I have to keep reminding myself that I do have some control. I can build The Medium I want. I can cling to what’s good.
Saturday, November 11th, 2017
Sunday, November 5th, 2017
With echoes of Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost, this essay is a timely reminder—with practical advice—for we designers and developers who are making the web …and betraying its users.
You see, the web wasn’t meant to be a gated community. It’s actually pretty simple.
A web server, a public address and an HTML file are all that you need to share your thoughts (or indeed, art, sound or software) with anyone in the world. No authority from which to seek approval, no editorial board, no publisher. No content policy, no dependence on a third party startup that might fold in three years to begin a new adventure.
That’s what the web makes possible. It’s friendship over hyperlink, knowledge over the network, romance over HTTP.
Friday, September 1st, 2017
John Lanchester reviews ‘The Attention Merchants’ by Tim Wu, ‘Chaos Monkeys’ by Antonio García Martínez and ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin · LRB 17 August 2017
Triple the hand-wringing in this combined review of three books:
- The Attention Merchants: From the Daily Newspaper to Social Media, How Our Time and Attention Is Harvested and Sold by Tim Wu,
- Chaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine by Antonio García Martínez, and
- Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon have Cornered Culture and What It Means for All of Us by Jonathan Taplin.
What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.
Monday, July 3rd, 2017
If you feel you are being watched, you change your behavior. Big Data is supercharging this effect.
Some interesting ideas, but the tone is so alarming as to render the message meaningless.
As our weaknesses are mapped, we are becoming too transparent. This is breeding a society where self-censorship and risk-aversion are the new normal.
I stopped reading at the point where the danger was compared to climate change.
Sunday, June 11th, 2017
With New Browser Tech, Apple Preserves Privacy and Google Preserves Trackers | Electronic Frontier Foundation
It’s interesting to see how excessive surveillance is (finally!) being treated as damage and routed around. Apple seem to get it—they’re tackling the tracking issue. Meanwhile Google are focusing purely on the visibility and UX of invasive advertising, without taking steps against tracking.
There’s a huge opportunity here for Chrome’s competitors—if Firefox and Safari protect users from unwarranted tracking, that could be enough to get people to switch, regardless of the feature sets of the browsers.
Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
This is an excellent move by Apple—interpreting cross-site tracking as damage and routing around it.
Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017
So what happens when these tools for maximizing clicks and engagement creep into the political sphere?
This is a delicate question! If you concede that they work just as well for politics as for commerce, you’re inviting government oversight. If you claim they don’t work well at all, you’re telling advertisers they’re wasting their money.
Facebook and Google have tied themselves into pretzels over this.
Thursday, April 13th, 2017
Digital Assistants, Facebook Quizzes, And Fake News! You Won’t Believe What Happens Next | Laura Kalbag
A great presentation from Laura on how tracking scripts are killing the web. We can point our fingers at advertising companies to blame for this, but it’s still developers like us who put those scripts onto websites.
We need to ask ourselves these questions about what we build. Because we are the gatekeepers of what we create. We don’t have to add tracking to everything, it’s already gotten out of our control.
Friday, March 24th, 2017
Steps you can take to secure your phone and computer. This is especially useful in countries where ubiquitous surveillance is not only legal, but mandated by law (such as China, Australia, and the UK).
Monday, March 6th, 2017
The conference starts tomorrow so I’ve had a day or two to acclimatise and explore. Seeing as Google are footing the bill for travel and accommodation, I’m staying at a rather nice hotel close to the conference venue in Tribeca. There’s live jazz in the lounge most evenings, a cinema downstairs, and should I request it, I can even have a goldfish in my room.
Today I realised that my hotel sits in the apex of a triangle of interesting buildings: carrier hotels.
Looming above my hotel is 32 Avenue of the Americas. On the outside the building looks like your classic Gozer the Gozerian style of New York building. Inside, the lobby features a mosaic on the ceiling, and another on the wall extolling the connective power of radio and telephone.
The same architects also designed 60 Hudson Street, which has a similar Art Deco feel to it. Inside, there’s a cavernous hallway running through the ground floor but I can’t show you a picture of it. A security guard told me I couldn’t take any photos inside …which is a little strange seeing as it’s splashed across the website of the building.
I walked around the outside of 60 Hudson, taking more pictures. Another security guard asked me what I was doing. I told her I was interested in the history of the building, which is true; it was the headquarters of Western Union. For much of the twentieth century, it was a world hub of telegraphic communication, in much the same way that a beach hut in Porthcurno was the nexus of the nineteenth century.
