Marginalia 3

more thoughts on surveillance capitalism.

5 September 2018

There's been a bit of a gap since my last Marginalia post. I've been pretty busy, and until last week hadn't really done much reading. However I'm making up for that now, with a target to read or delete a 'net'1 ten articles from my Pocket account every day for a month until I reach 'Pocket Zero'. I'm actually ahead at the moment, but the longer PDFs and videos are lurking so I'll probably slow down soon. Anyway, here's what I've been reading lately.

Something that seemed clever and exciting initially is Josh Bolick's Leveraging Elsevier’s Creative Commons License Requirement to Undermine Embargo. Unfortunately, on reflection, this is yet another example of academic librarians being forced to do completely unecessary labour to get around arbitrary restrictions to human progress put in place simply to enrich a small number of people at the expense of billions of others. Now that I'm closer to academic libraries I've realised just how bonkers the whole system is.

I missed Mike Jones' talk at VALA2018, but I finally read the blog post he wrote up. Mike packs in a lot of ideas here: about how information accretes like coral reefs more than it branches like a tree; about the laws of thermodynamics and the danger of entropy; and most passionately, about the need for memory institutions to take seriously both the requirement for maintenance and the need to provide space for staff to develop the new infrastructure that will replace the old.

Two articles - in the New Yorker and later on the ABC talk about the Australian Massacre Map developed by a team led by Professor Lyndall Ryan. The project is a cartographic expression of knowledge that has been known by many people - Aboriginal and Settler - since these events first took place.

The last few weeks in Australian politics have been a particularly dire clown show, so it was convenient that I'd just finished reading Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck persuasively argues that the way out of the malaise modern electoral democracies find themselves in is to ditch the 'electoral' part and (re)introduce sortition - as used in Ancient Greek democracies. The whole argument is more complex than that, so don't just rely on my summary: read the book! If you're feeling really radical, you might want to just get rid of the nation state altogether. The real takeaway from both of these works is that humans work better at human scale. We are not machines, our brains are not computers and when we build places for creative data processing they should be designed for people and not machines.

But what if we programmed machines to help us self-organise at human scale, without centralising power? Cory Doctorow writes about the urgent need to prevent Big Tech's walled gardens controlling all of our lives. It's not impossible - we already had it for years. Dan Cohen writes in praise of email - pointing out that although it is much maligned, email is a remarkably resiliant, free, open and useful technology. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Aral Balkan was urging us to reclaim RSS. I've written before about how much I like RSS, and the irony that Big Tech and its compliant media moutpieces have recently been talking loudly about the 'death' of RSS just as it quietly powers the explosion of podcasts. Rounding out our tour of open, flexible and independent web technologies is the story of the rise and rise of JSON on Two Bit History.

Doctorow's article touched a lot on user privacy, and on First Monday - one of my favourite journals - Clifford Lynch has written a very long article outlining the rise of reading analytics in both academic and mass-market publishing. Ironically, First Monday continues to frustrate me because they seem to be suffering from the entropy and lack of maintenance Mike Jones wrote about - the HTML markup is very difficult for Pocket to parse, and the entire site is still insecure https - including the user login page! Aussie infosec expert Troy Hunt would have a lot to say about that: he thinks that even static websites need https. On the other hand, Eric Meyer provides a thoughtul take on the downsides of securing the web for those with limited infrastructure and older technology. Reading beyond the headline, I see this as a strong argument for mainstreaming Service Workers as fast as possible.

Chris Bourg always has interesting things to say and her talk at the 2018 Creative Commons Global Summit was no exception. Bourg articulated what has gradually dawned on me too - that 'Open' can sometimes be dangerous. This is not to say that the Open movement of which Creative Commons is a part has failed or is a bad thing, simply that the world is complex. Bourg says:

"we have to acknowledge that realizing the potential of that unprecedented public good [of Creative Commons licenses] is a perpetually unfinished project."

Speaking of unfinished projects, though perhaps not unprecedented public good, Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel have some things to say about Elon Musk and 'trickle down science'. They're not flattering.

Ironically, I was reading these articles about web security and surveillance capitalism whilst travelling for work. Qantas offered free inflight wifi - but upon reading the Terms and Conditions I discovered that they require individually-identifiable registration and reserve the right to inject advertising into your web browser - essentially they 'man in the middle' passengers, and are extremely open about this. I declined to use their WiFi. Upon reaching my hotel, I discovered that 'wifi available' actually meant "wifi available at $11 for one hour or $25 for a day". You could almost 'rent' a PDF of a scientific article for that price...

It's not quite what Nick Heer is talking about in his excellent article, but one could easily call this, too, The Bullshit Web.


That is, ten more articles 'out' than I add - so if I add 2 I have to remove 12 the same day.