Category Archives: Internet

Crossing the Creepy Line: Google, Deception and the ACCC

Belief in Google’s promises is much like believing in virgin births.  For a company so proud of its pursuit of a transparent information environment, it has remained committedly opaque about informing customers on the way it gathers user data.  Statements from the company over the years have not been reassuring, and should foster prolonged scepticism and dread.  “Google policy,” former Google executive Eric Schmidt explained with flesh-crawling discomfort in 2010, “is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”  Don’t bother typing at all, he claimed. “We know where you are.  We know where you’ve been.  We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”  Always a charmer.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is yet another regulatory body that has thrown itself into the fray, taking its second case against Google in the Australian Federal Court.  Central to this action is the claim that will come as little surprise to watchers of the Silicon Valley scene: the instance of “deception by design”.

In the words of ACCC chairman Rod Sims, Google need merely have said “if you agree to this, we’re going to combine the personally identifiable information we have on your Google account with your browsing activity on non-Google sites, if you agree.  If you agree, here’s the benefits and here are the issues, but make it really clear.”

According to the ACCC media release, Google “misled consumers when it failed to properly inform consumers, and did not gain their explicit informed consent, about its move in 2016 to start combining personal information in consumers’ Google accounts with information about those individuals’ activities on non-Google sites that used Google technology, formerly DoubleClick technology, to display ads.”

Prior to June 28, 2016, Google’s privacy policy noted that it would “not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent”.  On June 28, 2016, that statement was erased and confined to the digital dustbin, replaced with something far more equivocal: “[d]epending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”  The “I agree” notification the company posted that day was said to be misleading as consumers “could not have properly understood the changes Google was making nor how their data would be used”.  That discrepancy in impaired any prospect of giving informed consent.

Instead of clarifying matters, as Sims puts it, Google indulged in using adtech in a rather sneaky way, thereby connecting the activity of the user with third party sites.  “Google significantly increased the scope of information it collected about consumers on a personally identifiable basis.  This included potentially very sensitive and private information about their activities on third party websites.”  Once done, the information enabled the forensic targeting of advertisements without the expressed informed consent of consumers.  “The use of this new combined information allowed Google to increase significantly the value of its advertising products, from which it generated much higher profits.”

Google’s response has been tyrannically snooty.  The change in the company’s policies on June 28, 2016 was made clear to users by means of “prominent and easy-to-understand notifications”.  (Condescension is second nature in such pronouncements.)  Users who did not consent to the update were left with “their experience of our products and services”, according to a Google spokesman, “unchanged”.  Typically, Google generates the idea of the mythical, all-knowing user, aware of preferences, informed of choices, and fully appraised of the environment they inhabit.  It is a fiction that has lost much ballast over the years.  The consumer is as an oblivious as a date consuming a spiked drink.

The ACCC should be congratulated for its persistence, though it remains short on returns.  In October 2019, it commenced its first, and to date unresolved action, against the company, chastising it for misleading consumers in making on-screen representations about how they collected and used local data during 2017 and 2018.  The central problem in Google’s alleged conduct was how the site continued to collect and use personal data, irrespective of consumers’ wishes. As Sims explained at the time, “We are taking court action against Google because we allege that as a result of these on-screen representations Google has collected, kept and used highly sensitive and valuable personal information about consumers’ location without them making an informed choice.”  Cockily, he also called the venture “a world-first case”.

The concise statement filed last year alleges that Google “represented to users of the Android Operating System that it would not obtain data about their location, or that where such data was obtained it would only be used for the user’s own purposes.  However, Google did obtain and retain such data and used that data for Google’s purposes.”  Misleading or deceptive conduct and false or misleading representations were thereby made on the Location History function.

The confidence of the ACCC seems misplaced, bringing meek conventional weapons to a thermonuclear party. Google has the deepest pockets to draw upon, and is happy to duck and weave through the legal processes of most countries to adapt.  Even if fined, its transgressions will continue.

The first federal court case is still dawdling away.  Justice Thomas Thawley, wishing to speed things up, vacated two case management hearings scheduled later in the year.  By August 3, he has ordered the ACCC and Google to file a statement of agreed facts, and a final document on issues with which the parties are in dispute by August 7.  The proceeding will also be referred to mediation commencing on November 2, 2020.  The indiscriminate information gathering colossus that is Google will hardly be shaking.

SouthFront is Censored under Cover of Pandemic

Censorship of alternative media is becoming more widespread in the COVID19 era. This article documents the case of SouthFront.

Introducing SouthFront

Where do you find daily news, videos, analysis and maps about the conflict in Syria?  Detailed reports about the conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Venezuela?  News about the rise of ISIS in Mozambique?  Original analysis of events in the US and Russia?  SouthFront is the place.

SouthFront is unique and influential, reaching a global audience of hundreds of thousands. They have  opinion articles but their reports and videos are informational and factual. Their website says,

SouthFront focuses on issues of international relations, armed conflicts and crises…. We try to dig out the truth on issues which are barely covered by the states concerned and the mainstream media.

Censorship by Facebook and YouTube

A major disinformation and censorship drive against SouthFront was recently launched.  On April 30 the SouthFront Facebook account with about 100,000 subscribers was deleted without warning or notice.

On May 1,  SouthFront’s  main YouTube account with over 150 thousand subscribers was terminated. The English language channel had 1,900 uploaded videos with 60 million views over the past 5 years.

While the SouthFront website continues as before, the above actions remove important distribution channels which SouthFront has painstakingly built up.

The censorship has been accompanied by a parallel disinformation campaign promoted by corporate, governmental and establishment “think tank” organizations.  This is in the context where the US State Department’s  Global Engagement Center (GEC) has a direct liaison with Silicon Valley companies and teams focused on “countering the propaganda” from Russia, China and Iran with a current budget of $60 million per year.

In a March 2020 hearing, Senator Chris Murphy (D – Conn) lobbied for increased funding and more censorship. He said, “It’s hard to chase one lie after another. You have to actually go after the source and expose the source as illegitimate or untrustworthy, is that right?” Lea Gabrielle, head of GEC, responded “That’s correct.”

When the Senator says “it’s hard to chase one lie after another“, he is acknowledging that it’s often hard to show that it’s a lie.  Even more so when it is not a lie. It is much easier for the authorities to simply say the source is untrustworthy- or better yet to eliminate them — as they have tried to do with SouthFront.

False Accusations by Facebook

The elimination of SouthFront’s Facebook account was based on a Facebook sponsored investigation titled “April 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report“.  The 28 page report says:

We’re constantly working to find and stop coordinated campaigns that seek to manipulate public debate across our platforms….We view influence operations as coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation…. This month we removed eight networks of accounts, Pages and Groups….. Our investigation linked this activity to … two media organizations in Crimea – News Front and SouthFront. We found this network as part of our internal investigation into suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior.

First, SouthFront is not trying to “manipulate public debate”; they are providing news and information which is difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere.  It seems to be the censors who are trying to manipulate debate by shutting out some voices.

Second, SouthFront does not have “fake accounts”; they have a public website plus standard social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube (until cancelled). Third, SouthFront has no connection to NewsFront nor operations in Crimea.

NewsFront and SouthFront are completely different organizations. They share the name “Front” but that is irrelevant. Does Facebook confuse the New York Times with Moscow Times?  After all, they both have “Times” in their title.

Facebook has shut down SouthFront on the basis of misinformation and smears.

False Accusations by DFRLab

The  Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) was created by the Atlantic Council, a “non partisan organization that galvanizes US global leadership”. It is another organization which is quick to label alternative foreign policy voices as “Russian propaganda”. DFRLab claims to have “operationalized the study of disinformation by exposing falsehoods and fake news”. They reported the censorship of SouthFront with a report titled “Facebook removes Russian propaganda outlet in Ukraine” with subtitle “The social network took down assets connected to News Front and SouthFront, propaganda websites supportive of Russian security services”.  They reported that the two “demonstrated a close relationship by liking each other’s pages.” As anyone who uses Facebook is aware, it is common to “like” a wide variety of articles and publications. The suggestion that “liking” an article proves a close relationship is silly.

The DFRLab  report says News Front and SouthFront “disseminated pro-Kremlin propaganda in an array of languages, indicating they were attempting to reach a diverse, international audience beyond Russia.”

First, NewsFront and SouthFront are completely distinct and separate organizations.  Second, is there anything unusual about a website trying to expand and reach different audiences? Don’t all publications or outlets do that?  This is a tactic of the new censors: to portray normal behavior as sinister.

Another censorship tactic is to assert that it is impermissible to question the veracity of certain findings.  Thus DFRLab report says NewsFront posted “outright disinformation” when it published a story that “denied the culpability of Russian-backed separatists’ involvement in the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines MH-17”.  They suggest this proves it is Russian propaganda and false. However, the facts about the downing of MH-17 are widely disputed. For example. one of the foremost American investigative journalists, the late Robert Parry, came to the same conclusion that the MH-17 investigation was manipulated and the shoot-down was probably NOT as portrayed. Parry did many articles on this important event, confirming that it is not “Russian propaganda”.

The Atlantic Council is one of the most influential US “think tanks”. It appears they have created the DFRLab as a propaganda tool to disparage and silence the sources of alternative information and analysis.

Disinformation by European Council “Task Force”   

The goals and priorities of the European Union are set by the European Council.  They are also increasingly active in suppressing alternative information and viewpoints.

In 2015 the European Council created an East StratCom Task Force to “address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. Their major project is called EUvsDISINFO. They say, “Using data analysis and media monitoring services in 15 languages, EUvsDISINFO identifies, compiles, and exposes disinformation cases originating in pro-Kremlin media.”

This organization is part of the disinformation campaign against SouthFront. In April 2019 they published an analysis “SouthFront – Russia Hiding Being Russian“. The story falsely claims that SouthFront “attempts to hide the fact it is registered and managed in Russia.”  The SouthFront team is international and includes Russians along with numerous other nationalities. Key spokespersons are the Bulgarian, Viktor Stoilov,  and an American, Brian Kalman. They do not hide the fact that the website is registered in Russia or that PayPal donations go to an account in Russia. The website is hosted by a service in Holland. It is genuinely international.

EUvsDISINFO demonstrates disinformation tactic of falsely claiming to have “exposed” something that is “hidden” when it is public information. There is nothing sinister about collaboration between different nationalities including Russia. EUvsDISINFO suggests there are sinister “pro-Kremlin networks”.  In reality, SouthFront is a website run by a dedicated and underpaid staff and lots of volunteers.  While the European Council gives millions of dollars to EUvsDISINFO, SouthFront operates on a tiny budget without government support from Russia or anywhere else.

False accusations by US Department of Defense

On April 9,  the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Laura Cooper, spoke at a press briefing.  She identifies SouthFront by name and accuses them of “reporting that there actually was no pandemic and that some deaths in Italy might in fact have been from the common flu”.

The first accusation is because of the SouthFront article “Pandemic of Fear”. In contrast with the accusation, the article says, “The COVID-19 outbreak is an apparent threat which cannot be ignored.”  The article also discusses the much less reported but widespread pandemic of fear.

