor may be paid well enough (Fordism/wages for Model Ts) but they are still selling their labor to support these monopolies, and their situation is becoming more precarious by the day.

    The second myth, and one that I touched on above, is that these innovations occurred in a vacuum. There is not a single aspect of the tech economy that would exist without government spending. Not one. The sooner we come to terms with this fact the better.

    All that said, the discussion was a good start.

    Reply
  29. Wade Riddick

    The analogy to socialism is apt (“command economy”).

    To sum up, the ideological problems here amount to a lack of basic property rights – in particular, a lack of digital property/banking standards allowing for the holding and transfer of digital property. When the FANGS monetize personal data, they are essentially trespassing into people’s private lives/seizing the data generated by their work. At the very heart of owning property is the right to exclude others from its use. In many aspects of our digital lives, we no longer have that. Software isn’t a product anymore; it’s a service.

    We’re swimming in socialism and we can’t discuss it. It’s not that we lack the language; we lack the vision and the venue. The very people who ranted against communism from below are the ones now justifying it from above – and they control our media.

    Software as a service may have freed it from defective product suits but that escape from liability has only helped irresponsible design blossom in the industry. But they’re beginning to see the limits of the light-fingered approach for themselves. Witness the recent pivot of Microsoft towards embracing the concept of a public utility (“WannaCry Update/ Microsoft Pushes a “Geneva Convention” to Thwart Cyberattacks” in IEEE Spectrum).

    Why is it economists have such a hard time understanding computer programs are a form of labor? It’s not just a matter of efficiency and factors of production. Hosting someone else’s software on your home computer is like having a million contractors in your home. Would you let an unlicensed contractor into your most intimate spaces? How about a million of them?

    Modern economists can’t conceive of property right properly much less think about trespass, utilities or rights of way. If we can’t realize that operating systems are utilities and if we can’t remember the true purpose of government in serving us public goods and setting standards for conduct then organized crime rings will reduce us to digital feudalism. Automated cars will be autohijacked. ISPs will monetize our vacation plans by subcontracting to the local B&E gang. Eventually they’ll team up with police planting evidence for the uncivilized process we deem civil forfeiture. Call it eminent domain without the eminence.

    Reply
  30. Heraclitus

    ‘There is a bug in the operating system of our democracy, one of the many ways that slavery still casts its shadow over American politics.’

    The writer confuses the 3/5ths rule with the electoral college. The electoral college is the product of a compromise necessary to make a nation out of independent states. This is why small states have two senators just like large states, i.e..a compromise was necessary to get small states to join the union. That had nothing to do with slavery per se. It was the composition of the House, as influenced by the 3/5ths rule, that brought slavery into the equation. Since the 3/5ths rule went out with slavery, slavery has nothing to do with the election of 2016.

    Reply
  31. Olivier

    Among other flaws of this article, I was extremely irritated by the author’s glib characterization of the electoral college as “a bug in the operating system of our democracy”. Ironically for one who rails about tech feudalism he seems to have no understanding of how this exists to thwart another form of political feudalism: from the most populous states to the rest of the country. If this is how much understanding he has of “his” democracy after a stay of many years perhaps he ought to give up and just go back to Europe.

    Reply
    1. Orv

      Instead, though, we have the reverse — the least populous states essentially getting to decide the outcome, while the votes of people in the most populous states are largely meaningless. If I lived in Wyoming, my vote would be worth 3.6 times as much as it is in California. The modern justification for this seems to be that those of us on the coasts are not “real Americans” and therefore shouldn’t count.

      Reply
  32. glib

    amazing naivete’ in this article. Why did Poland’s standards of living improve, but not, say, Romania or Moldova or Macedonia? Could it have something to do with the Teutonic Order based there or nearby for a thousand years? Really, an ounce of geo-political history will save you reading through a ton of ignorant, flawed premises ruminations.

    Reply

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