Archive for the ‘revolution’ Category

Article: Review of The People’s Platform

Monday, June 30th, 2014
Astra Taylor's book challenges utopian views about the democratizing effects of the internet.

Astra Taylor’s book challenges utopian views about the democratizing effects of the internet.

Who Pays?
The Literary Review, June 2014
The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age
By Astra Taylor (Fourth Estate 276pp £12.99)

It’s often interesting to transpose online behaviours into the real world. We’d think someone unhinged if they gave us a flyer with lots of flattering photographs of themselves and a list of their achievements. Yet this type of self-disclosure is normal thanks to social networking. Astra Taylor argues in The People’s Platform that this change of propriety isn’t so much because digital natives are more narcissistic than other generations but rather they are keenly aware that they are judged by their online selves – or ‘personal brands’ – in a way previous generations were not. The logic of the box office and bestseller has been applied to people, something Taylor laments: ‘To compete, we are told we have no choice but to participate in the culture of disclosure … We live in public in part because we believe we have to.’

Taylor makes a compelling argument that the beneficiaries of the ‘openness’ and ‘free culture’ movement that has so defined the web are not individuals but new media moguls and the advertisers they serve. She is keenly attuned to power, a rare quality among those who write about the internet, who tend to fall into two camps: proselytising techno-utopians or gimmicky contrarians. She argues that only humans can make human systems fairer, more equal and more diverse. Many of the thoughts outlined in the book are other people’s; the style is somewhere between an academic paper and an authorial remix. Many of the topics, too, have been covered before: the fate of journalism in the digital age, problems of copyright, privacy, data mining and the sustainability of art. Nonetheless Taylor deftly synthesises a mass of research and some reportage into a powerful rebuttal of the reigning ideologies of the internet.

Her own voice, interlaced lightly throughout the book, is at its most persuasive when she punctures the evangelism of free culture and openness, perhaps because Taylor herself is part of the creative class. An author and filmmaker, she has experienced at first hand the disastrous effects of openness on the livelihoods of those who produce culture, whether journalists, filmmakers, artists or musicians. She writes: ‘networked amateurism has been harnessed to corporate strategy … populist outrage has been yoked to free-market ideology by those who exploit cultural grievances to shore up their power and influence, directing public animus away from economic elites and toward cultural ones, away from plutocrats and toward professionals’. Technology has no morality but merely reflects the human values we require of it – so the current system reflects the values of those Silicon Valley businessmen who built and benefit most from it. Pushing past the clouds of airy democratising rhetoric, she examines the actual beneficiaries of an online advertising-funded system where creative work is given away by the public for free. It’s certainly not women, minorities or creatives. She quotes research showing that although 40 per cent of private businesses in the US are women-owned, only 8 per cent of venture-capital-backed tech start-ups are; and over 85 per cent of venture capitalists are men looking to invest in other men. Collaborative sites such as Reddit and Slashdot cater to users who are up to 90 per cent male, mostly young, wealthy and white. In fact, it becomes clear that the beneficiaries of the ‘new’ system look remarkably like those of the old one: well-off, well-educated white men, albeit with a few years shaved off.

‘If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system,’ she writes, and that may mean, for example, taking action against men who threaten sexual violence against women online. Openness advocates may decry these attempts at regulation as authoritarian, but such criticism is naive as it ‘ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind: they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want a return on investment, and advertisers, who want to sell us things’. She also points out the hypocrisy of free-culture cheerleaders such as Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler and Don Tapscott – all white men of a certain age, working at elite universities and publishing their sermons of openness not for free but via traditional publishers. Leftists, young activists and free-marketers have been duped into promoting an ideology that serves to exploit the public’s work for private gain. She also argues, rightly, that the destruction of institutions such as newspapers and the criticism of professionals have played into the hands of the powerful. Institutions gave individuals power, security and an ability to take risks creatively. Now we are each of us on our own in a desperate lottery to gain attention in a commercial marketplace. Taylor is right to observe that criticising professionals or cultural elites is not striking a blow against the real powers. ‘When we uphold amateur creativity we are not necessarily resolving the deeper problems of entrenched privilege or the irresistible imperative of profit.’ Instead we are ushering in an age of less accountable journalism, less diversity and less risk-tolerant culture.

