The Future of Robot Labor Is the Future of Capitalism

http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/111222053744-robots-story-top.jpg

Written by

Jordan Pearson

September 1, 2014 // 12:40 PM EST

You’ve seen the headlines by now: The robots are coming, and they’re going to take our jobs. The future really doesn’t look so great for the average, human working stiff, since 47 percent of the world’s jobs are set to be automated in the next two decades, according to a recent and much-publicised University of Oxford study.

Some see these developments in apocalyptic terms, with robot workers creating a new underclass of jobless humans, while others see it in a more hopeful light, claiming robots may instead lead us to a future where work isn’t necessary. But fretting over which jobs will be lost and which will be preserved doesn’t do much good.

The thing is, robots entering the workplace isn’t even really about robots. The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that’s been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.

Image: Mixabest/Wikimedia

The best way to understand how this all works and where it will go is to refer to the writings of the person who understood capitalism best—Karl Marx. In particular, to a little-known journal fragment published in his manuscript The Grundrisse called “The Fragment on Machines.”

Whether you love him, hate him, or just avoid him completely, Marx dedicated his life to understanding how capitalism works. He was obsessed with it. In “The Fragment,” Marx grappled with what a fully automated capitalist society might mean for the worker in the future.

According to Marx, automation that displaces workers in favour of machines that can produce more goods in less time is part and parcel of how capitalism operates. By developing fixed capital (machines), bosses can do away with much of the variable capital (workers) that saps their bottom line with pesky things like wages and short work days. He writes:

The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency.

Seen through this lens, robot workers are the rational end point of automation as it develops in a capitalist economy. The question of what happens to workers displaced by automation is an especially interesting line of inquiry because it points to a serious contradiction in capitalism, according to Marx:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.

In Marxist theory, capitalists create profit by extracting what’s called surplus value from workers—paying them less than what their time is worth and gaining the difference as profit after the commodity has been sold at market price, arrived at by metrics abstracted from the act of labour itself. So what happens when humans aren’t the ones working anymore? Curiously, Marx finds himself among the contemporary robotic utopianists in this regard.

Once robots take over society’s productive forces, people will have more free time than ever before, which will “redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation,” Marx wrote. Humans, once freed from the bonds of soul-crushing capitalist labour, will develop new means of social thought and cooperation outside of the wage relation that frames most of our interactions under capitalism. In short, Marx claimed that automation would bring about the end of capitalism.

In the automated world, precarious labour reigns.

It’s a familiar sentiment that has gained new traction in recent years thanks to robots being in vogue, but we only have to look to the recent past to know that things didn’t exactly work out that way. Capitalism is very much alive and well, despite automation’s steady march towards ascendancy over the centuries. The reason is this: automation doesn’t disrupt capitalism. It’s an integral part of the system.

What we understand as “work” has morphed to accommodate its advancement. There is no reason to assume that this will change just because automation is ramping up to sci-fi speed.

To paraphrase John Tomlinson in his analysis of technology, speed, and capitalism in The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy, no idiom captures the spirit of capitalism better than “time is money”. If machines ostensibly create more free time for humans by doing more work, capitalists must create new forms of work to make that time productive in order to continue capturing surplus value for themselves. As Marx wrote (forgive my reprinting of his problematic language):

The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools [...] But the possessors of [the] surplus produce or capital… employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery. So it goes on.

“Not immediately productive” is the key phrase here. Just think of all the forms of work that have popped up since automation began to really take hold during the Industrial Revolution: service sector work, online work, part-time and otherwise low-paid work. You’re not producing anything while working haphazard hours as a cashier at Walmart, but you are creating value by selling what has already been built, often by machines.

In the automated world, precarious labour reigns. Jobs that offer no stability, no satisfaction, no acceptable standard of living, and seem to take up all of our time by occupying so many scattered parcels of it are the norm. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a philosopher of labour and technology, explained it thusly in his book Precarious Rhapsody, referring to the legions of over worked part-time or no-timers as the “precariat”:

The word ‘precariat’ generally stands for the area of work that is no longer definable by fixed rules relative to the labor relation, to salary and to the length of the working day [...] Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers [...] The time of work is fractalized, that is, reduced to minimal fragments that can be reassembled, and the fractalization makes it possible for capital to constantly find the conditions of minimum salary.

