Tech news roundup for the New Socialist newsletter

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Just my sections (on tech news), archived for posterity. The other editors’ sections are available on Patreon for subscribers only.

July 8, 2018

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London police chief ‘completely comfortable’ using facial recognition with 98 percent false positive rate - The Verge

The Metropolitan police is trialling the use of facial recognition technology at public events in order to find wanted individuals by their mugshot. As stated in the headline, the false positive rate has so far been 98% (‘meaning that 98 percent of the “matches” it makes are of innocent people’), and there have been no successful arrests. Feels like a standard case of technology fetishism, where the adoption of a particular kind of technology is seen as an innovative step forward no matter what the data actually report. The accuracy may or may not improve over time, but either way, the fact that this technology is being so enthusiastically adopted by a repressive arm of the state feels quite dystopian.

The surveillance economy and its discontents - Socialist Worker

On the other side of the Atlantic, facial recognition technology is in the news for slightly different reasons: less for its inaccuracy, and more for who is (or could be) using it. Amazon’s “Rekognition” service, which helps its customers to programmatically identify objects in images, is already being licensed to police departments, and could theoretically be used by even more controversial agencies like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This article goes into some of the recent incidents of resistance among tech workers at companies like Google and Microsoft (mentioned in the previous roundup) and sketches out what could be done by Amazon workers to force a change.

Cory Doctorow: Zuck’s Empire of Oily Rags - Locus Online

An interesting, somewhat critical take on Facebook by a sort of techno-utopian left-liberal who’s done a lot of activism around privacy. Last sentence: “Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.” I’m personally not a fan of the narrative that some people are incorrigibly racist - it’s definitely one that Clinton played up during the campaign, with her “deplorables” comment - but it does put the whole Cambridge Analytica issue into perspective. I also liked this line: “For commercial surveillance to be cost effective, it has to socialize all the risks associated with mass surveillance and privatize all the gains.”

Survival of the Richest - Douglas Rushkoff for Medium

A really excellent first-person piece that deftly reveals the terror that certain extremely wealthy elites feel about the future. Many of them no longer seem to feel in control of what the future will bring - instead, recognising that the present levels of inequality are unsustainable, they’re making contingency plans for when the pitchforks inevitably start coming out. Rushkoff ends the piece by advising these elites that it would be better to take steps to reduce inequality now, in order to avoid this reckoning, to little avail: “They were not interested in how to avoid a calamity; they’re convinced we are too far gone.”

Worth reading in full, but here are some more great quotes: “They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader?” / “For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.” / “Thus, we get tech billionaires launching electric cars into space — as if this symbolizes something more than one billionaire’s capacity for corporate promotion.”

Union defeats Deliveroo in latest round of gig economy rights case - The Independent

A small victory for IWGB in a complex legal battle over the way Deliveroo has classified its riders as self-employed. (Deliveroo has, weirdly, also claimed this latest ruling as a victory - I’m not entirely sure why.) While it’s great that there are some legal advances, the judicial side is certainly not the whole story, and it’s worth keeping an eye on Deliveroo riders’ autonomous struggles in response to changing conditions. For instance, Deliveroo recently announced changes to its payment system that could lead to falling wages, which has led some riders to decide to strike.

Let’s make private data into a public good - Mariana Mazzucato for MIT Technology Review

A good overview of the problems with allowing the private sector to monopolise and monetise our private data, by Mariana Mazzucato who’s usually quite good on these issues. The crux of it is giving the public greater control over technology, as summarised by this quote: “the key issue here is not just sending a portion of the profits from data back to citizens but also allowing them to shape the digital economy in a way that satisfies public needs”.

What if people were paid for their data? - The Economist

A much more questionable take on private data (unsurprising given where it’s published). This sort of reasoning - succinctly described in the headline - is pretty understandable in our woefully neoliberal times, when the natural tendency is to marketise anything that could potentially be a market. As if markets were this magic wand for fixing power imbalances. While this kind of argument is sometimes tempting for the left - if only instrumentally, as a strategy for diminishing the power of the tech giants - I worry that buying into this framing does more harm than good. Yes, privatised data has resulted in the growth of extremely wealthy multinational tech giants like Facebook and Alphabet (Google), but the socialist response to that is not to somehow charge them for the right to access our data. That only reinforces a neoliberal narrative. The proper response would to push for decommodification of data, and transforming the economy such that these companies are no longer able to exist in the first place (in other words: abolishing Silicon Valley).

June 24, 2018

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The last week has been a banner week for worker power within the tech industry, primarily centred around US tech giants’ role in the military-industrial complex. In the previous newsletter, I linked to a Jacobin article on workers at Google who campaigned internally to cancel a contract with the Pentagon (involving drone strikes). Since then, quite a bit has unfolded throughout the rest of the industry, most of it prompted by recent revelations around “forcible separation” of children from their parents by US federal agency Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The general trend has been of growing internal discontent around the tech industry’s role in supplying services to agencies like ICE, not just at the level of the executives, but at the rank-and-file level as well. The first four articles below are an attempt to map out the different focal points of employee dissatisfaction, with Microsoft being a key locus for now but unlikely to remain that way for long.

My personal take on the matter is that this current wave of employee mobilisation within the industry is unprecedented for tech, and if the anger is channeled in the right direction, there’s a possibility that this could spark something much bigger. After all, the unethical practices of the tech industry go way, way deeper than this most recent spate of anger around collaborating with repressive US federal agencies. If enough workers within the industry take notice and decide to do something about it—by seizing worker power in a way that would be completely at odds with the top-down, profit-driven ethos of the industry at large—that could have a major impact on the industry and, by extension, the economy at large. Only time will tell if this is a watershed moment or not.