Astra Taylor is an author and documentary maker

Astra Taylor is an author and documentary maker

So, while we take selfies, rant about the mainstream media and rage our twitchfork battles against lone individuals, the powers that be must be smiling to themselves as they quietly amass more power and money. Like children behind the Pied Piper, we’ve been all too eager to believe the fairy tale that we could get something for nothing, greedily using the ‘free’ services of Google, Facebook and Twitter. But we pay one way or another. We can pay directly through public subsidies such as the TV licence and taxes, or indirectly, our data sold, our public culture placed into private hands and our eyeballs targeted relentlessly with advertising. Even advertising isn’t ‘free’. As Taylor observes, ‘Advertising is, in essence, a private tax. Because promotional budgets are factored into the price we pay for goods, customers … end up footing the bill.’ And we’re talking about an enormous amount of money. The World Federation of Advertisers estimates that $700 billion per year is spent on advertising. ‘Surely all that money could be better spent producing something we actually care about?’ It is hard to disagree no matter how much of a free-market capitalist you are. It’s becoming increasingly clear that public goods require public payment. Among her solutions, Taylor proposes a Bill of Creative Rights that enshrines in law respect for labour. It’s a simple idea but one that needs to be re-emphasised to counter the free-culture zealots. That so many have fallen for the fairy tale shows how attractive it is – and why we need a young activist like Astra Taylor to lead the charge.

Manifesto for a New Democracy

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

I wrote this several years ago. It’s the last chapter of The Silent State but it’s remarkably relevent right now. I’ll be adding the manifesto points in the coming days.

Manifesto for a New Democracy
Who am I to put forward a manifesto? I’m not elected. I’m not accountable to any regulator. I’m just a freelance trouble- maker, a rabble-rouser, a nosey parker prying into the silent state, a writer with a love of novels that remind us just how close we are to realising their dystopian fears: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Tyler Durden asks in Fight Club to be delivered from Swedish furniture; I ask only:

  • Deliver us from officious officials.
  • Deliver us from prying bureaucrats who refuse to be named.
  • Deliver us from arrogant MPs who feel entitled to pilfer the public purse.
  • In a democracy, everyone has a right to propose ideas and it is in the roiling competition of these ideas that the best become policy and the weakest fall by the wayside. I am not a politician. I can’t compel people to give me money to implement my world view. I can’t imprison, fine or smear if you don’t buy my book or agree with me. I can’t siphon off public cash to create a huge PR industry to peddle my propaganda. I have no power other than the facts I’ve put forward in this book and the belief that if these stories are compelling then they might persuade a few people that our current system isn’t acceptable. Things need to change. Here’s how:

    1) We should give no more power to the state without the state giving something to us.

    Before the state can keep a database of our identities, aggregate our DNA or gather any other intrusive personal information, it should acknowledge that these measures do nothing whatsoever to empower ordinary citizens. We do not need millions of CCTV cameras turning citizens into suspects, nor every child entered into a database.

    2) Name all public officials. These people work for us.

    The state should publish its entire staff directory so we can see, by name, who is doing what at taxpayer expense.
    Throughout this book I’ve used the real names of real people. If you’re going to tell a story then you need to focus on an individual with a name. It’s through individuals that we are best able to gain understanding. Yet individuality is precisely what is lacking from the state. A faceless wall of bureaucracy has been built up that alienates citizen from state. If public servants are truly working for the public then we need to know who they are. Wherever we see ‘facts’ followed by anonymous officials, we should be sceptical. There should be no power exercised without accountability, ending the domination of behind-the-scenes spin doctors and strategists.

    This will benefit bureaucracies too. Throughout public services there are professionals with all sorts of expertise, all kinds of information. They have concerns about what works and what doesn’t and good ideas for improvement. But in the current anonymised, hierarchical structure these people have no voice. They are not listened to nor trusted and if they dare speak directly to the public they are penalised and often prosecuted. In the end the silent state hurts many for the benefit of an elite few.

