The ultimate proof of Brechin’s thesis can be had in today’s Washington Post which describes the phenomenal, dazzling wealth in the City by the Bay, named after the humble Francis of Assisi. We see via this piece that the Great Queen of the Pacific Basin, the Colossus, home of “tech”, presses on to the profitable colonization of the globe and enslaves humanity to the production of valuable bits, for which no recompense is returned to the producers and deception reigns supreme.

The Bay Area is home to more billionaires per capita than anywhere on Earth, one out of every 11,600 residents, according to Vox. The entire region, as far as two hours away, has been affected by spiraling real estate prices. Venture capitalist John Doerr has claimed that the area’s economic growth is “the greatest legal accumulation of wealth in history.”

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But today’s Bay Area is much much more powerful than it was in the period Brechin describes.

Figure 4. “Man’s Great Storehouse of Wealth.” A graphic in the Hearst newspapers celebrates mining as a violent assault upon the “Beautiful Planet Devoted to His Use.” San Francisco Examiner, February 8, 1907. -Brechin, Imperial San Francisco, 2006, UC Berkeley Press

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Yes to the market economy, no to the market society. 

-Lionel Jospin, 🇫🇷French Statesmen, Independent, 16, September, 1998

Over the next few weeks I’m going to do my best to transition my writing from Twitter back to my blog where, frankly, I can stretch my arms out and feel some freedom for a while.

A clear page. A blinking cursor. The writer’s best and worst friend.

I don’t expect this to be easy. Twitter is a great product. There’s so much I like about it:

  • It’s the place powerful, smart, and educated (in the academy or elsewhere) people go to see what’s happening in the public
  • A regular workin’ stiff like me therefore has direct access to what I like to think of as Expert Power, and that was so rewarding to me.
  • It’s a place people go to negotiate their interests, express their politics, and build an agenda. In this way, it functioned like the old Letters to the Editor page of my local paper
  • It’s got some great features, like Direct Messaging and Periscope
  • It’s pleasing as hell to use as a reader- during my time there I pushed the Like button some 31,100 times, hopefully making someone smile a little bit
  • It’s challenging to fit meaning and your authentic voice into 240 characters and I liked that challenge
  • There are real people there on the other end of the screen
  • There’s a lingo, a rhythm, and a beat to the place that’s hard to find elsewhere on the late, great Internet
  • I like to think I made real friends there, people I could trust, but you never know. Apart from local friends who use Twitter, I met with one other Twitter user earlier this year who reached out to me on his way through Los Angeles. We met and had coffee. Nice.

On the other hand, it’s also an awful place, or in the words of one person I followed obsessively on Twitter, a “trust-shattering” place.

  • It’s very addictive to someone like me
  • It’s a hall of mirrors that surfaces few trust signals expcet for the blue covfefe checkmark
  • It’s a misinfo and disinfo weapons factory open to the world at large
  • It exhilerated me one moment and made me feel despair the next
  • It’s easy to offend people there, to mistake signal for noise or noise for signal, and to alternatively hurt someone else or be hurt yourself
  • It’s too easy to ignore your own sense of things there and get swept into the roiling, swirling moment, to join with whatever school of fish you’ve fallen in with

Using twitter obsessively for almost two years is, in a very real sense, like being in the public square of your locality. You never know what you’re going to see in the real public square. There might be a mass demonstration one day, a person urinating on the sidewalk the next, and people screaming, shouting, and brawling the next. It’s the actual public, the commons, the space in between the spaces of our private lives and I found that dynamic endlessly rich & deep, like a vein of gold in the earth. And I mined that metaphor, that allegory for all its worth, baby. A few months ago, I celebrated this discrovery as akin to finding my voice again, to finding my muse. So for that, I’m grateful for the time I spent on Twitter and the people I read.

That said, I’m probably not going to delete my Twitter account, or my tweets. They are my words, after all, and if Twitter wants to pay for the archiving and hosting of them for time immemorial, have at it Jack!

But I’m going to leave my tweets in “protected” mode so I can have some semblance of control over who accesses and reads my words and thoughts over the last two years. Of course nothing *really* ever disappears from the internet, and “protected mode” won’t stop my words from escaping Twitter,  but mirroring/hosting an archive of all my tweets is a right afforded only to someone with access & control over the credentials used to login to my Twitter account. So at least there will be some friction there between my words & a bad actor.

Which brings up an important programming note that’s slipped under my radar recently. You see, though I’ve had my Twitter account for almost 11 years, I  only actively used it in the last 18 months. You can see from this archive graph my Tweet activity over time.

