Writer-Researcher-Activist | philosophy/spec-fi/future/art/internet/surveillance/ai/weird
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That Shingy Life


One of the things that’s come to bother me over the last year is seeing people falling into constantly being on the road and giving talks, pausing only to dump a tweetstorm before going somewhere else and doing talks, week after week, month after month.  Not least because I worry they’re going to turn into Shingy.

You remember Shingy.  David Shing. “Digital prophet” for Oath, bats around the world as a brand ambassador, talking, talking, talking, making little sense and making no cultural mark.

During a half-awake session of link-surfing while full of flu meds the other week, I happened across the blog of one of those guys who was always doing talks and camps and streams and conferences and all the fucking rest of it.  He’s in his fifties now.  On his blog, he notes that he has tiny savings and even after downsizing he and his wife both need full-time income streams to keep the lights on and the kids fed.

Put another way — even a year ago, before his business hit some self-inflicted disasters, he would have had jack shit to show for that Shingy life.

(Because Shingy, you know, has been on a six-figure salary for years.)

Now, said guy has always been a braying idiot who was wrong about everything.  But I worry for the other people.

A thought for the new year: try to stay home for a bit and make some things that might last, please?

And yes, yes, I know, precarity, cobbled-together career skeins, gets harder all the time, freedom versus drowning in platform capitalism, I know.

But a privileged white man from Silicon Valley with an address list fatter than Ron Jeremy’s phone book did it all century and has fuck all to show for it, so how do you think that’s going to work out for you?


READING: REPUBLIC OF LIES, Anna Merlan, which is fucking brilliant (PREORDER UK) (PREORDER US)


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9 days ago
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I’m a syndicator.  I stopped wanting to silo original collections of words in other people’s systems a long time ago.  I send things from here and Longwave and Status to social networks, but they don’t originate there, and twice a year I wipe them anyway.  I have been using Tumblr since the outset, but long ago grabbed all my stuff out of there and set up a system to save anything new on my Tumblr to an offsite location.  For some considerable time, I’ve only been using it to find material – when I reblog, it triggers an IFTTT recipe that copies the material to my personal logging site.

All of which is to say, I’ve been on the internet since the dawn of the graphical web, I don’t care about public community networking, and I have a complex fee-paying system of doing things.

The people still using Tumblr do not, and neither would the next generation that came to the web and found an easy networked way to start expressing themselves in the digital space.

The removal of “adult” content on Tumblr – the guidelines for which have been stated remarkably poorly — appears to be a fairly desperate attempt to get back in the puritanical good books of the Apple App Store without at all curing the issue that got them kicked off, which was distribution of child porn imagery. The guidelines cite “female-presenting nipples” as a deletion flag, which fairly obviously surrounds a lot more than child porn.  And get that phrasing, just in case you thought they weren’t going to be screening trans and nb persons.

And I just noticed that a thing I reblogged to collect – a piece of old art entitled “The Satanic Trinity” — got flagged during the rollout of Tumblr’s new filters.  So I guess we know what’s next for them.

It’s probably too early right now to wave goodbye to this weird site that started out as a way to monetise the tumblelog style started by other people, something that was maybe a tiiiiny bit skeevy but hey not everyone’s a coder. I remember looking at tumblelogs with envy, and, frankly, no Tumblr theme ever really looked as good as the original tumblelogs.

But, for those who still watch what the internet does, this is probably the flag for Tumblr’s last lap.


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11 days ago
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Article 13: If You Want To Force Google to Pay Artists More, Force Google to Pay Artists More

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The European Union is fumbling towards a final draft of the new "Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive," including the controversial "Article 13," which requires all but the smallest online platforms to set up crowdsourced databases of copyrighted works and censor anything a user posts that matches (or partially matches!) the contents of these databases.

This is a system that's ripe for abuse. Where more modest versions of these blacklist systems exist, artists find themselves targeted by fraudsters who remove their work from the platforms they rely on to earn their livings, impersonating them and sending copyright takedowns in their names.

And yet, Article 13 has no penalties for this kind of abuse. It doesn't even let tech companies refuse to accept future database entries from fraudsters who get caught repeatedly abusing the system.

Transparency will let us agree on what we're fighting over

Rightsholder groups argue that Article 13 is necessary because Google is underpaying the artists whose work appears on YouTube (and other tech platforms are underpaying for their use of entertainment materials). This is a debate that is muddied by a lack of transparency on all sides. There are no reliable numbers on:

  1. How much money Google and other Internet companies take in from the ads and subscription payments on the media they distribute;
  2. How these big tech companies pay out to entertainment companies like the big record labels and movie studios, as well as independent and smaller studios, labels, publishers, etc.; and
  3. How much of that big tech money finds its way into the pockets of artists, and how much is pocketed by the intermediaries in the music, movie, and publishing industries.

