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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.

Friday
Apr192013

Cos You Don't Wanna Miss A Thing: Twitter, music and predicting the present

If it’s good for celebrities, it’s good for you too. Endowed with mystical properties making their eyes gleam and teeth porcelain, they’re just better than us in every conceivable way. If you can convince them that Twitter’s new Music app is useful, the unwashed masses will stream it on to their tablet as if it was mana from heaven.

Maybe not.

It does raise a question in this new age of music you rent in perpetuity; what use does this new Twitter app actually have?

Having read media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s new book Present Shock, he posits that media-as-a-culture is no longer preoccupied with “futurism” but centred on “presentism.” We’re interested more on what’s happening now than contextualising our experiences as distinct from past and future. For example, Twitter is only useful in the now (not borrowing too heavily from Eckhart Tolle) losing worth as time elapses. Furthermore, the now is such a diffuse, high-level abstraction it’s like attempting to catch a mosquito with a pin and a thimble.

Consider the mathematical equation. An equation is an expression of variables of which one is unknown. The unknown variable is found using mathematical principles flowing forward in linear time, from A to B. The solution is clear cut.

In computing and information technology, programs and hardware are thought of as panaceas for “problems” it’s not uncommon terming them “solutions.” These "problems" are not structural, i.e, the problem is not the inability to arrive at an unknown variable. The majority of problems lie in not getting it fast, cheaply or efficiently enough to stay relevant in the "now."

Simply, what problem does twitter’s music app actually solve?

It doesn’t solve anything – for the consumer. In the age of the present, app developers aren’t savvy problem solvers, they’re actually problem finders. They convince the market that there exists a problem, contend to have solved it and profit handsomely.

Apps such as Pocket or Evernote, as useful as they are, “solved” the problem of keeping track of links or writing notes previously inaccessible on one device when they were stored on another. There was nothing structurally wrong or overly inefficient with say, writing notes on pads of paper. Solutions readily existed.

Apps exist on your phone to solve problems that weren't problems until "realising" they plagued you. Not knowing the name of the song playing at the pub by Journey was never a life-threatening predicament, yet Shazam solves that problem for you. Easy.

But it cannily it does purport to have discovered a problem. Twitter is in the process of convincing us that emerging and popular trends in music are so complex and so amorphous you need an app to navigate this ever-changing terrain of current music. The problem is that you’re lagging behind what’s cool and what’s about to be cool. The solution is this app. Get it now, bask in the electronic water of fleeting musical omniscience.

Except this app wasn’t designed with you in mind. It’s another column in a vast data set powering predictive analytics. It tracks, in real-time, the influence of users and who is being influenced. What the influence channels users towards, and so on. Spotify and Rdio’s blindspots in terms of creating accurate big data sets is they don’t know who influenced what music is being played at any given time, nor to what level. No one gives a shit about your shitty indie band unless someone gives you a reason. Sometimes that reason is none other than “who” rather than “why.”

The dimension for the data set for playing Belinda Carlisle 40 times in a row is discrete and limited. Spotify will know I love Belinda Carlisle. If an external force influenced me, it has no real way of gleaning that information unless I directly clicked a link to the track from a certain page or twitter feed.

By using Twitter’s new music app, Spotify, etc. can track the locus of the influence. Music companies can make safer bets on pushing artists ahead of time. The guesswork on releasing a hit isn’t eliminated but it’s significantly reduced, again. Why sign ten acts to yield one hit when signing two or three definite winners is possible?

It does solve a very real problem, and that problem lies in the A&R departments at the major labels. The jump in music sales, the first time it’s done so in over a decade, is partially due to this new "taxi fare" or pay as the meter's running model. How does an exec fire up the sales from a simmer to roaring boil? You glean better data from more sources and tailor your strategies to the analytics.

So can this Twitter app really tell us what is really hot right now? Without the mind of Nate Silver and the processing power of CERN at my disposal, I don’t know. And neither do you.

 

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Read more: My post on the Spotify (counter-)revolution.

Monday
Oct242011

Article: Currents of History (The Big Issue)

It is easy to underestimate older people – as Tom Valcanis realised when he learned about his grandmother’s life and noticed her electrical skills.

