A post from Mona Chalabi popped up on my Twitter timeline this morning.
As you can see it’s a beautifully cutting analysis of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent $25 million donation to help in the fight against coronavirus. She manages to show in the simplest way possible just how much Zuckerberg has sacrificed to the greater good. Twenty-five million dollars is few millilitres, a squirt from the vast glass of his $81 billion fortune.
In the old days, in the UK, a billion meant an million million, but since 1974 the UK Government has used the American definition of a billion when announcing figures. An American billion is just a thousand million, or a one followed by nine noughts; 1,000,000,000. Even using this lower scale, Zuckerberg’s $25 million donation accounts for only 0.03% of his current $81 billion fortune.
To give this some perspective. $81 billion is the equivalent to the gross domestic product to Cameroon. A country ranked 90th by the CIA in their World Factbook, that includes a listing of countries by GDP.
Basically Zuckerberg has more money at his disposal than bottom 53 countries of the World Factbook list combined. His personal fortune is the equivalent to the combined gross domestic product of Guam, Liberia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Cape Verde, Djibouti, The Gambia, Guernsey, Central African Republic, Andorra, Belize, Curaçao, Guinea-Bissau, Seychelles, Aruba, Cayman Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Lucia, Greenland, San Marino, Gibraltar, Faroe Islands, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, ComorosSolomon Islands, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Western Sahara, Dominica, Vanuatu, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Sao Tome and Principe, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tonga, Saint Martin, British Virgin Islands, Sint Maarten, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Falkland Islands, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Marshall Islands, Anguilla, Nauru, Wallis and Futuna, Montserrat, Tuvalu, Saint Helena, Niue, and Tokelau.
Why’s that a problem? Twenty-five million dollars is a large sum of money. It’s a problem because the billions Zuckerberg has taken from the economy, and is now sitting on, might be the difference between people living or dying from COVID-19.
I’ve been sorting through some files on my computer and I came across the following. It was written for a job application, one of those quirky questions they toss in at the end of the application to, I think, challenge you. They asked “if you were superhuman, what would your superpower be?” This was my reply.
When asked same question, one of my friends answered flippantly invisibility. They wanted to be invisible so they could spy on people. I know. Because the superhero is after all the territory of the adolescent. It’s hard not to be flippant. There’s something very childish in all of our answers.
When you really think about the same question as an adult, the answer is very different. For adults superpowers are less super, more human. As an adult I think my superpower would be strength.
Strength of character.
Strength of will.
Strength of intellect.
We all make up stories to help us understand the world. I tell one about a villain I call Mr. Panopticon.
The Panopticon was a circular prison designed by 18th Century social theorist Jeremy Bentham. In his design the cell walls are made of glass, transparent, allowing prisoners to be watched at any time from a central tower. The structure teases compliance from its tenants because they never know when they’re being watched. Michel Foucault used Bentham’s prison design as a metaphor, to highlight the way power, since the destruction of absolute monarchies, has sought to hide itself from view. If there is no focus for our anger, it’s impossible for us to remove the cause of our pain.
My Mr. Panopticon has a lick of the Mr. World’s about him. For those who don’t know Mr. World is character from the book and television series American Gods. He mysterious, charming, and dangerous.
More recently my view of Mr. Panopticon has changed. I used to think of him as a machine, a huge torus wrapped around us, surrounding us, watching us from central point, controlling our behaviour with his constant gaze. But more recently Intinction Rebellion entered the public space with a series of demonstrations. Their efforts to highlight the impending doom of Global Warming have made me adjust my vision of Mr. Panopticon. Their efforts made me realised, he’s not a torus as Bentham designed him, but instead a sphere, a visceral ball rolling over the planet consuming everything in his path.
If that’s the case, where does Mr. Panopticon watch us from? Is he at the centre of this massive ball like structure? More importantly I wonder where we fit, where do we live?
After thinking about that for a while I can only surmise the cells we inhabit line the inside of Mr. Panopticon, coating the inside of his outer membrane like the proteins lining the wall of a virus. This realisation changes the orientation of the cells we live in, tipping them over, packing them together side by side. And that shift changes the way we’re watched. He no longer looks out along a horizontal axis, instead monitoring us from above.
If we inhabit six-sided boxes, a hermetically sealed cells, what do we see when we look out? Looking left or right, front or back, we should see the other tenants of Mr. Panopticon. They should be there, staring in on us, as we stare in on them? But we don’t! Why is that? Are we so similar we mistake them for a reflection? Does he mediate everything, filtering it though some platform or other, making us forever reach but never make contact with our neighbours? It could be that he has transfixed us, made us all Narcissus, so enamoured by our own reflection everything else is just a haze.
If when we look around, and only see reflections, what do we see when we look up? Do we see Mr. Panopticon looking down on us? No. He’s a trickster. His entire existence is based on not being seen. Can we even see the spherical version of the tower? All watching? All knowing? Omnipotent? Do we see the virus gnome, hovering above us like water sliding over oil? Do we see God? Is that why Mr. Panopticon hasn’t destroyed our notions of God? He needs us to believe in the almighty, so we keep looking up. If we’re always looking up, we’re not looking down. If we don’t look down, we don’t see the viscera, the clots of blood, the chimeric limbs of the virus. We don’t see the true horror of Mr. Panopticon swirling beneath our feet. We’re taught the fiery chambers of hell are waiting for us should we transgress. They’re not. All that is beneath us is the bloody intestine of the beast that has swallowed us.
