As everyone knows, nobody reads their user agreements when they sign up for apps or services. Even if they did, it wouldn’t matter, because most of them stipulate that they can change at any moment. That moment has come.
You might not be concerned, but I’d like to point out that there’s a reason you’re not. Namely, you haven’t actually seen what this enormous loss of privacy translates into yet.
You see, there’s also a built in lag where we’ve given up our data, and are happily using the corresponding services, but we haven’t yet seen evidence that our data was actually worth something. The lag represents the time it takes for the market in personal data to mature. It also represents the patience that Silicon Valley venture capitalists have or do not have between the time of user acquisition and profit. The less patience they have, the sooner they want to exploit the user data.
The latest news (hat tip Gary Marcus) gives us reason to think that V.C. patience is running dry, and the corresponding market in personal data is maturing. Turns out that EBay and PayPal recently changed their user agreements so that, if you’re a user of either of those services, you will receive marketing calls using any phone number you’ve provided them or that they have “have otherwise obtained.” There is no possibility to opt out, except perhaps to abandon the services. Oh, and they might also call you for surveys or debt collections. Oh, and they claim their intention is to “benefit our relationship.”
Presumably this means they might have bought your phone number from a data warehouse giant like Acxiom, if you didn’t feel like sharing it. Presumably this also means that they will use your shopping history to target the phone calls to be maximally “tailored” for you.
I’m mentally tacking this new fact on the same board as I already have the Verizon/AOL merger, which is all about AOL targeting people with ads based on Verizon’s GPS data, and the recent broohaha over RadioShack’s attempt to sell its user data at auction in order to pay off creditors. That didn’t go through, but it’s still a sign that the personal data market is ripening, and in particular that such datasets are becoming assets as important as land or warehouses.
Given how much venture capitalists like to brag about their return, I think we have reason to worry about the coming wave of “innovative” uses of our personal data. Telemarketing is the tip of the iceberg.
As it turns out, it takes a while to write a book, and then another few months to publish it.
I’m very excited today to tentatively announce that my book, which is tentatively entitled Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, will be published in May 2016, in time to appear on summer reading lists and well before the election.
Fuck yeah! I’m so excited.
p.s. Fight for 15 is happening now.
Last night I finished reading Nicole Aschoff’s new book, The New Prophets of Capital, which was published as part of the Jacobin series of books. Here’s a description from their website of their book series:
The Jacobin series features short interrogations of politics, economics, and culture from a socialist perspective, as an avenue to radical political practice. The books offer critical analysis and engagement with the history and ideas of the Left in an accessible format.
And by the way, if you don’t know what Jacobin magazine is, you should take a look. I recently signed up to receive the paper versions of all of their magazines and books, which was my version of a donation to a good and very thoughtful cause.
Aschoff’s book explores the storytelling nature of modern capitalism and neoliberalism, and focuses on the underlying assumptions, as seen through four larger-than-life figures: Sheryl Sandberg, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, Oprah, and Bill (and Melinda) Gates.
She does a good job of explaining, in plain, non-academic English, what’s wrong with these people’s messages. If you’re wondering what exactly bothers you about the Lean In movement, for example, take a look at the chapter on Sandberg, the book is worth it just for that.
The book is short, only 6 chapters. The first chapter gives reasoning for the book, describing how storytelling matters when we think about how culture works, and then the heart of the book follows with a chapter on each person listed above – the “prophets” – with their particular flavor. There’s also a concluding chapter, which is the least convincing, as it was extremely condensed and left too much reasoning unexplained.
The unifying theme throughout the four chapters devoted to the prophets is how these four people manage to be both public critics and private protectors of the current economic system, with an emphasis on protection.
So when Sandberg tells us to lean in, she’s telling us to conform to the way things are, not to threaten it in any way. When Oprah tells us that we have it in ourselves to live fantabulous lives, she’s giving us personal responsibility to be happy and fulfilled, and structural inequality is not acknowledged or recognized. When John Mackey or Bill Gates sees a problem, they set up a “free market solution” to that problem, even though, by definition, poor people don’t have money to pay for what they need.
While none of the book’s material was entirely new to me, it was interesting to see the connections deliberately made between the prevalent high-level business mindset and the individual choices we make for ourselves based on how we imagine the world works. If I really believed the Sandberg line, I’d still be working at a hedge fund, doing my best to please my colleagues and ignore my kids. If I had bought into Oprah’s context-free attitude, I’d blame people for their poverty and think it amounts to bad decision making.
The book isn’t entirely consistent. It maintains both that Bill Gates believes entirely in a free market and that he undemocratically influences education reform in this country with his money. Maybe those are consistent claims but it’s not obvious to me (although I agree with the undemocratic nature of his mega-philanthropy).
It’s a good book. I’d like a bunch of people to read it so we can have a discussion group. I also get the impression that Aschoff could write one of these a year, and I plan to follow her work.
