Why the Rich Love Burning Man

Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core.

burning-man

In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

Radical Self-Expression

The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris.

You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village. Though Black Rock City resembles a city in some sense, with a circular dirt street grid oriented around the “man” sculpture, in another sense it is completely surreal: people walk half-naked in furs and glitter, art cars shaped like ships or dragons pump house music as they purr down the street.

Like a real city, Burning Man has bars, restaurants, clubs, and theaters, but they are all brought by participants because everyone is required to “bring something”:

The people who attend Burning Man are no mere “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the “experience.” Participation is at the very core of Burning Man.

Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive (and often exclusive) camps. If you scan San Francisco’s Craigslist in the month of August, you’ll start to see ads for part-time service labor gigs to plump the metaphorical pillows of wealthy Burners.

The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp. Some burners derogatorily refer to these rich person camps as “turnkey camps.

Silicon Valley’s adoration of Burning Man goes back a long way, and tech workers have always been fans of the festival. But it hasn’t always been the provenance of billionaires — in the early days, it was a free festival with a cluster of pitched tents, weird art, and explosives; but as the years went on, more exclusive, turnkey camps appeared and increased in step with the ticket price — which went from $35 in 1994 to $390 in 2015 (about sixteen times the rate of inflation).

Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it’s been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

The growing presence of the elite in Burning Man is not just noticed by outsiders — long-time attendees grumble that Burning Man has become “gentrified.” Commenting on the New York Times piece, burners express dismay at attendees who do no work. “Paying people to come and take care of you and build for you . . . and clean up after you . . . those people missed the point.”

Many Burners seethed after reading one woman’s first-person account of how she was exploited while working at the $17,000-per-head camp of venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum. In her account, she documented the many ways in which Tananbaum violated the principles of the festival, maintaining “VIP status” by making events and art cars private and flipping out on one of his hired artists.

Tananbaum’s workers were paid a flat $180 a day with no overtime, but the anonymous whistleblower attests that she and others worked fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

Remember when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to help “fix” Newark’s public schools? In 2010, Zuckerberg — perhaps hoping to improve his image after his callous depiction in biopic The Social Network donated $100 million to Newark’s education system to overhaul Newark schools.

The money was directed as a part of then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plan to remake the city into the “charter school capital of the nation,” bypassing public oversight through partnership with private philanthropists.

Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: in a given school district, the community elects the school board every few years. School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. Zuckerberg’s donation, and the project it was attached to, directly undermined this democratic process by promoting an agenda to privatize public schools, destroy local unions, disempower teachers, and put the reins of public education into the hands of technocrats and profiteers.

This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own. But it isn’t. The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions.

To these young tech workers — mostly white, mostly men — who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else’s input. It’s a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

At Burning Man the 1 percenters — who have earned their money in the same way that Carnegie did so long ago — show up with an army of service laborers, yet they take the credit for what they’ve “brought.”

Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa.

It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Burning Man will be remembered more as the model for Google CEO Larry Page’s dream of a libertarian state, than as the revolutionary Situationist space that it could have been.

As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.

 

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/burning-man-one-percent-silicon-valley-tech/

How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election

A picture taken on October 17, 2017 in Lille, shows a figue in front of the Google internet homepage.   AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Google has the ability to drive millions of votes to a candidate with no one the wiser.

August 19, 2015

America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished.

Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had. Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson.

Given that many elections are won by small margins, this gives Google the power, right now, to flip upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide. In the United States, half of our presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6 percent, and the 2012 election was won by a margin of only 3.9 percent—well within Google’s control.

There are at least three very real scenarios whereby Google—perhaps even without its leaders’ knowledge—could shape or even decide the election next year. Whether or not Google executives see it this way, the employees who constantly adjust the search giant’s algorithms are manipulating people every minute of every day. The adjustments they make increasingly influence our thinking—including, it turns out, our voting preferences.

What we call in our research the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) turns out to be one of the largest behavioral effects ever discovered. Our comprehensive new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), includes the results of five experiments we conducted with more than 4,500 participants in two countries. Because SEME is virtually invisible as a form of social influence, because the effect is so large and because there are currently no specific regulations anywhere in the world that would prevent Google from using and abusing this technique, we believe SEME is a serious threat to the democratic system of government.

