On not being there: The data-driven body at work and at play

Rebecca Lemov writes: The protagonist of William Gibson’s 2014 science-fiction novel The Peripheral, Flynne Fisher, works remotely in a way that lends a new and fuller sense to that phrase. The novel features a double future: One set of characters inhabits the near future, ten to fifteen years from the present, while another lives seventy years on, after a breakdown of the climate and multiple other systems that has apocalyptically altered human and technological conditions around the world.

In that “further future,” only 20 percent of the Earth’s human population has survived. Each of these fortunate few is well off and able to live a life transformed by healing nanobots, somaticized e-mail (which delivers messages and calls to the roof of the user’s mouth), quantum computing, and clean energy. For their amusement and profit, certain “hobbyists” in this future have the Borgesian option of cultivating an alternative path in history — it’s called “opening up a stub” — and mining it for information as well as labor.

Flynne, the remote worker, lives on one of those paths. A young woman from the American Southeast, possibly Appalachia or the Ozarks, she favors cutoff jeans and resides in a trailer, eking out a living as a for-hire sub playing video games for wealthy aficionados. Recruited by a mysterious entity that is beta-testing drones that are doing “security” in a murky skyscraper in an unnamed city, she thinks at first that she has been taken on to play a kind of video game in simulated reality. As it turns out, she has been employed to work in the future as an “information flow” — low-wage work, though the pay translates to a very high level of remuneration in the place and time in which she lives.

What is of particular interest is the fate of Flynne’s body. Before she goes to work she must tend to its basic needs (nutrition and elimination), because during her shift it will effectively be “vacant.” Lying on a bed with a special data-transmitting helmet attached to her head, she will be elsewhere, inhabiting an ambulatory robot carapace — a “peripheral” — built out of bio-flesh that can receive her consciousness.

Bodies in this data-driven economic backwater of a future world economy are abandoned for long stretches of time — disposable, cheapened, eerily vacant in the temporary absence of “someone at the helm.” Meanwhile, fleets of built bodies, grown from human DNA, await habitation.

Alex Rivera explores similar territory in his Mexican sci-fi film The Sleep Dealer (2008), set in a future world after a wall erected on the US–Mexican border has successfully blocked migrants from entering the United States. Digital networks allow people to connect to strangers all over the world, fostering fantasies of physical and emotional connection. At the same time, low-income would-be migrant workers in Tijuana and elsewhere can opt to do remote work by controlling robots building a skyscraper in a faraway city, locking their bodies into devices that transmit their labor to the site. In tank-like warehouses, lined up in rows of stalls, they “jack in” by connecting data-transmitting cables to nodes implanted in their arms and backs. Their bodies are in Mexico, but their work is in New York or San Francisco, and while they are plugged in and wearing their remote-viewing spectacles, their limbs move like the appendages of ghostly underwater creatures. Their life force drained by the taxing labor, these “sleep dealers” end up as human discards.

What is surprising about these sci-fi conceits, from “transitioning” in The Peripheral to “jacking in” in The Sleep Dealer, is how familiar they seem, or at least how closely they reflect certain aspects of contemporary reality. Almost daily, we encounter people who are there but not there, flickering in and out of what we think of as presence. A growing body of research explores the question of how users interact with their gadgets and media outlets, and how in turn these interactions transform social relationships. The defining feature of this heavily mediated reality is our presence “elsewhere,” a removal of at least part of our conscious awareness from wherever our bodies happen to be. [Continue reading…]

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Hackers warned about internet vulnerabilities but were ignored

The Washington Post reports: The seven young men sitting before some of Capitol Hill’s most powerful lawmakers weren’t graduate students or junior analysts from some think tank. No, Space Rogue, Kingpin, Mudge and the others were hackers who had come from the mysterious environs of cyberspace to deliver a terrifying warning to the world.

Your computers, they told the panel of senators in May 1998, are not safe — not the software, not the hardware, not the networks that link them together. The companies that build these things don’t care, the hackers continued, and they have no reason to care because failure costs them nothing. And the federal government has neither the skill nor the will to do anything about it.

