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Friday
Apr122019

Angering Ourselves To Death – Postman’s Brave New World Re-Re-Visited - Chapter 3

Chapter III: The Medium Is The Mass Surveillance

 An Amazon Alexa-enabled device.

In March 2018, a whistleblower told Observer newspapers that UK-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested over 50 million Facebook profiles in a breach of data and privacy. Christopher Wylie who worked with an academic at Cambridge University to gather the data said “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” Wylie told the Observer. “[We] built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, posing as an online personality test. Exploiting various weaknesses in Facebook’s application programming interface (API), it collected profile information not only from those who authorised the app, but their friends and their friend’s friends.

The information was used to target American users during the 2016 United States Presidential Election and the 2016 UK Referendum on the question of remaining or leaving the European Union.

At least Cambridge Analytica had the courtesy to allow users to opt in. The invasive XKeyscore and Boundless Informant programs used by the NSA to collect signals intelligence and conduct mass surveillance on US and foreign citizens afforded users no such luxury.

As mentioned earlier, Facebook and other social media do not sell products or services directly but facilitate a platform for marketers and advertisers to do so. The well-worn aphorism “the product they are selling is you” is a misnomer. If we take the semanticist Korzybski’s maxim to heart – the word is not the thing – they are not selling you specifically, but a 1 to 1 simulacrum that extends beyond your own consciousness. Human consciousness is also tempered by human unconsciousness; we forget, misplace information, and have moments of complete unawareness of our own behaviours.

Computers don’t.

A computer has perfect memory, perfect algorithms, perfect recall. It can know you better than you know yourself. Thus we, as humans, employ computers to learn more about our habits, wishes, frustrations, and desires. This is not ill or good in and of itself but can be used by humans in either fashion.

If we are also being programmed, we are also being labelled, sorted, objectified, and tabulated. Facebook and its ilk have shifted human consciousness into accepting computers as a wholesale extension of our senses. For instance, it has become acceptable for activists to comb through large data sets such as Twitter feeds for politically incorrect comments; In December 2018, US entertainer and comedian Kevin Hart was ousted from his position as host of the 2019 Academy Awards due to making anti-gay slurs on his Twitter between 2009 and 2011.

Where as a human being may struggle to remember specific comments uttered by anyone almost a decade prior, computers enhance our collective memories by providing a library of instant storage and retrieval of anything and everything we have said or posted online. This leads to another aphorism: this is a feature, not a bug.

It is possible that the original founders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Severin, had no intention to create a mass surveillance medium the likes of which the world has never seen. According to after-the-fact reports, Zuckerberg created “FaceMash” in his Harvard University dorm room as an application to rate the relative attractiveness of girls on campus in 2003. It was later renamed “the Facebook” then simply “Facebook” in 2006. The original app was limited to colleges in Boston, then expanded to all university-level institutions, and eventually, all people with a valid email address (and over the age of 13) in September 2006.

Facebook exploited our desire for convenience and want for human interaction. People could add “friends” to their Facebook and share their opinions, photos, videos, and other content with one another. They could also join in on games. They could express their desires by an “opt-in” – the Facebook “like” button. “Liking” topics or webpages built up a profile of your preferences and interests; albeit manually. As of 2019, this is achieved via machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Facebook acquired photo sharing app Instagram in 2012; instant message service WhatsApp in 2014. It launched its own proprietary messaging platform, Messenger, in 2015. According to the End User Licence Agreements, Facebook could use these applications on your phone to harvest data about your habits, including your location. In 2016, Facebook strenuously denied eavesdropping on conversations, using one’s smartphone camera or microphone to pick up vision or audio. Facebook has spent millions of dollars on PR to counteract these claims, saying that advertising that pops up in feeds is a result of “frequency bias” or just plain coincidence.

