Vietnam’s internet is in trouble


Dien Luong writes:

Vietnamese authorities have harped of late on the urgency of fighting cybersecurity threats and “bad and dangerous content.”

Yet the fight against either “fake news” or misinformation in Vietnam must not be used as a smoke screen for stifling dissenting opinions and curtailing freedom of speech. Doing so would only further stoke domestic cynicism in a country where the sudden expansion of space for free and open discussion has created a kind of high-pressure catharsis online.

Other countries, including democratic states, are also scrambling to rein in toxic information online. But while Germany, for example, specifically targets hate speech and other extremist messaging that directly affects the masses, Vietnamese leaders are more fixated on content deemed detrimental to their own reputation and the survival of the regime.

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has repeatedly urged Facebook and Google to block “toxic” information that it said slandered and defamed Vietnamese leaders. Google sort of conformed by removing more than such 5,000 clips; Facebook also flagged about 160 anti-government accounts at the behest of the government. [Continue reading…]

Amazon behaves like a planned economy

Malcolm Harris writes:

Although they attempt to grow in a single direction, planned economies always destroy as well as build. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union compelled the collectivization of kulaks, or prosperous peasants. Small farms were incorporated into a larger collective agricultural system. Depending on who you ask, dekulakization was literal genocide, comparable to the Holocaust, and/or it catapulted what had been a continent-sized expanse of peasants into a modern superpower. Amazon’s decimation of small businesses (bookstores in particular) is a similar sort of collectivization, purging small proprietors or driving them onto Amazon platforms. The process is decentralized and executed by the market rather than the state, but don’t get confused: Whether or not Bezos is banging on his desk, demanding the extermination of independent booksellers — though he probably is — these are top-down decisions to eliminate particular ways of life.

Now, with the purchase of Whole Foods, Bezos and Co. seem likely to apply the same pattern to food. Responding to reports that Amazon will begin offering free two-hour Whole Foods delivery for Prime customers, BuzzFeed’s Tom Gara tweeted, “Stuff like this suggests Amazon is going to remove every cent of profit from the grocery industry.” Free two-hour grocery delivery is ludicrously convenient, perhaps the most convenient thing Amazon has come up with yet. And why should we consumers pay for huge dividends to Kroger shareholders? Fuck ’em; if Bezos has the discipline to stick to the growth plan instead of stuffing shareholder pockets every quarter, then let him eat their lunch. Despite a business model based on eliminating competition, Amazon has avoided attention from antitrust authorities because prices are down. If consumers are better off, who cares if it’s a monopoly? American antitrust law doesn’t exist to protect kulaks, whether they’re selling books or groceries.

Amazon has succeeded in large part because of the company’s uncommon drive to invest in growth. And today, not only are other companies slow to spend, so are governments. Austerity politics and decades of privatization put Amazon in a place to take over state functions. If localities can’t or won’t invest in jobs, then Bezos can get them to forgo tax dollars (and dignity) to host HQ2. There’s no reason governments couldn’t offer on-demand cloud computing services as a public utility, but instead the feds pay Amazon Web Services to host their sites. And if the government outsources health care for its population to insurers who insist on making profits, well, stay tuned. There’s no near-term natural end to Amazon’s growth, and by next year the company’s annual revenue should surpass the GDP of Vietnam. I don’t see any reason why Amazon won’t start building its own cities in the near future. [Continue reading…]

 

The case for impeaching Clarence Thomas


Jill Abramson writes:

[Clarence] Thomas, as a crucial vote on the Supreme Court, holds incredible power over women’s rights, workplace, reproductive, and otherwise. His worldview, with its consistent objectification of women, is the one that’s shaping the contours of what’s possible for women in America today, more than that of just about any man alive, save for his fellow justices.

And given the evidence that’s come out in the years since, it’s also time to raise the possibility of impeachment. Not because he watched porn on his own time, of course. Not because he talked about it with a female colleague — although our understanding of the real workplace harm that kind of sexual harassment does to women has evolved dramatically in the years since, thanks in no small part to those very hearings. Nor is it even because he routinely violated the norms of good workplace behavior, in a way that seemed especially at odds with the elevated office he was seeking. It’s because of the lies he told, repeatedly and under oath, saying he had never talked to Hill about porn or to other women who worked with him about risqué subject matter.

Lying is, for lawyers, a cardinal sin. State disciplinary committees regularly institute proceedings against lawyers for knowingly lying in court, with punishments that can include disbarment. Since 1989, three federal judges have been impeached and forced from office for charges that include lying. The idea of someone so flagrantly telling untruths to ascend to the highest legal position in the U.S. remains shocking, in addition to its being illegal. (Thomas, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on a detailed list of queries.)

