The good fight

This week saw a small gathering to celebrate the 25th anniversary (more or less) of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a think tank led by Cambridge and Edinburgh University professor Ross Anderson. FIPR’s main purpose is to produce tools and information that campaigners for digital rights can use. Obdisclosure: I am a member of its advisory council.

What, Anderson asked those assembled, should FIPR be thinking about for the next five years?

When my turn came, I said something about the burnout that comes to many campaigners after years of fighting the same fights. Digital rights organizations – Open Rights Group, EFF, Privacy International, to name three – find themselves trying to explain the same realities of math and technology decade after decade. Small wonder so many burn out eventually. The technology around the debates about copyright, encryption, and data protection has changed over the years, but in general the fundamental issues have not.

In part, this is because what people want from technology doesn’t change much. A tangential example of this presented itself this week, when I read the following in the New York Times, written by Peter C Baker about the “Beatles'” new mash-up recording:

“So while the current legacy-I.P. production boom is focused on fictional characters, there’s no reason to think it won’t, in the future, take the form of beloved real-life entertainers being endlessly re-presented to us with help from new tools. There has always been money in taking known cash cows — the Beatles prominent among them — and sprucing them up for new media or new sensibilities: new mixes, remasters, deluxe editions. But the story embedded in “Now and Then” isn’t “here’s a new way of hearing an existing Beatles recording” or “here’s something the Beatles made together that we’ve never heard before.” It is Lennon’s ideas from 45 years ago and Harrison’s from 30 and McCartney and Starr’s from the present, all welded together into an officially certified New Track from the Fab Four.”

I vividly remembered this particular vision of the future because just a few days earlier I’d had occasion to look it up – a March 1992 interview for Personal Computer World with the ILM animator Steve Williams, who the year before had led the team that produced the liquid metal man for the movie Terminator 2. Williams imagined CGI would become pervasive (as it has):

“…computer animation blends invisibly with live action to create an effect that has no counterpart in the real world. Williams sees a future in which directors can mix and match actors’ body parts at will. We could, he predicts, see footage of dead presidents giving speeches, films starring dead or retired actors, even wholly digital actors. The arguments recently seen over musicians who lip-synch to recordings during supposedly ‘live’ concerts are likely to be repeated over such movie effects.”

Williams’ latest work at the time was on Death Becomes Her. Among his calmer predictions was that as CGI became increasingly sophisticated the boundary between computer-generated characters and enhancements would become invisible. Thirty years on, the big excitement recently has been Harrison Ford’s deaging for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. That used CGI, AI, and other tools to digitally swap in his face from 1980s footage.

Side note: in talking about the Ford work to Wired, ILM supervisor Andrew Whitehurst, exactly like Williams in 1992, called the new technology “another pencil”.

Williams also predicted endless legal fights over copyright and other rights. That at least was spot-on; AI and the perpetual reuse of retained footage without further payment is part of what the recent SAG-AFTRA strikes were about.

Yet, the problem here isn’t really technology; it’s the incentives. The businessfolk of Hollywood’s eternal desire is to guarantee their return on investment, and they think recycling old successes is the safest way to do that. Closer to digital rights, law enforcement always wants greater access to private communications; the frustration is that incoming generations of politicians don’t understand the laws of mathematics any better than their predecessors in the 1990s.

Many of the speakers focused on the issue of getting government to listen to and understand the limits of technology. Increasingly, though, a new problem is that, as Bruce Schneier writes in his latest book, The Hacker’s Mind, everyone has learned to think like hackers and subvert the systems they’re supposed to protect. The Silicon Valley mantra of “ask forgiveness, not permission” has become pervasive, whether it’s a technology platform deciding to collect masses of data about us or a police force deciding to stick a live facial recognition pilot next to Oxford Circus tube station. Except no one asks for forgiveness either.

Five years ago, at FIPR’s 20th anniversary, when GDPR is new, Anderson predicted (correctly) that the battles over encryption would move to device access. Today, it’s less clear what’s next. Facial recognition represents a step change; it overrides consent and embeds distrust in our public infrastructure.

