Digital Rights Archive Newsletter - Sixth edition
Much of the research currently being conducted into digital technology, online platforms, large language models, algorithms, and the like is devoted to documenting how these digital wonders are transforming our relationships with the things we take for granted. Daniel Cohen, in his consideration of what Spotify means for musicians, music and the wider society, notes that “The music I love isn’t necessarily the music I play most.” Music fans will appreciate the truth in his statement. The Cure’s Disintegration and The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen both mean the world to me, but their magisterial doom is so powerful as to be mood-altering: not for everyday consumption.
When CDs, cassettes and vinyl ruled the airways, this wasn’t a problem for musicians, who would get their share (fair or not) from the one-time purchase. Not so in Spotify’s streaming world, driven by advertising, micropayments based on individual listens and recommendation algorithms. As Cohen notes, this format transforms our relationship to music, creating algorithmic blandification that serves up the next average song the company predicts someone like you would be okay with hearing. If you’re not being streamed, you don’t exist.
Spotify is just one example of how tech companies are rewiring society around their own interests, whether it’s recommender algorithms that blandify music selection while impoverishing artists, or promoting a universal basic income to make up for the anticipated (hoped-for?) mass-unemployment to be caused by AI, as discussed here by Anton Jäeger and Daniel Z. Vargas. Or how data extraction is reworking and reinforcing neo-colonial relations between the Global North and the Global South, with Catriona Gray’s article offering a timely engagement developing and refining the idea of data colonialism as something more than just data extraction.
With this transformation comes the need to think through how we can respond. This month’s newsletter features a few people trying to work through exactly this challenge. Sheila Jasanoff thinks through the rights and IA question, while Maximilian Kasy argues for democratic control over AI, since such systems by definition creates winners and losers, and the choice of outcomes a system favours will be determined by those who control the (in a delightful turn of phrase) “means of prediction.”
Bonus points to Kasy for actually defining AI as “autonomous systems that maximize some notion of reward”. Given the speed at which AI has become a catchphrase, we should all be like Kasy and never use the term without first defining it.
In a video based on his article of the same name, Kean Birch also wonders what is to be done, in this case with firms – platforms – that, he argues, control the knowledge we need for markets to function. I don’t know if markets are dead, but his contention that these platforms are become markets does resonate with the recent Canadian debate over Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. Historically, Canadian cultural policy debates have taken place along a state vs markets axis: intervention to protect and promote Canadian culture, or let the market decide? But in its current iteration, cultural creation and dissemination is taking place within self-contained platforms. This change has moved the choice to being between whether the state or private companies/platforms should shape Canadian culture.
Writing in Jacobin, meanwhile, Leif Weatherby offers a novel use for large language models, as a culture – or more specifically, an ideology – machine. Large language models, like ideology, he argues, averages out experience and groups words together based on proximity, and in doing so reveals hegemony at work: the “dominant set of ideas” at play.
On the cultural side, this month we’re featuring work, from Joseph Vogl and Ivan Boldyrev, on how social media companies make money from online anger, and, from Ahmed Al-Rawi, Betty B.B. Ackah and Wendy H.K. Chun, on how context/medium – in this case Twitter – shapes public interactions, here considering nine Black Canadian politicians. It will likely surprise no one that the medium does not come off well, if we’re interested in productive public-policy interactions between citizens and politicians. Yet another transformation, and yet another thing to fix.
- Blayne Haggart
To Monopolise Our EarsDaniel Cohen | London Review of Books
TikTok has superseded Spotify in certain respects, namely the ability to make a song a hit, but it’s Spotify, more than any other platform, which has become synonymous with the experience of listening. Nobody signs up to a video streaming service like Netflix expecting to be able to watch whatever they want – you know that you’re paying for a limited selection. But the premise of Spotify is that you don’t need anything else. The idea of abandoning it might therefore seem tantamount to abandoning music itself.
