“As virtual worlds become more elaborate, more complex, more beautiful, more pristine and real … the natural world around us has become more polluted, more lonely, more devastated, more bleak. We are surrounded by flashy screens and glance at them every few minutes of our waking life. The average student from grade five to grade twelve in America will spend more time online than in the classroom. In South Korea, the most wired nation on earth, the suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.”
— Kalle Lasn, "Our Virtual Horizon"

The crucial piece on Vice Media, finally:

For Vice Media, accountability takes a back seat to accounts payable: the company’s estimated total value, based on the Murdoch empire’s buy-in, is $1.4 billion. The metric of success is “clicks” over “paper sales”—a clear, and discomfitingly natural, extension of tabloid news values into the digital sphere. Under this logic, nothing matters but the bottom line. However, the genius of the Vice model is that the bottom line, too, has been outsourced: Smith has acted as content supplier for a host of entertainment and journalistic outlets seeking to burnish their hipster accreditation, such as CNN, HBO, Warner Bros., and Viacom. This means that Vice Media’s primary, if not exclusive, responsibility is to attract attention. […]

Vice is, however, “edgy” as a marketing ploy, following an utterly predictable strategy to afford loud, mostly white, mostly dudes yet more license in culture to act out at will, to acclaim but little consequence. In practical terms, as any cursory search of the content at Vice.com will show, “edgy” means “racist” and “sexist”—sometimes by accident, although often not.

Take Dave Schilling’s ongoing “This Week in Racism” column, which defends or decries various cultural moments elsewhere labeled racist. The listicles begin to point to a general American inability to articulate real fears around race, but the dos-and-don’ts approach to often nuanced instances of oppression serves to shut down cultural discussions of race that may prove fruitful, while evidently also providing rhetorical cover for the re-presentation of genuinely, unabashedly racist content. Vice’s defenders will note that Schilling isn’t white himself, and claim that the representation amounts to an all-encompassing racism—no one gets out unoffended—but the slurs that stick are not about white people, nor do they fully challenge the snarky white supremacy Vice has developed a reputation for parroting. In 2003 McInnes told New York Times reporter Vanessa Grigoriadis, “I love being white… . We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.”

In the interview—rumored to have lead, ultimately, to his separation from the company in 2008—McInnes denounced the idea of sexual consent and suggested women want to be dominated. Such faux-edgy assertions amount to a rank misogyny McInnes recently made explicit in a spot on HuffPost Live. During the proceedings, he called a female panelist a “fucking idiot” who, along with the audience, refused to understand that women “naturally want to” stay at home to have babies instead of entering the workforce. Such views would be easier to dismiss as just another of Vice’s triple-gainer brand of anti-anti-hip postures if the company’s underlying dismissal of women’s intellectual capacity weren’t such a freely trumpeted feature of the site—and one reason the print magazine is banned from the occasional bookstore and college campus. Of the mere handful of women featured in Vice.com stories on Sept. 29, one is called “slutty” and another a “crybaby”; there is an offer to stage a mud-wrestling match between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding; and a photo of a girl approximately the same age as Milly Dowler accompanies a first-person tale of rape and abuse. (No phone tap necessary here.)

The hardline masculine epistemologies that the site indulges so reflexively go hand in hand with real labor issues. According to one count, Vice features about 73 percent male contributors and about 27 percent female. Once you toggle over to the NSFW section of the site—that’s its real name—content is rife with dudes’ “stunt journalism” accounts of things they’ve done to humiliate sex workers. And recent allegations against Terry Richardson, the photographer credited with solidifying the magazine’s aesthetic—overlit, underclad young white women simulating sexual pleasure, mostly, with Richardson occasionally stepping into the frame to give a thumbs-up—have him sexually harassing models. Jamie Peck, who sat for him when she was nineteen, wrote on The Gloss in 2010 that he’d asked her to remove her tampon so he could make tea with it; he then proceeded to remove his own clothes and request a hand job from her, while an assistant continued photographing the scene. […]

When Pew asked what makes them unique, millennials said: Technology use; Music/Pop culture; Liberal/Tolerant; Smarter; and Clothes. Previous generations gave values-based responses—Work ethic, Values/Morals, and Respectful—and every generation polled has said Smarter. So whether or not such answers make for an accurate accounting of “generational uniqueness,” a difference is clear: millennials responded to a question that previous generations have understood to be about intrinsic principles of behavior with two different forms of cultural production. Three, if you count “apps.”

We can read this as shallowness, or we can read it as millennials having gamed Pew’s plodding model of demographic inquiry. Because they’re right. Every generation’s clothes, music, technology, and pop culture are necessarily unique. My generation just lost points on the test by spewing some values-based claptrap that Smith—exactly my age—disproves.

Millennials, in other words, want to make an imprint on the world’s cultural fabric too, but the simple fact of managing to pin down that fabric and give it a thorough dye job seems to count for more than the substance of the design. Indeed, as I asserted in Unmarketable in 2007, the corporate adoption of independent modes of cultural production has left us with a deficit of integrity. The book was generally well received until last spring, when I got a flood of angry emails about it from young folks assigned it in a college course. My correspondents were appalled that I would delineate a meaningful difference between corporate and independent modes of production—and what’s more, they were downright furious that I would hold the latter in higher regard. Couldn’t I see, several young men some twenty years my junior demanded, that efforts to attract the largest possible mass of people by any means necessary were always virtuous?

… We now live in a culture of increasingly hostile and invasive media, where getting consigned to an unsure economic future is a far more daunting prospect than getting caught in a lie. Another Pew study from 2013 showed that most teens take evasive measures to protect their privacy online: 58 percent of teens used codes to communicate on social media, and 26 percent deliberately posted false information about themselves to protect their privacy.

What I’m suggesting is not that young people are necessarily becoming more self-absorbed, as many have already, but that they may be abandoning truth-telling as a potential source of protection. I can’t really blame them: we’ve fostered a culture where fact-finding is anemic, but consumer products are doing just fine. […]

Smith has also begun hiring Washington insiders—though whether their chief mission will be to streamline the Vice mini-empire’s access to new global markets or to influence domestic policy remains to be seen. (His agent, Ari Emanuel, is the brother of Rahm, the foul-mouthed Chicago mayor currently privatizing public services with astonishing rapidity.) How this new lobbying offensive will comport with Vice’s recent hire of sixty new reporters equipped with Google Glass, who will “cover everything from Middle East war zones to health-care reform” (as the Wall Street Journal reported this November), is also unclear. In even more recent news, former News Corp. CEO James Murdoch, ousted in the phone-hacking scandal, just joined the board of Vice Media. It seems safe to assume that unseemly acts of corruption involving media moguls will probably be safe from Vice’s roving lens.