For most of my account’s lifetime, I let Twitter lie fallow, refusing the participate in the private public square of our  shared existence. Once I did return following election of Donald Trump, I was hyper-aware that I was donating my time, labor  and, in Zuboff’s phrasing, my digital exhaust to a publicly traded company owned by private investors. This reality is easy to forget inside the devilish little app, but it dominated the content of my tweets since I returned in 2017.

archive

The friendly older version of your Twitter archive

I was also obsessive about archiving, storing, and analyzing the body of my work on Twitter. So unlike most people I think, I’d regularly download .csv files showing my tweet metrics. I’d also download the whole enchilada: The @JeffWilsonTech’s Tweet Archive, more or less me, my real self, as stored on disk by Twitter in their datacenters.

I’ve been doing that at irregular intervals for most of the last two years. I’ve copies from 2017, 2016 and before that, but I’ve also got January 2018, December 2018,  and April 2019.

twitter_archive_change

On the left: the last Twitter archive download I’ll make from April 27, 2019. On the right: my archive from January 2019.

Sometime between December 2018 and April 2019, you should know that Twitter changed how they offer the archive to Twitter users. It’s gone from being a relatively straightforward download of your Tweets, your media and your retweets in HTML format with an index.html file you could click on and read ina  browsedr to something else, something more developer friendly: whereas before your data was in HTML, Comma Separated Values (spreadsheet like structure of rows/columns like an Excel document) now it’s in JSON and .js files. Those who are familiar with file formats -another thing whose meaning I mined excessively while working for Twitter- will know that in the old days, the pre-Surveilllance days, data was exchanged in .csv format. Today it’s not as much. Today the standard document/file format for data exchange is JSON, JavaScript Object Notation.

I like to think of this transition -which, if it was announced, I missed- as the actual enclosure of Arendt’s public by the private. I’m sure it’s going on at other large private firms that are day by day dismantling the open standards of the internet in pursuit of the logic and plunder of Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism. It’ll probably happen here at WordPress.com too.

And my guess is that it’s changed because Twitter users don’t actually download their archived tweets very often. So when we do, we don’t really notice the obfuscation, the misdirection. We don’t see the intent. We see the download (in my case 2 Gigabyte zip file), we unzip it, and we look at the files & folders. Then we close out cause there’s not much here you can do unless you understand how JSON files work. Maybe you click the readme.txt file, but probably not. (Incidentally, I’ve uploaded mine for you to review).

So you download it, it’s no longer friendly and easy to use. And it’s got much much more information about you, about the ads you engaged with, the list of email addresses you’ve used over time, who you coresponded with and -creepily- attributed and unattributed engagement. So your subtweets are being watched folks. There’s that and much, much more.

The new Twitter archive is a digital dossier of you and your habits, your every interaction on Twitter. It’s a product -not your’s, not mine, but Twitter’s- that can be packaged up and sold on the behavior futures markets by the masters of our world. I have no evidence to suggest this is happening, but I can’t think of another reason to give me this rather than the old archive format. This is a shipping product.

Caveat emptor, friends. And Happy Trails to you and your’s, wherever you are.

Google backs out of Pentagon cloud contract after workers protest20,000 Googlers walk-out to protest sexual harassment and workplace discrimination….Microsoft workers protest use of Halolens by US ArmyGooglers protests AI board..Google closes AI board..Microsoft workers stand-up for Chinese tech workers….Googlers claim retaliation for walkout….

On and on over the last 18 months we’ve seen headlines and stories like this, stories about political advocacy at what are technically -and legally- private workplaces, but which, in reality, function differently. We see these stories on our screens, and we read about the workers and their workplaces, but what are all these stories really about? Are we seeing the birth of a proto-labor movement, or is this something else? Why did I feel support & solidarity with Googlers walking out following sexual harassment at their workplace, while secretly resenting their ability to organize & protest?

Their Workplace and Our Workplace

These are workplaces where all the familiar trappings of American workplaces are present. Por ejemplo, if a Google workplace is in California, I’m 100% certain there’s a “Your rights & responsibilities” placard in the facility that’s meant to inform workers of their rights. There’s likely OSHA placards too. Information about worker’s comp. Minimum wage notices. Exit signage. Fire & building regulations. There’s probably compliance hotlines for employees to dime on bad or unethical behavior they see at their employer. All the legal trappings and rights that labor won for us politically in the 20th century, all those things are at Google, at Microsoft, at Amazon, just like they are at your workplace & my workplace, no matter how big or small it is.