The second false accusation is regarding the high death toll in Italy. SouthFront reported the findings of a report from the Italian Ministry of Health which suggested the previous mild winter and flu season had “led to an increase in the pool of those most vulnerable (the elderly and those with chronic illnesses) that can increase the impact of the epidemic COVID-19 on mortality and explain, at least in part, the increased lethality observed in our country.”  This is very different than saying the deaths were caused by the common flu. In any case, the findings came directly from Italian health authorities not SouthFront.

In the same press conference, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense says she wishes to “reign in malign actors that are spreading misleading disruptive information”.  The censors claim the higher ground but engage in misinformation and falsehoods as they seek to silence discussion and debate.

Conclusion

There is a coordinated effort to manipulate and restrict what the public sees and hears in both North America and Europe.  Under the guise of “fact checking” and stopping “Russian propaganda”, the establishment has created private and government sponsored  censors to distort and diminish  questioning media.  They label alternative media “Russian” or “pro Kremlin” even though many of the researchers and writers are from the West and have no connection or dependency on the Russian government.

SouthFront is an example of a media site doing important and original reporting and analysis.  It is truly international with offices in several countries. The staff and volunteers include people from four continents. The censorship and vilification they are facing seems to be because they are providing information and analysis which contradicts the western mainstream narrative.

In recent developments, SouthFront is posting videos to a secondary YouTube channel called SouthFront TV. When that was also taken down on May 16, they challenged the ruling and won. The channel was restored with the acknowledgment “We have confirmed that your YouTube account is not in violation of our Terms of Service.”

SouthFront is still trying to have their main channel with 152K subscribers restored. Their Facebook account is still shut down and attempts to disparage their journalism continues. The censorship has escalated during the Covid-19 crisis.

Avoiding the Obvious: Skim Reading, Exams and the Internet

It is the anxiety-inducing nightmare for the studious: A dream where you find yourself in an exam hall, which might, on ordinary days, be a gym or some other facility.  It is repurposed for that most cruel of blood sports: sorting out the learned from the dolts, the prize winners from the dunces.  The stern invigilators gaze as you like vermin to liquidate.  You are seated on a firm stool, rarely comfortable. You have been checked to see if you have any cheating accoutrements.  Permitted items: scrap paper, a pencil, an eraser.

Before you, apart from the often blue-rinsed wonders wishing to smother you, is the “exam paper”.  It has a “cover sheet”.  The most evident rule, one that does not apply to reading many, say, Australian newspapers, is to not start at the back and work your way to the front. (The back-to-front principle is sound on some level, as Australian sports writing can, in many ways, be more catchy and sprightly than the political dross at the front.)  Not so with your conventional exam papers.  The front sets tone, temper and tempo.

For those sitting exams now, in whatever fanciful mode they are delivered in, the same problems arise.  But another complication has been added: the enormous, mind numbing distraction of the Internet.  Infinite choice can have a negating effect; such an endless buffet destroys a capacity to consume nourishingly. According to sociologist Todd Gitlin, “If you have infinite choice, people are reduced to passivity.”

From this garden variety of choice sprung the social media netizen, the hyper-networked operator of several tasks, meaning that none are done proficiently.  Such a figure is incapable of the deep read.  Such an action becomes one of glancing, skimming, and gazing. Profundity is not consumed and is, for the most part, shunned.  Maryanne Wolf looks at this in the context of the skim reader, saturated with the distraction.  Babies and toddlers are “pacified” by the iPad; school children get stories from smartphones; boys play games instead of reading; parents read their Kindles and wade through newsfeeds and emails.  “Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlines the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.”

The digital medium is not so much the message as an obfuscation of it.  “Studies on ages from elementary school students to young adults,” noted Wolf in 2018, “indicate that the slower, more time-demanding processes involved in comprehension and attention to details are adversely affected when reading the same content on digital mediums.”

The modern instructor (forget the term pedagogue, which is now being done to death by modern management, class room theories and political correctness), is left with a bewildering array of efforts that repudiate the self-evident front page, the instruction manual, the damnably obvious.  The truth is not out there so much as somewhere, lurking on some digital platform.  One student email suggests that she “heard from somewhere” (vagueness is golden in gossip) that she only had to answer one question from each section in her exam.  Never mind that the front cover of the set paper states, with punchy clarity, that all questions have to be answered, and not doing so will sink the grade.

To answer an exam, the person sitting it will deploy various strategies, except the obvious one.  The obvious one is described in simple terms in a resource book for teachers.  The section titled “Typical exam mistakes and how to avoid them” states the following: “The first most common mistake in exams is not reading the exam or task instructions properly.”  To think we know what to do is not the same as actually understanding what is expected. “Read everything carefully and read the instructions twice or three times to make sure you understand what you have to do.”  Not bad advice.

When answering exams, there will be the chancing opportunist, the ambitious cheater, the diviner.  In that mix can be added the social media mind, addled by availability, rumour and chat room feeds.  While not exactly on point, this could be regarded as a symptom of “secondary orality”, that manifestation of the post-literature world described by Caleb Crain with such force in 2007. In such a culture, disagreeable ideas are put aside as unworkable and undesirable; we “fall back on hunches”, take refuge in our instincts.  This is not helped by learning platforms which are larded with so much screen information so as to infantilize the user.

An interesting study on how such platforms as Brightspace or Canvas actually serve to impair student learning could be gathered from the fine-boned resistance against downloading certain links, especially those that lead to the intimidating sight of multiple pages. Unless the image is instant and obvious, dashingly glitzy and the soul of brevity, going to a link that states “course guide”, where all the material is available, is hard going indeed.  Preference is given on finding spread material through “tabs” and “modules”, much of it repetitive.  Let the user stroll through a series of clicks, and all will be well.

Wolf suggests that we need a new literacy for the digital age, in line with a deeper understanding about a very battered neutral circuitry. But what we are getting is an illiteracy profound and pronounced.  And reading the front page of an exam paper was never exactly the sort of thing that was done by many in any case.

The Online Double-bind

The trap was set at least twenty-five years ago and the mice jumped at the smell of the cheese.  I am referring to the introduction of the computer as a mass necessity and the Internet that followed. I was slow to enter the trap, “forced” finally in 2007 by the college where I was teaching. Up to that point I was just a member of The Lead Pencil Club, whose motto was “a speed bump on the information superhighway” and whose membership list numbered twenty-three and a half people worldwide. When I slowly and reluctantly reached for the cheese, the trap snapped not on my neck to finish me, but on my head that was half in and half out.  The out part kept thinking.  What follows are that half-head’s musings on why I didn’t follow my intuition, the whole damn sorry situation we are all in, and what we might do to spring the trap and run free.  I don’t like this trapped feeling.  And, by the way, the cheese was American, which is not exactly real cheese.

In 1960 the sociologist C. Wright Mills said that there was far too much information for people to assimilate and make sense of and that lucid summations were needed.  He was echoing Thoreau who in 1854 said, “If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?” Mills said people needed to develop what he called the sociological imagination that would allow them to condense and simplify news and to connect personal and social matters within historical and structural contexts.

That was the long-lost era of newspapers, long-form paper magazines, the reading of books, and minimal television stations.  To think that there was far too much information then can only make one laugh, now that the digital revolution has buried us in data, information, and “breaking news” at warp speed, usually contradictory and lacking context.  The internet has literally made people crazy, created schizoid or split personalities who don’t know whether they are coming or going or what world they are in, physical or virtual.  This is the era of social schizophrenia.  It is also the era of Covid-19 lockdowns when a far greater online life is promoted as the necessary future.

If people once felt that all the information was too confusing and they were ending up thinking and doing things ass-backwards as a result, back then they might have understood it if you told them that the only way you can do anything is ass-backwards.  Today, many would probably greet you with a look of bewilderment as they googled it to see if there was a way to swivel their asses to the front to get adjusted to the way they feel while waiting online for clear directions to emerge.  Which way does an ass go?

They will be waiting for a long, long time.

The Internet is a double-bind because we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. News, writing, and information of all sorts is now often not available any other way. The era of paper newspapers is coming to an end. This was meant to be. Other sources of fact and fiction have gradually been eliminated, while the content on the Internet has been dramatically increased and progressively censored. The dream of an open Internet is turning into a nightmare. If you look at the Internet’s  creation and development by the U.S. military-intelligence-Silicon Valley network as a tool for social control, propaganda, and total spying, if you grasp this nexus and their intentions, you will come away realizing that the Internet and the total integrated digital world is a dystopian tool designed to make you crazy.  To sow confusion and endless contradictory information from minute to minute. To “flood the zone” (see Event 201) with propaganda and disinformation. To give you a headache, keep you agitated, and destroy your genuine human experience in the physical world. To put you into a state of frenetic passivity while whispering in your ear that there is no escape, while allowing elements of truth to emerge to keep you addicted.

This is the double-bind. It is what Jacques Ellul in 1964 called the technological society that is ruled by technique in every aspect of its life.  Technique is a way of thinking that emphasizes efficiency; it is a way of thinking that emphasizes order and standardized means to a predetermined end.  It is rational, deliberate, and focused on results.  It is a way of thinking that has penetrated deep into the psychic structures of society and opposes spontaneity and unreflective action.  Machines grow out of technical thinking, and today the computer, the internet, and artificial intelligence are the ideal manifestations of such thinking.  They are the result, not the cause.  As such, digital technology satisfies the technical mindsets that have been created over the decades, which includes regular people who have been gradually softened up to believe these machine dreams.  Efficiency, results, practicality, and speed. The human body as a wonderful machine.

We have all been so conditioned, even those of us old enough to have lived before the computer era. Starting particularly in the early 1990s with the rat-a-tat electronic frenzy of the U.S. televised aggressive war against Iraq, euphemistically called the Gulf War and presented live with round-the-clock television coverage by ghoulish announcers more excited than 13-year-old boys with a porn magazine, the speed of everyday life has increased.  If you lived through those years and were sensitive to the social drift, you could feel the pace of life pick up year-to-year, as everyone was induced to get in the fast lane.  On the information superhighway, it is the only lane.  Paul Virilio, a French thinker, has focused on this issue of speed in his studies of dromology, from dromos: a race, running.  While his language is perhaps too academic, his insights are profound, as with the following point:

The speed of the new optoelectronic and electroacoustic milieu becomes the final void (the void of the quick), a vacuum that no longer depends on the interval between places or things and so on the world’s extension, but on the interface of an instantaneous transmission of remote appearances, on a geographic and geometric retention in which all volume, all relief vanishes.

This is the world of teleconferencing and the online life, existence shorn of physical space and time and people.  A world where shaking hands is a dissident act. A haunted world of specters, words, and images that can appear and disappear in a nanosecond.  A magic show. A place where, in the words of Charles Manson, you can “get the fear,” where fear is king.  A locus where, as we sit at home “sheltering in place,” we are no longer there.  Ernest Hemingway sniffed the future when in The Sun Also Rises, he has the protagonist Jake Barnes say no to Robert Cohn, who wants him to travel to South America with him, with these words: “All countries look like the moving pictures.”  That was 1926.