According to Google Trends, at this writing Donald Trump is currently trouncing all other candidates in search activity in 47 of 50 states. Could this activity push him higher in search rankings, and could higher rankings in turn bring him more support? Most definitely—depending, that is, on how Google employees choose to adjust numeric weightings in the search algorithm. Google acknowledges adjusting the algorithm 600 times a year, but the process is secret, so what effect Mr. Trump’s success will have on how he shows up in Google searches is presumably out of his hands.

***

Our new research leaves little doubt about whether Google has the ability to control voters. In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session. The impact of viewing biased rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months would undoubtedly be larger.

In our basic experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups in which search rankings favored either Candidate A, Candidate B or neither candidate. Participants were given brief descriptions of each candidate and then asked how much they liked and trusted each candidate and whom they would vote for. Then they were allowed up to 15 minutes to conduct online research on the candidates using a Google-like search engine we created called Kadoodle.

Each group had access to the same 30 search results—all real search results linking to real web pages from a past election. Only the ordering of the results differed in the three groups. People could click freely on any result or shift between any of five different results pages, just as one can on Google’s search engine.

When our participants were done searching, we asked them those questions again, and, voilà: On all measures, opinions shifted in the direction of the candidate who was favored in the rankings. Trust, liking and voting preferences all shifted predictably.

More alarmingly, we also demonstrated this shift with real voters during an actual electoral campaign—in an experiment conducted with more than 2,000 eligible, undecided voters throughout India during the 2014 Lok Sabha election there—the largest democratic election in history, with more than 800 million eligible voters and 480 million votes ultimately cast. Even here, with real voters who were highly familiar with the candidates and who were being bombarded with campaign rhetoric every day, we showed that search rankings could boost the proportion of people favoring any candidate by more than 20 percent—more than 60 percent in some demographic groups.

Given how powerful this effect is, it’s possible that Google decided the winner of the Indian election.  Google’s own daily data on election-related search activity (subsequently removed from the Internet, but not before my colleagues and I downloaded the pages) showed that Narendra Modi, the ultimate winner, outscored his rivals in search activity by more than 25 percent for sixty-one consecutive days before the final votes were cast. That high volume of search activity could easily have been generated by higher search rankings for Modi.

Google’s official comment on SEME research is always the same: “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”

Could any comment be more meaningless? How does providing “relevant answers” to election-related questions rule out the possibility of favoring one candidate over another in search rankings? Google’s statement seems far short of a blanket denial that it ever puts its finger on the scales.

There are three credible scenarios under which Google could easily be flipping elections worldwide as you read this:

First, there is the Western Union Scenario: Google’s executives decide which candidate is best for us—and for the company, of course—and they fiddle with search rankings accordingly. There is precedent in the United States for this kind of backroom king-making. Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, was put into office in part because of strong support by Western Union. In the late 1800s, Western Union had a monopoly on communications in America, and just before the election of 1876, the company did its best to assure that only positive news stories about Hayes appeared in newspapers nationwide. It also shared all the telegrams sent by his opponent’s campaign staff with Hayes’s staff. Perhaps the most effective way to wield political influence in today’s high-tech world is to donate money to a candidate and then to use technology to make sure he or she wins. The technology guarantees the win, and the donation guarantees allegiance, which Google has certainly tapped in recent years with the Obama administration.

Given Google’s strong ties to Democrats, there is reason to suspect that if Google or its employees intervene to favor their candidates, it will be to adjust the search algorithm to favor Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Google and its top executives donated more than $800,000 to Obama but only $37,000 to Romney. At least six top tech officials in the Obama administration, including Megan Smith, the country’s chief technology officer, are former Google employees. According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, since Obama took office, Google representatives have visited the White House ten times as frequently as representatives from comparable companies—once a week, on average.

Hillary Clinton clearly has Google’s support and is well aware of Google’s value in elections. In April of this year, she hired a top Google executive, Stephanie Hannon, to serve as her chief technology officer. I don’t have any reason to suspect Hannon would use her old connections to aid her candidate, but the fact that she—or any other individual with sufficient clout at Google—has the power to decide elections threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our electoral system, particularly in close elections.