For a 21st century hub, there’s the third and final corner of the triangle at 33 Thomas Street. It’s a breathtaking building. It looks like a spaceship from a Chris Foss painting. It was probably designed more like a spacecraft than a traditional building—it’s primary purpose was to withstand an atomic blast. Gone are niceties like windows. Instead there’s an impenetrable monolith that looks like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film.
Brutalist on the outside, its interior is host to even more brutal acts of invasive surveillance. The Snowden papers revealed this AT&T building to be a centrepiece of the Titanpointe programme:
They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.
But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States…
Looking at the building, it requires very little imagination to picture it as the lair of villainous activity. Laura Poitras’s short film Project X basically consists of a voiceover of someone reading an NSA manual, some ominous background music, and shots of 33 Thomas Street looming in its oh-so-loomy way.
A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on classified NSA documents, Project X reveals the inner workings of a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.
To be clear, every company currently does some form of this tracking of users. There would simply be no other way to measure operations. But Facebook has quite clearly been tiptoeing outside the bounds of what is ethically acceptable data business practices for a while.
A thorough round-up of Facebook’s current data collection practices and what you can do about it.
Saturday, February 25th, 2017
We don’t take our other valuables with us when we travel—we leave the important stuff at home, or in a safe place. But Facebook and Google don’t give us similar control over our valuable data. With these online services, it’s all or nothing.
We need a ‘trip mode’ for social media sites that reduces our contact list and history to a minimal subset of what the site normally offers.
Thursday, February 16th, 2017
Much of our courage and support comes from the people we read and talk to and love online, often on the very networks that expose us—and our friends—to genuine enemies of freedom and peace. We have to keep connected, but we don’t have to play on their terms.
Thursday, January 19th, 2017
You, the software engineers and leaders of technology companies, face an enormous responsibility. You know better than anyone how best to protect the millions who have entrusted you with their data, and your knowledge gives you real power as civic actors. If you want to transform the world for the better, here is your moment. Inquire about how a platform will be used. Encrypt as much as you can. Oppose the type of data analysis that predicts people’s orientation, religion, and political preferences if they did not willingly offer that information.
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016
The more I reflect on the current practices of the online advertising industry, the more I think that ad-blocking is a moral imperative.
Tuesday, June 28th, 2016
People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior training, thanks to their superior powers of analysis. Success in the artificially constructed world of software design promotes a dangerous confidence.
Great stuff as usual from Maciej, ending with a rallying cry for us to pay attention to history:
This is not the first time an enthusiastic group of nerds has decided to treat the rest of the world as a science experiment. Earlier attempts to create a rationalist Utopia failed for interesting reasons, and since we bought those lessons at a great price, it would be a shame not to learn them.
There is also prior art in attempts at achieving immortality, limitless wealth, and Galactic domination. We even know what happens if you try to keep dossiers on an entire country.
If we’re going to try all these things again, let’s at least learn from our past, so we can fail in interesting new ways, instead of failing in the same exasperating ways as last time.
Thursday, May 12th, 2016
Marco is spot on here. The New York Times article he’s responding to is filled with a weird Stockholm syndrome—the one bit of the web that’s still free of invasive tracking and surveillance is where they wish a centralised power (like Apple) would come in and lock down. Madness!
Sunday, February 14th, 2016
Monika’s end-of-year piece is rather excellent:
The map exposes the network of fibre optic internet cables that lie deep below the sea giving an unfettered glimpse of the government’s counterterrorism tactics and the murky justifications behind them.
Thursday, January 28th, 2016
A great piece of near-future sci-fi from James.
I enforce from orbit, making sure all the mainframes that used to track and store every detail of our lives are turned off, and stay off. And as the sun comes up over Gloucestershire this morning, there they are, resplendent in the mist-piercing light of RITTER’s multispectral sensors: terabytes of storage laid out around the scalped doughnut of the former GCHQ building. Enough quantum storage to hold decades of the world’s pillow talk. Drums of redundant ethernet cable stacked stories-high. Everything dismantled, disconnected, unshielded. Everything damp with morning dew.
Sunday, January 3rd, 2016
This is advertising we’re talking about, the industry founded on the hallucination that people secretly appreciate being tracked, analysed and told what to buy. Advertisers, and the technology companies that cater to them, are responding to ad blocking the only way they know how: doubling down on their fantasy that viewers will suddenly love advertising just as soon as ads are so all-knowing that they anticipate one’s every need and desire.