01 Feb

Death, Taxes, and Data: A Memorial to the Throne

I was asked to write about the consolidation of power online. After a number of months researching and learning about the complex forces and systems at work. I wrote a technical paper about Google, Facebook, and Amazon. The paper outlined how their scale, and ability to make unilateral decisions, have reshaped our world. I felt there was something missing from my technical approach. So, instead of submitting that paper, I sent this one.

It tells two stories from my life as an artist. These stories are not about the artistic product I create but instead concern how I have been affected by the world. A world none of us asked to be born into, and that we try to look in the eye regardless. Both orbit the problems of consolidated power. The first centers around my band getting caught up in the paradox of independent thought and actions within an interdependent society, and how it put me in the hospital; the second explores how it feels when monopolies are allowed to facilitate different forms of justice. These stories are true, but I think it’s important for me to let you know that the more I learn, the more questions I have, so I don’t believe everything I think.

My band tours in a van because it is one of the only productive activities left for independent artists, especially those who refuse to willingly let their work be used to strengthen brands that knowingly destroyed musicians’ ability to be self-sufficient. Brands like Spotify, YouTube, Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

I know that the creative class can’t totally avoid capitalism’s hunger to control them. For me and my band, though, hopeless situations are themselves great reasons to try. Touring in a van has its own pitfalls. I know that the systems in our van were made by engineers I’ll never meet: architects who themselves were not privy to the consequences of their individual solutions to the menu of problems presented to them. I know it can be dangerous for people to use tools and live within architectures that were designed in this way. To me, it looks like capitalism is successful in part because it separates benefit from harm, and by doing so, can credit itself for the good stuff and blame other ideologies for the bad stuff.

In the case of our van, capitalism was checked by representative government when Ralph Nader led a successful legislative charge that created federal safety standards. This forced car manufacturers to stop profiting from deadly design solutions their engineers had gone with to serve the bottom line. It also forced them to stop their ad campaigns that falsely propagandized the idea that all automobile-related deaths were the fault of drivers alone. Up to the point of regulations, loss of human life had not been accounted for by the profit motive. The market did not self-regulate because some of the profit could be used for ads that displaced the harm from the profiteers to the consumers through misinformation.

Profit is the universal altar that kings of industry kneel to. Ultimately, that’s why touring in a van is what’s left for bands like mine who won’t bow to the tech giants. Their religion is so powerful that it’s blasphemous to not have our music on YouTube or Spotify even though these platforms don’t allow artists any choice over how anything is priced, what brands and advertisers they are associated with, or how their art is presented. So, in our van, I sometimes think about how interesting it is that the most physically dangerous work is always what kings delegate away from their own bodies. And I think about how there are so few democratically run corporations, and to most voting Americans, that sounds like a silly idea. In the business world, it’s all about kings. Who knows? For my part, I don’t even understand how power steering works.

We trust our lives to our van because of the complicated interplay between the motivations of corporations and the motivations of regulators. That is, when they each do their jobs. We have become dependent on our van. However, I know vans only work on roads, and I know regulators often fail at their jobs. More and more, I’ve been thinking that a firm definition of freedom, denies it. I’ve come to understand that all systems have built in limits and affordances. In this way, a van is an example of freedom defined. Whether the system is a van, a nation, or a digital platform, freedom gets caught between the designed limits and affordances of the system. If one’s interests are written into the system parameters, it can feel totally free. It never is though. Some systems include within them the ability for collectives to decide to make changes to their limits and affordances, and some do not.

It either happened too fast for my mind to catalogue, or the steering wheel took the data from me. I don't remember hitting my head. I recall the hours leading up to that moment, and the hours after. We had arrived in Seattle with enough cash to almost make it home the next day. I remember talking the guy who booked the show into paying us just over half of what we were promised. I didn't want to strain a relationship, so it was enough. While on our way to where we were going to crash that night, the light turned green and I had started to pull through when the steering wheel got too close and snatched the moment from my mind. The next thought I have access to is of pulling towards the curb. I was asking my band if they were okay. Everyone thought, and said they were. The van was making a ratcheting noise from the rear as I rolled it forward to park.