This is, in any case, the most implausible scenario. What company would risk the public outrage and corporate punishment that would follow from being caught manipulating an election?

Second, there is the Marius Milner Scenario: A rogue employee at Google who has sufficient password authority or hacking skills makes a few tweaks in the rankings (perhaps after receiving a text message from some old friend who now works on a campaign), and the deed is done. In 2010, when Google got caught sweeping up personal information from unprotected Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries using its Street View vehicles, the entire operation was blamed on one Google employee: software engineer Marius Milner. So they fired him, right? Nope. He’s still there, and on LinkedIn he currently identifies his profession as “hacker.” If, somehow, you have gotten the impression that at least a few of Google’s 37,000 employees are every bit as smart as Milner and possess a certain mischievousness—well, you are probably right, which is why the rogue employee scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem.

And third—and this is the scariest possibility—there is the Algorithm Scenario: Under this scenario, all of Google’s employees are innocent little lambs, but the software is evil. Google’s search algorithm is pushing one candidate to the top of rankings because of what the company coyly dismisses as “organic” search activity by users; it’s harmless, you see, because it’s all natural. Under this scenario, a computer program is picking our elected officials.

To put this another way, our research suggests that no matter how innocent or disinterested Google’s employees may be, Google’s search algorithm, propelled by user activity, has been determining the outcomes of close elections worldwide for years, with increasing impact every year because of increasing Internet penetration.

SEME is powerful precisely because Google is so good at what it does; its search results are generally superb. Having learned that fact over time, we have come to trust those results to a high degree. We have also learned that higher rankings mean better material, which is why 50 percent of our clicks go to the first two items, with more than 90 percent of all clicks going to that precious first search page. Unfortunately, when it comes to elections, that extreme trust we have developed makes us vulnerable to manipulation.

In the final days of a campaign, fortunes are spent on media blitzes directed at a handful of counties where swing voters will determine the winners in the all-important swing states. What a waste of resources! The right person at Google could influence those key voters more than any stump speech could; there is no cheaper, more efficient or subtler way to turn swing voters than SEME. SEME also has one eerie advantage over billboards: when people are unaware of a source of influence, they believe they weren’t being influenced at all; they believe they made up their own minds.

Republicans, take note: A manipulation on Hillary Clinton’s behalf would be particularly easy for Google to carry out, because of all the demographic groups we have looked at so far, no group has been more vulnerable to SEME—in other words, so blindly trusting of search rankings—than moderate Republicans. In a national experiment we conducted in the United States, we were able to shift a whopping 80 percent of moderate Republicans in any direction we chose just by varying search rankings.

There are many ways to influence voters—more ways than ever these days, thanks to cable television, mobile devices and the Internet. Why be so afraid of Google’s search engine? If rankings are so influential, won’t all the candidates be using the latest SEO techniques to make sure they rank high?

SEO is competitive, as are billboards and TV commercials. No problem there. The problem is that for all practical purposes, there is just one search engine. More than 75 percent of online search in the United States is conducted on Google, and in most other countries that proportion is 90 percent. That means that if Google’s CEO, a rogue employee or even just the search algorithm itself favors one candidate, there is no way to counteract that influence. It would be as if Fox News were the only television channel in the country. As Internet penetration grows and more people get their information about candidates online, SEME will become an increasingly powerful form of influence, which means that the programmers and executives who control search engines will also become more powerful.

Worse still, our research shows that even when people do notice they are seeing biased search rankings, their voting preferences still shift in the desired directions—even more than the preferences of people who are oblivious to the bias. In our national study in the United States, 36 percent of people who were unaware of the rankings bias shifted toward the candidate we chose for them, but 45 percent of those who were aware of the bias also shifted. It’s as if the bias was serving as a form of social proof; the search engine clearly prefers one candidate, so that candidate must be the best. (Search results are supposed to be biased, after all; they’re supposed to show us what’s best, second best, and so on.)

Biased rankings are hard for individuals to detect, but what about regulators or election watchdogs? Unfortunately, SEME is easy to hide. The best way to wield this type of influence is to do what Google is becoming better at doing every day: send out customized search results. If search results favoring one candidate were sent only to vulnerable individuals, regulators and watchdogs would be especially hard pressed to find them.

