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Sunday reading list part II: tech

1. Power, Pollution and the Internet
James Glanz, New York Times, Saturday 22 Sept

Data centres each use as much energy as a medium-sized town - and they’re wasting most of it.

I particularly liked Glanz’s comment that "These physical realities of data are far from the mythology of the Internet: where lives are lived in the “virtual” world and all manner of memory is stored in “the cloud.” ”. As technology develops, it becomes further removed not just from our lives - hidden infrastructure - but even from our capacity to think about it. Our networked world has reached a point where the reality is so complex that the metaphor becomes the only way we can literally bear it in mind - witness 51% of Americans believing cloud computing is affected by stormy weather.

Who creates these metaphors and how they are populised is therefore something to keep a watch on. As Marx didn’t say, ‘All that is solid melts into branding’…

To be read against:
2. The Internet? We Built That
Stephen Johnson, New York Times, Friday 21 Sept

The Internet (and all the other achievements of peer networks) is not a story about changing people’s attitudes or widening the range of human tolerance. It’s a story, instead, about a different kind of organization, neither state nor market, that actually builds things, creating new tools that in turn enhance the way states and markets work.

Though to me Johnson’s real point was one about how the narratives we tell about how the internet was built are both reflections of political worldviews and, themselves, political acts - something his argument for a ‘network of peers’ does not itself escape.

3. When the cybermen serve as censors
John Naughton, the Observer, Sunday 23 Sept

the safeguards to free speech ensured by the first amendment to the US constitution might not count for much in a public sphere built entirely of privately owned infrastructure

cc the original argument made by Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, in A Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the battle over the soul of the networked fourth estate [PDF], 2011, on how the US government got the Wikileaks website taken down by putting pressure on Amazon:

Because the company apparently acted on its own, without direct order from the government, this decision is unreviewable by a court. Given what we know of the materials as they have come out to this point, there is little likelihood that an official order to remove the materials would have succeeded in surmounting the high barriers erected by first amendment doctrine in cases of prior restraint. The fact that the same effect was sought to be achieved through a public statement by an official, executed by voluntary action of a private company, suggests a deep vulnerability of the checks imposed by the first amendment in the context of a public sphere built entirely of privately-owned infrastructure.

On the infrastructural theme:
4. Infrastructural Tourism
Shannon Christine Mattern, WordsInSpace.net, 20 July 2012

What are media made of? Why media studies requires the analysis of the infrastructure that builds it.

5. Many U.S. mobile users turn off tracking over privacy concerns
Rita Trichurl, Toronto Globe & Mail, 5 Sept 2012

Key stats: 32% of young people (25-34) using smartphones in the US have turned off location tracking for privacy reasons, and 57% of all US smartphone users have either uninstalled or not installed an app due to these concerns. As with much interesting tech demographic data, it’s from the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC.

6. Detroit’s Gleaming Start-Up Tower
Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic, Sunday 23 Sept

Is Bruce Sterling’s “dark euphoria” enough to make Madrigal believe in the possibility of tech entrepreneurship revitalising Motor City? The problem: density, or the lack of.


The lack of Corporate and Governmental transparency has been a topic of great controversy in recent years, yet our only tool for encouraging greater openness is the slow, tedious process of policy reform. 

Presented in the form of a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, the Transparency Grenade proposes itself as an iconic cure for these frustrations, making the process of leaking information from closed meetings as easy as pulling a pin. 

Equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and powerful wireless antenna, the Transparency Grenade captures network traffic and audio at the site and securely and anonymously streams it to a dedicated server where it is mined for information. Email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice extracted from this data are then presented on an online, public map, shown at the location of the detonation. 

Whether trusted employee, civil servant or concerned citizen, greater openness was never so close at hand.


The Transparency Grenade, by Julian Oliver

Via @cunabula

The lack of Corporate and Governmental transparency has been a topic of great controversy in recent years, yet our only tool for encouraging greater openness is the slow, tedious process of policy reform.

Presented in the form of a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, the Transparency Grenade proposes itself as an iconic cure for these frustrations, making the process of leaking information from closed meetings as easy as pulling a pin.

Equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and powerful wireless antenna, the Transparency Grenade captures network traffic and audio at the site and securely and anonymously streams it to a dedicated server where it is mined for information. Email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice extracted from this data are then presented on an online, public map, shown at the location of the detonation.

Whether trusted employee, civil servant or concerned citizen, greater openness was never so close at hand.

The Transparency Grenade, by Julian Oliver

Via @cunabula

Bugged planet

New Wikileaks release on the 'bugged planet' - the $5-billion mass surveillance industry selling telecoms and internet monitoring technology.