Monopolies laugh at copyright

It's possible -- likely, even! -- that if we knew the relevant financials that we would object to the way money is being distributed among the players in the industry. Let's assume that a full accounting of the economics of entertainment in the era of big tech displeases us, what could we do about it?

Well, we could create a system like Article 13's censorship blacklists. Entertainment companies could add their artists' products to the blacklists and Big Tech would no longer profit from those works unless they could offer the Big Content companies enough to take them out of the blacklist databases.

This would probably tilt the balance of payments away from Big Tech and towards Big Content, but not by much. The thing is, Big Tech has come to monopolise our attention: there is virtually no way for new material to be discovered without the "sharing" platforms (which is why Big Content spends millions to get their work featured on Big Tech's platforms, even cheating at times).

There aren't that many places where Big Content can find the audiences that keep them profitable: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon, a few others. The concentration in Big Tech means that even with additional copyright powers, if Big Tech doesn't want to buy at the price that Big Content is selling for, Big Content will need to lower their prices. Big Tech doesn't hold all the cards, but it sure holds most of them.

Article 13 won't help. Even if Big Tech has to pay a little extra for licensing at first, the long-term effect of Article 13 will be to reduce competition in tech, leading to even more concentration and even more market power. Even if a fast-growing little online company manages to grow to challenge YouTube or Facebook, the instant it crosses into that competitive territory, it will be classed as a "large platform" under Article 13, meaning that it will then acquire a legal obligation to spend $100-$300 million on the filters Article 13 will require of "large platforms", or face blanket liability for every arguably infringing file that their users upload onto their service. Neither YouTube, nor Facebook, nor Twitter could have grown to their current size if going from "small" to "large" had meant spending hundreds of millions extra to comply with European copyright law.

If you think that Facebook and YouTube are tough to negotiate with in 2018, then give them a decade without any competition and see just how tough they get.

What about artists?

Artists of all description commonly say that the corporations they sell their works through do not pay them their fair share. The thing is, there are a lot more artists who want to reach audiences than there are companies willing to pay for those artists' work, and only a minority of people who are good at making art are also good at marketing their work.

That means that just as Big Content finds itself unable to exert leverage over Big Tech, little artists can't exert leverage over the corporations that pay to use their works. It would be very naive to assume that putting more money in a giant media company's pockets would result in the  extra money going to the artists whose works Big Content is selling to Big Tech. It's much more likely that the new funds will be funneled straight to Big Content's shareholders; indeed, the shareholders would insist upon it.

So what's the alternative?

Many B2B payments in the entertainment world are not negotiated. Radio stations and cable operators don't negotiate for every copyrighted work they make available. They rely instead on blanket licenses, some set by statute and others by negotiated blanket licenses that are overseen by collecting societies or rights societies. Some of these rates are too high and some are too low and some of the rights societies have a poor track-record when it comes to fairly distributing the money they take in, but few people would argue that it's impossible to get the payments right, or to fairly distribute them.

Getting artists paid by using Article 13's blacklists requires a lot of unprecedented things to happen: the filters have to work, and not be abused; they have to provide sufficient leverage to generate higher payments than the current ad-based systems, and then the big entertainment companies who receive those payments have to give that money to artists instead of keeping it for their shareholders.

Or we could just treat YouTube as another one of the B2B entities in the world's entertainment markets. We could create blanket licenses and set fair (for the artist and the entertainment company) prices for each viewing. The artists could get a mandatory minimum share of those payments, overriding the contracts they negotiate under duress with the entertainment companies.

With that system, anyone could start a YouTube (or Facebook, or Apple) competitor and access the identical catalog of content that Big Tech has, and pay proportionately to use it: if you're 1/1,000,000th the size of YouTube, you owe 1/1,000,000th the payout that YouTube pays, and as you grow, so does your share, without any sticker-shocks when you level up from "small" to "big" and would otherwise have to install Article 13's filters.

Best of all, this requires no speculation: rather than creating filters unlike any the Earth has ever seen (and that experts say will never work), we just tell Google how much we think copyrighted works should cost, take that money from them, and split it between entertainment companies and creators.

There are many questions that would need to be answered about blanket licenses, and there are plenty of versions of this approach that could be bad for the Net. And if European lawmakers want to pursue this route, they would have to be prepared to upset both Big Tech nor Big Content. But their job isn’t to represent those multinational corporate interests: it is to represent those who are not “Big” anything — individual Internet users, creators, and artists, as well as the future tech innovators and challengers to the business interests of today. It’s an approach that has worked in the past, and doesn’t depend on making everyone on the Internet liable, and everything on the Internet censorable.