For the record, by the way, our experiments meet the gold standards of research in the behavioral sciences: They are randomized (which means people are randomly assigned to different groups), controlled (which means they include groups in which interventions are either present or absent), counterbalanced (which means critical details, such as names, are presented to half the participants in one order and to half in the opposite order) and double-blind (which means that neither the subjects nor anyone who interacts with them has any idea what the hypotheses are or what groups people are assigned to). Our subject pools are diverse, matched as closely as possible to characteristics of a country’s electorate. Finally, our recent report in PNAS included four replications; in other words, we showed repeatedly—under different conditions and with different groups—that SEME is real.

Our newest research on SEME, conducted with nearly 4,000 people just before the national elections in the UK this past spring, is looking at ways we might be able to protect people from the manipulation. We found the monster; now we’re trying to figure out how to kill it. What we have learned so far is that the only way to protect people from biased search rankings is to break the trust Google has worked so hard to build. When we deliberately mix rankings up, or when we display various kinds of alerts that identify bias, we can suppress SEME to some extent.

It’s hard to imagine Google ever degrading its product and undermining its credibility in such ways, however. To protect the free and fair election, that might leave only one option, as unpalatable as it might seem: government regulation.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/how-google-could-rig-the-2016-election-121548.html#ixzz3jU90hk3U

Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?

By Thomas Swann On July 31, 2015

Post image for Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?Social media are monitored and controlled by large corporations. Can they also facilitate the kind of self-organization that defines radical politics?

When I started my PhD in 2011 there was a strong feeling that radical politics was changing. On the one hand, there was more of it. The Arab Spring, theindignados, Occupy: they all made it seem like direct action and direct democracy, were moving out of the ghettos of what remained of the alter-globalization movement. With mass assemblies and a radical DIY (or even DIO: Do It Ourselves) politics, something was changing across the world. In the face of austerity and totalitarianism, an actual alternative was being prefigured.

At the same time, the tools of these protests and uprisings came into the spotlight. Not only the democratic mechanisms of decision-making but also the digital infrastructures that, many argued, were facilitating what was so promising in these movements.

Social media was increasingly seen as an essential element in how large groups were able to organize without centralized leadership. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were allowing people to mobilize not as hierarchical structures like trade unions and political parties but as horizontal networks. Individual activists and sub-groups enjoyed a tactical autonomy while remaining part of a larger whole.

Almost four years have passed, and now at the end of my PhD the gloss to this narrative has to a large extent worn off. Some elements of the 2011 uprisings have been consumed by the tragedy of civil war and renewed dictatorships, while others have dispersed.

But of course, four years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things, and the examples of Podemos and Syriza suggest that perhaps these movements are in fact evolving and developing new strategies. While the story of mass mobilization and radical social movements is by no means over, what has been disputed perhaps more than anything else in the last four years is the promise that lay in the tools of the 2011 uprisings.

Social media, once held up by some as the very essence of contemporary radical politics, is now seen in a harsher, less forgiving light. A number of experiences have underlined the implicit hierarchies and inequalities that were reinforced by social media.

Others have pointed towards the ways in which social media exploit, for profit, our online behavior. The Edward Snowden saga has shown how vulnerable our online organizing is, as has the repression of social media-based activism seen inTurkey and elsewhere.

But among these critiques of social media, is there something that can be salvaged? Can platforms like Facebook and Twitter be useful in radical politics, and if so how? Perhaps we don’t need to abandon social media just yet. Perhaps it can, in one form or another, still facilitate the kind of organization that was so promising in 2011 and that continues, in many ways, to define radical left politics.

The promise of social media

Social media platforms are often discussed as means of communication, self-expression and forming public discourse. As well as this, however, social media platforms — and communication practices more generally — also act as infrastructures that support the actions we take. They allow us to share information and resources, and to make decisions that can then be enacted.

In this way, communication practices can also be understood as information management systems. This is a concept borrowed from the world of business and management and refers to any system, normally electronic and increasingly digital, that facilitates organization. Work email and intranets are of this sort. They don’t just let people talk to one another but also contribute to getting tasks completed.