I have a soft spot for sensitive singer songwriting men talking about their mothers, even when it’s a fraught relationship. After all, I’ve got three sons, and it’s nice to imagine they won’t forget about me once they leave. And hey, I’d rather have hate than nothing!
This morning I’m all about that. I started out with Sufjan Stevens (who has a new album coming out, by all accounts his best) singing For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti:
Next I moved on to another incredibly
emo heartfelt band called Iron and Wine, one of my favorites when I’m in this pineful mood. Here they are singing Upward Over the Mountain, a song I credit with the internal efforts I’ve made (so far) to let my sons someday leave me:
Next, now that I’m thoroughly in the mood, I’ll just go ahead and – brace myself and – listen to John Lennon’s Mother:
And to top that off, I’ll finish with something hopeful, Conor Obersts You Are Your Mother’s Child:
When I was a kid, being the child of nerd atheists, I spent more time watching Star Trek, Animal House, and Monty Python than in church.
Scratch that, I spent no time at all in church, and quite a bit of time at sci-fi conventions, where my father was a sci-fi book dealer. In fact it was a yearly ritual to carry a bunch of boxes of books to the car to tote them to Boskone, where we’d have a table in the big book room.
Sometimes I’d be in charge of selling, at least once I was old enough to make change. When I wasn’t on duty I’d wander around the room and wish I had enough money to buy sparkly purple crystals from weird women wearing scarves.
Sometimes I’d even read the books, out of boredom. They weren’t my thing, and I didn’t know why back then, but now I think I do.
Most of the time, the set-up seemed along these lines: some extremely macho guy, misunderstood and brilliant, gets into some kind of jam and uses his brilliant mind to find his way out of it. On the way he meets stupid men and even stupider – but gorgeous – women, who trick and finagle him, distracting him from his high-minded goals. Every now and then he’d get back at the women by fucking them. And yes, I’m thinking about Heinlein here, which my dad absolutely worships. Probably Larry Niven isn’t quite as bad.
In other words, it was mostly an adolescent male fantasy, with a side order of scientifically flavored situational crisis. Too much getting laid and proving yourself to other men, too little science. Waaay too little science.
Fast forward about 30 years, and I’m married to a man who reads sci-fi for fun (don’t tell him I said this, he denies being a fan). But progress has been made, because he can laugh at the ridiculous posturing.
About 10 years ago, in fact, he laughed out loud at a particularly ridiculous line from Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters.” I will show it to you so you can appreciate how much this explains to me about my childhood:
I felt warm and relaxed, as if I had just killed a man or had a woman.
I mean, for fuck’s sake. Oh, and if you want more context, please go ahead and read this excerpt, which taken as a whole is even worse than I remember. Oh, and here’s the cover:
Also, here’s another thing that I now (finally!) understand. Namely, when a boy reads this stuff, he actually might identify with it. I know this because my husband admitted this to me, and although I was momentarily stunned, it makes sense when you think about it.
Whereas, when I read it, I naturally concluded that it wasn’t about me at all, that it was in fact alien to me. If I wanted to force myself into that universe, where the women were so vile and dumb, then I’d have to decide between:
- not admitting I’m female, or
- admitting it, but trying to prove that, unlike those bimbos who couldn’t even fix a broken warp drive, I would be different. I’d have deep thoughts too, just like men.
Either of these attitudes, both of which I tried on at different times, were and are fucked up. I shouldn’t be surprised then that sci-fi never held sustained interest for me.
Anyway, it’s all good, because in our house nowadays, when we want to be funny, one of us mentions that they feel “warm and relaxed,” and then the other says, “holy crap, did you just kill a man??”
Sometimes the stuff I think about gets me down. I mean, jeez, I think about cynical stuff all the time, and I need to rest my brain sometimes.
When that happens, I sometimes fantasize about really long-term things that happen in the solar system or even the universe. It gives me perspective.
One of my favorite videos to watch at these moments is this one, which always blows my mind. The take-away: nothing is permanent unless there is actually a physical law forcing it to be. Here it is:
p.s. I vote for “tropical year” because I love analemmas.
p.p.s. Looking forward to Vega being the pole star once again.
p.p.p.s. This came up because my husband and I got into a conversation about earth’s aphelion and perihelion and we were wondering if it’s just by chance that perihelion happens near the beginning of winter. The answer is yes, because [take-away above].
p.p.p.p.s. How cool is the name “invariable plane”? And how amazing that the period of the orbiting plane of the earth and the period of the axial tilt are different? There’s really nothing that we can rely on, is there?
Last night my bluegrass band, the Tomtown Ramblers, was killing it at band practice. Here’s a picture of us learning a song:
As for what song it was, probably this one:
What we lacked in talent we made up for in numbers.
If you’re a musician and want to jam with us, come to Clearwater at the end of June, we’ll (mostly all) be there!