What if Snow Crash was actually a documentary?

The novel Snow Crash analogized human minds to computer operating systems and suggested that they could be just as susceptible to bad code, like a mind virus. There’s a lot to like about the idea, but the book takes it very literally and has people’s brains being wiped and taken over by a mere brief exposure to a potent meme…which is ridiculous, isn’t it?

Maybe it would take repeated exposures to do that.

We’re doing the experiment right now. Facebook has these “content moderators”, a job farmed out offsite to groups of people who are required to view hours of atrocious content on a tightly regimented schedule built on the call center model. They don’t get to escape. Someone posts a video of someone being murdered, or of a naked breast, and they have to watch it and make a call on whether it is acceptable or not, no breaks allowed. No, that’s not quite right: they get 9 minutes of “wellness” time — they have to clock in and clock out — in which they can go vomit in a trash can or weep. It sounds like a terrible job for $29,000/year. And it’s having lasting effects: PTSD and weird psychological shifts.

The moderators told me it’s a place where the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views. One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee, who told me he has mapped every escape route out of his house and sleeps with a gun at his side, said: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.”

Maybe Clockwork Orange was also a documentary.

It’s not all horrifying. Most of the work involves petty and mundane complaints from people who just don’t like what other people are saying, a domain where the principle of free speech applies. The company, other than the routine fact that it’s run by micromanaging assholes, is above average in how it treats its workers (which tells you what kinds of horrors are thriving under capitalism everywhere else, of course).

Everyone I meet at the site expresses great care for the employees, and appears to be doing their best for them, within the context of the system they have all been plugged into. Facebook takes pride in the fact that it pays contractors at least 20 percent above minimum wage at all of its content review sites, provides full healthcare benefits, and offers mental health resources that far exceed that of the larger call center industry.

And yet the more moderators I spoke with, the more I came to doubt the use of the call center model for content moderation. This model has long been standard across big tech companies — it’s also used by Twitter and Google, and therefore YouTube. Beyond cost savings, the benefit of outsourcing is that it allows tech companies to rapidly expand their services into new markets and languages. But it also entrusts essential questions of speech and safety to people who are paid as if they were handling customer service calls for Best Buy.

I think part of the problem is that we treat every incident as just another trivial conversational transaction, yet that is the least worrisome aspect of social media. There are obsessives who engage in constant harassment, and this approach just looks at it instance by instance, which means the obsessive simply has to escalate to try and get through. It ignores the possible of planned maliciousness, where organizations use the tools of propaganda and psychological manipulation to spread damaging ideas. You check one of their memes, they simply reroute around that one and try other probes with exactly the same intent. No one can stop and say, “Hey, this is coming from a bot farm, shut it down at the source” or “This guy is getting increasingly vicious toward this girl — kill his account, and make sure he doesn’t get another one”. It’s all about popping zits rather than treating the condition.

As long as Facebook and Twitter and Google persist on pretending this is a superficial symptom rather than a serious intrinsic problem with their model of “community”, this is a problem that will not go away.

We’re living in a cyberpunk world

I thought this story was remarkable. The Chinese military has been placing teeny-tiny chips in the microchips China makes for the whole world that provide a backdoor into all kinds of confidential information on servers. Big companies like Apple and Amazon figured this out, and rather than making it public, have been quietly blacklisting major suppliers. But weirdly, everyone is denying it.

But that’s just what U.S. investigators found: The chips had been inserted during the manufacturing process, two officials say, by operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army. In Supermicro, China’s spies appear to have found a perfect conduit for what U.S. officials now describe as the most significant supply chain attack known to have been carried out against American companies.

One official says investigators found that it eventually affected almost 30 companies, including a major bank, government contractors, and the world’s most valuable company, Apple Inc. Apple was an important Supermicro customer and had planned to order more than 30,000 of its servers in two years for a new global network of data centers. Three senior insiders at Apple say that in the summer of 2015, it, too, found malicious chips on Supermicro motherboards. Apple severed ties with Supermicro the following year, for what it described as unrelated reasons.