The case for building worker power at Microsoft - Notes From Below (June 19)

Myself, on the backstory behind the Microsoft-ICE contract and why employees taking collective action may be the best way to force change.

Amazon Workers Demand Jeff Bezos Cancel Face Recognition Contracts With Law Enforcement - Gizmodo (June 21)

In the spirit of Google & Microsoft, Amazon workers are getting in on the protest, this time over facial recognition software (called “Rekognition”) which is being provided to US law enforcement. Workers are also calling on the company to stop providing cloud services to Palantir (co-founded by prominent Trump backer and “malevolent Silicon Valley billionaire” made flesh, Peter Thiel), which itself provides quite shady software services to a variety of law enforcement agencies.

Google Engineers Refused to Build Security Tool to Win Military Contracts - Bloomberg (June 21)

A small number of “influential” software engineers at Google were able to put up a roadblock in the company’s plans to secure contracts with the US military simply be refusing to build a specific feature. This occurred several months ago but wasn’t reported at the time.

Silicon Valley’s questionable ethics are finally being challenged… by its employees - WIRED (June 22)

An excellent summary of the situation, complete with a guide to external organisations (such as Tech Workers Coalition and the Industrial Workers of the World) that could be help for anyone interested in workplace organising.

How Tech Companies Conquered America’s Cities - The New York Times (June 20)

In a different vein, Farhad Manjoo writes about the slow creep of the tech sector into the municipal sphere, whether it’s via privatised services or electoral lobbying. The big question that the article attempts to answer: “How did tech companies become America’s most-powerful local power brokers?” It concludes, soberly: “[…] there was a time, in America, when the government paid for infrastructure and the public had a say in important local services. With Ubers ruling the roads, Birds ruling the sidewalks, Elon Musk running our subways and Domino’s paving our roads, that age is gone.”

‘Facebook is taking everything’: rising rents drive out Silicon Valley families - The Guardian (June 20)

Gentrification: the Silicon Valley edition. Another look into the human costs of the housing crisis in the Bay Area.

Here’s How That Tablet On The Table At Your Favorite Restaurant Is Hurting Your Waiter - BuzzFeed News (June 21)

An excellent piece of investigative journalism into the human costs of installing technology as a mediator for consumer interactions. In this case, chain restaurants across the US have been adopting a tablet called a “Ziosk”, whereby customers can place orders directly from their table and, later, rate the service of their server—the Uber model, but for restaurants. In other words, this is using technology to automate the process of disciplining workers (as potential earnings are reduced for servers with lower ratings) while outsourcing managerial tasks to customers. Brilliant for capital, and terrible for labour.

Another Failed Silicon Valley Exec Gets a Crypto Project - WIRED (June 22)

Just the absolute epitome of the “failing up” culture within the startup world. A few years back, Lucas Duplan founded a tech startup while he was still a student at Stanford University and managed to raise $30 million USD from some of the Valley’s most prestigious names. That startup, Clinkle, not only offered pretty much nil in the way of actual innovation but was also plagued by chaotic (mis)management, and so the company burned through its cash within a few years. Now, though, Duplan is back, having raised a fund from “his family and outside investors”. This is an excellent illustration of a phenomenon I wrote about for Notes From Below earlier this year, in my piece Silicon Inquiry:

There are no real consequences to failure. If your startup runs out of money, or you have to sell for less than you raised, rest assured because you’ll probably be able to raise more money in the future. As long as you have a half-decent slide deck and fit some rich person’s preconceived notions of a good founder, you’ll never have to get a real job; your material needs will be taken care of by the Silicon Valley Basic Income.

The American Right Wing Had Another Great Week Online - The Intercept (June 22)

An intriguing piece explaining why tech companies like Twitter and Facebook don’t do more to curb the alt-right, even though they technically have the ability to deplatform people for breaking TOS (including, but certainly not limited to, Trump). This article lays the blame at the feet of tech CEOs, who are more interested in preserving existing power relations - even if they are fundamentally unjust - than in challenging the status quo. For example, Twitter will suspend users who publish the phone number of White House advisers or the personal details of ICE agents, while doing very little to challenge neo-Nazis except where required by jurisdiction. This is where augmented worker power could be really transformative - if enough Twitter/Facebook employees demanded internal change

June 10, 2018

This week’s full newsletter is unpaywalled, and available on Patreon.

Does Theranos Mark the Peak of the Silicon Valley Bubble? - Nautilus

An interview with John Carreyrou, a journalist who started writing a series of exposés around Theranos (a blood-testing startup) in 2015, marking the beginning of the company’s downfall. Theranos became a poster child among Silicon Valley unicorns around 2013, when it was valued at $9 billion (having raised around $700 million) only 10 years after it was founded. It was also an extreme example of the “founder cult” mythology in Silicon Valley—Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO, dropped out of Stanford at the age of 19 to start Theranos and managed to assemble an exceptionally impressive set of advisors and investors (impressive on paper, at least; it’s unclear what value Henry Kissinger would contribute to the field of medical technologies). This interview has some decent insights on both the specifics of Theranos, and what it reveals about startup culture as a whole.

Tech Workers Versus the Pentagon - Jacobin

An interview with an anonymous software engineer at Google about Project Maven (an internal nickname for a highly controversial contract with the Pentagon, using Google’s machine learning technology to improve accuracy for drone strikes). A few days ago, Google announced it would be cancelling the contract, primarily as a result of internal pressure after several employees resigned in protest. Some excellent discussion of the possibilities of harnessing power from below in order to influence corporate decisions in the tech industry, sketching out the challenges ahead as well as the opportunities. More details on Project Maven here: