The toast bubble

To The Big Bang Theory (“The Russian Rocket Reaction”, S5e05):

Howard: Someone has to go up with the telescope as a payload specialist, and guess who that someone is!
Sheldon: Muhammed Li.
Howard: Who’s Muhammed Li?
Sheldon: Muhammed is the most common first name in the world, Li the most common surname, and as I didn’t know the answer I thought that gave me a mathematical edge.

Experts tell me that exchange doesn’t perfectly explain how generative AI works; it’s too simplistic. Generative AI – or a Sheldon made more nuanced by his writers – takes into account contextual information to calculate the probable next word. So it wouldn’t pick from all the first names and surnames in the world. It might, however, pick from the names of all the payload specialists or some other group it correlated, or confect one.

More than a year on, I still can’t find a use for generative “AI” that is so unreliable and inscrutable. At Exponential View, Azeem Azhar has written about the “answer engine” Perplexity.ai. While it’s helpful that Perplexity provides references for its answers, it was producing misinformation by the third question I asked it, and offered no improvement when challenged. Wikipedia spent many years being accused of unreliability, too, but at least there you can read the talk page and understand how the editors arrived at the text they present.

On The Daily Show this week, Jon Stewart ranted about AI and interviewed FTC chair Lina Khan. Well-chosen video clips showed AI company heads’ true colors, telling the public AI is an assistant for humans while telling money people and each other that AI will enable greater productivity with fewer workers and help eliminate “the people tax”.

More interesting, however, was Khan’s note that the FTC is investigating the investments and partnerships in AI to understand if they’re giving current technology giants undue influence in the marketplace. If, in her example, all the competitors in a market outsource their pricing decisions to the same algorithm they may be guilty of price fixing even if they’re not actively colluding. And these markets are consolidating at an ever-earlier stage. Snapchat and WhatsApp had millions of users by the time Facebook thought it prudent to buy them rather than let them become dangerous competitors. AI is pre-consolidating: the usual suspects have been buying up AI startups and models at pace.

“More profound than fire or electricity,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai tells a camera at one point, speaking about AI. The last time I heard this level of hyperbole it was about the Internet in the 1990s, shortly before the bust. A friend’s answer to this sort of thing has never varied: “I’d rather have indoor plumbing.”

***

Last week the Federal District Court in Manhattan sentenced FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried to 25 years in prison for stealing $8 billion. In the end, you didn’t have to understand anything complicated about cryptocurrencies; it was just good old embezzlement.

And then the price of bitcoin went *up*. At the Guardian, Molly White explains that this is because cryptoevangelists are pushing the idea that the sector can reach its full potential, now that Bankman-Fried and other bad apples have been purged. But, as she says, nothing has really changed. No new use case has come along to make cryptocurrencies more useful, more valuable, or more trustworthy.

Both cryptocurrencies and generative AI are bubbles. The difference is that the AI bubble will likely leave behind it some technologies and knowledge that are genuinely useful; it will be like the Internet, which boomed and busted before settling in to change the world. Cryptocurrencies are more like the Dutch tulips. Unfortunately, in the meantime both these bubbles are consuming energy at an insane rate. How many wildfires is bitcoin worth?

**

I’ve seen a report suggesting that the last known professional words of the late Ross Anderson may have been, “Do they take us for fools?”

He was referring to the plans, debated in the House of Commons on March 25, to amend the Investigatory Powers Act to allow the government to pre-approve (or disapprove) new security features technology firms want to intorduce. The government is of course saying it’s all perfectly innocent, intended to keep the country safe. But recent clashes in the decades-old conflict over strong encryption have seen the technology companies roll out features like end-to-end encryption (Meta) and decide not to implement others, like client-side scanning (Apple). The latest in a long line of UK governments that want access to encrypted text was hardly going to take that quietly. So here we are, debating this yet again. Yet the laws of mathematics still haven’t changed: there is no such thing as a security hole that only “good guys” can use.