Nobody has been as consistently insightful on all this as Ian Welsh: 

Obama and Kerry have both told Russia there will be consequences for their actions in the Ukraine.

The question is “what consequences?”  The only thing the West can do which would really hurt Russia and Putin is strong financial sanctions: freeze Russian accounts, institute a trade embargo, etc—the full Iran treatment.

The problem is that Europe needs Russia’s natural gas and oil and Britain, aka. London, aka. The City, needs Russian money.  London is awash in Russian cash, and the London Real Estate market would most likely crash if real financial sanctions were put on Russia.  Since real-estate and financial games are the only thing keeping Britain afloat, this is a total no-go: completely unacceptable to Britain.

Germany, meanwhile, will find any sanctions on energy completely unacceptable.  They can’t replace all that natural gas before next winter, even if the US agrees to sell American natural gas to Europe.

The Russians, to put it crassly, have paid their bribes.  They have made the right people in England, and Europe, rich.  On top of that they supply something Europe absolutely must have: hydrocarbons.

Further, if real sanctions, like the Iranian ones were applied to Russia, the price of oil and natural gas would spike so high the world economy would go into a tailspin, even before one considers the spin-off financial effects.  Russia would then orient hard to China, who in no way would go along with such sanctions, and while the initial affect would be massive, in time, all that would happen is that Russia would now firmly be a Chinese client state.

Many have noted that the ruble is dropping relative to the dollar and the Euro and say that “markets” are punishing Russia.  They aren’t, because oil and natural gas prices have increased, and Russia doesn’t get paid for hydrocarbons in rubles.  In fact, the crisis will probably make Russia money.

The intermediate sanction would be Visa restrictions on Putin’s closest associates, along with freezing their accounts.  The problem with that is that Putin has plenty of ways to retaliate, starting with not letting the US get its gear out of Afghanistan when the Afghan government kicks the Americans out.  (Getting that gear out through Pakistan will be much harder, dangerous and much more expensive.)

China, of course, is the actual threat to American hegemony.  It is also the country that the Ukraine should actually be going to for help, not to the West.  More on that in future posts.

Wars these days are proxy wars to a greater or lesser degree, and this trend may increase if only because it is more saleable to voters back home. A prime example of this was the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 by a Nato-backed campaign in which the Libyan rebel militiamen, who dominated the television screens, acted as a mopping-up force in the wake of devastating air attacks.

Human rights abuses have become a standard justification for foreign interventions and accounts of these abuses may well be true. But media reporting of them tends to be unbalanced, often misleading and occasionally fabricated. In Libya, the well-publicised story of mass rape by the Libyan army was exposed as a fake by human rights organisations. The original excuse for Nato air intervention was to prevent Gaddafi’s forces from massacring the opposition in Benghazi. But former rebels, now members of all-powerful militias, really did massacre demonstrators on two different occasions in Benghazi and Tripoli without foreign governments showing more than a flicker of interest.

In Syria, there should likewise be wariness in dealing with atrocity allegations. Clearly, the Syrian government forces are systematically devastating and depopulating rebel-held areas with artillery fire, aerial bombing and bulldozers. They are besieging and starving civilians in rebel-held enclaves such as Yarmouk Camp, the Old City of Homs and elsewhere.

All this is true. The government is probably killing far more civilians than the rebels. But this may be largely because the government’s means of death and destruction are greater than the opposition’s. The al-Qa’ida type Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isil) recently showed its intentions by posting a video on YouTube of its gunmen stopping trucks on a road, asking the drivers to prove their familiarity with Sunni rituals and shooting them dead when they fail the test. The killers never ask the drivers if they are Alawites, Shia, Christians, Druze or Ishmaili; simply not being Sunni gets a death sentence. […]

The atrocities of the rebels do not exculpate the government or vice versa. But when politicians such as William Hague and the US Secretary of State demonise only government actions, they give a false picture of what is happening in Syria. The uprising of 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad was started by civil activists seeking an end to a cruel and corrupt authoritarian regime and the creation of a secular, legal and democratic society. But this option has long since disappeared, and for Western governments to pretend otherwise is to foster civil war rather than seeking to end it. Keep in mind that if the rebels do win, the immediate result will be another five or six million Syrians fleeing the country. […]

Since 1999, I have covered Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and in each case the armed opposition has progressively undergone criminalisation and what might be called “Talibanisation”. The circumstances are not identical, but the similarities are striking.

A reason for the Talibanisation is that only Islam appears capable of mobilising people prepared to fight to the death. This is important because wars are determined not by the number of people supporting a cause, but by the number prepared to die for it. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, national causes were often led by communists, who might begin as a small minority, as they did in the Spanish Civil War, but rapidly expanded because of their organisation and fanatical commitment.

In the Middle East, there is a failing common to beleaguered regimes and their secular opponents that weakens them both. The old nationalist rulers of Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq from Nasser on justified their monopoly of political and economic power by claiming that only thus could they make national self-determination a reality. In the early stages they had their successes: Nasser triumphed over Britain and France in the Suez crisis in 1956; Gaddafi took over and raised the price of Libya’s oil in 1973, and Hafez al-Assad successfully confronted Israel in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. By 2011, however, these governments had turned into self-serving cliques whose nationalist slogans were long discredited and whose corruption delegitimised the nation state.

The mistake of civic activists and non-sectarian revolutionaries in 2011 was not to see that emphasis on human and civil rights did not mean much unless a strong nation state could be regenerated. Nationalism may be out of fashion, but without it gluing society together, the alternative is sectarianism, tribalism and foreign domination. As paymasters, the Sunni oil states of the Gulf set the agenda and it is a deeply reactionary one. It is hypocritical and absurd for Western powers to pretend that they are seeking to build secular democracies in alliance with theocratic absolute monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

The future does not look bright. Once sectarian furies are released they become next to impossible to contain. For all the turmoil in Turkey, it is more of a complete nation state than elsewhere in the region. But then that is partly because a fifth of the Turkish population was Christian in 1914 and, following the Armenian massacres and the expulsion or exchange of the Greeks, the proportion fell to about 1 per cent 10 years later.

People ask why the revolutions in Eastern Europe at the time of the fall of communism were so much less violent than in the Middle East. A less than comforting answer is that the East European minorities had been murdered, expelled or forced to flee during or shortly after the Second World War. The same fate could be waiting for the minorities of Syria.

