Author Archive

This Is It Folks. We Hit Peak Capitalism.

by on Mar.05, 2012, under general

Via AppleInsider:

A user from Qingdao, China, downloaded the free application “Where’s My Water?” as the 25 billionth download from the App Store, Apple announced on Monday.

They won a $10,000 gift card to iTunes.

I always wondered what the end of humanity would look like. Now I know.

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CarrierIQ Is Spying On Your Phone?

by on Nov.30, 2011, under general

Via Wired:

Though the software is installed on most modern Android, BlackBerry and Nokia phones, Carrier IQ was virtually unknown until 25-year-old Trevor Eckhart of Connecticut analyzed its workings, revealing that the software secretly chronicles a user’s phone experience — ostensibly so carriers and phone manufacturers can do quality control.

But now he’s released a video actually showing the logging of text messages, encrypted web searches and, well, you name it.

CarrierIQ went after Eckhart, but the EFF came to his defense (thank you).

Here’s Eckhart’s dizzyingly comprehensive and alarming video breakdown of CarrierIQ:

As Wired notes, it’s not clear what CarrierIQ is doing or who they are giving this data to. All we know is that it is happening consistently, and, until now, in secret.

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Stepping Outside the Snowglobe

by on Nov.23, 2011, under general

A few days ago I was have a Facebook back-and-forth with Julian Dibbell about this Atlantic blog post about the now infamous Lt. Pike of the UC-Davis police force.

To roughly summarize the Atlantic argument: Lt. Pike, like all of us, is the product of an institution: the police force. Institutions socialize individuals into them. What Pike did is not as attributable to him as it is to the institutional practices of policing. And we should be focusing on those rather than the corporeal person through whom those practices manifested themselves.

In the discussion with Julian I pointed out that I don’t actually disagree with the merits of this argument. Like my good friend Will Frank, who in his thesis articulated something that had been stewing in my head for years in a less coherent fashion, I don’t believe that human beings have free will sufficient to meaningfully assign moral praise or blameworthiness. We are all fundamentally products of systems and of institutions; the behavior which comes out of us is not because of us, but because of what happened to us.

But I also feel strongly that it is OK – more than OK, it is important and necessary – to condemn Lt. Pike for his brutal actions, and to make a strong stand against them as things which are wrong and bad.

In the week or so since this discussion took place I’ve been trying to figure out how I can hold both of these ideas in my mind at the same time.

(continue reading…)

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This Dr Pepper Ad Sure Is Sexist

by on Nov.12, 2011, under general

Sometimes I get linked to unbelievably sexist ads from the early 1900s and I can laugh at them from this cozy corner of enlightened modernity. Then, while watching Oregon vs. Stanford tonight, I saw this unbelievably sexist ad from the early 2000s.

Stay classy, Dr Pepper.

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The Politics of a Christmas Tree Fee Fiasco

by on Nov.11, 2011, under general

The Internet is aflame today about what Heritage is calling Obama’s Christmas Tree Tax. Of course, as with any Heritage post, you have to put it through a truth inverter first: it’s not a tax, and it’s not Obama’s. But be that as it may, the reactions to the story are still interesting in how they betray the interpretive frameworks of those reacting to it.

The facts are these: in 2009, the National Christmas Tree Association requested the implementation of a 15 cent fee, per tree, to be levied on growers whose annual production exceeded 500 trees. The fund, which would be collected by the USDA under the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996, would then be used for “research and promotion” by the NCTA.

As the NCTA says:

Although smaller in scope, the Christmas tree program will be similar to recognizable programs for milk, cotton and beef that have brought consumers commodity-oriented messages such as “Got Milk?” and “Beef, It’s what’s for dinner.”

This story hit Drudge, Heritage, and the rest of the right wing blogosphere, and spread like minty pine fire. How dare Obama tax our Christmas trees!! What monstrosity is this??

I don’t like this program either. But for very different reasons. And that’s kind of what’s interesting.

Here’s what one Facebook friend had to say about the Tree Fee:

it’s a stupid idea all around, and it just shows a basic philosophy of those in power that if there’s a problem they can fix it by taxation…That sort of philosophy is timeless, those in power have been doing it for thousands of years and will continue to do if people let them get away with it.