But YouTube's CEO says she likes filters!

Yes, it seems she does. After lobbying like crazy against Article 13, Google has changed tactics and decided that they want filters, because they already have ContentID for YouTube and can afford to pay to expand it across all their platforms. (Remember, it was Google that suggested ContentID to Europe as a model for enforcement when the Copyright Directive was just getting started.)

Like every monopolist, Google's first preference was always going to be no regulation; but their second preference was also always going to be lots of regulation, provided that they could afford the regulatory costs and no one who might challenge them could.

Even if you think YouTube has been drastically underpaying artists, letting them buy perpetual Internet domination for the price of some big filters is a bad way to fix this.

Instead of breaking the Internet, let's fix copyright: let's come up with rules that reduce monopoly power, increase competition and puts money in the pockets of artists. If we want Google to pay creators more, let's just make Google pay creators more and skip the censorware.

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19 days ago
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Leaks Show Europe's Attempts to Fix the Copyright Directive Are Failing

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The EU’s “Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive” is closer than ever to becoming law in 28 European countries, and the deep structural flaws in its most controversial clauses have never been more evident.

Some background: the European Union had long planned on introducing a new copyright directive in 2018, updating the previous directive from 2001. The EU's experts weighed a number of proposals, producing official recommendations on what should (and shouldn't) be included in the new directive, and meeting with stakeholders to draft language suitable for adoption into the EU member states' national laws.

Two proposals were firmly rejected by the EU's experts: Article 11, which would limit who could link to news articles and under which circumstances; and Article 13, which would force online platforms to censor their users' text, video, audio, code, still images, etc., based on a crowdsourced database of allegedly copyrighted works.

But despite the EU's expert advice, these clauses were re-introduced at the last minute, at a stage in the directive's progress where they would be unlikely to receive scrutiny or debate. Thankfully, after news of the articles spread across the Internet, Europe’s own voters took action and one million Europeans wrote to their MEPs to demand additional debate. When that debate took place in September, a divided opposition to the proposals allowed them to continue on to the next phase.

Now, the directive is in the final leg of its journey into law: the "trilogues," where the national governments of Europe negotiate with the EU's officials to produce a final draft that will be presented to the Parliament for a vote.

The trilogues over the new directive are the first in EU history where the public are allowed some insight into the process, thanks to a European Court of Justice ruling that allows members of the European Parliament to publicly disclose the details of the trilogues. German Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda has been publishing regular updates from behind the trilogues' closed doors.

It's anything but an orderly process. A change in the Italian government prompted the country to withdraw its support for the directive. Together with those nations that were already unsure of the articles, this means that there are enough opposing countries to kill the directive. However, the opposition remains divided over tactics and that means that the directive is still proceeding through the trilogues.

The latest news is a leaked set of proposed revisions to the directive, aimed at correcting the extraordinarily sloppy drafting of Articles 11 and 13.

These revisions are a mixed bag. In a few cases, they bring much-needed clarity to the proposals, but in other cases, they actually worsen the proposals—for example, the existing language holds out the possibility that platforms could avoid using automated copyright filters (which are viewed as a recipe for disaster by the world's leading computer scientists, including the inventors of the web and the Internet's core technologies). The proposed clarification eliminates that possibility.

To get a sense of how not-ready-for-action Articles 11 and 13 are in their current form, or with the proposed revisions from the trilogues, have a look at the proposals from the Don't Wreck the Net coalition, which combines civil society groups and a variety of small and large platforms from the US and the EU, who have produced their own list of the defects in the directive that have to be corrected before anyone can figure out what they mean and even try to obey them. Here are a few:

  • Make it explicit that existing liability protections, such as those in the E-Commerce Directive, remain in place even under Article 13.
  • Clearly define what is meant by “appropriate and proportionate,” as it provides absolutely no guidance to service providers and is left wide open for litigation and abuse.
  • Clarify which “service providers” Article 13 applies to in much more detail. This includes a clear definition of “public access to large amounts of works.” What is “large”?
  • There should be clear and significant penalties for providing false reports of infringement.
  • Copyright holders should be required to help platforms identify specific cases of infringement to be addressed, rather than requiring service providers to police every corner of their services.
  • There need to be clear exceptions for sites that make a good faith effort to comply, but that inadvertently allow some infringement to slip through on their platforms.
  • There should be required transparency reports on how Article 13 is being used, including reports on abusive claims of infringement.