Considering the slack in today’s economy, you can see why the consensus is encouraging the inner entrepreneur in the new generation of scientists and technologists. If innovation really is the tonic for this disease, however, and if startup entrepreneurs and their corporate uncles really do transcend partisan ideologies, then some sign of health should be visible in the communities where they cluster.

And here’s one clue worth pondering: In early summer 2013, Governor Patrick signed a “tech tax” on computer services that was supposed to raise the money badly needed to save the region’s aging bridges, buses, roads, and subways from falling into disrepair from the additional density of Innovation Economy development. In early fall 2013, the same Governor Patrick signed a repeal of the same “tech tax.”

The tech tax reversal neatly illustrates the law of economic development concealed within the Innovation Economy’s magic wand. Call it the innovator’s dogma: in response to the siren call of the future, the whole community must conform.

The innovator’s dogma explains why, two months after reversing himself on the “tech tax,” Governor Patrick decided to extend the operation of the aging subways and buses until 3 a.m. on weekends, a policy generations of the region’s college students had failed to achieve. “Is this cool or what?” the Governor cooed.

Others warned that maintenance workers will bear the additional pressure and that the transportation system will decrease in safety. But the governor’s special pleading knew no bounds: “This is about how we make the system modern for the kind of economic growth we have been experiencing and will be experiencing. The folks who work in the innovation sector—they live differently.” He then left on a ten-day trade mission to tell business leaders in Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong the good news.

The innovator’s dogma means making all your city’s peoples and institutions attractive to corporate professionals-in-training. That’s why the first-ever “Police Innovation Conference” convened, and why it did so inside Microsoft’s Cambridge headquarters. The conference was the dream of a former detective and public information officer who quit the force to join the startup community. The enterprising detective developed MyPD, an app that 125 police departments are using around the country.

It’s why the superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools has unfurled a reform program labeled “The Innovation Agenda: Educating Students for Their Future Not Our Past,” as though understanding our past were not essential to creating their future. It’s why the Cambridge Historical Society made “Innovation: How Cambridge Changed America” the theme of its benefit in 2012. And it’s why the Cambridge Science Festival is held annually, with events in the field house of the high school.

The innovator’s dogma can explain why state officials have redefined art and culture to accord with the White’s House’s desire to accelerate ideas “from the lab to the marketplace.” A “Creative Industries Economy” is said by officials at the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Economic Development to be growing alongside the Innovation Economy. So they’re holding “CreativeNext Resource Meetings.”

These sound laboratory-like, all right, but sort of disturbing too, when you realize that the “Creative Economy” acknowledges only “the enterprises and people involved in the production and distribution of goods and services in which the aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional engagement of the consumer gives the product value in the marketplace.”

Here’s a definition broad enough to admit every form of “content” from web marketing to film, yet so narrow as to rule out the social conditions of sympathy, cooperation, and security in which creativity thrives—and never mind classic works of the twentieth century that were born in opposition to the market for consumer taste.

But the innovator’s dogma deals in the world of commodities. And Cambridge is teeming with products for solving problems we didn’t know were problems. Hence Sqrrl Data Inc., started up by a group of former National Security Agency employees. Following the entrepreneur’s playbook, the NSA technicians redeployed their government-funded spymastering to develop a commercial product that offers innovative expert protection against … spying. Edward Snowden’s revelations did make these privacy entrepreneurs a bit nervous. Would public anger at the NSA taint their launch? Nyet! They discovered that what the people fear the market will then control. So these savvy NSA veterans scored a big infusion of venture capital and a larger office in Cambridge as a result of the revelations.

This, you see, is how innovation works. Mask political choices in the universalist rhetoric of the market. Purge the surrounding environment of social intelligence. Surge into the space with vested interests masquerading as public ones, and then call in the future for cover. […]

So come along, while there’s still time, and let’s tour the People’s Republic of Zuckerstan. Observe the residents fleeing, the acres being enclosed in office parks and laboratories, the moguls smiling, and the thought leaders humming tidings of the future. Be sure to notice all the ways in which the composite picture doesn’t add up to progress.

Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” leapt forth from the historical collision of radical social movements against a repressive, neoliberal state. Fifteen years ago, Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela amid the collapsing rubble of the old two-party system, but the “revolution” over which he would preside has far deeper roots. For decades, armed guerrillas, peasants and workers, women, Afro- and indigenous Venezuelans, students and the urban poor struggled against a system that—while formally democratic—was far from it in practice. These revolutionary grassroots movements, which I document in We Created Chávez, blew a hole in what Walter Benjamin would call the continuum of history in a massive anti-neoliberal riot that began on February 27, 1989.

This event—twenty-five years ago this week—was henceforth known as the Caracazo, and irreversibly divided Venezuelan history into a before and an after. Its importance is not limited to the resistance to imperialism that it embodied, however, but also the slaughter that marked its conclusion. Numbers often fail us in their false equivalence, but there is much that they can make clear: some 3,000 were killed in 1989, many deposited unceremoniously in unmarked mass graves. But the movements struggled forth, building popular assemblies in the barrios and making increasingly militant demands against a flailing state, which responded with targeted killings and the occasional massacre. The mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, who today positions himself as an opponent of repression, himself presided over the murder of dozens of students in the streets in the early 1990s, not to mention a notorious 1992 prison massacre at the Retén de Catia.

It was into this gaping wound in history that Chávez stepped, first with a failed coup in February 1992, and with electoral victory six years later. Even then, however, there were still no “Chavistas” but only “Bolivarians”—a loose and all-encompassing reference to the great liberator, Simón Bolívar—or more simply: “revolutionaries.” The revolution predated Chávez, and it was always about more than the individual; so too for Maduro today. The state has become today an important terrain for hegemonic struggle, but it is far from the only trench, and those who felt the searing heat of state violence in the past have not been today miraculously converted to naïve faith. Instead, the movements persist alongside and occasionally in tension with the government: supporting Maduro while building autonomous spaces for popular participation.

The protests that have exploded across Venezuelan cities in recent days—whose most prevalent hashtag calls for #LaSalida, the departure of Maduro from power—have nothing to do with this arduous process of building a new society. While the protests are ostensibly about economic scarcity and insecurity—very real concerns, for the record—these do not explain why the protests have emerged now. Behind the scenes, the protests are a reflection of the weakness of the Venezuelan opposition, not its strength. Reeling from a serious electoral defeat in December’s local elections, old tensions have re-emerged, splintering the fleeting unity behind the presidential candidacy of Henrique Capriles Radonski who was defeated by Maduro last April. Amid the maneuvering so common to this opposition, more hard-line voices, impatient with the electoral game, have outflanked Capriles to the right: Ledezma, as well as María Corina Machado and Leopoldo López.