It was confirmed in April 2019 by Bloomberg that human technicians in the employ of Amazon listen to voice searches and other audio picked up from Alexa-enabled devices. This mix of contractors and employees based around the world are tasked with refining the voice search algorithm to produce better results. However, the nature of the medium is to have an “ear” out for keywords and phrases at all times. According to the article,

“Sometimes they [employees] hear recordings they find upsetting, or possibly criminal. Two of the workers said they picked up what they believe was a sexual assault. When something like that happens, they may share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress. Amazon says it has procedures in place for workers to follow when they hear something distressing, but two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.”

The media we consume and produce for is the mass surveillance; the Faustian bargain we’ve made with technology is coming back to haunt us in myriad ways. Mass surveillance by private entities is chilling enough; however, the panopticon effect of moral busybodies and invective-slinging do-gooders has also cost people their livelihoods. This public shaming by internet mob was made most famous in 2013, when corporate communication director Justine Sacco tweeted just as she departed for Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” A joke in poor taste; it nevertheless was the Number 1 worldwide trending topic on Twitter, creating a storm of controversy before Ms. Sacco had even stepped off the plane.

Because of these interconnections both public and private, the mass surveillance nature of media is inescapable. The mass surveillance is having a profound effect on the way we parse language and the meaning of that language; and breaks down the tacit disconnect between language as action and language as thought in action. Nuance is impossible, tribal and identitarian sentiments are rising. We are analogue people, being programmed to think in binary ways.

Sunday
Mar102019

Angering Ourselves To Death – Postman’s Brave New World Re-Re-Visited - Chapter 2

Chapter II: The Media Malware Machine

Norbert Weiner.

In 1994, media theorist and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff said the media is ‘the extension of a living organism; [media and communication technology] is a circulatory system for today’s information, ideas and images.’

The media as an environment in 1994, a decade on from 1984, seems quaint by today’s comparison.

In the average Western household, you could likely find a television set, a radio, a telephone, and of course, paper, pens, and envelopes to send letters. Many households likely had a subscription to print media; newspapers, periodicals, magazines.

If you considered yourself “tech savvy” you may have had a computer of some kind. An IBM-PC compatible, a Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Macintosh, or even an Acorn RISC PC.  If you worked in the C-suite, you may have had a laptop or a cellular portable telephone. If you were on the geeky side, it’s possible you used dial-up modems to call into Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) to trade files, or even have a connection to Internet (as it was referred to back then.) Internet had a scarce handful of web pages; the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was only formed during this year.  Most users connected through portals such as CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL (in the US) to interact with Usenet newsgroups or read their email.

In today’s world, we have only one standard computer processor architecture (the x86-64) which is found in Windows, Linux, and Mac based PCs and laptops. All web traffic is routed through Domain Name Servers, as standardised by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which operated the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). IANA was overseen by the United States Department of Commerce as recently as 2016. In 1994, the circulatory system had many hearts.

Today we have one.

Content is the blood pumped around by that heart, transmitted and duplicated at frightening speed. In 1994, there existed 2,738 websites. If every tweet is counted as a webpage (which it very well could be, considering each tweet is given its own URL), over 6,000 webpages are created each second.

Each of those websites likely had their own web server. A beige box sitting under a desk, usually in a university physics or computer science department. In the time you read that sentence, about 24,000 more webpages exist, perhaps with images, audio, or video content attached. To enable the transmission of all this content, the internet “backbone” is its servers.

According to the Synergy Research Group, Amazon Web Services controls one-third of the world’s public cloud computing capacity, more than Microsoft, IBM, and Google combined. Formed in 1995 as a book retailer, Amazon.com has exploded into a global conglomerate that not only sells goods online but facilitates the sale of said goods by providing the infrastructure they’re sold on. In 2016, Amazon.com captured $1 out of every $2 spent on retail goods online. Amazon has a vested interest in facilitating content to create more opportunity to sell its products. In 2013, Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, bought the Washington Post for $250 million.