***

Returning to AI, it appears that costs may lead Google to charge for access to its AI-enhanced search, as Alex Hern reports at the Guardian. Hern thinks this is good news for its AI-focused startup competitors, which already charge for top-tier tools and who are at risk of being undercut by Google. I think it’s good for users by making it easy to avoid the AI “enhancement”. Of course, DuckDuckGo already does this without all the tracking and monopoly mishegoss.

Illustrations: Jon Stewart uninspired by Mark Zuckerberg’s demonstration of AI making toast.

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.

Competitive instincts

This week – Wednesday, March 6 – saw the EU’s Digital Markets Act come into force. As The Verge reminds us, the law is intended to give users more choice and control by forcing technology’s six biggest “gatekeepers” to embrace interoperability and avoid preferencing their own offerings across 22 specified services. The six: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, ByteDance, Meta, and Microsoft. Alphabet’s covered list is the longest: advertising, app store, search engine, maps, and shopping, plus Android, Chrome, and YouTube. For Apple, it’s the app store, operating system, and web browser. Meta’s list includes Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, plus Messenger, Ads, and Facebook Marketplace. Amazon: third-party marketplace and advertising business. Microsoft: Windows and internal features. ByteDance just has TikTok.

The point is to enable greater competition by making it easier for us to pick a different web browser, uninstall unwanted features (like Cortana), or refuse the collection and use of data to target us with personalized ads. Some companies are haggling. Meta, for example, is trying to get Messenger and Marketplace off the list, while Apple has managed to get iMessage removed from the list. More notably, though, the changes Apple is making to support third-party app stores have been widely cricitized as undermining any hope of success for independents.

Americans visiting Europe are routinely astonished at the number of cookie consent banners that pop up as they browse the web. Comments on Mastodon this week have reminded that this was their churlish choice to implement the 2009 Cookie Directive and 2018 General Data Protection Regulation in user-hostile ways. It remains to be seen how grown-up the technology companies will be in this new round of legal constraints. Punishing users won’t get the EU law changed.

***

The last couple of weeks have seen a few significant outages among Internet services. Two weeks ago, AT&T’s wireless service went down for many hours across the US after a failed software update. On Tuesday, while millions of Americans were voting in the presidential primaries, it was Meta’s turn, when a “technical issue” took out both Facebook and Instagram (and with the latter, Threads) for a couple of hours. Concurrently but separately, users of Ad Manager had trouble logging in at Google, and users of Microsoft Teams and exTwitter also reported some problems. Ironically, Meta’s outage could have been fixed faster if the engineers trying to fix it hadn’t had trouble gaining remote access to the servers they needed to fix (and couldn’t gain access to the physical building because their passes didn’t work either).

Outages like these should serve as reminders not to put all your login eggs in one virtual container. If you use Facebook to log into other sites, besides the visibility you’re giving Meta into your activities elsewhere, those sites will be inaccessible any time Facebook goes down. In the case of AT&T, one reason this outage was so disturbing – the FTC is formally investigating it – is that the company has applied to get rid of its landlines in California. While lots of people no longer have landlines, they’re important in rural areas where cell service can be spotty, some services such as home alarm systems and other equipment depend on them, and they function in emergencies when electric power fails.

But they should also remind that the infrastructure we’re deprecating in favor of “modern” Internet stuff was more robust than the new systems we’re increasingly relying on. A home with smart devices that cannot function without an uninterrupted Internet connection is far more fragile and has more points of failure than one without them, just as you can read a paper map when your phone is dead. At The Verge, Jennifer Pattison Tuohy tests a bunch of smart kitchen appliances including a faucet you can operate via Alexa or Google voice assistants. As in digital microwave ovens, telling the faucet the exact temperature and flow rate you want…seems unnecessarily detailed. “Connect with your water like never before,” the faucet manufacturer’s website says. Given the direction of travel of many companies today, I don’t want new points of failure between me and water.

***

It has – already! – been three years since Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code led to Facebook and Google signing three-year deals that have primarily benefited Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, owner of most of Australia’s press. A week ago, Meta announced it will not renew the agreement. At The Conversation, Rod Sims, who chaired the commission that formulated the law, argues it’s time to force Meta into the arbitration the code created. At ABC Science, however, James Purtill counters that the often “toxic” relationship between Facebook and news publishers means that forcing the issue won’t solve the core problem of how to pay for news, since advertising has found elsewheres it would rather be. (Separately, in Europe, 32 media organizations covering 17 countries have filed a €2.1 billion lawsuit against Google, matching a similar one filed last year in the UK, alleging that the company abused its dominant position to deprive them of advertising revenue.)