This is the “Obama is a socialist!!” critique. Taxation is the power to destroy, forcing money from the pockets of consumers, etc.

But to me, this is a story of “Obama is a corporatist.” Or at least his USDA (as with other USDAs past) is. What bothers me is not taxation as such, but the idea that an industry trade association which wants to come up with a new series of commercials can finance it via a government facilitated process. It’s a story, in other words, of regulatory capture, not by Big Banks or Big Oil but by Big Conifer.

In a sense, I (gulp) agree with Heritage when it writes:

the Christmas tree sellers are free to pass along the 15-cent Federal fee to consumers who buy their Christmas trees.

That’s exactly what this is. The NCTA decides they want to promote their trees. They want to fund it. Instead of mandating, for example, an increase in NCTA dues, which might cause people to leave the NCTA, they instead go to the USDA, and collect money via a government intermediary.

Heritage doesn’t have a problem with prices being passed down to consumers. That’s the free market. And I don’t have a problem with it either. But we both share (if for very different reasons) a concern about government being lassoed to do something the NCTA could (and should) do itself. Because that bespeaks general problems of industry capture of government.

The other funny thing is that both of these critiques (Obama the socialist vs Obama the corporatist) are fundamentally libertarian. They’re just different kinds of critiques. One is concerned with the power of taxation; the other with the problem of regulatory capture. But which way you choose to frame, and respond to, the Tree Fee betrays which of the powers or problems you’re concerned about.

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Happy Armistice Day

by on Nov.11, 2011, under general

…all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 1973.

(h/t Matthijs Krul)

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Postage Paid Protest

by on Oct.29, 2011, under general

“If you can’t occupy Wall Street, keep Wall Street occupied.”


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Facebook Immune System

by on Oct.28, 2011, under general

…is the name of the system which protects Facebook from things that look like spam.

And it checks 25 billion actions every day autonomously.

FIS very likely makes Facebook a much better, safer place in most of what it does. But when you’re talking about that scale, you can’t help but think about the problems automated deletion pose for legitimate speech.

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WePay: The First Bank of OWS, And Why It Changes Everything

by on Oct.21, 2011, under general

(the first few paragraphs are background. old internet hands can skip to the good stuff)

The Occupy Wall Street move has, like the Arab Spring before it, leveraged social media to spread its message. Through tools like Twitter and Facebook – and reddit and imgur and hackernews and countless other sympathetic communities – the members of OWS can spread communicate quickly and laterally, independent of the filtering systems of the dominant, mass-media infrastructure.

We all know this dynamic has collapsed the costs of communications and the need for a communications organization. OWS does not need to rely on media liaisons to penetrate broadsheet journalism and broadcast news. You don’t need videographers when every citizen has a camera and can flood YouTube with police brutality videos. All you need is enough people with enough cameras and the news will find you. You don’t need PR professionals to get you ads in newspapers. You just need enough people posting enough links to Facebook and Twitter sufficient to spread the word through your social networks.

This is, I think, the fundamental insight of Clay Shirky’s fundamentally insightful book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The idea, to paraphrase Shirky, is that in a networked society, you don’t need organizations to organize anymore, because all of the hard, heirarchical work that organizations used to do can be distributed across the network to the individuals themselves. And we’ve seen this insight enacted, time and again, as movements have self-organized, and used the Internet to communicate not only to audiences external to the movement, but indeed within the movement itself.

It is not surprising or new that OWS has made use of this particular dynamic in their communications. In fact, it is now an inevitable characterstic of any given movement that its communications are lateral, and agglomerative, consuming the nodes of the social networks that constitute the digitally mediated publics in which we spend so much of our time.

What is fascinating is how the OWS movement is being financed.

While it’s been true for some time that movements don’t need organizations in order to communicate, funding a movement is a different, and much more expensive, animal. In fact, funding a movement has required an organization with an administrative hierarchy. Want to open a bank account as a new movement? First you’ve got to find a treasurer you can trust and open the account in his or her name, and then you’re dependent on that individual to control the purse strings. Paypal is also tied to an individual. You can’t open either a bank or Paypal account for an organization, let alone a movement.