    More points to come…

    Article: Last of the Assange fans sees the light

    Saturday, March 30th, 2013

    Assange is no hero. He’s just another Max Clifford
    The Times (London), February 8, 2013 Friday

    Jemima Khan so believed in the cause of WikiLeaks, of opening up state secrets to the public gaze, that she put up bail for Julian Assange, a man accused of rape and sexual assault. Now, in an article for the New Statesman she writes of her disillusionment, warning that he risks going from Jason Bourne to L. Ron Hubbard.

    Mr Assange is an example of the crusading campaigner who equates righteousness with media attention. He hijacked a noble cause as a means of self-aggrandisement. Indeed, at his 40th birthday party he auctioned photographs of himself to the assembled celebrity admirers. Many people, not just Ms Khan, were so eager for him to be the person they wanted him to be that they failed or refused to see what he was: a morally questionable man exploiting idealistic supporters to advance his own fame.

    Some cling to the fiction that Mr Assange “changed the game”. Did he? As a result of his actions governments across the world have been frightened into ever greater internet surveillance. If a campaigner’s ultimate aim is to change the law, WikiLeaks has failed.

    WikiLeaks was at its best before Mr Assange took the credit for it, when it was a team publishing on the internet material that journalists couldn’t report in their own countries. The “megaleaks” of thousands of documents – the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the US diplomatic cables – were certainly powerful. But the credit belongs to Bradley Manning, the US soldier detained since 2010, who risked his life to make them public. It’s clear from his chat logs that educating the public was his goal, not granting Mr Assange a proprietorial licence to cajole journalists into writing sycophantic profiles. For that reason I was happy to break his monopoly and leak his most precious leak – the diplomatic cables.

    “WikiLeaks exposed corruption, war crimes, torture and cover-ups,” Jemima Khan writes. No it didn’t. It was exposed by Private Manning and the reporters who spent weeks digging through the data to make sense of it and produce stories that stacked up. Mr Assange’s contribution was to organise – or rather get his young interns and lackeys to organise – the huge press conference in which he starred as saviour.

    Mr Assange is, at best, a middle man of the Max Clifford variety, brokering deals between source and newspaper. Except that Private Manning got only incarceration and a potential life sentence. Far from advancing the cause of openness worldwide, Mr Assange has gravely undermined it by so shamelessly making it all about himself.

    A few thoughts on the death of hacktivist Aaron Swartz

    Saturday, January 12th, 2013

    Today I heard that hacktivist Aaron Swartz killed himself. He was just 26 years old. I met Aaron at various Open Government conferences. He was an incredibly intelligent original thinker who was committed to freedom of information and democracy. He went beyond the rhetoric and put his principles into action. While I was researching the Boston hacker scene for The Revolution Will Be Digitised he generously agreed to help me. I’ve decided to post that section here to give a sense of the man we’ve lost.

    …I can count on one finger my Boston contacts. Fortunately that person is Aaron Swartz, who’s in the Cambridge tech/activist scene. He describes himself as a writer, activist and hacker and at twenty-five his CV is impressive: currently founder and director of a democracy campaign group, Demand Progress, he previously co-founded Reddit.com (a website for sharing news links) and was part of the original team to launch Creative Commons. At fourteen he co-authored the Really Simple Syndication (RSS 1.0) specification for publishing news updates. In the information war he’s participated in a few guerrilla campaigns which have accorded him his own FBI file (posted on his blog). In 2008, he hacked into a federal court library system to leak over 18 million public documents that the government had been charging citizens to access. Swartz only realised how much trouble he was in when the FBI started monitoring him. He got himself a lawyer, but luckily the New York Times got on the case and made him something of a cause célèbre. The FBI eventually backed off: it looked bad to spend taxpayers’ money going after a kid for making public records more publicly available.

    Aaron has set me up with a room in a place called the Acetarium but even standing outside the door on this cold November night I can’t tell if it’s a hostel, a hotel or a house. I telephone the proprietor Benjamin Mako Hill and in a few minutes I see pale legs jumping down the stairs. He’s known as ‘Mako’, he tells me, and he has an impish, Irish look with a pointy Pan-like beard and big mischievous blue eyes with a ring through his left eyebrow. He’s wearing an American flag do-rag and a yellow cycling jacket. He’s brimming with energy and hops up the stairs two at a time. On the landing is a sign: ‘Shoes and pants off please’. I leave mine (shoes that is) at the door and head in.