What social media might offer when viewed as information management systems, as platforms that facilitate certain forms of action, is a way to make radical and anarchist forms of organization more like the participatory and democratic structures that characterized the 2011 uprisings and radical left politics since at least the Zapatista rebellion, the alter-globalization movement in the 1990s and, even earlier, the radical feminism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Social media can provide the infrastructure for both democratic decision-making and autonomous action, with activists given access to resources and information that may enable them to act in ways that more hierarchical communication structures reduce to command and control processes.

While there are significant critiques of social media from activists and scholars alike (focusing on privacy and surveillance, corporate and state control, the political economy of free labor and the psychology and behavior that is encouraged by the architecture of mainstream platforms), I want to suggest that there is still a potential inherent in social media owing to the nature of the communication practices it supports.

These practices can be described as many-to-many communication. They are potentially built on conversations with multiple actors that reflect some of the necessary foundations of the participatory democracy of radical Left politics. Social media can, therefore, be seen as systems that facilitate radically democratic forms of organization and that can support the kinds of autonomy and horizontality that have in part been seen in the 2011 uprisings.

This is the promise of social media. And it is a promise that may yet be fulfilled. If social media present opportunities for horizontal, conversational communication, and these types of communication are consistent with the ways in which we try to imagine non-hierarchical social relationships and decision-making structures, then social media can be considered as having at least the potential to be a part of a radical left politics.

Internal and external communication practices

As part of my PhD research I interviewed a number of activists involved in the Dutch radical left and anarchist scene. The pictures they provided of the communication practices of the groups they were involved in can be used to work through some of the ideas around many-to-many communication, its relationship to radical politics and the promise of social media.

Internally, the radical left groups in question all more or less conform to the many-to-many communication model. Much of this communication is done through face-to-face meetings at which members aim to reach consensus on the topics being discussed and the decisions that need to be made.

In terms of social networking technologies, however, activists spoke of the email listservs and online forums that have been common to radical left politics at least since the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the beginnings of the alter-globalization movement.

While none of the groups used newer, mainstream platforms like Facebook in their internal communication practices, one of the groups did use the alternative social networking site Crabgrass as a core part of their discussion and decision-making infrastructure. Crabgrass was developed by people connected to the RiseUp collective that provides secure email addresses for activists. It aims to facilitate social networking and group collaboration with a specifically radical, left-wing bent.

Externally, many-to-many communication practices became much rarer. While most of the groups use Facebook and Twitter, they use them primarily as extensions of their websites, which in turn act mainly as extensions of their printed newspapers.

The three exceptions to this highlight the abilities of both mainstream and alternative social media platforms to play this role. One group, involved in community organizing, was active on Facebook not only in sharing articles and announcements but also in responding to comments and engaging in discussions with other users.

Another made use of crowd-sourced mapping in a way that reflects the scope of many-to-many communication to support autonomous action. The third example of using social media in line with this participatory ethos came from one group that printed comments and responses from Facebook and Twitter in their newspaper, facilitating some level of conversation between the group and those outside it.

Institutionalizing autonomy

The many-to-many communication social media facilitates, insofar as it allows for conversation rather than merely the broadcast of information (or even orders), is intimately connected to a radical left and anarchist vision of organization. If prefiguration, the realization of the goals of politics in the here and now, is taken as one of the core concerns of radical social movements, then a commitment to many-to-many communication might need to be seen as just as important as the commitment to democracy and equality.

It has the potential to empower activists to take autonomous action and the bedrock of participatory democracy. In this way, social media platforms can contribute towards freeing activism from the top-down structures of political parties and trade unions.

But is there another way of looking at these types of organization and of the structures suggested by social media and many-to-many communication? I mentioned at the start of this article that social media and the examples of the 2011 uprisings have lost some of what made them so attractive at the time. Activists are, it seems, increasingly (and perhaps rightly given the limitations) wary of both networked organization and networked communications. In the last year or so, however, radical politics has shifted somewhat.

In place of social movements that are completely opposed to, and autonomous from political parties, the rise of Podemos and Syriza, and indeed the surge of support for the Greens in England and Wales and the Scottish National Party in Scotland, might point to a return of the mass party as an element of radical left social movement strategy.

Podemos and Syriza, by many accounts, have become the institutional articulations of mass social movements. They haven’t replaced them and are clear that they aim to act as parliamentary wings subservient to those movements (although the current tensions in Syriza suggest that this is much more problematic that some might make out).