If I were to predict the battles of the next five years, I’d look at the technologies being deployed around European and US borders to surveil migrants. Migrants make easy targets for this type of experimentatioon because they can’t afford to protest and can’t vote. “Automated suspicion,” Euronews.next calls it. That habit of mind is danagerous.

Illustrations: The liquid metal man in Terminator 2 reconstituting itself.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

The one hundred

Among the highlights of this week’s hearings of the Covid Inquiry were comments made by Helen MacNamara, who was the deputy cabinet secretary during the relevant time, about the effect of the lack of diversity. The absence of women in the room, she said, led to a “lack of thought” about a range of issues, including dealing with childcare during lockdowns, the difficulties encountered by female medical staff in trying to find personal protective equipment that fit, and the danger lockdowns would inevitably pose when victims of domestic abuse were confined with their abusers. Also missing was anyone who could have identified issues for ethnic minorities, disabled people, and other communities. Even the necessity of continuing free school lunches was lost on the wealthy white men in charge, none of whom were ever poor enough to need them. Instead, MacNamara said, they spent “a disproportionate amount” of their time fretting about football, hunting, fishing, and shooting.

MacNamara’s revelations explain a lot. Of course a group with so little imagination about or insight into other people’s lives would leave huge, gaping holes. Arrogance would ensure they never saw those as failures.

I was listening to this while reading posts on Mastodon complaining that this week’s much-vaunted AI Safety Summit was filled with government representatives and techbros, but weak on human rights and civil society. I don’t see any privacy organizations on the guest list, for example, and only the largest technology platforms needed apply. Granted, the limit of 100 meant there wasn’t room for everyone. But these are all choices seemingly designed to make the summit look as important as possible.

From this distance, it’s hard to get excited about a bunch of bigwigs getting together to alarm us about a technology that, as even the UK government itself admits, may – even most likely – will never happen. In the event, they focused on a glut of disinformation and disruption to democratic polls. Lots of people are thinking about the first of these, and the second needs local solutions. Many technology and policy experts are advocating openness and transparency in AI regulation.

Me, I’d rather they’d given some thought to how to make “AI” (any definition) sustainable, given the massive resources today’s math-and-statistics systems demand. And I would strongly favor a joint resolution to stop using these systems for surveillance and eliminate predictive systems that pretend to be sble to spot potential criminals in advance or decide who are deserving of benefits, admission into retail stores, or parole. But this summit wasn’t about *us*.

***

A Mastodon post reminded me that November 2 – yesterday – was the 35th anniversary of the Morris Worm and therefore the 35th anniversary of the day I first heard of the Internet. Anniversaries don’t matter much, but any history of the Internet would include this now largely-fotgotten (or never-known) event.

Morris’s goals were pretty anodyne by today’s standards. He wanted, per Wikipedia, to highlight flaws in some computer systems. Instead, the worm replicated out of control and paralyzed parts of this obscure network that linked university and corporate research institutions, who now couldn’t work. It put the Internet on the front pages for the first time.

Morris became the first person to be convicted of a felony under the brand-new Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986); that didn’t stop him from becoming a tenured professor at MIT in 2006. The heroes of the day were the unsung people who worked hard to disable the worm and restore full functionality. But it’s the worm we remember.

It was another three years before I got online myself, in 1991, and two or three more years after that before I got direct Internet access via the now-defunct Demon Internet. Everyone has a different idea of when the Internet began, usually based on when they got online. For many of us, it was November 2, 1988, the day when the world learned how important this technology they had never heard of had already become.

***

This week also saw the first anniversary of Twitter’s takeover. Despite a variety of technical glitches and numerous user-hostile decisions, the site has not collapsed. Many people I used to follow are either gone or posting very little. Even though I’m not experiencing the increased abuse and disinformation I see widely reported, there’s diminishing reward for checking in.

There’s still little consensus on a replacement. About half of my Twitter list have settled in on Mastodon. Another third or so are populating Bluesky. I hear some are finding Threads useful, but until it has a desktop client I’m out (and maybe even then, given its ownership). A key issue, however, is that uncertainty about which site will survive (or “win”) leads many people to post the same thing on multiple services. But you don’t dare skip one just in case.