Untitled

A Googler is entitled to complain publicly about workplace politics and decisions and to even hire counsel to assist in their complaint

And yet, step back, and these tech workers enjoy much more liberty -indeed, are entitled to more rights- at their workplaces than we are at our’s. So much liberty, in fact, they can be themselves on our screens. During work hours even. Rarely do they have to say, “Thoughts & Opinions expressed here are mine nad mine alone and do not represent those of my employer, ” like I have to say. They can even show off the gifts they’ve received on social media -no need to disclose how or why they are receiving compensation from other companies- they can just show it off.

They are evidently entitled to so many rights within their workplaces, they can even criticize their superiors in public, by name. Wild!

Meanwhile, the rest of us don’t have that power. We’d be fired *instantly* if we did a 10th of what the tech workers do.

The Tech Workers’ Entitlement to Rights We Don’t Have

This then, is their entitlement, their privilege. They are entitled to lobby and organize and effect political change at their workplace -which intersects with our workplaces & homes by virtue of the internet, our screens and their products-  during work hours, while we cannot do the same at our’s. What explains that and what are their goals?

Well, their entitlement to rights we don’t have springs from their ability to code a world -a frontier- that achieves returns in an effecient manner for the shareholders. They are, in effect, hired guns building out a frontier that ultimately will deliver a reliable annuity to their sponsors, the bank*. Let’s take a look at this chart I made in Excel to understand how this works.

marketcap

Particularly pay attention to the revenue per employee number & market cap/employee. Those numbers are the Rosetta Stone for divining the political power of these tech workers, and indeed, the economic model that SiliconValley itself uses in its conquest of the world, and of the 20th Century’s verticals.

Notice that, for instance, every Google employee generates almost $1.4 million worth of revenue for the company. A Costco employee, on the other hand, generates only about half that much. Notice too that the Googler’s share of market cap (this chart was done on 2017 numbers but generally is accurate) is almost $9 million, 18x that of the Costco employee’s share of that corporation’s market cap.

Apple’s revenue/employee figure is off the charts too. Nearly $2m of revenue is generated by each Apple employee**. Microsoft & Amazon’s are more modest -particularly Amazon’s due to the larger number of people they employ- but even they are able to protest and organize politically at their workplaces, though their employees seem to make fewer waves as compared to Google’s.

Facebook employees, in contrast, are the great outlier. What little we hear from inside Facebook comes from ex-employees. The firm, like Apple, seems to have a stronger management culture than Google, but a less politically aware one. But notice that Facebook -whose revenue per employee numbers are very high- outsources the dirty work of managing its frontier to third party firms. We recently heard from one company’s employees about the work they do to moderate content on the Facebook frontier. It was not a happy story.

Now look at Walmart: Walmart employs almost 3 million people yet its revenue per employee is the lowest of the bunch, as is its market cap/employee figure. How often do we hear from Walmart employees?

The Political Objectives of some Big Tech workers

Every political movement needs to unite disparate and sovereign peoples under a banner of change and a well-understood set of objectives. Typically, we calll this an “agenda” or even a manifesto. As best I can tell, the tech workers’ agenda is this:

  • To have a say in how AI Systems are built and work, such that these products don’t discriminate or target marginalized groups inside the company and outside the company
  • To be free to not work on products that will be used by the US military, public sector governments, or even cities and municipalities
  • To blunt or evade the power and sovereignty of foreign nations like China by delivering products that guarantee anonymity, encryption, and privacy on the internet in opposition to China’s or another nation’s laws
  • To freedom at their workplaces from harassment & discrimination
  • To not be censored at work, and to not have their external communities be censored within the products they build

Notice, this is very much a political agenda.  These -apart from harassment & discrimination- are not things most people working in most workplaces expect or demand to have a say in. I certainly don’t at my work place. We use our government for that. We go to the polls for that. We pester our representatives in government to write laws for this kind of stuff.

But on the frontier, there is no government and there is no law.

Notice too that these employees’ demands are not material. That is to say, they aren’t about compensation, a shorter work week, more time off, or a greater share of revenue. They are not about the relationship of the employee with the employer, largely. They are more about product development, about the next stage of the conquest of the frontier.

Notice too that these employees are free to leave the employ of their workplaces, just like you and I are. But they largely….don’t.

And notice that largely, these employees are looking out for their own cohorts’ interests in the development of those products. Not your’s necessarily, nor mine necessarily.