As mentioned earlier, the volume of information we can encounter is infinitesimal, and growing exponentially. If we position content being distinct from information, that is, data we can interpret and use in some meaningful way, the web-enabled media environment has not been “hijacked” by fake news or disinformation as many thinkpieces and hot-takers point out.

The current media ecology a simply enables larger and larger quantities of this content to be created, shared, and consumed. In the words of German renaissance philosopher Paracelsus, “sola dosis facit venenum” or in English, the dose makes the poison.

His thesis was that all substances, at high enough dosages, are poison. One can drown if they consume too much water. Once can also be harmed if they breathe molecular oxygen at increased partial pressures. With no map to guide us on what content is “useful” and what is not, we succumb to overwhelming content overload. The well itself is not poisoned, but the amount one can drink from it will inevitably make you sick.

We now have untold media power, both as consumers and as potential producers. Anyone can connect with virtually anyone else across the globe in real-time. But for everything we gain from new media technologies, we also lose something.

It would seem the side-effect of this is polarisation, or a binary, two-valued orientation. This is not the cyberneticist Norbert Weiner’s sincere wish of using technology to enhance human beings for human use; it is technology shaping our conception of reality, and perhaps even our consciousness, to better fit machine algorithms. Rushkoff touched on this nearly a decade ago in his “contract” with technopoly – we either program or get programmed ourselves.

Now in the electronic media world, linear narratives are unimportant; we can tune into a tweet, watch three different YouTube clips at a time and use RSS readers to aggregate thousands of articles, picking and choosing the few that are worthy of our dithering attention. 15% of the world’s internet traffic is dedicated to streaming content from Netflix.

In any cybernetic system, as Weiner defined it, information control is integral to the health of that system. In his treatise Human Use of Human Beings, he describes a power station where the flow of information between man and machine flows in both ways, perhaps as status reports and commands as feedback in response to those status reports. However, a communication system requires a filter on erroneous or non-useful information. The filter was obvious in Postman’s time – TV news editors, newspaper editors, etc. The prevailing critique was that said editors may impose biases based on political or corporate diktats, restricting the “authenticity” of what was being presented.

The inherent problem with the overabundance of content is filters at the source (the publisher) yet no filter at the consumption level (the readers.) The messages are not filtered, however the information contained within the messages are. The media malware is inherent due to the lack of filtering for bogus or “fake news” at the consumption level. Is there a non-invasive filter for such information, that does not rely on Orwellian tactics? As Postman once said, information for the sake of information may not be useful; there is no value to knowing Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough.

Publishers can publish skewed perspectives, lie by omission, or flat-out create fictions which consumers may or may not have the inclination to root out. The ultimate filter would be to deny these publishers ad revenue and have them go out of business. Between January-February 2019, sites such as BuzzFeed, VICE and Huffington Post (HuffPost) laid off approximately 2,200 journalists in the US, with BuzzFeed Australia signalling similar cutbacks to its editorial division. Perhaps the poisoned adrenaline pumping through the media circulatory system will wane – the market, it seems, has decided.

Content filtering is draconian and ought to be given the disdain it deserves. What our media environment lacks is a transparent, decentralised, and self-correcting information filter; one that is unbiased, impartial, and robust enough to counteract the terror of disinformation. Aggregation, or positioning oneself on a higher level of abstraction, such as those found in apps like NewsVoice, may be a possible fix. It presents a filter for the disinformation crisis. However, it does not solve the content crisis; and at present, there may be no logical solution. The cybernetic feedback goes both ways but seems to benefit the system and not the user.

It would seem the information system on which we have come to rely is programming us, and we're being injected with malicious binary code.

Tuesday
Mar052019

Angering Ourselves To Death – Postman’s Brave New World Re-Re-Visited - Chapter 1

Chapter I: Postman’s Portent – The Brave New 1984

 Neil Postman.

 “We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

“But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” – Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death (1985)

In the 2018 documentary, Behind The Curve, a look at the worldwide community of people who believe the Earth is flat, filmmaker Daniel J. Clark asked prominent YouTuber Patricia Steere what sources of information she trusted. “Myself,” she said, laughing. “I jokingly said if there’s an event like…I’ll just use Boston Bombing again,” referring to the 2013 bombing incident at the Boston Marathon, “I won’t believe any of those events are real unless I myself get my leg blown off.”

It would seem her wilful ignorance when it comes to the curvature of the Earth is an apotheosis of the media as an environment as a culture – the magic of YouTube and the internet has “undone her capacity to think,” as author, media ecologist, and father of modern media as environment scholar Neil Postman said in his 1985 landmark book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

What’s more telling is that her philosophical solipsism, that being that only the self is all we can really know of reality, is not an isolated phenomenon. To be fair, it's hard not to these days.

In the theory of Julian Jaynes seminal book on the evolution of consciousness, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind, he argues that our pre-antiquity consciousness was not defined by recognising our thoughts as our own, but as one side of the brain “speaking” or “hallucinating” to another part that listens and obeys its commands. These commands were interpreted as Gods. As bi-cameralism broke down, we externalised these voices into Oracles, churches, prayers, and eventually, scepticism that any such voices were derived from on high. A vestige of bi-cameralism, the verb phrase to understand which means to perceive the intended meaning or comprehend it, means to literally stand under a God who is giving instructions to a human receiver – or in this case, an unconscious hemisphere of the brain commanding, and a conscious hemisphere obeying said commands. Though we’ve moved past this bi-cameral state, we have not moved towards a state where we can authenticate information as “true” or “factual” just by looking at it.

As humans, we are limited. We use language and media to transmit our ideas, desires, knowledge, etc. to other people. As the semanticist Hayakawa put it, we use the “nervous systems of others” to help us achieve our goals. His most famous example is a soldier calling out to an observer for information on what is going on, and the observer reporting back to the soldier – he has “borrowed” his eyes and ears and gained a report thanks to a “loan” of his sensory systems. However, if the observer reports back false information, the soldier has not gained any knowledge at all. To use a well-worn analogy from the great General Semanticist Count Alfred Korzybski, the “map” the observer has provided for the “territory” or reality of what is going on is not only inaccurate, but false. The observer may have relayed zero enemy activity, when in fact he has seen multiple targets. The soldier is now imperilled due to his internal “map” consisting of this false image.

And the images we create each day are staggering. We, as humanity, produce 2.5 quintillion (2.5 x 1020) bytes of new data each day, and the rate is accelerating. It would be impossible for any one human to observe and analyse the data we create, per day, in a lifetime. We are not oppressed by an external imposition; we are oppressed by how gigantic our media environment has become. If Patricia and her Flat Earth friends only observed one-one-thousandth of this data generated per day, that would still yield 25 terabytes of data – 250 million images, 35,714 hour-long videos, or even 416 hours of Virtual Reality content. With humans being this limited and navigating information systems so vast, can you blame Patricia for this ignorance? Ms. Steere could, if she wanted, live out her entire life without ever encountering an opposing viewpoint. She could call out only to observers who confirm her bias for the rest of her life and never run out of data to comb through.

From this perspective, Postman was right.

A Familiar, Not Brave, New World

However, we now have another layer of oppression to contend with; that the technology we adore is used simultaneously for our surveillance and gratification. One cannot exist without the other. In the 80s and 90s, civil libertarians called for a dismantlement of the “surveillance state;” CCTV cameras on every corner, police providing a watchful eye on the populace. In authoritarian regimes such as China, these cameras and listening devices serve this very function, a generational echo of the German Democratic Republic’s STASI invading the private lives of citizens. China’s internet is censored around the clock by a “Great Firewall of China” which blocks certain foreign websites with pro-democratic or anti-Chinese content, as well as moderation by government agents in social media such as WeChat or Sina Weibo.

In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed with the help of Washington Post and Guardian journalists that our electronic transmissions, such as those used by Facebook, Google, and other social media were being systematically harvested. Our data, which we freely gave to these media, are used as part of the NSA-developed XKeyscore and the Boundless Informant data collection and visualisation tools, used for covert surveillance without due process.

Over one billion people use Instagram, for example. Apart from its uses as a data harvesting tool for advertisers or as a platform for marketers, it arguably has no functional purpose. It does not provide a solution for transmitting photos to other people – it could be perceived as another pleasurable toy, such as those found in the vain and self-absorbed culture of Brave New World. Psychologists and others have linked social media to addiction, as other users’ “likes” and ego-strokes can often release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is known to scientists as the “feel good hormone.” Dopamine is our “reward.” In that regard. Like many addictions, dopamine “rewards” lose intensity with frequency. Bigger and better “rewards” are required to feel the same “high.” In a cynical view, Instagram and other social media are much like a dopamine dispenser, in the same way rats use a mechanical food dispenser in experiments.

Postman said we would come to love our oppression through the adoration of technology. He was, to an extent, saying feelings would become more sought after than facts. Though we live in Brave New World, there is a sinister apparatus that belies it – the world of 1984. Since we are unable to trust our media environments – the nervous systems of others – or even make proper sense of it due to the sheer volume of data we can interact with, the maps we will carry around in our heads will be of lower and lower accuracy and quality. The amount of information we are aware we are not in possession of, or will never be in possession of, is near incalculable.

And for many reasons, as this series will explain, has made us very, very angry.

To be continued in Chapter II: The Media Malware Machine

Saturday
Jan052019

The Top 10 Heavy Releases of 2018

This has become one of those dipshit blogs that don't update often and look like a graveyard circa 2004. I didn't even bother doing one of these lists last year.

In the past when I wrote about albums, I'd rattle off their superior qualities in comparison to others. The typical adjective Olympics, "I went to more uni than you did" toss. This year, I am going to keep it simple: which records did I listen to the most? I'm not even going to look up Last.fm to figure it out, either. I think I can remember which records stayed on my turntable or CD player the most. I'm not a fucking robot.

So, here we go:

 

10. Kataklysm - Meditations

With the Northern Hyperblast put out to pasture, Canadian eh Kataklysm had to replace speed with strength. They kind of kicked ass with it.

9. Born Lion - Celebrate the Lie

Australia's answer to Danko Jones - minus the meme worship. If Danko and BL tour the country, I'll be right there next to 'em. See also: Bare Bones.

8. Underoath - Erase Me

I know a lot of people shit on this record for some reason, but you have to divorce it from the entire Underoath you knew and loved. It's their Black Celebration in reverse. No heroin addictions required. It's the opposite of Flood to Depeche Mode in 1990: "If you wanna play electronics, then play your fucking electronics."

7. Slugdge - Esoteric Malacology

This one had to be pried from my cold, dead car CD player. One of the most inventive death metal records in yonks, that didn't have that "we're too good for death metal" air about it. All the best bits from the last 20 years crammed into one disc.

6. Architects - Holy Hell

I don't like this LP as much as Your Gods Have Abandoned Us. Gods had fire in its belly, this kind of doesn't. Even so, it's still in my CD player since ripping it out of my post box in October.

5. Judas Priest - Firepower

This was such a treat for long-suffering metal fans. It was like hearing Painkiller and Screaming For Vengeance for the first time again, reminding us why we love this genre in the first place. Thank Satan for Richie Faulkner.

4. Teenage Wrist - Chrome Neon Jesus

Sometimes bands that take bits of all your favourites, that being Katatonia, Oceansize, and modern pop-punk, mashes 'em together and serves it like you ordered it special. This is a must have disc for prog fans, shoegaze lovers, and anyone who likes losing themselves in thought.