“If you’re looking for computer security, then the Internet is not the place to be,” said Mudge, then 27 and looking like a biblical prophet with long brown hair flowing past his shoulders. The Internet itself, he added, could be taken down “by any of the seven individuals seated before you” with 30 minutes of well-choreographed keystrokes.

The senators — a bipartisan group including John Glenn, Joseph I. Lieberman and Fred D. Thompson — nodded gravely, making clear that they understood the gravity of the situation. “We’re going to have to do something about it,” Thompson said.

What happened instead was a tragedy of missed opportunity, and 17 years later the world is still paying the price in rampant insecurity. [Continue reading…]

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Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Daniel J Levitin writes: Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting. At the same time, we are all doing more. Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salespeople helped us find what we were looking for in shops, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows.

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime. We text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue – and while having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing. At the kitchen counter, cosy and secure in our domicile, we write our shopping lists on smartphones while we are listening to that wonderfully informative podcast on urban beekeeping.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient. [Continue reading…]

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Even the tech savvy should turn off their phones and listen

Bruno Giussani writes: Nothing exists nowadays unless it is Facebooked, Tweeted or Instagrammed with emphasis on “insta”. So perhaps the event that I hosted on Tuesday at the Royal Institution, TEDGlobal London, didn’t exist. Because we ran a little experiment, banning the use of smartphones, tablets, laptops, cameras – any electronic device – during the conference.

At the end of the event (which over two sessions of 100 minutes each featured scientists, technologists, historians, a photographer, a slam poet, a singer, a racing car driver and a writer) I asked the 350 attendees whether we should apply the same rule next time. It’s a safe guess that at least two-thirds of them use Twitter or FB with some regularity, but pretty much every hand in the theatre shot up, with maybe two exceptions. I have heard nothing but positive feedback since. [Continue reading…]

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Pope Francis on the dehumanizing effect of social media and information overload

[W]hen media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise. [Source: Laudato Si: On the Care of the Common Home]

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ISIS is winning the social media war, U.S. concludes

The New York Times reports: An internal State Department assessment paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine, portraying a fractured coalition that cannot get its own message straight.

The assessment comes months after the State Department signaled that it was planning to energize its social media campaign against the militant group. It concludes, however, that the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations.

It also casts an unflattering light on internal discussions between American officials and some of their closest allies in the military campaign against the militants. A “messaging working group” of officials from the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, “has not really come together.” [Continue reading…]

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Welcome to the new Wild West of data collection without regulation

The Nation reports: Nicole Keplinger, 22, had long seen ads on Facebook promising financial relief, but she always ignored them and assumed that they were scams. Keplinger was drowning in student debt after obtaining a worthless degree from the for-profit Everest College, whose parent corporation, Corinthian Colleges Inc., had recently collapsed under accusations of fraud and predatory lending. But when an offer arrived in her e-mail inbox in April — “Cut your student loan payment or even forgive it completely!” — she thought it seemed more legitimate than the rest, so she called the number.

The person on the other end was aggressive. “They wanted my banking information, my Social Security number, my parents’ number and their information. I was like, ‘Wait a minute,’” Keplinger recalled. Even after she said that she lived on a fixed income (on disability due to a kidney transplant), the telemarketer kept up the pressure. “They said I needed to get a credit card. I don’t know if they were going to take money off it or what… but why do I need to get a credit card if I’m trying to reduce my student loans?”

Keplinger lied and said she’d call back, but not everyone gets away. If she disclosed her bank information, her loans most certainly would not have been cut or forgiven. At best, she would have been charged a large fee for something she could do herself: get on government repayment programs such as forbearance or deferment. At worst, she might have had the money debited each month from her bank account without any benefit provided in return, or been ensnared by a “phantom-debt collector” — a distressingly common racket that involves telling people they owe phony debts and scaring them into paying. It’s the perfect ploy to attempt on people who have already been preyed upon by unscrupulous outfits like Corinthian and who, having been misled and overcharged, are understandably confused about how much money they owe. At the same time, the fact that Keplinger was e-mailed in addition to seeing ads on Facebook suggests that her information was in the hands of a “lead generator,” a multibillion-dollar industry devoted to compiling and selling lists of prospective customers online.

