Monday, October 1, 2018

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (Trust Me I'm Lying)

A notable lesson from the following excerpt is how negative press - especially that which was generated by female detractors - boosted interest in the film.
In creating outrage for the movie, I had a lot of luck getting local websites to cover or spread the news about protests of the screenings we had organized through anonymous tips. They were the easiest place to get the story started. We would send them a few offensive quotes and say something like "This misogynist is coming to our school and we're so fucking pissed. Could you help spread the word?" Or I'd e-mail a neighborhood site to say that "a controversial screening with rumors of a local boycott" was happening in a few days.

Sex, college protesters, Hollywood - it was the definition of the kind of local story news producers love. After reading about the growing controversy on the small blogs I conned, they would often send camera crews to the screenings. The video of the story would get posted on the station's website, and then get covered again by the other, larger blogs in that city, like those hosted by a newspaper or companies like the Huffington Post. I was able to get the story to register, however briefly, by using a small site with low standards of newsworthiness. Other media outlets might be alerted to this fact, and in turn cover it, giving me another bump. At this point I now have something to work with. Three or four links are the makings of a trend piece, or even a controversy - that's all major outlets and national websites need to see to get excited. Former media critic Jake Shafer called such manufactured online controversy "frovocation" - a portmanteau of faux provocation. It works incredibly well.

The key to getting from the second to the third level is the soft sell. I couldn't very well e-mail a columnist at the Washington Post and say, "Hey, will you denounce our movie so we can benefit from the negative PR?" So I targeted the sites that those kinds of columnists were likely to read. Gawker and Mediabistro are very media-centric, so we tailored stories to them to queue ourselves up for outrage from their audiences which happen to include reporters at places like the Washington Post. And when I want to be direct, I would register a handful of fake e-mail addresses on Gmail or Yahoo and send e-mails with a collection of all the links gathered so far and say, "How have you not done a story about this yet?'' Reporters rarely get substantial tips or alerts from their readers, so to get two or even three legitimate tips about an issue is a strong signal. So I sent it to them. Well, kind of. I actually just did more of the same fake tips from fake e-mail addresses that worked for the other sites-only this time I had a handful of links from major blogs that made it clear that everyone was talking about it.

At this point something amazing happened:
The coverage my stunts received began helping the twenty-thousand dollar- a-month publicist the movie had hired. Rejections from late-night television, newspaper interviews, and morning radio turned into callbacks. Tucker did Carson Daly's NBC late-night show for the first time. By the end of this charade, hundreds of reputable reporters, producers, and bloggers had been swept up into participating. Thousands more had eagerly gobbled up news about it on multiple blogs. Each time they did, views of the movie trailer spiked, book sales increased, and Tucker became more famous and more controversial. If only people had known they were promoting the offensive Tucker Max brand for us, just as we'd planned.

With just a few simple moves, I'd taken his story from level 1 to level 3 - not just once but several times, back and forth. Ultimately the movie did not do nearly as well at release as we'd hoped - this supplementary guerrilla marketing ended up being the entirety of the movie's advertising efforts rather than a small part of it for reasons outside of my control - but the attention generated by the campaign was overwhelming and incredibly lucrative. Eventually the movie became a cult hit on DVD.

Once you get a story like this started it takes on a life of its own. That's what happened after vandalized Tucker's billboards. Exactly one week later, inspired by my example, sixteen feminists gathered in New York City late at night to vandalize I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell posters all over Manhattan. Their campaign got even more coverage than my stunt, including a 650-word, three-picture story on a Village Voice blog with dozens of comments (I posted some comments under fake names to get people riled up, but looking at them now I can't tell which ones are fake and which are real). From the fake came real action.

I Hope The Serve Beer In Hell Trailer

Friday, August 24, 2018

Center for Public Integrity: Cambridge Analytica Parent Hired by State Department

Documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that the State Department justified circumventing traditional competition citing SCL’s “unique qualifications and special capabilities in designing influence campaigns that work” unlike other offerings which “are largely based on intuitive hunches or superficial research.”

The State Department further asserted that no other companies can compete with SCL in gathering the necessary data and analyzing it in a way that permits the design of effective, data-driven influence campaigns.

Entire article: Cambridge Analytica Parent Hired by State Department

Monday, August 20, 2018

National Geographic - Italy's Olive Trees Are Dying

The European Commission considers Xylella to be among the most dangerous plant bacteria in the world. Different strains of it have wreaked havoc on vineyards in California and citrus trees in Brazil, killing acres of valuable plants and causing billions in lost revenue. 
Until the olive trees fell ill, Xylella had never been seen in Europe, and its identification in Italy set off alarm bells across the scientific and political communities of the European Union. Italian olive growers produce 15 percent of the world’s virgin olive oil, worth more than $2 billion each year. Spain produces even more. Anything that threatened the trees threatened the entire European economy.