Purtill predicts, I think correctly, that attempting to force Meta to pay up will instead bring Facebook to ban news, as in Canada, following the passage of a similar law. Facebook needed news once; it doesn’t now. But societies do. Suddenly, I’m glad to pay the BBC’s license fee.

Illustrations: Red deer (via Wikimedia.)

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

Property is theft

If you were to judge just by behavior, you would have to conclude that the entertainment industry’s rights holders are desperate to promote piracy.

The latest instance is that Sony has warned American Playstation owners that shows they purchased – *bought* – from Discovery will, now that Discovery has merged with Warner Brothers, be removed from their video libraries. This isn’t like Netflix losing the license to stream your current favorite show halfway through season 2, which you can maybe fix by joining whichever streaming service the show is now on (assuming there is one). No, this is you (thought you) bought and they took it away.

In other words, the entertainment industry has taken the old anarchist slogan property is theft and turned it into a business model.

This isn’t a one-time occurrence. As Timothy Geigner writes at TechDirt, in 2022 customers in Germany and Austria lost access to hundreds of movies when a deal between Sony and film distributor Studio Canal expired. As in the Warner Brothers/Discovery case, it’s not just that the movies were removed from the list available for purchase; the long, remote arm of Sony reached into individual Playstations and removed them from there, too.

If Warner Brothers sent a minion to come into my house, take a DVD from a shelf, and take it away, that would clearly be theft, even if I had given the company a key so it could come in and update my Blu-Ray player. Why is it different if it’s a digital file held on an electronic device?

This is the kind of question I used to get asked back when these copyright battles were new. “You’re a freelance writer,” said the first person I interviewed on this sort of subject, back in 1991; he was the new head of the Federation Against Software Theft. “You make your living from copyright. Why aren’t you against piracy?” (Or something close to that.)

At the time the big battle in freelance journalism was that publishers were pushing toward all-rights contracts that would let them use whatever we wrote forever without further payment. Freelances were trying to hang onto the old arrangement, under which the publisher just got the right to run the piece once (and *first*), and then the freelance could go on and resell the piece in whole or in part to others and in other markets. Columnists made money by compiling their pieces into books. Magazine writers made money by reselling to other countries or selling reworked versions to specialist publications.

By 1995 you couldn’t really make money that way any more. Today, younger freelances have little idea it was ever possible. This, again, is the future the recent SAG-AFTRA strikes were trying to avoid. The shift is more simply described like this: the old way was pay per use; the new way the studios want is pay once, use forever. This struggle is endemic to every industry, as SAG head Fran Drescher pointed out.

The exact opposite is what’s happening to consumer access. In the old way, because buying physical media conferred ownership of the media (and the fact that the content was only ever licensed was largely moot), consumers bought once and used as much as they wanted until the disc or tape wore out. Even if streaming doesn’t quite open the way for paying for every use (though I bet that’s the hope), it does grant remote control to anyone who has access to the device – even if you thought you only granted permission to put stuff there, not remove it.

If I remember correctly, the first time people realized this kind of power existed was in 2009, when Amazon deleted (irony of ironies) copies of George Orwell’s novel 1984 from thousands of Kindles because the third-party company selling the ebook did not in fact have the rights to it. In this particular case, Amazon did refund the money people had paid. Since then, there’s been a steady trickle of cases where ultimate control of the device stays with its maker and doesn’t transfer to the person who paid to buy it.

You might think that the solution is to go on (or back to) buying the entertainment you love on physical media…but that option is also under threat. Disney announced in July that it would stop selling DVDs and Blu-Ray discs in Australia. In the US, Best buy is about to stop carrying them. Add in the recent trend for deleting even successful shows for tax reasons and the unpredictability of which streaming service might have the thing you’re looking for, and you have an extremely consumer-hostile industry.

