The Rise of the Digital Proletariat

In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized,’ says author and activist Astra Taylor. (Deborah DeGraffenreid.)

Astra Taylor reminds us that the Internet cannot magically produce revolution.

BY Sarah Jaffe

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this.

The conversation about the impact of technology tends to be binary: Either it will save us, or it will destroy us. The Internet is an opportunity for revolution; our old society is being “disrupted”; tech-savvy college dropouts are rendering the staid elite obsolete. Or else our jobs are being lost to automation and computers; drones wipe out families on their wedding day; newly minted millionaires flush with tech dollars are gentrifying San Francisco at lightning speed.

Neither story is completely true, of course. In her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, out now from Metropolitan Books, Astra Taylor takes on both the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, reminding us that the Internet was created by the society we live in and thus is more likely to reflect its problems than transcend them. She delves into questions of labor, culture and, especially, money, reminding us who profits from our supposedly free products. She builds a strong case that in order to understand the problems and potentials of technology, we have to look critically at the market-based society that produced it.

Old power dynamics don’t just fade away, she points out—they have to be destroyed. That will require political action, struggle, and a vision of how we want the Internet (and the rest of our society) to be. I spoke with Taylor about culture, creativity, the possibility of nationalizing Facebook and more.

Many people know you as a filmmaker or as an activist with Occupy and Strike Debt. How do you see this book fitting in with the other work you’ve done?

Initially I saw it as a real departure, and now that it’s done, I recognize the continuity. I felt that the voices of culture makers were left out of the debate about the consequences of Internet technology. There are lots of grandiose statements being made about social change and organizing and about how social media tools are going to make it even easier for us to aggregate and transform the world. I felt there was a role I could play rooted in my experiences of being a culture maker and an activist. It was important for somebody grounded in those areas to make a sustained effort to be part of the conversation. I was really troubled that people on all sides of the political spectrum were using Silicon Valley rhetoric to describe our new media landscape. Using terms like “open” and “transparent” and saying things were “democratizing” without really analyzing those terms. A big part of the book was just trying to think through the language we’re using and to look at the ideology underpinning the terminology that’s now so commonplace.

You make the point in the book that the Internet and the offline world aren’t two separate worlds. Can you talk about that a bit more?

It’s amazing that these arguments even need to be made. That you need to point out that these technologies cannot just magically overcome the structures and material conditions that shape regular life.

It harkens back to previous waves of technological optimism. People have always invested a lot of hope in their tools. I talk about the way that we often imbue our machines with the power to liberate us. There was lots of hope that machines would be doing all of our labor and that we would have, as a society, much more free time, and that we would have this economy of abundance because machines would be so dramatically improved over time. The reasons that those predictions never came to pass is because machines are embedded in a social context and the rewards are siphoned off by the elite.

The rise of the Internet really fits that pattern. We can see that there is this massive shifting of wealth [to corporations]. These gigantic digital companies are emerging that can track and profit from not just our online interactions, but increasingly things that we’re doing away from the keyboard. As we move towards the “Internet-of-things,” more and more of the devices around us are going to have IP addresses and be leaking data. These are avenues for these companies that are garnering enormous power to increase their wealth.

The rhetoric a few years ago was that these companies are going to vanquish the old media dinosaurs. If you read the tech books from a few years ago, it’s just like “Disney and these companies are so horrible. Google is going to overthrow them and create a participatory culture.” But Google is going to be way more invasive than Mickey Mouse ever was.

Google’s buying drone companies.

Google’s in your car, Google’s in your thermostat, it’s in your email box. But then there’s the psychological element. There was this hope that you could be anyone you wanted to be online. That you could pick an avatar and be totally liberated from your offline self. That was a real animating fantasy. That, too, was really misleading. Minority groups and women are often forced back into their real bodies, so to speak. They’re not given equal access to the supposedly open space of the Internet.

This is one of the conversations that I think your book is incredibly relevant to right now. Even supposedly progressive spaces are still dominated by white people, mostly men, and there’s a real pushback against women and people of color who are using social media.

It’s been amazing how much outrage can get heaped on one person who’s making critical observations about an institution with such disproportionate power and reach.

The new media elites end up looking a whole lot like the old ones. The other conversations about race and gender and the Internet recently has been about these new media websites that are launched with a lot of fanfare, that have been funded in many cases by Silicon Valley venture capital, that are selling themselves as new and rebellious and exciting and a challenge to the old media—the faces of them are still white men.

The economic rewards flow through the usual suspects. Larry Lessig has done a lot of interesting work around copyright. But he wrote basically that we need to cheer on the Facebooks of the world because they’re new and not the old media dinosaurs. He has this line about “Stanford is vanquishing Harvard.” We need something so much more profound than that.

This is why I really take on the concept of “openness.” Because open is not equal. In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized. It’s harder to get your mind around how inequitable things actually are. I myself follow a diverse group of people and feel like Twitter is full of people of color or radicals. But that’s because I’m getting a very distorted view of the overall picture.

I think it’s helpful to look at the handful of examples of these supposedly open systems in action. Like Wikipedia, which everyone can contribute to. Nonetheless, only like 15 percent of the editors are women. Even the organizations that are held up as exemplars of digital democracy, there’s still such structural inequality. By the time you get to the level of these new media ventures that you’re talking about, it’s completely predictable.

We really need to think through these issues on a social level. I tried to steer the debate away from our addiction to our devices or to crappy content on the Internet, and really take a structural view. It’s challenging because ultimately it comes down to money and power and who has it and how do you wrest it away and how do you funnel some of it to build structures that will support other types of voices. That’s far more difficult than waiting around for some new technology to come around and do it for you.

You write about this tension between professional work from the amateurs who are working for free and the way the idea of doing work for the love of it has crept in everywhere. Except people are working longer hours than ever and they’re making less money than ever, and who has time to come home at the end of your two minimum wage jobs and make art?