Welcome to a new age of digital redlining. The term conjures up the days when banks would draw a red line around areas of the city — typically places where blacks, Latinos, Asians, or other minorities lived — to denote places they would not lend money, at least not at fair rates. “Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity, there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to ‘digitally redline’ unwanted groups, either as customers, employees, tenants, or recipients of credit,” a 2014 White House report on big data warns. [Continue reading…]

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Jailed for ‘Twitter terrorism’ supporting ISIS and Al Qaeda

The Daily Beast reports: American and British counter-terror officers have turned their fire on the keyboard warriors waging jihad from their bedrooms in Western capitals.

A teenage boy from the D.C. area and a woman living in South London admitted Thursday in courtrooms 3,000 miles apart that they were “Twitter terrorists”—part of a growing online army that encourages Western citizens to travel to the so-called Islamic State; take up arms; or martyr themselves in the name of jihad.

Such is the perceived threat from these social media recruiting sergeants that judges on both sides of the Atlantic have dispensed with free speech arguments and now characterize Twitter or Instagram propaganda sites for al Qaeda and Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) as providing “material support” for terrorists. [Continue reading…]

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Palestinian men face Israeli prison sentences for Facebook posts

Aziza Nofal reports: The Jerusalemite family of Omar al-Shalabi did not expect the status updates he posted on his Facebook page to lead to his arrest by Israeli authorities. Up until the Jerusalem magistrate’s court announced its verdict, the family also believed he would be released and allowed to return home. On May 12, Shalabi was sentenced to nine months in prison.

Shalabi’s brother Mohammed, who is following up on his sibling’s case with a lawyer, told Al-Monitor that the ruling was unexpected given the apparent trivialness of the acts leading to the charges against him. The family had in addition expected Shalabi to be released on bail awaiting trial. He had been arrested Dec. 14 and charged with incitement based on postings to his Facebook page. The posts followed the kidnapping and murder of a young Palestinian man, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, by extremist settlers. Israeli authorities thus feared possible retaliatory attacks against settlers.

Mohammed Shalabi said his brother’s postings leading up to his arrest were no different from what he had been posting for quite some time. “The occupation authorities retained Omar’s posts as a pretext to arrest him, because he was an activist in the Fatah movement in Jerusalem,” claimed Mohammed Shalabi. [Continue reading…]

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With ISIS using instant messaging apps, FBI seeks access to data

The Los Angeles Times reports: Islamic State militants and their followers have discovered an unnerving new communications and recruiting tool that has stymied U.S. counter-terrorism agencies: instant messaging apps on smartphones that encrypt the texts or destroy them almost immediately.

In many cases, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies can’t read the messages in real time, or even later with a court order, because the phone companies and the app developers say they can’t unlock the coded text and don’t retain a record of the exchanges.

“We’re past going dark in certain instances,” said Michael B. Steinbach, the FBI’s top counter-terrorism official. “We are dark.”

The hole in U.S. surveillance capabilities was not mentioned during the recent congressional battle over the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of U.S. landline and cellphone data. Lawmakers ultimately agreed to scale back that program because of concerns it violated Americans’ privacy.

FBI officials now want Congress to expand their authority to tap into messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Kik, as well as data-destroying apps such as Wickr and Surespot, that hundreds of millions of people — and apparently some militants — have embraced precisely because they guarantee security and anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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Digital journalism: The next generation

Michael Massing writes: Arriving at BuzzFeed’s editorial offices (housed in temporary quarters while the main office is being renovated), I found two adjoining cavernous spaces filled with long tables, at which sat some two hundred people gazing at computer screens. I was introduced to Shani Hilton, the executive editor for news. Thirty years old, she had worked for NBCWashington.com, the Washington City Paper, and the Center for American Progress before joining BuzzFeed in 2013. I asked her to cite some recent stories she felt were noteworthy. She mentioned a report by Ben Smith about the threat by an Uber executive to dig up dirt on a reporter who had criticized the company (it kicked up a storm); a story by Aram Roston on financial conflicts of interest involving a top NSA official (which led to the official’s resignation); and “Fostering Profits,” an investigation into deaths, sex abuse, and gaps in oversight at the nation’s largest for-profit foster care company. As for regular beats, Hilton mentioned two in which she felt BuzzFeed had excelled—marriage equality and rape culture.