Big Tech's Welfare DystopiaAnton Jäger, Daniel Z. Vargas | UnHerd
In the American tech sector, Jack Dorsey and Chris Hughes were far from alone in their enthusiasm. Over the preceding decade, financiers and entrepreneurs from across the industry had steadily come out in favour of UBI and cash transfers as the solution to social ills. On the Left and Right, the growing enthusiasm for cash transfers in the last 10 years signals not just a crisis of the old welfare state, but a crisis of politics as a type of human activity. Even in the tumultuous 2020s, it remains an open question how and when it will end.
The Political Economy of AI: Towards Democratic Control of the Means of PredictionMaximilian Kasy | Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality
This chapter discusses the regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) from the vantage point of political economy, based on the following premises: AI systems maximize a single, measurable objective; in society, different individuals have different objectives; AI systems generate winners and losers; society-level assessments of AI require trading off individual gains and losses; AI requires democratic control of algorithms, data, and computational infrastructure, to align algorithm objectives and social welfare.
Behind the Search Box: Google and the Global Internet IndustryShinJoung Yeo | University of Illinois Press
This book explores the political economy of the search engine industry against the backdrop of the relationship between information and capitalism’s developmental processes. Its critical analysis draws on in-depth discussions of essential issues like how the search engine evolved into a ubiquitous commercial service, its place in a global information business that is restructuring the information industry and our very social lives, who exactly designs and uses search technology, what kinds of workers labor behind the scenes, and the influence of geopolitics.
More than Extraction: Rethinking Data's Colonial Political EconomyCatriona Gray | International Political Sociology
The modality of data's power lies not in the extraction of value as such, but in the interaction of orders of knowledge with orders of value. This reordering both acts as a motor of further colonial epistemic violence and creates the conditions for a new apparatus of racialized dispossession. Giving examples from migration governance, this article sets out its targets, objects, and operations.
ChatGPT Is an Ideology MachineLeif Weatherby | Jacobin
When the camera was invented, we saw distant chunks of the world for the first time with our eyes. GPT systems show us parts of the world so close that they basically are our world, but in a strange, flattened form. As labor and capital conditions inevitably change, their connection to ideology is momentarily on display. GPT-4 was released in March, but OpenAI withheld all technical details as industrial secrets. The window will soon shut for us to keep peering with technical awareness into this tepid void. We should take advantage of it now.
Online Anger as CapitalJoseph Vogl, Ivan Boldyrev | Radboud Reflects
The growth of social media has provided ideal conditions for feelings of anger and frustration to be expressed and shared. Social media have become part of our economic and political system, they do not offer a product, but a platform for everyone’s opinions. This episode discusses how the capitalist system behind social media benefits from feeling resentment.
The Encroaching Machine: Reframing Rights in the Age of AISheila Jasanoff | UChicago Pozen Family Center for Human Rights
Recent developments in AI have unsettled expectations about the firmness of the line between human and nonhuman, emotion and intellect, and person and machine. In this talk, the speaker will draw on comparisons between biotechnology and AI to explore how technological change reconfigures our sense of human nature and with what implications for human rights and entitlements.
There Are No Markets Anymore: From Neoliberalism to Big TechKean Birch | Research Platform Governance of Digital Practices
Rather than simply monetizing personal information, Big Tech firms have gone far beyond the ‘surveillance’ fears of many critical thinkers. Today, however, Big Tech firms face challenges on different fronts: from politicians and policymakers developing new frameworks to curtail their power; and from the internal contradictions and dysfunctions in their own operations. Will markets come back, or is this their end?
The Intersectionality of Twitter Responses to Black Canadian PoliticiansAhmed Al-Rawi, Betty B. B. Ackah, Wendy H. K. Chun | Social Media + Society
Research has shown that Black politicians in the Global North contend with higher instances of abusive language on social media platforms. This study investigates how public interactions engage with the intersectional positionalities of nine Black Canadian politicians. The study collected all the replies to tweets posted by the politicians from 2006 to 2021. Results from the manual analysis showed that 56% of the tweets had a neutral tone, meaning that even if they contained abusive language, they did not directly address the politician. They were also not complimentary.