It would be nice to come out and say follow your heart, do everything for the love of it, and things’ll work out. Artists are told not to think about money. They’re actively encouraged to deny the economic sphere. What that does though is it obscures the way privilege operates—the way that having a trust fund can sure be handy if you want to be a full time sculptor or digital video maker.

I think it’s important that we tackle these issues. That’s where I look at these beautiful predictions about the way these labor-saving devices would free us all and the idea that the fruits of technological advancement would be evenly shared. It’s really interesting how today’s leading tech pundits don’t pretend that [the sharing is] going to be even at all. Our social imagination is so diminished.

There’s something really off about celebrating amateurism in an economy where people are un- and under-employed, and where young people are graduating with an average of $30,000 of student debt. It doesn’t acknowledge the way that this figure of the artist—[as] the person who loves their work so much that they’ll do it for nothing—is increasingly central to this precarious labor force.

I quote this example of people at an Apple store asking for a raise and the response was “When you’re working for Apple, money shouldn’t be a consideration.” You’re supposed to just love your work so much you’ll exploit yourself. That’s what interning is. That’s what writing for free is when you’re hoping to get a foot in the door as a journalist. There are major social implications if that’s the road we go down. It exacerbates inequality, because who can afford to do this kind of work?

Of course, unpaid internships are really prevalent in creative fields.

Ultimately, it’s a corporate subsidy. People are sometimes not just working for free but then also going into debt for college credit to do it. In a way, all of the unpaid labor online is also a corporate subsidy. I agree that calling our participation online “labor” is problematic because it’s not clear exactly how we’re being exploited, but the point is the value being extracted. We need to talk about that value extraction and the way that people’s free participation feeds into it.

Of course we enjoy so much of what we do online. People enjoy creating art and culture and doing journalism too. The idea that work should only be well-compensated and secure if it makes you miserable ultimately leads to a world where the people who feel like they should make a lot of money are the guys on Wall Street working 80 hours a week. It’s a bleak, bleak view.

In many ways the problem with social media is it does break down this barrier between home and work. You point this out in the book–it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it, especially if you are an independent creative person where you have to constantly promote your own work, or it is part of your job. There’s now the Wages for Facebook conversation—people are starting to talk about the way we are creating value for these companies.

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this. Look also at the way we talk to young people. “Do you want a college recruiter to see that on your Facebook profile?” What we’re really demanding is that they create a Facebook profile that appeals to college recruiters, that they manage a self that will help them get ahead.

I was at a recent talk about automation and the “end of jobs,” and one researcher said that the jobs that would be hardest to automate away would be ones that required creativity or social intelligence—skills that have been incredibly devalued in today’s economy, only in part because of technology.

Those skills are being pushed out of the economy because they’re supposed to be things you just choose to do because they’re pleasurable. There is a paradox there. Certain types of jobs will be automated away, that can be not just deskilled but done better by machines, and meanwhile all the creative jobs that can’t be automated away are actually considered almost superfluous to the economy.

The thing about the jobs conversation is that it’s a political question and a policy question as well as a technological question. There can be lots of different types of jobs in the world if we invest in them. This question of what kind of jobs we’re going to have in the future. So much of it is actually comes down to these social decisions that we’re making. The technological aspect has always been overhyped.

You do bring up ideas like a basic income and shorter working hours as ways to allow people to have time and money for culture creation.

The question is, how do you get there? You’d have to have a political movement, you’d have to challenge power. They’re not just going to throw the poor people who’ve had their jobs automated away a bone and suddenly provide a basic income. People would really have to organize and fight for it. It’s that fight, that element of antagonism and struggle that isn’t faced when we just think tools are evolving rapidly and we’ll catch up with them.

The more romantic predictions about rising prosperity and the inevitable increase in free time were made against the backdrop of the post-war consensus of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a social safety net, there were structures in place that redistributed wealth, and so people made predictions colored by that social fabric, that if there were advancements in our tools that they would be shared by people. It just shows the way that the political reality shapes what we can collectively imagine.

Finally, you make the case for state-subsidized media as well as regulations—for ensuring that people have the ability to make culture as well as consume it. You note that major web companies like Google and Facebook operate like public utilities, and that nationalizing them would be a really hard sell, and yet if these things are being founded with government subsidies and our work, they are in a sense already ours.

The invisible subsidy is the thing that we really have to keep in mind. People say, “Where’s the money going to come from?” We’re already spending it. So much innovation is the consequence of state investment. Touchscreens, the microchip, the Internet itself, GPS, all of these things would not exist if the government had not invested in them, and the good thing about state investment is it takes a much longer view than short-term private-market investment. It can have tremendous, socially valuable breakthroughs. But all the credit for these innovations and the financial rewards is going to private companies, not back to us, the people, whose tax dollars actually paid for them.

You raise a moral question: If we’re paying for these things already, then shouldn’t they in some sense be ours? I think the answer is yes. There are some leverage points in the sense that these companies like to talk about themselves as though they actually are public utilities. There’s this public-spiritedness in their rhetoric but it doesn’t go deep enough—it doesn’t go into the way they’re actually run. That’s the gap we need to bridge. Despite Silicon Valley’s hostility to the government and the state, and the idea that the Internet is sort of this magic place where regulation should not touch, the government’s already there. We just need it to be benefiting people, not private corporations.

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

Google Glass, techno-rage and the battle for San Francisco’s soul

The Bay is burning!

The advent of Google Glass has started an incendiary new chapter in tech’s culture wars. Here’s what’s at stake

The Bay is burning! Google Glass, techno-rage and the battle for San Francisco's soul
Sergey Brin (Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam/Ilya Andriyanov via Shutterstock/Salon)

In San Francisco, the tech culture wars continue to rage. On April 15, Google opened up purchases of its Google Glass headgear to the general public for 24 hours. The sale was marked by mockery, theft and the continuing fallout from an incident a few days earlier, when a Business Insider reporter covering an anti-eviction protest had his Glass snatched and smashed.