In emailed statements, Amazon (which announced its acquisition of Elemental in September 2015), Apple, and Supermicro disputed summaries of Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting. “It’s untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental,” Amazon wrote. “On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server,” Apple wrote. “We remain unaware of any such investigation,” wrote a spokesman for Supermicro, Perry Hayes. The Chinese government didn’t directly address questions about manipulation of Supermicro servers, issuing a statement that read, in part, “Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim.” The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.

But other sources say otherwise.

The companies’ denials are countered by six current and former senior national security officials, who—in conversations that began during the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration—detailed the discovery of the chips and the government’s investigation. One of those officials and two people inside AWS provided extensive information on how the attack played out at Elemental and Amazon; the official and one of the insiders also described Amazon’s cooperation with the government investigation. In addition to the three Apple insiders, four of the six U.S. officials confirmed that Apple was a victim. In all, 17 people confirmed the manipulation of Supermicro’s hardware and other elements of the attacks. The sources were granted anonymity because of the sensitive, and in some cases classified, nature of the information.

The devices targeted were circuit boards in servers that do ubiquitous stuff, like compressing video so you can Netflix & chill, or doing language processing so Siri can figure out what you’re saying around a mouthful of Doritos. It’s all around us, and we take it for granted.

One country in particular has an advantage executing this kind of attack: China, which by some estimates makes 75 percent of the world’s mobile phones and 90 percent of its PCs.

See? This is what you get when you want all the slick new gadgets but you’re only willing to pay starvation wages to Chinese peons to get it done — all the fundamental work flees expensive America to cheap Asia. If we’d actually supported a semi-conductor industry in this country, just think…it could have been American spies bugging everyone’s computer.

Must every rebellion evolve into an evil empire?

Jaron Lanier is an insightful weirdo, and he shares his ideas about what went wrong with the internet.

I think the fundamental mistake we made is that we set up the wrong financial incentives, and that’s caused us to turn into jerks and screw around with people too much. Way back in the ’80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd. But that’s the kind of absurdity that Silicon Valley culture has to grapple with.

And there’s only one way to merge the two things, which is what we call the advertising model, where everything’s free but you pay for it by selling ads. But then because the technology gets better and better, the computers get bigger and cheaper, there’s more and more data — what started out as advertising morphed into continuous behavior modification on a mass basis, with everyone under surveillance by their devices and receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. So you end up with this mass behavior-modification empire, which is straight out of Philip K. Dick, or from earlier generations, from 1984.

I do mostly agree, I say as I look at the godawful smear of obnoxious ads that are currently fueling this site, many of which are totally inappropriate to our mission. But I didn’t see much of that hippie socialism in action. People wanted things for free…for me. Outsmart the Man and get free phone service, or free cable TV, or a pile of documents that they don’t want us to have. It was more of a Repo Man sensibility.

Few of the early hackers had any kind of social consciousness. Steve Wozniak was as pure as they come — he just wanted to make elegant gadgets, and once he got rich, he gave free concerts and tried to inspire better education, but his faith was in technology for technology’s sake, and he got left behind in the mad scramble for money. Bill Gates was in it for the cash: has everyone forgotten his petulant temper tantrums when people gave away copies of Microsoft BASIC for free? Steve Jobs wasn’t shy about trampling over anyone who got in the way of his ambitions. These kinds of people were the foundations of modern Silicon Valley, the Silicon Valley that is now a haven for conservative vampires like Peter Thiel. And seriously, Zuckerberg? You think there was ever a speck of human feeling in that android? It was never built on altruism. It was never about sharing the benefits and power of technology with the world.

Everyone tends to romanticize the early days and wonder how we got into this miserable situation now. I agree with Lanier that it certainly is a miserable situation…but think we also tend to see the 1970s and 1980s in a false light. Those dang mirrorshades put a rosy pink glow on the world.

As Lanier points out, it’s all about the concentration of power, and power corrupts.

But then there’s this other thing about the centralization of economic power. What happened with Maoists and with communists in general, and neo-Marxists and all kinds of similar movements, is that on the surface, you say everybody shares, everybody’s equal, we’re not gonna have this capitalist concentration. But then there’s some other entity that might not look like traditional capitalism, but is effectively some kind of robber baron that actually owns everything, some kind of Communist Party actually controls everything, and you have just a very small number of individuals who become hyperempowered and everybody else loses power.

