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Maria

This is your phone on feminism

by Maria on September 14, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk in Austria on smartphones and cybersecurity.

“Put up your hand if you like or maybe even love your smartphone,” I asked the audience of policymakers, industrialists and students.

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

“Now, please put up your hand if you trust your smartphone.”

One young guy at the back put his hand in the air, then faltered as it became obvious he was alone. I thanked him for his honesty and paused before saying,“We love our phones, but we do not trust them. And love without trust is the definition of an abusive relationship.”

We are right not to trust our phones. They serve several masters, the least of whom is us. They constantly collect data about us that is not strictly necessary to do their job. They send data to the phone company, to the manufacturer, to the operating system owner, to the app platform, and to all the apps we use. And then those companies sell or rent that data to thousands of other companies we will never see. Our phones lie to us about what they are doing, they conceal their true intentions, they monitor and manipulate our emotions, social interaction and even our movements. We tell ourselves ‘it’s okay, I chose this’ when we know it really, really isn’t okay, and we can’t conceive of a way out, or even of a world in which our most intimate device isn’t also a spy.

Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.

I ‘m really proud of this piece. The rest of it is here.

Comments here at CT v. welcome especially as there’s more I’d like to say about Kate Manne. Anyone here read ‘Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny? Her thing is that while sexism is the rationalising part, misogyny is the law enforcement branch of patriarchy. (this is a scandalously short and impertinent summary. It’s a fantastic book and I recommend reading it.) I’m thinking that, analogously for surveillance capitalism, exploitation is the rationalisation and predation the policing mechanism. But not sure if that quite works, i.e. if the terms match up, as well as the overall analogy.

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I was at a bookish festival this weekend. (Thank you, lovely Primadonna. I hope you happen again next year.) Pretty frazzed between work trips (Austria last week. Kuwait tomorrow! Yay?), I ditched the festival schedule and largely let Milo’s nose decide which sessions we attended. Serendipity. Also; no pressure. These were my watchwords. We went from tent to barn to tent, not lingering too long. I had a sitdown in a tent with a sign-up for what I thought was ‘read the first paragraph of your work in progress’. Great! I signed up, popped out with Milo to get some water for him, then came back. Turned out it was not a ‘haltingly read your tender first lines’ session but … stand-up.

No pressure.
[click to continue…]

Giovanni Buttarelli

by Maria on August 22, 2019

A few years ago I was on a panel about the Internet of Things. There were five of us, plus the moderator, sitting in a line across the stage of the Brussels convention centre; reps from Google and, I think, a big Korean chaebol, Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski the Assistant European Data Protection Supervisor (though he might have still been the Polish DPC at that point), and me. I was there – I think – because the moderator knew me and I can usually be relied upon in these situations to stir a little, but not too much.

It all took a while to get going because Google, a major sponsor, took some of the allotted time to screen a video about how the Internet of Things would also include the Internet of Clothes, and how this would be great for Europeans because the ‘smart’ fabrics in question were hand-woven French jacquard. The infomercial was followed by a lengthy and remarkably self-serving presentation from the Google executive, and we all had to sit up on the stage looking interested for a good fifteen or twenty minutes. Finally, the panel-proper began and our moderator lobbed a softball for each of us to answer in turn.

Everyone was quite measured and politely took their cue from the Google framing, which was that Europe needed to ‘focus on innovation’, ‘provide an enabling regulatory environment’, and basically make the Single Market safe for surveillance capitalism. What none of us realised was that once the video had finished screening behind us, it had been replaced by a live Twitter feed which the now quite grumpy audience was quickly populating with dissent. We on the stage couldn’t read the sarcasm and frustration that had filled up the hashtag, so when it came to my turn and I let rip a quick but genuinely exasperated little monologue that ended with a rhetorical question about how we data-subjects would even afford to buy smart things after we’d all been automated out of existence, the applause and even a few whoops took us all by surprise.

Giovanni caught my eye and grinned. Anyone, and I mean anyone, in receipt of a smile like that – loaded as it was with canniness, grace, deep and multiply enfolded intelligence, and sheer downright mirth – would walk a long way to see it again.