For consumers, the perfect service looks something like this: the library is, if not complete, *very* extensive, all indexed in one place, and easily searchable using a simple but effective interface. Downloads are quick and give you a file you can move around, replay, or copy to friends at will. There are no ads. It will play on any device that can play video. Repeated viewings don’t require an Internet connection. *That* is what piracy offers. It’s not that it’s free. It’s that it gives people what they want. And the worse commercial services become, the better piracy looks. If only it paid the artists…

Illustrations: Opera Australia performing The Pirates of Penzance in 2007 (via Wikimedia).

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

Review: The Gutenberg Parenthesis

The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The Age of Print and Its Lessons for the Age of the Internet
By Jeff Jarvis
Bloomsbury Academic
ISBN: 978-1-5013-9482-9

There’s a great quote I can’t trace in which a source singer from whom Sir Walter Scott collected folk songs told him he’d killed their songs by printing them. Printing had, that is, removed the song from the oral culture of repeated transmission, often with alterations, from singer to singer. Like pinning down a butterfly.

In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, Jeff Jarvis argues that modern digital culture offers the chance of a return to the collaborative culture that dominated most of human history. Jarvis is not the first to suggest that our legacy media are an anomaly. In his 2013 book Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage calls out the last 150 years of corporate-owned for-profit media as an anomaly in the 2,000-year sweep of social media. In his analogy, the earliest form was “Roman broadband” (slaves) carrying messages back and forth. Standage finds other historical social media analogues in the coffeehouses that hatched the scientific revolution. Machines, both print and broadcast, made us consumers instead of participants. In Jarvis’s account, printing made institutions and nation-states, the same ones that now are failing to control the new paradigm.

The “Gutenberg parenthesis” of Jarvis’s title was coined by Lars Ore Sauerberg, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark, who argues (in, for example, a 2009 paper for the journal Orbis Literarum) that the arrival of the printing press changed the nature of cognition. Jarvis takes this idea and runs with it: if we are, as he believes, now somewhere in a decades- or perhaps centuries-long process of closing the parenthesis – that is, exiting the era of print bracketed by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the arrival of digital media – what comes next?

To answer this question, Jarvis begins by examining the transition *into* the era of printing. The invention of movable type and printing presses by themselves brought a step down in price and a step up in scale – what had once been single copies available only to people rich enough to pay a scribe suddenly became hundreds of copies that were still expensive. It took two centuries to arrive at the beginnings of copyright law, and then the industrial revolution to bring printing and corporate ownership at today’s scale.

Jarvis goes on to review the last two centuries of increasingly centralized and commercialized publishing. The institutions print brought provided authority that enabled them to counter misinformation effectively. In our new world, where these institutions are being challenged, many more voices can be heard – good, for obvious reasons of social justice and fairness, but unfortunate in terms of the spread of misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation. Jarvis believes we need to build new institutions that can enable the former and inhibit the latter. Exactly what those will look like is left as an exercise for the reader in the times to come. Could Gutenberg have predicted Entertainment Weekly?

Power cuts

In the latest example of corporate destruction, the Guardian reports on the disturbing trend in which streaming services like Disney and Warner Bros Discovery are deleting finished, even popular, shows for financial reasons. It’s like Douglas Adams’ rock star Hotblack Desiato spending a year dead for tax reasons.

Given that consumers’ budgets are stretched so thin that many are reevaluating the streaming services they’re paying for, you would think this would be the worst possible time to delete popular entertainments. Instead, the industry seems to be possessed by a death wish in which it’s making its offerings *less* attractive. Even worse, the promise they appeared to offer to showrunners was creative freedom and broad and permanent access to their work. The news that Disney+ is even canceling finished shows (Nautilus) shortly before their scheduled release in order to pay less *tax* should send a chill through every creator’s spine. No one wants to spend years of their life – for almost *any* amount of money – making things that wind up in the corporate equivalent of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s time, as the Masked Scheduler suggested recently on Mastodon, for the emergence of modern equivalents of creator-founded studios United Artists and Desilu.

***

Many of us were skeptical about Meta’s Oversight Board; it was easy to predict that Facebook would use it to avoid dealing with the PR fallout from controversial cases, but never relinquish control. And so it is proving.