In the intersection by the mangled car, I didn't understand why people were telling me to sit down. All I was thinking about was making sure the person in the car that hit us was alive. Judging by how his car looked, someone needed help. The paramedics gave me some kind of tinfoil sheet to warm me so I’d stop shivering while the cops took my statement. I could tell they didn’t like my mohawk and leather jacket. They could probably tell I didn’t like their costumes either.

Enforced peace—the kind with visible guns and invisible laws—is the most common form of terrorism in America. I obey the invisible forces I don’t understand because they are backed by forces that I recognize, with my own eyes, as deadly.

I wonder if the list of systems and technologies that can destroy me will continue to grow throughout my lifetime. I may as well have used the tinfoil blanket the paramedics gave me as a hat.

I wanted someone to come with me in the ambulance but that wasn’t allowed. My band is not my biological family. My utopia wouldn’t order us by the things about ourselves we can’t control. It wouldn’t tell us the rules only after the game was mostly over. My utopia is rooted in powerlessness for all, for the sake of all. I wanted someone there with me because by this time I had seen the blood. First as warmth, then as darkness filling the left part of my field of vision, and finally, as red on my fingers. The steering wheel had opened me up. I thought about how the parts of the systems closest to us tend to do that, get inside, even if it rips the skin a little. Laying on the stretcher, my belief in my own agency played out in my mind; I had had my seatbelt on but I must have been too flexible, or maybe too weak to resist the force. For these same reasons, I think it was stupid of me to charge headlong into social media without understanding the power dynamics of centralized information technologies. In any case, my face was covered in blood and I couldn’t take care of myself at this point.

I had been deskilled by yet another technology I didn’t understand.

I won't bore you with the five hours in the hospital. To summarize, it was a professional and thorough experience; comfortingly impersonal. A set of best practices, practiced. By around 5:30am I emerged to the waiting area, all stitched up. My band was there, they looked exhausted. I had wisely avoided mirrors. We walked back to the van.

The wheel-well had been bent so far in from the impact that it was pressed against the left-rear tire. My AAA had expired and we didn't have money for a tow, much less a body shop visit, and some of us had to work in Portland later that day. I thought if we could find an auto parts store with a 5 ton jack I could make it work. We were quiet as we walked. It was late December and none of us were dressed right. I would guess that only two of us even owned the right clothes. My phone died along the way so we found a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop and waited for it to open. We got coffee and I charged my phone. We looked and felt homeless. It didn’t look or feel good. It wasn’t our fault, but explaining that would have either made us sound crazy or annoying. So we sat there feeling bad. It was fine being in the moment, it didn’t help anything though. We found an O'Reilly's and after waiting in the dark for awhile, they opened. They only had a 3 ton jack. The guy working there had the decency to not ask. The last of the band fund went to the jack. At the van, it quickly became clear that the two hour jack mission was for naught.

It was light out now. We had parked next to some condominiums that were under construction. A worker noticed us failing with the jack. He came to his side of the chainlink and offered us a huge pry-bar. We tried and tried with that. Eventually he offered us a sledgehammer. He had to be sly giving us the tools saying, "Just slide them back under the fence when you're done.” I guess helping us was some sort of risk to some sort of bottom line. Maybe his boss would think we were pulling an elaborate con to steal a pry-bar and a hammer, and to steal two minutes of contracted time.

I started in on the metal of the wheel-well with the hammer. I wanted to reshape its memory like the steering wheel had done to mine. I didn't think it would work but I threw myself into it fully. I had to. I wondered if consent was possible within a system so complex that understanding what you’re agreeing to would take a lifetime. I understand the dangers of driving. I don’t think most people fully grasp the power of metadata, the network effect, and other important aspects of a consolidated digital landscape. I daydreamed about getting out from under that kind of consent paradox through force of will. It was blindingly loud each time the hammer met the steel. I listened to the echo race through the city and back each time. I think cities are a type of echo chamber; over time, gently rewarding certain ways of being, desiring, and doing. And over time, attracting and retaining people who “naturally” behave in ways that match the design of the city. I wonder if party politics come from when it was just the two major echo chambers, cities and rural communities. Maybe not. My fear snapped me back to the task at hand before I could finish the thought. Hammer in hand, I was scared that the noise would wake the neighborhood. I worried they’d tell us to stop, or worse, call the cops who were sure to bring guns. I worried that my stitches would slice through my scalp from the strain of it all.