[click to continue…]

Friend of CT, Andrew Brown, dug this memo out on the occasion of the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web, a few weeks ago.

This memo was sent in June 1994 to Sergio Cellini, who was, iirc, the chief advertising man at the Independent then. I was both the religious affairs correspondent and the editor of a weekly computer page.

It was headed “Cheap advertising for the paper: outmanoevering[1] the Guardian”

The Guardian is vigorously attacking the market for science and computer journalism.

Amongst other things, it has formed a link with Compuserve, the largest commercial provider of electronic information to home computers in the world. Compuserve has more than 2m customers and is growing fast. Any of these will be able to read selected articles from the Guardian, write to specialists there, and talk amongst each other.

We can’t afford the investment of time or money to do that.[2] But we can be smarter.

I propose that we experiment in distributing a weekly edition of the paper [3] over the Internet, a global computer network with at least 20m users, of whom 30,000 are in this country. It is possible to rent space on a sort of electronic billboard for less than
£75 a month.[4] That amount of space would enable us to make available practically the whole text of a whole week’s newspaper if we wanted to. I propose instead that we simply put together a sampler of interesting and amusing articles each week, perhaps
with some of our better photographs.[5]

This would be accessible from almost anywhere in the world for the price of a local phone call.

It would be much easier to read and more attractive to look at than whatever the
Guardian does with the relatively archaic technology offered by Compuserve. It would, however, be entirely separate from the paper’s own computer systems, so that there could be no security risk.

Unlike Compuserve, the Internet is not commercial. It is not even an organisation. It is a loose global association of co-operating networks, most of which were developed to link universities, using Government funding. Until recently it was extraordinarily
difficult for amateurs to use. However, a new program called the World Wide Web makes the Internet astonishingly easy and simple to navigate.

Demon Systems, who are the most successful suppliers of Internet services to the consumer market in this country, have just started to rent out “Pages” on the World Wide Web. We could have one running within four days[6] of a decision, for a £50 set-up fee and a modest monthly rental. As things stand at present, we would make no money, except indirectly. But Demon are working on ways to do business over the Internet in future, so that browsers could fill in a form on-screen and order back issues, or other merchandise, from us using their credit cards.[7]

In the meantime, we would be given a weekly report on how many people accessed the service, which would give us a clear idea of how large the potential market is.

Obviously all newspaper will have to move into this sort of market eventually. Doing it through Demon now allows us to do so quickly, cheaply,and flexibly.

[1] I still can’t spell that word
[2] These were the long years of the Independent’s commercial retreat
[3] I dunno: maybe call it “The Guardian Weekly” or something like that.
[4] This is hard to believe, but I will have checked the figure with Demon. In retrospect it is unlikely they had anything like the capacity.
[5] Might actually have been feasible, since we printed in black and white
[6] The old Indie had put together a printed Saturday godslot in three days from when I put the idea to Andreas WS (without having commissioned anyone, so that was fun). The Guardian, fifteen years later, took nine months to build a section of Comment is Free, web only, for religious matters.
[7] Though this was sent to the advertising manager, the idea that we could sell ads on the web had not occurred to anyone. The paper was to be an advertisement for itself

Late to a really great party

by Maria on April 4, 2019

Book thread: Henry’s yesterday about Linda Nagata also mentioned Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘Spin’, a thoroughly brilliant novel I feel like the last person in the world to have read. Mysteriously, an unread copy of it had been shuttling back and forward between my ‘shelve’ and ‘chuck’ piles – neither Ed nor I had bought it. I picked it up last month and my delight in reading it was only very slightly marred by a wish that I’d read it long ago, especially before other books that are essentially paler versions. That reminded me of one of my aunts who pressed Middlemarch on me when I was 18. For reasons I can’t defend, I only actually read the book at about 40. Greater regrets with this one, because it really does feel like one of those books you read repeatedly through life, concentrating on or being open to different aspects corresponding to how we all change and grow. (and also shrink)

Then I’m reminded of a very dear friend who’d never read a Russian novel. Oh, the evenings we spent, asking ‘But Anna Karenina, you must have read that? No? Really none? How about Crime and Punishment?” Then a couple of years ago it turned out he’d gone away in between times and has basically now read every classic Russian novel ever translated into English.