In the case of Podemos, this has meant a continuation of the radical, direct democracy of the 15-M movement and the party has relied on social media and many-to-many communication not in getting its message across to voters but in defining the very content of that message and of its policies.

Social media might continue to have a role in radical left politics after all. The many-to-many communication practices it supports can be, at their best, prefigurative of the goals of radical politics, of democratic and participatory decision-making. As information management systems, facilitating concrete action, the examples of the radical left groups involved in my PhD research point towards this conclusion.

Both mainstream social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and alternative platforms, such as Crabgrass and n-1, can be an important part of radical left politics, whether in the form of mass social movement mobilizations or the articulation of those movements in more democratic political parties.

Thomas Swann is a PhD student in the University of Leicester School of Management and member of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. His research focuses on radical left organization, social media and organizational cybernetics. Follow him on Twittter via @ThomasSwann1.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/07/social-media-organization-movements/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Post Capitalism

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Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.

https://medium.com/@jonathantaplin/post-capitalism-f8d687d19c3

Is Advertising Morally Justifiable?

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With Is Advertising Morally Justifiable?, philosopher Thomas Wells is out to change the way you think about Google and its ilk. Wells says: “Advertising is a natural resource extraction industry, like a fishery. Its business is the harvest and sale of human attention. We are the fish and we are not consulted. Two problems result from this. The solution to both requires legal recognition of the property rights of human beings over our attention.

First, advertising imposes costs on individuals without permission or compensation. It extracts our precious attention and emits toxic by-products, such as the sale of our personal information to dodgy third parties.

Second, you may have noticed that the world’s fisheries are not in great shape. They are a standard example for explaining the theoretical concept of a tragedy of the commons, where rational maximising behaviour by individual harvesters leads to the unsustainable overexploitation of a resource. Expensively trained human attention is the fuel of twenty-first century capitalism. We are allowing a single industry to slash and burn vast amounts of this productive resource in search of a quick buck.”

Mindfulness: Capitalism’s New Favorite Tool for Maintaining the Status Quo

PERSONAL HEALTH

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The meditative practice is being used in a way that betrays its anti-materialist roots.

I stumbled across mindfulness, the meditation practice now favored by titans of tech, sensitive C-suiters, new media gurus and celebrities, without even really knowing it.

A couple of years ago, I was deeply mired in an insane schedule that involved almost everything (compulsive list-making at 4am, vacations mostly spent working, lots of being “on”) except for one desperately missed item (sleep; pretty much just sleep). A friend suggested I download Headspace, a meditation app he swore would calm the thoughts buzzing incessantly in my head, relax my anxious energy and help me be more present. I took his advice, noting the app’s first 10 trial sessions — to be done at the same time over 10 consecutive days — were free. When I found the time to do it, it was, at best, incredibly relaxing; at worst, it barely made a dent in my frazzled synapses. When I didn’t find the time (because again, schedule), the effort to somehow make time became its own source of stress. In the end, I got an equally hectic yet far more satisfying career, took up running and forgot Headspace existed.

That is, until the term “mindfulness” reached a tipping point of near ubiquity. As it turned out, what I’d regarded as just a digitized form of guided meditation was actually a “mindfulness technique,” part of a bigger, buzzy, Buddhism-derived movement toward some version of corporate enlightenment. As long ago as 2012, Forbes reported that Google, Apple, Deutsche Bank and several other corporate behemoths already had mindfulness programs in place for employees. Phil Jackson, the basketball coach with a record-setting 11 NBA titles, tacitly praised mindfulness for his wins, telling Oprah he’d incorporated the technique into player practice regiments. Arianna Huffington, empress of media, not only sings the praises of mindfulness in speeches around the country, but she and Morning Joe  co-host Mika Brzezinski just hosted anentire conference dedicated to it this past April. And perhaps least surprising of all, Gwyneth Paltrow is a proselytizing adherent, giving mindfulness in general, and Headspace in particular, a shout-out on her lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-beautiful website, Goop.