That same day, protesters organized by San Francisco’s most powerful union marched to Twitter’s headquarters — a major San Francisco gentrification battleground — and presented the company with a symbolic tax bill, designed to recoup the “millions” that some San Franciscans believe the city squandered by bribing Twitter with a huge tax break to stay in the city.

We learned two things on April 15. First, Google isn’t about to give up on its plans to make Glass the second coming of the iPhone, even if it’s clear that a significant number of people consider Google Glass to be a despicable symbol of the surveillance society and a pricey calling card of the techno-elite. Second, judging by the march on Twitter, the tide of anti-tech protest sentiment has yet to crest in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two points turn out to be inseparable. Scratch an anti-tech protester and you are unlikely to find a fan of Google Glass.

What’s it all mean? Earlier this week, after I promoted an article on Twitter that attempted to explore reasons for anti-Glass hatred, I received a one-word tweet in response: “Neoluddism.”

The Luddites of the early 19th century are famous for smashing weaving machinery in a fruitless attempt to resist the reshaping of society and the economy by the Industrial Revolution. They took their name from Ned Ludd, a possibly apocryphal character who is said to have smashed two stocking frames in a fit of rage — thus inspiring a rebellion. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that my correspondent was deploying the term in the sense most familiar to pop culture — the Luddite as barbarian goon, futilely standing against the relentless march of progress.



But the story isn’t quite that simple.Yes, the Luddite movement may have been smashed by the forces of the state and the newly ascendant industrialist bourgeoisie. Yes, the Luddites may never have had the remotest chance of maintaining their pre-industrial way of life in the face of the steam engine. But there is a version of history in which the Luddites were far from unthinking goons. Instead, they were acute critics of their changing times, grasping the first glimpse of the increasingly potent ways in which capital was learning to exploit labor. In this view, the Luddites were actually the avante garde for the formation of working-class consciousness, and paved the way for the rise of organized labor and trade unions. It’s no accident that Ned Ludd hailed from Nottingham, right up against Sherwood Forest.

Economic inequality and technologically induced dislocation? Ned Ludd, that infamous wrecker of weaving machinery, would recognize a clear echo of his own time in present-day San Francisco. But there’s more to see here than just the challenge of a new technological revolution. Just as the Luddites, despite their failure, spurred the creation of worker-class consciousness, the current Bay Area tech protests have had a pronounced political effect. While the tactics range from savvy, well-organized protest marches to juvenile acts of violence, the impact is clear. The attention of political leaders and the media has been engaged. Everyone is paying attention.

 

 

* * *

If you live in San Francisco, you may have seen them around town: Decals on bar windows that state “Google Glass is barred on these premises.” They are the work of an outfit called StopTheCyborgs.org, a group of scientists and engineers who have articulated a critique of Google Glass that steers cagily away from the half-baked nonsense of Counterforce.

I contacted StopTheCyborgs by email and asked them how they responded to being called “neoluddites.”

“If ‘neoluddism’ means blindly being anti-technology then we refute the charge,” said Jack Winters, who described himself as a Scala and Java developer. If ‘neoluddism’ means not being blindly pro-technology then guilty as charged.”

“We are technologically sophisticated enough to realize that technology is politics and code is law,” continued Winters. “Technology isn’t some external force of nature. It is created and used by people. It has an effect on power relations. It can be good, it can be bad. We can choose what kind of society we want rather than passively accepting that ‘the future’ is whatever data-mining corporations want.”

“Basically anyone who views critics of particular technologies as ‘luddites’ fundamentally misunderstands what technology is. There is no such thing as ‘technology.’ Rather there are specific technologies, produced by specific economic and political actors, and deployed in specific economic and social contexts. You can be anti-nukes without being anti-antibiotics. You can be pro-surveillance of powerful institutions without being pro-surveillance of individual people. You can work on machine vision for medical applications while campaigning against the use of the same technology for automatically identifying and tracking people. How? Because you take a moral view of the likely consequences of a technology in a particular context.” [Emphasis added.]

The argument made by StopTheCyborgs resonates with one of the core observations that revisionist historians have made about the original Luddites: They were not indiscriminate in their assaults on technology. (At least not at first.) They chose to destroy machines that were owned by employers who were acting in ways they believed were particularly economically harmful while leaving other machines undamaged. To translate that to a present-day stance: It is not hypocritical for protesters to argue that Glass embodies surveillance in a way that iPhones don’t, or that it is hypocritical to critique technology’s impact on inequality via Twitter or Facebook. Every mode of technology needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Some start-up entrepreneurs might legitimately be using technology to achieve a social good. Some tech tycoons might be genuinely committed to a higher standard of life for all San Franciscans. Some might just be tools. So Jack Winters of StopTheCyborgs is correct: The deployment of different technologies have different consequences. These consequences require a social and political response.

This is not to say that ripping Google Glass from the face of a young reporter, or otherwise demonizing individuals just because they happen to be employed by a particular company, is comparable to Ned Ludd’s destruction of two stocking frames. But Glass is just as embedded in the larger transformations we are going through as the spinning jenny was to the Industrial Revolution. By taking it seriously, we are giving “the second machine age” the respect it deserves.

The question is: Is Google?

* * *

I tried to find out from Google how many units of Google Glass had been sold during the one-day special promotion. I received a statement that read, “We were getting through our stock faster than we expected, so we decided to shut the store down. While you can still access the site, Glass will be marked as sold out.”

I followed up by asking how Google was coping with the fact that its signature device had become a symbol of tech-economy driven gentrification.

