Big Data Is Watching You

The hidden price of Google, Twitter and Facebook.

big_data

BY JOANNA SCUTTS

Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money.

What are we prepared to give up in the name of convenience? ThroughoutJacob Silverman’s capacious study of the world we’re in and the world we’re making—or rather, allowing tech companies to make for us—it’s demonstrated repeatedly that billions of us are happy to surrender our privacy to save a few keystrokes. Why not log in to that other website with your Facebook or Twitter or Google ID? Why not use your real identity and photograph, with a record of your movements, all across the web? You have it on Google’s word that they’re not “evil”; what could be the harm?

Silverman’s new book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, does a thorough, if sometimes long-winded, job of explaining what the harm is and what it could become. He begins with an analysis of the philosophy, variously termed “techno-utopianism” or “cyber-libertarianism,” that drives the major social media companies. The ideology should be familiar in essence, if not in name—we’ve been soaking in it for the past decade. Media theorists, long before the advent of Facebook, were calling it “the Californian ideology.” It’s what happens when youthful rebelliousness and a countercultural, anti-authoritarian spirit meets gobs of cash and untrammeled power. It’s the myth—tirelessly peddled by optimistic tech, business and culture reporters and embraced by the customers who line up for new gadgets—that a corporation that calls its headquarters a “campus” and equips its offices with slides, snacks and free daycare is something other than a capitalist entity, with motives other than profit.

To be fair, the big tech companies—Google and Facebook are the stars here, with Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn singing backup—do have goals beyond their bottom line. They want to do the kinds of things that beauty-pageant contestants want to do: cure diseases, end terrorism, go to the moon. They share a disdain for government—Mark Zuckerberg is committed to the idea of “companies over countries”—but also share a zeal for surveillance.

For Silverman, the harm of social media is both specific and philosophical. It turns journalism into a clickbait race, for instance, but it also radically changes our concepts of privacy and identity. He considers the fate of those who are chewed up and spat out by the Internet’s nano-fame cycle (nobody gets 15 minutes anymore), whose embarrassing or self-aggrandizing antics, captured on video, do the rounds and attract a quick, overwhelming torrent of derision or rage. But while we might shrug our shoulders at the fate of an Antoine Dodson or a Taylor Chapman (respectively a viral hero and villain), Silverman argues that we should be aware of the numbing and alienating consequences of the viral instinct. Not only does it frequently make clowns of those who are seriously disadvantaged, and destroy reputations and careers, it also molds the larger media world in its own image. Hate-watching a two-minute video of a reality show contestant’s racist rant is a sign that you’ll give attention to this kind of content—and the site that hosts the video, beholden to its advertisers, traffics in your attention, not your intelligence or humanity.

Headlines have always been composed to grab attention, but now they can gather intelligence too. Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money. As Silverman describes it, the urge to gather endless data about all of us—from our spending habits to the pace of our heartbeats—is a huge, lucrative industry, driven by the fantasy that correlation is causation, that because you did X activity, you’ll buy Y product.

It may be foolhardy to make predictions about the fast-evolving tech world, but Silverman offers some chilling evidence that the world of “big data” is beginning to affect the choices available to us. Some healthcare companies will lower your premiums if you use a fitness-tracking app (and share that data, of course). Data about what you eat and buy is increasingly being used like your credit score, to determine if you are worthy of that job, that car or that home.

So what? A good citizen who eats her greens and pays her bills has nothing to fear! And if she worries that some misstep—glancing at an unsavory website, running a red light, suffering a computer hack—will damage her, she can just pay protection money to one of several companies that exist to safeguard their clients’ online reputations. Silverman has no solution to these linked problems, of course, since there is far too much money driving this brave new world and far too little government will to resist. Mass surveillance is the present and the future. But if information—meaning data points—is corporate power, then knowledge and critical thinking may be citizen power.

Silverman is too cautious and self-conscious a thinker to inspire a revolution. Instead, he advocates a kind of lowlevel “social-media rebellion”—messing with, rather than rejecting, the digitally networked world in which we live. Putting up a cartoon monkey as your online avatar might not feel like much of a blow to the Facebook assault on privacy, but it’s an annoyance to the booming facial- recognition industry—and perhaps a few million determined annoyances can disrupt the techno-utopia in favor of the common good.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.

 

http://inthesetimes.com/article/17734/big-data-is-watching-you

FCC ruling sides with tech companies on “net neutrality”

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By Mike Ingram
6 March 2015

The 3-2 vote of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) February 26, in favor of new telecommunications rules has been hailed as a landmark ruling that will ensure “net neutrality,” defined as equal access to the Internet for all content providers. The reality is more complex and far less positive.

The FCC’s latest proposal does bar broadband service providers—giant companies like Comcast and the major telecoms that control so-called last-mile access to the Internet—from discriminating between different forms of content, either by offering price discounts or faster traffic speeds.

But the other major set of corporate giants, technology companies like Google, Yahoo and Netflix, will retain their monopoly control of over search and content provision. And the most dangerous enemy of a genuinely free Internet, the US government, with its vast panoply of spy agencies vacuuming up all web content, may gain additional authority over the Internet via the FCC itself.

By reclassifying broadband Internet services as a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Communications Act, the ruling puts Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under the same regulatory framework as telecommunications. Given the monopolization and price gouging that prevails in that industry, the hosannas over the FCC ruling by some advocates of net neutrality are both premature and exaggerated.

The exact language of the rules has not yet been made public, but from the statements issued by the FCC, the two main changes from an early decision in 2010—subsequently thrown out in a court challenge—were the reclassification under Title II, and the decision to apply the ruling to mobile as well as fixed-line broadband services.

Net neutrality is a set of principles designed to prevent restrictions by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments on content, sites, platforms or the kinds of equipment that may be used to access the Internet. Legitimate concern over the monopoly of broadband giants such as Comcast has generated broad support for net neutrality among online activists. The issue has prompted several online protests over recent years, including the so-called Internet slowdown of September 10 last year, when over 40,000 web sites solicited calls to senators and over 4.7 million comments to the FCC.

Following the February 25 vote, the site battleforthenet.com, which had played the major role in instigating the “slowdown,” proclaimed an “epic victory” stating, “Washington insiders said it couldn’t be done. But the public got loud in protest, the FCC gave in, and we won Title II net neutrality rules. Now Comcast is furious. They want to destroy our victory with their massive power in Congress. You won net neutrality. Now, are you ready to defend it?”

Such an analysis ignores the equally “massive power” of the tech industry both in Congress and in the Obama administration. A lengthy article published by the Washington Post March 1 describes Silicon Valley as “the new revolving door for Obama staffers.”

The article notes that the FCC decision “marked a major win for Silicon Valley, an industry that has built a close relationship with the president and his staff over the last six years.” The tech industry has “enriched Obama’s campaigns through donations” and “presented lucrative opportunities for staffers who leave for the private sector.”

The day of the FCC ruling, former White House press secretary Jay Carney joined Amazon as a senior vice president for global corporate affairs. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe now runs policy and strategy for car service start-up Uber. Facebook hired Marne Levine, chief of staff to former National Economic Council director Lawrence H. Summers. Airbnb has three former White House press staff on its books.

The revolving door goes both directions, with a large number of Silicon Valley executives heading to Washington for stints in the Obama administration. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes helped create Obama’s online campaign and Google’s former vice president of global policy, Andrew McLaughlin worked on its tech policy agenda, according to the Post. McLaughlin later joined the Obama administration as a deputy to the chief technology officer. Obama’s former deputy chief technology officer Nicole Wong was an executive at both Twitter and Google. Megan Smith, the current chief technology officer was previously at Google and the director of patent and trademark office Michelle K. Lee was an intellectual property lawyer for Google.

It is this relationship with the technology giants rather than any genuine concern for democratic rights on the Internet that explains Obama’s intervention in net neutrality dispute. In November last year Obama called on the FCC to take up the “strongest possible rules” to protect net neutrality.