This week, Meta overruled the Board‘s recommendation of a six-month suspension of the Facebook account belonging to former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. At issue was a video of one of Sen’s speeches, which everyone agreed incited violence against his opposition. Meta has kept the video up on the grounds of “newsworthiness”; Meta also declined to follow the Board’s recommendation to clarify its rules for public figures in “contexts in which citizens are under continuing threat of retaliatory violence from their governments”.

In the Platformer newsletter Casey Newton argues that the Board’s deliberative process is too slow to matter – it took eight months to decide this case, too late to save the election at stake or deter the political violence that has followed. Newton also concludes from the list of decisions that the Board is only “nibbling round the edges” of Meta’s policies.

A company with shareholders, a business model, and a king is never going to let an independent group make decisions that will profoundly shape its future. From Kate Klonick’s examination, we know the Board members are serious people prepared to think deeply about content moderation and its discontents. But they were always in a losing position. Now, even they must know that.

***

It should go without saying that anything that requires an Internet connection should be designed for connection failures, especially when the connected devices are required to operate the physical world. The downside was made clear by the 2017 incident, when lost signal meant a Tesla-owning venture capitalist couldn’t restart his car. Or the one in 2021, when a bunch of Tesla owners found their phone app couldn’t unlock their car doors. Tesla’s solution both times was to tell car owners to make sure they always had their physical car keys. Which, fine, but then why have an app at all?

Last week, Bambu 3D printers began printing unexpectedly when they got disconnected from the cloud. The software managing the queue of printer jobs lost the ability to monitor them, causing some to be restarted multiple times. Given the heat and extruded material 3D printers generate, this is dangerous for both themselves and their surroundings.

At TechRadar, Bambu’s PR acknowledges this: “It is difficult to have a cloud service 100% reliable all the time, but we should at least have designed the system more carefully to avoid such embarrassing consequences.” As TechRadar notes, if only embarrassment were the worst risk.

So, new rule: before installation test every new “smart” device by blocking its Internet connection to see how it behaves. Of course, companies should do this themselves, but as we/’ve seen, you can’t rely on that either.

***

Finally, in “be careful what you legislate for”, Canada is discovering the downside of C-18, which became law in June. and requires the biggest platforms to pay for the Canadian news content they host. Google and Meta warned all along that they would stop hosting Canadian news rather than pay for it. Experts like law professor Michael Geist predicted that the bill would merely serve to dramatically cut traffic to news sites.

On August 1, Meta began adding blocks for news links on Facebook and Instagram. A coalition of Canadian news outlets quickly asked the Competition Bureau to mount an inquiry into Meta’s actions. At TechDirt Mike Masnick notes the irony: first legacy media said Meta’s linking to news was anticompetitive; now they say not linking is anticompetitive.

However, there are worse consequences. Prime minister Justin Trudeau complains that Meta’s news block is endangering Canadians, who can’t access or share local up-to-date information about the ongoing wildfires.

In a sensible world, people wouldn’t rely on Facebook for their news, politicians would write legislation with greater understanding, and companies like Meta would wield their power responsibly. In *this* world, a we have a perfect storm.

Illustrations:XKCD’s Dependency.

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 Wendy M. GrossmanPosted on Categories Infrastructure, Intellectual Property, Law, Media, Net lifeTags , , Leave a comment on Power cuts

Five seconds

Careful observers posted to Hacker News this week – and the Washington Post reported – that the X formerly known as Twitter (XFKAT?) appeared to be deliberately introducing a delay in loading links to sites the owner is known to dislike or views as competitors. These would be things like the New York Times and selected other news organizations, and rival social media and publishing services like Facebook, Instagram, Bluesky, and Substack.

The 4.8 seconds users clocked doesn’t sound like much until you remember, as the Post does, that a 2016 Google study found that 53% of mobile users will abandon a website that takes longer than three seconds to load. Not sure whether desktop users are more or less patient, but it’s generally agreed that delay is the enemy.