We're disappointed to see how little progress the trilogues have made in the months since they disappeared behind their closed doors. The proponents of Articles 11 and 13 have had years to do their homework and draft fit-for-purpose rules that can be parsed by governments, companies, and users, but instead they've smuggled a hastily drafted, nebulous pair of dangerous proposals into a law that will profoundly affect the digital lives of more than 500 million Europeans. The lack of progress since suggests that the forces pushing for Articles 11 and 13 have no idea how to fix the unfixable, and are prepared to simply foist them on the EU, warts and all.

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19 days ago
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Technology preview: Sealed sender for Signal

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In addition to the end-to-end encryption that protects every Signal message, the Signal service is designed to minimize the data that is retained about Signal users. By design, it does not store a record of your contacts, social graph, conversation list, location, user avatar, user profile name, group memberships, group titles, or group avatars.

We have been exploring techniques to further reduce the amount of information that is accessible to the service, and the latest beta release includes changes designed to move Signal incrementally closer to the goal of hiding another piece of metadata: who is messaging whom.


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46 days ago
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47 days ago
cool stuff for neeeerds
New York
46 days ago
I just got the beta. Now I just need one of my contacts to get it :)

The Second Future of A.I. Retreat

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Kirsten and I spent the week between the 17th and the 21st of September with 18 other utterly amazing people having Chatham House Rule-governed conversations about the Future of Artificial Intelligence.

We were in Norway, in the Juvet Landscape Hotel, which is where they filmed a lot of the movie Ex Machina, and it is even more gorgeous in person. None of the rooms shown in the film share a single building space. It’s astounding as a place of both striking architectural sensibility and also natural integration as they built every structure in the winter to allow the dormancy cycles of the plants and animals to dictate when and where they could build, rather than cutting anything down.

And on our first full day here, Two Ravens flew directly over my and Kirsten’s heads.


[Image of a rainbow rising over a bend in a river across a patchy overcast sky, with the river going between two outcropping boulders, trees in the foreground and on either bank and stretching off into the distance, and absolutely enormous mountains in the background]

I am extraordinarily grateful to Andy Budd and the other members of the Clear Left team for organizing this, and to Cennydd Bowles for opening the space for me to be able to attend, and being so forcefully enthused about the prospect of my attending that he came to me with a full set of strategies in hand to get me to this place. That kind of having someone in your corner means the world for a whole host of personal reasons, but also more general psychological and socially important ones, as well.

I am a fortunate person. I am a person who has friends and resources and a bloody-minded stubbornness that means that when I determine to do something, it will more likely than not get fucking done, for good or ill.

I am a person who has been given opportunities to be in places many people will never get to see, and have conversations with people who are often considered legends in their fields, and start projects that could very well alter the shape of the world on a massive scale.

Yeah, that’s a bit of a grandiose statement, but you’re here reading this, and so you know where I’ve been and what I’ve done.

I am a person who tries to pay forward what I have been given and to create as many spaces for people to have the opportunities that I have been able to have.

I am not a monetarily wealthy person, measured against my society, but my wealth and fortune are things that strike me still and make me take stock of it all and what it can mean and do, all over again, at least once a week, if not once a day, as I sit in tension with who I am, how the world perceives me, and what amazing and ridiculous things I have had, been given, and created the space to do, because and in violent spite of it all.

So when I and others come together and say we’re going to have to talk about how intersectional oppression and the lived experiences of marginalized peoples affect, effect, and are affected and effected BY the wider techoscientific/sociotechnical/sociopolitical/socioeconomic world and what that means for how we design, build, train, rear, and regard machine minds, then we are going to have to talk about how intersectional oppression and the lived experiences of marginalized peoples affect, effect, and are affected and effected by the wider techoscientific/sociotechnical/sociopolitical/socioeconomic world and what that means for how we design, build, train, rear, and regard machine minds.

So let’s talk about what that means.

While working together to create this space, we had a lot of really good, important, and difficult but far too short conversations at various intersectionalities of race, neurodiversity, disability, gender, class, and AI. We talked about the ways in which these issues matter from the cultural grounding in which we ever try to have these conversations and build these systems, to the team members involved, to issues of consent and how these systems will express themselves, to how we’ll understand and watch or listen to or read the output of these systems and then seek to truly understand what’s been communicated to us. We brought in tools from many different disciplines and perspectives, from design to project management to philosophy to sociology to journalism to game design and fabrication to fiction writing to illustration and other visual art.

