io9′s Annalee Newitz linked to Zeynep Tukefci’s Medium essay about pervasive surveillance. Drawing from her experiences with last year’s Gezi Park protest, it’s the author’s arguent that the paradigms we use to describe the surveillance state–Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Panopticon–hide more than they reveal.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the anti-hero, Winston Smith, lives under bleak conditions. Everything is gray. He eats stale dark bread. Informers and the cameras are everywhere. Sex is banned. Children spy on their parents. If a citizen defies Oceania’s harsh rules, a cage of rats is placed around his face.
This imagined future is an allegory for a fear-driven state, one inspired by Orwell’s views on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Nineteen Eighty-Four is about surveillance in a society where the power of the state bears down on everyone, every day. In other words, it is about totalitarianism.
The Panopticon is a thought experiment: a model prison meant to control a society of prisoners. But we are not prisoners. We are not shackled in cells, with no rights and no say in governance.
In our world, pleasure is not banned; it is encouraged and celebrated, albeit subsumed under the banner of consumption. Most of us do not live in fear of the state as we go about our daily lives. (There are notable exceptions: for example, poor communities of color and immigrants who suffer under “stop-and-frisk” and “show your papers” laws.)
To make sense of the surveillance states that we live in, we need to do better than allegories and thought experiments, especially those that derive from a very different system of control. We need to consider how the power of surveillance is being imagined and used, right now, by governments and corporations.
We need to update our nightmares.
She turns to Gramsci.
To understand the actual—and truly disturbing—power of surveillance, it’s better to turn to a thinker who knows about real prisons: the Italian writer, politician, and philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who was jailed by Mussolini and did most of his work while locked up. Gramsci understood that the most powerful means of control available to a modern capitalist state is not coercion or imprisonment, but the ability to shape the world of ideas. The essence of some of Gramsci’s arguments can be seen in another great dystopian novel of the 20th century. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley envisions a state that eschews existential terror in favor of a drug, soma, that keeps its citizens happy and pliant.
Shaping ideas is, of course, easier said than done. Bombarding people with ads only works to a degree. No one likes being told what to think. We grow resistant to methods of persuasion that we see through—just think of ads of yesteryear, and of how corny they feel. They worked in their day, but we’re alert to them now. Besides, blanket coverage isn’t easy to achieve in today’s fragmented media landscape. How many channels can one company advertise on? And we now fast-forward through television commercials, anyway. Even if it were possible to catch us through mass media, messages that work for one person often fail to convince others.
Big-data surveillance is dangerous exactly because it provides solutions to these problems. Individually tailored, subtle messages are less likely to produce a cynical reaction. Especially so if the data collection that makes these messages possible is unseen. That’s why it’s not only the NSA that goes to great lengths to keep its surveillance hidden. Most Internet firms also try to monitor us surreptitiously. Their user agreements, which we all must “sign” before using their services, are full of small-font legalese. We roll our eyes and hand over our rights with a click. Likewise, political campaigns do not let citizens know what data they have on them, nor how they use that data. Commercial databases sometimes allow you to access your own records. But they make it difficult, and since you don’t have much right to control what they do with your data, it’s often pointless.
This is why the state-of-the-art method for shaping ideas is not to coerce overtly but to seduce covertly, from a foundation of knowledge. These methods don’t produce a crude ad—they create an environment that nudges you imperceptibly. Last year, an article in Adweek noted that women feel less attractive on Mondays, and that this might be the best time to advertise make-up to them. “Women also listed feeling lonely, fat and depressed as sources of beauty vulnerability,” the article added. So why stop with Mondays? Big data analytics can identify exactly which women feel lonely or fat or depressed. Why not focus on them? And why stop at using known “beauty vulnerabilities”? It’s only a short jump from identifying vulnerabilities to figuring out how to create them. The actual selling of the make-up may be the tip of the iceberg.
Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster suggests that we now have the beginnings of a model for the formation of planets around pulsars, with debris from the supernova explosion spinning towards the pulsar and condensing into planets.
The Dragon’s Gaze links to a study suggesting that photosynthesis is possible on worlds locked into 3:2 resonances about their local sun, i.e. rotatomg three times on its axis for every two orbits around the sun.
The Financial Times‘ World blog wonders if Venezuela might follow Ukraine.
A Fistful of Euros’ Doug Merrill notes that Ukrainian revolutionaries are just beginning the real work.
Marginal Revolution notes the writings of an economist employed by Facebook. What does he do?
John Moyer, still in Iceland, meditates on solitude.
Naked Anthropologist’s Laura Agustín takes issue with the term “loverboys” used to describe studies of transnational prostitution.
The New APPS Blog considers what it means if animals feel love.
Justin Petrone, writing about the noise surrounding the Ukrainian revolution, argues in favour of radical skepticism of both sides as likely to lead to the truth.
Strange Maps considers the various plans for partitioning California into smaller units, including the most recent one.
The Internet has a nagging problem: There is lots of information, but often confusion about what’s true. Many big websites try to solve this problem with their services. At least one, Quora, suggests that maybe we don’t care that much about the truth.
Adam D’Angelo, a co-founder and chief executive of Quora, a question-and-answer service. “Eighty percent of our views happen a month after an answer is written,” he said. Adam D’Angelo, a co-founder and chief executive of Quora, a question-and-answer service. “Eighty percent of our views happen a month after an answer is written,” he said.
Quora is a question-and-answer website founded by Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever, two early employees at Facebook. Begun in June 2010, it claims to have information on over 450,000 topics, almost all posted by its registered users.
“The scale is so big that there’s no point in saying what the top 50 questions are,” said Mr. D’Angelo, who is also Quora’s chief executive. Unlike a news business, immediacy isn’t an issue, either. “Eighty percent of our views happen a month after an answer is written,” he said.
[. . .]
The range of topics is certainly impressive. Questions include “What’s it like to hug a penguin?” and “Who are the likely 2016 Republican presidential candidates?” and “Is Al Qaeda winning?” Most of the questions have multiple answers, which other readers vote up or down.
Answers with the most votes don’t always end up at the top of a list of answers to a question, presumably the place of truth; over 100 factors, including down votes and who is voting, affect the ranking. But the votes are what is visible, and they matter for the business of keeping people engaged.
It’s not just impossible to say how accurate the answers are; it may not really be an issue. The penguin question, for example, has two answers at its top with opposite conclusions. Their difference may be resolved this way: Hugging a penguin at Sea World is cute, and hugging a penguin in the wild is like asking for a mugging. There is no such distinction in the answers themselves, however.
It is reasonably entertaining, however (in this case, if you’re into penguins). Quora styles itself “the topic network,” which is another way of saying it is partly in the business of organizing knowledge into categories about which people can have discussions. Everything is subject to change, a kind of implicit admission that nothing can ever be finally known.
Claire Cain Miller’s weekend New York Times article claiming that Google Plus meant more to Google as an identity service than as a social network competitive with Facebook caught the attention of many people.
Google Plus may not be much of a competitor to Facebook as a social network, but it is central to Google’s future — a lens that allows the company to peer more broadly into people’s digital life, and to gather an ever-richer trove of the personal information that advertisers covet. Some analysts even say that Google understands more about people’s social activity than Facebook does.
The reason is that once you sign up for Plus, it becomes your account for all Google products, from Gmail to YouTube to maps, so Google sees who you are and what you do across its services, even if you never once return to the social network itself.
Before Google released Plus, the company might not have known that you were the same person when you searched, watched videos and used maps. With a single Plus account, the company can build a database of your affinities.
Google says Plus has 540 million monthly active users, but almost half do not visit the social network.
“Google Plus gives you the opportunity to be yourself, and gives Google that common understanding of who you are,” said Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product management for Google Plus.
Plus is now so important to Google that the company requires people to sign up to use some Google services, like commenting on YouTube. The push is being done so forcefully that it has alienated some users and raised privacy and antitrust concerns, including at the Federal Trade Commission. Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, tied employee bonuses companywide to its success and appointed Vic Gundotra, a senior Google executive, to lead it.
The value of Plus has only increased in the last year, as search advertising, Google’s main source of profits, has slowed. At the same time, advertising based on the kind of information gleaned from what people talk about, do and share online, rather than simply what they search for, has become more important.
At one end, writing at Slate Lily Hay Newman argued that Google Plus isn’t that significant a component in Google’s decade-long effort to consolidate individuals’ online data. And at the other, the New York Timesshared the statements of loyal Google Plus users, many of whom found the network hosted more personally relevant content and was technologically innovative than Facebook. (Google Hangouts seem to feature.)
Me? I’m a Google Plus member, but I use it much less than I do Facebook. Simply put, the vast majority of the people I know and I’m likely to know are on Facebook. Spending time on a new network isn’t that worthwhile. Perhaps more to the point, practically the only thing I use Google for is for its search and news-aggregation functions. I don’t use Gmail, and the closure of Google Reader forced me to take my RSS habits away. Yahoo, between Flickr and Yahoo Mail and Tumblr, is something I use much more frequently.
Svati Kirsten Narula’s interview at The Atlantic with Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, co-founders of Goodreads, makes for interesting reading. As someone who maintains a profile there, I like reading about how this interesting online social network came to be.
Let’s flash back to seven years ago when you launched Goodreads. Can you tell me the founding story?
Otis Chandler: In 2006, I moved to Los Angeles to be closer to Elizabeth. The company I was working at before had launched an early social network called Tickle, and I had also worked on online dating sites. So I had a good understanding of online social dynamics.
The interesting thing with dating sites was that they really splintered—every niche, genre, ethnicity, and sport has a dating site! But for as long as I worked on dating sites, I didn’t use them—I was not single. I wanted to build a social network around something that I loved. Elizabeth and I are both big bookworms, and my freshman project at Stanford was building a digital e-reader—so I guess I’ve always had an itch to scratch there.
Elizabeth Chandler: I was working as a journalist at the Los Angeles Times, and I’m a words person. I like writing, [and I was] an English major – probably the typical Goodreads user, especially in the beginning! So I got really excited when he built it, like “This is for me! Now I’m going to catalogue every book I have in my house.”
OC: We found that Elizabeth and all her English major friends were our power users, and we thought, “There’s something here.”
But if there was an epiphany moment, it was when I was in my friend’s room, and he had a bookshelf of all the books he’d ever read, and I just kind of grilled him: “Well, what did you think of this book, what did you think of that book?” And I came away with a long list of five or 10 books I was excited to read.
Putting my social networking hat [on], I thought, if I could only get my all friends to put their bookshelves online and say what they thought of them. That seemed like it would just be a really good way to find good books. And I think that’s been proven true.
EC: People of all types who read all sorts of books really gravitated to the product and loved it. People started making connections over their shared love of, you know, sci-fi or paranormal romance or steampunk.
OC: I think between all our friends and friends of friends, it got up to maybe 800 people. And then it got a little bit of press, Mashable picked it up, and then the blogosphere found it. It turned out there was a massive community of people who had book blogs, and were blogging [as they read books and writing reviews after they finished them], and they each had 10 friends on their blogroll who did the same thing. Goodreads was just a better way of doing what they already wanted to do, and they adopted us in droves.
As noted in April of last year by Jordan Weissman, also at The Atlantic, Goodreads’ purchase by Amazon provided the latter book retailer with a huge amount of potential data.