    Inside, over some home-made vegetable dumplings, I meet Mako’s wife and some of the other residents: a twenty-year-old couchsurfer from North Carolina, a freelance software programmer in the spare room and a guinea pig whose owner has gone travelling. Mako himself is a scholar at MIT’s media lab specialising in sociology and online communities and he’s an active member of the Free Software Foundation. He sounds exactly the sort of person who can put me in touch with the people I need to talk to, but when I start asking questions he clams up. ‘I’m not into that scene,’ he says tersely, tapping his foot. ‘I don’t know any of those people.’

    Later that evening, Aaron comes over to the Acetarium and tells me this used to be the original Reddit offices. He passed them to Mako when Reddit was bought by Condé Nast and he and the other founders moved out to San Francisco to live the dream. He says California wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Neither was the office job at Condé Nast. He’s since been fired, dropped out of Stanford and is now a fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University as well as running his campaign group. He has an intense curiosity that lasers into whatever happens to interest him at any given moment, but the attention is short, and soon he’s off delving into something else. Fortunately his immediate interest is my ‘quest’, so he grabs a nearby laptop to see what he can find online. A quick glance of Tyler Watkins’ and David House’s social networks reveals they’re both linked to someone called Danny Clark. It’s a long shot, but I ask Mako if he knows Danny Clark. His response is straightforward enough: ‘Never heard of him.’

    ‘But he’s on your list of LinkedIn contacts,’ says Aaron, now perusing Mako’s profile, and I remind Mako there’s no privacy on the Internet. He reiterates that he’s ‘not involved in any of this, and I don’t want anything to do with it’.

    ‘What’s wrong with answering her questions?’ Aaron counters.

    ‘You don’t understand, there’s been all kinds of people round here.’

    ‘I understand completely. I was investigated by the FBI, don’t forget. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk. We’re not in a police state yet.’

    I decide not to press my host any further, but I’m struck by his guardedness. Clearly people are scared, and I begin to worry if I’ll get anything at all out of this trip. Maybe to make up for his reticence, Mako invites me to come along to a pub in Harvard Square where every Sunday he organises a social evening for a group of techie friends studying or working at MIT or Harvard. I meet all sorts of interesting people including a woman working on the human genome project, but the most interesting of all is another Brit who tells me he lives with Danny Clark…

    While I was in Boston, Aaron told me he was working on another ‘project’ which I found out later was his guerrilla action to liberate academic articles. In July 2011, he was arrested and charged with downloading 4.8 million academic articles between September 2010 and January 2011 from JSTOR, a research subscription service offering digitised copies of academic journals and documents. He was accused of breaking into a computer wiring closet on MIT’s campus and downloading the documents which prosecutors say he intended to share online. Swartz turned himself in and pleaded not guilty to charges including wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. He was released on a $100,000 unsecured bond and faced up to thirty-five years in prison, if convicted. In September 2012, federal prosecutors added even more charges.

    Aaron wasn’t a dangerous person who hurt people. His mission was to free public information. Shamefully for that he was targeted by certain justice officials in what amounted to more of a persecution than a prosecution. I think the war on hackers has gone on long enough. Officials need to understand that criminalising the best and the brightest is not good public policy.

    More on Aaron Swartz here and here.

    My TED talk goes live!

    Sunday, October 21st, 2012

    See the video at the TED Site.

    Article: State Spying needs to be shown the back door

    Monday, April 9th, 2012

    This is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for The Times last week about the UK Government’s proposal for industrial internet surveillance: the ‘snooper’s charter’. The following day, the Government announced it would NOT be putting the bill forward in the Queen’s speech but it still remains very much a live issue.


    Don’t let the State spy on us by the back door
    The Times, April 3, 2012

    Proposed new laws would give powerful officials instant access to people’s internet data

    It used to be that running a police state required a tremendous outlay of resources, from hiring watchers and informants to the central collection and storage of paper files. As we move our lives on to digital networks, we create a handy one-stop shop for the nosy official.