From talking with Hilton and with Ben Smith (now editor in chief) and from sampling BuzzFeed’s home page, I came away convinced of its commitment to being a serious provider of news; there’s a sense of earnest aspiration about the place. At the same time, I was surprised by how conventional—and tame—most of its reports are. Much of BuzzFeed’s news feed seems indistinguishable from that of a wire service. Its investigations, while commendable, fall squarely within the parameters of investigative reporting as traditionally practiced in this country, with a narrow focus on managerial malfeasance, conflicts of interest, and workplace abuses. There’s little effort to examine, for example, the activities of hedge fund managers, Internet billionaires, or other pillars of the new oligarchy.

In April, Ben Smith removed two BuzzFeed posts that were critical of the advertising campaigns for Dove cosmetics and the Hasbro board game Monopoly. Both Dove and Hasbro advertise on the site. After coming under much fire, Smith restored the posts, though he denied that their original removal had had anything to do with pressure from advertisers. Soon after, the writer of the post critical of Dove, Arabelle Sicardi, resigned. So much for “true journalistic independence.” Overall, BuzzFeed’s practice of journalism seems nowhere near as pioneering as the sleek platform it has developed to deliver its product. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s Internet Research Agency has industrialized the art of trolling

Adrian Chen writes: Around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11 last year, Duval Arthur, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, got a call from a resident who had just received a disturbing text message. “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM,” the message read. “Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”

St. Mary Parish is home to many processing plants for chemicals and natural gas, and keeping track of dangerous accidents at those plants is Arthur’s job. But he hadn’t heard of any chemical release that morning. In fact, he hadn’t even heard of Columbia Chemical. St. Mary Parish had a Columbian Chemicals plant, which made carbon black, a petroleum product used in rubber and plastics. But he’d heard nothing from them that morning, either. Soon, two other residents called and reported the same text message. Arthur was worried: Had one of his employees sent out an alert without telling him?

If Arthur had checked Twitter, he might have become much more worried. Hundreds of Twitter accounts were documenting a disaster right down the road. “A powerful explosion heard from miles away happened at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana #ColumbianChemicals,” a man named Jon Merritt tweeted. The #ColumbianChemicals hashtag was full of eyewitness accounts of the horror in Centerville. @AnnRussela shared an image of flames engulfing the plant. @Ksarah12 posted a video of surveillance footage from a local gas station, capturing the flash of the explosion. Others shared a video in which thick black smoke rose in the distance.

Dozens of journalists, media outlets and politicians, from Louisiana to New York City, found their Twitter accounts inundated with messages about the disaster. “Heather, I’m sure that the explosion at the #ColumbianChemicals is really dangerous. Louisiana is really screwed now,” a user named @EricTraPPP tweeted at the New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Heather Nolan. Another posted a screenshot of CNN’s home page, showing that the story had already made national news. ISIS had claimed credit for the attack, according to one YouTube video; in it, a man showed his TV screen, tuned to an Arabic news channel, on which masked ISIS fighters delivered a speech next to looping footage of an explosion. A woman named Anna McClaren (@zpokodon9) tweeted at Karl Rove: “Karl, Is this really ISIS who is responsible for #ColumbianChemicals? Tell @Obama that we should bomb Iraq!” But anyone who took the trouble to check CNN.com would have found no news of a spectacular Sept. 11 attack by ISIS. It was all fake: the screenshot, the videos, the photographs.