For both philosophical and practical reasons, I’m hoping more people will get comfortable on Mastodon. Any corporate-owned system will merely replicate the situation in which we become hostages to business interests who have as little interest in our welfare as Boris Johnson did according to MacNamara and other witnesses. Mastodon is not a safe harbor from horrible human behavior, but with no ads and no algorithm determining what you see, at least the system isn’t designed to profit from it.

Illustrations: Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara testifying at the Covid Inquiry.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

The two of us

The-other-Wendy-Grossman-who-is-a-journalist came to my attention in the 1990s by writing a story about something Internettish while a student at Duke University who had written a story about something Internettish. Eventually, I got email for her (which I duly forwarded) and, once, a transatlantic phone call from a very excited but misinformed PR person. She got married, changed her name, and faded out of my view.

By contrast, Naomi Klein‘s problem has only inflated over time. The “doppelganger” in her new book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, is “Other Naomi” – that is, the American author Naomi Wolf, whose career launched in 1990 with The Beauty Myth . “Other Naomi” has spiraled into conspiracy theories, anti-government paranoia, and wild unscientific theories. Klein is Canadian; her books include No Logo (1999) and The Shock Doctrine (2007). There is, as Klein acknowledges a lot of *seeming* overlap in that a keyword search might surface both.

I had them confused myself until Wolf’s 2019 appearance on BBC radio, when a historian dished out a live-on-air teardown of the basis of her latest book. This author’s nightmare is the inciting incident Klein believes turned Wolf from liberal feminist author into a right-wing media star. The publisher withdrew and pulped the book, and Wolf herself was globally mocked. What does a high-profile liberal who’s lost her platform do now?

When the covid pandemic came, Wolf embraced every available mad theory and her liberal past made her a darling of the extremist right wing media. Increasingly obsessed with following Wolf’s exploits, which often popped up in her online mentions, Klein discovered that social media algorithms were exacerbating the confusion. She began to silence herself, fearing that any response she made would increase the algorithms’ tendency to conflate Naomis. She also abandoned an article deploring Bill Gates’s stance protecting corporate patents instead of spreading vaccines as widely as possible (The Gates Foundation later changed its position.)

Klein tells this story honestly, admitting to becoming addictively obsessed, promising to stop, then “relapsing” the first time she was alone in her car.

The appearance of overlap through keyword similarities is not limited to the two Naomis, as Klein finds on further investigation. YouTube stars like Steve Bannon, who founded Breitbart and served as Donald Trump’s chief of strategist during his first months in the White House, wrote this playbook: seize on under-acknowledged legitimate grievances, turn them into right wing talking points, and recruit the previously-ignored victims as allies and supporters. The lab leak hypohesis, the advice being given by scientific authorities, why shopping malls were open when schools were closed, the profiteering (she correctly calls out the UK), the behavior of corporate pharma – all of these were and are valid topics for investigation, discussion, and debate. Their twisted adoption as right-wing causes made many on the side of public health harden their stance to avoid sounding like “one of them”. The result: words lost their meaning and their power.

These are problems no amount of content moderation or online safety can solve. And even if it could, is it right to ask underpaid workers in the what Klein terms the “Shadowlands” to clean up our society’s nasty side so we don’t have to see it?

Klein begins with a single doppelganger, then expands into psychology, movies, TV, and other fiction, and ends by navigating expanding circles; the extreme right-wing media’s “Mirror World” is our society’s Mr Hyde. As she warns, those who live in what a friend termed “my blue bubble” may never hear about the media and commentators she investigates. After Wolf’s disgrace on the BBC, she “disappeared”, in reality going on to develop a much bigger platform in the Mirror World. But “they” know and watch us, and use our blind spots to expand their reach and recruit new and unexpected sectors of the population. Klein writes that she encounters many people who’ve “lost” a family member to the Mirror World.

This was the ground explored in 2015 by the filmmaker Jen Senko, who found the smae thing when researching her documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad. Senko’s exploration leads from the 1960s John Birch Society through to Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes’s intentional formation of Fox News. Klein here is telling the next stage of that same story. Mirror World is not an accident of technology; it was a plan, then technology came along and helped build it further in new directions.

