Around the Web

Issue No. 010

Rentier capitalism and expropriation, AI models large and larger, the EU tightens its border regime, Elon Musk speed-runs fascism, and what prison inmates did to police cars.

Around the Web maintains its biweekly publishing schedule for now because the author still hasn’t fully recovered from their sicknesses of the last few months.

Given the current dooming news cycles, that might be a feature.

It also means that I made to issue No. 10 a bit later than expected. Nonetheless, I’m happy to have made it this far. My normal rate of abandonment left me wondering if I’ll publish more than three issues.

After ten issues, some pieces have fallen into place, and I’ve found my beat (ranting while hoping for a better world). To celebrate the 10th issue, I’ve built a little statistics page.

If you enjoy Around the Web, it would mean the world to me if you recommend the newsletter and/or website to a friend or two.

Thanks for reading, let’s get into the reading.

Enjoy capitalism

While last year saw the Great Resignation and everyone was happy on r/antiwork this year sees the Great Layoffing. Gorillas, Getir, Klarna, Nvidia, Netflix, the list goes on and on, all terminating contracts to make their investors happy.

High-flying startups with record valuations, huge hiring goals and ambitious expansion plans are now announcing hiring slowdowns, freezes and in some cases widespread layoffs. It’s the dot-com bust all over again — this time, without the cute sock puppet and in the midst of a global pandemic we just can’t seem to shake.

Everything that is wrong with venture capitalists. Josh Gabert-Doyon thankfully deconstructed the most recent «VC is awesome because it is money» cold take, tracing VC firms back to whaling expeditions.

There’s a long history of rich people throwing money at stupid projects, and VC investment is best seen as a systematized method for cutting the risks involved.

Rich people throwing money at stupid projects? Andreesen Horowitz set up a new $4.5 billion fund for crypto projects. When the likes of a16z talk about a «building a better internet» it’s time to run.

Who else is shilling cryptocurrencies? White supremacists. Cryptocurrency possession is above average with white supremacist influencers. I wish you all a very happy di…, sorry, downward slope.

In other capitalism, Trevor Jackson reviewed Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy and Who Pays for It?. In the book, Jackson makes a compelling argument against rentier capitalism.

What is new about the rentiers of today, then, is not their prevalence, their dominance, or that they face less serious opposition than in the past. What is most distinctive about our contemporary rentiers is that it has become difficult to discern whether their maneuvers represent rational strategies of elite wealth defense in conditions of declining productivity and technological change, or instead, the implacable drive of a nihilistic death cult.

Reading this article left me with Gwen Guthrie’s Nothing Goin’ On But the Rent stuck inside my head (it’s a good tune, don’t hesitate).

That even the battles against rentier capitalism that are won, are not won, is currently on display in Berlin. Last September, fifty-nine percent of Berliners voted to expropriate companies owning a large swatch of housing units. Since then … nothing happened. Franziska Giffey, the social-democratic mayor, is a vocal opponent of anything threatening the rule of capital. As such, an the social-democrats actively delay an expert commission and keep promises only if they benefit the housing companies.

At the same time, pollitcians seriously wonder that election turnout is hitting lows and people think politicians are lying. Go figure.

We interrupt the reporting on current capitalism and return to capitalism’s beginning. The New York Times published an extensive reporting about Haiti’s way to independence, and the crushing debt regime that France imposed in an act of vengeance. The work is respectable, though the NYT claimed that the story is brand new reporting. Which is a lie. Michael Harriot published the same story back in 2018.

Back to the present. continued their reporting on digital colonialism with a look into the bloody supply chain of today’s devices.

The extractivism of our economy, paired with inflation, is now a threat to remodelling the transition to green(er) energy.

Apple is increasing the minimum wage for their retail employees. They will pinky swear that is has nothing to do with the union drive in Apple Stores.

This ain’t intelligence

According to some at Google’s DeepMind, AI is now in fact almost intelligent. Do I need to change my headline? DeepMind published a paper about Gato a new kind of machine learning model, which is capable of learning multiple tasks at once.

Previous models could, for example, play Go or StarCraft, and needed to forget everything about the previously learned skill, to learn the next. Gato can perform 604 tasks. There are limitations: Gato is generally worse at those tasks than specialised models. So if you read anything claiming that General Artificial Intelligence is near, forget about it.