    It is simple for governments to eavesdrop on our digital communications. They don’t have to store the data; they just go to where it’s collected – internet service providers (ISPs), social networks and telecoms companies. One simple step takes the State’s ability to spy on its citizens to a whole new level.

    [We may hope our democratic principles would protect us from the sort of industrial internet surveillance practiced in China, Iran and other autocratic states. However, this government’s proposal revealed yesterday reveals a plan to rival China.]

    Intelligence agents can already tap into our online communication and data where there are reasonable grounds for doing so. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), extended in 2003, allows not only the police, intelligence services and Revenue & Customs officials, but many other organisations, including local councils, to access telephone records, e-mail and internet activity.
    That we have no idea how often they do it or for what purpose is an indication of the lack of supervision in this area.

    There are three officials in charge: (more…)

    The battle for information control

    Monday, October 17th, 2011

    A short interview I recorded for the Future Tense radio show on ABC Radio National.

    Listen here.

    More photos from the Chaos Computer Club

    Thursday, August 25th, 2011

    I’ve posted some photos from my visit to the Chaos Computer Club on the new mini-site for the book:
    http://www.therevolutionwillbedigitised.com/index.php/chaos-computer-club-berlin/

    Article: Inside the secret world of hackers

    Thursday, August 25th, 2011

    As part of my research for ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitised’ I hung out in a lot of hackerspaces and met many hackers. A lot of people think hackers are synonymous with cybercriminals but the real picture is more complex. The full story is in the book but here I pick out a few highlights from my travels.

    Inside the secret world of hackers
    Guardian, 25 August 2011
    By Heather Brooke

    Hackerspaces are the digital-age equivalent of English Enlightenment coffee houses. They are places open to all, indifferent to social status, and where ideas and knowledge hold primary value. In 17th-century England, the social equality and merit-ocracy of coffee houses was so deeply troubling to those in power that King Charles II tried to suppress them for being “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”. It was in the coffee houses that information previously held in secret and by elites was shared with an emerging middle class. They were held responsible for many of the social reforms of the 18th century, when English public life was transformed.

    Hackerspaces could prove to be as important for reform in the digital age. While collectives of rogue hackers such as Anonymous and Lulzsec have grabbed headlines with their mischievous hacks of personal information from Sony, News International and governments, hackerspaces have quietly focused on creating alternatives to the things they see wrong in society: secretive government, unfettered corporate power, invasion of privacy. Bradley Manning, the US Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking files to WikiLeaks, attended the launch of BUILDS, a hackerspace at Boston University last year. In Sweden the hacker collective Telecomix has been involved in keeping lines of communication open in middle eastern countries when political leaders shut down networks.

    As part of the research for my book, The Revolution Will Be Digitised, I travelled to Berlin to meet the group of hackers known as the Chaos Computer Club (CCC). The Club was so named not because it set out to cause chaos but rather because one of the founders, Wau Holland, felt chaos theory offered the best explanation for how the world actually worked. Dutch hacker and entrepreneur Rop Gonggrijp says the club is about “adapting to a world which is (and always has been) much more chaotic and non-deterministic than is often believed”.

    In Berlin, just after Christmas last year, more than 2,000 hackers and information activists gathered at the CCC’s annual conference to discuss technology and the future. Gonggrijp gave the keynote speech, which was startlingly prescient in light of subsequent uprisings, revolutions and riots. “Most of today’s politicians realise that nobody in their ministries, or any of their expensive consultants, can tell them what is going on any more. They have a steering wheel in their hands without a clue what – if anything – it is connected to. Our leaders are reassuring us that the ship will certainly survive the growing storm. But on closer inspection they are either quietly pocketing the silverware or discreetly making their way to the lifeboats.”

    The hacker community may be small but it possesses the skills that are driving the global economies of the future. So what is a hacker? (more…)

    Revolution minisite

    Friday, August 19th, 2011

    If you scan the QR code on the book cover it leads to a special mini-site: www.therevolutionwillbedigitised.com

    Here you’ll find some of the background material used in the writing of the book such as audio recordings and transcripts of interviews, photographs, etc.

    Enjoy!