3. Omnium Gatherum - The Burning Cold

I know; melodic death metal is the red-headed stepchild in the metal world at the moment. When's the last melodeath record anyone really gave a fuck about? The Ride Majestic? I love this record because it captures the spirit of what melodeath is all about; taking risks and being out there. Gods Go First is such a well crafted song, despite it being so fucking weird.

2. Ghost - Prequelle

It's KISS Destroyer for the 2010s. Have you heard the non-single tracks on Destroyer? Not exactly top to bottom clones of Detroit Rock City, that's for sure. It's something more grandiose than that. It's not metal, it's not pop, and it's not a cookie-cutter half-and-half blend of either. It sits in that creepy haunted house on the border of bubblegum throwaway and absolute classic. Maybe Aussies love it so much because we can't get over ABBA.

1. Hellions - Rue

The resale value for my vinyl copy is nearing zero. Such a wonderful record, in the truest sense of the word. What these gentlemen conjure is really nothing short of magic.


I had a couple of disappointments too: Pagan's Black Wash only managed a couple spins on my turntable. There was an uncomfortable feeling that I'd heard it all before, and done better (by Kvelertak.) Can't fault them live, though. Behemoth have also succumbed to Star Trek movie syndrome. That being, every second release they make sucks. I Loved You At Your Darkest wasn't awful, but it certainly was too ambitious for the big boy britches it stomped around in.

Other pick-ups you should look for is At The Gates To Drink From the Night Itself, the true successor to Slaughter of the Soul; High On Fire's Electric Messiah, which is Sleep haunted by Lemmy; Khemmis newie Desolation; and DZ Deathrays' Bloody Lovely. It doesn't have a Gina Works at Hearts, nor does it have that Vaseline-over-lens feeling of dried out hangover music any more. DZ Deathrays are growing up, bless 'em.

Thursday
Nov162017

Farewell, Shai

Shai (in brown), at my 21st Birthday Party, 2007.Shai, you know what? I don’t know if you’re up there in heaven. You might be up in the orbiting VALIS. Chances are you’re stone dead. Even then, I'm not sure. Honest to God, I don’t. When your service concluded on Sunday, I half expected you to creep out from behind a headstone, shout “Ha! Fooled you!” and go into fits of laughter, as only you could. You never half laughed. It was all or nothing with you.

When I told friends and family about you, they didn’t believe you were even real. I mean, what kind Jew is smart enough to convince a neo-Nazi to date him? “I confirmed all her suspicions,” he said once. “We ran out of money and I said, ‘It’s OK, I’ll just give the bank teller my Jew Number and he’ll give me all the cash I want.” I think being so absurd was your specialty. Like Phil Dick said, "the only appropriate response to reality is to go insane." You took that to heart, I think.

You were the only bloke who made me feel like a complete fucking moron sometimes. I wish I told you this more often, but when I start a list of great thinkers; Hitchens, Dawkins, Feynman – I’d whisper “Marom” somewhere towards the top. You had a towering intellect, a boundless imagination. Who else wrote a complete theory on reality in their spare time? No one that I know. No one that anyone knows.

Even then, you never ever talked down to anyone. When I was struggling in maths (which you called “math”) you took time out of your day to help me, going to the State Library with me. I didn’t know this then, but I do know now – you were struggling with Crohn’s disease. My God, if I only knew.

When I’d heard you’d moved to Brisbane – Russell Island, or “Dole Island” – it was another one of your social experiments. Thinking about stuff never quite cut it for you. You had to experience, observe, explore. The more complicated, the better. I thought it my duty to cut across the highway, two or so hours to get there, just to have an hour-long conversation. I would have done it again in a heartbeat.

Now you’re gone. Even though in your own quantum entangled reality, you might not be. You could be both, neither, all at the same time. You’ve outsmarted me, even in death. You son of a bitch. I could not have felt more honoured to be your friend Shai. Rest easy.

In Memoriam - Shai Yassi Marom (October 11, 1986 - December 9, 2017)