And unlike my workplace, or your workplace, the work these employees do at their workplace intersects and impacts us at our homes and work. Daily. Globally. Their work impacts you and me, and our loved ones, and people as far away as Myanmar, South Africa, and New Zealand.

Mostly, I like their agenda. But it’s inherently a non-democratic agenda because I have no say in how the products are being developed. It’s an agenda that includes some laudable aims & goals -especially as it pertains to empowering marginalized groups- but it’s still an agenda that’s predicated upon their employers & sponsors conquering what little remains of Hannah Arendt’s ‘public’ and all the institutions thereof. It’s an agenda not necessarily at odds with Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism, so long as their cohorts are protected -favored even- on the frontier.

And I’m not sure I’m okay with that.

*I call this arrangement Capitaltech, and you can see how it works here, in this chart which I made in Visio, based largely off Everett Rogers’ Theory of Diffusion of Innovation with some bits added on from Wardley & Brechin.

**Notice Apple still primarily designs, builds and sells tangible products to customers. The business is therefore different & relationship between buyer & seller is transparent and easy to understand

It’s about 1040am. I’m in view of a screen. Rahm Emmanuel is on the screen talking about Prosecutorial Discretion and Smollet Case. I try to remember what the Smollet case was about; oh right…a popular gay male black actor allegedly gets roughed up by MAGA thugs. Only later, amid the outcry from the left against the right, the CPD arrests Smollet and accuses him of staging the whole thing, of hiring the thugs who beat him up. The Right cheers and for four days owns the screens we all look at.

And so there I was at 1040am and I’m watching Emmanuel tell the people of the Windy City why the DA’s decision is bad and wrong, an outrage. I wonder which cohort he’s speaking to more; but give up because the inter-sectional deception of the story playing out before me blurs the once clear Venn Diagram in my head. Which may be a Good Thing, I grant you. A confusing thing, but a Good Thing because it challenges me to noodle harder, and it is by noodling through the difficult affairs of the public that I learn & move forward.

So I study the faces of the assembled officials and mute Emmanuel’s confusing words in my mind. I look at the CPD chief who is wide-eyed and looks terrified. It’s the first time I’ve seen his face though; I could be wrong, but that’s my read of his body language.

That’s ok. I’m scared too. The Beltway Expert Pundits call what I’m seeing on my screen the “nationalization of our politics” which, I reckon, is pretty accurate, and moreover is probably a great thing for those whom haven’t had as much power as I have had in the public places of our society. So I’m happy for them because it’s helped me meet lots of folks I’d never have met before, to read them, to learn from them, to take their politics and add them to mine, if they’ll let me.

But it’s still scary.

It’s scary because the Finance Engineers & the Software Engineers are working together now and they own the screens, which is effectively like owning the media. So they control what we see. In effect, they’ve captured our politics too. Worse yet, the screens are two way. There’s interaction. It’s no longer just me looking at the CPD Chief, there’s a wizard in between my eyes & the CPD chief, and the wizard is counting my likes, discerning my intent, measuring my engagement, and plotting A/B tests on me. And it’s scary because the nationalization & capture of our politics happens locally in our homes & communities, the places we don’t talk much about anymore since we’re all looking at Chicago right now.

So it’s all a bit confusing, but like I said, there’s light in the screen, and it’s you and your politics, you and your openness to advocating for yourself and your loved ones.

But then, as I’m walking away from the screen, the alert sounds. That hated dreadful alert. That signal of doom. The sound made just before the Sword of Damocles falls. The thing that’s frightened me since childhood that occasionally wakes me up in a cold sweat.

BUZZ BUZZ and next the scrolling red banner

this is a test of the emergency broadcast system for Los Angeles County

BUZZ BUZZ

And it’s a doozy. The headline & the Lede:

Facebook Bans White Nationalism and White Separatism

After a civil rights backlash, Facebook will now treat white nationalism and separatism the same as white supremacy, and will direct users who try to post that content to a nonprofit that helps people leave hate groups.

I’d like to thank Joseph Cox on Twitter for raising this news to me. You can find his thread here.

My take on this: atta’corp Facebook! I’ve been bellyaching at you for so long it’s nice to finally see you do the right thing.

But as 6yo would say, Geez Louise Facebook. Took ya long enough.

Didja ever think the real world would look like a Sharepoint Governance project run amok? I sure didn’t. I thought there were Pros. In the room. Somewhere.