“It’s early days and we are thinking very carefully about how we design Glass because new technology always raises new issues,” said a Google spokesperson. “Our Glass Explorers come from all walks of life. They are firefighters, gardeners, athletes, moms, dads and doctors. No one should be targeted simply because of the technology they choose. We find that when people actually try Glass firsthand, they understand the philosophy that underpins it: Glass let’s you look up and engage with the world around you, rather than looking down and being distracted by your technology.”

You can hear an echo here of Ned Ludd in the statement that “new technology raises new issues.” But the rest is just marketing zombie chatter, about as useless in its own way as some of the more overheated and unhinged rhetoric from the more extreme dissident wings of Bay Area protest. When a group styling itself “Counterforce” shows ups at the home of a Google executive, demands $3 billion to build “anarchist colonies” and declares, as Adrianne Jeffries documented in Verge, that their goal is to “to destroy the capitalist system … [and] … create a new world without an economy,” well, good luck with that. We are a long way from “the precipice of a complete anarcho-primitivist rebellion against the technocracy.”

One thing seems reasonably clear: Moms and firefighters might be wearing Google Glass, but if Ned Ludd were around today, he’d probably be looking for different accessories.

Apparently you can’t be empathetic, or help the homeless, without a GoPro

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless

people to capture “extreme living”

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless people to capture "extreme living"

GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”

The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:

“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”

The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.

The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.

In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”

Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.



Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.

It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.

As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/17/today_in_bad_ideas_strapping_video_cameras_to_homeless_people_to_capture_extreme_living/?source=newsletter

The 2,000-Year History of GPS Tracking

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 3:00 AM PDT
Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy and Hiawatha Bray’s “You Are Here”

Boston Globe technology writer Hiawatha Bray recalls the moment that inspired him to write his new book, You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves. “I got a phone around 2003 or so,” he says. “And when you turned the phone on—it was a Verizon dumb phone, it wasn’t anything fancy—it said, ‘GPS’. And I said, ‘GPS? There’s GPS in my phone?’” He asked around and discovered that yes, there was GPS in his phone, due to a 1994 FCC ruling. At the time, cellphone usage was increasing rapidly, but 911 and other emergency responders could only accurately track the location of land line callers. So the FCC decided that cellphone providers like Verizon must be able to give emergency responders a more accurate location of cellphone users calling 911. After discovering this, “It hit me,” Bray says. “We were about to enter a world in which…everybody had a cellphone, and that would also mean that we would know where everybody was. Somebody ought to write about that!”

So he began researching transformative events that lead to our new ability to navigate (almost) anywhere. In addition, he discovered the military-led GPS and government-led mapping technologies that helped create new digital industries. The result of his curiosity is You Are Here, an entertaining, detailed history of how we evolved from primitive navigation tools to our current state of instant digital mapping—and, of course, governments’ subsequent ability to track us. The book was finished prior to the recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, but Bray says gaps in navigation and communication like that are now “few and far between.”

Here are 13 pivotal moments in the history of GPS tracking and digital mapping that Bray points out in You Are Here:

1st century: The Chinese begin writing about mysterious ladles made of lodestone. The ladle handles always point south when used during future-telling rituals. In the following centuries, lodestone’s magnetic abilities lead to the development of the first compasses.

Image: ladle

Model of a Han Dynasty south-indicating ladle Wikimedia Commons

2nd century: Ptolemy’s Geography is published and sets the standard for maps that use latitude and longitude.

Image: Ptolemy map

Ptolemy’s 2nd-century world map (redrawn in the 15th century) Wikimedia Commons

1473: Abraham Zacuto begins working on solar declination tables. They take him five years, but once finished, the tables allow sailors to determine their latitude on any ocean.

Image: declination tables

The Great Composition by Abraham Zacuto. (A 17th-century copy of the manuscript originally written by Zacuto in 1491.) Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

1887: German physicist Heinrich Hertz creates electromagnetic waves, proof that electricity, magnetism, and light are related. His discovery inspires other inventors to experiment with radio and wireless transmissions.

Image: Hertz

The Hertz resonator John Jenkins. Sparkmuseum.com

1895: Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, one of those inventors inspired by Hertz’s experiment, attaches his radio transmitter antennae to the earth and sends telegraph messages miles away. Bray notes that there were many people before Marconi who had developed means of wireless communication. “Saying that Marconi invented the radio is like saying that Columbus discovered America,” he writes. But sending messages over long distances was Marconi’s great breakthrough.

Image: Marconi

Inventor Guglielmo Marconi in 1901, operating an apparatus similar to the one he used to transmit the first wireless signal across Atlantic Wikimedia Commons

1958: Approximately six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, Frank McLure, the research director at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, calls physicists William Guier and George Weiffenbach into his office. Guier and Weiffenbach used radio receivers to listen to Sputnik’s consistent electronic beeping and calculate the Soviet satellite’s location; McLure wants to know if the process could work in reverse, allowing a satellite to location their position on earth. The foundation for GPS tracking is born.

​1969: A pair of Bell Labs scientists named William Boyle and George Smith create a silicon chip that records light and coverts it into digital data. It is called a charge-coupled device, or CCD, and serves as the basis for digital photography used in spy and mapping satellites.

1976: The top-secret, school-bus-size KH-11 satellite is launched. It uses Boyle and Smith’s CCD technology to take the first digital spy photographs. Prior to this digital technology, actual film was used for making spy photographs. It was a risky and dangerous venture for pilots like Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane and taking film photographs over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Image: KH-11 image

KH-11 satellite photo showing construction of a Kiev-class aircraft carrier Wikimedia Commons

1983: Korean Air Lines flight 007 is shot down after leaving Anchorage, Alaska, and veering into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers are killed, including Georgia Democratic Rep. Larry McDonald. Two weeks after the attack, President Ronald Reagan directs the military’s GPS technology to be made available for civilian use so that similar tragedies would not be repeated. Bray notes, however, that GPS technology had always been intended to be made public eventually. Here’s Reagan’s address to the nation following the attack:

1989: The US Census Bureau releases (PDF) TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) into the public domain. The digital map data allows any individual or company to create virtual maps.