If I knew this kind of experience was a likely part of the life offered to musicians by the limits and affordances of this system, I might have conformed more. I’m thankful I didn’t know. I flexed my entire body with every impact, tensing my muscles to protect my bones from the shock. I thought of rational actors, I thought about progress, and about Mean Reversion—the concept that natural pendulums of mass opinion exist and are tethered to some distant point. I wondered where the point was. I thought of the absolute death of the shape of the thing between my goal and I.

I hit it as hard as I could. By 7:45am the hammer had worked. There was an inch and a half of clearance between the battered steel corner of the wheel-well and the tire. The metal gleamed with abuse. I saw the ripple of my trauma hit, and appear to dissipate. I wondered if that ripple also moved out from me in directions beyond my field of vision. I had contributed to the cycle. I had to. It got me what I wanted. I had feelings of pride and power. We got in the van and started the drive back to Portland. I saw my bandaged head in the rear-view mirror and felt lucky. We all made it to work. Now, years later, I’m not proud of my ingenuity or effort that morning. I don’t feel powerful. I feel a great fear of all kinds of steering wheels: in vans, in cities, and on platforms online.

I’ve been thinking about how important online search, social media, and e-commerce have become in our personal, political, and professional lives. I’ve been thinking about how quickly we’ve transitioned from a problem of censorship by information scarcity to the more complex problem of censorship by information glut. I’ve been wondering if the Network Effect (more users = more useful for each user) means the digital landscape will have natural monopolies. The thing I know for sure is that this monopoly effect is powerful.

My first experience with a monopoly power was when I was arrested at age 13. As a police officer, he was granted power over me by The United States of America. I remember going through the motions with him. His hands were huge compared to mine. They pressed and rolled each of my fingers in ink. I was polite to him because of the invisible force of monopoly he embodied. And as always, the gun.

The cop drove me to a juvenile detention center where he placed me in an 8x10 foot cement room for a period of two weeks. I hadn’t been read my rights. I had not talked to a lawyer. I didn’t know to ask for one. I wasn’t allowed to leave solitary confinement except to shower in the morning and for a 20 minute lunch each day. One day I got to play chess with one of the guards during lunch. I beat him and he walked me back to my cell.

In our American system, a cop is the government’s version of a Facebook algorithm. Doing the dirty work. Perpetuating the problem they claim to solve, while simultaneously serving as a shield from blame for the platform. Protecting the architects and administrators who foolishly painted themselves into a paradoxical corner, and claim to have a fair method of governing the free. The problem with police and with algorithms is largely the same, in a word, accountability. Although they break them, at least the state made promises of its intent. These promises had to do with keeping us alive, letting us be free, and allowing us a chaste kind of happiness. The only binding promise that Google, Facebook, and Amazon have made to us is that they will make a ton of money for themselves.

I was scared and lonely the entire time I was locked up. I don’t think I ever shook that feeling completely. In my cell, I wondered how long it would be. A day? 20 years? I now wonder what percentage of users understand the terms of service agreements they signed with Google, Facebook, and Amazon. They told me I had a choice: I could attend classes at the facility during the day (I was much younger than the other teens and terrified of them) or stay in solitary. This is the kind of choice that monopolies offer us. I’ve seen the smartest people I know make this false choice online over the last decade: journalists, musicians, activists, authors, and politicians. Each one is given the choice to either reinforce the monopolies or be isolated and destroyed by them. Profit-based corporations now own the largest and most impactful public spaces in human history. The algorithms, policy decisions, and enforcement tactics digital platforms choose to use are deployed unilaterally and are opaque. I can’t think of a time when entities of consolidated power were allowed to operate secretly and it resulted in good things for the public.