Things have changed a wee bit since then. But the essence of propaganda and social control remains the same.  “All those people who seek to control the behavior of large numbers of other people work on the experiences of those other people,” wrote R.D. Laing, in The Politics of Experience. “Once people can be induced to experience a situation in a similar way, they can be expected to behave in similar ways.”  Mystification takes place when people can be convinced that a social construction – e.g. the Internet and the digital life – is part of “the natural order of things,” like the air we breathe.  And that life online is real life, better and more real than physical existence.

I believe the digital revolution has gone a long way toward destroying our experience as persons. It is the endless magical mystery tour that goes nowhere.  It is the ultimate psychodrama conjured by a satanic magician.

Do I exaggerate?  Perhaps.  But how else explain the spell this medium has cast on billions of people worldwide?  Did the human race suddenly get smart?  Or are many more people crazy?

I ask myself this question, and now I ask you.  Has the Internet and the devices to access it made your life better or worse? Has it made the life of humanity better or worse? Has its essential role in globalization made for a better world?

Obviously, there are pluses to the Internet, just as there are pluses to almost everything.  I don’t deny that. The plus side of death is that the thought of it reminds you that you are alive. The plus side of television is you don’t have to turn it on. Like you, I could rattle off many good things about the Internet (not cell phones, sorry).  But on the scale of good and bad, where do you come down?  Where do I?

Or is it possible we can’t decide because we are too conflicted and caught in a double-bind?

I am of two minds, or more accurately, two half-heads.  The upper part, pinned in the trap and dead to my situation, can only answer yes, sir, now that I am trapped, my life is better.  I can debate endlessly the minutiae of every issue thrown out like pieces of meat for caged lions.  I can check the weather forecast for every hour of every day of the week, even though I know they will probably be wrong.  I can get directions even though I know you don’t need a director to know which way the roads go.  I can research issues quickly and pontificate as if I were an expert on every matter from a to z.  I can feel I am informed while feeling deformed by the contradictory information that appears and disappears every few minutes.  Essentially, I can feel in-touch and worthy of respect from friends and neighbors because I can exchange empty words with them about nothing.  I can feel so very normal and rejoice in that.  I can feel sane.

On the negative side, well, my lower half-head, the one that’s still thinking lead-pencil thoughts, the slow and easy stuff, the calm cool breeze oh what a lovely day dreams – you don’t really need to hear what it has to bitch about the Internet.  You can probably guess.

In a fine article, “Vicious Cycles: Theses on a philosophy of news,” in Harper’s Magazine, Greg Jackson writes the following about our addiction to so-called “news” (the Internet):

When we turn away from the news, we will confront a startling loneliness.  It is the loneliness of life.  The loneliness of thinking, of having no one to think for us, and of uncertainty.  It is a loneliness that was always there but that was obscured by an illusion, and we will miss the illusion…. And we will miss tuning in each day to hear that voice that cuts boredom and loneliness in its solution of the present tense, that like Scheherazade assures us the story is still unfolding and always will be.  I don’t know whether we can give it up.

Nor do I.

Shelter-in-Place and Internet Inequality: What’s the Connection?

Photo Source: Unsplash

As most of the world is forced to stay home, internet and technology play essential roles in almost every aspect of the population’s shelter-at-home lives. The internet keeps loved ones communicating and in touch, informs people of what’s going on in the world, connects students to their teachers and professors, and provides access to the office for those able to work at home.

But what happens to the millions of Americans without an internet connection? Pew Research found that roughly two-thirds of Americans have broadband internet, although only half have service in rural areas. But the harshest reality is the amount of internet access by income. Over half (56%) of households with an income of $30,000 have broadband at home, compared to 92% for households earning over $75,000. The current shelter-in-place order has heightened inequality in America, now that the internet plays such an essential role in keeping individuals connected to society as functioning as a whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a greater socioeconomic divide than ever. Millions of Americans are currently unemployed and potentially unable to pay for internet service, which can potentially isolate them further. The question is, have corporations and legislators taken any measures to equalize the differences between the privileged and those struggling to pay for basic essentials? Here are some ways corporations and the U.S. government are addressing the undue hardship so many people are suffering.

Internet Programs

Access to a reliable internet connection is essential. In the case of online learning and working remotely, a high-speed internet plan without data restrictions is needed so that more than one device at home can connect to conferencing or video streaming. The problem is, faster plans with higher to unlimited bandwidth usage can be pricey or unavailable in certain areas.

Families with no access to reliable internet are unable to continue their children’s education from home or continue to work remotely while social distancing is required. Cheaper internet plans aren’t always a stopgap either — they can create performance issues that interfere with a person’s ability to access the internet by causing the connection to drop off or lag. In addition, less expensive plans with limited data usage throttle or slow down the speed or cut off the internet access altogether once the data cap is reached.

Fortunately, dozens of internet and phone providers including AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Sprint, and Verizon have signed on to the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Initiative. The initiative asks corporations to pledge not to shut off service to any home or small business for non-payment, as well as waive any late fees and finance charges, so customers can stay connected during the unprecedented COVID-19 disruption.

Besides the initiative, some of the top internet providers have set up COVID-19 relief programs providing free high-speed internet for qualifying low-income families and individuals. Here are some of the features depending on the service provider:

  • Free access to WiFi hotspots nationwide and free home internet with unlimited data for 60 days
  • Two months of free internet access as well as online training and tech support
  • Free internet and router rental for 60 days
  • Three months of free internet service and unlimited nationwide calls for households with kids, college students, or seniors
  • Free internet for 60 days for students and teachers

Online Learning

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that 290.5 million students around the world are suffering from disruptions to their education. The organization recommends educators to “adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech, and no-tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning.” The reality is, students need more than an internet connection. They also need a computer to access online learning. Programs such as PCs for People and Computers with Causes provide financial assistance so low-income families can purchase computers to access the internet.

UNESCO also provides a list of free distance learning sources, including self-directed content, reading applications, and resources. Some of the tools listed can provide new insights and approaches to educational leaders looking to better develop systems for staff currently following the new shelter-in-place orders, to provide engaging instruction to students from a distance.

Literacy

An often-overlooked aspect of internet inequality is adult illiteracy. Proliteracy.org highlights the correlation between illiteracy, education, and income, finding that 43% of the adults living in poverty have the lowest literacy levels, with 70% of adult welfare recipients struggling with illiteracy. The inability to read or write prevents many from taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge and resources available online.

Can COVID-19 Bridge the Gap?

The unprecedented pandemic is affecting people socially, educationally, and economically. It’s not the first crisis the world faced, but it’s unlike anything ever seen before. The COVID-19 outbreak is heightening the struggle of millions of people who don’t have the ideal conditions at home to work, study, or stay in contact with the rest of the world while socially distancing. Local and federal governments, in conjunction with corporations and nonprofits, are working to bridge the internet gap to ensure everyone can weather the current storm.

Hovering in Cyberspace

We live in a fabricated reality where the visible world became nearly meaningless once the screen world became people’s “window on the world.”  An electronic nothingness replaced reality as people gleefully embraced digital wraparound apparitions.  These days people still move about in the physical world but live in the electronic one.  The result is mass hallucination.

This is the fundamental seismic shift of our era. There is a lot of bitching and joking about it, but when all is said and done, it is accepted as inevitable. Digital devices are embraced as phantom lovers. Technological “advances” are accepted as human destiny.  We now inhabit a technological nightmare (that seems like a paradise to so many) in which technology and technique – the standardized means for realizing a predetermined end most efficiently – dominate the world. In such a world, not only does the end justify the means, but to consider such a moral issue is beside the point. We are speeding ahead to nowhere in the most “efficient” way possible.  No questioning allowed!  Unless you wish to ask your phone.

These days there is much political talk and commentary about fascism, tyranny, a police state, etc., while the totalitarianism of technocracy and technology continues apace.  It is not just the ecological (in the human/natural sense) impact of digital technology where one change generates many others in an endless spiral, but the fact that technical efficiency dominates all aspects of life and, as Jacques Ellul wrote long ago, “transforms everything it touches into a machine,” including humans.  For every problem caused by technology, there is always a technological “solution” that creates further technological problems ad infinitum.  The goal is always to find the most efficient (power) technique to apply as rapidly as possible to all human problems.

Writing nearly fifty years ago in Medical Nemesis, Ivan Illich, explained how in medical care the human touch was being replaced by this technical mindset.  He said:

In all countries, doctors work increasingly with two groups of addicts:  those for whom they prescribe drugs, and those who suffer from their consequences.  The richer the community, the larger the percentage of patients who belong to both…In such a society, people come to believe that in health care, as in all fields of  endeavor, technology can be used to change the human condition according to almost any design.

We are, of course, living with the ongoing results of such medical technical efficiency. The U.S.A. is a country where the majority of people are drugged in one way or another, legally or illegally, since the human problems of living are considered to have only technological solutions, whether those remedies are effective or anodyne.  The “accidents” and risks built into the technological fixes are never considered since the ideological grip of the religion of technology is all-encompassing and infallible.  We are caught in its web.

Marshall McLuhan, the media guru of the 1960s – whether he was applauding or bemoaning the fact – was right when he claimed that the medium is the message.

Cell phones, being the current omnipresent form of the electronification of life, are today’s message, a sign that one is always in touch with the void.  To be without this small machine is to be rendered an idiot in the ancient Greek sense of the word – a private person.  Translation: one who is out of it, detached, at least temporarily, from the screens that separate us from reality, from the incessant noise and pinging messages that destroy reflection and create reflex reactions.

But to be out of it is the only way to understand it.  And to understand it is terrifying, for it means one knows that the religion of technology has replaced nature as the source of what for eons has been considered sacred. It means one grasps how reality is now defined by technology. It means realizing that people are merging with the machines they are attached to by invisible manacles as they replace the human body with abstractions and interact with machines.  It means recognizing that the internet, despite its positive aspects and usage by dissenters intent on human liberation, is controlled by private corporation and government forces intent on using it as a weapon to control people. It means seeing the truth that most people have never considered the price to be paid for the speed and efficiency of a high-tech world.

But the price is very, very high.

One price, perhaps the most important, is the fragmentation of consciousness, which prevents people from grasping the present from within – which, as Frederic Jameson has noted, is so crucial and yet one of the mind’s most problematic tasks – because so many suffer from digital dementia as their attention hops from input to output in a never-ending flow of mediated, disembodied data.  As a result, a vicious circle has been created that prevents people from the crucial epistemological task of grasping the double-bind that is the ultimate propaganda.  Data is Dada by another name, and we are in Dada land, pissing, not into Marcel Duchamp’s ridiculous work of Dada “art,” a urinal, but into the wind.  And data piled on data equals a heap of data without knowledge or understanding.  There is no time or space for grasping context or to connect the dots. It is a pointillist painting in the form of inert facts that few can understand or even realize that they don’t.

I am typing these words on a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter, a beautiful piece of technology whose sound and movement creates a rhythmic sanctuary where my hands, head, and heart work in unison. It allows me to think slowly, to make mistakes that will necessitate retyping, to do second and third re-readings and revisions, to roll the paper out of the machine and sit quietly as I review it.  My eyes rest on the paper, not a blue-lit screen.