To date, we have documented a total of 133 of these surveillance weapons dealers, including 36 in the United States, 18 in the United Kingdom, 15 in Germany, 11 in Israel and eight in Italy. As with “traditional” arms dealers, most of them are located in rich and democratic countries. 12 of the 26 countries documented are also part of the European Union, which accounts for 62 of these companies.

87 sell tools, systems and software for monitoring the Internet, 62 for telephone surveillance, while 20 are for spying on SMS messages. 23 are involved in speech recognition, and 14 with GPS geolocalisation. Seven of the companies are also involved in the area of “cyber-war offensives”, selling Trojans, rootkits and other backdoors used to take control of computers remotely and without the knowledge of their users. These spy systems are distinct from those used by ordinary hackers in that they could not be identified by the “majority” of antivirus systems and other computer security solutions.

In Western democracies, the marketing and use of these systems of surveillance and interception of telecommunications is strictly controlled. There is nothing, however, to prevent their sale to countries with weaker restrictions, including to dictatorships. Although these tools are designed for espionage, they are not considered weapons. As such their exportation is controlled by national, European or international laws. Whether or not this business is moral, as things stand it is completely legal.

SPYFILES: REVELATIONS OF A BILLION-DOLLAR MASS SURVEILLANCE INDUSTRY

Spyfiles.org has an interactive graphic showing where these companies are located. It’s a little misleading; it implies these countries are where the technology is used too. Nonetheless worth a look.

New Delhi journalist Sagarika Ghose live-tweeted Assange’s video speech at the HTC Summit on 3rd December. Her take on his key points:

We are entering an age of transparency. The information of ordinary citizens is being accessed and monitored by secretive corporations. Elites are trying to hide information but the data of the common man is more openly available than ever to big companies. Public data, emails etc are being intercepted regularly. We are heading for bulk surveillance of the public to benefit transnational security elites.

A question to Assange: isn’t it better to give up some liberty and privacy in order to be safe?

His response: Giving up personal data to organisations is not part of the democratic covenant. Organisations should be accountable

Sagarika Ghose’s overall take on the presentation was that “Assange either paranoid and delusional or chillingly prophetic..”

However Indy Johar crucially recognises that this is not just a story about government or military surveillance. He tweeted:

The private platform web Facebook twitter etc has accelerated the asymmetry of personal data, open for the 99% & deep analytics for the 1%. [1]
It’s not the openness of our data that is the issue but the hidden predictive analytics, analysis & surveillance undertaken by hidden corps [2]

How exactly can we parse the differences between the Iranian police monitoring social media to crack down on dissidents… the UK police monitoring social media as part of their policing of protests… Vodafone monitoring social media to get advance warning of UK Uncut protests… and Vodafone monitoring social media to better understand their audience and increase sales?

Different ends, to be sure. But what does it mean that the same methods can be used for each?

For each government / corporation, the overarching aim is the same: knowledge = power. Through greater knowledge, the better they believe can control the actions of their consumer/citizenry.

And in each, the consumer/citizen social media user stands in the same relationship to power: asymmetric.

The way a republic is supposed to function is that there is transparency for those who wield public power and privacy for private citizens. The National Security State has reversed that dynamic completely, so that the Government (comprised of the consortium of public agencies and their private-sector “partners”) knows virtually everything about what citizens do, but citizens know virtually nothing about what they do (which is why WikiLeaks specifically and whistleblowers generally, as one of the very few remaining instruments for subverting that wall of secrecy, are so threatening to them). Fortified by always-growing secrecy weapons, everything they do is secret — including even the “laws” they secretly invent to authorize their actions — while everything you do is open to inspection, surveillance and monitoring.

Glenn Greenwald, The always-expanding bipartisan Surveillance State, in Salon 20th May 2011

Doubtless you’ve already read the context in the Top Secret America project from the Washington Post.

Zygmunt Bauman has famously conceptualized modern society as increasingly “liquid.” Information, objects, people and even places can more easily flow around time and space. Old “solid” structures are melting away in favor of faster and more nimble fluids. I’ve previously described how capitalism in the West has become more liquid by moving out of “solid” brick-and-mortar factories making “heavy” manufacturing goods and into a lighter, perhaps even “weightless,” form of capitalism surrounding informational products. The point of this post is that as information becomes increasingly liquid, it leaks.

WikiLeaks is a prime example of this. Note that the logo is literally a liquid world. While the leaking of classified documents is not new (think: the Pentagon Papers), the magnitude of what is being released is unprecedented. … And none of this would have happened without the great liquefiers: digitality and Internet.

These technologies create information that is more liquid and leak-able and have also allowed WikiLeaks to become highly liquid itself. It is not just one website, but also flows throughout the web on its many “mirror” sites. The data is disseminated over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks making it truly ”the new Napster.” And just as shutting down Napster did not end music-sharing, shutting down WikiLeaks will not end the sharing of classified information.

But what are the consequences of this new politics of liquidity?