One frosty morning when I was six, I was sitting in my grandmother’s lounge room transfixed by Agro’s Cartoon Connection. As usual, I was toasting myself against her glowing gas heater. Back then, I knew my grandmother as my Macedonian “Baba” but, apart from that, I didn’t know much about her at all. For all I knew, her life was full of cooking, cleaning and telling jokes to keep us young ones occupied when there was nothing good on TV.

Baba always wore a simple, faded floral apron and cheap, unassuming clothes no matter where she went. This day was no different.

Read the rest in issue #392 of The Big Issue, available from street vendors around the nation.

Tuesday
Oct112011

The Facebookless Frontier, two months on

Two months ago I deactivated my Facebook account and never looked back. Last month sat from the sidelines, irritated by the routine "complainageddons" that spring from a well of minor interface changes to the free social platform/marketing exercise. People said that throwing away Facebook was akin to severing a healthy limb which had served me well and would continue to in the future. But after two months, I barely recognize that it still exists to other people. The my social world continues to turn and I've come to view this so-called "third hand" as useless as if both necrotic and lame (and selling my particulars to third parties.)

My phone hasn't been ringing off the hook with former Facebook friends wondering if I'm still alive, but the core of my friendship groups has been strengthened since I'm taking the effort to call, text or email friends instead of passively staring at an abstracted representation of them on a screen. Interestingly, I've met more people through Twitter via the Melbourne, Australia twitter meetup known as MTUB than I ever have through Facebook. I've made many new friends this way. Post-Facebook, I still keep up attendance at my interest group meetings, either through organizing them myself or attending new ones.

Thus I pondered it from a media ecological perspective, in the vein of my revered Neil Postman; just what problem did Facebook solve for me? Discovering that it caused no subsequent problems resulting from my exit, it actually spurred some solutions insofar my relationships and how I approach them is concerned.

  • New friend? Give them a text or a call: Adding them to Facebook is much like slipping a dollar bill in a wallet. People aren't trading cards to be collected and traded. If I genuinely like someone or enjoy their company, I will let them know one way or another. The experiential "addition" to one's Facebook friends list means many things to many people. There's a certain personal development "bonus" for acting as an initiator.
  • No invitation, no attendance: I've missed out on various social engagements the past two months; but if I don't know about it, I'm not there! I don't miss whatever I'm unaware of, right?
    If I'm told in person, I reserve the date and make sure I attend. There's only a "yes" or "no" option for me!
  • Less distraction: Yesterday, I went on a half-day Twitter moratorium and completed all my "to-do" tasks prior to 2pm. I interviewed broadcaster and journalist Steve Cannane for the book project, completed an article for an online mag and started work for a new client. With no "Twitter-Facebook moebius strip of distraction" for my attention to contend with, stuff gets done!
I think it's safe to declare that I won't be re-joining for good. The benefits greatly outweigh any drawbacks and my social life feels as vibrant as ever. If you're considering whether to write the final words in your 'book and put it to rest, I cannot recommend it enough!

Sunday
Aug212011

Push-Button Professionalism: The origin and evolution of the role of professional music critics

If you write on the internet, you’re blogging. There’s an indissoluble link between the two terms – if you have an opinion and have the means to publish on the internet, you are elevated into the “blogosphere” of online opinion. One can blog on virtually any subject they wish, including rock music. These bloggers offer music criticism with lighting fast rapidity and in some cases, keener cultural and intellectual insight compared with academically trained, and establishment-oriented “professionals.” Is there much truth to the charge of popular music academic Don McLeese when he asks:

"[C]ritical writing about pop music has grown steadily more irrelevant. . . . Pinning the entire rap on the Internet allows music critics to dodge some painful but necessary questions. How should journalists illuminate the zeitgeist at a moment when the dominant cultural narrative is that there is no dominant cultural narrative? Do critics have any special license to serve as pop music’s cultural interlocutors when anyone with an Internet connection can attempt to do the same thing? In other words: if anyone can make pop music and anyone can be a pop-music critic, do we really need professional critics to tell us what it all means?"[1]

If we can curate to our own exacting tastes, access music from a variety of sources and similarly the criticism – how can one delineate between “cultural interlocutor,” loud-mouth blogger or publicist shill? How did we end up at this (non-)critical juncture in the first place?

 

Music criticism and journalism lends meaning to the subculture or “communities of consumers” as they may be viewed and as an extension of itself. The bands characterizing themselves as artists address their fans through the “interlocutor” or interpreter of critic and rock journalist. However, the force of community building is at tension with the forces of commodification as rock journalism derives its revenue through label advertising in order to sell their own cultural product. Labels seek to reach their markets through magazines. Then we must determine the initial impulse for music writers to start writing about this subject as well.