Technology as such is not the problem, for my typewriter is a very useful and endurable machine, a useful technology that has enhanced life. It does not break or need to be replaced every few years, as computers do. It does not contain coltan, tantalum, or other minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and other places by poor people working under oppressive conditions created by international consumer greed that is devouring the world.  It does not allow anyone to spy on me as I type.  I am alone and unplugged, disconnected, off-line and out of line, a sine qua non for thinking, and thinking about deep matters.  The typewriter is mine, and mine alone, unlike the connected digital devices that have destroyed aloneness, for to be alone is to contemplate one’s fate and that of all humanity.  It is to confront essential things and not feel the loneliness induced and exacerbated by the illusion of always being in touch.

But while this typing machine allows me to write in peace, I am in no way suggesting that I have escaped the technological condition that we all find ourselves in.  There are little ways to step outside the closing circle, but even then, one is still in it.  I will eventually have to take my paper and type it into a computer document if I wish to publish it in the form you will be reading it.  There is no other way. The technocrats have decreed it so. We are all, as George Orwell once wrote in a different context and meaning, “inside the whale,” the whale in this case being a high-tech digital world controlled by technocrats, and we have only small ways to shield ourselves from it. Sitting in a quiet room, working on a typewriter, taking a walk in the woods without a cell phone, or not owning a cell phone, are but small individual acts that have no effect on the structural realty of what Neil Postman calls technopoly in his masterful book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.  And even in the woods one may look up to admire a tree only to find that it is a cell phone tower.

Humans have always created and used technology, but for a very long time that technology was subject to cultural and religious rules that circumscribed limits to its use.  Today there are no limits, no rules to constrain it.  The prohibition to prohibit is our motto.  In our acceptance of technical efficiency, we have handed over our freedom and lost control of the means to ends we can’t fathom but unconsciously fear.  Where are we heading? many probably wonder, as they check the latest news ping, no doubt about something to fear, as a thousand pieces of “news” flash through their devices without pause, like wisps of fleeting dreams one vaguely remembers but cannot pin down or understand.  Incoherence is the result.  Speed is king.

Of course, this kaleidoscopic flood of data confuses people who desire some coherence and explanation.  This is provided by what Jacques Ellul 1 calls “the explanatory myth.”  He writes:

This brings us to the other pole of our bizarre intellectual situation today: the explanatory myth.  In addition to its political and its mystical and spiritual function, the explanatory myth is the veritable spinal column of our whole intellectual system…Given that appearances produce confusion and coherence is needed, a new appearance unifies them all in the viewer’s mind and enables everything to be explained.  This appearance has a spiritual root and is accepted only by completely blind credulity.  It becomes the intellectual key for opening all secrets, interpreting every fact, and recognizing oneself in the whirl of phenomena…this myth [is] their one stable point of thought and consciousness…enables everyone to avoid the trouble of thinking for themselves, the worry of doubt, the questioning, the uncertainty of understanding, and the torture of a bad conscience.  What prodigious savings of time and means, which can be put usefully to work manufacturing some more missiles…[they] have a good conscience because they have an answer for everything; and whatever happens and whatever they do, they can rely on the explanation that myth provides.  This process places them within the most complete unreality possible.  They live in a permanent dream, but a realistic dream, constructed from the countless facts and theories that they believe in with all the power of ‘mass persons’ who cannot detach themselves from the mass without dying.

Today that myth is the religion of technology.

So if you have any questions you want answered, you can ask your phone.

Ask your phone why we are living with endless wars on the edge of using our most astounding technological invention: nuclear weapons.

Ask your computer why “nice” Americans will sit behind computer screens and send missiles to kill people half-way around the world whom they are told they are at war with.

Ask your smart device why so many have become little Eichmanns, carrying out their dutiful little tasks at Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and all the other war manufacturers, or not caring what stocks they own.

Ask your phone what really happened to the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 in Iran.  See if your phone will say anything about cyber warfare, electronic jamming, or why the plane’s transponder was turned off preventing a signal to be sent indicating it was a civilian aircraft.

Ask who is behind the push to deploy 5 G wireless technology.

Ask that smart phone who is providing the non-answers.

Ask and it won’t be given to you; seek and you will not find. The true answers to your questions will remain hidden.  This is the technological society, set up and controlled by the rulers.  It is a scam.

Google it!

God may respond.

  1. Presence in the Modern World, new translation, 2016, Cascade Books.

America’s Education System: Teaching the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

Ask students to read for more than a couple of sentences and many will protest that they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint that teachers hear that it’s boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is at issues here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed to be boring. What we are facing here is not just time-honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate New Flesh that is too wired to concentrate and the confining concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored means simply to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, You Tube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. Some students want Nietzsche in the same way they want a hamburger; the fail to grasp—and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension—the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche.

— Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, December 16, 2009

I am a substitute teacher (grades K-12) in a public school system located in Virginia, a state on the eastern seaboard of the United States. For many years prior to becoming a substitute teacher, I also taught at a private school in Virginia. Tuition and fees at the private school are approximately $42,000 (USD), the public schools are, of course, tuition free.

To be sure, there are highly motivated students in both educational settings that call into question Mark Fisher’s observation above. But in the main, both organizations struggle with figuring out if they are working with their subjects as students or as consumers of services provided by teachers and administrators.

From what I have observed in the tiny microcosm in which I’ve worked, adults have not figured out how to teach Generation Z. It is as if K-12 students are; well, lab rats, in a messy experiment that reflects adult confusion about how to facilitate learning in an era when all the “book learning” education seeks to impart is largely available on the World Wide Web (WWW). Reality hits video screens before adults can interpret it for their children; that is, assuming the adults are up to the task. Twitter, a modern day ticker-tape, dumbs down the American populace. Attention spans for students and adults are measured in 10 minute increments, if that.

Teachers are little more than circuits in America’s educational network and, as such, transmit surface information to the students and little more. The kids know a lot, for sure, but they, like the adults that school them and lead them, have no intellectual depth, something required for critical thinking. It is fitting, I suppose, that in these times when the United States is a polarized nation of cynics who believe in nothing, it’s not surprising that its educators teach the young to be cynics. But as Oscar Wilde noted through one of his characters, a cynic is “one who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

And yet the very adults (academics, corporate leaders, politicians) that created this cynical, digitized short attention span world whine about students not being able to read and write, think critically or master math. There is a reason for that: They are not being taught effectively to do those things. All of which reaffirms something I wrote in 2013: The American Education System is creating Ignorant Adults.

The leaders of Boeing and Lockheed Martin worry out loud about the absence of US school-aged students who can excel at science, technology, engineering and math disciplines (STEM). But they have no problem funding initiatives for Chinese students and aviation professionals in China.

Hocus Pocus

Back in the USA, school classrooms are a mishmash of technology, new wave/repackaged learning techniques and revisionist history. Apple I-Pads and Smart Boards are located in each classroom for student/teacher use. They are all connected to software that provides music, cartoons and learning platforms like Canvas for most grade levels. The latest teaching fads like Maker Learning with its “Digital Promise” backed by Google and Pixar, among others, competes with concepts like the Flipped Classroom, Blended Learning and other pedagogies that come in and out of vogue. And yet, along side all the technology are crayons, magic markers, pencils, paper and cardboard for writing and drawing.

It’s no stretch to say that I-Phones, Android and other hand-held devices may cause epigenetic changes. Students, teachers/coaches and administrators are constantly staring head down at their computing-communications devices. It is tough to get a face-to-face conversation going with most anyone in these groups as their eyes and heads are in the down position while sitting, walking or standing. Even if you are having a meat-space meeting, participants will incessantly dart their eyes to the handheld safely nearby the hand, in the hand, or on the lap (looking down again).

America’s past, woeful in many respects, is being revised again by adults to suit the agenda of those who seek to promote a narrative that seeks to change the political/cultural narrative of US society and its history, and it is aimed at young students in particular. The New York Times (NYT) 1619 Project is an example of this. According to the World Socialist Website, “The 1619 Project, launched by the Times in August, presents American history in a purely racial lens and blames all white people for the enslavement of 4 million black people as chattel property. “

The NYT has provided teaching materials that are being used by colleges, universities and high schools across the United States. Who is willing or capable of debating the claims of the New York Times; or should we say, who is willing to be labeled a racist for disagreeing with the revisionist authors of the 1619 Project? At the collegiate level, at least, there may be debate on the matter but at the high school level, what teacher is going to argue against using 1619 teaching materials. After all it is the New York Times.

What is very troubling about the NYT revisionism is that it makes the preposterous claim that racism is part of the DNA of all white people. The World Socialist Website claims that:

This is dangerous politics, and very bad history…[it] mixes anti-historical metaphors pertaining to biological determinism (that racism is printed in a “national DNA”) and to religious obscurantism (that slavery is the uniquely American “original sin”). But whether ordained by God or genetic code, racism by whites against blacks serves, for the 1619 Project, as history’s deus ex machina. There is no need to consider questions long placed at the center of historical inquiry: cause and effect, contingency and conflict, human agency and change over time. History is simply a morality tale written backwards from 2019.

Sharpen My Pencils, Fool!

I have often winced at some of the practices I observed in classrooms. On a typical day as a substitute, I arrive at a school, pick up instructions left by the teacher who is absent (or has a meeting), and head to the classroom. Substitute teachers, or Subs, are a lower class of species, members of the gig economy, and treated as such by the “real” teachers and students. I remember one teacher I subbed for was headed off to a meeting and as she left said, “Sharpen my pencils for me.” I dutifully did. A majority of the teachers and administrators don’t ask for your name, you’re just known as “The Sub.”

Once students complete their work (if they even choose to do it), which for most does not take much class time, they are free to play video games, stick ear buds in and listen to music or hang out with friends via the handheld device. One of the popular video games with male 6th to 12th graders is Krunker, a first person shooter game. Is US society really that concerned about active shooters in schools?

The State and corporations can be found in some form in the public school system. One elementary school has Lockheed Martin as a sponsor of a science program. In another elementary school, a class is learning about Virginia’s geography: The students print and video work product will ultimately be used by a tourism association in the State.

In both institutions learning is calibrated to the SAT, ACT and various Advanced Placement tests. Student test scores serve as one metric for teacher performance reviews along with standards set by school boards, the State, or independent audits in the private school case.

Students are not required to stand or even pay attention to the United States Pledge of Allegiance that is carried via intercom into the classrooms each morning. Some schools don’t even bother with it. Yet, during sporting events like American contact football, students/athletes and fans are required, or let’s say by the pressure of custom are compelled, to stand for the playing of the United States’ National Anthem. American flags are stitched into football jerseys and prior to games one football player is selected to run the American flag onto the field amidst the adrenaline fueled shouts and growls of fellow teammates following close behind. A color guard from a high school’s junior reserve officer training corps (JROTC) sometimes is present. They present in strict marching formation the American flag along with the flags of the US Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

To stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in a classroom takes one minute. To be upright for the National Anthem takes, perhaps, five minutes. The school band normally plays the latter and on occasion high school Madrigals will sing the National Anthem.

Yes, the militarization of US society and the deification of military personnel, even if they are accountants in uniform working at the Pentagon, is something to be concerned about. But saying the Pledge, and standing for the National Anthem, should be a requirement for students. There has to be some measure or display of loyalty to one’s country and the young must learn that. Still many want to wipe away any sense of citizenship, patriotism. Well, they are doing a fine job of that.

Mind the Inmates!