1994: The FCC declares that wireless carriers must find ways for emergency services to locate mobile 911 callers. Cellphone companies choose to use their cellphone towers to comply. However, entrepreneurs begin to see the potential for GPS-integrated phones, as well. Bray highlights SnapTrack, a company that figures out early on how to squeeze GPS systems into phones—and is purchased by Qualcomm in 2000 for $1 billion.

1996: GeoSystems launches an internet-based mapping service called MapQuest, which uses the Census Bureau’s public-domain mapping data. It attracts hundreds of thousands of users and is purchased by AOL four years later for $1.1 billion.

2004: Google buys Australian mapping startup Where 2 Technologies and American satellite photography company Keyhole for undisclosed amounts. The next year, they launch Google Maps, which is now the most-used mobile app in the world.

2012: The Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Jones (PDF) restricts police usage of GPS to track suspected criminals. Bray tells the story of Antoine Jones, who was convicted of dealing cocaine after police placed a GPS device on his wife’s Jeep to track his movements. The court’s decision in his case is unanimous: The GPS device had been placed without a valid search warrant. Despite the unanimous decision, just five justices signed off on the majority opinion. Others wanted further privacy protections in such cases—a mixed decision that leaves future battles for privacy open to interpretation.

 

http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/04/you-are-here-book-hiawatha-bray-gps-navigation

Depriving homeless people of their last shelter in life is Silicon Valley at its worst.


The 1% Wants to Ban Sleeping in Cars

Because It Hurts Their ‘Quality of Life’

Photo Credit: meunierd/Shutterstock.com

Across the United States, many local governments are responding to skyrocketing levels of inequality and the now decades-long crisis of homelessness among the very poor … by passing laws making it a crime to sleep in a parked car.

This happened most recently in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley, where new billionaires are seemingly minted every month – and where 92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind. Dozens of cities have passed similar anti-homeless laws. The largest of them is Los Angeles, the longtime unofficial “homeless capital of America”, where lawyers are currently defending a similar vehicle-sleeping law before a skeptical federal appellate court. Laws against sleeping on sidewalks or in cars are called “quality of life” laws. But they certainly don’t protect the quality of life of the poor.

To be sure, people living in cars cannot be the best neighbors. Some people are able to acquire old and ugly – but still functioning – recreational vehicles with bathrooms; others do the best they can. These same cities have resisted efforts to provide more public toilet facilities, often on the grounds that this will make their city a “magnet” for homeless people from other cities. As a result, anti-homeless ordinances often spread to adjacent cities, leaving entire regions without public facilities of any kind.

Their hope, of course, is that homeless people will go elsewhere, despite the fact that the great majority of homeless people are trying to survive in the same communities in which they were last housed – and where they still maintain connections. Americans sleeping in their own cars literally have nowhere to go.

Indeed, nearly all homelessness in the US begins with a loss of income and an eviction for nonpayment of rent – a rent set entirely by market forces. The waiting lists are years long for the tiny fraction of housing with government subsidies. And rents have risen dramatically in the past two years, in part because long-time tenants must now compete with the millions of former homeowners who lost their homes in the Great Recession.

The paths from eviction to homelessness follow familiar patterns. For the completely destitute without family or friends able to help, that path leads more or less directly to the streets. For those slightly better off, unemployment and the exhaustion of meager savings – along with the good graces of family and friends – eventually leaves people with only two alternatives: a shelter cot or their old automobile.

However, in places like Los Angeles, the shelters are pretty much always full. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of unsheltered homeless people increased by 67%. In Palo Alto last year, there were 12 shelter beds for 157 homeless individuals. Homeless people in these cities do have choices: they can choose to sleep in a doorway, on a sidewalk, in a park, under a bridge or overpass, or – if they are relatively lucky – in a car. But these cities have ordinances that make all of those choices a criminal offense. The car is the best of bad options, now common enough that local bureaucrats have devised a new, if oxymoronic, term – the “vehicularly housed”.

People sleeping in cars try to find legal, nighttime parking places, where they will be less apparent and arouse the least hostility. But cities like Palo Alto and Los Angeles often forbid parking between 2am and 5am in commercial areas, where police write expensive tickets and arrest and impound the vehicles of repeat offenders. That leaves residential areas, where overnight street parking cannot, as a practical matter, be prohibited.

One finds the “vehicularly housed” in virtually every neighborhood, including my own. But the animus that drives anti-homeless laws seems to be greatest in the wealthiest cities, like Palo Alto, which has probably spawned more per-capita fortunes than any city on Earth, and in the more recently gentrified areas like Los Angeles’ Venice. These places are ruled by majorities of “liberals” who decry, with increasing fervor, the rapid rise in economic inequality. Nationally, 90% of Democrats (and 45% of Republicans) believe the government should act to reduce the rich-poor gap.

It is easy to be opposed to inequality in the abstract. So why are Los Angeles and Palo Alto spending virtually none of their budgets on efforts to provide housing for the very poor and homeless? When the most obvious evidence of inequality parks on their street, it appears, even liberals would rather just call the police. The word from the car: if you’re not going to do anything to help, please don’t make things worse.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/1-wants-ban-sleeping-cars-because-it-hurts-their-quality-life?akid=11722.265072.4yEWu6&rd=1&src=newsletter982385&t=3&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Google, once disdainful of lobbying, now a master of Washington influence

Google’s Eric Schmidt is no stranger to D.C. He has spent lots of time at the White House and on Capitol Hill lobbying on behalf of his titan technology company. But his relationship with Washington and the Obama administration has not always been a comfortable one.