In St. Mary Parish, Duval Arthur quickly made a few calls and found that none of his employees had sent the alert. He called Columbian Chemicals, which reported no problems at the plant. Roughly two hours after the first text message was sent, the company put out a news release, explaining that reports of an explosion were false. When I called Arthur a few months later, he dismissed the incident as a tasteless prank, timed to the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Personally I think it’s just a real sad, sick sense of humor,” he told me. “It was just someone who just liked scaring the daylights out of people.” Authorities, he said, had tried to trace the numbers that the text messages had come from, but with no luck. (The F.B.I. told me the investigation was still open.)

The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year. On Dec. 13, two months after a handful of Ebola cases in the United States touched off a minor media panic, many of the same Twitter accounts used to spread the Columbian Chemicals hoax began to post about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. The campaign followed the same pattern of fake news reports and videos, this time under the hashtag #EbolaInAtlanta, which briefly trended in Atlanta. Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyoncé’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

On the same day as the Ebola hoax, a totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In this case, a blurry video purports to show the shooting, as an onlooker narrates. Watching it, I thought I recognized the voice — it sounded the same as the man watching TV in the Columbian Chemicals video, the one in which ISIS supposedly claims responsibility. The accent was unmistakable, if unplaceable, and in both videos he was making a very strained attempt to sound American. Somehow the result was vaguely Australian.

Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. [Continue reading…]

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The man stopping Vladimir Putin from taking over the Internet

Politico reports: Daniel Sepulveda just might be the closest thing the United States has to an “Ambassador to the Internet.” And the 42-year-old is in the middle of a tricky battle.

Some countries, including behemoths China and Russia, as well as smaller countries with few resources, are starting to argue that the loose way the Internet is run leans too heavily in the U.S.’s favor. Their solution: Shift regulation of the Internet to the world stage, perhaps to the United Nations, where they might have more control.

That runs counter to the official position of the Obama administration. And that’s where Sepulveda comes in and what keeps the deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy airborne much of the time, flying to Dubai, Costa Rica, Cuba or South Korea as the administration’s pitch man.

The Internet’s evolution should be decided “organically, by participants in the network,” Sepulveda argues, “as opposed to by governments or intermediaries.”

He’s willing to acknowledge that the current, somewhat ad hoc system of regulation — where geeks, not governments, get to vote — needs reforming. But it mostly works, as it allows for what Sepulveda calls “as little friction as possible” as information and ideas move around the world. Binding the future of the Internet to the U.N. threatens to upset a way of doing things that has produced, in the Internet, a global force unlike the world has ever seen.

The complicated part, though, is that Sepulveda and his colleagues have to sell that government-hands-off-the-Internet policy while also being high-ranking appointees of a government which has been accused of using the Internet to allegedly spy on its own citizens, as well as on world leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and Brazil’s Dilma Rouseff. [Continue reading…]

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What sort of wunderkind was Aaron Swartz?

Ed Lake writes: Who was Aaron Swartz? I never met him, though I’ve had dealings with friends of his over the years. The outline of his biography is a matter of public record: teenaged computer whizz gets rich, becomes a political activist and ends up in his 20s facing decades in jail for murky charges related to the misappropriation of academic journal articles. That much is on Wikipedia.

If that isn’t intimate enough, perhaps his character comes through in the tributes that poured onto the internet following Swartz’s suicide in 2013. The signature notes of tenderness, exasperation and awe, in reminiscences from Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and many other notable mentors, certainly conjure a fleeting presence. Nevertheless, in the end, the person is irrecoverable, and those of us who weren’t lucky enough to know him never will.

What was Aaron Swartz?’, on the other hand, seems like both a tractable and a worthwhile question, not least because a decent answer ought to say something about where we are now. Swartz positioned himself at the exact spot where technology and politics press noses and glare at one another. It’s a Silicon Valley joke (or perhaps just a Silicon Valley joke) that every idiot with a dating app says he wants to change the world, but Swartz seems really to have meant it. He quit money the way PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel wants smart kids to quit college. He became a white-hat hacker among the levers of state power.