Charlie Gillett of the underground magazine Rock File wrote in 1972 that “records are the reason most of the journalists are [writers], which is often as frustrating to them as it is to the readers who have to plough through their copy. Records are bait and currency for the rock 'n' roll journalist; he gets ‘review copies,’ free from the record companies, keeps those he likes, and sells or trades off what he doesn't want.” But in 2011 a “music critic” (as defined as someone who actively writes about music with some degree of critical positioning) can download an album, perhaps before its release date and write a review with as much import as a piece written by a critic that works within the traditional structures of the industry and is recognized by others in the subculture as such.

Of course, back in the 1960s and 70s the media ecology of the music marketplace was firmly in the grasp of the music industry. Record labels and their holding companies controlled the means of reproduction (vinyl records, 8-tracks etc.) and how these products were manufactured and sold. Similarly, music magazines controlled the sphere of criticism and music news reporting. In the time of Gillett, Roxon and Bangs, music critics were handed records by publicists or editors and encouraged, “bribed” or ordered to write about what they heard or were charged with finding new sounds or emerging trends in music-centric subcultures. In some cases, these journalists almost uncritically championed styles they favored.

On the whole, critics were charged to communicate to other readers using their cultivated disposition – perceived or otherwise - if what they heard was culturally significant or aesthetically creative; it was their job to appraise whether the music in question was enjoyable, to determine to what extent and why. A reader would have to buy, physically pick up or subscribe to a magazine or street press, read the review and decide whether to purchase the album or single based on the resulting content. In terms of criticism, there was a literal and cultural distance from the work being appraised and the work itself; the record and the magazine existed in two parallel and distinct mediums as opposed to non-critical music-as-content mediums such as radio or television.

Radio ever since its invention and mass adoption, likewise with television in the 1980s, has exposed cultures and subcultures to budding trends in pop and rock music. The content of radio primarily is music (or arguably the commercials that bookend the songs), not music criticism. Once a song was played, the listener was at the mercy of the DJ to spin it again (until the 1980s, when home taping became prevalent although this phenomenon was not as wide-spread as record labels would have us imagine.) Almost all music in rotation at commercial or even community access radio stations was almost always readily available for purchase in record stores or in other outlets. The institution of the radio station serves to actively publicize music (or rather, the records) as a commercial product for retail sale by presenting it as the content itself. When media critic Robert McChesney posited that “there’s no non-commercial part of MTV” in the mid-90s he could easily have applied the same assertion to commercial radio of the 50s onwards (especially in the face of cash-for-airplay scandals known as “payola.”) In the age of media convergence, new media and portable, digital formats such as endlessly duplicable CD or mp3, the once prevailing view of music as a controlled, commercial product becomes problematic. Thus the role and usefulness of the “privileged interlocutor” is thrown into question.

In the twilight of the last century, the file-sharing service Napster along with scores of others forced a usually reactionary music industry to transition towards the portable and online era. Musicians and labels discovered to their dismay they could not merely legislate or litigate the control of their products back to them and how they were covered or evaluated in publications. The age of monetizing the content by controlling the technology was at a close. The advance promo “bait” as a currency to entice music journalists to write favorable copy – or any copy at all – lost all worth virtually overnight.

Likewise, the “underground” publications such as street-press or fanzines, revered for their authenticity due to their autonomy and limited production in comparison to the “mainstream” could no longer maintain this physical distance from Rolling Stone or NME once these blog-zines were only one click away. In terms of music criticism, the dimension between “insider” or “interpreter” and “consumer” or “fan” collapsed. Industry publicists, fans, musicians, technicians and professional journalists could all don the persona of music critic with a few simple clicks of a mouse. We don’t even have to read reviews; websites such as Last.fm, Spotify and ReverbNation allow us to hear music on demand and allows consumers to individually decide whether to purchase (or illegally download) the content for themselves. So do we need professionals to tell us what it all means?