Rather than a breath of fresh air, the names are all too familiar, not only for their political histories but also because they represent the very thinnest sliver of Venezuela’s upper crust. Machado is most notorious for having signed the “Carmona decree” endorsing the April 2002 coup against Chávez, and for her friendly 2005 sit-down with George W. Bush. But it is López who best exemplifies both the intransigence of this opposition as well as its halfhearted attempts to connect with the poor majority. The very picture of privilege—in a country where Chávez was considered by elites to be unacceptably dark-skinned—López was trained in the United States from prep school to Harvard’s Kennedy School, an elite scion if ever there was one.

The political party in which both López and Capriles cut their teeth—Primero Justicia—emerged at the intersection of corruption and foreign intervention: López would later be barred from public office for allegedly receiving funds from his mother, a state oil executive. Less deniable is the FOIA revelation that the party received significant injections of funding from US government ancillaries like the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, and the International Republican Institute. López is no stranger to street violence, nor does he flinch at taking the extra-institutional route: during the 2002 coup—of which he has said he is “proud”—he led witch hunts to root out and arrest Chavista ministers amid a violent opposition mob.

With a clever bit of theatrics, López has placed himself at the forefront of these demonstrations, garnering the title of “opposition leader” in domestic and international media alike. But where are the protests headed? From the beginning, the numbers have not been particularly impressive by Venezuelan standards, and certainly far fewer than the opposition is capable of mustering. But more problematic for the opposition is the makeup of the protesters and the very predictable geography of the protests, largely confined to the wealthiest neighborhoods. Even the ferociously anti-Chavista blogger Francisco Toro of Caracas Chronicles put it bluntly: “Middle class protests in middle class areas on middle class themes by middle class people are not a challenge to the Chavista power system.” Capriles himself has similarly insisted that the opposition will fail if they do not manage to attract the “humble people, the people of the barrios,” and that demanding Maduro’s extra-constitutional ouster will not accomplish this. In other words, even many Maduro opponents recognize that this “exit” hashtagged from Blackberries is nothing of the sort, but instead a callejón sin salidaa dead end.

Hyperbole seems to be the rule of the day on both sides, and among the fearful exaggerations of the opposition, none looms larger than the colectivos. While officially designating the more organized radical sectors of Chavismo, here signifiers float freely in proportion to the fear they represent, with the term colectivos applied to anyone on a motorcycle, anyone wearing a red shirt, anyone too poor-looking or dark-skinned. This is nothing new, either: the 2002 equivalent was the term “terror circles,” a slanderous pejorative used to denigrate members of grassroots popular assemblies who served as the backbone of resistance to the undemocratic coup. These popular grassroots organizers constitute the most direct, organic expressions of the wretched of the Venezuelan earth, the most politicized segment of the previously discarded human mass that the opposition has never cared about for a second.

Even Chavismo is not immune to the deep-seated hatred for the poor barrio residents that such terms represent, and to a certain degree the feeling is mutual. Against the caricatured view that insists that radical popular organizations like colectivos are either blindly devoted or cheaply bought off, these are in reality among the most independent sectors of the revolution, those most critical of government missteps and hesitations, those most familiar with the repressive force of the state and those who demand above all that the social transformation under way move faster.

This culture of control and surveillance mirrors the intensification of state punishment. Starting in the 1970s — despite a decline in the rates of crime (not always a measure of harm) — states implemented “tough on crime” policies that built the world’s largest prison population and did not make communities stronger or safer. A carceral logic, or a punishment mindset, crept into nearly every government function, including those seemingly removed from prisons. Those seeking food stamps are subject to mandatory and/or random drug testing. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has become the largest enforcement agency in the US. Post-secondary education applications ask about criminal records, and many states bar those with felony convictions from voting.

In K–12 education, high-stakes testing is a proxy for “accountability,” and “low-performing” schools are punished with closure while charter schools continue to open. After a few high-profile school shootings in the early 1990s, states introduced “zero tolerance” discipline policies to address a wide range of behaviors schools identified as undesirable. The subsequent increase in surveillance cameras, security guards, metal detectors, and punitive school discipline policies doubled the number of students suspended from school from 1.7 million a year in 1974 to 3.7 million in 2010. The impact of suspensions is clear. Suspended students are three times more likely to drop out by the tenth grade than peers who have never been suspended.

Paralleling our unjust criminal legal system, students of color are, unsurprisingly, targets in schools. One of every four African-American public school students in Illinois was suspended at least once for disciplinary reasons during the 2009–10 school year, the highest rate among the 47 states examined by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies.

While overall youth school-based arrests in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are down from a peak of more than 8,000 in 2003, black youth are still disproportionately arrested. In 2012, black students, who represent about 42 percent of the total CPS population, accounted for 75.5% of school-based arrests. Again, mimicking what is happening in the juvenile justice system, the vast majority of these school-based arrests are for misdemeanor offenses (84%) as opposed to felonies (16%). In other words, youth are not being arrested for serious violent acts or for bringing a weapon to school, but for disrespect or “fighting.” Often the term used to describe the differentials between white and black suspension and arrest is “disproportionality,” but this term masks the central roles white supremacy and anti-black racism play in shaping ideas and practices surrounding school discipline.

Yet we won’t solve the STPP problem by simply changing school disciplinary policies. Because many states spend more on prisons than education, we have to change funding priorities as well. Take Illinois, for example. Between 1985 and 2005, the state built over 25 new prisons or detention facilities. Over the same span, no new public colleges or universities were established. Funding reform initiatives for K–12 education, mandated by the Illinois State Supreme Court, have stalled for decades — ensuring that poor communities and communities of color still receive significantly less money.

Haitian slaves began to throw off the “heel of the French” in 1791, when they rose up and, after bitter years of fighting, eventually declared themselves free. Their French masters, however, refused to accept Haitian independence. The island, after all, had been an extremely profitable sugar producer, and so Paris offered Haiti a choice: compensate slave owners for lost property — their slaves (that is, themselves) — or face its imperial wrath. The fledgling nation was forced to finance this payout with usurious loans from French banks. As late as 1940, 80% of the government budget was still going to service this debt.