Give me strength.
The strength of character to call him out.
The strength of will not to succumb to his manipulations.
The strength of intellect to dissect the intricacies of his plan.
One final thing. Do I think I live in a glass box? No. Am I alone in the world? No. I can reach out, pull my partner close, and feel their warmth against me. Mr. Panopticon is a story. He is Joker to my Batman. Agent Smith to my Neo. He’s a villain that I need superpowers to resist. And reason for my superpower to be strength.
A response prompted by a Kari Paul article in The Guardian: Facebook launches app that will pay users for their data
The Sturdy app shows anyone who wants to see that Facebook is not a social network, it’s a data collection machine.
A new Facebook app will allow users to sell the company data on how they use competitors’ apps.
How does Facebook use the data it collects? I think it’s using our data against us. When I first wrote that sentence it came out as, “using it against it’s users.” I quickly realised, even if you don’t use Facebook, you come into contact with someone who does. Facebook knows something about you through them. When it says it’s connecting people it really is connecting people, mapping the many ways we brush against each other.
Imagine you’re walking along Piccadilly at 3.30 in the afternoon. Someone takes a picture, and posts it at 3.31. Facebook knows something about the person who posted the picture, and the location of everyone captured in the photo. What if Mark Zuckerberg was walking along Piccadilly, and at 3.32 someone spat in his face. The picture taken at 3.30 might show the assailant. It makes everyone in the picture a suspect.
Facebook gets to work cross-referencing various accounts, pulling up the latest facial recognition software. Suddenly the police are at your door, making you account for your actions between 3.15 and 3.45. You were minding your own business, but now you have to prove it. You have to prove somehow you didn’t spit in Mark Zuckerberg’s face. They’re not trying to prove you did it, you’re trying to prove you didn’t.
At this point I can hear a certain section of the population repeating a mantra, throwing it in my direction like some spunk sodden flannel, “nothing to hide nothing to fear.” That’s not an argument, it’s an accusation. You assume I have something I hide because I don’t want to account for my whereabouts.
Now imagine the world taking a sudden turn towards the authoritarian? What if people below a certain income level aren’t allowed to walk along Piccadilly? The police are at your door, questioning you about the assault on Mark Zuckerberg, but arresting you for being too poor to be on Piccadilly.
Who knows how this technology is being used, or will be used in the future? Facebook aren’t mining data because it’s fun. They’re doing it because it’s worth something. The information they collect can be used for what? Changing your purchasing habits? Telling you what you know about the world? Influencing elections?
Facebook is not a benign force. It’s a data collection machine. Now ask yourself how’s it being used?
Facial recognition technology is dangerous. The UK should follow San Francisco’s example and ban its use. The argument, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, is a smokescreen. It appeals to a certain logic without recognising the threat. If you disagree you must have something to hide. It allows vested interests to push an agenda that does nothing for any of our liberty. Facial recognition is the first step in the state automating policing, in automating the panopticon. You will change the way you behave because you will never know when you are being watched. Facial recognition weaponises surveillance, it weaponises the weapon.
There is a cold inevitability to this headline. A sadness that goes beyond the mountain of sadness that is this girl’s death. I’m filled with questions about the kind of people social media is engineering. And that brings a chill when I think about the people around me. We really are fucked if we’ve become a world where voting on someone’s death or life is given so little thought. My guess is every one of the 69 per cent who voted “death” are going to say they didn’t think she was serious. Their response to “Really Important, Help Me Choose D/L”, was as random as flipping a coin. They didn’t think about the question, or the outcome. They just flipped a tail instead of a head at the toss. An even more worrying implication is the lack of of critical thinking present in her followers. Would this girl still be alive if she had put an “L” before the “D”? I’m going to make a dangerous assumption that she put the “D” before the “L” because she had suicide in mind. Her metric was already headed in that direction. The answer just confirmed her choice. The 69 per cent chose randomly, and followed blindly. That possibility has ramifications reaching way beyond this girls suicide, taking us somewhere over the horizon, and dropping us in a well so deep we may never get out. In a complicated world social media simplified a question into a choice between, “D” or “L”. Ironically they understood the difference between the abstract “D” for death and “L” for life, but not the nuance of putting “D” before “L”. In life there are no binary choices. I fear we are forgetting that fact, forgetting how to navigate that complexity.
This is an interesting and impassioned argument from Mr Monbiot. I agree with what he has to say. But it does feel a bit like one of the podium speeches from the film Reds, Warren Beatty’s 1981 biopic of Jack Reed. The question I have for Mr Monbiot is simple; where do I plunge my sword? I’d love “to go straight to the heart of capitalism,” and strike the fatal blow. Personally I don’t think you can, because capitalism doesn’t have a heart. And because it doesn’t, there is no focus for our rage, no place for my aim to strike.