Online labour is especially applicable to this description of the new definition of work. For example, work that increasingly depends on emails, instant correspondence across time zones, and devices that otherwise bring work home from the office in any number of ways, creates a mental environment where time is no longer marked into firm blocks.

Indeed, the “work day” is all day, every day, and time is now a far more fluid concept than before. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, on which low-income workers sell their time performing menial creative tasks for pennies per hour, is a particularly dystopic example of this.

A radically different form of work is that of providing personal data for profit. This online data work is particularly insidious for two main reasons. First, because it is often not recognized as work at all. You might not think that messaging a pal about your new pair of headphones is work, but labour theorists like Maurizio Lazzarato disagree. Second, because workers are completely cut out of the data profit loop, although that may be changing.

Image: ProducerMatthew/Wikimedia

These points, taken together, paint a pretty dismal picture of the future of humans living with robotic labour under capitalism. It’s likely that we’ll be working more, and at shitty jobs. The question is: what kind of work, and exactly how shitty?

In my opinion, being anti-robot or anti-technology is not a very helpful position to take. There’s no inherent reason that automation could not be harnessed to provide more social good than harm. No, a technologically-motivated movement is not what’s needed. Instead, a political one that aims to divest technological advancement from the motives of capitalism is in order.

Some people are already working toward this. The basic income movement, which calls for a minimum salary to be paid out to every living human regardless of employment status, is a good start, because it implies a significant departure from the purely economic language of austerity in political thought and argues for a basic income for the salient reason that we’re human and we deserve to live. However, if we really want to change the way things are headed, more will be needed.

At a time when so many of us are looking towards the future, one particular possibility is continually ignored: a future without capitalism. Work without capitalism, free time without capitalism, and, yes, even robots without capitalism. Perhaps only then could we build the foundations of a future world where technology works for all of us, and not just the privileged few.

http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-future-of-robot-labour-has-everything-to-do-with-capitalism

The True Meaning of Labor Day

  Labor  

For America’s workers, it’s a reminder of the struggles we have won—and those that lie ahead.

Photo Credit: Nic Neufeld / Shutterstock.com

To many Americans, Labor Day has become an important way to send off the slower pace of summer and usher in the hustle and bustle of fall. To our nation’s working families, this Labor Day means so much more.

It is an important moment to reflect on the courage of the working people who brought us Labor Day and the many working benefits we enjoy today. It is also a pivotal time to take stock of where our families, our economy, and our democracy are heading.

Today, America finds itself in a position of incredible challenge. Half of all Americans now make less than $15 an hour. Of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in America, eight are service sector jobs that pay $15 an hour or less.

Service sector jobs are the heartbeat of our economy and our communities, from the folks who care for the elderly and our children, to those who cook and serve our food, to those who clean and secure our offices. Moving our economy forward must include making service jobs into good jobs with wages that you can raise a family on.

That’s why this Labor Day, the American people are sparking a new movement, joining together for an economy and democracy that works for everyone.

Fast food workers have joined together to fight for $15 an hour. They have been joined by home care workers who are calling for $15 an hour for all caregivers. Just last week 27,000 Minnesota home care workers joined together in union, determined to raise wages and fight for quality home care for our seniors.

Working people in Seattle fought for and won a $15 minimum wage for 100,000 people, and other cities are poised to do the same. Across our nation adjunct professors, airport workers, security officers, hospital workers, Wal-Mart workers and other service sector workers are standing up and sticking together.

All told, 6.7 million workers have achieved better pay since fast food workers began striking less than two years ago, either through states or cities moving to raise minimum wages or through collective bargaining. These brave workers are building the momentum to raise wages and get our economy roaring again.

Yet the prosperity of our nation and growth of our economy depend not just on economic justice. A vibrant economy cannot exist without vibrant American communities steeped in the fundamental American principles of liberty and justice for all.

The taking of Mike Brown’s life in Ferguson, Missouri only weeks ago reminds us that social and economic justice must go hand in hand for America to thrive. To solve these issues, we need opportunities for all Americans to fully participate in our economy and improve the quality of life for their families.

That’s why we must also fix our broken immigration system and uphold and protect civil rights and democratic participation for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.

We must remember that America is a nation founded on the dreams of immigrants. Today the opportunity to achieve the American dream is jeopardized by a broken immigration system and a Congress that refuses to fix it. The time has come for us to free those immigrants who exemplify the promise of America from the shadows and bring them into the light of our economy and society without fear.