In the on-again, off-again debate that has taken place in the United States over the years about paying reparations for slavery, opponents of the idea insist that there is no precedent for such a proposal. But there is. It’s just that what was being paid was reparations-in-reverse, which has a venerable pedigree. After the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the U.S., London reimbursed southern planters more than a million dollars for having encouraged their slaves to run away in wartime. Within the United Kingdom, the British government also paid a small fortune to British slave owners, including the ancestors of Britain’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron, to compensate for abolition (which Adam Hochschild calculated in his 2005 book Bury the Chains to be “an amount equal to roughly 40% of the national budget then, and to about $2.2 billion today”).

Advocates of reparations — made to the descendants of enslaved peoples, not to their owners — tend to calculate the amount due based on the negative impact of slavery. They want to redress either unpaid wages during the slave period or injustices that took place after formal abolition (including debt servitude and exclusion from the benefits extended to the white working class by the New Deal). According to one estimate, for instance, 222,505,049 hours of forced labor were performed by slaves between 1619 and 1865, when slavery was ended. Compounded at interest and calculated in today’s currency, this adds up to trillions of dollars.

But back pay is, in reality, the least of it. The modern world owes its very existence to slavery. […]

The death rate on the trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World was staggeringly high. Slave ships, however, were more than floating tombs. They were floating laboratories, offering researchers a chance to examine the course of diseases in fairly controlled, quarantined environments.  Doctors and medical researchers could take advantage of high mortality rates to identify a bewildering number of symptoms, classify them into diseases, and hypothesize about their causes.

Corps of doctors tended to slave ports up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Some of them were committed to relieving suffering; others were simply looking for ways to make the slave system more profitable. In either case, they identified types of fevers, learned how to decrease mortality and increase fertility, experimented with how much water was needed for optimum numbers of slaves to survive on a diet of salted fish and beef jerky, and identified the best ratio of caloric intake to labor hours. Priceless epidemiological information on a range of diseases — malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and so on — was gleaned from the bodies of the dying and the dead.

When slaves couldn’t be kept alive, their autopsied bodies still provided useful information. Of course, as the writer Harriet Washington has demonstrated in her stunning Medical Apartheidsuch experimentation continued long after slavery ended: in the 1940s, one doctor said that the “future of the Negro lies more in the research laboratory than in the schools.” As late as the 1960s, another researcher, reminiscing in a speech given at Tulane Medical School, said that it was “cheaper to use Niggers than cats because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals.” 

Medical knowledge slowly filtered out of the slave industry into broader communities, since slavers made no proprietary claims on the techniques or data that came from treating their slaves. For instance, an epidemic of blindness that broke out in 1819 on the French slaver Rôdeur, which had sailed from Bonny Island in the Niger Delta with about 72 slaves on board, helped eye doctors identify the causes, patterns, and symptoms of what is today known as trachoma. […]

Slaves spurred forward medicine in other ways, too. Africans, for instance, were the primary victims of smallpox in the New World and were also indispensable to its eradication. In the early 1800s, Spain ordered that all its American subjects be vaccinated against the disease, but didn’t provide enough money to carry out such an ambitious campaign. So doctors turned to the one institution that already reached across the far-flung Spanish Empire: slavery. They transported the live smallpox vaccine in the arms of Africans being moved along slave routes as cargo from one city to another to be sold: doctors chose one slave from a consignment, made a small incision in his or her arm, and inserted the vaccine (a mixture of lymph and pus containing the cowpox virus). A few days after the slaves set out on their journey, pustules would appear in the arm where the incision had been made, providing the material to perform the procedure on yet another slave in the lot — and then another and another until the consignment reached its destination. Thus the smallpox vaccine was disseminated through Spanish America, saving countless lives. […]

Take, for example, the case of the Joaquín, a Portuguese frigate that left Mozambique in late 1803 with 301 enslaved East Africans. Nearly six months later, when a port surgeon opened the ship’s hatch in Montevideo, Uruguay, he was sickened by what he saw: only 31 bone-thin survivors in a foul, bare room, otherwise empty save for hundreds of unused shackles.

City officials convened a commission of inquiry to explain the deaths of the other 270 slaves, calling on the expertise of five surgeons — two British doctors, a Spaniard, a Swiss Italian, and one from the United States. The doctors testified that before boarding the Joaquín, the captives would have felt extreme anguish, having already been forced to survive on roots and bugs until arriving on the African coast emaciated and with their stomachs distended. Then, once on the ocean, crowded into a dark hold with no ventilation, they would have had nothing to do other than listen to the cries of their companions and the clanking of their chains. Many would have gone mad trying to make sense of their situation, trying to ponder “the imponderable.” The surgeons decided that the East Africans had died from dehydration and chronic diarrhea, aggravated by the physical and psychological hardships of slavery — from, that is, what they called “nostalgia,” “melancholia,” and “cisma,”a Spanish word that loosely means brooding or mourning.    

The collective opinion of the five surgeons — who represented the state of medical knowledge in the U.S., Great Britain, and Spain — reveals the way slavery helped in what might be called the disenchanting of medicine. In it you can see how doctors dealing with the slave trade began taking concepts like melancholia out of the hands of priests, poets, and philosophers and giving them actual medical meaning. […]

It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The driving of more and more slaves inland and across the continent, the opening up of new slave routes and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin for the creation of a new commercialized one.

Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money — at least in a way. It wasn’t that the value of individual slaves was standardized in relation to currency, but that slaves were quite literally the standard.  When appraisers calculated the value of any given hacienda, or estate, slaves usually accounted for over half of its worth; they were, that is, much more valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks. […]

Follow the money, as the saying goes, and you don’t even have to move very far along the financial trail to begin to see the wealth and knowledge amassed through slavery. To this day, it remains all around us, in our museums, courts, places of learning and worship, and doctors’ offices. Even the tony clothier, Brooks Brothers (founded in New York in 1818), got its start selling coarse slave clothing to southern plantations.  It now describes itself as an “institution that has shaped the American style of dress.” […]

The idea that slavery made the modern world is not new, though it seems that every generation has to rediscover that truth anew. Almost a century ago, in 1915, W.E.B Du Bois wrote, “Raphael painted, Luther preached, Corneille wrote, and Milton sung; and through it all, for four hundred years, the dark captives wound to the sea amid the bleaching bones of the dead; for four hundred years the sharks followed the scurrying ships; for four hundred years America was strewn with the living and dying millions of a transplanted race; for four hundred years Ethiopia stretched forth her hands unto God.”

Faster and Faster

I wrote a piece of short fiction @ strangesubject today:


Written by Prashanth Kamalakanthan, reviewed by Rick Carp

The raindrops are falling faster and faster, so fast that it’s getting hard to see the people outside. But I can guess what they look like. I’ve seen it all a million times. I’ve been in loads of train stations. And I’m no forgetter.