Some external researchers were explicitly dismissive of de Freitas’s claim. “This is far from being ‘intelligent,’” says Gary Marcus, an AI researcher who has been critical of deep learning. The hype around Gato demonstrates that the field of AI is blighted by an unhelpful “triumphalist culture,” he says.

While Gato is certainly an interesting piece of technolgoy, Large Language Models – which attracted lot of hype over the last years – are certainly here to stay. Eliza Strickland took a closer look at Facebook’s OPT-175B model (see also Around the Web 009).

If you want to get up to speed or back on track on the common criticisms of such models, this article by Emerging Tech Brew is a great introductory resource.

In The Markup’s newsletter, Julia Angwin interviewed Timnit Gebru on the same topic, and as always when Gebru speaks it’s worth a read. Gebru reflects on enviromental and societal problems of the race to build ever larger models.

Currently, there is a race to create larger and larger language models for no reason. This means using more data and more computing power to see additional correlations between data. This discourse is truly a “mine is bigger than yours” kind of thing. These larger and larger models require more compute power, which means more energy. The population who is paying these energy costs—the cost of the climate catastrophe—and the population that is benefiting from these large language models, the intersection of these populations is nearly zero.

Besides Gato, Google announced that they built an image generation model, that is in direct competition to OpenAI’s DALL-E. Like DALL-E, Google’s Imagen takes a text input and generates pictures from scratch. All we can see of it, though, is heavily filtered promotional material.

There’s a technical, as well as PR, reason for this. Mixing concepts like “fuzzy panda” and “making dough” forces the neural network to learn how to manipulate those concepts in a way that makes sense. But the cuteness hides a darker side to these tools, one that the public doesn’t get to see because it would reveal the ugly truth about how they are created.

There is no beta that’s usable by anyone outside of Google, as Google is scared of possible abuse:

Downstream applications of text-to-image models are varied and may impact society in complex ways. The potential risks of misuse raise concerns regarding responsible open-sourcing of code and demos. At this time we have decided not to release code or a public demo.

I do not agree with everything said in it, but this interview with Kai-Fu Lee about the AI and the future of work makes some interesting points. Thinking about a way to employ AI and humans side-by-side is especially worthwhile, even though – or rather because – it surfaces the need to criticise the capitalist mode of production.

Bitch Magazine published a worthwhile essay on algorithms and how they shape our way to remember.

But as we slip deeper into the reality of being able to catalog and retrieve—theoretically—all our life’s experiences, we lose a degree of autonomy over what French philosopher Jacques Derrida (I’m so sorry) called “archive fever”—a drive to document that becomes a compulsion to collect everything, leaving the archive overflowing and unreadable. This is the very problem that Big Tech purports to solve via memory features, promising that its algorithms will remind us of everything worth remembering. But the metric for what’s worth remembering is fundamentally unknowable. We change, we move, we make new friends, we outgrow old pastimes. More importantly, when Apple, Google, and Facebook continually demonstrate that their users are simply data to mine, why trust them to begin with?

Algorithms shape the way we speak, too. Some weeks back, I wrote about Algospeak and how social media algorithms force their users to adapt speech to avoid shadow-banning. Wired zeroed in on mental health and how talking about being «unalive» arguably worsens the discourse about suicide and mental health.

Williams worries that the word “unalive” could entrench stigma around suicide. “I think as great as the word is at avoiding TikTok taking videos down, it means the word “suicide” is still seen as taboo and a harsh subject to approach,” she says. She also swaps out other mental health terminology so her videos aren’t automatically flagged for review—“eating disorder” becomes “ED,” “self-harm” is “SH,” “depression” is “d3pression.” (Other users on the site use tags like #SewerSlidel and #selfh_rm).

What are you looking at?

Welcome to the week in surveillance. Before we start looking at current measures in the European Union, it’s nice to see that PimEyes come under closer scrutiny. The NYT went after them. PimEyes’ current owner denies frantically that they are building stalker ware, insisting that their technology should only be used to search photos of oneself. The only thing they demonstrate with such a statement is that they neither understand technology nor humans.