When working people stick together, we have the strength to ensure that both our democracy and our economy continue to grow and progress. When America’s working families rise, America rises.

This Labor Day, we have so much more to celebrate than just the end of summer. So many brave Americans are uniting to raise wages, raise our communities and raise America. Their efforts and successes are shaping up to be the largest, boldest and most inclusive movement by and for working people that modern America has even seen.

I believe in a rising America, where together we can create an economy that works for everyone and a democracy where everyone has a voice.

Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union.

 

http://www.alternet.org/labor/true-meaning-labor-day?akid=12189.265072.yr7W36&rd=1&src=newsletter1017538&t=5&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

K Street Black Rock: Burning Man’s Billionaires Row

There was a certain point last night — when a six-foot-tall private-party planner in a bustier and feather headdress was clenching my shoulder and threatening me — that I wondered why I ever even wanted to follow along a tour of the fancy camps of Burning Man.

Burning Man is, after all, about building a city, which they call Black Rock. In that city, some people were building walled-off empires on its outer rings. Rich people do as rich people do.

But there is something about the way a new fleet of wealthy have descended on Burning Man that is inducing anxiety among Burners, a community that bans all money and branding (people tape over even small logos). The so-called “turnkey camps” — tight circles of trailers, or sometimes just large black-tarp walls that hide overstaffed luxury playpens — are distinctly different from the rest of Burning Man, a festival with a heavy emphasis on giving and work.

During a five-minute walk this morning, Burners in various camps offered me plums, coffee and homemade pita-and-cheese sandwiches. Campers constantly brag about how much work they put into their decor, erecting full bars or elaborate hammock-atop-hammock arrangements on site. Many of this year’s new camps are both private and prefab, and that is very difficult for some Burners to accept. It has been part of the conversation here all week.

Let it be said: All of Burning Man is a show of wealth. Tickets are $380, sure, but many of the art cars — immensely decorated buses and trucks — cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the neon furs, the metallic leggings, the lights (there were side-of the-road hawkers at the gate who tried to sell me a rainbow stole for $80).

Standing near a party bus one night around midnight, Ryan Parks, a young entrepreneur covered in LEDs, explained the situation: “This is the height of excess,” he said, indicating the neon and fire-spewing art cars around us. “We go to the desert, where people die, to build shit we burn. The Maslow hierarchy of needs has been met by our ancestors — so we can make art cars.”

It’s not about tech money, because that’s nothing new. Annie Harrison — an early Burner and former writer for Wired magazine — told me, “I came out here in ’95 to cover the tech scene. It was tech-reporter catnip! Mostly stories about the lasers from Lawrence Livermore. I took a picture of a guy lighting a cigarette off a laser that my editor loved.”

But something new is happening at Burning Man: There’s now a rich neighborhood.

While some power players, like Bob Pittman, station their camps openly at the center of the fray, others have created a fascinating ring of power: K Street Black Rock.

K Street Black Rock is at the perimeter of the city, which is built in the form of concentric semicircles. A long, obscure stretch far from the center, no one bikes all the way out there unless they have to.

“We’ve put our hand out to the turnkey camps and asked them to live by the principles. We can’t force them. But we asked, and I think they understand,” said Burning Man co-founder Will Rogers, who sat in a folding chair by his RV, a tattered bandana around his head. “After the first dust storm, we’re all the same color.”

In my event calendar, I noticed something called “Turnkey Camp Invasion,” described as a parade to test the hospitality of the fanciest camps. When I arrived at the meeting spot, a funky bar in a quiet neighborhood along E street, the bartenders told me the organizer hadn’t been able to make it to Burning Man because he couldn’t take the time off from work.

But the group — a dentist, a Google employee, a lawyer, some eccentrics — still gathered. They figured that, no matter what, it was a nice night for a bike ride.

“Okay, we want to make sure we don’t get the people who fund the art, though,” said a blonde woman wearing a headscarf and a sash of fake ammo. “How can we tell which is turnkey and which isn’t?”

“Listen, we’re not burning down their RVs, for god’s sake,” said David Grosof, who wore glow sticks fashioned into glasses. “If we’re friendly, they’ll invite us in. It’ll be fun.”

I stood next to a Google employee named Greg: “”The nanosecond I heard about this turnkey tour, there was no way I wouldn’t do it.”

What if it’s Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s camp?

“That’d be awesome! We’d sip a martini and have some caviar, no doubt,” Greg said.

Grosof had a more philosophical take.

“We are so very careful, no one can sell a hot dog for money, but it’s okay to have a staff and bodyguards and cooks?” he said. “What is the difference between commodity product and commodity service?”

When we reached K Street, one of the “invaders” asked a man who was walking by whether he had seen these fancy camps. Oh yes, he had, he said. Many. They set up 20 matching RVs here or there, and there’s one just right up the street.

We got to the escarpment, a daunting wall of RVs. The entry was covered by gauzy drapes. As they billowed in the wind, we could see inside: A crystal chandelier, glass refrigerators full of champagne, a dining-room table to seat maybe 16, and half a dozen very beautiful women in lingerie, serving cocktails. One of them saw the group.

She stormed outside, furious. The invaders responded defensively, saying they had just wanted to see. Some wanted to debate. She wanted everyone to keep walking. The group milled outside, debating whether to try again, or give up and go to a normal camp for a drink.

One of the turnkey residents, red-haired and slightly overweight, came out in a white shirt and cargo shorts. The party planner quickly ran back inside, brought him a red-silk Chinese robe, and helped him put it on. He thought someone’s headlamp was a camera, and started to scream at them. The event planner saw me taking notes and a picture of the scene, and came at me. “I don’t like you,” she said loudly, grabbing my shoulder. Someone next to me told her that she didn’t need to be a bitch. The man in the silk robe started jumping up and down, ready to throw a punch.

A momentary flare-up of culture clash on the dark, wealthy outskirts of Burning Man.

And then, because no one really wanted a fight, and the whole scene was ridiculous, it calmed. The Googler hopped on his bike and sped off. The dentist shook his head and adjusted his EL-wire. And I went off with a friend to a fire-dancing camp run by some Santa Cruz Burners — I gave them the ginseng candies that I carry in my bag. We ordered vodka and orange juice, but they poured us Coke and Fireball.

http://recode.net/2014/08/29/k-street-black-rock-burning-mans-billionaires-row/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social

Why Uber must be stopped

The touted start-up is proving to be the embodiment of unrestrained hyper-capitalism. What happens when it wins?

 

Why Uber must be stopped
Jordan Belfort and Gordon Gekko

What is Uber? A paragon of free market efficiency and technological innovation serving the greater convenience and comfort of the general public? Or living proof for why capitalist societies require regulation?

It is testimony to the ceaseless striving of Uber that Silicon Valley watchers find themselves with new reasons to ponder these questions nearly every week. But the end of August brought special vim and vigor to the debate. In particular, Verge’s publication of Casey Newton’s great scoop about the tactics Uber has been deploying to recruit riders from its top competitor, Lyft, has excited reams of commentary.

No matter what you think of Uber, the scope of “Operation SLOG” (Supplying Long-term Operations Growth) is impressive. Uber has hired hundreds of private contractors in multiple cities and equipped them with multiple burner phones (so as to prevent Lyft from identifying recruiters and blocking them from using its service), as well as credit card numbers and recruitment kits, and mobilized them to lure Lyft drivers over to the other side. Collateral damage to Lyft has extended beyond the siphoning away of drivers. When a Uber recruiter ordered a ride and discovered that the driver was someone who had been previously recruited, he or she immediately cancelled the ride. According to Lyft, Uber has been responsible for more than 5,000 cancelled rides in recent months.

Defenders of no-holds-barred free-market competition see nothing to be alarmed or concerned about. Riders can only benefit from fierce competition for their services, and the number of cancellations is trivial compared to Lyft’s total volume of rides, explains Timothy Lee at Vox. On the other hand, if you are inclined to see Uber as the acme of ruthless and amoral profit-seeking, then the latest news on Uber’s “deceptive tactics” is just one more confirmation of how the company will do anything to win.



Whichever side you fall on, the story is fascinating. There’s little doubt that Uber is the closest thing we’ve got today to the living, breathing essence of unrestrained capitalism. This is like watching Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller in action. This is how robber barons play. From top to bottom, the company flaunts a street-fighter ethos.

Uber’s ambitions are limitless and it has the bankroll to do what it wants. Indeed, there is some irony to the fact that Uber has so much cash in the bank that it need not comply with the most basic premise of capitalism — the notion that survival is predicated on making more money than you spend. With access to an astonishing $1.5 billion in capital, Uber can simultaneously wage regulatory battles in multiple cities, engage in recruitment wars in which smartphones are distributed like candy, subsidize drivers at below cost, and employ whomever is necessary to achieve long-term goals.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is this: What happens when a company with the DNA of Uber ends up winning it all? What happens when the local taxi companies are destroyed and Lyft is crushed? When Uber has dominant market position in every major city on the globe? “UberEverywhere” isn’t a joke. It’s a mantra, a call to arms, a holy ideology.