There are the work people, always checking their watches and walking super fast so they’re not late for work. Probably some moms looking tired. Dads staring off at whatever, smoking bidis or whatever. Spitting. Frowning. Students, too, wearing uniforms. Guys selling tea and coffee and samosas and yelling about it constantly. If it’s a big city, which Madras definitely yes, then also a few white tourists hanging in little photo teams, clicking their photos. Of homeless people a lot.

Oh yeah, and them. Tons of homeless people, bundled up near the walls, dark except when the Vodafone and Pepsi signs flicker. Twisting those scaly reptile hands that grabbed my ankle one time in Bombay. Then stared at me with big eyes. (Always so big and empty and waiting, like a question.)


Dag, it’s really coming down.

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Incredibly clarifying piece on contemporary Russian politics:

What is interesting about this is that there are so many minor problems.  Do you remember these issues during the Beijing Olympics?


And, if you’re older, like me, do you remember them from the Moscow 1980 Olympics?


In 1980 USSR, the Russians could still put their fingers down and make things work. Oh, to be sure, wherever the Politburo and the best of the KGB wasn’t watching, it was a mess, but if they concentrated their efforts on one place, things got done.

Whatever problems the USSR had by 1980, let alone by the time it fell, for many Russians, it was better than what came after.  Putin believes this:

When Igor Sechin was working as President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff a decade ago, visitors to his Kremlin office noticed an unusual collection on the bookshelves: row after row of bound volumes containing minutes of Communist Party congresses.

The record stretched across the history of the party and its socialist predecessor — from the first meeting in March 1898 to the last one in July 1990, a year and a half before the Soviet Union collapsed, Bloomberg Markets will report in its March issue.

Sechin regularly perused the documents and took notes, says Dmitry Skarga, who at the time was chief executive officer of Russia’s largest shipping company, OAO Sovcomflot.

“He was drinking from this fountain of sacred knowledge so that Russia could restore its superpower status and take its rightful place in the world,” Skarga says.

Sechin’s back-to-the-future fascination with his country’s communist past is something he shares with Putin, who, soon after coming to power in 1999, restored the music (though not the lyrics) of the Soviet-era national anthem and later described the collapse of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

Why does Putin believe this?  It seems like nonsense to most Westerners.  But if you’re Russian, and you remember the 90s, you remember a time when rapacious oligarchs seized control of the country, the population went into sharp decline, where there wasn’t enough food and where hot water was a luxury denied to many.

You remember constant humiliations at the hands of the West, as they carved up Russia, the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, and you remember that NATO kept expanding East even though Bush Sr. had promised Russia that wouldn’t happen.

The 90s were terrible.  As bad as the late USSR was, the 90s were worse.

The sardonic joke was “everything the Communists told us about Communism was a lie.  Unfortunately, everything they told us about Capitalism was true.”

To put it simply, privatization, known as shock doctrine, was a huge failure in Russia.  It led to control over the economy being in the hands of a few rapacious oligarchs, none of whom didn’t routinely use coercion and violence to get their way, it led to a collapse in population, life span, of oil production… of everything.

If this was capitalism… why would the Russians be impressed?

And meanwhile, in Chechnya, the Russian military couldn’t even put down an insurrection.  The Red Army may have failed in Afghanistan, but in the provinces of the USSR, well, no.

So Putin gets in charge, and he looks at what privatization; what shock doctrine has done to the country, and he think that the USSR is better.  So he makes examples of some of the oligarchs, re-nationalizes the key parts of the economy, including oil and high tech production, as well as those parts which can’t compete.

Peskov says, “for example, in shipbuilding it’s absolutely pointless to carry out privatization,” he says. “You can privatize enterprises, but they won’t be competitive; they will be doomed to failure. So consolidating the assets under the state’s wing is the only way to preserve key sectors of the economy.”

Next he turns on Chechnya and he wins his war, he crushes the Chechens, then he pours billions into rebuilding their capital.  Bear in mind, this is sold as an “anti-terrorist” war, just like Iraq and Afghanistan were sold to Americans.  Remember how popular Bush was as a “war president”?

Putin starts bringing countries which were once part of the USSR under the Russian umbrella again, and tries to slow the advance of NATO and the EU East towards Russia’s border.

So what Putin has done is look at the results of the collapse of the USSR: the economy trashed, population declining, oligarchs stealing, Russia humiliated, a major insurrection in the South, and he’s reversed them.  The economy may not be brilliant, but it grows fast for most of the 2000s.  Oil production grows and exceeds USSR production, and pays for more than 50% of the government’s budget.  Population stops declining.  Unemployment drops, and is lower than in some European nations.

Perhaps state capitalism, which is what Putin is doing is “inefficient”, but it’s supplying jobs and it’s paying the government’s bills.

And Putin is genuinely popular.  In the last few years there have been demonstrations, but while Putin’s reelection wasn’t fair, it doesn’t appear to have been stolen.

Why?  If you remember the 90s, and most people do, Putin has demonstrably made most Russians better off and strengthened Russia.  And very few Russians are crying tears for what he’s done to the oligarchs, all of whom are little better than Mafia dons themselves.

If you’re Vladimir Putin, you think you’ve done a great job.  You think that the West are a bunch of flaming hypocrites who hate Russia, as well.  Look at all the screaming about human rights during these Olympic Games.  While there was some about China in 08, it was magnitudes less.  And if China doesn’t discriminate against gays, well, they certainly are at least in the same league as Russia when it comes to human rights abuses.

Besides, who can take the US, which invaded Iraq based on lies, which tortured, which has the world’s largest assassination program and whose NSA runs a surveillance state which in certain respects would make the Stasi blush, while imprisoning much of its black male population, and bailing out private actors to the tune of trillions of dollars to lecture anyone else?

To Putin, Western lectures look like sheerest hypocrisy.  The West, in its banking scandals, proved itself as corrupt as Russia, and on a much larger scale. In Iraq it proved that it would brutalize non-Western populations for no reason.  In Greece it has driven its own population into penury, and all through the West the surveillance state rises, and people continue to lose their rights.

Meanwhile Russia’s unemployment rate is better than most Western nations.

None of this is to deny that Putin is not an evil man, and though I don’t know if he’d put it that way himself, I doubt he has any misconceptions about the fact that he’s a strong man; a man on horseback and a man who has committed innumerable war crimes, while ruling through fear and intimidation as well as popularity.