Thomas’s lies not only undermined Hill but also isolated her. It was her word versus his — when it could have been her word, plus several other women’s, which would have made for a different media narrative and a different calculation for senators. As the present moment has taught us, women who come forward alongside other women are more likely to be believed (unfair as that might be). There were four women who wanted to testify, or would have if subpoenaed, to corroborate aspects of Hill’s story. My new reporting shows that there is at least one more who didn’t come forward. Their “Me Too” voices were silenced. [Continue reading…]

Just 3% of Americans own more than half the country’s guns

Paul Ratner writes:

Americans are not as gun-obsessed as some would like their countrymen to believe. Linking gun ownership to the identity of being an American has been a successful sales tactic that is more myth than reality. The numbers show that a small, unrepresentative, but disproportionately vocal portion of the American population, aided by self-serving politicians and a powerful lobby organization, has enacted its agenda over the majority of Americans, who do not own guns and would rather see much stronger gun safety regulations.

How many Americans actually own a gun? A 2016 study by Harvard and Northeastern University put the total number of privately-owned firearms in the U.S. at 265 million, with more than half of that – 133 million – being concentrated in the hands of just 3% of Americans, called “super owners,” who have an average of 17 guns each.

For another perspective on this stunning statistic, consider that the Small Arms Survey estimates there to be around 650 million civilian-owned firearms total in the world. In contrast, about 200 million firearms are owned by the armed forces, while 26 million are in law enforcement hands. So we have 3% of Americans owning about 20% of the world’s stockpile of firearms. [Continue reading…]

Zeynep Tufekci: We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads

 

How New Zealand became a new Ararat for Silicon Valley’s misanthropic billionaires

Mark O’Connell writes:

Early last summer, just as my interests in the topics of civilisational collapse and Peter Thiel were beginning to converge into a single obsession, I received out of the blue an email from a New Zealand art critic named Anthony Byrt. If I wanted to understand the extreme ideology that underpinned Thiel’s attraction to New Zealand, he insisted, I needed to understand an obscure libertarian manifesto called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. It was published in 1997, and in recent years something of a minor cult has grown up around it in the tech world, largely as a result of Thiel’s citing it as the book he is most influenced by. (Other prominent boosters include Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Balaji Srinivasan, the entrepreneur best known for advocating Silicon Valley’s complete secession from the US to form its own corporate city-state.)

The Sovereign Individual’s co-authors are James Dale Davidson, a private investor who specialises in advising the rich on how to profit from economic catastrophe, and the late William Rees-Mogg, long-serving editor of the Times. (One other notable aspect of Lord Rees-Mogg’s varied legacy is his own son, the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg – a hastily sketched caricature of an Old Etonian, who is as beloved of Britain’s ultra-reactionary pro-Brexit right as he is loathed by the left.)

I was intrigued by Byrt’s description of the book as a kind of master key to the relationship between New Zealand and the techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley. Reluctant to enrich Davidson or the Rees-Mogg estate any further, I bought a used edition online, the musty pages of which were here and there smeared with the desiccated snot of whatever nose-picking libertarian preceded me.

It presents a bleak vista of a post-democratic future. Amid a thicket of analogies to the medieval collapse of feudal power structures, the book also managed, a decade before the invention of bitcoin, to make some impressively accurate predictions about the advent of online economies and cryptocurrencies. [Continue reading…]

Mass shootings highlight nexus between masculinity and gun violence


Laura Kiesel writes:

The year 2017 brought the deadliest mass shooting in modern history to the United States, which has become home to more gun massacres than any other country in the world. The response offered by many of our political leaders, both Democrat and Republican, has been to focus on the role of mental illness in such shootings. The day after Stephen Paddock took to a hotel room in Las Vegas with 23 firearms and murdered 59 people this past October, President Donald Trump told reporters that Paddock was “sick” and “demented,” even as evidence suggested Paddock did not have a confirmed mental health disorder. Trump was also quick to blame mental illness on the mass shooting at a Texas church in early November, saying at press briefing the following day that it the tragedy was not “a guns situation” but instead “a mental health problem at the highest level.”

But as we begin a new year, it’s time to have a more nuanced discussion about what might really be to blame for the trend of mass shootings in America—as well as the gun violence epidemic more broadly. No, it isn’t mental illness. It’s gender. If we want to stop the problem of mass shootings, we need to fix the problem of toxic masculinity.