And things ended, not just badly, but dismally, in a sulphurous halfworld of G-men, prosecutorial intimidation and forced betrayals. It is, I suspect, impossible to learn anything about the young activist’s story without starting to see it as a symbol of something ominous in our present chunk of history. But what? [Continue reading…]

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Time to #BoycottBudLight

First up (to be completely honest): I’m not in a position to boycott Bud Light or any other Anheuser-Busch product.

It’s easy enough to identify pissy beer from the brand without needing to taste it — I’m confident I’ll be able to continue through the rest of my life without ever drinking a single Budweiser. That said, if there is a movement to #BoycottBudLight sprouting up among current drinkers, I applaud all those who support it.

The New York Times reports: A new label on some bottles of Bud Light, one of the brands owned by the beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, is falling flat among women, a demographic group the industry has been desperately courting in hopes of jump-starting flagging sales of suds.

In a continuation of its “Up for Whatever” campaign, a wide blue band low on the label says, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

Protests quickly erupted in social media, criticizing what was perceived as perhaps not the best marketing language in the midst of public outcry over date rape on college campuses.

“As a woman, as a mother of a girl and a boy, I find this message very disturbing and dangerous,” someone using the name Danielle Sawada posted on Bud Light’s Facebook page. “I have been a Bud Light drinker for quite a while, but until this campaign ends, you do not have my dollars.”

Alexander Lambrecht, vice president for the Bud Light brand at Anheuser-Busch, says:

“It’s clear that this message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.”

With all due respect, that’s bullshit.

Anheuser-Busch is trawling a market that’s a bit lacking in discrimination, but even so, I seriously doubt that the advertising campaigns dreamed up their agency, BBDO, are being created by a group of idiots.

Rather than treat the corporate response as an admission of an honest mistake, it should in my opinion be viewed as a smokescreen — not so much a reaction to the campaign, but instead an integral component in the campaign strategy.

The watery beer behind the label has been on the market for over 30 years. Creating some buzz around an old brand has to get increasingly difficult — especially when the age at which young people start drinking is the period in life when they have least interest in imitating their overweight parents.

A campaign built around the hashtag #UpForWhatever is clearly aimed at breaking boundaries — not staying in well-worn tracks.

The outrage provoked by this campaign, far from being fallout from “missing the mark,” may in fact be the mark itself — free publicity on Twitter and across the media.

Arguably, the only way of having a big impact through social media is by stoking controversy. After all, outrage is the currency of the realm.

And in this case, expressing consternation gets turned into an equal opportunity exercise whose participants include executives not only at Anheuser-Busch but also BBDO.

The agency’s Director of Digital Strategy, Lucy Leiderman, tweeted: “Oh no. Bud Light’s new tagline: “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”… ” but then removed the tweet.

Was this just a bit of damage control on behalf of the agency? Maybe, but perhaps Leiderman can be given the benefit of the doubt.

Prior to her arrival at BBDO, she wrote quite astutely about the dangers of removing “no” from ones vocabulary, addressing her warning directly at advertising creatives:

Marketers everywhere are singing the siren song of increasingly outrageous social campaigns. Decision makers are seeing signs that the end of the traditional is nigh. More and more, the creative space has become a world of “yes.” And that’s a problem.

But it isn’t just a problem that results in outrageous advertising. By its very nature advertising is always coercive and always designed to precipitate choices that might otherwise not be made.

Every ad wants you to say “yes.”

As Bud Light lights up Twitter, Anheuser-Busch and BBDO are getting exactly what they want. The only way of making the backlash truly instructive will be if it moves beyond the digital sphere and consumers in significant numbers actually stop buying the beer.

Still, even if to my surprise, the #UpForWhatever campaign turned out to become a very expensive mistake, I don’t anticipate the kind of seismic shift that I would really hope for in American culture.

In the larger scheme of things, this is a somewhat trivial example of a trend that permeates almost every strand of public discourse.