As Klein searches for an explanation for what she calls “diagnonalism” – the phenomenon that sees a former Obama voter now vote for Trump, or a former liberal feminist shrug at the Dobbs decision – she finds it possible to admire the Mirror World’s inhabitants for one characteristic: “they still believe in the idea of changing reality”.

This is the heart of much of the alienation I see in some friends: those who want structural change say today’s centrist left wing favors the status quo, while those who are more profoundly disaffected dismiss the Bidens and Clintons as almost as corrupt as Trump. The pandemic increased their discontent; it did not take long for early optimistic hopes of “build back better” to fade into “I want my normal”.

Klein ends with hope. As both the US and UK wind toward the next presidential/general election, it’s in scarce supply.

Illustrations: Charlie Chaplin as one of his doppelgangers in The Great Dictator (1940).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

The music and the myth

“Do you know anything about the festival, the culture, and movements of the times?” a teenaged friend asked as part of researching Woodstock for an essay.

The reality is that until a few years ago Woodstock only existed in my head because of the movie.

At the time, I was 15. I knew it was happening; I recall hearing on my parents’ car radio that the festival, 100 miles north, was being declared a disaster area.

“Can we go?” I remember inexplicably asking. My parents were immediately dismissive. Smart: we’d just have spent hours pointlessly stuck in traffic.

And that was it, until 1971 or thereabouts, when I saw the movie as a college student. And *that* was it until 2009, when the late, great film critic Roger Ebert picked it for Ebertfest to celebrate the 40th anniversary rerelease, with director Michael Wadleigh present to explain the manual labor required to carve the movie out of 120 miles of footage and invent its split screens and other effects, using razor blades and tape. Today, it would all be done on computers in a fraction of the time.

My Ebertfest account reminds me that faced with the studio’s intention to cut out half his movie despite his contractual “final cut”, Wadleigh stole the film (see also Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (1981)). He then got his agent to convince the studio that he would set fire to it and himself if they didn’t release it at the full length he intended. Thus was born America’s most successful documentary.

As you might expect, the artist I most remember is Joan Baez, who, surveying the 400,000-person throng while being told she’d close the night’s show, says, “Maybe there’ll be a few more people here by then. I don’t like a puny, little gathering like this.” Later, she brings the house down with just her voice on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (timecode 0:48).

Soon after that Ebertfest I discovered I knew people who’d gone. The 40th anniversary landed it on the front page of the New York Times. When a friend’s high school-aged kids noticed it, he casually dropped the bomb: “I was there.” Yes, kids, your father was cool, once.

“Was it anything like the movie?” I asked.

“It was more boring. The movie was highlights. You have to remember, it rained for three days and there was nothing to eat.”

In 2018, another friend and I went to see an exhibit of art from Burning Man in Washington, DC.

The art was awesome, but my friend began fretting about the impact on the desert lands where it’s held (also, Fern’s departure point in the movie Nomadland). I explained that the crew spend a post-event month meticulously restoring the desert to pristine condition.

She seemed relieved. “I was at Woodstock.” Decades on, she remained conscious and ashamed of the damage to the surrounding area and the harm done to the local farmers. Most people, she thought, had forgotten that.

It is, however, documented in the movie. Wadleigh and his 16-camera team (which included a young Martin Scorsese) gave over 40% of the finished movie to interviews with organizers, audience members, and local residents. Over the days, the locals’ attitudes noticeably shift from welcoming to frustrated as the festival bursts its banks and gives up trying to charge admission, and supplies run out.

My friend was right, though; most people remember just the music and the myth. Few notable musicians missed it: Bob Dylan, despite living nearby at the time; Joni Mitchell, who later wrote a song about it; The Beatles; The Rolling Stones. Not in the movie were musicians booked to appear on substages, as I learned when one of my favorite folksingers, the late Ed Trickett, explained in interviews in 2016 and 2017 that he was meant to accompany Rosalie Sorrels on a rained-out sub-stage intended to feature folk music. His experience was certainly different from those starving in the mud: helicoptered in from the performer hotel.