If you take time to dig into the research, you’ll find that mental illness doesn’t play the role in mass shootings and other gun violence that many, especially our politicians, seem to think it does. Serious mental illness has been found to be conclusively present in a minority of mass shootings—only 14.8 percent of all of the mass shootings committed in the U.S., defined as a shooting which injures or kills four or more people, between 1966 and 2015. (Another study focusing on different data collections of generalized “mass murder” from 1949 to 2015 attributes 23 percent of those incidents to the mentally ill.) Studies have also found that those with serious mental illness are responsible for just 4 percent of the incidences of interpersonal violence and less than 1 percent of all gun-related homicides annually in the United States. Generally speaking, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of firearm violence than commit it.

Yet, while most mass shooters in the past 35 years have not been found to have a serious mental illness, nearly all of them do have one thing in common: their sex. Of the 96 mass shootings committed since 1982, all but two were committed by men. (Most of them were white.) [Continue reading…]

Quinn Norton and how anti-fascists are helping bring fascism to America

How fascism is coming to America: It’s happening when people decide the ideal society is one where everyone thinks the same way. And it’s happening when people who know better, kowtow to the dictates of social media instead of doing the right thing.

I didn’t know the New York Times hired Quinn Norton until I saw news they’d parted ways. Without question, this is a greater loss to the Times and its readers, than it is to Norton — although there’s no doubt it must be a major disruption to her life and that of her family.

The irony of the situation, representative of this perverse cultural moment, is that the people most likely to take satisfaction in this turn of events probably neither read the Times nor previously had heard of Norton.

These would be the folks who take pride in their own ideological purity while failing to see that ideological purity — whatever the ideology — is a really form of fascism.

Anyone who in thought and action marches in lockstep with others and who attaches supreme value to their allegiance to a cause (however noble that cause might appear), has crossed a threshold qualitatively no different from that crossed by every German who once declared: Heil Hilter!

It doesn’t matter what the cause is. The choice of surrendering to some kind of external ideological authority has the same effect irrespective of the ideology: it makes the individual’s conscience and capacity to make independent judgments subordinate to what that individual has designated as a higher authority. It is a form of subservience that corrodes the foundations of an open society.

We are now creating a society where disqualifications seem to carry more weight than qualifications — a guarantee that conformity and mediocrity can run endemic.

In old-fashioned authoritarian states, conformity was imposed through institutionalized brutality, but we are now conjuring a form of grassroots authoritarianism where the oppressors are mostly gleeful volunteers, herded by commercially-driven algorithms.

In order to appreciate Quinn Norton you don’t need to agree with everything she’s written or everything she’s done, but to get a flavor of her sharp mind and keen wit, watch this short talk she gave a few years ago:

 

In explaining why she accepted the job offer from the New York Times, Norton wrote:

Some people want to spend their careers covering events as they break. Others, as beat reporters, and investigators, using stories to hold power accountable. I’d done those things — and they were fun — but I found they weren’t where my heart was. I was happiest when I was writing long explainers and open-ended stories about what people hope for. What I’d wanted, more than anything, wasn’t to hold abusers accountable, but to help the world understand itself well enough to stop the abuse before it started.

Anyone who has the time and interest to hunt down tweets that can be weaponized, probably doesn’t have much interest in or capacity to help the world understand itself. On the contrary, they are participating in a kind of behavior that is shaping our world in a profoundly unreflective way.

Now that the Times has dumped Norton as lead opinion writer on the power, culture and consequences of technology, who’s going to take her place? Someone who writes clickbait for Gizmodo?

No one can write about culture while also being a slave to conformity.

I don’t care what color anyone’s uniform is; the problem is in the uniformity, not the color.

In the conclusion of her essay on John Rabe (which is well worth reading) that (among other reasons) got her branded as a “Nazi sympathizer,” Norton writes:

For me there is only this in the story of John Rabe: there are no clear bad guys or good guys in humanity. There is just an uncomfortable pause, where you can let history crowd in on you. The best you can do is be quiet in the face of the terrible contradictions, and try to figure out what the next right thing is.

Let’s just imagine social media and online journalism if it was drained of sanctimony, hyperbole, and hypocrisy, and instead opened more space for nuance and deliciously long pauses.

Imagine a platform on which quiet reflection won more attention than loud mouths.

What am I imagining? Maybe a world without the internet…

I guess another Carrington Event would do more harm than good, but I’m not altogether sure.

On the need for viewpoint diversity