Students at both institutions are the beneficiaries of some serious force protection measures normally associated with protecting military personnel stationed at installations around the globe. The public schools in which I worked have armed police officers on site with a phalanx of civilian security/disciplinarians roaming the halls. Security cameras are everywhere indoors (hallways) and outside (entry and exit) recording movements. Public school buses are also outfitted with cameras and tracking systems.

The private school where I was once employed uses a less blunt force approach opting for a more subtle presence: security personnel are a bit less obvious and do not carry firearms. The school does employ a corporate style full-time director of security and safety with some serious emergency management credentials.

It is the same security scene at public and private schools across the United States which raises an interesting question: Are students really captive minds in minimum security enclosures subjected daily to social, emotional learning techniques or socialization/habilitation for entry into society? Or are they “free” learners allowed to be creative and explore beyond the confines of the pedagogy that seeks to “standardize” them.

No Student Untracked

There is a functioning big data brother at work tracking students as they make their way through K-12 known as the Common Core of Data (CCD). CCD is described by Marc Gardner in a presentation for the US National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) as “the annual collection of the universe of United States public elementary, secondary education agencies and schools. Data include enrollment by grade, race/ethnicity and sex, special education, english learners, school lunch programs, teachers, dropouts and completers.” The CCD also gathers information from state justice, health and labor departments. The NCES also collects data from private schools.

It doesn’t end there. Colleges and universities are tracking high school seniors as they begin their searches for schools they’d like to attend.  The Washington Post recently reported that many colleges and universities have hired data capture firms to track prospective students as they explore websites. “Records and interviews show that colleges are building vast repositories of data on prospective students — scanning test scores, zip codes, high school transcripts, academic interests, web browsing histories, ethnic backgrounds and household incomes…”

The owner of Canvas, referenced above, is Instructure. Their mission, according to their investor website is to “grow [the young] from the first day of school to the last day of work [retirement].” One of the capabilities that Instructure provides its clients is Canvas Folio Management. According to the investor webpage, it “delivers an institutional homepage and deep, real-time analytics on student engagement, skills and competencies, network connections, and interactions across various cohorts. Allows institutions to generate custom reports tied directly to student success initiatives and export accreditation-ready reports on learning outcomes at the student, cohort, course, program, or institutional level.”

Ah, yes, the thrill of being hunted for a life time by big data brother. Anyway, there is no escape.

Don’t try this in a Classroom

Learning is an active process, not simply a matter of banking information in a recipient passive mind. Teaching therefore has to be a transactional process rather than just the transmission of information. The transactional aspect is essential to enabling students to challenge their situations in life, which they must learn to do if they are to play their parts as active citizens of a better world…teaching must be approached as an intellectually disruptive and subversive activity if it is to instill inquiry skills in learners and encourage them to think for themselves rather than mindlessly accept received ideas. We believe it is more important in the digital age than ever before.

Ingenious: The Unintended Consequences of Human Innovation, Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson, Harvard, 2019.

• Author’s Note:  The article title is courtesy of Oscar Wilde. See inline link, paragraph 5 for more.

Next Phase Of The Battle For Net Neutrality and People’s Control Of The Internet

Protesters outside building where Ajit Pai was giving a speech in Washington, DC, December 2017 (From Free Press)

Last week, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals finally issued a decision on a challenge to the Trump administration’s “Open Internet” rule, which ended Net Neutrality protections in 2017. While the court reversed and remanded important parts of the rule, it upheld the reversal of Net Neutrality regulations.

This decision opens the next phase of the struggle in the battle for the Internet — a battle between control of the Internet by a handful of big corporations versus an Internet that serves the people. The Internet freedom movement enters this conflict in a strong position as there is a public consensus that the Internet should be open and neutral, i.e. people should be able to go to websites without Internet Service Providers (ISPs) restricting their access. Millions of people have shown they will take action on behalf of a people’s Internet.

The movement won Net Neutrality in 2015 during the Obama administration even though the Obama-FCC, chaired by Tom Wheeler, initially opposed it. Net Neutrality supporters occupied the FCC, protested for months in DC and around the country, disrupted FCC hearings and even blocked the FCC Chair’s driveway to win strong Internet rules that included Net Neutrality. In 2017, the movement also protested Trump-Chair Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, including at his house, at public events and at the FCC. In both cases, record numbers of public comments were filed supporting Net Neutrality. Following the 2017 FCC decision to repeal Net Neutrality, the movement continued to mobilize millions in the streets and at the House of RepresentativesSenate, state legislatures and in the courts. This is a movement that will not give up and that politicians do not want opposing them.

Net Neutrality protest in Baltimore. One of more than 700 held on December 7, 2017 the Internet day of action.

Court Decision Opens the Door to Building a National Movement

On October 1, 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued its decision in Mozilla Corporation vs Federal Communications Commission. It was a mixed result for the movement. The court begrudgingly upheld the central part of the FCC rule, which ended Net Neutrality.  The judges wrote they are “deeply concerned that the result is unhinged from the realities of modern broadband service.” This occurred because the reality of administrative law is that courts defer to the administrative agency as the experts.

In Mozilla, the court said the Commission “barely survives arbitrary and capricious review,” and the FCC “failed to provide any meaningful analysis” regarding how existing law will protect consumers without the agency’s Net Neutrality protections. A future FCC can reconsider the Trump FCC’s decision, but the reality is new laws are needed to develop a twenty-first-century internet. It is the movement’s job to build national consensus for the Internet we want to see.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn (L), Chairman Tom Wheeler (2L), Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (2R) and Commissioner Michael ORielly (R) watch as protesters are removed from the dais during a hearing at the Federal Communication Commission(FCC) on December 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. The protesters were advocating for net neutrality (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

States Can Become Engines of Change for the Internet

The most important positive part of the court decision was the ruling that the FCC could not stop states from putting in place Net Neutrality rules. This opens up tremendous opportunities for the movement. Nine states have already put in place rules to protect Net Neutrality. Four states passed laws – California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington – and 27 states have considered legislation. In six states, governors have signed executive orders requiring Net Neutrality – Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The potential for rapidly expanding Net Neutrality at the state level is demonstrated by 125 city mayors signing a Net Neutrality pledge promising not to do business with any ISP that violates the open-internet standard.

The Net Neutrality movement has the opportunity to build its national base as states pursue Net Neutrality legislation. If over the next few years a dozen or more states pass Net Neutrality laws, the movement will be in a strong position to insist that the FCC re-institute Net Neutrality. It is unsustainable to have a ‘patchwork’ of different state laws to regulate the Internet because that will require ISPs to change their practices depending on the state. The FCC will need to develop a national policy.

Other positive aspects of the decision are that the court directed the FCC to reconsider the impact of its order on public safety, the ISPs’ use of public rights of way (such as for installing infrastructure) and the federal Lifeline broadband-discount program. The Lifeline program makes the Internet available to low-income communities. The court showed that the FCC decision had serious negative impacts in the real world and must be reconsidered.

The Federal Communications Commission reports that 21.3 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed broadband. This is because the Internet is not affordable for many people in underserved rural and low-income urban communities. Access to the Internet has become essential for functioning in today’s world. Internet access must become a public good.

The next FCC will be able to investigate and report on the outright fraud by corporate lobbyists during the Trump-FCC rule-making proceeding. A few days after the court decision, Buzz Feed News reported right-wing groups supporting the corporate interests of Internet Service Providers filed millions of fraudulent public comments. This undermined the public comment process and ensured the FCC did not get a true representation of public views. This will provide further justification for reconsidering the Trump rule and the next FCC can put in place safeguards to ensure a reliable public comment period, which is essential to democratic rule-making.

This is the fourth time in just the last few months that Trump-FCC decisions have been reversed in court. This series of decisions show an FCC that makes judgments based on predetermined outcomes rather than reasoned consideration of the facts and the law.

Occupation of the FCC in May 2014 kicked off a successful Net Neutrality Campaign (DC Media Group)

Creating an Internet for the 21st Century that Serves the People

Support for Net Neutrality comes from across the political spectrum. poll conducted by the University of Maryland in April 2018 found 86 percent of voters opposed the FCC’s repeal of Net Neutrality, including huge majorities of Republicans (82 percent), Independents (85 percent) and Democrats (90 percent).  We must build on these extremely high levels of support.

Net Neutrality is a winning issue for elected representatives to support and a risky one for politicians to oppose.  As a result of the popularity of Net Neutrality, there is already strong political support in Congress. Before the last election, the House passed the Save the Internet Act, which would have put the open-internet rules back in place. A bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate approved a Congressional Review Act resolution to reinstate the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality protections.  Neither of these efforts has made it to the President’s desk yet.

During the 2020 election season, the movement has an opportunity to demand that the next president commits to supporting strong Net Neutrality rules and broadband protections. Already, some presidential candidates are calling for Net Neutrality and putting forward their vision of the future of the Internet. The most thorough plan comes from Howie Hawkins, a Green Party candidate, who published the statement “Time for the Internet to be Controlled by the Public, Not Corporate Interests,” which not only called for Net Neutrality but also for a series of laws and policies including replacing corporate control of the Internet with a democratically-controlled Internet.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been a long-time proponent of net neutrality, quickly blasted the court’s decision, saying it gave more “power” to “unaccountable” internet service providers. Sanders wrote, “We must fight to keep the internet free and open—not dominated by corporations. This struggle is essential to free speech and democracy.” Senator Warren, also a long-time supporter of Net Neutrality, was an early critic of the Trump FCC rule. She added we need to”fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anti-competitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”

Senator Ed Markey has been the senate leader on Net Neutrality. Markey immediately said the Mozilla decision “increases the urgency of Congress to pass the Save the Internet Act and make net neutrality the law of the land once and for all.” Markey noted the power of the Internet movement saying, “Democrats and Republicans agree that we need Net Neutrality laws on the books and after today’s decision, we will undoubtedly see activists and organizers across the country push their states to enact strong Net Neutrality rules.”

It is time to insist that future FCC Commissioners represent the people’s interests and not corporate interests and to end an FCC that is corporate-occupied territory. We must urge all candidates for president and Congress to call for the restoration of the 2015 Open Internet Order in their first 100 days in office as a first step to creating an internet for the 21st Century.

The movement for Net Neutrality and a free and open Internet includes millions of people, public interest groups, civil rights organizations, and many others who have shown the Internet is an important issue for them. Successful battles against bills like SOPA and PIPA demonstrate the power of this movement.

It is time for the public to take control of the Internet. Internet technology was created with public dollars. It should serve the people’s interests and be under public control. Popular Resistance calls for the Internet to be controlled democratically by the people and not by for-profit corporations. The Internet would serve people better if it were a public utility.

To get involved in this vibrant movement, visit the Popular Resistance Internet campaign site, Protect Our Internet, and the movement’s coalition site Battle for the Net. For more information, listen to our interview with Craig Aaron of Free Press this week on Clearing the FOG.