So, shoot. What books have you resisted for years, that turned out to be just as brilliant as everyone had said?

Three things have made me think about why the way we do policy is wrong; the European Parliament passed the Copyright Directive, privileging IP over everyone else and locking in the current Big Tech players it affected to despise; climate breakdown rumbled on through a wave of public protests with no meaningful way to connect public concern to parliamentary processes and build in future harms to present decisions; and it emerged that more than one new housing development around where I live have ‘playground apartheid’, where kids living in the less expensive apartments aren’t allowed to play in the parks being created.

I was really, really, really not going to write about this as I finally have some energy and emotional wherewithal to crack into a shedload of deadlines, but then Chris Marsden – who you should follow if you’re interested in tech – tweeted this:

“Because @Europarl_EN is abolishing the future, I thought I’d time travel back to when we thought evidence based policy was worth a try”

And of course Chris is right. We are abolishing the future. Our policy processes are broken not just horizontally – they privilege lobbyists over citizens for reasons anyone who’s ever heard of a collective action problem will understand – but temporally. [click to continue…]

At least you can leave

by Maria on January 31, 2019

London is the city of leaving do’s. There’s a real push on to get out before it all gets worse. This morning I was chatting with a Swedish friend who leaves on Tuesday, telling her how much freer and more energetic she’ll feel once she’s not carrying around the mental load of daily FUD that comes from just living here, now. My friend cut across the faux cheery bullshit and said “I don’t feel safe here, any more. There’s no limit to what they can do.”

There’s a conversation I’ve had with several British friends. We’ll all be moaning about Brexit affecting us and how the UK’s dysfunctional politics means there is no way to express this electorally, and then they’ll say; “But you’re lucky. At least you can leave.” [click to continue…]

A bridge not far enough

by Maria on November 18, 2018

Yesterday I took part in an act of civil disobedience, helping to close off one of five central London bridges as part of Extinction Rebellion. The campaign takes the view of a couple of the books discussed recently here on CT, that at some point the ‘get out of jail free’ clause on principled political disobedience rises to the level of positive moral obligation; the urgency and devastation of climate change are so severe, and normal politics so unable to conceive of what’s needed, let alone do much or any of it, that blocking streets and other forms of nonviolent escalation are now essential.

On one level, it was just the same as every other protest; make a sign for the dog, stuff my pockets with poo-bags, and be sure not to drink too much beforehand. It was clear once I got onto the bridge – which was already blocked to traffic – that if you wanted to risk arrest you should sit in the road; otherwise you could just show support for those being arrested. There were the usual speeches, singing, drumming, chatting, getting Milo to pose for pictures with people, and even a woman playing the cello. It was pretty white, though with a strong Swampy contingent, a couple of whom had several arrests behind them and were looking at a custodial sentence if they were arrested again.

I stayed on the footpath, cheering for those arrested. But I felt uneasy about it and still do. And uneasy that I feel so anxious about rule-breaking – to the point where, when I was going home, I made sure to thank the police. (For some reason, the bridge I was on had six times the arrests of the next most numerous one.) It’s nice on one level, because it was a well-policed event with no aggro I could discern. But it’s also such a middle class white lady protestor thing to want to do, standing around with my cute dog and his cute sign, wanting everyone to be happy, especially in a country where policing is unequal and often vicious. Even this morning I have that emotional hangover from when you’ve gone a bit far in a political argument and, while winning, have squashed the other person a bit too much.

The reasons I went to do mild civil disobedience were what I’d read here from Chris et al on positive obligation, and also having noticed a week or two ago that a senior Church of England churchman was involved. Reading that back, I see I’ve become such an upstanding churchlady goody two shoes that I want to slap myself! Then I think, well, nothing political or structural gets done without massive, unlikely coalitions. So I just need to get over the fact that now, yes, I’m a mid-forties person who’s now on the distinctly establishment end of the rainbow. It’s a good thing – if galling, I’m sure – that the complacents like me are finally starting to get the message, but God knows we don’t deserve any medals for finally turning up.