But there weren’t. Yet we know what the Pro version of a Facebook or SharePoint look like, don’t we?

Yes we do. You see, at work we -we free humans engaged in cooperative profit-seeking endeavor under the banner of an LLC or LP- we wouldn’t allow white supremacy themes on our screen. The Googlers sure don’t when they are at work. We know about that thanks to Googlers who have left employ of Google and written stories up about their work screens.

And at home, you and I wouldn’t allow it on our screens either. Why? Because we’re adults with a sense of morals and purpose and we love life, not death. I don’t care who you are, I got that in common with you.

We love life. We have loved ones. Start there. That’s what the technologists would call “First Principles” so let’s push the “First Principles” reset button and say, We Love Life, and We Have Loved Ones.

I don’t know if there’s a “2nd Principles” but step two should be: Put Mein Kampf & the other grabbag of nihilst shit back in a dusty corner of the library or in the museum with the relics of the other vanquished foes from the worst parts of our 19th & 20th centuries. That’s what you’d do at home. That’s what we’d do at work. Remove it from the indexes. Censor the hell out of it. Make it hard to find.

Right. So Step 2 is don’t let it breathe. That’s the last thing you or I want for this world we’re in, for ourselves & our loved ones. For the New Zealand dead -and in their memories- don’t let it breathe.

Now, Step 3 is more complicated. It kinda goes to the subtle point I’m making as I compose my words on your screen. Step 3 is to understand yourself and others in

step4

“Our Community”

relationship to the screen, and the folks who make the screen show us stuff. Step 3 then is to stop thinking of yourselves as Facebook’s Community, and get pissed when you see “Our Facebook Community.” Because you’re not Facebook’s community. You’re you. A free human with hopes, dreams, fears and love. You’re not the property nor the subject of an unaccountable corporation worth more than $450 billion that employs only about 30,000 people and contributes tremendous damage to our global society while all value accrues to its shareholders. That’s step 3. You’re you. Just understand that.

selfothervenn2

Step 4 on the path to righting this horrible SharePoint Governance project run amok is to understand yourself and your relationship to the other that you’re reading on your screen. And then your task is to think about your self-interests, and the interests of the others. And your task is to find something we in the public biz like to call “common ground” or “common interests.” Such things might include, but are not limited to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Safety. Food. Shelter.

selfother venn

Step 5 on the road to SharePoint Governance reform is a little out there, but roll with me fam. Step 5 is this: understand that what many call “the nationalization of our politics” is actually the capture of them. By the people who control the screens. Just mull on that for a bit, we don’t have to tackle that one until we’re done with Steps 1-4.

That’s all for now fam, but I just want you to remember this: It’s only here, in this screen, where we’re up against a force that controls the screen and is informed by libertarian politics and incented by dollar bills, it’s only here where we get confused. Only here.

Peace to you and your’s fam. Stay lit!  ☮

Writing in 1989, moral philosopher Sissela Bok tells us:

Imagine a society, no matter how ideal in other respects, where word and gesture could never be counted upon. Questions asked, answers given, information exchanged—all would be worthless. Were all statements randomly truthful or deceptive, action and choice would be undermined from the outset. There must be a minimal degree of trust in communication for language and action to be more than stabs in the dark. This is why some level of truthfulness has always been seen as essential to human society, no matter how deficient the observance of other moral principles. Even the devils themselves, as Samuel Johnson said, do not lie to one another, since the society of Hell could not subsist without truth any more than others

When I look at my screen 30 years later, I see this effect -this collapse- all the time. And the only one I’m comfortable as a moral agent talking about is Baby Getting Cheesed.

Last Saturday I had a moment of pause, so I looked at my screen. The screen showed me an adult person taking a slice of yellow cheese and tossing it on a surprised baby’s face. It made a wet plop sound as it stuck to the startled baby’s face. The video ended.

I didn’t feel upset or outraged by the act itself. It was, in a way, cute and tugged my dad heart-strings. I remember my son at that age. I wouldn’t have tossed a cheese slice on his face, but I played little games with him, like pretending I’d eat his foot, just so I could get a laugh or smile out of him. The cheese slice on baby face schtick was odd, but it was also endearing in a way.

What bothered me most about the baby getting cheesed was that someone -or perhaps the algorithm itself- had decided to put it on my screen. To get me to consume it. To please me and get me to share it. I realized instantly why the baby getting cheesed had upset me: I was staring a moral hazard in the face.