According to Codex’s quarterly survey (in 2012, the company interviewed some 30,000 readers total), far fewer people are finding their reading material at brick-and-mortar bookstores than two years ago. Instead, they’re relying more on online media (including social networks and author websites) and personal recommendations from people they know (which tend to happen in person, but can also include some social network chatting). What they’re not relying on much more heavily are recommendation engines from online booksellers, like Amazon.
In short, Barnes and Noble’s in-store displays don’t rule the book business like they used to, but they haven’t been usurped by Amazon’s algorithms either. Instead, the business model is moving further towards word of mouth. And, much as a very small portion of Americans do most of the book reading in this country, so too are they responsible for a vast majority of book recommending. Codex estimates that 11 percent of book buyers make about 46 percent of recommendations.
The sorts of lit lovers who like to evangelize their favorite new novel are the same sorts of folks who tend to show up on Goodreads. And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the site is a great platform for convincing people to buy books. Roughly 29 percent of Goodreads users told Codex they’d learned about the last book they bought either on the site, or at another book-focused social network.* At traditional social networks, the number is 2.4 percent. When all is said and done, in the world of books, Goodreads is just about as influential as Facebook.
In the interview, the co-founders say that Amazon hasn’t tried to interfere with the rich social ecology of Goodreads, particularly by stacking reviews. I only hope this keeps on.
The Frailest Thing’s Michael Sacasas has a couple of interesting posts about here and here.
Joe. My. God. celebrates Michael Sam, a NFL draftee who has come out.
Marginal Revolution comments on the Swiss referendum victory that will be placing limits on labour migrants from the European Union, Gideon Rachman arguing at the Financial Times that the European Union shouldn’t overreact to the unilateral Swiss redefinition of the relationship.
Peter Rukavina notes a historic ad in the Prince Edward Island press for a New York City hotel, the Hotel Martinique–rooms for two dollars a night!
Towleroad notes that the star of a Disney TV show featuring a same-sex couple, a girl 5 years old, has received death threats.
Window on Eurasia notes the arguments of others, one arguing that the absorption of Ukraine into Russia would destabilize that country, another suggesting that Kazakhstan
BlogTO links to an interesting app-enabled map showing where people run in Toronto (or, at least, where people run in Toronto using apps to chronicle their routes).
The Dragon’s Gaze notes a paper examining the role of dust in protoplanetary disks.
Geocurrents’ Martin Lewis wonders why the Circassians, displaced a century and a half ago from the Caucasian territory where Russia is no holding the Olympics, haven’t gotten any media coverage of their cause.
Language Hat comments upon a video recording of a student’s recital of Cantonese poetry that has gone viral.
Language Log’s Victor Mair wonders what official status Cantonese has in Hong Kong, facing challenges from Putonghua as well as from a writing system that doesn’t record the city’s main spoken language.
The casual racism faced by players of college sports in the United States is discussed at Lawyers, Guns and Money.
Marginal Revolution argues that emerging markets facing economic issues should look at their own domestic scenes and not blame global turbulence.
At Personal Reflections, Jim Belshaw writing about his Australian region of New England makes the point that local histories should also include their global origins.
The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer argues that the New York accent is mostly dead.
At Savage Minds, Jane Eva Baxter talks about the ways in which prehistoric artifacts–like the ancient footprints recently discovered in Britain–are used, and misused, in ways that reflect our biases. (Seeing groups of footprints as product of family migrations, for instance.)
Supernova Condensate marvels at the superb imaging of Luhman 16B.
Window on Eurasia notes one man’s arguments that authentic federalism would suit Ukraine well.
Yorkshire Ranter Alex Harrowell notes in passing how Siberia changed from being exciting frontier to grim prison-camp in the popular imagination.
Centauri Dreams has a guest post from Jason Wright talking about using infrared telescopes to pick up waste heat from extraterrestrial civilizations.
Cody Delistraty opposes a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, notwithstanding Russia’s human rights issues, on the grounds that the Olympics have essentially no relationship to whatever country is hosting them at the present.
The Dragon’s Tales links to reports on plans for a future united Africa.