The mechanism by which XFKAT was able to do this is its built-in link shortener, t.co, through which it routes all the links users post. You can see this for yourself if you right-click on a posted link and copy the results. You can only find the original link by letting the t.co links resolve and copying the real link out of the browser address bar after the page has loaded.

Whether or not the company was deliberately delaying these connections, the fact is that it *can* – as can Meta’s platforms and many others. This in itself is a problem; essentially it’s a failure of network neutrality. This is the principle that a telecoms company should treat all traffic equally, and it is the basis of the egalitarian nature of the Internet. Regulatory insistence on network neutrality is why you can run a voice over Internet Protocol connection over broadband supplied by a telco or telco-owned ISP even though the services are competitors. Social media platforms are not subject to these rules, but the delaying links story suggests maybe they should be once they reach a certain size.

Link shorteners have faded into the landscape these days, but they were controversial for years after the first such service – TinyURL – was launched in 2002 (per Wikipedia). Critics cited several main issues: privacy, persistence, and obscurity. The latter refers to users’ inability to know where their clicks are taking them; I feel strongly about this myself. The privacy issue is that the link shorteners-in-the-middle are in a position to collect traffic data and exploit it (bad actors could also divert links from their intended destination). The ability to collect that data and chart “impact” is, of course, one reason shorteners were widely adopted by media sites of all types. The persistence issue is that intermediating links in this way creates one or more central points of failure. When the link shortener’s server goes down for any reason – failed Internet connection, technical fault, bankrupt owner company – the URL the shortener encodes becomes unreachable, even if the page itself is available as normal. You can’t go directly to the page, or even located a cached copy at the Internet Archive, without the original URL.

Nonetheless, shortened links are still widely used, for the same reasons why they were invented. Many URLs are very long and complicated. In print publications, they are visually overwhelming, and unwieldy to copy into a web address bar; they are near-impossible to proofread in footnotes and citations. They’re even worse to read out on broadcast media. Shortened links solve all that. No longer germane is the 140-character limit Twitter had in its early years; because the URL counted toward that maximum, short was crucial. Since then, the character count has gotten bigger, and URLs aren’t included in the count any more.

If you do online research of any kind you have probably long since internalized the routine of loading the linked content and saving the actual URL rather than the shortened version. This turns out to be one of the benefits of moving to Mastodon: the link you get is the link you see.

So to network neutrality. Logically, its equivalent for social media services ought to include the principle that users can post whatever content or links they choose (law and regulation permitting), whether that’s reposted TikTok videos, a list of my IDs on other systems, or a link to a blog advocating that all social media companies be forced to become public utilities. Most have in fact operated that way until now, infected just enough with the early Internet ethos of openness. Changing that unwritten social contract is very bad news even though no one believed XFKAT’s CEO when he insisted he was a champion of free speech and called the now-his site the “town square”.

If that’s what we want social media platforms to be, someone’s going to have to force them, especially if they begin shrinking and their owners start to feel the chill wind of an existential threat. You could even – though no one is, to the best of my knowledge – make the argument that swapping in a site-created shortened URL is a violation of the spirit of data protection legislation. After all, no one posts links on a social media site with the view that their tastes in content should be collected, analyzed, and used to target ads. Librarians have long been stalwarts in resisting pressure to disclose what their patrons read and access. In the move online in general, and to corporate social media in particular, we have utterly lost sight of the principle of the right to our own thoughts.

Illustrations: The New York City public library in 2006..

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 Wendy M. GrossmanPosted on Categories Media, Net life, UncategorizedTags , Leave a comment on Five seconds

Watching YouTube

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to figure out what to do about misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation online is the difficulty of pinpointing how online interaction translates to action in the real world. The worst content on social media has often come from traditional media or been posted by an elected politician.

At least, that’s how it seems to text-based people like me. This characteristic, along with the quick-hit compression of 140 (later 280) characters, was the (minority) appeal of Twitter. It’s also why legacy media pays so little attention to what’s going on in game worlds, struggle with TikTok, and underestimate the enormous influence of YouTube. The notable exception is the prolific Chris Stokel-Walker, who’s written books about both YouTube and TikTok.