There were people there who basically live on fracking protest sites or who have been activists for decades. It occurred to me this morning (yes, in church and no, I don’t know why I’m so sheepish about this, either) that those protestors are like the disciples who heard the New Testament firsthand, took it at face value and then did the only thing they could – tore up their lives to go out and re-make the world in the image of what they believed to be true. Success or failure didn’t matter. If you believed it was what it said it was and followed the logic of it through, there was no alternative but to spend the rest of your life proselytising in a hair-shirt, penniless and relying on the hospitality of others.

The same is true for climate change, obviously. Its severity and urgency and the sheer evil of how we are sliding into it demand that we tear our lives up to try to stop or at least slow it down. But in the same way that every religion gets softened because doing what it actually says on the tin is clearly unreasonable (i.e. incompatible with living comfortably), on climate change we’re still acting as if incremental change is a reasonable response to imminent catastrophe. (Or maybe the rationalisation is the implicit belief that the catastrophe will mostly happen to other people?)

The difference between the radicalisms called for by Christianity and climate change is this; the second coming is highly unlikely (at least), but climate catastrophe is both imminent and already here. We know it is coming, but we are still waiting to be forced by immediate circumstance into a radicalism we feel in our bones is essential right now. When the disaster finally comes to us, some part or number of us will finally embrace it with grateful relief. But till then, many are screaming into the void. Stopping a bit of traffic is the very, very, very least we can do. And no, it is not and will never have been enough.

A friend I called into on the way couldn’t come till later, and by then the bridge was blocked off to other protestors. She stood at the barricade explaining to people who wanted to cross Lambeth Bridge what the demonstration was about and asking them if, now they knew, they felt it was justified. Most of them did, once they thought about it. Maybe they won’t join any future ones, and probably it will be too late, but I think my friend certainly did more for the cause than I did, yesterday.

I will say, though, that by far the best bit was when I was walking along the Albert Embankment and a young man in a suit, driving a very large Mercedes which had just been turned away from the blocked bridge, was screaming out his opened window. Some tourists turned to see what he was about and he roared at them to “Shower, you cunts!”. Result.

Owning the Peanut Gallery

by Maria on September 23, 2018

https://twitter.com/henryfarrell/status/1043306749854449664

Ted Cruz has been accused of debating Beto O’Rourke in the style of a US college debater, more concerned with winning points than hearts. Twas ever thus.

In the autumn of 1992 I turned up at McGill University, Montreal. I’d wanted to go to France on Erasmus but didn’t qualify. One of my uncles, an economist at UCD, had cast around his desk for a flyer or a phone number, I don’t remember which. He named some other places, then Montreal, which we remembered was in Quebec, where two Belfast cousins had settled some time after my grandmother’s family took them in during the war. One of those cousins, Sean, still lived in Montreal, and was a pathologist at the university. His brother, the novelist Brian Moore, had written a novel about Jesuits in Algonquin that had been made into a film the year before, and featured a scene still etched in my memory of a cute, skinny young priest trying to maintain his dignity as he curled out a shit over the side of a long canoe, to the merriment of the First Nations guys rowing it. That was the clincher, so to speak.

In the first week at McGill, I auditioned for a play and tried out for the debate team. I was cast as a pillar in a Greek drama (no, I don’t know how that would have worked, either), and sent to represent McGill at a novice’s tournament in Bates College, Maine. Debating it was, then.

College debating in Ireland was just free entertainment on a Thursday or Friday night, with speakers prowling the pit of the merely medium-sized Theatre M, throwing out gags and being heckled viciously by what we then called friends, and what I now know were more like colleagues, the hacks in the box at the very top. There were often name-brand invited speakers, usually treated a little more respectfully, but only up to a point and the point was to be either masterful or entertaining, and ideally both. [click to continue…]

Think-tank Fiction

by Maria on September 3, 2018

Reading the intro to what turned out to be Gardner Dozois’ final SF anthology (RIP – his collections were my favourite by a country mile. In memory and thanks, I finally took his beseechings to heart and renewed subscriptions to a couple of SF magazines), I discovered there’s a name for a thing we’ve started to see a lot of and which I’ve also started doing in the last year or so; think-tank fiction.