And exactly the same thing has happened with the supposed openness of the internet, where you say, “Isn’t it wonderful, with Facebook and Twitter anybody can express themselves. Everybody’s an equal, everybody’s empowered.” But in fact, we’re in a period of time of extreme concentration of wealth and power, and it’s precisely around those who run the biggest computers. So the truth and the effect is just the opposite of what the rhetoric is and the immediate experience.

Twitter is kind of terrible. Why don’t you give it up for the New Year?

Some song lyrics are appropriate here.

This used to be a funhouse
But now it’s full of evil clowns
It’s time to start the countdown
I’m gonna burn it down down down
I’m gonna burn it down

–Pink

Twitter has been a dung heap for a long time — they’ve been notorious for ignoring harassment and treating some truly awful people with kid gloves, to the point where it was beginning to hurt their reputation and their bottom line. What to do, short of actually cleaning up the service? Announce that they’re finally going to ban some Nazis! And they did, and there was much happy PR.

The American Nazi Party’s account was suspended, as were the accounts belonging to Generation Identity, an extremist youth group, and Vanguard America, a white supremacist group that gained attention for its role in the white nationalist rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. (James Fields, who was charged with first-degree murder after driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters at that rally, killing one person and injuring several others, had attended it in affiliation with Vanguard America.)

Individuals removed as a result of the new policy include the neo-Nazi and leader of the National Socialist Movement Jeff Schoep, as well as Michael Hill, founder of the militant white supremacist group League of the South.

In an extremely significant move, Twitter also suspended two accounts belonging to Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, the leader and deputy leader of a right-wing British nationalist group called Britain First. Both Fransen and Golding were arrested last week over multiple charges concerning incitement of hate in Northern Ireland. But Fransen in particular is best known in the US for posting last month several extremely violent anti-Muslim propaganda videos, which were controversially retweeted by President Donald Trump.

Feels good, doesn’t it? Quite a few triumphant news articles popped up this week. How nice for Twitter. You know this was their goal, to pick off a few obvious targets, and then sit back and graciously accept the applause.

I’m glad the American Nazi Party’s official Twitter channel has been eradicated. But you know what hasn’t been removed? American Nazis. They’re all still there. What would have been interesting is if they used all the information they have on who was following the Nazi party, and used that to scan deeper. Some of their followers would have been critics investigating them, but others would have been people cheering them on. Can we get rid of them, too?

You know who is still on Twitter? Other racist organizations, like VDare. David Duke, Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, Gavin McInnes. Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson. You can also search for terms like “White genocide” and “cultural marxism” or various racial slurs and find plenty of small fry who aren’t dissuaded at all.

Donald Trump is still on Twitter. I’ll believe in their commitment to principle when they ban that hatemonger, but they won’t, since their only commitment is to dollars.

Just so you know, 31 December is #TwitterEvacuationDay, when many people are making the jump to alternative micro-blogging media, or just throwing up their hands in disgust and giving it all up. It’s the only way to make Twitter wake up, I think…or at the very least, to personally escape the toxic trap.

I’m recommending that everyone make the leap to Mastodon — or, I hope, that at least some of my friends get an account there. Really, it’s just like Twitter — the interface is exactly like Tweetdeck, if you’re familiar with that. The big difference is that, instead of one giant central server for everyone, it’s distributed among many smaller servers, or instances. You see all the activity on your instance (which is necessarily going to be smaller than what goes on on Twitter), but you can also see what your friends on other instances are doing, and you can also browse the contents of federated instances…that is, servers linked to yours.

It sounds more complicated than it is. Just think of your instance as your local neighborhood, but you can easily stay in touch with everyone you want in other neighborhoods.

Go read about Mastodon if you’re thinking about it. I’ve found it a most pleasant social experience. For one thing, the admins don’t allow Nazis to frolic about, and the fact that each instance administrator has a smaller group of people to manage means harassment gets noticed and slapped down hard.