National Geographic - Italy's Olive Trees Are Dying

The story of American poverty, as told by one Alabama county

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From Boing Boing - Jasmina Tesanovic: Post-Internet Lament

I understood early on that the digital was ridding the world of the analog clutter of material belongings, that apps were swallowing the functions of other devices. That process was freeing me to prosper out of a global suitcase, even if it took a cruel toll on certain things I loved and cherished, such as newspapers, magazines, vinyl records, antiques, books and my happy memories of an analog world. I wanted to be free, and I wanted information to be free, and I knew that freedom, especially for a woman, was a stern and demanding state of affairs, that it always had a cost.

It’s easy for an early adapter to lament about a mainstream situation, but the mistake is thinking that history has some happy end. History is not soluble, it is one damned thing after another. No cure is permanent and there is no Silicon Valley solution to the human condition. Even science is nobody’s rational utopia, it’s an “Endless Frontier,” as Vannevar Bush remarked not long after his crash course in creating nuclear war.

So I’ve learned to trust my instincts and look for the comic relief in smart mistakes.

Recently, my smart phone misbehaved. I was on the road, between flights, between countries, working hard. I had no time to fix my phone’s obscure glitch, which was buried deep in some OS compost heap of pull-down menus.

Instead, my phone anxiety just detached, somehow. My frustration and rage drifted away from the surface of the malfunctioning phone. My technical troubles lost their grip on my psych. I was out of their loop.

Instead of drowning in the black-screen ocean of lost connectivity, I realized that I could swim. I even enjoyed it. Of course I felt a spasm of work-guilt, because I was the chattel who had let go, downed my tools, denied the unspoken command to be instantly available 24-7, and defected into the 404 world of not found, user error...

But I had also broken a bad habit. Of course the people traveling around me didn’t see this tiny act of rebellion; no, we the livestock of Big Tech are much like a some ancient feudal clan with rigid customs and superstitions engrained by centuries of dysfunction. But even feudal peasants have black sheep. The bullshit floats to the surface eventually: the nakedness of the imperial social networks comes to light.

Then I realized that many behaviors I once saw as my virtues were in doubt; they were indeed virtues once, because it took a lot of tech education, discipline and craftsmanship to learn them, but the moral context around these behaviors had changed. It was like some act of comfort — like an adult daughter pouring grandpa a nice shot of vodka — that had turned into vicious enabling behavior.

Why did I dutifully answer every entity, all the time, on all social media? Were all those bots or paid social PR really friends, inhabiting my reality, to which I wanted to be connected? Wasn’t I thoughtless applying hard-won habits of personal politeness, net etiquette, and authentic connection in situations where they no longer made any sense? And wasn’t I inflicting that same behavior on everyone else?

I needed to pay more attention to my lived experience. Especially the psychosomatic pangs, which were flinching reactions of my body to a worldless situation, a deep social woe that still lacks any proper political terminology. Some day I, or more likely somebody else, will be able to verbally package this instinctive loathing, but we’re in the early days of psychoanalysis for our current state of oppressive, feudal, digital sociality.

Whole Article - Jasmina Tesanovic: Post-Internet Lament

From the NYT: The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley — and Won

The way Alastair Mactaggart usually tells the story of his awakening — the way he told it even before he became the most improbable, and perhaps the most important, privacy activist in America — begins with wine and pizza in the hills above Oakland, Calif. It was a few years ago, on a night Mactaggart and his wife had invited some friends over for dinner. One was a software engineer at Google, whose search and video sites are visited by over a billion people a month. As evening settled in, Mactaggart asked his friend, half-seriously, if he should be worried about everything Google knew about him. “I expected one of those answers you get from airline pilots about plane crashes,” Mactaggart recalled recently. “You know — ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.’ ” Instead, his friend told him there was plenty to worry about. If people really knew what we had on them, the Google engineer said, they would flip out.

Mactaggart had spent most of his adult life in the Bay Area, running a family real estate business with his uncle. The rise of the tech industry had filled his condo developments with ambitious engineers and entrepreneurs, making Mactaggart a wealthy man. But he never really thought about how companies like Google or Facebook got so big so fast. The vast pools of data they collected and monetized were abstractions, something he knew existed but, as with plane crashes, rarely dwelt on.