Apparently, Jonathan Strahan coined the phrase to describe what Dozois said are ‘Futurology anthologies, many of them with corporate or government sponsors”. Henry wrote a nice piece on Philip K. Dick for the Boston Review dystopia one. Wired is at it, Slate, too. MIT, and various tech firms. I’ve even had a chat with the BBC about one. Let’s see what happens.

In a much smaller way, I wrote a bunch of 500-word future newspaper articles on the theme of ‘the Internet in 10 years’ for a report by the Internet Society, last year. The idea was to do three per report theme, I think, and they’d go with those sections, but in the end they were all bundled into a section of their own. I’m writing some again this year, but now the brief is for 1000 – 1500 words, and just three or four of them. So, by way of writing long as I don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to write smart, some observations: [click to continue…]

WTF FT?

by Maria on March 13, 2018

For a couple of days I’ve been tweeting about the Financial Times’ decision to have Steve Bannon as its “keynote interview” in a conference on the future of news in New York, on 22 March.

Fresh from his tour of Europe where Bannon told his rabid fans being called a racist is a “badge of honour”, Bannon has declared himself the “infrastructure” of the world’s far right.

As Bannon spent the last week holed up in luxury hotels one wonders at him being able to afford, and soliciting Europe’s far right ‘politicians, operatives and investors’, he told the New York Times: “…he was weighing whether to buy a name-brand outlet, like Newsweek or United Press International, or to start a new one, or to connect entrepreneurs with capital or invest himself.”

Bannon wants money to start a new, far right media venture. What better place to do that than the world’s financial and media hub?

Enter the FT.

[click to continue…]

Brexit and data protection

by Maria on March 3, 2018

Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May gave a much-trailed speech purporting to flesh out some ‘detail’ – that most hated and troublesome concept for Brexiteers. On data protection law and institutions, she said:

“But the free flow of data is also critical for both sides in any modern trading relationship too. The UK has exceptionally high standards of data protection. And we want to secure an agreement with the EU that provides the stability and confidence for EU and UK business and individuals to achieve our aims in maintaining and developing the UK’s strong trading and economic links with the EU.

That is why we will be seeking more than just an adequacy arrangement and want to see an appropriate ongoing role for the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. This will ensure UK businesses are effectively represented under the EU’s new ‘one stop shop’ mechanism for resolving data protection disputes.”

This basically summarises the UK’s position since last August:

“After the UK leaves the EU, new arrangements to govern the continued free flow of personal data between the EU and the UK will be needed, as part of the new, deep and special partnership. The UK starts from an unprecedented point of alignment with the EU. In recognition of this, the UK wants to explore a UK-EU model for exchanging and protecting personal data, which could build on the existing adequacy model, by providing sufficient stability for businesses, public authorities and individuals, and enabling the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and partner EU regulators to maintain effective regulatory cooperation and dialogue for the benefit of those living and working in the UK and the EU after the UK’s withdrawal.”

It is pretty straight down the line UK positioning.

So, ‘you need us at least as much as we need you?’ Tick. Though I’d be surprised if the data flow volume is symmetrical.

‘Believe us when we say we’ll have perfect regulatory alignment while also making the UK more innovative and flexible?’ Tick. Despite its dicking around with the GDPR implementation – especially the huge carve-out that slashes data protection for any non-UK citizens – UK will at least start with a more or less guaranteed adequacy finding that says its data protection regime is enough for transfers to continue.

And ‘We will of course leave the EU and all its institutions, but still expect an influential role in determining future policy and EU law.’ Tick. Magnificent cake-ism, really. Entirely consistent with the rest of the UK’s negotiating stance. Theresa May really believes the 27 member states need the UK’s input on data protection so much, that they’ll let its regulator, the ICO, continue to take part in coordination procedures, and also continue to water down data protection for everyone else. [click to continue…]

Books, books, books

by Maria on December 2, 2017

Around November, I declare a ban on any new/borrowed books and try and finish all the books I’ve started that year. Slow-going, this year, as I was for some reason unable to read for much of October and November, and lots of the unread pile is non-fiction. Anyway, some highlights of the year, below. Another post to follow on what’s on the Christmas list.