The United States: A Nation on Suicide Watch

The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required major shifts in national resources from civilian to military purposes and contributed to the growth of the budget deficit and public debt. Through FY 2018, the direct costs of the wars will have totaled more than $1.9 trillion, according to US Government figures. Pollution is a serious issue. The United States (US)  is a “large emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels; deals with water pollution from runoff of pesticides and fertilizers; has limited natural freshwater resources in much of the western part of the country that require careful management. Deforestation; mining; desertification; species conservation; and invasive species (the Hawaiian Islands are particularly vulnerable) are widespread. Long-term problems for the US include stagnation of wages for lower-income families, inadequate investment in deteriorating infrastructure, rapidly rising medical and pension costs of an aging population, energy shortages, and sizable current account and budget deficits.

The onrush of technology has been a driving factor in the gradual development of a “two-tier” labor market in which those at the bottom lack the education and the professional/technical skills of those at the top and, more and more, fail to get comparable pay raises, health insurance coverage, and other benefits. But the globalization of trade, and especially the rise of low-wage producers such as China, has put additional downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on the return to capital. Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households. Since 1996, dividends and capital gains have grown faster than wages or any other category of after-tax income…In December 2017, Congress passed and President Donald TRUMP signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which, among its various provisions, reduces the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%; lowers the individual tax rate for those with the highest incomes from 39.6% to 37%, and by lesser percentages for those at lower income levels…The new taxes took effect on 1 January 2018; the tax cut for corporations are permanent, but those for individuals are scheduled to expire after 2025. The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) under the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new law will reduce tax revenues and increase the federal deficit by about $1.45 trillion over the 2018-2027 period.

Are those the words of some left wing liberal publication or fake news from the mainstream media or conspiracy tinfoil hats? No, they are excerpts from the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) 2019 World Factbook, an unflinching look at all the planet’s nations and their political systems, military expenditures, resources and internal and transnational troubles.

We’re Number One! We’re Number One!

Yes, indeed, the US has real problems, not imagined, as Republicans, Democrats and those with “Star Spangled Eyes” like to claim otherwise. “The US is the greatest country in history with the world’s most powerful military. God Bless America!” they shout out or proclaim after every speech.

Perhaps at one point in history’s past the nation had a shot to be the greatest of all time, at least in this solar system. Maybe that could have come after WW II, or the end of the Vietnam War, or even the largely successful Civil Rights movement. But now the country and its people are delusional in thinking that “everything’s groovy”.

What’s to worry about? Gas prices are low, the National Football League season is underway and the Major League Baseball playoffs are just around the corner. What fun to watch these sporting events as military aircraft fly overhead and 20-something millionaires run around the baseball diamond or up and down the football field in stadiums, by the way,  largely financed by the public. Who cares about lead infused water in Newark, New Jersey; Flint and Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?

And what can be said about the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria? Where’s the victory to put in the US “Win” column? The American public has largely forgotten these tragic conflicts save those whose families have made a sacrifice. But sacrifice for what? Testing out new equipment, technology and war fighting doctrine? The War on Terror has siphoned off cash badly needed for US infrastructure repairs and has taken the lives of thousands of Americans.

Yes, it is correct that there has been no repeat of the 911 attacks, but the US is dealing with its own home grown terrorist problem: active shooters. Is the US military going to start hunting them down here like they do Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East and Africa?

Hell on Earth

At any rate, the only maniacs who want US personnel to remain in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, three hell-holes created, in part, by the US, are zealous military leaders, defense contractors/suppliers, corrupt officials the US has propped up in the three countries, and black market operators eager to steal American weapons and sell them to the Taliban or groups like the Islamic State.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (the Baron Harkonenn of the US government) and his boss President Donald Trump who are eager for war with Iran (which borders Iraq and Afghanistan, among other nations). That push has already started with the US exiting from the nuclear accord with Iran (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in May 2018. The Trump administration has since unleashed punishing economic sanctions, and has adopted a blind-support policy for Israel and the bloodthirsty Saudis who would like nothing better than to have the US go to war with Iran. Yes, lets “do Iran” if not by direct military action then through subterfuge and dicey intelligence likely to be used to justify an ill-advised invasion.

The attack-Iran crowd has been singing the same old tune for at least 40 years now and it should have long ago been dust-binned. But here we are, again, moving toward the precipice of conflict.

According to the National Iranian American Council:

The past 40 years in U.S.-Iran relations have been riddled with missed opportunities. While the Iranians and Clinton administration failed to initiate serious dialogue after Mohammad Khatami’s election, the George W. Bush administration pocketed Tehran’s assistance after the U.S.invasion of Afghanistan, put the country in its “axis of evil,” and ignored its offer for a grand bargain. Under the Trump administration, however, we are likely witnessing the greatest missed opportunity in four decades: a failure to capitalize on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal.

War planners in the US have already sorted through all the airstrike contingencies and have plans, classified, of course, for air/missile strikes. But you need not wait for the day when the aircraft and missiles take to the skies over Iran and the talking heads from left, right and center media rant and rave about a brand new war, or retired generals show up to blather about this and that weapon system. Prepare yourself now. Be an educated armchair warrior by reviewing Anthony Cordesman’sOptions in Dealing with Irans Nuclear Program. It addresses the use of conventional and nuclear weapons by the US and Israel.

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

It is commonplace for Americans to lionize US military leaders and look to them as calming voices, counterweights to warmongering government officials and their advisors. Ironic, isn’t it? Can we look to our divine US military leaders to change the current thinking of the war hawks in the administration, congress and the think tanks that dot the Washington, DC Metro region?

Nope.

Consider this review by William Bacevich, a decorated combat veteran, of the newest US Central Command boss, Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie. McKenzie’s area of responsibility (AOR) includes Iran.

General Kenneth McKenzie became the twenty-fourth commander of CENTCOM (more formally known as United States Central Command).  On May 8, at an event sponsored by the Institute for the Perpetuation of War and the Promotion of Regime Change, more formally known as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), he outlined his plans for building on the legacy of his 23 predecessors.  None of those predecessors, it should be acknowledged, succeeded in accomplishing his assigned mission. Nor, I’m willing to bet, will he.

The essence of that mission, according to General McKenzie himself, is to promote stability. “A stable Middle East underpins a stable world,” he announced, and “our steady commitment to our allies and partners provides a force for stability.” As to how the region became unstable in the first place, he offers no opinion, leaving listeners with the impression that previous exertions by CENTCOM forces in invading, occupying, bombing, and otherwise spilling blood throughout his Area of Responsibility (AOR) had nothing to do with the absence of stability existing there today…This much seems clear: To listen to McKenzie, Iran is the ultimate source of all evil. To cite just one example, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the general charges that “at least 600 US personnel deaths in Iraq were the result of Iran-backed militants.” This was indeed nefarious, and one is hard-pressed to think of a comparable episode in recent military history, although US support for Saddam Hussein pursuant to his war of aggression against Iran might fill the bill.”

Don’t Bogart that Joint, My Friend

How are we faring in that other Long War, the War on Drugs?

The Office of National Drug Control and Policy’s (ONDCP) 2019 National Drug Control Strategy document describes the massive US local, state, and federal machinery set up to defeat drug trafficking organizations from getting their products to US streets and into the bodies of American citizens.

The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Program provides assistance to law enforcement agencies operating in areas determined to be critical drug-trafficking regions of the United States. HIDTAs provide an umbrella to coordinate Federal, state, local, and tribal drug law enforcement agencies’ investigations, and act as neutral centers to manage, de-conflict, analyze, provide intelligence, and execute drug enforcement activities in their respective regions. With the recent inclusion of Alaska, the first new HIDTA in 17 years, the 29 regional HIDTAs now include designated areas in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. The regional HIDTAs bring together more than 21,000 Federal, state, local, and tribal personnel from 500 agencies through 800 enforcement, intelligence, and training initiatives, all designed to disrupt illicit drug trafficking and dismantle criminal and drug trafficking organizations.

The US military, of course, plays a key role in the US War on Drugs, supporting HIDTA’s among other activities. Take, for example, US Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) role in the Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South). A 2005 briefing by former US Coast Rear Admiral Jeffrey Hathaway shows that no less than 14 agencies worked, and likely still do, chasing down illicit drugs in the SOUTHCOM AOR. These include the National Security Agency; the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines; the US Coast Guard,  and the National Reconnaissance Office, among others. According to one of Hathaway’s slides, every step involved in JIATF-South operations from interdiction to prosecution leads to intelligence. That is an interesting point. So 14 years later and all the intelligence collected has led to what, exactly?

Let’s revisit the CIA’s 2019 World Factbook for a read on how the War on Drugs effort is going. The US is the “world’s largest consumer of cocaine (shipped from Colombia through Mexico and the Caribbean), Colombian heroin, and Mexican heroin and marijuana; a major consumer of ecstasy and Mexican methamphetamine; a minor consumer of high-quality Southeast Asian heroin; an illicit producer of cannabis, marijuana, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, and methamphetamine. It is also a money-laundering center.”

Great!

This piece could go on and on citing data from a myriad of sources showing, among other things, the 500% growth rate of the US prison population, income inequality according to the Gini Coefficient which sees the US (41.5) right near Iran (40), or that one in six children in the US live in hunger. But, hey! The stock market is up, unemployment is down, and the dollar menu at McDonald’s is fabulous.

The forever wars on Drugs and Terror, or the trumped up wars to come; income equality; homelessness; hunger, infrastructure collapse and the fracturing of US society into tribes is clearly a nationwide social, political and cultural sickness: perhaps mental illness. Even the Internet/World Wide Web, once viewed as a global unifying/liberating force for change/good has become what is termed the Splinternet, reflecting large in-group fanaticism, censorship and a polarization of political beliefs. It is now polluted with advertisements just as radio and television are.

But there’s still time left on the clock to change the direction of the country. Who or what will do that and when it will happen I’m not sure. But I take heart in Robert F. Kennedy’s insight below that there are many who long to make “life worthwhile” for everyone in America, once again.

For Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product…if we should judge the United States of America by that—counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

The Reality Brokers (or the rise of the Automagicians)

In the case of both Big Tech and governmental surveillance agencies, undergirding a commitment to the inevitable and imminent time after-Earth is the appeal of science fiction aesthetics, concepts and projects, all aimed toward the new goal of having new places and opportunities to conquer, colonize and dominate post-Earth.
— Sarah T. Roberts, b-20, August 2019

We live in a society where capital is highly concentrated, with most commodity production carried out by companies whose fates are largely shaped by financial investors. The commodities they produce, whether material or immaterial, are made available to us in a global marketplace, delivered through complex value chains in whose operation our own unpaid labor as consumers is increasingly implicated. Information and communications technologies have so affected the spatial and temporal division of labor that for many of us the boundaries between “work and private life are inextricably muddled and few relationships are unmediated by them.
— Ursula Huws, Labor in the Global Digital Economy, December 5, 2014

It’s popular to refer to digital platforms as town squares, but the shopping mall is a more apt metaphor: they are built to approximate the participatory feel of an open market, while their corridors are ruthlessly designed for the purposes of encouraging consumption and maximizing profit. Depression, anxiety, hate-mongering, fear, and conspiratorial untruths are all acceptable outcomes so long as they are expressed, consciously or otherwise, in the service of growth.
— Evan Malmgren, The Baffler, 2018

Your whole life will be searchable.
— Larry Page (quoted in Douglas Edwards’ I’m Feeling Lucky), 2011

At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.
— Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism, January 15, 2019

The endless public appetite for apocalyptic film and TV is tied into the fantasies of reconstruction. Even the various zombie franchises are really just reconstruction stories (albeit with a huge real estate porn appeal). I want to quote Sarah T. Roberts article again, because she covers several factors that seem increasingly embedded in contemporary thinking.