Obama’s real attitude to Internet freedom was exposed by the revelations of Edward Snowden, who documented the mandate of the National Security Agency to “collect it all”—in other words, capture the entire content of all the world’s Internet activity in order to analyze and profile all potential opponents of the American government, above all, political opposition from the working class.

Both tech companies such as Google and Yahoo, as well as telecommunications giants like Comcast and AT&T are deeply implicated in the mass spying on the US and global population by the NSA. They routinely hand over data when asked and only expressed any concern once the extent of this was made known by Snowden.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/06/netn-m06.html

‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social media

By Binnaz Saktanber On February 20, 2015

Post image for ‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social mediaTurkey has a track record of ruthlessly cracking down on social media users, and both Twitter and Facebook appear happy to play ball with the censors.

Photo by Murad Sezer

On February 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey sent his first tweet ever: “Today is World No Tobacco Day” he wrote in Turkish — bluntly ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even World No Tobacco Day — “Use your willpower against this poison and #DontGiveInToCigarettes.” Erdoğan even signed the tweet with his initials RTE in the style of Barack Obama, who signs his personal tweets -bo.

The content of the tweet was no surprise, given that the war against tobacco is one of the personal crusades of the Islamist ruler, and that everybody and their mum is tweeting today, including politicians and world leaders who often want to engage with their public personally. What was surprising was that Erdoğan, who once famously declared social media to be “the worst menace to society” and who blocked Twitter altogether on March 2014, was tweeting at all.

So what has changed? Did Erdoğan suddenly decide to embrace Twitter and stop censoring social media? Not quite. The Turkish government is no longer blocking the likes of Twitter thus keeping a façade of freedom, but it blazes the trail in a new type of censorship regime. I call it “cease and censor.”

The worst part is that Twitter seems to be helping it by implementing its “country-withheld content” policy. First employed in 2012 to block neo-Nazi accounts in Germany, the policy complies with the concerned country’s local laws and blocks a tweet or an account only in that country when faced with a legal order. This is understandable in cases of hate speech or criminal offenses, but the policy becomes awfully problematic when it interferes with freedom of expression and is applied according to local laws that are designed to censor freedom of expression at all costs, such as Turkey’s internet law.

Facebook also complies with the Turkish government’s requests to block and censor political content. @Madigudisi in Twitter and Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post) on Facebook are two victims of this new censorship regime. I talked to them to learn their stories and to better understand how this new regime of censorship works.

Tech-savvy netizens versus archaic politics

But first, let’s refresh our memories. Last March, the Turkish government blocked Twitter amid alleged leaked recordings implicating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and other government officials on a corruption scandal. Another recording had senior army officials discussing intervention in Syria. The recordings were posted mainly on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter.

“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic,” said a furious Erdoğan before blocking Twitter. A YouTube ban followed. The blatant censorship created an outcry at home and abroad. Hashtags #twitterbannedinturkey and #youtubebannedinturkey became worldwide trending topics within minutes, garnering millions of furious tweets criticizing Turkish government’s censorious antics. Every news outlet in the world reported the issue, while rights groups and the international community condemned the bans.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the Twitter ban on April 2 and the YouTube ban on June 4, stating they violated laws on freedom of expression. The court’s decision was widely applauded. Yet it did not affect that much in terms of Turkish netizen’s social media activity, as tech-savvy citizens never actually stopped tweeting, and mocked the blocks by circumventing it almost immediately thanks to VPN services and changing their DNS numbers.

At the time, I argued that ancient censorship mechanisms and archaic politics do not work in the face of technological dissent and the voice of the streets anymore. The Turkish government must have felt the same, since it soon began to employ a different tactic to keep social media giants like Twitter and Facebook on a short leash without actually having to block them: threatening them with banning their service altogether and imposing heavy fines, bombarding them with court orders, and making them block specific content and accounts.

Accomplice to censorship

When the transportat minister Lütfi Elvan tweeted “If your phones do not work after an earthquake, call the ministry” on May 28, 2014, he received a witty reply from Twitter user @Madigudisi. “This is not Zaytung [a local mock news portal similar to The Onion]. Goodbye to the brain…”

On July 13, Madigudisi received an email from Twitter’s legal team asking him if he would voluntarily delete the tweet. The message referenced a court ruling about the tweet, claiming it to violate Turkish law. In short, it was a polite recommendation of self-censorship from a social media giant that once famously praised itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and which promised to “stand with our users in Turkey who rely on Twitter as a vital communications platform” in the midst of the blocking of its service.