But, as Arlo Guthrie said at the time, that’s not what I came here to talk about.

It is even clearer in retrospect how much Woodstock was shaped by protest against the Vietnam war. The organizers’ repeated pride that 400,000 mostly young people could assemble for three days of “peace and music” is a direct oppositional response to the violence elsewhere. The hair lengths some local residents comment on were as much about visually rejecting the military as rebelling against the clean-cut, nicely-clothed corporate workers their middle class parents intended them to be. This is the serious underpinning that made Woodstock more than a music festival, and gave extra juice to that giant audience shouting “FUCK!” as Country Joe McDonald introduced the explicitly anti-war Fixin’-to-Die Rag. Ebertfest’s 2009 theaterful joined in lustily.

By 1995, when Ebert rereviewed the movie for its 25th anniversary (he revisited it yet again on its 35th anniversary in 2005) the movie’s creation of the festival’s mythic status had become clear. Without the movie, as Ebert said, the festival itself would be a mostly-forgotten “rock concert that produced some recordings”. No publicly celebrated 40th anniversary, and if my friend’s kids ever did hear their father had been there, they would have said, “So lame”.

The only way I can imagine a modern event of similar impact would be if it took place in Russia and the audience was filled with people opposing the war in Ukraine. They would need a characteristic I’m not sure exists in the world any more: a real belief that ending all war was possible.

Illustrations: Aerial shot of the festival from Woodstock.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Mastodon.

Book review: Beyond Measure

Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement
Author: James Vincent
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0-571-35421-4

In 2022, then-government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg proposed that Britain should return to imperial measurements – pounds, ounces, yay Brexit! This was a ship that had long since sailed; 40-something friends learned only the metric system at school. Even those old enough to remember imperial measures had little nostalgia for them.

As James Vincent explains in Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement, and as most of us assume instinctively, measuring physical objects began with comparisons to pieces of the human body: feet, hands, cubits (elbow to fingertip), fathoms (the span of outstretched arms). Other forms of measurement were functional, such as the Irish collop, the amount of land needed to graze one cow. Such imprecise measurements had their benefits, such as convenient availability and immediately understandable context-based value.

Quickly, though, the desire to trade led to the need for consistency, which in turn fed the emergence of centralized state power. The growth of science increased the pressure for more and more consistent and precise measurements – Vincent spends a chapter on the surprisingly difficult quest to pin down a number we now learn as children: the temperature at which water boils. Perversely, though, each new generation of more precise measurement reveals new errors that require even more precise measurement to correct.

The history of measurement is also the history of power. Surveying the land enabled governments to decide its ownership; the world-changing discovery of statistics and the understanding they brought of social trends, and the resulting empowerment of governments, which could afford to amass the biggest avalanches of numbers.

Perhaps the quirkiest and most unexpected material is Vincent’s chapter on Standard Reference Materials. At the US National Institute for Standards and Measurement, Vincent finds carefully studied jars of peanut butter and powdered radioactive human lung. These, it turns out, provide standards against which manufacturers can check their products.

Often, Vincent observes, changes in measurement systems accompany moments of social disruption. The metric system, for example, was born in France at the time of the revolution. Defining units of measurement in terms of official weights and measures made standards egalitarian rather than dependent on one man’s body parts. By 2018, when Vincent visits the official kilo weight and meter stick in Paris, however, even that seemed too elite. Today, both kilogram and meter are defined in terms of constants of nature – the meter, for example, is defined as the distance light travels in 1/299,792,458th of a second (itself now defined in terms of the decay of caesium-133). These are units that anyone with appropriate equipment can derive at any time without needing to check it against a single stick in a vault. Still elite, but a much larger elite.

But still French, which may form part of Rees-Mogg’s objection to it. And, possibly, as Vincent finds some US Republicans have complained, *communist* because of its global adoption. Nonetheless, and despite anti-metric sentiments expressed even by futurists like Stewart Brand, the US is still more metric than most people think. The road system’s miles and retail stores’ pounds and ounces are mostly a veneer; underneath, industry and science have voted for global compatibility – and the federal government has, since 1893, defined feet and inches by metric units.