In the billionaire kingmaker class, Musk is not alone in his post-Earth predilection. Indeed, he is one of several of his echelon looking cynically to science fiction and the après-apocalypse, fantasizing about outlandish ways to spend–and make–profits via projects that deepen long-standing commitments to Western supremacy and colonization, albeit with a futuristic bent. At the 2016 Republican National Convention that heralded the political ascendency of Donald Trump, PayPal billionaire and Gawker/journalism foe Peter Thiel (Thompson 2018) hailed the conquest of Mars as a worthier endeavor than wars in the Middle East. In doing so, Thiel inadvertently showed his ideological hand by invoking both as equivalent games of conquest (Daily Beast 2016). Other projects in this vein include Biosphere 2 (once the province of former Trump advisor and professional propagandist Steve Bannon), HI-SEAS, Apple’s new “Spaceship” headquarters, and the NSA’s Star Trek-inspired control room, all of which posit various offworld-oriented technological solutions to a dying future. It is a future in which capitalism has already played out the dissolution of democracy and social equalities, favoring a libertarian fend-for-yourself approach for those who remain– and those who remain, according to these projects, are overwhelmingly White, wealthy able-bodied people of the Global North.
— Sarah T. Roberts (Ibid.)

Roberts also touches on Apple’s new *campus*, which is shaped like a flying saucer and seems designed mostly to keep undesirables out as much as employees in.

Roberts again…

The spaceship aesthetic and panoptic/open floor work spaces reinstate order and hierarchy through structural and embedded surveillance while suggesting freedom of movement and action. Ample amenities are designed to keep workers on-site and productive, ideally for longer than an eight-hour workday, recalling the company towns of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Not to be outdone, both Google and Facebook have announced employee housing near their expansive campuses (Stangel 2017), in partial response to extraordinary housing costs in Silicon Valley (created by the demand from their own workers).

There is also the new NSA control room, which merges sci-fi aesthetics with Benthamesque practicality and Biosphere 2 which borrows directly from science fiction. This is a long sort of introduction to what I see as an increasing anger and frustration in western white populations that is born of the unshakable sense that white modernity is coming to an end. There is an increasing global awareness that U.S. (and EU..but the EU is hugely divided in this respect) hegemony is unravelling. The global ruling class share the same goals but have mostly allowed or been served by U.S. leadership in terms of international financial institutions and the U.N. and just by U.S. military dominance. But today there are growing areas of the planet that are openly rejecting the white supremacist capitalism/imperialism of the U.S. (and its proxies, Saudi Arabia and Israel primarily. Yes I know there are huge contradictions in that, but I will get to those). The effects of Hollywood in all this are almost incalculable. The future is built with Hollywood image and narrative, and increasingly so is the present. Narrative thinking today is tied in with Hollywood screenwriting in a near total manner.

And the effects of the internet, social media, and in general screen addictions and indoctrination have yet to be fully calculated. And this segues into the realities of content moderation. And, again, a crash course on this is to listen to a lecture of Roberts here or watch here.

And remember, too, what Andre Damon at WSWS wrote in 2018:

Social media is monopolized by a few gigantic corporations. And that concentration of control is going to obviously be exploited for more profit.

…let’s start with a shocking fact: bad behavior happens on the internet. It occurs in real life, too, of course. But there is a special quality to the depravity exhibited on social media that is particular to that domain. On the one hand, it is unthinking, and in the case of Twitter, this goes along with the character limit. But it also demonstrates a psychopathic character contradiction: an obsession with self-perception by others in combination with a disturbing lack of empathy toward many of those same others from whom one is seeking, implicitly or explicitly, validation. For many researchers, this behavior is not merely expressed on but actively shaped by social media. In a meta-analysis of seventy-two studies, the psychologist Sara Konrath and her research team found that empathy levels among college students are 40 percent lower today than they were twenty years ago — a development they attribute to, amongst other things, the “rising prominence” of “media use in everyday life”: “With so much time spent interacting with others online rather than in reality, interpersonal dynamics such as empathy might certainly be altered.
— Benjamin Y. Fong, Jacobin, 2018

There is a correlate here, found in that same Sarah Konrath study:

One especially relevant program of research finds increasing levels of narcissism in American college students from the mid-1980s until late into the first decade of the new millennium, using similar cross-temporal methods as in the current study (Twenge et al., 2008; Twenge & Foster, 2008,2010).Dispositional narcissists have inflated self-views, especially on agentic traits such as power and intelligence (e.g., Campbell, Rudich, & Sedikides, 2002). Although narcissists are extraverted, they think of others primarily in terms of their utility rather than as interdependent relationship partners (Campbell, 1999). When narcissists’ egos are threatened by rejection or an insult, they tend to aggress against the source of the threat (e.g., Bushman & Baumeister, 1998; Konrath, Bushman, & Campbell, 2006).
— Sarah Konrath, et.al., Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta Analysis, Personality and Social Psychology Review 2011

Whether it’s Twitter or Snapchat or whatever, the overriding quality associated with each platform is limited space for expression and impermanence. Snapchat is designed to literally disappear before your eyes. Twitter is particularly pathological in that it is all but impossible to have discussions, or debates there, but excels at individual declarations of fact — the users own sense of ‘fact’, that is. It has been noted by several studies about social media that those who engage in prolonged use tend to increasingly feel real life face to face interaction as persecutory. My own experience of Twitter and Facebook is that it directly breeds paranoia. And for dissident or radical left voices that paranoia is already well established, usually. It’s hard to be a socialist in America and not feel paranoia.

The first configuration is what I came to call the Vampires’ Castle. The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.
— Mark Fisher, Vampire’s Castle, 2013

Now Fisher is a contested figure, and with good reason (for all this insight he remained a strangely reactionary voice, and that contradiction may have been impossible for him to live with). But what he describes in Vampire’s Castle is very much to the point here. And one of the tactics of social media attacks is to stigmatize in isolation (a sort of form of essentialism). And this is akin to the bullying that high school students suffer from, too, a bullying that has led to spikes in suicide and self harm. It is ridicule that borders on arbitrary. One is tried and convicted on social media for crimes of the past, often, and, of course, often for crimes that never took place, and often for non-crimes. Mischaracterizing one’s opponent is the classic technique of the fascist right, but today it is cropping up more and more often on the left. But the new essentialism is also perilously close to conspiracy theory at its very worst. I know people, very smart people, in fact, who literally believe that entire outlets or groups or institutions — having hundreds of members — are in the grip of secret cabals of fascists. A thought mechanism that mirrors classic antisemitism. And speaking of antisemitism, the rising and continuing anti-semitism on the left is meeting with less and less resistance from the left who feel encouraged to conflate zionism and Jewishness.

Now the new aesthetics of the new doomsday scenarioists of online polemics, and in real life (the doomsayers who are billionaires) are the aesthetics of 1970s science fiction, if not 1950s science fiction. It is remarkable how durable the style and codes are of stuff like The Day the Earth Stood StillRed Planet Mars, or the original War of the Worlds. And more, 70s films like Andromeda Strain or Dark Star. Even very good and rather un-Hollywood films such as Man Who Fell to Earth have shaped the current sense of what the future means, and more, what apocalypse looks like. Just look at the art/design layouts and images used in stories about global warming or the fear mongering of the overpopulationers. Tell me it’s not nearly always from science fiction and/or is not racist. That a global environmental crisis is being packaged by media as if it were an early John Carpenter film should cause concern.

So three things I sense are related here. One is the damage of screen addictions, and, perhaps more specifically, social media. And the manner of expression that is wed to the alarmist’s sense of environmental crises. To deal with the real and material crisis would require a capacity to think in ways that social media and screen habituation have discouraged if not erased. The psychological affect of decades (now) of internet coercions and indoctrination — overt and incidental — and the very damages of just over-exposure to the technology itself are huge and perhaps nearly irreversible. Internet societies are more rigidly hierarchical than society itself. It is just masked better. The second issue is the issues of synthesizing time, narration, and loss of literacy. And the third is the dying death throws of global capital and its desire to perpetuate itself even if it means mass death, and the fantasies of this capitalist ruling class, expressed in regressive tropes of kitsch science fiction and space colonialism.

There is also a strange inversion, one that is nearly dialectical, actually. On the one hand the so called advanced West, the hyper capitalist neo-liberal West and its major telecom and digital corporations, are at work 24/7 in surveillance and data gathering. And both of these activities are usually illegal. Those same mega corporations (with intimate ties to western governments) are in the business of *hiding* the production processes that build those smart phones and lap tops on which, and with which, the bourgeoisie of the west amuse themselves. The devices that these corporations spy on and steal from — these devices are not the product of immaculate technological conception. The mythology of the information age has, as one huge factor, maybe THE hugest factor, the presumption that all of this digital technology was just divinely created and fell to earth. The invisibility of the draconian assembly lines and factories of the global south that produce and assemble these mythic devices is both an intentional practice and one those firms know is deceitful. They hide it because it would be offensive to the consumers of these products. A consumer base increasingly exhibiting a green awareness (sic). Not to mention the even more draconian waste sites where disposal of these devices take place, in countries such as Philippines, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Indonesia.

This does not even touch on the mining and earth extraction of rare earth minerals such as coltan (from which niobium and tantalum are taken), yttrium, lanthanum, and terbium.

According to the Minerals Education Coalition, a baby born in the US today will use up 539 lbs of zinc, 903 lbs of lead and 985 lbs of copper during his or her lifetime, not just in phones but in other gadgets and appliances too. In terms of environmental drain from every smartphone that’s made, you can add the oil used to produce plastics, the sand used to produce glass, and so on. ( ) Of the 83 stable and non-radioactive elements in the periodic table, at least 70 can be found in smartphones. According to the best available figures, a total of 62 different types of metals go into the average mobile handset, with what are known as the rare Earth metals playing a particularly important role. Of the 17 rare Earth metals, 16 are included in phones.
— David Nield, Tech Radar, 2015

My sense is that most Americans could be convinced to give up nearly everything to ensure a livable safe future…everything except their screen gadgets.

Larry Page of Google has used (and coined) the word *automagical*. It’s the perfect word for contemporary thought. The west thinks automagically. But that sounds benign, and nothing about the trends in contemporary behavior or thinking is benign. Zuboff quotes John Searle about the nature of *declarations*. Searle wrote:“A declaration is a particular way of speaking and acting that establishes facts out of thin air, creating a new reality where there was nothing.” This is highly relevant to the social media user. This is, in fact, that on which Twitter is based. It is the speech of Kings and overlords, of pharaohs. It is also how cops talk to suspects (i.e., everyone not a cop). Most importantly it is the speech of institutions. It assumes authority.

Zuboff also notes that this sort of authoritarian speech and grammar is the province of Google, and of Google’s unprecedented power. That said, it is power of a unique and perhaps unprecedented kind. For if conquistadors issued declarations that indigenous peoples were to be vassals…WERE already so…the threats behind such declarations were made clear. Google doesn’t have to do that. No giant information and telecom giant has to do that. The threat is assumed. The threat is implanted.