What happens when Uber’s priorities turn to generating cash rather than spending it? What happens to labor — the Uber drivers — when they have no alternative but Uber? What happens when it rains and the surge-pricing spikes and there’s nowhere else to go? A company with the street-fighting ethos of Uber isn’t going to let drivers unionize, and it certainly isn’t going to pay them more than it is required to by the harsh laws of competition. It will also dump them entirely in a nanosecond when self-driving cars prove that they are cheaper and safer. Making the case that drivers are benefitting from the current recruitment wars starts to look like a pretty short-term play. The more powerful Uber gets, the more leverage it will have over labor.

So here’s what’s going to happen. Society is going to realize that power as great as Uber’s needs to be checked. Uber, by virtue of its own success, will demonstrate where the lines need to be drawn for the general good. When Uber is the only game in town, the necessity for comprehensive requirements for commercial insurance and background checks will be obvious. When Uber starts using its logistics clout and unlimited investment capital to go after UPS and Hertz and FedEx, regulators will start wondering about antitrust issues.

It’s probably too soon to cry out “Break up Uber.” The company hasn’t won yet. But the smart money is on Uber (by definition, if you consider Google and Goldman Sachs, two prominent Uber investors, to be “smart”). When we allow capitalism to play out without rules, and learn anew how labor gets exploited under that scenario, we may recall why we had rules in the first place.

 

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/31/why_uber_must_be_stopped/

US government-funded database created to track “subversive propaganda” online

http://foxnewsinsider.com/sites/foxnewsinsider.com/files/styles/780/public/Truthy2.jpg?itok=yAusZD5Z

By Matthew MacEgan
30 August 2014

The creation of the Truthy database by Indiana University researchers has drawn sharp criticism from free-speech advocates and others concerned over government censorship of political expression.

According to the award abstract accompanying the funding provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Truthy project aims to demonstrate “why some ideas cause viral explosions while others are quickly forgotten.” In order to answer this and other questions, the resulting database will actively “[collect] and [analyze] massive streams of public microblogging data.”

Once the database is up and running, anyone can use its “service” to monitor “trends, bursts, and suspicious memes.” Several of the researchers suggested that the public will be able to discover the use of “shady machinery” by election campaigners who push faulty information to social media users to manipulate them politically.

As a seeming afterthought, the abstract concludes that this open-source project “could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

This last statement provoked widespread criticism as troubling and even Orwellian. Right-wing media outlets Fox News and the Washington Times attacked the reference to “hate speech,” in which they specialize, without highlighting the reference to “subversive propaganda,” a term of abuse usually reserved for left-wing criticism of American government and society.

While the leaders of this government-funded operation have sought to fend off attacks with the explanation that this database is merely designed to study the diffusion of information on social media networks, there is no mistaking the repressive overtones of the project.

Filippo Menczer, the project’s principal investigator and a professor at Indiana University, has responded to allegations by issuing a statement through the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, explaining that Truthy is not “a political watchdog, a government probe of social media,” or “an attempt to suppress free speech.” He states that Truthy is incapable of determining whether a particular scrap of data constitutes “misinformation,” and reiterates the notion that “target” is the mere study of “patterns of information diffusion.”

However, within the same statement, Menczer also echoes the abstract’s final conclusion, stating that “an important goal of the Truthy project is to better understand how social media can be abused.” This seems to contradict the claim that the database is focused only on how information is diffused, rather than its content.

Results of the project have already been widely published in peer-reviewed journals and have been presented at several conferences around the world. One of these studies shows how the researchers, including Menczer, studied the growth of Occupy Wall Street over a 15-month period. This was done by identifying Occupy-related content on Twitter and creating a dataset that “contained approximately 1.82 million tweets produced by 447,241 distinct accounts.”

In addition, the researchers also selected 25,000 of these users at random and monitored their behavior in order to study how these users may have changed over time. This effort included the compilation of the hashtags used by each user, their engagement with foreign social movements, and the extent to which these users interacted with one another.

In other words, while the creators of Truthy have presented their service as a means for the public to expose elected officials who inject misleading information into news feeds for electoral propaganda purposes, one of the primary uses is to track and keep tabs on individuals who engage in political discussions deemed “subversive” by US authorities. A previous report has already shown that local police departments were engaged in similar coordinated efforts to spy on Occupy protesters throughout the same 15-month period.

The revelations of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have shown the extent of domestic spying of national governments on their own citizens and the erosion of Constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Despite Menczer’s claim that the system was not “designed” to be a government watchdog program, there is no assurance that this project will not be used for that purpose.

The 25,000 Twitter users who were studied and tracked by the project’s developers certainly did not give permission to have their behaviors and tweets recorded and studied. Truthy will enable anyone, including federal officials, to similarly track and follow the actions of groups and individuals deemed to be “diffusing” ideas labeled as “misleading.” The fact that the United States government has already contributed more than $900,000 to this project only exacerbates this fear.

Your data is for sale

 — and not just on Facebook

Nobody is gathering more information more quickly than the providers of digital services. But do you trust them?

Your data is for sale — and not just on Facebook
(Credit: Chookiat K via Shutterstock/Salon)

This is how the tech P.R. wars of the future will be waged: “Trust us, because we will take care of your precious information better than the other guy.”

On Aug. 21, Square, the mobile-payments start-up helmed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, announced the release of a new package of analytical tools available for free to any merchant that uses Square.

Small businesses, argued the press release, tend not to have the same access to advanced data crunching as larger operations. Square Analytics “levels the playing field” and “delivers sellers actionable data to increase sales and better serve their customers.” Want to know exactly how much a bad snow storm affected your cupcake sales, or what kind of advanced coffee products your repeat customers crave the most on Tuesday mornings? Square Analytics has the answers!

A few hours after Square’s announcement, I received an email from a man who handles press relations for Shopkeep, a company that offers point-of-sale processing via the iPad, and has apparently been touting its own small business analytics support for years. Judging by the accusations made in the email, Shopkeep was none too pleased by the debut of Square’s new service.

“Square is more interested in collecting and selling data than it is in helping small businesses grow,” read the email. My correspondent further alleged that Square’s “terms and conditions” gave Square the right to do anything it wanted with the data it collected on retail transactions.

Picture this: I order coffee at a coffee shop that uses Square … Square, not the cafe, seizes the data on that transaction and emails me a receipt. The company can sell that data to the highest bidder — another coffee shop up the street or the closest Starbucks. Then I could get an email from that other coffee shop, not the one I’m a regular at, offering me a discount or some other incentive to come in.

Shopkeep, in contrast, would never do such a dastardly thing.

I contacted Square and asked spokesperson Aaron Zamost if the coffee shop scenario was realistic. Unsurprisingly, he dismissed it out of hand. “No, we do not intend to do this,” said Zamost. “We do not surface, nor do we have any plans to surface individualized transaction data to any sellers besides the one who made the sale. Our sellers trust us to be transparent with them and respectful of what they share with us. If we were to violate their trust, or behave as other companies have been known to, they would leave us.”



I have no evidence to prove or disprove the allegations made by Shopkeep or the defense offered by Square. The  interesting point is that the nature of the accusation is an attempt to poke at what is clearly a sore spot in Silicon Valley in 2014. In these post-Snowden days, how tech companies handle data is a volatile issue. In fact, it might be the biggest issue of them all. Because Shopkeep and Square are hardly alone in their ability to amass valuable information. Every company that offers a service over your mobile device — whether processing a sale, hiring a car, locating a room to stay in — is in the data business. Everyone is a data broker. As Silicon Valley likes to say, in the 21st century data is the new oil. What rarely gets mentioned afterward, however, is the fact that the oil business, especially when it was just getting started, was very, very dirty.

* * *

Square has a cool product: A plastic card reader that plugs into the headphone jack of your phone and enables anyone with a bank account to start processing credit card transactions. Although Square has yet to turn a profit, and has weathered some bad press in recent months, the company does process $30 billion worth of transactions a year. That’s a lot of information available to crunch.

Of course, there are plenty of companies, starting with the credit card firms themselves, that are already slicing and dicing payment transaction info and offering analysis to whomever can pay for it. Square is just one more player in a very crowded field. But Square is nevertheless emblematic of an important trend — let’s call it the disruptive democratization of data brokering. Once upon a time, a handful of obscure, operating-behind-the-scenes firms dominated the data-brokering business. But now that everything’s digital, everyone with a digital business can be a data broker.