Panoptiropean Union

The European Data Journalism Network published an investigation into smart border control measures imposed by the EU, and the multi-billion dollar surveillance industry enabled by ever more control. As Matthias Monroy reports, one of those projects is the European System for Traveller Surveillance (ESTS). A joint venture between Frontex and Europol, the ESTS system is effectively a predictive policing network, which will scan every traveller coming into the EU – including EU citizens. Linking multiple existing databases, including those containing biometric data.

With pre-screening, the agencies want to make predictions as to whether travellers might be dangerous. This is aimed primarily at persons from third countries. However, a „traveller file“ is also to be created for EU citizens when they cross the border.

Predictive policing is known to reproduce whatever biases the society employing the technology inherits. With an agency like Frontex which is time and time again accused of ignoring human rights, it’s frightenly easy to imagine how the system will be (ab)used.

And, of course, it will use Machine Learning because fuck everything.

There’s another project set to be effective later this year. The Entry/Exit System aims to keep taps, and data (of course including biometric data) on every human travelling to the EU. Belgium’s Federal Government passed a law to implement its part of the system.

With the new system, each time travellers from non-EU countries (both short-stay visa holders and visa-exempt travellers) cross an EU external border, they will be registered in the automated IT system using their name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and captured facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit.

But it is not only the outer border of the EU, border policing is also increased inside the Schengen area.

While the EU tightens its border regime, the landmark data protection law, GDPR, is so far underperforming.

In other surveillance

Not surveillance: The company behind Proton Mail has rebranded itself as Proton. Its focus stays building digital products sans the surveillance.

Amazon uses Alexa’s voice data to target you with ads. I guess that’s no real surprise, but maybe helpful to convince people who have such a surveillance device at home to get rid of it.

Meta agreed to share political ad targeting data.

The problems for Clearview AI, poster child of surveillance capitalism, continue.

The U.K.'s Information Commissioner’s Office, the country's privacy watchdog, has ordered facial recognition company Clearview AI to delete all data belonging to the country's residents.
Clearview has also been ordered to stop collecting additional data from U.K. residents and will pay a fine of roughly $9.4 million for violating the country's data protection laws.

Clearview AI ordered to delete all data on UK residents

How does Clearview react? By trying to implement school surveillance systems.

Police in San Fransisco are using driverless cars as mobile surveillance cameras. Because, of course, they do.

Cars. General Motor disclosed a data breach, loosing driver data. Remember, if you collect data, it will get stolen.

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Social, they said

Let's start with something obvious. Jeff Bezos does not know how Twitter works.

That’s in stark contrast to Elon Musk, who on Wednesday used Twitter to announce that he isn’t voting for Democrats any more. The tweet is part of his recent speed-run attempt in the category Tech billionaire to fascist any%. On Friday, he met with Jair Bolsonaro, far-right president of Brazil.

The week before, Insider reported about a settlement between SpaceX and a flight-attendant, who accused Musk is sexually harassing her. Musk denies the allegations. His argument: Nothing ever came to light before. Well, okay, Elon. He, allegedly, said «If you were my employee I would fire you» to his first wive during their marriage … seems weird, man. China, meanwhile, is reportedly contemplating to shoot Starlink satellites out of earth’s orbit. Let’s do it.

Elon Musk has not bought Twitter yet. Twitter seems eager to enforce the takeover, however. Some Twitter stakeholders sue Musk.

Apropos of Twitter, after the lay-offs at the beginning of the month, more senior leadership left the company.

Remember the Best Viewed in IE 8 badges on old websites? Adrian Roselli had some fun rebuilding them with modern HTML and CSS.

Is there a use for blockchains? Maybe! Residents in Shanghai use the technology to keep records of the imposed lockdown and combat censorship.

Another surprise: There’s a ransomware gang, seemingly based in India, that forces their targets to do acts of «philanthropy». I guess that’s … still a bad thing. Good effort, though.

People knew how to make bread 14,400 years ago.

It’s funny because it’s true: Prison inmates photoshopped a pig in the Vermont State Police car decal.

To end this issue, here’s a very funny thread on Twitter.

When I was 7, my teacher told us to write an article about “world cultures” for school over the weekend. I remembered it late on Sunday so in a panic I made up something called the "Icelandic Fish Festival", figuring said teacher wouldn’t know either way.

That’s it for this week. The world is mad, now more than ever: Stay sane, hug your friends, and please for the love of god never trust a cop.