A book that lingered in mind long after I’d finished it was Laline Paull’s fascinating The Ice (The Bees is still one of my favourite books of the last decade, and I pressed copies of it into two more people’s hands this year.) The Ice is set in the very near future, about the friendship between two men who each want to save the last bit of the Arctic. The chapters begin with excerpts from the memoirs and letters of others who have been obsessed with Arctic exploration, drawing out the historic roots of our drive both to explore and exploit.

Recently I listened to a LRB Cafe event podcast with China Mieville from about 2014. He mentioned something about “…extruded-literary fiction product which is about the calm, chapter by chapter decoding of a never very mysterious metaphor to clarify what life is a bit like, and the book ends with a ‘yes, that’s so true’, that is very wise’.” We all pretty much know what that is, when we see it. I can’t be the only one hungry for novels about politics, money, the environment, the movement of people and surveillance capitalism. Laline Paull’s The Ice grapples with several of these, and the world of work, which is quite rarely found in fiction, and the deals individuals make with themselves and the world they find themselves in, and whether we have any business holding onto hope. [click to continue…]

Saudi, Lebanon, Iran …WTF?

by Maria on November 8, 2017

That’s kind of it, really.

What on earth is this new Saudi prince thinking? That he can enlarge the sphere of the existing proxy war to fight and win a conventional war against Iran..? Despite vast spending, SA barely has an military – and no, buying lots of shiny weapons, equipping a few militias, renting mercenaries, and fighting a partial air-war in Yemen won’t much count against Iran if SA succeeds in picking the war it seems to so badly want. The rhetoric and posturing seem to go significantly beyond sabre-rattling for national unity. What can the game-plan possibly be?

If the Aramco thing isn’t going ahead, soon – clearly – then where will the $$ come from for all this?

And why make Hariri resign on the same day as the Saudi putsch? Was the plot against him real? And is he at liberty? (Slightly more than averagely curious as I very briefly met him, seven or eight years ago, with some Lebanese friends in Washington. Charismatic man.) And, oh gods, WTAF was the son-in-law of the US president doing, sniffing around just before all this?

What does the approaching end-game in Syria have to do with it all? Will Russia stay out of any widening of the Yemen conflict? And is anyone who sold SA its mountains of weaponry and aircraft and the people to operate them – God knows actual Saudis couldn’t be expected to do the heavy-lifting – feeling just a tingle of ‘oops’..?

Should someone leak those Brexit reports?

by Maria on October 29, 2017

Writing isn’t cathartic, though reading can sometimes be. Last week’s post about my disillusionment with the UK, a country wracked by its own wilful austerity and now taking out its pain on its immigrants, was taken to heart by many among the three million other EU citizens living here. I’m glad about that, because many of them felt that few people are expressing their sense of loss and anger. But I am especially struck by one comment; “Yes, but what about the duty of hope?”

The “duty of hope” is a phrase used by some involved in the Northern Ireland peace process to actively remind each other that at many (realistically, almost any) points along the way, it’s all looked disastrous, but that if they’d indulged in the perfectly rational feeling of hopelessness, they would never have gotten anywhere. Life goes on. It has to. So what’s next?

Anyone who has access to some or all of the UK government’s reports analysing the likely effects of Brexit on UK industry should consider doing what they can to get them into the public domain. The reports were commissioned by the government and contain materially important information the UK needs to help it decide what to do next. There is a massive public interest in learning what they say.

The government’s argument is that the information will weaken its negotiating position. I believe that argument is moot. The government’s negotiating position could hardly get any weaker. It has been weakened by the too-early triggering of Article 50, the calling of a disastrous general election, and by putting power over the process into the hands of parochially ignorant and ineffective ministers. If the government cared about the strength of its position, it would have developed a stronger one, and handled it better, tactically. Secondly, if the UK position is, to the few who know the worst, so fatally weakened by this information, then that information is too important for the country to remain ignorant of.

There are efforts already to get the information into the public domain. Freedom of Information requests have been made and denied. Questions have been put in Parliament. A petition by MPs has been submitted. All have been repelled. An attempt to force a judicial review of the compelled secrecy of the documents is ongoing. Occasionally, there are calls for whistle-blowing. [click to continue…]