The Dragon’s Gaze reports that apparently close-orbiting binaries–stars within 20 AU of each other, like Alpha Centauri–are bad for planetary formation, and comments on the discovery of brown dwarfs near multiple stars including fabled Gliese 581.
Eastern Approaches reports on the disarray at Sochi.
Amitai Etzioni argues that the United States and China should be clear on their red lines regarding Taiwan.
Far Outliers reports on the United States’ constitution of an intelligence service from nothing in the First World War.
Language Hat notes a proposal to give Russian official status in Austria-Hungary to defuse pan-Slavism, and observes how language clues within the Bible give hints as to authorship.
Language Log notes the creative use of different scripts and languages in Taiwanese product advertising.
Lawyers, Guns and Money notes the role of Sochi in the final suppression and expulsion of the Circassians by the Russian Empire.
Marginal Revolution notes the huge economic problems of Puerto Rico: shrinking economy, emigrating workforce, growing debt … The disinterest of young Germans in apprenticeships is also noted.
The Planetary Society Blog’s Emily Lakdawalla reports that the world can’t communicate with the returning ICE/ISEE3 probe because it no longer has the technology to do so.
The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer argues that Argentine currency controls which make imports increasingly unaffordable are soon going to have to fail.
Discover‘s Seriously Science notes a study claiming that fish can use tools.
Steve Munro quite dislikes false savings on TTC expenditures claimed by, most recently, the Toronto Star.
Window on Eurasia notes that the rise of Islam is the North Caucasus is partly a consequence of Arab-funded global networks, comments on the role of Crimean Tatars in keeping Crimea for Ukraine, notes that some Russians would like to start revising borders across the post-Soviet region, and observes that many Russians are surprisingly OK with Finland’s Second World War leader Mannerheim.
Zero Geography notes a paper commenting on uneven geographies of user-generated content.
Bruce Sterling at Beyond the Beyond links to an argument claiming that classical standard written English is on the decline because so many more users of English are writing than ever before.
Centauri Dreams has more on the migration of our solar system’s planets early in their history. Jupiter’s inward migration may have given Earth oceans; will systems without Jupiters, only Neptunes, have watery rocky worlds like ours?
Crooked Timber’s Corey Robin takes one Jewish woman’s narrative about feeling at home in Israel and starts a whole discussion on the Middle East.
Far Outliers notes the rapid and thorough assimilation of Basque descendants and Basque cultural elements into the modern Philippines.
Geocurrents shares French satirical maps of their own country.
Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen suggests, after Bryan Caplan, that immigration does not have any effect on the American welfare state.
The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer shares cites to interesting books on migration.
The Planetary Society Blog’s Marc Rayman describes the Dawn probe’s painstaking deceleration as it moves to its Ceres encounter.
The Signal wonders how to enculcate a love for electronic data, in the way that other formats–books, for instance, or LPs–have their own aficionados.
Towleroad cites a gay Christian apologist who started a minor controversy by calling GLBT identity a choice.
Window on Eurasia shares a Russian writer who argues that there is no impending Cold War over Arctic seafloor with Russia’s neighbours.
Yorkshire Ranter Alex Harrowell, meanwhile, takes issue with an account of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s errors in the financial crisis that doesn’t take into account the choices of Thatcherites to enable the RBS to go overboard in a financialized economy.
Cody Delistraty’s blog is concerned with matters of writing and culture. One post argues that, as a result of preservationism and conservatism in France, Paris has become something of a cultural backwater.
Will Baird has a new blog devoted to exoplanets, The Dragon’s Gaze. A recent post highlights a paper suggesting that it is possible to explain the formation of low-mass planets like Mars if the solar nebula was depleted at the time of formation while the big gas giants were in place.
Michael Sacasas’ The Frailest Thing examines the intersections of technology and culture. One recent post wonders how useful it is to talk about introversion versus extroversion in relation to online presences.