Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Big Brother Denialism

Both presidential campaigns got a lot of negative press this campaign season for the creepy Orwellian ways they were able to peer deep into the personal lives of millions of potential voters. The nerve centers of campaign HQs were sending volleys of synapses into the Great American Brainpan. I know, because my mind had been getting all jittery over the perpetual political horse race.

 Now, thank goodness, all is temporarily calm and bright in my own little corner of cyberspace. Blissfully gone are those days when I couldn't visit a web-page without the grinning face of Barack or the grimacing face of Mitt haunting my every click. Email spam folders are also blessedly bereft of those uncannily personal and overly-familiar missives from Michelle and Ann, Bo and Tagg, Cutter and Ax.

Now that the Spambot in-Chief of the Obama campaign is apparently out of a job, (or so he implies) he has written an op-ed for The New York Times to bitch about all the bad press his spy outfit has gotten. "I Am Not Big Brother!" shrills Ethan Roeder, who makes sure that we know that his job description is former data director for Obama for America. He comes not to spy upon you but to deny the spying ever happened in the first place -- even though he can't help admitting that yes, he spied. But it was for your own good. He is here to cover his ass set the record straight:

Reading what others muse about my profession is the opposite of my middle-school experience: people with only superficial information about me make a bunch of assumptions to fill in what’s missing and decide that I’m an all-knowing super-genius. (wahhhh.)
Sadly for me, this is a bunch of malarkey. You may chafe at how much the online world knows about you, but campaigns don’t know anything more about your online behavior than any retailer, news outlet or savvy blogger.
He doesn't know anything about you that corporate sleazeballs like Macy's or Amazon don't know, so that makes you fair game for political operatives, too. Ethan's middle school memories unfortunately do not include the time his mother chided him about the evils of going along with the crowd: "If everybody else in your class jumped off a cliff, Ethan, would you do it too?"

 Also, I was unaware that "savvy bloggers" were in the habit of hacking into people's private information. And here I thought only Anonymous and the FBI were doing it. Where do I sign up?

And anyway, cyberspying is all so harmless and mundane and kind of boring, as Ethan reassuringly purrs:
The explicit data includes e-mails and comments that users share directly. The implicit data comes from “click tracking,” which tells a campaign what buttons are getting pressed and how often. Combined, these two categories of data allow a campaign to put together an online experience that will resonate with as many people as possible, but also to customize the experience so that you are more likely to encounter content that’s relevant to you.
At times it might seem like sorcery to the recipient of a targeted e-mail, but it’s just a product of two simple factors: remembering who you are and remembering what you like.
I know who you are and I saw what you did. Big Brother follows you for your own good, to find out what you like. He wants to manufacture an online experience for you, whether you want one or not. It may seem like magic, but it's nothing more than technology run amok. As long as we are transparent about our methodology, says Ethan, you should just accept the loss of privacy. It's the new normal. Stop being such whiney purist civil libertarians. The Constitution is so yesterday.

The data the Obama people have gleaned on the lives of citizens is vaster than we ever could have imagined. Ethan soothingly reveals that
 In 2011 and 2012, the Obama campaign, with the help of more than two million volunteers, had more than 24 million conversations with voters. Online tools gave Obama supporters resources to help them play a crucial role in their neighborhoods, and a series of “share your story” pages on the campaign Web site provided a venue for voters to communicate directly with the campaign in long form.
 New technologies and an abundance of data may rattle the senses, but they are also bringing a fresh appreciation of the value of the individual to American politics.
What Ethan does not reveal in his op-ed is that his database is something of a pearl without price, but it may soon be for sale anyway at a very hefty price to the highest political or corporate bidder (s). The Democrats as well as their veal pen offshoots are not being shy about asking for it:

 From the candidates running in 2014 to the state Democratic parties to progressive advocacy groups, there is an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign afoot to pry from Obamaland its groundbreaking voter database. The data is rich with intricate layers of information about individuals’ voting habits, television viewing tastes, propensity to volunteer, car registration, passions, email address, cellphone numbers, and social media contacts. The historical trove enabled Obama to connect with voters on a highly personal level and get them not only to vote but to actively persuade their neighbors to do the same.