This raises the question, what form does contemporary capitalism take? It’s not the capitalism of the nineteenth century. The one Jack Reed was battling in Reds? That seems almost quaint by contemporary standards. Cut the head off the bosses. Take control of the means of production. Job done. These days you can cut the head off as many bosses as you want, capitalism will continue. It just grows another head, or two, like the spawn of Hydra. It strikes me that capitalism is more like an all-consuming ball of viscera, held together with clots of blood, and the chimeric limbs of a virus, grabbing at everything in it’s path.
Describing it in this way makes me think I should adjust my understanding of the monolith. For me the metaphor for contemporary capitalism has always been the panopticon. The panopticon I’ve written about in previous posts is a machine of control, a prison. It has a tower at the centre. With cells arranged around it. The watchers watch, and the tenants comply, because they never know when they’re being watched. With the visceral image in mind I think I have to revise my vision of the prisons architecture. It needs to accommodate this unrelenting ball of viscera.
If contemporary capitalism is a ball, always rolling, always consuming, where do the cells of the panopticon fit? I can only think they line the inside of the ball like the proteins lining the wall of a virus. This changes the orientation of the cells, tipping them over. That means we’re no longer being watched along a horizontal axis, instead we’re being monitored from above. If we inhabit these six-sided boxes, hermetically sealed cells, what are we seeing when we look out? If we look left or right, front or back, we should be able to see the other tenants of the panopticon. But we don’t. They should be there, staring in on us, as we stare in on them. Could we be so similar to each other we mistake them for our own reflection? Is it that we see them, but like Narcissus we’re so transfixed by our own reflection, all we see is a haze of movement in the background.
If when we look around we only see reflections, what are we seeing when we look up? Can we even see the spherical version of the tower? All watching? All knowing? Omnipotent? Do we see the virus gnome, hovering above us like water sliding on oil? Are we seeing God? Is that why capitalism hasn’t destroyed our notions of God? It needs us to believe in the almighty so we keep looking up. If we’re always looking up, we’re not looking down. If we’re not looking down, we don’t see the viscera, the clots of blood, the chimeric limbs of the virus. We don’t see the true horror of capitalism swirling beneath our feet. We’re told the fiery chambers of hell are waiting should we transgress, but they’re not. All that is beneath us is the bloody intestine of the beast that has swallowed us.
If the Devil is the beast, and the beast is the machine, how many of us have the courage to cut into its flesh? How hard is it to kill an animal? How much fear and loathing must we have to slice through the flesh and bone? How much more courage would you need to slice and escape through those chimeric limbs? Their entire reason for existence is to grab everything in their path, and draw it into the beast? Any individual escaping their cell would become just another resource for the machine, more protein for the wall of the virus.
It is no wonder that beast seems impossible to slay. We’ve been shadow boxing our reflection for so long, we’re exhausted. But strength must be summoned from somewhere. Any attack on the beast must be coordinated. It requires a vast percentage of the panopticons prisoners to break through the walls of their cell, and slice into the beast simultaneously. The trauma must be so catastrophic that the beast is unable to repair or mutate. Each and every chimeric limb must rendered irreparable. The unrelenting production of heads must be hacked until the machine has neither the will or the energy to produce more. Only then will we be able to hack through the clots of blood, and escape.
This would not be the end of it. Who knows what will be found on the outside. Will there be anything left? It could be so depleted it can no longer sustain us. Consider also, how prepared are we for this new life? After forever in a box, will we have the skills we need to thrive? A practical life is not a technological existence. The abstract thinking needed to thrive in a cell is not the same as the practical skills needed to survive in the wild. Can you create fire from nothing? I’m not sure I have such a basic skill.
This is not an excuse to stay where we are. We have a choice. Escape the panopticon. Destroy the beast. They are one and the same. If we don’t the beast will continue until it has consumed everything. Then it will feed on us until that resource is gone. Finally, alone, the beast will wither and decay. It will not matter. No one will cry. There will be no one left to notice.
This discovery is both fascinating and scary. It could be a blessing that is used to clean up pollution. It could be a curse, some kind of self replicating nonobot, that reproduces itself until there’s nothing left on the planet but a grey goo. Alternatively it could be the beginning of the Tyrell Corporation, destined to build androids we call replicants?
Yet more news of Facebook wrongdoing. They “unintentionally” harvested millions of peoples contact emails. Interestingly Mr Price’s report exposes a contradiction from Facebook. He writers “Facebook disclosed to Business Insider that 1.5 million people’s contacts were collected.” This was apparently unintentional, a hangover from another protocol, that automatically uploaded new users email contacts. These contacts were “fed into Facebook’s systems, where they were used to improve Facebook’s ad targeting, build Facebook’s web of social connections, and recommend friends to add.” If that’s true, what’s the point of Facebook assurances that “these contacts were not shared with anyone and we’re deleting them.” The contacts have already been fed into Facebook’s system. Deleting them makes no difference. The damage is already done.
"Designers cannot design sustainable future ways of living on scale without a shift in economic priorities. Human impacts on planetary processes in the Anthropocene require new types of ecologically engaged design and economics …" https://t.co/bZTc5TT7Li