Stokel-Walker has said he decided to write YouTubers because the media generally only notices YouTube when there’s a scandal. Touring those scandals occupies much of filmmaker Alex Winter‘s now-showing biography of the service, The YouTube Effect.

The film begins by interviewing co-founder Steve Chen, who giggles a little uncomfortably to admit that he and co-founders Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim thought it could be a video version of Hot or Not?. In 2006, Google bought the year-old site for $1.65 billion in Google stock, to derision from financial commentators certain it had overpaid.

Winter’s selection of clips from early YouTube reminds of early movies, which pulled people into theaters with little girls having a pillow fight. Winter moves on through pioneering stars like Smosh and K-Pop, 2010’s Arab spring, the arrival of advertising and monetization, the rise of alt-right channels, Gamergate, the 2016 US presidential election, the Christchurch shooting, the horrors lurking in YouTube Kids, George Floyd, the multimillion-dollar phenomenon of Ryan Kaji, January 6, the 2020 Congressional hearings. Somewhere in the middle is the arrival of the Algorithm that eliminated spontaneous discovery in favor of guided user experience, and a brief explanation of the role of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in protecting platforms from liability for third-party content.

These stories are told by still images and video clips interlaced with interviews with talking heads like Caleb Cain, who was led into right-wing extremism and found his way back out; Andy Parker, father of Alison Parker, footage of whose murder he has been unable to get expunged; successful YouTuber (“ContraPoints”) Natalie Wynn; technology writer and video game developer Brianna Wu; Jillian C. York, author of Silicon Values; litigator Carrie Goldberg, who works to remediate online harms one lawsuit at a time; Anthony Padilla, co-founder of Smosh; and YouTube then-CEO Susan Wojcicki.

Not included among the interviewees: political commentators (though we see short clips of Alex Jones) or free speech fundamentalists. In addition, Winter sticks to user-generated content, ignoring the large percentage of YouTube’s library that is copies of professional media, many otherwise unavailable. Countries outside the US are mentioned only by York, who studies censorship around the world. Also missing is anyone from Google who could explain how YouTube fits into its overall business model.

The movie concludes by asking commentators to recommend changes. Parker wants families of murder victims to be awarded co-copyright and therefore standing to get footage of victims’ deaths removed. Hany Farid, a UC Berkeley professor who studies deepfakes, thinks it’s essential to change the business model from paying with data and engagement to paying with money – that is, subscriptions. Goldberg is afraid we will all become captives of Big Tech. A speaker whose name is illegible in my notes mentions antitrust law. Cain notes that there’s nothing humans have built that we can’t destroy. Wojcicki says only that technology offers “a tremendous opportunity to do good in the long-term”. York notes the dual-use nature of these technologies; their effects are both good and bad, so what you change “depends what you’re looking for”.

Cain gets the last word. “What are we speeding towards?” he asks, as the movie’s accelerating crescendo of images and clips stops on a baby’s face.

Unlike predecessors Coded Bias (2021) and The Great Hack (2019), The YouTube Effect is unclear about what it intends us to understand about YouTube’s impact on the world beyond the sheer size of audience a creator can assemble via the platform. The array of scandals, all of them familiar from mainstream headlines, makes a persuasive case that YouTube deserves Facebook and Twitter-level scrutiny. What’s missing, however, is causality. In fact, the film is wrongly titled: there is no one YouTube effect. York had it right: “fixing” YouTube requires deciding what you’re trying to change. My own inclination is to force change to the business model. The algorithm distorts our interactions, but it’s driven by the business model.

Perhaps this was predictable. Seven years on, we still struggle to pinpoint exactly how social media affected the 2016 US presidential election or the UK’s EU referendum vote. Letting it ride is dangerous, but so is government regulation. Numerous governments are leaning toward the latter.

Even the experts assembled at last week’s Cambridge Disinformation Summit reached no consensus. Some saw disinformation as an existential threat; others argued that disinformation has always been with us and humanity finds a way to live through it. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect one filmmaker to solve a conundrum that is vexing so many. And yet it’s still disappointing not to have found greater clarity.

Illustrations: YouTube CEO (2014-2023) Susan Wojcicki (via The YouTube Effect).

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.

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.