Russia’s got problem, big ones, and Sochi has highlighted them.  Putin has failed to transition the economy from resources, and he has not kept corruption under limits: corruption is one thing, that the system can’t be made to work in high profile circumstances like Sochi, is another.

But when your economy is more than 50% reliant on oil, it’s almost impossible to stop corruption or to transition off of resources.  Resource economies are corrupt, period, because whoever has control of the resources makes so much more money than everyone else, and people will do anything to get near the money spigot, while those who do control it can buy anyone they want.

In this resource economies are similar to financialized ones. In both cases, there is a money spigot, and you are either attached to it, or you aren’t. If you are, life is great. If you aren’t, well, not so much.

A series of psychological studies over the past 20 years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper. The reason, according to attention restoration theory, or ART, is that when people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind.

The results of the most recent such study were published in Psychological Science at the end of 2008. A team of University of Michigan researchers, led by psychologist Marc Berman, recruited some three dozen people and subjected them to a rigorous and mentally fatiguing series of tests designed to measure the capacity of their working memory and their ability to exert top-down control over their attention. The subjects were divided into two groups. Half of them spent about an hour walking through a secluded woodland park, and the other half spent an equal amount of time walking along busy downtown streets. Both groups then took the tests a second time. Spending time in the park, the researchers found, “significantly improved” people’s performance on the cognitive tests, indicating a substantial increase in attentiveness. Walking in the city, by contrast, led to no improvement in test results.

The researchers then conducted a similar experiment with another set of people. Rather than taking walks between the rounds of testing, these subjects simply looked at photographs of either calm rural scenes or busy urban ones. The results were the same. The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning.”

There is no Sleepy Hollow on the internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the web, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily, as Hawthorne understood, overwhelm all quieter modes of thought. One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is the one that informs the fears of both the scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and the artist Richard Foreman: a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.

It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion. Psychologists have long studied how people experience fear and react to physical threats, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun researching the sources of our nobler instincts. What they’re finding is that, as Antonio Damasio, the director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, explains, the higher emotions emerge from neural processes that “are inherently slow.” In one recent experiment, Damasio and his colleagues had subjects listen to stories describing people experiencing physical or psychological pain. The subjects were then put into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and their brains were scanned as they were asked to remember the stories. The experiment revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain – when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your own brain activate almost instantaneously – the more sophisticated mental process of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time, the researchers discovered, for the brain “to transcend immediate involvement of the body” and begin to understand and to feel “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation.”

The experiment, say the scholars, indicates that the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions. “For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” cautions Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a member of the research team. “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states.” It would be rash to jump to the conclusion that the internet is undermining our moral sense. It would not be rash to suggest that as the net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.

One of the curious things about the crisis in San Francisco – precipitated by a huge influx of well-paid tech workers driving up housing costs and causing evictions, gentrification and cultural change – is that they seem unable to understand why many locals don’t love them. They’re convinced that they are members of the tribe. Their confusion may issue from Silicon Valley’s own favourite stories about itself. These days in TED talks and tech-world conversation, commerce is described as art and as revolution and huge corporations are portrayed as agents of the counterculture.

That may actually have been the case, briefly, in the popular tech Genesis story according to which Apple emerged from a garage somewhere at the south end of the San Francisco Peninsula, not yet known as Silicon Valley. But Google set itself up with the help of a $4.5 million dollar government subsidy, and Apple became a giant corporation that begat multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns and overseas sweatshops and the rest that you already know. Facebook, Google, eBay and Yahoo (though not Apple) belong to the conservative anti-environmental political action committee Alec (the American Legislative Exchange Council).

The story Silicon Valley less often tells about itself has to do with dollar signs and weapons systems. The industry came out of military contracting, and its alliance with the Pentagon has never ended. The valley’s first major firm, Hewlett-Packard, was a military contractor. One of its co-founders, David Packard, was an undersecretary of defence in the Nixon administration; his signal contribution as a civil servant was a paper about overriding the laws preventing the imposition of martial law. Many defence contractors have flourished in Silicon Valley in the decades since: weapons contractors United Technologies and Lockheed Martin, as well as sundry makers of drone, satellite and spying equipment and military robotics. Silicon Valley made technology for the military, and the military sponsored research that benefited Silicon Valley. The first supercomputer, made by New York’s Remington Rand, was for nuclear weapons research at the Bay Area’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The internet itself, people sometimes remember, was created by the military, and publicly funded research has done a lot to make the hardware, the software and the vast private fortunes possible. Which you wouldn’t know from the hyperlibertarian language of the tech world’s kings. Even the mildest of them, Bill Gates, said in 1998: ‘There isn’t an industry in America that is more creative, more alive and more competitive. And the amazing thing is that all this happened without any government involvement.’ The current lords talk of various kinds of secession, quite literally at the Seasteading Institute, an organisation that’s looking into building artificial islands outside all national laws and regulations. And taxes. Let someone else subsidise all that research.

The same morning the buses were stopped in downtown San Francisco, some hellraisers went to the Berkeley home of a Google employee who, they say, works on robots for the military. (Google recently purchased eight robotics companies and is going in a lot of new directions, to put it mildly.) After ringing his doorbell, they unfurled a banner that read GOOGLE’S FUTURE STOPS HERE, and then blockaded the Google bus at one of its Berkeley stops. ‘We will not be held hostage by Google’s threat to release massive amounts of carbon should the bus service be stopped,’ their statement said.

So there’s a disconnect in values and goals: Silicon Valley workers seem to want to inhabit the anti-war, social-justice, mutual-aid heart of San Francisco (and the Bay Area). To do so they often displace San Franciscans from their homes. One often hears objections: it isn’t the tech workers coming here who are carrying out the evictions. But they are moving into homes from which people have been evicted. Ivory collectors in China aren’t shooting elephants in Africa, but the elephants are being shot for them. Native sons and daughters also work in the industry, and many of the newcomers may be compassionate, progressive people, but I have seen few signs of resistance, refusal to participate, or even chagrin about their impact from within their ranks.

2013 may be the year San Francisco turned on Silicon Valley and may be the year the world did too. Edward Snowden’s revelations began to flow in June: Silicon Valley was sharing our private data with the National Security Agency. Many statements were made about how reluctantly it was done, how outraged the executives were, but all the relevant companies – Yahoo, Google, Facebook – complied without telling us. These days it appears that the NSA is not their enemy so much as their rival; Facebook and Google are themselves apparently harvesting far more data from us than the US government. Last year, Facebook’s chief security officer went to work for the NSA, and the New York Times said the move

underscores the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the agency and the degree to which they are now in the same business. Both hunt for ways to collect, analyse and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans. The only difference is that the NSA does it for intelligence, and Silicon Valley does it to make money.