In general, tossing cheese slices onto the faces of babies is a Bad Thing. It’s not something you or I, as moral adults, would encourage. It’s not something we’d do in our own homes. It’s not something we’d do to our friends’ children, our grandchildren, our niece or nephew. It’s not something any baby care book would recommend. You’d be hard-pressed to find a parenting or caregiver expert to tell you that throwing a cheese slice on a baby’s face was a Good Thing To Do. Yet here I was, looking at my screen, reading a piece that voiced great hilarity and mirth at the baby getting cheesed. The video had been viewed 8 million times, and dozens of copy-cats videos had been made, the writer told me. Most replicas were made by parents. Like me. The whole thing had gone viral in the words of the privatized commons.

That horrified me. So I asked myself why baby getting cheesed had gone viral?

I’m no behavioral scientist, my credentials in science, law, and or sociology are pitiful.  What I do know a lot about is how people use technology, and what might motivate the ways they use it. And I know how to use my sense of morality in public and private spaces.

Knowing that most people, in the privacy of their homes or out in public with their child, would elect not to throw cheese on their babys’ faces, or celebrate that others had done so, I realized that the behavior I was seeing on my screen was being induced by something. Encouraged by an unseen hand. By some perverse economic logic at work there, in my screen.

It was being encouraged by the app itself. In my case, that app was Twitter. But it doesn’t really matter. All the apps encourage sharing. They live and die by what we share. And they reward us for sharing. In Twitter’s case, the reward is a value-less form of currency: a like, or a retweet, or maybe a reply. All of these things are bundled up and re-named from what they were (verbs signifying operation-actions on an item of information) into something new: engagement.

Engagement is the coin of the realm of our screens. It’s the engine celebrated by the bit-tycoons and those who write about them for a living. It’s the core economic logic in our screens. To keep us engaged. To further that engagement. To take more of our attention. To ✨razzle dazzle us with pleasing animations and unique experiences.

And also, to get us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. 

Notice the deception therein. As people, as normal moral beings in a real physical place, we’d probably not cheese the baby’s face, and, more than that, we’d also probably condemn or shun others who did so. We sure as hell would not yield to a corporation asking us to throw cheese on our baby’s face, film it, and then put on screens all over the world.

But in the deceptive hall of mirrors that is social, -where sharing is effortless and the twin to the moral hazards it produces- we do exactly that. In the real world, we grab a slice of yellow cheese from the fridge, and toss it on the baby’s face, then upload the video. For nothing and no reason at all except to accrue a meaningless currency.

To top it all off, the original cheese video -supposedly posted by a brother of the baby- was itself a deception. It had been downloaded and stolen from Facebook. Again: why? To perform. To steal a little authenticity for the purpose of accruing likes.

I think we’re in dangerous territory here. My sense is that this un-virtuous cycle could devolve very quickly into chaos. We’re seeing more and more bad actors utilize these exploitative software systems to amplify -and indeed induce- bad behavior. The same thing happened with the Momo hoax, which is now no longer a hoax, but a very real self-harm thing frightening parents of 3rd graders at my kid’s school.  These patterns seem similar to me to the ones that preceded violence in Myanmar and India. And that’s frightening.

Most importantly, we can’t depend on any of these apps to regulate or modify the inducement logic behind the behavior their users exhibit. The app makers benefit from inducing certain behaviors in us. We should have learned that lesson as far back as 2016. We should have learned it in 2017 and 2018, especially after violence took people’s lives in Myanmar. But app makers have no interest in fixing this, and there’s no reason to trust them to fix this as they’ve let us down so many times already. We’ve seen the app makers spread lies, apologize for consequences and yet engagement keeps rising. They have no incentive to fix this; in fact, engagement forces the opposite logic on these businesses. Don’t fix it. Let it spread. We’re making money, so who cares?

Bok, writing with moral clarity and force, warns us again:

A society, then, whose members were unable to distinguish truthful messages from deceptive ones, would collapse. But even before such a general collapse, individual choice and survival would be imperiled. The search for food and shelter could depend on no expectations from others. A warning that a well was poisoned or a plea for help in an accident would come to be ignored unless independent confirmation could be found. All our choices depend on our estimates of what is the case; these estimates must in turn often rely on information from others. Lies distort this information and therefore our situation as we rerceive it, as well as our choices. A lie, in Hartmann’s words, “injures the deceived person in his life; it leads him astray.”

 

Check out this sentence. I’ll reveal who wrote it later:

…the American West had been the most fertile field for technical innovation…California engineers exported their technology to the rest of the world and improved on that which they imported from everywhere else.