WRITTEN BYTom HamburgerMatea Gold

PUBLISHED: APRIL 12

In May 2012, the law school at George Mason University hosted a forum billed as a “vibrant discussion” about Internet search competition. Many of the major players in the field were there — regulators from the Federal Trade Commission, federal and state prosecutors, top congressional staffers.

What the guests had not been told was that the day-long academic conference was in large part the work of Google, which maneuvered behind the scenes with GMU’s Law & Economics Center to put on the event. At the time, the company was under FTC investigation over concerns about the dominance of its famed search engine, a case that threatened Google’s core business.

In the weeks leading up to the GMU event, Google executives suggested potential speakers and guests, sending the center’s staff a detailed spreadsheet listing members of Congress, FTC commissioners, and senior officials with the Justice Department and state attorney general’s offices.

“If you haven’t sent out the invites yet, please use the attached spreadsheet, which contains updated info,” Google legal assistant Yang Zhang wrote to Henry Butler, executive director of the law center, according to internal e-mails obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request. “If you’ve sent out the invites, would it be possible to add a few more?”

Butler replied, “We’re on it!”

On the day of the conference, leading technology and legal experts forcefully rejected the need for the government to take action against Google, making their arguments before some of the very regulators who would help determine its fate.

The company helped put on two similar conferences at GMU around the time of the 18-month investigation, part of a broad strategy to shape the external debate around the probe, which found that Google’s search practices did not merit legal action.

The behind-the-scenes machinations demonstrate how Google — once a lobbying weakling — has come to master a new method of operating in modern-day Washington, where spending on traditional lobbying is rivaled by other, less visible forms of influence.

(Read the e-mails between Google and GMU officials)

That system includes financing sympathetic research at universities and think tanks, investing in nonprofit advocacy groups across the political spectrum and funding pro-business coalitions cast as public-interest projects.

The rise of Google as a top-tier Washington player fully captures the arc of change in the influence business.

Nine years ago, the company opened a one-man lobbying shop, disdainful of the capital’s pay-to-play culture.

Since then, Google has soared to near the top of the city’s lobbying ranks, placing second only to General Electric incorporate lobbying expenditures in 2012 and fifth place in 2013.

The company gives money to nearly 140 business trade groups, advocacy organizations and think tanks, according to a Post analysis of voluntary disclosures by the company, which, like many corporations, does not reveal the size of its donations. That’s double the number of groups Google funded four years ago.

This summer, Google will move to a new Capitol Hill office, doubling its Washington space to 55,000 square feet — roughly the size of the White House.

Google’s increasingly muscular Washington presence matches its expanded needs and ambitions as it has fended off a series of executive- and legislative-branch threats to regulate its activities and well-funded challenges by its corporate rivals.

Today, Google is working to preserve its rights to collect consumer data — and shield it from the government — amid a backlash over revelations that the National Security Agency tapped Internet companies as part of its surveillance programs. And it markets cloud storage and other services to federal departments, including intelligence agencies and the Pentagon.

“Technology issues are a big — and growing — part of policy debates in Washington, and it is important for us to be part of that discussion,” said Susan Molinari, a Republican former congresswoman from New York who works as Google’s top lobbyist. “We aim to help policymakers understand Google’s business and the work we do to keep the Internet open and spur economic opportunity.”

Molinari added, “We support associations and third parties across the political spectrum who help us get the word out — even if we don’t agree with them on 100 percent of issues.”

Susan Molinari, a Republican former congresswoman from New York, works as Google’s top lobbyist in Washington.

Susan Molinari, a Republican former congresswoman from New York, works as Google’s top lobbyist in Washington.

As Google’s lobbying efforts have matured, the company has worked to broaden its appeal on both sides of the aisle. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is a well-known backer of President Obama and advises the White House. Google’s lobbying corps — now numbering more than 100 — is split equally, like its campaign donations, among Democrats and Republicans.

Google executives have fostered a new dialogue between Republicans and Silicon Valley, giving money to conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Federalist Society. While also supporting groups on the left, Google has flown conservative activists to California for visits to its Mountain View campus and a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel.

The company has also pioneered new and unexpected ways to influence decision-makers, harnessing its vast reach. It has befriended key lawmakers in both parties by offering free training sessions to Capitol Hill staffers and campaign operatives on how to use Google products that can help targetvoters.

Through a program for charities, Google donates in-kind advertising, customized YouTube channels and Web site analytics to think tanks that are allied with the company’s policy goals.

Google “fellows” — young lawyers, writers and thinkers paid by the company — populate elite think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the New America Foundation.

To critics, Google’s investments have effectively shifted the national discussion away from Internet policy questions that could affect the company’s business practices. Groups that might ordinarily challenge the policies and practices of a major corporation are holding their fire, those critics say.

“Google’s influence in Washington has chilled a necessary and overdue policy discussion about the impact of the Internet’s largest firm on the future of the Internet,” said Marc Rotenberg, a Georgetown University law professor who runs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog and research organization.

CONTINUED:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-google-is-transforming-power-and-politicsgoogle-once-disdainful-of-lobbying-now-a-master-of-washington-influence/2014/04/12/51648b92-b4d3-11e3-8cb6-284052554d74_story.html?wpmk=MK0000200

Apple’s Spotty Record of Giving Back To the Tech Industry

http://benswann.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/apple.jpg

 

Given Apple’s status as the world’s most valuable company and its enormous cash hoard, the refusal to offer even meager support to open source and industry groups is puzzling. From the article: ‘Apple bundles software from the Apache Software Foundation with its OS X operating system, but does not financially support the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) in any way. That is in contrast to Google and Microsoft, Apple’s two chief competitors, which are both Platinum sponsors of ASF — signifying a contribution of $100,000 annually to the Foundation. Sponsorships range as low as $5,000 a year (Bronze), said Sally Khudairi, ASF’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations. The ASF is vendor-neutral and all code contributions to the Foundation are done on an individual basis. Apple employees are frequent, individual contributors to Apache. However, their employer is not, Khudairi noted. The company has been a sponsor of ApacheCon, a for-profit conference that runs separately from the Foundation — but not in the last 10 years. “We were told they didn’t have the budget,” she said of efforts to get Apple’s support for ApacheCon in 2004, a year in which the company reported net income of $276 million on revenue of $8.28 billion.