Twitter waited for three days for a voluntary deletion, and then censored the tweet. Instead of the original tweet, visitors now see a notice informing them this tweet has been withheld in their country. Madigudisi did not reply to Twitter or contest the ruling. Doing so would reveal his identity and bring more lawsuits.

His fear was not paranoid. Twenty-nine people were put on trial for tweets posted during the Gezi protests in a court case in which the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan is himself listed as a victim. All of the tweeters were accused of “inciting the public to break the law.” Three of them were also accused of “insulting the Prime Minister.”

The tweets they were trialled for were nothing but information on the location of police forces during the protests, passwords for wireless networks in the protest locations where 3G service was not usually available, and messages of support for the nationwide protests. In short, not that different than what millions of other people were tweeting during the summer of 2013.

In the last hearing on September 22, 2014, 27 of the accused were acquitted of all crimes. Yet one defendant was fined 8.000Turkish liras (roughly US$3.200) for “insulting the Prime Minister” and another’s file has been set apart for a future date. Amnesty International, which has been following the trial, declared that “no evidence presented in court points to criminal conduct that is not protected under international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression,” and pointed out that the prosecution suggested authorities aim to discourage others from using social media in a country where Twitter was blocked before.

Withholding content, blocking accounts

Madigudisi is not the only casualty of Turkey’s “country-withheld content” policy. According to Twitter’s latest transparency report, Turkey had the highest number of removal requests (477) for 2.642 different accounts between July and December, filing five times the amount of requests of the next country on the list. Compared to the first half of the year, Turkey’s requests increased 156 percent and the number of accounts specified grew over 765 percent. As a result, 62 accounts and 1820 tweets were withheld.

Twitter received 328 court orders and 149 requests from Turkish government agencies to remove content ranging from violations of personal rights to defamation of private citizens and/or government officials, just like Madigudisi’s tweet.

In the report, Twitter has defended the policy, releasing the following statement:

We filed legal objections with Turkish courts in response to more than 70% of Turkish orders received. Objections were filed where we believed the order interfered with freedom of expression laws or had other deficiencies. Our objections to Turkish courts prevailed only ~5% of the time. We un-withheld three accounts and 196 tweets following the acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.

In the last year, in addition to Madigudisi, three anonymous accounts used to reveal alleged phone conversations implicating Erdoğan in the corruption scandal were also blocked, as well as the account of the activist hacking group TheRedHack. RedHack’s last act was to hack the records of the biggest internet service provider of the country and dedicate it to Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was killed during the Gezi protests.

Another casualty is Fuatavni, the whistleblower account claiming to write from inside the government with close to a million followers. Fuatavni’s account was blocked shortly after he tweeted details about a wave of arrests of police officers related to the December 17 corruption scandal. Having warned his followers that his account might be blocked, he now writes under the pseudonym FuatAvniFuat, but it is not clear how long this account will last.

Intimidation and despair

Madigudisi is neither a journalist, nor does he trust mainstream media. He says he opened a Twitter account the same day the Gezi protests started, with the sole purpose of tweeting about the protests and obtaining uncensored news about the events. He tweeted 24/7 (“in tears” he says) and tried to provide logistical support to protesters. For him Twitter is pivotal: “Without this platform it is impossible for us to know what is really going on in the country because the press is not free. That’s why I was so disappointed with this censorship.”

On January 15, the Turkish government warned it will shut down Twitter and Facebook if they do not block accounts mentioning documents revealing a weapon delivery to Syria. On January 2, 2014 two trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped for a search by a state prosecutor, finding weaponry inside. The trucks were going to Syria and the incident sparked controversy that the contents were meant for jihadists in the neighboring country.

At the time, a court issued a ban on the publication of news related to the incident. Following tweets that publish documents related to the incident, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issued a warning that the March 2014 government decree banning coverage  is still valid. The New York Times reported that “networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order on Wednesday, removing content from accounts to avert a shutdown.”

No need for big threats for Facebook, as the company already frequently allows the Turkish government to censor content. According to the company’s latest and second ever transparency report, Turkey is the second most frequent censor of the social network, after India. Turkey restricted 1.813 pieces of content between January and June 2014, primarily because it defamed or criticized Ataturk or the Turkish state. Many Kurdish pages including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — the largest pro-Kurdish party in the country — are closed down, sparking an online petition from academics around the world and the suspicion that the blocks are political in nature.

“The sole purpose of this censorship is to intimidate us.” Madigudisi reflects. “I am not afraid. I will continue to voice my opinion no matter what. But I cannot help but feel despair. I am also very angry, why should I restrict my freedom of speech? There was nothing defamatory or insulting in my tweet, I just made a humorous observation.”

Politically motivated page removals

Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post), a small citizen journalism outlet mainly reporting on the Kurdish issue, has had their Facebook page blocked repeatedly after they became one of the most popular alternative news sources due to its coverage of the Gezi protests. The page has been blocked ten times since July 2013, each time having been forced to open a new one.

As Fırat Yumuşak, an editor for the outlet, says: “This censorship is a direct result of the government’s efforts to suppress the internet during and after the Gezi protests. Facebook is cooperating with the Turkish government. Even government officials admitted this. This is the reason why Facebook was not blocked when other social media sites were.”

Yumusak said they have tried to contact Facebook to reverse the decisions, to no avail. After their page had been censored “because their logo of a pomegranate is found erotic” or a news item about a child sexual abuse case has been found pornographic, they have written to Facebook Europe Director Richard Alan.

When Alan gave an interview to the Turkish newspaper Radikal, he said: “Someone filed a complaint about the page and checked the box of pornographic content as a reason. We have examined the page and found no such content. Yet, we have concluded that the page had violated our terms of conditions by posting content that praises the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They were posting content that had the flag and symbols of PKK. Posting this flag is a concrete violation of our rules even when it is done without being aware of it. For example, if someone posts a photo and there is someone in that photo carrying a PKK flag in the background, this is against our rules.”

Soon after the interview, The Other’s Post received an email from Facebook’s User Operations. The email was only signed with the first name Deniz, without a surname, and apologized for providing them with an incorrect explanation about why their page had been removed. “Yet,” the email read, “you have violated our standards many times so your page will not be republished.”

According to Yumusak, the problem lies in the fact that Facebook’s said rules and community standards are not up to date and inclusive enough for specific countries: “Because the standards are designed for a global audience, they do not reflect the realities of Turkey. While mainstream media outlets can publish a picture of Öcalan (the jailed leader of PKK), when we publish it we are accused of promoting terrorist activities and get censored,” he says.

Yumusak also argues that Facebook is not transparent enough: “For example, we received messages like ‘your page has been removed because we have received a sufficient amount of complaints.’ What is that amount? We asked several times and got no answer. This lack of transparency allows Facebook to easily cooperate with the authorities. Their page removals are more political than a simple technical act. At this point my thought is that Facebook will censor a page if they want to censor a page. They will create whatever reason necessary to do so. And they cooperate with the government doing so, because they don’t want to give up their market share or ads revenues.”

A façade of freedom

Like Madigudisi, Yumuşak believes in the power of social media in voicing and organizing dissident and that’s why the cut hurts deep. “Gezi showed us that social media provides an alternative platform for popular movements to speak for themselves and to break up the information barrier owned by the dominant classes. The psychological barrier also broke. People went from thinking ‘I am the only one who thinks this’ to ‘I am not alone’. It also helps organizing and mobilizing collective action: you get to learn where the police are, who needs help and where,” he said.

Intimidating the likes of Madigudisi and The Other’s Post is easy for Turkish officials to do thanks to the new internet censorship law providing them ample power in the name of protecting “the common good” and “privacy” while infringing on freedom of expression and online dissent against the government altogether.

The new internet bill, which is cited in the court ruling Madigudisi received, gives enormous power to Turkey’s telecommunications authority. Any URL can be blocked within four hours without a court decision, hence without your knowledge. Internet providers are now obliged to store all data on user activities for two years and to provide the data upon request. The intimidation policy also works outside the courthouse, when families become scared for their loved ones who voice dissent in social media. Madigudisi said he has closed his Facebook account because his family was concerned “something would happen to him or he would get jailed.”

But more importantly, this type of “cease and censor” regime helps the government keep a façade of freedom and avoids Turkey being boiled in the same pot as internet enemies like Iran and China while censoring political content all the same. Actually, it looks like the government prefers people to tweet their dissent so that they can spot the “suspects” more easily. Less international criticism, less local protest, easy targets, and all the censorship one’s heart desires. It looks like Turkey hit the jackpot of despotism.

“Facebook and Twitter are ending lives”

We might argue that this is not that big of a deal compared to last March, when Twitter and YouTube were blocked entirely. People are so tech-savvy they can bypass the censorship easily. Encryption software, VPNs, changing the DNS settings, changing your country settings in Twitter: all easy enough remedies that people are well versed in.

We might say that Twitter’s “country-withheld policy” has good intentions. At least one can see a censored tweet in another country, or by changing the country settings. Yet, the danger in that mentality is that Twitter is actually making it less evident that censorship has occurred, thus becoming an accomplice in censoring governments whether they want it or not.

Until Twitter and Facebook become censorship-free, users are forced to cope with the situation. Madigudisi uses VPN and changes passwords every week. Yumusak says they sneak around the censorship by writing the “forbidden” words in reverse or even just posting the news with the headline “Facebook censored this content.”

Yet the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression should not rest on the shoulders of ordinary people and should not be reduced to technical gimmicks. There is no guarantee that the Turkish government will not find a way to block these technologies or pass further bills restricting internet freedom.

Erdoğan made his first speech as president-elect to the provincial heads of his party. He said: “I don’t speak via social media. I don’t like to tweet, schmeet, because you know what they cause in society. Facebook and Twitter are ending lives.” Now even he is tweeting! Maybe it’s time Twitter and Facebook start being more courageous in terms of human rights and basic principles of free speech, instead of succumbing to the censorious antics of authoritarian governments. This is what we expect of them — if they want to keep their seats at the free speech party, that is. Otherwise they should stand up and leave.

Binnaz Saktanber is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York. Her research revolves around the interaction between social media, politics and social movements. Saktanber is also a blogger and writer who is published in numerous Turkish and international publications. She is based in İstanbul and New York.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/02/turkey-social-media-twitter-facebook/

Robert Reich: America is headed full speed back to the 19th century

Former labor secretary Robert Reich on the dangers of on-demand jobs and our growing intolerance for labor unions

Robert Reich: America is headed full speed back to the 19th century
Robert Reich

My recent column about the growth of on-demand jobs like Uber making life less predictable and secure for workers unleashed a small barrage of criticism that workers get what they’re worth in the market.

Forbes Magazine contributor, for example, writes that jobs exist only  “when both employer and employee are happy with the deal being made.” So if the new jobs are low-paying and irregular, too bad.

Much the same argument was voiced in the late nineteenth century over alleged “freedom of contract.” Any deal between employees and workers was assumed to be fine if both sides voluntarily agreed to it.

It was an era when many workers were “happy” to toil twelve-hour days in sweat shops for lack of any better alternative.

It was also a time of great wealth for a few and squalor for many. And of corruption, as the lackeys of robber barons deposited sacks of cash on the desks of pliant legislators.

Finally, after decades of labor strife and political tumult, the twentieth century brought an understanding that capitalism requires minimum standards of decency and fairness – workplace safety, a minimum wage, maximum hours (and time-and-a-half for overtime), and a ban on child labor.

We also learned that capitalism needs a fair balance of power between big corporations and workers.

We achieved that through antitrust laws that reduced the capacity of giant corporations to impose their will, and labor laws that allowed workers to organize and bargain collectively.

By the 1950s, when 35 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a labor union, they were able to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions than employers would otherwise have been “happy” to provide.