Interesting sentence, right? The author is making the point that California, particularly the Bay Area in this case, is a hub of technical innovation and engineering prowess.

And indeed it is. I mean just look all around us. Silicon Valley companies dominate the world. Three of the top five technology companies (Google, Facebook, Apple) are headquartered there, and the other two, Microsoft & Amazon, have significant presence in Silicon Valley.

Consider those five companies and what they’ve done. Just as the author alleges, those five companies have found a formula for success; they’ve “imported from everywhere else” elemental technology primitives, things like standardized and open protocols built by academics and expert committees in the IETF, IEEE and other standards bodies. These companies have taken those elemental primitives and packaged them up into new exciting innovations and won dominance in the marketplace with them. How much dominance?

Look at this chart I made in Excel. $3.5+ trillion of market dominance, that’s how much dominance. And notice how few they actually employ compared to other titans of the marketplace. They’re massively efficient. That’s the whole point. That’s why capital is so excited about the Big 5.

marketcap

Numbers are out of date reflecting 2017 LTM Revenue & employment numbers but you get the idea

All around the world, people have tried but largely failed to replicate the supposed success of this vibrant hive of technical & engineering prowess. I hear it all the time on podcasts, I read it on Twitter, I read it in blogs. Everyone wants to be Silicon Valley, to be the exciting hub of innovation. Indeed, they want to be the next Silicon Valley, as if this is a repeatable formula there for the taking, as if you could just divine it out of the ether and bam, the next Silicon Valley. 

You see the big 5 marketed endlessly by the apostles of the Disruption Gospel, by the trade press, by us, even when we just think we’re talking about a new device or service. Oh yeah, I love this new feature on my Android. Oh Instagram is introducing end-to-end encryption & direct messaging. People love the products they’re using from these big five companies, and some study them so much they’ve launched ancillary careers just by studying how they work.  I’ve mentioned it before how I admire Ben Thompson, of stratechery.com for the one-man punditry business he’s built atop what he calls Aggregation Theory.

And the founders! We construct mythologies about them too. We build them up into icons. They collectively have more money than God or the tycoons of old.

Now circle your mind back to the quoted sentence. That’s it. Now let’s zoom out:

By 1893, the renowned Canadian mining operator James Douglas could claim that the American West had been the most fertile field for technical innovation in the development of hardware, techniques, and chemistry. California engineers exported their technology to the rest of the world and improved on that which they imported from everywhere else.

The quoted passage is from Dr Gray Brechin’s masterpiece polemic, Imperial San Francisco:Urban Power, Earthly Ruinpublished by University of California Press in 1999, revised in 2006.

Brechin, is, in the words of people I follow on Twitter, my spirit animal. He’s a Geographic Historian who lectures at Berkeley and other universities in the Mountain West. His book -which invokes huge themes about mining, agriculture, cities vs rural areas, and what he terms the Anglo-Aryan race- is all about the conquest of the frontier, and how that conquest was directed by a cartel of mining interests in San Francisco just after the start of the Gold Rush. If you’re interested in Manifest Destiny, you can’t miss this book.

Throughout his polemic, Brechin details the ruthlessness of the early titans of gold & silver mining in and around San Francisco. How they pushed out or simply killed natives. How President Polk, on discovery of gold in California, sparked a war with Mexico and ultimately won control of the west for America. How the early miners scooped up and collected the easy gold first, then pitched a false vision of California to the rest of America and got suckers to move out west for cheap & easy gold. How the miners & miner interests leveled entire forests in the Sierra Nevada, changed the course of rivers, dynamited and blasted their way deep into the scarred earth. And how, once the great con was over, they set their eyes westward again, to spreading the Anglo-Aryan race across the Pacific Basin from the mouth of the Golden Gate.

It’s really a yarn, quite the page turner I tell you. Definitely a great purchase, especially if you’re interested in place and history. Brechin even links the mining & mineral themes almost up to the present day, with the founding of Lawrence Livermore Labs in the east Bay, and its work on developing nuclear weapons.

We see all the time in technology commentary people invoking the same themes Brechin masterfully describes. They talk of atoms versus bits, as in the mining of precious metal atoms vs the mining of non-physical bits, or elements of technology. We ourselves call the titans of bit-mining today founders, and we all listen to the founders as they pitch a vision that, like the mining cartels and newspaper barons before them, results in more wealth accruing to them, and, like the rubes we are, only marginal value for the rest of us*.