~Slashdot~

The Comcast/TWC Merger Is About Controlling Information

“Comcast and proposed merger partner Time Warner Cable claim they don’t compete because their service areas don’t overlap, and that a combined company would happily divest itself of a few million customers to keeps its pay-TV market share below 30%, allowing other companies that don’t currently compete with Comcast to keep not competing with Comcast. This narrow, shortsighted view fails to take into account the full breadth of what’s involved in this merger — broadcast TV, cable TV, network technology, in-home technology, access to the Internet, and much more. In addition to asking whether or not regulators should permit Comcast to add 10-12 million customers, there is a more important question at the core of this deal: Should Comcast be allowed to control both what content you consume and how you get to consume it?”

~Slashdot~

Are Google and Facebook Just Pretending They Want Limits on NSA Surveillance?

By Elise Ackerman

Photo via Flickr user Ludovic Toinel

Revelations about the National Security Agency’s most controversial surveillance program, which centers on the bulk collection of hundreds of billions of records of Americans’ phone conversations, were quickly greeted with calls for reform by major internet powerhouses like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo last year. But all four companies, along with dozens of other major tech firms, are actively opposing an initiative to prevent NSA spying known as the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, leaning on secretive industry lobbying groups while they profess outrage in official statements.

Virtually immediate public condemnation of government spying put the industry in an uncomfortable position when the Snowden leaks began pouring out in June 2013, and in carefully written responses to news reports claiming that they’d cooperated with the now notorious PRISM apparatus, these tech companies emphasized their compliance with existing laws that require them to hand over user data under certain conditions.

“When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if [it] is required by law,” Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, wrote in a blog post last June. “We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.”

Statements like this suggest Zuckerberg and his industry peers would support legislative efforts to rein in surveillance, and it’s true that they’ve called for reform in letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee applauding a bill known as the USA Freedom Act. Google, Facebook, and six other tech giants have even hired a firm that claims to fight NSA surveillance on their behalf.

The real action, however, has been much subtler, with the industry wielding its influence behind closed doors using two lobbying groups to oppose certain restrictions on internet surveillance: the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS) and the State Privacy and Security Coalition (SPSC). A look at the actions of these two groups suggests that the companies want reform, sure, but only on terms that don’t affect their day-to-day business.

In particular, VICE has uncovered that ITAPS and SPSC have sent letters to politicians lobbying against the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, a wide-sweeping bill that would limit the NSA’s ability to read private electronic communications without a warrant.

Anti-surveillance bills have been introduced over the past year in more than half the states in the union, ranging from narrow laws that would require warrants for location data and email to more sweeping efforts to fight back against federal intrusions by outlawing cooperation with government agencies that engage in electronic-data collection without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment Protection Act, which has been introduced in more than a dozen states, denies state resources to federal agencies that collect electronic data without a warrant, and to companies that do the agencies’ dirty work for them. Drafted last year by a small group of nonpartisan legal activists affiliated with the Tenth Amendment Center and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the bill is a grassroots attempt to force the NSA to change its data-collection practices—a position that has since been endorsed by the president and members of Congress, albeit in more limited form.

“I think this bill is in the finest traditions of state governments opposing federal encroachments,” said Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general and general counsel to the Federal Communications Commission at a March hearing in Maryland. “It’s important to remember that the Fourth Amendment right to privacy was the spark of the American revolution.”

State legislatures around the country have held a number of hearings on the bill, including one last month in Maryland. During these hearings, groups representing law enforcement and district attorneys have complained that the proposed legislation is too broad and would hamper criminal investigations and prosecutions. But corporate adversaries of the act have been conspicuously absent. They haven’t engaged in a public debate about the law, such as the one Google’s Larry Page called for during his appearance at the TED 2014 conference in Seattle.

In states such as California, Tennesse, and Missouri, state legislators aren’t required to discole their contacts with industry front groups under existing public records laws. When I tried to verify which government officials have been contacted by ITAPS and the SPSC, elected officials were naturally reluctant to acknowledge them. Two lawmakers—State Senator Stacey Campfield, a Republican from Tennessee, and State Senator Joel Anderson, a Republican from California—indicated they had not been contacted by the groups, though documents obtained by VICE confirmed that they had both received letters from ITAPS.

Only one lawmaker, State Senator Ted Lieu of California, voluntarily provided a copy of the letter he had received from ITAPS, a division of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI). Founded in 1916, ITI claims to be the tech industry’s oldest trade association. It describes itself as the “premier advocacy and policy organization for the world’s leading innovation companies” and prides itself on providing “creative solutions and policy advocacy that advance the development and use of technology around the world.” In addition to the internet giants, the 56 members of ITI listed on its website include Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Oracle, and Samsung.

In a February 20 letter to State Senator Lieu, Carol Henton, a vice president of ITAPS, said that the anti-surveillance bill would have “negative implications for companies that are seeking to make manufacturing and business investments in the state of California.” Henton specifically objected to a provision of the bill that barred state agencies, employees, and contractors from using public funds to engage in any activity that aids the federal government from collecting any individual’s electronic data without a warrant. “Many California-based companies provide technology goods and analytic services which are important to the provision of national and homeland security for U.S. citizens and this would seem to unnecessarily jeopardize their ability to compete for business with the state or political subdivisions,” Henton wrote.