Now he began to think about tech companies a lot. He started reading about online tracking and data mining. He discovered that the United States, unlike some countries, has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of personal data. The rules that did exist were largely established by the very companies that most relied on your data, in privacy policies and end-user agreements most people never actually read. Mactaggart began to scrutinize these policies closely, the way he read loan contracts and pored over offering plans. He learned that there was no real limit on the information companies could collect or buy about him — and that just about everything they could collect or buy, they did. They knew things like his shoe size, of course, and where he lived, but also roughly how much money he made, and whether he was in the market for a new car. With the spread of smartphones and health apps, they could also track his movements or whether he had gotten a good night’s sleep. Once facial-recognition technology was widely adopted, they would be able to track him even if he never turned on a smartphone.

All of this, he learned, was designed to help the real customers — advertisers — sell him things. Advertisers and their partners in Silicon Valley were collecting, selling or trading every quantum of Mactaggart’s self that could be conveyed through the click of a mouse or the contents of his online shopping carts. They knew if he had driven past that Nike billboard before finally buying those Air Force 1s. A website might quote him a higher price for a hair dryer if he lived in a particular neighborhood, or less if he lived near a competitor’s store. Advertisers could buy thousands of data points on virtually every adult in America. With Silicon Valley’s help, they could make increasingly precise guesses about what you wanted, what you feared and what you might do next: Quit your job, for example, or have an affair, or get a divorce.

And no one knew more about what people did or were going to do than Facebook and Google, whose free social and search products provided each company with enormous repositories of intimate personal data. They knew what you “liked” and who your friends were. They knew not just what you typed into the search bar late on a Friday night but also what you started to type and then thought better of. Facebook and Google were following people around the rest of the internet too, using an elaborate and invisible network of browsing bugs — they had, within little more than a decade, created a private surveillance apparatus of extraordinary reach and sophistication. Mactaggart thought that something ought to be done. He began to wonder whether he should be the one to do it.

Mactaggart, who is 52 but boyish, did not think of himself as a radical. He often describes himself as a capitalist. He is the kind of man who wears chinos with a braided belt; it is easy to picture him on a sailboat. But his research on privacy had stirred something in him. “It’s like that Buddhist thing, where you walk past a mess and a mop and say, ‘Someone ought to clean up that mess,’ ” he says. “And eventually you realize you have to pick up the mop.”

Over evening walks around his neighborhood, Mactaggart batted around ideas for a new state law with his friend Rick Arney, a finance executive. But Arney, who worked in the California Legislature after business school, suggested a different approach. Instead of going through Sacramento, Arney suggested, they could put the question directly to the people of California, gathering signatures for a statewide ballot initiative. Mactaggart liked the idea. He also had the money to do something with it. Early last year, he hired a small staff, set them up in a two-room office in Oakland and began cold-calling privacy experts to figure out just what his initiative should say.

“I thought it was a joke at first, to be contacted by someone named ‘Alastair Mactaggart,’ ” says Chris Jay Hoofnagle, who teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley. Mactaggart was wary of proposing a sweeping law like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or G.D.P.R., fearing that Californians would find it mystifying and reject it. He wanted a solution that consumers would embrace and Silicon Valley could live with. “I don’t want to kill businesses — I’m a businessman,” Hoofnagle recalls Mactaggart’s telling him. “I just think the data use by these companies is out of control.”

Almost by accident, though, Mactaggart had thrust himself into the greatest resource grab of the 21st century. To Silicon Valley, personal information had become a kind of limitless natural deposit, formed in the digital ether by ordinary people as they browsed, used apps and messaged their friends. Like the oil barons before them, they had collected and refined that resource to build some of the most valuable companies in the world, including Facebook and Google, an emerging duopoly that today controls more than half of the worldwide market in online advertising. But the entire business model — what the philosopher and business theorist Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” — rests on untrammeled access to your personal data. The tech industry didn’t want to give up its powers of surveillance. It wanted to entrench them. And as Mactaggart would soon learn, Silicon Valley almost always got what it wanted.

For most of its relatively brief existence, Silicon Valley has been more lightly regulated than almost any other major industry. The technology that drove the business was complex, and few lawmakers wanted to be seen as standing in the way of a new kind of wealth creation, one that seemed to carry no messy downsides like pollution or global economic collapse. Most of the biggest tech companies could simply ignore Washington — until they grew too big for Washington to ignore. When regulators finally threatened to intervene, the companies did what they were best at: They scaled up, this time not with software and servers but with phalanxes of lobbyists and lawyers.