In Australia, there are many fanzines and blogs that have risen from the grassroots to later be co-opted by the music industry to propel mutual success. FasterLouder.com.au, Beat Magazine, KillYourStereo, MetalForge.com, MetalAsFuck.net, Mess+Noise, Collapse Board, the AU Review and various others are examples of fan-established and maintained blogs or street press that have risen to prominence significantly due to gaining artist access via official channels. Sites and street press such as these are privy to the sphere of cultural production (to be discussed in detail in another essay) in terms of providing the basis for content creation for these sites. For record label, it’s arguably the last vestige of content control they retain.

In the origins of pop music criticism, when pop was to be considered “art” by academia and eventually the mainstream (radio, television, newspapers and other widely consumed cultural products intended for a mass audience) it was pushed by students and university graduates occupying positions of influence in the media or academia. Alternatively, publications such as the aforementioned Rolling Stone, Creem or Melody Maker (after it went “progressive”) were created to lead the charge for pop music and its adherents as an artistically authentic subculture and not merely as pleasure-driven kids seeking vacuous entertainment. Pop music critic authenticity was conferred upon writers by writing for publications that others considered to be representative of the subculture it was reflecting or shaping. In the internet age, the “professionals” are not chosen by the public, but the labels.

The labels offer the interviews, the advance copies, the free concert tickets to writers they believe carry this authenticity or popularity and are able to act as “cultural interlocutors.” “Amateur” music critics that garner a significant amount of traffic or attention do not tend to stay “amateur” for long. Labels on the prowl for more avenues to publicize their content will seek to co-opt these writers or journalists into their cultural production “sphere” or circuit. Whether the writer publishes his own blog or is employed by conglomerates such as News Limited or Fairfax Media, the task that falls on the writer to “explore meaning” in pop music is granted by the fact labels allow the writer to test these boundaries through controlling who gains access to these artists and who does not.

There is no question there are shills, “hacks” and other fan-writers who write nothing but borderline hagiography when afforded an opportunity to meet or talk to their favorite artist. Others pride themselves on acting as “haters,” harshly critiquing almost everything that they hear. Despite either method (or even striking a moderate balance of coverage) that guarantees the initial access, once inside the label-content circuit, one’s inclusion is not assured indefinitely. If new, more popular writers emerge and the writer in question does not deliver a return on investment (writing negative copy in a publication with declining readership, for example) they eventually are excluded from the circuit. At this juncture, it becomes apparent who is granted "privileged interlocutorship."

It would be naïve to assume that the most popular music writers are considered the “best” writers; this essentially is a subjective position. In the view of the music industry, these critics and writers are given more access for the greatest return on investment. Even though music is stolen with more haste than it is bought, the intrinsic task of the privileged music critic is the same; to promote records through the discussion of it in mass media publications. But do we need them?

To answer simply, the co-opted critic may not be as insightful, incisive or knowledgeable about their chosen critic as one who is not. The “special licence” is conferred upon writer from without, by the source of the content being written about; not inversely as it did in the post-1968 moment until around 1986 and new media trends and transmission methods were integrated into our media culture. A critic that actively resists co-option may enjoy heightened authenticity through maintaining a critical distance from the industry cultural production circuit, much like those in the underground zine culture of the 70s and 80s. By rejecting the compromising “lures” of privileged interlocutorship may work in their favor in terms of shaping the musical zeitgeist in certain subcultures (such as punk and hardcore music for example.) This sounds like a romanticized authenticity rooted in the do-it-yourself punk philosophy, but ultimately the writer with the “all access pass” carries more authenticity and "legitimacy" as a music critic and journalist than the writer without one.

The simple, undeniable fact remains: the writer with the most reach is given that privilege and writes to sustain it; and that license is very much granted at the discretion of the labels and publicists. We don’t need these “privileged” writers, no; but in terms of getting the story and advancing the narrative of music criticism, we do seem to want them. The critics that elevate their craft as an art equivalent to music they write about are the ones that may be the most deserving of this privilege; but unfortunately may not always get it. As long as the participants of a subculture yearn for an authentic story behind artists and their products conveyed without deleterious industry interference from the mouths of the artists themselves - critically or not - the “privilege” is there for the taking and increasingly, exists for our continued consumption.

This essay is an early draft in a series of critical examinations of music criticism and journalism. The project is being co-written by Leticia Supple, blogger and founder of MetalAsFuck.net. Read her first essay here.

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[1]: McLeese, D. 'Straddling the Cultural Chasm: The Great Divide between Music Criticism and Popular Consumption' in Popular Music and Society (Vol. 33, No. 4. 2010) p. 436.