We talked pop culture and theory and abstracted notions of ethics, but we also did the difficult work of translating that theory into practical tools, all while challenging the idea that any simple checklist could be enough to get people through thorny social issues. We talked about cultivation of appreciation for the humanities within the STEM fields. We had the opportunity to sit and build thought maps, to talk practically about what it would take for the team leaders to be able to take these concerns and new modes of thinking back to their companies and teams and bosses and direct-reports and get them to put these things into practice right now. How we can build curricular for educating design teams and weaving knowledges together to teach new computer science and engineering students to think in a truly interdisciplinary way about the kinds of work they do and will do in the very near future.

If I had to put a fine point on it, my ultimate wish is that this could have been multiple weeks of these amazing people, all in context and conversation with each other’s continually deepening contexts and conversation, continuing to deepen each others’ contexts.

Yeah. Like that.

[Image of sticky it notes on a floor-to-ceiling glass windows through which are seen green hills, a river, boulders, a forest, and mountains. The Left column of sticky notes consists of “Neurodiversity + A.I.: Building nonstandard minds,” “Gender + AI,” and “AI + Consent;” this column is labeled “Fuzzy Difficult Stuff.”]

There is a thing that happens, and it is a thing that is, to some extent, unavoidable in contexts of self-selection, where time and access and opportunity are not equally distributed: Some of us were the only ones in the room.

Of the 20 of us in the room, 11 were men, and 9 were not—which, if you know anything about the social dynamics of technology, is a fucking astounding display of equality and representation—but issues of nonbinary gender presentation and acceptance, neurodivergence, and race (I was the only black person) were real. And that’s not to even mention that I don’t know how many people present specifically identified as disabled, because it never came up. That is, itself, a problem.

And so those of us who were the onlies in the room, in a genuine desire to engage and be present in these conversations have to continually codeswitch between a shared only-ness and a communication of what that means to the others in the group who have an appreciation for what that means, but not a direct lived experience of what it’s like.


But this retreat was comprised of a group of people who are all deeply invested in the idea of coming to understand what they don’t understand and then taking the knowledge of what they don’t know, going back out into the world with it, and providing space for the people who understand it and do know it to express their knowledge and be respected as valid sources and candidates of knowledge, believed in their knowledge, and then heeded when they make recommendations base upon their knowledge.

These are people who listened to each other through things that were, again, difficult and personal and intensely nuanced, and came through it not just pretending to have taken it in, but having actually taken it all in, gone back, thought about it more, turned, it around, come up with implementations and communications strategies, and then gone back to their interlocutors and said, “So based on what we talked about, before, what do you think of this?”

During the wrap-up session at the end of the retreat, the very first specific thing Andy asked us to reflect on (and which I tried to intensely and directly reinforce, after he asked it), was who wasn’t here. What voices and perspectives and lived experiences weren’t in the room? Who would benefit from being in a room like this? Who would does a room like this need? Who is not currently being regarded and heeded who absolutely should be?

Real communication toward trying to understand and implement new perspectives.

And all of this in the space of roughly four days of meals, workshops, hikes, and end-of-the-day conversational unwinding.

Rarely have I ever had such an easy time convincing people that we need a truly intersectional engagement of lived experience if we’re going to try to build new kinds of minds, such that we were able to almost immediately move onto “And what does a genuine non-tokenistic engagement of that look like, in practice?”

At many points throughout the week, we talked about the social forces at play in how technological systems get conceived, built out, and then iterated, and we all understood how much of our problems with machine minds are going to be human problems. Problems of teaching and rearing and training. These were folx who easily recognized that understanding the alterity of other minds, now, in “nonstandard” humans or humans who have been Othered, and in nonhuman animals, is the only chance we’ll have to build the skills of looking for and thinking about minds in unexpected ways. In fact, we spent a great deal of time looking at the history of othering and the things it’s used to do and the things it does, itself, and how that plays out around the world, in different cultures.

[Image of the cluster labeled “Personhood,” consisting of questions about anthropomorphism, how to react to the mistreatment of nonhumans, what counts as a person and when, what counts as a mind or as “real” emotions, other examples of nonbiological minds down through history and across cultures. There are also other clusters of notes and questions about disobedience and values and what even constitutes a “Good” A.I.]

One of the more interesting things to experience was the process by which we as a group cultivated a real recognition of the fact that “Ethics” has become a convenient shorthand for “all of these entangled sociotechnical problems in the world of which we are all a part. Through various group exercises and unconference organizational practices, we had careful and intricate discussions about the ways morality and law and society and culture and technology and design all stand apart from, inform, intersect with, and co-create each other.

I am so very glad to have met all of these people, and they not only reinforce my knowledge that the weird interdisciplinary work so many of us are trying to do is worth doing, but they make me feel that there are people in the technosciences who very clearly understand that, and what to do that work with us.

And that is fucking invaluable.

Until Next Time.

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59 days ago
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