How do you find that individual? How do you control them? To whom do they report, and who reports to them? How is the money spent? These are all organizational questions, by which I mean they presume – and require – the existence of an organization to answer them. Movements may be able to communicate laterally, without organizational hierarchy, but when it comes to actually doing things – which is to say paying for them – they’ve hit the wall of organizational necessity.

That’s where WePay comes in.

WePay is a service which mediates between banks and groups. As an group – a book club, intramural team, fraternity, whatever – you can create a WePay account that’s registered to the organization, not to an individual member of that organization. Anybody – from a member of your group to a complete stranger donating to the cause – can deposit money in your group’s WePay account, and authorized members of the group can spend it. This facilitates flexibility: if your treasurer leaves / graduates / dies / loses interest, or for some other reason can no longer serve in their professional capacity, your group isn’t stuck. You just move the access along to the new individual. Put another way, it’s a bank account for your corporate person.

WePay has effectively become the bank for the OWS movement. Supporters of the OWS movement have donated tens of thousands of dollars to more than 200 OWS campaigns. The NYCGA campaign alone has raised over $100,000 through WePay at the time of this writing.

Notice I say “bank for the movement.” There is not, and may never be, an OWS organization. But there is the OWS movement, constituted of countless individuals loosely arranged around a common set of causes, beliefs, and calls to action. For a dispersed movement, the costs (practical and philosophical) of setting up a rigid organization with financial authority would be tremendous. Potentially life-threatening. But with WePay, that isn’t necessary. Instead, anyone interested in joining the movement can create their own campaign, setup a WePay account, and begin collecting and disbursing funds. Anyone interested in contributing can.

WePay has not only democratized the means of fundraising for political movements. It’s disembodied it. It’s completely crushed the conceptual space inhabited by organizational fundraising, doing to it what folksonomies did to taxonomies. Want to raise money for an OWS campaign in Seattle, San Francisco, or Staten Island? Go ahead. Disagree with the way the folks in Zuccotti park are spending their money? Create a new campaign for Battery park. Skeptical that the money is going to the right place or right things? There’s an app for that. OWS on WePay is all part of the same movement. It’s just moved outside the form of a traditional organization.

Do you see why this is a such a radical, fundamental shift for movements? You don’t need to find a treasurer anymore. You don’t need to elect a governing board. You don’t need to impose an administrative hierarchy just in order to get things done. Sure, these things might help achieve certain goals in a mature movement, where the positions and proposals are crystallizing into political action and the legitimacy conferred by a central authority is worth its weight in transactional costs. But for a complex, diffuse startup movement like OWS, the costs of funding it, just like the costs of communicating about it, have collapsed below the organizational level.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest are all services which help movements spread their message and actions. That is their key intervention in the political process. That is the work they do in the world.

Well, WePay has become a service intervention which helps protestors fund their message and actions. It does to administrative costs what social network sites did to communications costs. That’s its “killer app.” We have not seen this before. It is new. It is real. It is powerful. And it is only beginning.

edit: I’ve received some initial feedback to the effect that I’m crediting WePay for what protestors did in the streets. That’s not my intention. WePay didn’t create the protests, and WePay’s existence was not a necessary condition for their continuation.

To condense my argument: A common problem when you’re kickstarting a movement is that the costs of establishing a financial hierarchy exceed the benefits of the money you’re likely to get at the beginning.

WePay’s essential function is to drastically lower the transaction costs of collecting and disbursing money on behalf of groups. It is arbitraging what was previously a systemic inefficiency in raising and spending money. That’s the key difference here and that’s what it’s brought to the OWS protests, in the same way that Facebook made it really, really easy to share links with all of your friends.

That is not a determinative change. The protests would have happened without WePay, and they would have been big without WePay. But it is a big change in the way movements can fund themselves.

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Occupy George

by on Oct.19, 2011, under general

Hands-down my favorite visual intervention in the OWS movement.

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