Language, through its relentless abuse, gets stripped of meaning. As meaning ebbs away, there is a frenzy in which everyone is turning up the volume, trying to make themselves heard even when much of the time they have nothing of true value to say.

Advertising is inherently emotive. It is designed to provoke feelings — not thought.

It’s not by chance that BBDO would choose the hook of a generational phrase — whatever — in an effort to fuel mindless consumption, cloaked as free spirit.

Whatever signals a vocabulary already severely depleted as advertisers try and knock out its last line of defense.

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Why too much Facebook can leave you feeling down

By Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, University of Houston

“Comparison is the thief of joy”, said former US president Theodore Roosevelt. Spoken more than a century ago, Roosevelt’s words highlight a fundamental truth that is just as relevant today.

In the 1950s, the acclaimed social psychologist, Leon Festinger, devised the social comparison theory to help explain the psychological processes behind why we compare ourselves to others. Festinger proposed that individuals have an innate desire to see how they measure up with their peers on dimensions they deem personally important in order to evaluate how well they are doing.

This tendency hasn’t gone away, and in fact, through social media websites like Facebook we may be engaging in more social comparison than ever before. Such social comparisons can convey important information: are we measuring up in terms of our progress or achievements, or are we falling behind and need to put in the effort to catch up?

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Facebook isn’t a charity. The poor will pay by surrendering their data

Evgeny Morozov writes: Luxury is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed. Such, at any rate, is the provocative argument put forward by Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist. Recently dubbed “the Varian rule”, it states that to predict the future, we just have to look at what rich people already have and assume that the middle classes will have it in five years and poor people will have it in 10. Radio, TV, dishwashers, mobile phones, flatscreen TVs: Varian sees this principle at work in the history of many technologies.

So what is it that the rich have today that the poor will get in a decade? Varian bets on personal assistants. Instead of maids and chauffeurs we would have self-driving cars, housecleaning robots and clever, omniscient apps that can monitor, inform and nudge us in real time.

As Varian puts it: “These digital assistants will be so useful that everyone will want one and the scare stories you read today about privacy concerns will just seem quaint and old-fashioned.” Google Now, one such assistant, can monitor our emails, searches and locations and constantly remind us about forthcoming meetings or trips, all while patiently checking real-time weather and traffic in the background.

Varian’s juxtaposition of dishwashers with apps might seem reasonable but it’s actually misleading. When you hire somebody as your personal assistant, the transaction is relatively straightforward: you pay the person for the services tendered – often, in cash – and that’s the end of it. It’s tempting to say that the same logic is at work with virtual assistants: you surrender your data – the way you would surrender your cash – for Google to provide this otherwise free service.

But something doesn’t add up here: few of us expect our personal assistants to walk away with a copy of all our letters and files in order to make a buck off them. For our virtual assistants, on the other hand, this is the only reason they exist. [Continue reading…]

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Could ISIS’s ‘cyber caliphate’ unleash a deadly attack on key targets?

The Observer reports: When a chubby Birmingham teenager went on trial in 2012 for hacking Tony Blair’s personal address book, and taking down an anti-terror hotline, defence lawyers described him as “shy and unassuming” and dismissed the online exploits as a childish prank.

“They weren’t terrorists in any way, shape or form,” his barrister argued in court. Less than two years later, Junaid Hussain was in Syria, apparently on his way to join Isis, one of its most dangerous new recruits.

The group transfixed the world with its ultraviolent ideology, as it swept through Syria and Iraq in a frenzy of bloodshed and destruction. But its leaders’ enthusiasm for medieval barbarity is matched by an equally fervent embrace of modern technology. They know that a hacker like Hussain, behind his laptop, is as intimidating to some of their distant enemies as the gunmen terrorising people on the ground.

“Isis has been recruiting hackers for some time now. Some are virtual collaborators from a distance, but others have been recruited to emigrate to Syria,” said JM Berger, co-author of Isis: The State of Terror. “Activity targeting the west is just part of their portfolio. They’re also responsible for maintaining internet access in Isis territories, for instance, and for instructing members on security.” [Continue reading…]

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