It is hardly surprising that the bronze men at the prow of the Pioneer Monument were gold panners working the Sierra placers. California artists almost always depicted the Western miners as free men working under friendly Western skies—not underground,not for others, and not in squalor of their own creation. Such hardy individuals quickly came to symbolize Western opportunity itself, for they were the first to tap untouched bonanzas amid then-unspoiled scenery, and they remain the most enduring agents in the legend of entrepreneurial independence and of he-men living close to nature’s ample bosom.

ibid, Chapter 1, A Promised Land Plundered

And just as the gold miners of the 19th century externalized costs onto society, the environment, indigenous peoples, the Chinese,so too do the mining titans of the 21st Century externalize their costs onto our society. 

These founders, and the people working to sell the vision have, like the mining cartels before them, become digital prophets and invoke almost with religious intensity the themes of the frontier, the very words & phrases of Manifest Destiny.Simon Wardley, for instance, has built another business atop bits and bit mining. He calls them Wardley Maps, and they offer strategic advice and interesting mapping techniques to software engineers & technology companies. Wardley consistently uses the words pioneers, settlers, town planners and ‘uncharted’ as if there’s still more frontier left to exploit.

Untitled pictureThe founders in charge of today’s mining cartels have been using these words and phrases for more than a decade. I just don’t think we realized they actually meant what they were saying.  I think we all got confused by the razzle dazzle of what we saw on our screens, and so we listened to and trusted the razzle dazzle prophets and founders. In short order, we’ve all adopted the language of this new frontier. We’ve all taken Manifest Destiny a step further, even if we’d object to the old Manifest Destiny in principal if not in our history. Because we don’t see the metaphors the founders use for what they truly are: actual frontier-speak. 

The founders’ conquests are occurring in and around San Francisco, where the last frontier closed a little over a century ago. It’s a place that, on the surface, looks much different than the one Brechin details in his polemic. Yes, there is chronic homelessness and skyrocketing rents on the surface, but no one could claim San Francisco or the Bay Area is uncivilized, that it is not a world class city, that most people feel safe there.

But San Francisco -and the Bay Area- always looked beautiful. It’s a beautiful and lovely place. As beautiful as it was in 1898 to be sure, probably more so. But that’s just the surface. You’ve got to dig deeper, you’ve got to peer across whatever industry vertical you work in in 2019 to see the real costs. To see the con and misdirection. Until you do that, you’ll miss the externalized costs and exploitation of the 21st century mining cartels. You need to look at the razzle dazzle on your screen and realize the words you’re seeing are deceptive, that the metaphors have been used to misdirect you, to create a ‘smoky hall of mirrors’ effect, as I called it in an earlier essay. And then you’ve got to read the news and study it and think about it: Rohingya violence, violence in India, the amplification of bad information, anti-vaxxer ads, measles cases soaring, the flat earth, white supremacy on the march, and so much more. All of it organized, spread, and amplified at lightning speed with tooling created by the founders, their cartels, and the engineering prowess of the Bay Area.

tahoeAs Brechin would point out, the costs of the first mining cartels were hidden from the eyes of the wealthy urbanites in San Francisco as they extracted value out of people and the land far away.  They never saw the destruction of old growth Sierra Nevada forests because they didn’t want to see it. They never saw the Chinese Coolies -practically slave labor- herded into railcars and dispatched post-haste once the mining was done and the railroads were built. They never saw the mud and floods as millions of metric tons of mud and earth flowed down the Central Valley. They never saw any of the costs because those costs were intentionally remote.

But in our age, we do see the costs. The exploitation. We see the costs all the time and everyday on our screens, if we just flip the script and study a little bit. You see the costs and you even think about the costs in the privacy of your own home, with yesterday’s Momo freakout. You see the costs but you don’t conceive of them as costs on you or your loved ones. You think of them as social media problems or platform abuse. 

Zoom out a bit, and the vista becomes clear. You see that the founders imported the elemental primitives of 20th Century standards bodies -things like TCP/IP, SMTP, and DNS, the WWW, and packet-switched networking- and got busy constructing and exporting Manifest Destiny 2.0 with those elements. And they’ve been telling us what they’ve been doing the whole time, we just didn’t realize it.

*I have noted in a previous essay how wonderful these technologies have been for women, People of Color and LGBTQ folks. I celebrate their agenda and the fact that they are seizing real political power long denied to them in the old, physical world. The value & benefit to them is immense, and I acknowledge that, and I want to ally with them in my politics. But this essay explores the costs side of the equation.