In an increasing number of cases it appears that the ostensible service offered by the latest free app isn’t actually what the app-maker plans to make money off; it’s just the lure that brings in the good stuff — the monetizable data. Square may be a payments processing company first, but it is rapidly amassing huge amounts of data, which is in itself a valuable commodity, a point confirmed by  Square executive Gokul Rajaram to Fortune Magazine earlier this year.

Similarly, Uber is ostensibly a car hiring company but is also poised to know more about our transportation habits than just about any other single player. Almost every app on your phone — even the flashlight app — is simultaneously performing a service for you, and gathering data about you.

Increasingly, as the accusations about Square from a competitor demonstrate, we may end up deciding whom we choose for our services based on whether we trust them as responsible safekeepers of our data.

Until this year, most Americans have had only the sketchiest knowledge of how huge the marketplace is for our personal information. In May the FTC released a report that looked at the nine biggest data brokers — companies that specialize in amassing huge dossiers on every living person in the Western world. The numbers are startling.

Data brokers collect and store a vast amount of data on almost every U.S. household and commercial transaction. Of the nine data brokers, one data broker’s database has information on 1.4 billion consumer transactions and over 700 billion aggregated data elements; another data broker’s database covers one trillion dollars in consumer transactions; and yet another data broker adds three billion new records each month to its databases.

The big data brokers build their databases by snarfling up every single source of information they can find or buy. Databases operated by federal, state and local governments are an obvious source, but the big data brokers also routinely scrape social media sites and blogs, and also buy commercial databases from a vast variety of enterprises, as well as from other data brokers.

Today, nobody is gathering more information more quickly than the providers of digital services. Surveillance Valley, indeed! Analytics companies know the constellation of apps on your phone, including your every click and swipe, down to the most granular level.

The rules regarding what can be done with this information are in their infancy. For now, we depend largely on what the companies say in their own terms and conditions. But we would be unwise to regard those as permanently binding legally promises. They can change at any time — something that Facebook has demonstrated repeatedly. What Square says now, in other words, might not be what Square does in the future, especially if the company finds itself in dire need of cash.

When everyone is a data broker, having standardized rules governing what can be done with our information becomes a pressing social priority. Right now it’s just a big mess.

 

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/29/its_not_just_facebook_anymore_in_the_future_your_data_is_always_for_sale/?source=newsletter

Obama administration launches new attack on teachers

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By Isabelle Belanger
29 August 2014

This summer, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, standing alongside American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, announced the Excellent Educators for All initiative, marking a new stage in the Obama administration’s assault on teachers and dismantling of public education.

The proposal is an adaptation of a long-ignored component of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), implemented under the Republican administration of George W. Bush, requiring that states provide students of all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds equal access to “highly qualified” teachers.

From the beginning, this stipulation was for window dressing only, since one school district after another carried out budget cuts, mass layoffs and school closings and experienced teachers were replaced with lower-paid, inexperienced instructors. This process has accelerated under the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, under the terms of NCLB, “highly qualified” was defined as a teacher having a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and possessing state certification in the subject area he or she is hired to teach. The ostensible goal of the proposal was to “ensure that poor and minority students are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.”

The new initiative by the Obama administration, however, switches the focus from “highly qualified” teachers to those who are said to be “highly effective,” ie., teachers whose students perform satisfactorily on standardized tests.

This seemingly minor change in wording means that the once objective means of gauging teacher quality by subject-area degree and certification area has been altered to one that is almost entirely subjective, based as it is on the singular focus on standardized test scores.

Such a focus ignores a host of other measures of effectiveness such as students’ scores on teacher-created tests, projects and other assignments, the ability to instill an understanding and appreciation of the subject matter in students, and many other less tangible measures of successful teaching.

Rather than provide the necessary resources to overcome poverty and reverse the decades-long financial starvation of the public schools, the Obama administration, with the help of the teachers unions, is seeking to paint the picture that impoverished school districts lack—not the elemental necessities for a decent educational environment—but teachers who are determined and dedicated enough to overcome these problems! This is an utter fraud.

While feigning concern over the plight of poor and minority students Obama has spearheaded an unprecedented attack on highly qualified teachers and the children they teach. Since taking office, more than 300,000 teachers and other school employees have lost their jobs, thousands of public schools have been shut in Chicago, Detroit and other cities, and the administration has provided incentives for corporations and other business hucksters to open charter schools employing the most inexperienced instructors.