But now we seem to be heading back to nineteenth century.



Corporations are shifting full-time work onto temps, free-lancers, and contract workers who fall outside the labor protections established decades ago.

The nation’s biggest corporations and Wall Street banks are larger and more potent than ever.

And labor union membership has shrunk to less than 6 percent of the private-sector workforce.

So it’s not surprising we’re once again hearing that workers are worth no more than what they can get in the market.

But as we should have learned a century ago, markets don’t exist in nature. They’re created by human beings. The real question is how they’re organized and for whose benefit.

In the late nineteenth century they were organized for the benefit of a few at the top.

But by the middle of the twentieth century they were organized for the vast majority.

During the thirty years after the end of World War II, as the economy doubled in size, so did the wages of most Americans — along with improved hours and working conditions.

Yet since around 1980, even though the economy has doubled once again (the Great Recession notwithstanding), the wages most Americans have stagnated. And their benefits and working conditions have deteriorated.

This isn’t because most Americans are worth less. In fact, worker productivity is higher than ever.

It’s because big corporations, Wall Street, and some enormously rich individuals have gained political power to organize the market in ways that have enhanced their wealth while leaving most Americans behind.

That includes trade agreements protecting the intellectual property of large corporations and Wall Street’s financial assets, but not American jobs and wages.

Bailouts of big Wall Street banks and their executives and shareholders when they can’t pay what they owe, but not of homeowners who can’t meet their mortgage payments.

Bankruptcy protection for big corporations, allowing them  to shed their debts, including labor contracts. But no bankruptcy protection for college graduates over-burdened with student debts.

Antitrust leniency toward a vast swathe of American industry – including Big Cable (Comcast, AT&T, Time-Warner), Big Tech (Amazon, Google), Big Pharma, the largest Wall Street banks, and giant retailers (Walmart).

But less tolerance toward labor unions — as workers trying to form unions are fired with impunity, and more states adopt so-called “right-to-work” laws that undermine unions.

We seem to be heading full speed back to the late nineteenth century.

So what will be the galvanizing force for change this time?

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie “Inequality for All” is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/10/robert_reich_america_is_heading_full_speed_back_to_the_19th_century_partner/?source=newsletter

The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

Why didn’t we listen? The fourth season of The Rockford Files, arguably the greatest television show of all time, features a “futuristic” storyline about a terrible threat. What if a private corporation used computers to gather personal information on hundreds of millions of Americans? Could we trust them with that data?

I know, it’s hard to imagine such a thing ever happening — a private company, collecting private and personal data on ordinary Americans and other people around the world. It sounds far-fetched, right? But Jim Rockford, the toughest and most incorruptible P.I. ever to live in a trailer with his dad, teams up with a younger detective to investigate the suspicious death of an old friend, a private detective named Tooley, in the episode “The House on Willis Avenue.” (This episode is written by the show’s co-creator, Stephen J. Cannell, who also gave us The Greatest American Hero.)

And what Rockford finds in his investigation is baffling — a mysterious set of real estate developments, with lots of suspiciously huge air-conditioning units attached. What’s going on? Turns out that a corporate scumbag, amusingly played by Jackie Cooper, is creating a secret computer system to spy on ordinary Americans and sell the info — or ruin your reputation — for profit. It should be illegal for corporations to spy on ordinary Americans, Rockford protests. You can see the highlights above.

It all leads up to this solemn cue card at the very end of the episode:

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

The Rockford Files really wants you to know that corporations should not use computers to collect your personal information. Those final words, “Our liberty may well be the price we pay,” seem especially prophetic nowadays.

The other amazing part of the episode is all the parts where Rockford and his temporary sidekick pretend to be computer experts, and spout ridiculously made-up computer jargon, to try and fool people in the facilities they’re sneaking into. Here are the two best examples of that:

http://www.viddler.com/embed/21c50871/?f=1&autoplay=false&player=mini&disablebranding=0;offset=0&autoplay=0

http://io9.com/jim-rockford-warned-us-about-google-and-facebook-back-i-1681231028

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