The safe place

For a long time, fear that technical decisions – new domain names ($)(, cooption of open standards or software, laws mandating data localization – would splinter the Internet. “Balkanize” was heard a lot.

A panel at the UK Internet Governance Forum a couple of weeks ago focused on this exact topic, and was mostly self-congratulatory. Which is when it occurred to me that the Internet may not *be* fragmented, but it *feels* fragmented. Almost every day I encounter some site I can’t reach: email goes into someone’s spam folder, the site or its content is off-limits because it’s been geofenced to conform with copyright or data protection laws, or the site mysteriously doesn’t load, with no explanation. The most likely explanation for the latter is censorship built into the Internet feed by the ISP or the establishment whose connection I’m using, but they don’t actually *say* that.

The ongoing attrition at Twitter is exacerbating this feeling, as the users I’ve followed for years continue to migrate elsewhere. At the moment, it takes accounts on several other services to keep track of everyone: definite fragmentation.

Here in the UK, this sense of fragmentation may be about to get a lot worse, as the long-heralded Online Safety bill – written and expanded until it’s become a “Frankenstein bill”, as Mark Scott and Annabelle Dickson report at Politico – hurtles toward passage. This week saw fruitless debates on amendments in the House of Lords, and it will presumably be back in the Commons shortly thereafter, where it could be passed into law by this fall.

A number of companies have warned that the bill, particularly if it passes with its provisions undermining end-to-end encryption intact, will drive them out of the country. I’m not sure British politicians are taking them seriously; so often such threats are idle. But in this case, I think they’re real, not least because post-Brexit Britain carries so much less global and commercial weight, a reality some politicians are in denial about. WhatsApp, Signal, and Apple have all said openly that they will not compromise the privacy of their masses of users elsewhere to suit the UK. Wikipedia has warned that including it in the requirement to age-verify its users will force it to withdraw rather than violate its principles about collecting as little information about users as possible. The irony is that the UK government itself runs on WhatsApp.

Wikipedia, Ian McRae, the director of market intelligence for prospective online safety regulator Ofcom, showed in a presentation at UKIGF, would be just one of the estimated 150,000 sites within the scope of the bill. Ofcom is ramping up to deal with the workload, an effort the agency expects to cost £169 million between now and 2025.

In a legal opinion commissioned by the Open Rights Group, barristers at Matrix Chambers find that clause 9(2) of the bill is unlawful. This, as Thomas Macaulay explains at The Next Web, is the clause that requires platforms to proactively remove illegal or “harmful” user-generated content. In fact: prior restraint. As ORG goes on to say, there is no requirement to tell users why their content has been blocked.

Until now, the impact of most badly-formulated British legislative proposals has been sort of abstract. Data retention, for example: you know that pervasive mass surveillance is a bad thing, but most of us don’t really expect to feel the impact personally. This is different. Some of my non-UK friends will only use Signal to communicate, and I doubt a day goes by that I don’t look something up on Wikipedia. I could use a VPN for that, but if the only way to use Signal is to have a non-UK phone? I can feel those losses already.

And if people think they dislike those ubiquitous cookie banners and consent clickthroughs, wait until they have to age-verify all over the place. Worst case: this bill will be an act of self-harm that one day will be as inexplicable to future generations as Brexit.

The UK is not the only one pursuing this path. Age verification in particular is catching on. The US states of Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Montana, and Utah have all passed legislation requiring it; Pornhub now blocks users in Mississippi and Virginia. The likelihood is that many more countries will try to copy some or all of its provisions, just as Australia’s law requiring the big social media platforms to negotiate with news publishers is spawning copies in Canada and California.

This is where the real threat of the “splinternet” lies. Think of requiring 150,000 websites to implement age verification and proactively police content. Many of those sites, as the law firm Mischon de Reya writes may not even be based in the UK.

This means that any site located outside the UK – and perhaps even some that are based here – will be asking, “Is it worth it?” For a lot of them, it won’t be. Which means that however much the Internet retains its integrity, the British user experience will be the Internet as a sea of holes.

Illustrations: Drunk parrot in a Putney garden (by Simon Bisson; used by permission).

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.