If you’re curious about what kind of instances there are out there, there’s a page that lets you search for your options. For example, you can find an instance that flat out prohibits nudity or spoilers (you can get kicked out if you violate the rules), or one that says sure, you can post your naked re-enactment of the climactic scenes from The Last Jedi. Each instance may also have a general theme — there are SciFi servers, for example, so you can move into a place where your neighbors are more likely to talk about the latest SF novels.

And then you can just join Mastodon through the instance of your choice. It’s easy.

You can find me at @pzmyers@octodon.social. Send me a hello when you’ve signed up.

Steve Jobs is dead

I’m typing this on a Mac laptop. I heard about it while browsing the news on my iPad. I have an iPhone in my pocket. There’s an iPod in my bedroom that we use for alarm and music. I bought my first Mac in 1984; I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on an Apple II. Maybe you use a Windows machine, but face it: Microsoft has been chasing Apple’s interface design since the 1980s.

And now Steve Jobs has died.

We owe a lot to him. He’s the guy who shaped our virtual world.

(Also on FtB)

Someday, maybe social media will apply their rules consistently

Remember when Facebook started censoring the pages of breastfeeding women? They were removing photos that showed…nipple. It was a violation of the TOS! If they didn’t hold the line on nudity, they were on a slippery slope to open pornography. Think of the children! And most importantly, they were enforcing a consistent policy that simply banned all nudity without judgment about its purpose or context.

The situation has a apparently changed in 2011. Now there are crass Facebook pages filled with crude jokes about rape, and that’s all right despite the fact that they do plainly violate the TOS, that states “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” Is rape not hateful? Is it not threatening? Is it not violent?

Have no fear, Facebook has a rationalization. Rape is a joke.

Facebook’s initial response to the public outcry was to suggest that promoting violence against women was equivalent to telling a rude joke down the pub: “It is very important to point out that what one person finds offensive another can find entertaining” went the bizarre rape apologia. “Just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.”

Does breastfeeding a baby get you thrown out of a pub? Shouldn’t joking about rape be more likely to get you thrown out? (I know,it isn’t).

Personally, I don’t think Facebook should censor the rape pages: they’re awful and shameful, but it’s good to see that the hateful morons are out there so you can guard against them. I’d rather that social media were open and that they allowed all — they simply shouldn’t be in the business of monitoring user-created content.

But Facebook has gone the other way. They are regulating what people are allowed to say, and they are creating a culture in which a bare breast is obscene and disgusting, while violent sexual assault is considered amusing. It isn’t that they allow rape jokes, it’s that they’ve exposed themselves as two-faced and untrustworthy, and are actively promoting an environment in which men have carte blanche and women are targets, and had better like it.

(Also on FtB)

Now I’m a little embarrassed to own an iPhone

I was just reading this analysis of costs and profits of the iPhone, and it’s rather dismaying. It’s largely about how the costs are distributed: the iPhone is assembled in China, and contributes to our trade imbalance, but it’s not because China has a technological edge — all the components are made in Japan, Korea, Germany, and the US, and just shipped to China for the final assembly by the cheap labor there.

The total component cost of an iPhone in 2009 was $172.46. Workers in China assemble the iPhone, but because their wages are low the assembly cost per phone (labeled manufacturing costs in the table below) is quite small, only $6.50 a phone. The total production cost per phone is $178.96.

Apple has a 64% profit margin on the iPhone! That’s not a surprise, though — I’m used to tech companies charging a premium price for the fancy toys, and Apple has never had a reputation as a budget brand. This is what surprised me:

For the sake of discussion, they assumed that assembly line wages in the U.S. are ten times higher than in China. Given that Chinese production workers earn roughly $1 an hour, that is not an unreasonable assumption. The higher wages would mean that the total assembly cost per phone would rise to $65 and the total manufacturing cost would approach $238. If Apple continued to sell the iPhone for $500, the company would still earn a very respectable 50% profit margin.

There is admittedly a very large difference between 64% and 50%, and I can understand why a company would balk at cutting profits by 14%, and it would be an irrational business decision to shift assembly to the US for reasons of national altruism. But still…50% seems obscene enough.

I hope Apple is at least paying respectable taxes on that profit. The article doesn’t say; I don’t have expectations that they are.

(Also on FtB)