Henton met with Lieu’s office in the first week of April. In an interview responding to some questions I had about the meeting, Lieu said that Henton and others appeared to be misinterpreting the bill, but added that he has been contacted by multiple companies and stakeholders and that he was going to amend the bill to reflect their concerns.

James Halpert, general counsel for the SPSC, said in an interview that it wasn’t fair that companies that complied with requests from the NSA—as is required by existing law—would be barred from state contracts. “The bill would place many of our members in an impossible, Catch-22 situation—be held in contempt of court or be disqualified from contracts with the State of Arizona or any political subdivision,” he wrote in a February 10 letter to State Senator Kelli Ward of Arizona. Formed in 2008 with the goal of harmonizing state and federal legislation, the SPSC includes AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner Cable, along with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Members discuss state legislation in a weekly call with Halpert.

In his letter, Halpert warned that the bill would have unintended consequences. “For example, if the Arizona state government or any locality uses Microsoft Outlook or Google email services, it would not be able to continue doing so under SB 1156 (Arizona’s version of the Fourth Amendment Protection Act) because both companies are legally required to provide evidence to the federal government. Instead, Arizona and its subdivisions would have to cease using those services and find new—potentially more expensive—providers,” he wrote.

Michael Maharrey, a spokesman for the Tenth Amendment Center, said Halpert’s concerns could be addressed relatively easily with an amendment that clarifies that the bill would not apply to companies that were forced to provide user data in response to a court order. But Henton’s letter indicates the tech companies’ objections run much deeper. “ITAPS is essentially opposed to the bill because it will do what the bill is intended to do,” Maharrey said in an interview. “The intent of that section is to stop the companies from cooperating with the NSA and violating our civil liberties. We want companies to make a choice.”

It’s not a choice the companies themselves care to make. Principles such as requiring the government to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause to access a person’s private communications or documents stored online sound great in the abstract, but not, apparently, at the expense of achieving traditional business goals.

http://www.vice.com/read/are-google-and-facebook-just-pretending-they-want-limits-on-nsa-surveillance?utm_source=vicenewsletter

Capitalism simply isn’t working and here are the reasons why

Economist Thomas Piketty’s message is bleak:
the gap between rich and poor threatens to destroy us

thomas-piketty-economist-will-hutton

Thomas Piketty has mined 200 years of data to support his theory that capitalism does not work. Photograph: Ed Alcock for the Observer

Suddenly, there is a new economist making waves – and he is not on the right. At the conference of the Institute of New Economic Thinking in Toronto last week, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century got at least one mention at every session I attended. You have to go back to the 1970s and Milton Friedman for a single economist to have had such an impact.

Like Friedman, Piketty is a man for the times. For 1970s anxieties about inflation substitute today’s concerns about the emergence of the plutocratic rich and their impact on economy and society. Piketty is in no doubt, as he indicates in an interview in today’s Observer New Review, that the current level of rising wealth inequality, set to grow still further, now imperils the very future of capitalism. He has proved it.

It is a startling thesis and one extraordinarily unwelcome to those who think capitalism and inequality need each other. Capitalism requires inequality of wealth, runs this right-of-centre argument, to stimulate risk-taking and effort; governments trying to stem it with taxes on wealth, capital, inheritance and property kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Thus Messrs Cameron and Osborne faithfully champion lower inheritance taxes, refuse to reshape the council tax and boast about the business-friendly low capital gains and corporation tax regime.

Piketty deploys 200 years of data to prove them wrong. Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

The process is made worse by inheritance and, in the US and UK, by the rise of extravagantly paid “super managers”. High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of “meritocratic extremism”, in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich. This is an important element in Piketty’s thinking: rising inequality of wealth is not immutable. Societies can indulge it or they can challenge it.

Inequality of wealth in Europe and US is broadly twice the inequality of income – the top 10% have between 60% and 70% of all wealth but merely 25% to 35% of all income. But this concentration of wealth is already at pre-First World War levels, and heading back to those of the late 19th century, when the luck of who might expect to inherit what was the dominant element in economic and social life. There is an iterative interaction between wealth and income: ultimately, great wealth adds unearned rentier income to earned income, further ratcheting up the inequality process.

The extravagances and incredible social tensions of Edwardian England, belle epoque France and robber baron America seemed for ever left behind, but Piketty shows how the period between 1910 and 1950, when that inequality was reduced, was aberrant. It took war and depression to arrest the inequality dynamic, along with the need to introduce high taxes on high incomes, especially unearned incomes, to sustain social peace. Now the ineluctable process of blind capital multiplying faster in fewer hands is under way again and on a global scale. The consequences, writes Piketty, are “potentially terrifying”.

For a start, almost no new entrepreneurs, except one or two spectacular Silicon Valley start-ups, can ever make sufficient new money to challenge the incredibly powerful concentrations of existing wealth. In this sense, the “past devours the future”. It is telling that the Duke of Westminster and the Earl of Cadogan are two of the richest men in Britain. This is entirely by virtue of the fields in Mayfair and Chelsea their families owned centuries ago and the unwillingness to clamp down on the loopholes that allow the family estates to grow.

Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer. The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don’t need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest.

Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system. Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population.

As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services. Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.

The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war. Piketty fears a repeat. His critics argue that with higher living standards resentment of the ultra-rich may no longer be as great – and his data is under intense scrutiny for mistakes. So far it has all held up.

Nor does it seem likely that human beings’ inherent sense of justice has been suspended. Of course the reaction plays out differently in different eras: I suspect some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.

The solutions – a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax – are currently inconceivable.

But as Piketty says, the task of economists is to make them more conceivable. Capital certainly does that.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/12/capitalism-isnt-working-thomas-piketty?CMP=fb_gu