Microsoft had virtually no Washington presence before the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company in the 1990s. As recently as 2003, Google retained just two outside lobbyists in Washington; over the next decade or so, as it became the world’s dominant search engine, the company became a Beltway heavyweight, hiring lobbyists, wooing regulators and funding the research behind hundreds of Google-friendly studies on competition, copyright law and other topics. By last year, Google’s parent, Alphabet, was spending more money on lobbyists than any other corporation in America.

Facebook, a decade younger than Google, built its political apparatus twice as fast, as if observing a kind of Moore’s Law of influence-peddling. When it went public in 2012, the company had 900 million users — less than half its current size — and earned a relatively modest profit of $53 million. Over the next several years, Facebook simultaneously became one of the world’s biggest collectors of personal data and a powerful presence in Washington and beyond. It acquired Instagram, a rival social media platform, and the messaging service WhatsApp, bringing Facebook access to billions of photos and other user data, much of it from smartphones; formed partnerships with country’s leading third-party data brokers, such as Acxiom, to ingest huge quantities of commercial data; and began tracking what its users did on other websites. Smart exploitation of all that data allowed Facebook to target advertising better than almost anyone, and by 2015, the company was earning $4 billion a year from mobile advertising. Starting in 2011, Facebook doubled the amount of money it spent on lobbying in Washington, then doubled it again. The company employed just 10 lobbyists in state capitals around the country in 2012, according to my analysis of data collected by the National Institute on Money in Politics. By the time Mactaggart and Arney began work on their privacy initiative, it had 67. The tech industry was particularly powerful in California, its home base, where it doled out millions in campaign contributions to state candidates and parties.

But until recently, companies like Facebook and Google also had something that Wall Street and Big Oil and the cable companies didn’t. To many people in Washington, they were the good guys. Through the Obama years, the tech industry enjoyed extraordinary cachet in Washington, not only among Republicans but also among Democrats. Partnering with Silicon Valley allowed Democrats to position themselves as pro-business and forward-thinking. The tech industry was both an American economic success story and a political ally to Democrats on issues like immigration. Google enjoyed particularly close ties to the Obama administration: Dozens of Google alumni would serve in the White House or elsewhere in the administration, and by one estimate Google representatives visited the White House an average of about once a week. But the Obama world had relationships with other firms too. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, served on a high-level Obama advisory council on jobs and held a fund-raiser for Obama’s re-election campaign at her home in Atherton, Calif. The founders of Twitter, LinkedIn and the app developer Zynga together contributed more than $2 million to a pro-Obama super PAC.

And increasingly, Silicon Valley had come to transform politics itself. As Mactaggart considered how to take on the data industry, he faced an American political establishment that saw the key to its future in companies like Google and Facebook — not because of whom they supported but because of what they did. The surveillance capitalists didn’t just sell more deodorant; they had built one of the most powerful tools ever invented for winning elections. Roughly the same suite of technologies helped elect Obama, a pragmatic liberal who promised racial progress and a benevolent globalism, and Trump, a strident nationalist who adeptly employs social media to stoke racial panic and has set out to demolish the American-led world order.

Full NYT Article

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Valley Is Alive with the Sound of Whistleblowers - Standford Review

Industry veterans have begun to speak out about the negative externalities Silicon Valley products have on society. We, as consumers and creators, must recognize the valley’s concrete failures as well as the unforeseen and adverse effects its work has precipitated. The breadth and depth of industry whistleblowers’ expertise, experiences, and initiatives point to the severity of the problem. When former employees of today’s biggest tech companies form an alliance against the products they helped build, their word should be weighed heavily. While these individuals have not lost all hope, they contend that due to distorting business models, technology has veered away from its original intent to empower, and not simply monetize, humans.


In October of 2017, John Naughton, a professor at the University of Cambridge, asserted that we “need a 21st-century Martin Luther to challenge the church of tech.” A former internet utopian, Naughton believes consumers have surrendered themselves to monetization by tech behemoths. He contends that our blind obedience to “the Church of Technopoly” is no different than Catholics ceding control to their authoritarian church 500 years ago. Having now launched his own 95 Theses about Technology, Naughton presents propositions about “the tech world and the ecosystem it has spawned.” He argues, amongst other things, that the technical is political, that Facebook is in fact not a community, and that surveillance capitalism undermines democracy. Naughton believes consumers of modern technology are “sleepwalking into a nightmare.” With his literature, he hopes to wake them up.

The Valley Is Alive with the Sound of Whistleblowers