On these platforms, users must give the kings who own them whatever they ask for to gain access to the dominant public spaces of the 21st century. These corporations also sell greater access and exposure to the highest bidder. They can and do decide what voices are heard and what voices are hidden by designing algorithms which order what we see based on what will make the most profit. The information feeding these algorithms include your: gender, age, race, sexual orientation, family, political views, credit reports (which Facebook regularly buys so they know where you spend money offline) how long you hover over certain articles, where you walk or drive with your phone, where else you go online, (Facebook Pixel and Google do this by paying independent websites to let them track you even when you’re not on their sites) and many other pieces of data, known and unknown to the public, about what makes you tick. Each of these data-sets can be triangulated with the information of all other Facebook users to create a comprehensive overview of the 2.07 billion monthly active Facebook users. Google’s scale is even larger, processing 3.5 billion searches per day. In 2015, Robert Epstein reported via Politico Magazine that:“Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated” and,

“Given that many elections are won by small margins, this gives Google the power, right now, to flip upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide.”

I asked if I could have my parents send me workbooks since I wasn’t going to the classes. That was allowed, and I got them, but the workbooks were useless because I wasn’t allowed to have pens or pencils. This rule had to do with the first promise the state made: life. More than once, I thought about suicide. It was good I didn’t have pens or pencils. The more decisions the state made for me, the more sense their decisions made to me. I keep seeing important social movements depend almost totally on profit based online platforms. I see these movements struggling to achieve long-term systemic change. It looks to me like platforms are designed to grow one set of organizational muscles, while atrophying others. I see dysfunctional bodies in the aftermath. Infighting galore. I see a population wrecked with unprecedented levels of distrust and hate. I see the paralyzation of the compassionate. I see meticulous records of every disagreement. I see a somehow irresistible wasteland.

A week into solitary, I finally saw a lawyer, and my parents. The lawyer said that I should not have been locked up. However, after the meeting I was taken right back to my cell.

In George Orwell’s 1984, he warned of oppression by threat of our bodies. I understand why over the last ten years people have welcomed online monopolies. Especially in the face of governments that sometimes, and very much more so depending on your birth, resemble Orwell’s vision.

I understand because I felt that power over my own body when they threw it into a cement box. Power like this leaves a vacuum when it goes. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, he warned us of another method. Rather than our bodies, Huxley painted a world of oppression by seduction of our minds.

Neither author predicted that these forms of authoritarianism would exist at the same time. This is the case today.

I’m worried about both and hope the problems aren’t diminished to a choice between the two. Looking into the next decade, I wonder if we’ll be voting from our smartphones. I think “Maybe, but we’ll probably never get to vote on the decisions Google makes for us.” and then I wonder “What’s after that? Instead of voting from our phones, will our data simply vote for us?” We can’t “Like” or “Comment” on how Facebook chooses to order what we see and don't see. The conversations we’re having because of the connections the internet affords us are important and long overdue. I’m for digital progress. I hope that we are able to rise against old forms of tyranny by using the internet. I hope we are not charging into a new, more cunning trap.

I do not think the online tools which have become crucial parts of our democratic process can rightfully be owned by a few capitalist monopolies. Especially for the pitiful, monolithic, and inadequate goal of creating profit for those few. In this moment, they are. When it is profitable for Facebook to try to smother important social movements, they do. When it is profitable for Google to host, or administer ads, on websites that steal property, they do. When it is profitable for Facebook to spread fake news, they do. When it is profitable for Amazon to hide books that are published by authors and publishers who challenge them, they do. When it is profitable for companies to lie, they do. When it is profitable for Google to buy influence in the White House, they do. When it is profitable for Amazon to destroy local economies, they do. When it is profitable for Facebook to censor minority groups in times of crisis, they do. When it is profitable for each of these companies to be based in the U.S. and route their money through other countries to avoid paying taxes, they do. When it is profitable for Facebook and Google to buy their competition, they do. When it is profitable for Amazon to physically and psychologically abuse workers, they do. When it is profitable for these companies to change our opinions and beliefs through manipulation of our psychological weaknesses, they do. When it is profitable for Facebook to disrupt our democratic process, they do. When it is profitable for these companies to create internal cultures of gender inequality and race inequality, they do. If it became profitable for these companies to control the way we think, what we want, and how we think we can get it, what do you think they would do? Do they already?