The corporations doing this are not the counterculture, or the underground or bohemia, only the avant-garde of an Orwellian future. […]

When it comes to buying a home, your income needs to be nearly one and a half times higher in San Francisco than in the next most expensive city in the US. What began as vague anxiety a couple of years ago has turned into fear, rage and grief. It has also driven people to develop strategies aimed at changing the local and statewide laws that permit the evictions.

And of all the pieces I have edited, perhaps my proudest:

Shooters II Saloon is officially a ski-friendly establishment.

But I did not know this at the start of Wednesday night. As I strapped on my cross-country skis for a nocturnal expedition, my mind churned with doubtsThis is Durham, North Carolinawhat if they don’t want people showing up with skis? What if they turn me away for carrying two pointy, metal-tipped poles into a bar? Will my ski helmet provoke social ostracization?

But classes were canceled; most every bar and restaurant was shuttered; the roads lay hidden beneath several inches of snow with more still falling; and despite it all, Shooters had kept its dance floor burning bright.

This was indeed a dilemma worthy of my liberal arts education.

Snow gods help me.

But while leading tech and privacy experts like Jarvis slobber over Silicon Valley megacorps and praise their heroic stand against oppressive government surveillance, most still don’t seem to mind that these same tech billionaires run vast private sector surveillance operations of their own: hi-tech spying operations that vacuum up private information and use it to compile detailed dossiers on hundreds of millions of people around the world — and that’s on top of their work colluding and contracting with government intelligence agencies.

If you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s not hard to see that Silicon Valley runs on for-profit surveillance, and that it dwarfs anything being run by the NSA.

Last week, I wrote about Google’s Street View program, and how after a series of investigations in the US and Europe, we learned that Google had used its Street View cars to carry out a covert — and certainly illegal — espionage operation on a global scale, siphoning loads of personally identifiable data from people’s Wi-Fi connections all across the world. Emails, medical records, love notes, passwords, the whole works — anything that wasn’t encrypted was fair game. It was all part of the original program design: Google had equipped its Street View cars with surveillance gear designed to intercept and vacuum up all the wireless network communication data that crossed their path. An FCC investigation showing that the company knowingly deployed Street View’s surveillance program, and then had analyzed and integrated the data that it had intercepted.

Most disturbingly, when its Street View surveillance program was uncovered by regulators, Google pulled every crisis management trick in the book to confuse investors, dodge questions, avoid scrutiny, and prevent the public from finding out the truth. The company’s behavior got so bad that the FCC fined it for obstruction of justice.

The investigation in Street View uncovered a dark side to Google. But as alarming as it was, Google’s Street View wiretapping scheme was just a tiny experimental program compared to Google’s bread and butter: a massive surveillance operation that intercepts and analyzes terabytes of global Internet traffic every day, and then uses that data to build and update complex psychological profiles on hundreds of millions of people all over the world — all of it in real time. You’ve heard about this program. You probably interact with it every day. You call it Gmail. […]

What spooked EPIC even more: Google was not simply scanning people’s emails for advertising keywords but had developed underlying technology to compile sophisticated dossiers of everyone who came through its email system. All communication was subject to deep linguistic analysis; conversations were parsed for keywords, meaning, and even tone; individuals were matched to real identities using contact information stored in a user’s Gmail address book; attached documents were scraped for intel — that info was then cross-referenced with previous email interactions and combined with stuff gleaned from other Google services, as well as third-party sources…

Here’s are some of the things that Google would use to construct its profiles, gleaned from two patents company filed prior to launching its Gmail service:

  • Concepts and topics discussed in email, as well as email attachments
  • The content of websites that users have visited
  • Demographic information — including income, sex, race, marital status
  • Geographic information
  • Psychographic information — personality type, values, attitudes, interests, and lifestyle interests
  • Previous searches users have made
  • Information about documents a user viewed and or edited by the users
  • Browsing activity
  • Previous purchases

To EPIC, Google’s interception and use of such detailed personal information was clearly a violation of California law, and the organization called on California’s Attorney General who promised to investigate Google’s Gmail service. The Attorney General promised to look into the matter, but nothing much happened. […]

Google isn’t a traditional Internet service company. It isn’t even an advertising company. Google is a whole new type of beast: a global advertising-intelligence company that tries to funnel as much user activity in the real and online world through its services in order to track, analyze, and profile us: It tracks as much of our daily lives as possible — who we are, what we do, what we like, where we go, who we talk to, what we think about, what we’re interested in. All those things are seized, packaged, commodified, and sold on the market — at this point, most of the business comes from matching the right ad to the right eyeballs. But who knows how the massive database Google’s compiling on all of us will be used in the future? […]

Google has aggressively fought the lawsuit. It first convinced a judge to put it under seal — which redacted most of the complaint and made it unavailable to public scrutiny — and then made a series of disingenuous arguments in an attempt to get the get the lawsuit preemptively dismissed. Google’s attorneys didn’t dispute its for-profit surveillance activities. What they claimed was that intercepting and analyzing electronic communication, and using that information to build sophisticated psychological profiles, was no different than scanning emails for viruses or spam. And then they made a stunning admission, arguing that, as far as Google saw it, people who used Internet services for communication had “no legitimate expectation of privacy” — and thus anyone who emailed with Gmail users had given “implied consent” for Google to intercept and analyze their email exchange. […]

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to comment on or analyze the contents of the class action lawsuit filed against Google, as the company redacted just about all of it. One thing is clear: the complaint goes beyond simple wiretapping and brings into question an even bigger concern: Who owns the digital personal information about our lives — our thoughts, ideas, interactions, personal secrets, preferences, desires and hopes? And can all these things be seized bit by bit, analyzed, packaged, commodified and then bought and sold on the market like any other good? Can Google do that? What rights do we have over our inner lives?

It’s scary and crazy. Especially when you think of kids born today: Their entire lives will be digitally surveilled, recorded, analyzed, stored somewhere, and then passed around from company to company. What happens to that information? […]

Which brings me to Silicon Valley’s “Reform Government Surveillance” project.

The fact that the biggest, most data-hungry companies in Silicon Valley joined up in a cynical effort to shift attention away from their own for-profit surveillance operations and blame it all on big bad government is to be expected. What’s surprising is just how many supposed journalists and so-called privacy advocates fell for it.