Aspects of the new initiative were present in Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 education budget with its latest rendition of the notorious Race To The Top (RTTT) program, this time called RTTT-Equity and Opportunity. The budget includes $300 million in grants to states and districts to create data systems that track teacher and principal “effectiveness,” as well as student achievement at the nation’s poorest schools.

The Excellent Educators for All plan will force senior educators out of schools where students perform adequately on standardized tests (primarily due to the better financial circumstances of students attending such schools) and place them into the districts’ poorest performing schools, which largely serve students mired in poverty and suffering from related problems of hunger, illness, utility shut-offs, crime and other social ills.

There are three main components to the Excellent Educators program:

1. By April 2015, states will be required to submit “comprehensive educator equity plans” that describe how they will place “effective educators” in the classrooms of poor and minority students. By October 2015, states will have to prove that these students are not being disproportionately taught by “ineffective” teachers.

2. The Department of Education (DOE) will spend $4.2 million on an “Education Equity Support Network” whose purpose will be to help states write the comprehensive educator equity plans. According to a DOE press release, the network will also “work to develop model plans, share promising packages, provide communities of practice for educators to discuss challenges and share lessons learned with each other, and create a network of support for educators working in high-need schools.”

The provision of such a paltry sum to supposedly provide support for educators working with some of the nation’s most deprived children is utterly reprehensible. It is an affront to those teachers whose careers will be in jeopardy once they are placed in schools where low test scores are primarily the result of poverty, and have little to do with teacher quality.

3. The DOE will publish “Educator Equity profiles” which “will help states identify gaps in access to quality teaching for low-income and minority students…. States will be able to conduct detailed analyses of the data to inform their discussions about local inequities and design strategies for improving those inequities.”

Much like the publishing of the standardized test scores of teachers’ students, the publishing of districts’ Educator Equity profiles will be used to promote public anger with school districts, which will be presented as purposely staffing low-performing schools with ineffective teachers. Likewise, district officials and the media will impugn teachers as self-serving for wanting to work in high-performing schools rather than with the poorest achieving students.

In the past, teachers were offered higher salaries to work in the nations’ highest need areas, it being difficult to attract teachers to work in schools that are generally understaffed, in disrepair and having inadequate resources, and where learning and behavior problems are a daily occurrence. However, the offer of better pay did help to attract and keep capable teachers in these struggling schools.

Now, with most states basing a large portion of teacher evaluations on students’ standardized test scores, such financial incentives are of little consequence. As for all workers, a higher salary means little if there is no guarantee that the job will exist in a year’s time. The best teachers—including those currently working in poorer districts—will likely accept a lower salary in a more resourced school district, due to the knowledge that students’ test scores will likely be adequate to allow them to receive acceptable evaluations year after year, and therefore keep their jobs.

Significantly, the DOE has not yet developed a definition for what constitutes teacher “effectiveness.” One can assume the definition, once made, will be based almost exclusively on standardized test scores, as has been the mechanism for funding schools and making decisions over school closures and privatizations under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

In an address before teachers, President Obama asked, “what are they [the states] doing in order to train and promote and place teachers in some of the toughest environments for children….the kids who probably need less help get the most….” Obama stands reality on its head, since his administration has condemned millions of youth to live in the “toughest environments” by slashing food stamps, long-term unemployment benefits and essential programs, while overseeing the greatest transfer of wealth to the rich in history.

In the book Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, edited by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane (2011), which is comprised of a series of groundbreaking studies on the effects of inequality on educational attainment, the concluding sentence asks: “If poverty places students at risk of educational failure …, would not intervening in poverty directly contribute to educational improvement?” The terrible circumstances facing millions of American children, however, are not of concern to the Obama administration; rather, it is teachers who are blamed for the problems created by the decayed capitalist order.

Predictably the trade union executives who run the AFT and NEA have joined in this continued effort to scapegoat teachers and destroy their job protections, seeking only to maintain a “seat at the table” while public education is dismantled.

Following Duncan’s announcement of the initiative, AFT President Randi Weingarten stated, “The Excellent Educators for All project…is necessary and important…. Secretary Duncan offer[s] an approach that does something for children by empowering teachers, not stripping them of their rights. We look forward to working with the secretary….”

The National Education Association is also on board with NEA President Dennis Van Roekel saying the union “fully supported the new plan.”