The whole thing was messed up, but I got out of that cell because the system that put me there had a level of transparency, accountability, and humanity within it. Tech monopolies do not have the same system level transparency, accountability, and humanity. The state had ended up bargaining with me and my lawyer on their second promise, liberty. I guess the last promise is up to me.

The increasingly consolidated nature of the internet reminds me of these two stories. They are each about the intended and unintended damage that consolidated power does to an individual. Making them too frightened to leave, and powerless inside. After weighing the risks of touring in a van against the risks of becoming ever more dependent on Google, Facebook, and the other platforms who monopolize or aim to monopolize their industries; my band and I decided to stick to touring in a van. We deleted our Facebook. We deleted our YouTube. We’re doing our own physical distribution so that our records don’t end up being sold on Amazon. We are not distributing our upcoming album through any digital streaming platforms. We know these decisions will put us in a nearly impossible position as a band.

Instead of trying to present a dishonest but algorithms-friendly version of ourselves to a few greedy tech giants, we’re spending our efforts writing songs, practicing them, and playing live. We have also spent time building our own website where we offer ad-free streaming and free downloads, and where we sell our records directly to those who want to buy them. We’ve also worked directly with the remaining independent record stores in our region that will carry our records. We have already gotten push-back from some venues who are worried that we won’t be able to promote our shows without these platforms. We refuse to feed online corporations who aim to use their cartel control of the internet to swallow up the physical world as well. Our hope is that something can be done to reshape the internet into a place where the profit motive is not the only force at work. Ideally, we as a society could see that the parts of the internet that are vulnerable to the monopoly effect are democratically important public spaces.

We can have the value of the internet without filtering it through the narrow vision of modern Robber Barons who own it now. For search, social media, and e-commerce, the winner take all economies our regulators have allowed to occur are toxic to our ability to self determine. They are toxic to our right to privacy. They are toxic to our economy. They are toxic to our society. They are not needed for the internet to work. Until we address the system level problems, we will remain at the beck and call of internet cartels. These kings will continue to do what kings have always done: divide and conquer us.

At this moment, the only potential allies we have who wield power over these kings are the legislative body of the United States of America. These are unlikely friends for me, I have reasons to distrust them. I can rise above those reasons in the interest of change for the better. One more good-faith act by an individual for the sake of a system.

It is time we demand accountability from those with power. It is time the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice address Facebook, Google, and Amazon seriously. It is time states start suing the federal government for negligence if they do not act. It is time voters start turning out for candidates who will fight for clearer data-rights.

We need a consumer protections bill for data. Consent cannot be given by someone that does not understand what they are agreeing to. It takes 8.5 hours to read the Terms of Service Agreement for the Amazon Kindle. We must demand that the underlying forces of the internet be reformed. Not out of revenge: out of hope. We can be the generation that cemented the internet as a place that functions in the interest of the people, who themselves, create the value of networks. Not a few elite.

The information technologies that the internet enables could offer the best shot that humanity has ever seen at a functional system of collective decision-making with privacy, accountability, and universal suffrage. So far, that chance is being wasted in order to help some wealthy folks stalk our every move so they can more easily sell us crap our data implies we want. Gross. As for my band, we are weakened by our choice to separate ourselves from the new authoritarians. So be it. What is the functional role of art in society if not to be canaries in the mine? We refuse to quietly and knowingly strengthen the position of those who would be our masters and destroyers. Especially when what they have offered us in return is convenience, flattery, confusion, and rot.

By Bim Ditson, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

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