Google’s stores of behavioral surplus now embrace everything in the online milieu: searches, e-mails, texts, photos, songs, messages, videos, locations, communication patterns, attitudes, preferences, interests, faces, emotions, illnesses, social networks, purchases, and so on. A new continent of behavioral surplus is spun each moment from the many virtual threads of our everyday lives as they collide with Google, Facebook, and, more generally, every aspect of the internet’s computer-mediated architecture. Indeed, under the direction of surveillance capitalism the global reach of computer mediation is repurposed as an extraction architecture.
— Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism

Everything one does is turned into code. And that code is returned to the user (as Zubhoff writes) through the filter of *intelligent algorithms*. And if that sounds like *smart bombs*, it’s because it is, and that is, to put it mildly, disquieting. Anytime intelligent or smart are used in titles or branding, the opposite is usually true. Much as the use of *freedom* in any NGO title signals State Department front group. But the issue that runs alongside the literal monitoring of everything one does is the now third generation effects of the information age on the young. The bullying of social media is only one symptom. Mental illness is now almost expected of teenagers. In the U.S. and U.K., in particular, the anxiety, paranoia, and feelings of hopelessness are endemic. And, of course, this cannot be treated by the institutions that have caused it. At best the establishment simply finds new warehousing drugs to give them. The burden to conform is enormous for teenagers and made worse by the pathologies of social media and internet habituation.

Deleuze and Guattari saw schizophrenia as the presentation of capitalist illness as it approached the 1980s, and later Christian Marazzi suggested bi-polar disorder as the new inner logic of financialized capitalism. Then today the post post modern new feudalism presents as autism, a condition first brought to awareness by a Nazi doctor. If teenagers today suffer debilitating anxiety, and a generalized fear of ‘doing’ anything lest it appear in Snapchat later in the afternoon, the result is an increasing cognitive paralysis. One teacher I know said several different high school students have confessed their inability to act or speak, answering questions etc, that even that inability and low grades is better than internet shaming and stigmatizing. Older twenty somethings, out of school and usually unemployed, wander their American neighborhoods in what amount to semi conscious trance states. Another teacher, in suburban LA, said his small college has decided to let student homeless sleep in their cars at one end of the school parking lot. After the school board passed this measure they were startled to learn that over 20% of the student body were, in fact, living out of their cars and sleeping in the school lot.

The western economies, and this is certainly true of the U.S., are propped up by militarism, stock market manipulation, and the ongoing theft of public funds and social services.

Cutting across this are the pathologies and social violence of social media.

Social media is designed for comparisons and coupled to the narrowed limits for written expression, the function of image becomes disproportionately important. But the interpretation of image is equally or more important. The idea of popularity is implanted in the system by the owners and operators of that system. The capture of eyeballs is also the capture of consensus. This is particularly true for the young.

The empty debate on the spectacle – that is, on the activities of the world’s owners – is thus organised by the spectacle itself: everything is said about the exten­sive means at its disposal, to ensure that nothing is said about their extensive deployment. Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ‘media’. And by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service which with impartial ‘professionalism’ would facilitate the new wealth of mass communication through mass media – a form of communication which has at last attained a unilateral purity, whereby decisions already taken are presented for passive admiration. For what is commu­nicated are orders; and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them.
— Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1967

Orders, declarations. The desire to punish, the desire to be right. The isolation and atomization of social media users contributes to this sense of priesthood and specialness — by which I mean that when one writes, for publication or just as a diarist, the activity is hugely different than writing for social media. The isolation and contemplation of the writer at his keyboard becomes a manic anxious isolation, a cruel imposed isolation that sits in stark contrast to contemplative creation. The rapidity and constant reinforcements that are built into social media are there to keep the attention of the user, for such attention is money, is profit.

What is interesting is how so much of the opinion expressed by the left today is expressed in terms of masculine power or just a replication of militarism’s scorched earth policies. Carpet bombing — from what is now North Korea, terror bombing Belgrade, shock and awe, or bunker busters in Tora Bora, or the war crimes of Fallujah, the endless atrocities inflicted on the global south — the war zone sensibility of racist domestic police forces in the U.S., this is all mirrored and reproduced on social media. Social media has become a laboratory for aggression. But in tiny ever shrinking platforms. Carpet bombing in 280 characters. The sense of shrinkage and enclosure, of foreclosure and agitation, these are design elements. (Why do Silicon Valley CEOs not allow their children to use smart phones? Why do those children go to device free schools?)

The only way that socialist and radical political voices can engage on social media — it seems to me — is to find ways to disrupt the hegemonic orders of the Spectacle. Social media is designed to create a craving for attention. At any cost. Unconscious cravings. This is why the tribalism of likes and blocking and *friends* is so constantly reinforced.

In one sense the mega corporate owners have insured that class is replaced by individualism, identitarian relations and presentation.

When Twitter began the limit for a tweet was 140 characters. The average tweet at that point was 34 characters. Twitter increased the tweet count to 280 characters but the average tweet is now only 33 characters. I suspect this reflects the trend toward inarticulate semi-languages. The trend toward quick scans rather than patient reading.

Critical theory’s effort to restore subjectivity and resist domination rightly leads to the search for and rejection of all tendencies that cause the subject to introject and reproduce his own domination.
— Amy Buzby, Subterranean Politics and Freud’s Legacy, August 14, 2013

Social media, perhaps above all else, encourages obsessive repetitions. Obsessive compulsive disorder is expressed in pure form as Twitter or Snapchat or Facebook. The repetitive behavioral action of keystrokes mimics something industrial, something also nearly manic. And in this sense the bi-polar metaphor remains rather apt. But the emptiness of the screen, the temporal limits, the erasure of lasting meaning, all feel autistic. The social media addiction eventually neutralizes meaning altogether. Trump is oddly the perfect Twitter user. Lies, contradictions, more lies, repeating the lies, and on and on. All without meaning.

All social media rage is reproducing personal pain — at one level. It is also, on another level, reflecting the trauma and violence of the society in which the users live. The compulsive Twitter user, or Facebook troll — and in a sense perhaps everyone shares troll like characteristics simply by virtue of using these platforms — are caught in a habituation cycle of need and pseudo gratification. But addiction metaphors miss the broader point here. Internet use is often likely compulsive, and perhaps constitutes a habituation, but rarely reaches the level of addiction (addictions must produce serious real world consequences for the addict). What is the most disturbing aspect of social media and internet use overall is ideological and educational. The internet, and in particular social media, have damaged cognitive abilities, and have incrementally created two (now) generations (if not three) of people who cannot think outside very narrow cyber structures. Ideologically because the internet is in the business of constantly grabbing your attention and trying to keep it; and information is dispensed via attention grabbing mechanisms and strategies. No internet platform is free of the profit motive, remember. And cyber profit is based on an attention economy. The click bait model can be expanded to anything. And the repetitive nature of social media usage reinforces a tendency already present in western capitalist societies. And, of course, class enters in this discussion exactly here. The loss of employment opportunity and social mobility encourages a recourse to social media and the internet to replace community.

It is also important to distinguish between the attention economy and newer participatory attention economy or what Boutgang labeled Cognitive Capitalism. (see Mackenzie Wark’s analysis here

Cognitive workers are in a sense entrepreneurs, are in a sense people who invest their knowledge, who invest their singular ability and in this sense the relationship, the integration between work, cognitive work and enterprise; and enterprise has a materialistic foundation. But at the same time this kind of integration has produced an ideological effect and a kind of psycho-pathogenic effect on the social forces of cognitive labor. ( ) The Prozac economy and the Prozac crash. The integration of cognitive work and recombinant capital has produced a kind of euphoria, of hyper-excitation and has produced a demotion, an erasing, a forgetting of the physical, the erotic and the social body of the cognitive worker. We have been taken in this kind of irrational exuberance and we have forgotten that we have a body – that we are a body. So the cognitive worker in this kind of hyper-excitation completely or partially has been forgetting the relationship to the society and the relationship to the physical body.
— Frano Berardi, Market Ideology, Semiocapitalism, and the Digital Congitariat,

Berardi’s (Bifo) article is worth reading in its entirety here.

In 1995, 10 years into the history of mobile phones, penetration in the UK was just 7%,” according to Professor Nigel Linge, of the University of Salford’s Computer Networking and Telecommunications Research Centre. “In 1998 it was about 25%, but by 1999 it was 46%, that was the ‘tipping point’. In 1999 one mobile phone was sold in the UK every 4 seconds.” By 2004, there were more mobile phones in the UK than people – a penetration level of more than 100%. ( ) The way that handsets themselves were marketed was also changing and it was Finland’s Nokia, which had been fighting hard with Motorola and Ericsson for dominance of the market, who made the leap from phones as technology to phones as fashion items with the Nokia 3210 device.

“The Nokia 3210 is iconic because it is the first phone that deliberately did not display any sort of external aerial,” explains Linge. “Nokia in the late 1990s cottoned on to the fact that the mobile phone was a fashion item: so it allowed interchangeable covers, you could customise and personalise your handset.”

In 1999, the film The Matrix was released, which featured Nokia’s 8110 handset prominently. Nokia followed it up with the 7110, which was also the first device to fully exploit the new WAP mobile data service, the fore-runner of the 3G services of today.
— Richard Wray, Guardian, 2010

Hollywood again. The future again. One might argue The Matrix is the most influential film in history — not because it’s any good, it’s not, but because it consolidated several threads of style and futuristic fantasy and presented them in an appealing package, one that also appealed to the new automagical thinking. The reality today is that global capital can draw upon a reserve of global labour regardless of national borders. As Ursula Huws notes in Labour in Contemporary Capitalism, 2019:

Even when casualised labour is not carried out by their direct employees, it is carried out within the scope of the increasingly elaborated value chains which these companies control.

And this casualization and global context has generated enormous resentment against migrant workers, especially in areas of industrial decline (per Huws). Hence the rise of the far right parties across Europe today. And the theft of social benefits, stuff like unemployment payments, are increasingly hard to actually receive and when received are provincial and conditional. The point is that the internet has transformed human life in its entirety. And often, maybe nearly always, for the worse. Shoshana Zuboff (Ibid.) has the final word here, for this is what all of this discussion is trending toward:

The prospect of guaranteed outcomes alerts us to the force of the prediction imperative, which demands that surveillance capitalists make the future for the sake of predicting it. Under this regime, ubiquitous computing is not just a knowing machine; it is an actuating machine designed to produce more certainty about us and for them.

This is largely what Debord saw happening too. The profit from reliable forecasting and prediction means that creating the future is the best strategy — if you make the future you can predict it with some certainty. People need to realize, I think, that EVERYTHING online is manufactured reality — it’s not real, it’s pseudo real. And marketings job is to convince you that pseudo real is REAL REAL. And if the result of this is increased mental illness and pathological degrees of aggression, and industrial levels of anti-depressant use, well, so what? Global servitude is the dream of the new reality brokers. The ruling class believes in their own fantasies (courtesy, it seems, of science fiction movies) but they are determined to control our dreams and aspirations. And unless one starts to examine all of this in terms of class, there is little hope to stop this dream of global hegemony. The mantra must be, *question everything*.