You can tell a lot about trendy new concepts by who embraces them, and why. In the case of mindfulness, business leaders cite a number of reasons why they’ve adopted the concept so wholeheartedly. Studies have found that mindfulness meditation reduces stress, thereby making it a safeguard against employee burnout. Research finds that mindfulness bolsters memory retention and reading comprehension, which means employees can be more accurate in processing information. One Dutch study found that mindfulness makes practitioners more creative, helping ensure workers remain a fount of ideas. And some schools for children as young as first grade have begun teaching mindfulness meditation, based on studies that suggest it helps maintainfocus, a resource in constant threat of short supply for those multitasking their way through so many mundane, workaday obligations.

The idea is that mindfulness helps cleanse cerebral clutter and hush neural distractions so we can redirect that brain power into being our most in-the-moment selves.

But really, we already knew this. Long before mindfulness became the path toward corporate good vibes — back when Westerners were getting into what was then simply called Zen meditation — millions were already offering unsolicited testaments to the restorative powers of the technique. (To modify an old joke about vegans, Q: How do you know someone’s into meditation? A: Oh, don’t worry, they’ll tell you.) The pesky problem with meditation, now dubbed “mindfulness,” was its connection with Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn, widely credited with introducing the concept of mindfulness to America in the 1970s, reportedly recognized the spread of the concept might be helped by loosening its religious ties. As a New York Times article on the practice explains, Kabat-Zinn redefined the technique, giving it a secular makeover and describing it as “[t]he awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Without all that dogma attached, the opportunities for use were suddenly endless.

And there’s nothing business loves better than a good opportunity. Silicon Valley, which sits in the shadow of San Francisco and its countercultural influence, was first to recognize the benefits of mindfulness. In a New Yorkerpiece that explores the history of the phenomenon, Lizzie Widdicombe cites Steve Jobs — who traveled India as a teen and was an avid practitioner of meditation — as the first tech industry icon to weave mindfulness with business practices. His heir apparent in this arena is Chade-Meng Tan, whose title at Google is, no kidding, Jolly Good Fellow, or alternately, the slightly more formal Head of Personal Growth. Originally hired in 1999 as an engineer, in 2007 Tan headed up the company’s first “Search Inside Yourself” course, a two-day mindfulness-focused program. Since then, the corporate adopters of mindfulness, which also include Procter & Gamble, General Mills and Aetna, have grown to include companies in every area of business, stretching far beyond tech to banking, law, advertising, and even the United States military. (Although, it should be noted, deep meditation may actually be damaging for some PTSD sufferers, exacerbating the condition.)

Strip away all the fuzzy wuzzy, and one glaring fact stands out about mindfulness’s proliferation across the corporate world: At the end of the day, the name of the game is increased productivity. In other words, the practice has become a capitalist tool for squeezing even more work out of an already overworked workforce. Buddhism’s anti-materialist ethos seems in direct odds with this application of one of its key practices, even if it has been divorced from its Zen roots. In an article about “McMindfulness,” the pejorative term indicting the commodified, secularized, corporatized version of the meditative practice, David Loy states “[m]indfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.”

A 2013 piece from the Economist titled “The Mindfulness Business” compares mindfulness to the culture of self-help, previously held as the cure-all for a business culture looking to maximize worker usefulness. The piece points out that this recontextualized version of meditation seems, cynically, to miss the point of the practice’s original intent:

“Gurus talk about ‘the competitive advantage of meditation.’ Pupils come to see it as a way to get ahead in life. And the point of the whole exercise is lost. What has parading around in pricey Lululemon outfits got to do with the Buddhist ethic of non-attachment to material goods? And what has staring at a computer-generated dot got to do with the ancient art of meditation? Western capitalism seems to be doing rather more to change eastern religion than eastern religion is doing to change Western capitalism.”

It’s a valid point that drives home the schism between the roots of the practice and the warped interpretation of it.

For now, there seems no end to the spread of mindfulness — which isn’t such a bad idea. The notion of self-care in an era of constant digital distractions, as well as midnight and weekend work email exchanges, is a welcome one. But what of the halfhearted appropriation of a noble, anti-capitalist practice to thicken the bottom line? As Loy notes in his Huffington Post piece, American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi warns that “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” That’s a pretty good summation of what’s already happening. Until corporate America discovers its next trendy panacea, the practice will continue to spread, its miraculous effects touted — and often overstated— as a booster of profits and more. It’s a bit like oms for making better worker drones; or rather, Zen done the American way.

http://www.alternet.org/personal-health/mindfulness-capitalisms-new-favorite-tool-maintaining-status-quo?akid=13299.265072.H0AeTf&rd=1&src=newsletter1039283&t=1

LOpht’s warnings about the Internet drew notice but little action

NET OF INSECURITY

A disaster foretold — and ignored

Published on June 22, 2015

The seven young men sitting before some of Capitol Hill’s most powerful lawmakers weren’t graduate students or junior analysts from some think tank. No, Space Rogue, Kingpin, Mudge and the others were hackers who had come from the mysterious environs of cyberspace to deliver a terrifying warning to the world.

The making of a vulnerable Internet: This story is the third of a multi-part project on the Internet’s inherent vulnerabilities and why they may never be fixed.

Part 1: The story of how the Internet became so vulnerable
Part 2: The long life of a ‘quick fix’

Your computers, they told the panel of senators in May 1998, are not safe — not the software, not the hardware, not the networks that link them together. The companies that build these things don’t care, the hackers continued, and they have no reason to care because failure costs them nothing. And the federal government has neither the skill nor the will to do anything about it.

“If you’re looking for computer security, then the Internet is not the place to be,” said Mudge, then 27 and looking like a biblical prophet with long brown hair flowing past his shoulders. The Internet itself, he added, could be taken down “by any of the seven individuals seated before you” with 30 minutes of well-choreographed keystrokes.

The senators — a bipartisan group including John Glenn, Joseph I. Lieberman and Fred D. Thompson — nodded gravely, making clear that they understood the gravity of the situation. “We’re going to have to do something about it,” Thompson said.

What happened instead was a tragedy of missed opportunity, and 17 years later the world is still paying the price in rampant insecurity.

The testimony from L0pht, as the hacker group called itself, was among the most audacious of a rising chorus of warnings delivered in the 1990s as the Internet was exploding in popularity, well on its way to becoming a potent global force for communication, commerce and criminality.

Hackers and other computer experts sounded alarms as the World Wide Web brought the transformative power of computer networking to the masses. This created a universe of risks for users and the critical real-world systems, such as power plants, rapidly going online as well.

Officials in Washington and throughout the world failed to forcefully address these problems as trouble spread across cyberspace, a vast new frontier of opportunity and lawlessness. Even today, many serious online intrusions exploit flaws in software first built in that era, such as Adobe Flash, Oracle’s Java and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

“We have the same security problems,” said Space Rogue, whose real name is Cris Thomas. “There’s a lot more money involved. There’s a lot more awareness. But the same problems are still there.”

L0pht, born of the bustling hacker scene in the Boston area, rose to prominence as a flood of new software was introducing such wonders as sound, animation and interactive games to the Web. This software, which required access to the core functions of each user’s computer, also gave hackers new opportunities to manipulate machines from afar.

Breaking into networked computers became so easy that the Internet, long the realm of idealistic scientists and hobbyists, gradually grew infested with the most pragmatic of professionals: crooks, scam artists, spies and cyberwarriors. They exploited computer bugs for profit or other gain while continually looking for new vulnerabilities.

Tech companies sometimes scrambled to fix problems — often after hackers or academic researchers revealed them publicly — but few companies were willing to undertake the costly overhauls necessary to make their systems significantly more secure against future attacks. Their profits depended on other factors, such as providing consumers new features, not warding off hackers.

“In the real world, people only invest money to solve real problems, as opposed to hypothetical ones,” said Dan S. Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor who has been studying online threats since the 1990s. “The thing that you’re selling is not security. The thing that you’re selling is something else.”

The result was a culture within the tech industry often derided as “patch and pray.” In other words, keep building, keep selling and send out fixes as necessary. If a system failed — causing lost data, stolen credit card numbers or time-consuming computer crashes — the burden fell not on giant, rich tech companies but on their customers.

The members of L0pht say they often experienced this cavalier attitude in their day jobs, where some toiled as humble programmers or salesmen at computer stores. When they reported bugs to software makers, company officials often asked: Does anybody else know about this?

CONTINUED:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/business/2015/06/22/net-of-insecurity-part-3/