 Those decisions likely won’t be made until closer to the president’s inauguration next month. Among the prime options being discussed by president’s political hands: setting up an independent, not-for-profit entity, run by Obama aides, to manage and keep the electronic files updated so the contacts could be used to further the president’s agenda. Handing over the names to campaigns is not high on the list right now.
That's a relief. Now, when it comes time to slash "entitlements" (a/k/a paid-up retirement and old-age medical insurance policies as well as programs for our most vulnerable citizens) The President will morph into CyberSvengali and we will be mass-hypnotized into participating in our own destruction. Once that is accomplished, he may or may not bequeath his Master List to the next Masters and Mistresses waiting in the wings. Has he ever stopped to think that people forced to share the sacrifice with the plutocracy may no longer be able to even afford a computer or an internet connection, and the whole master list may be for naught?

Despite what Winston Smith thought to himself at the very end, Big Brother most assuredly does not love you. 



Fred Drumlevitch said...

Karen: great comment by you at the NYT on Krugman's Friday column. Krugman's column, your comment there, and your above post at Sardonicky are actually quite interrelated.

Yes, the politicians and their data-mining technocrats are watching us, but with our corporate mass media "free press" so ineffective (or so effectively bought off), we can't adequately watch the politicians. And just as capitalism fails under conditions of information asymmetry that favors the powerful, or sector dominance by a small number of players, so too does the democratic political process fail under analogous political conditions — that is, under a situation of many people fooled by disinformation, and effectively limited to a "choice" from the political duopoly that parcels up the voters like some kind of economic cartel would slice up the marketplace.

Remedies for those systemic problems should be high on the agenda of political activists. We must 1) end the information asymmetry, or better yet, change it to favor the people, and 2) end the two-party dominance and increase the competition in the political process.

But a fix of those two factors must NOT monopolize our attention. Without a strong focus on the fundamental problems that plague real people, and the necessary solutions, without "eyes on the prize", activists — and politicians — risk irrelevance, or even scorn in the eyes of the people. And it will be a scorn justly deserved, for their activism — or "leadership" — even if well-intensioned, will have been transformed into an academic-political exercise, cool and calculated and dissociated from any real empathy with the people. Bluntly put, it will be a willingness to engage in a "Grand Bargain" that ignores the true needs of the poor and the middle class, as Obama seems all too willing to strike with the Republicans and their mutual corporate backers.

Denis Neville said...

“Big Brother” aka “Big Data"

It's mind-boggling! Micro targeting every single digitally-active American consumer after uncovering every mundane fact in our lives - what we do, eat, drive, buy, read, watch, tweet, do online etc.

Verizon has filed a patent application for targeting ads to viewers based on information collected from infrared cameras and microphones that would be able to detect conversations, people, objects and even animals that are near a TV. If the TV detects that a couple is arguing, a service provider would send an ad for marriage counseling to the TV or any mobile phone in the room. If the TV detects that they are snuggling on the couch, ads for a romantic getaway vacation, contraceptives flowers, or romantic movies would be sent.

Coughing and choking on “data exhaust” from microtargeters aka data brokers.

The problem is that most people don't understand or care. We are a country of sheep ruled by wolves.

“There was a thing called Heaven; but all the same they used to drink enormous quantities of alcohol.

There was a thing called the soul and a thing called immortality.
But they used to take morphia and cocaine.

Two thousand pharmacologists and biochemists were subsidized in A.F. 178.

Six years later it was being produced commercially. The perfect drug.

Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.

All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.

Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology.

Stability was practically assured.”

― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Anonymous said...

Off on a bit of a tangent, I know, but.....

For Pearl harbor today, Turner Classic Movies showed one of the ten "Why We Fight" films directed by Frank Capra; propoganda served up to the troops before being shipped off to Europe or the South Pacific.

Interestingly, as I was watching the film-maker catalog all the evils that Mussolini, Hirohito, and Hitler had perpatrated on their peoples, one of them was that they had destroyed organized labor and outlawed union membership.

When was it, exactly, that we here in America started agreeing with Mussolini and Hitler? A revitalized labor movement is an urgent necessity.

James F Traynor said...


A good chunk of the upper classes were fans of Hitler and Mussolini. They got things done; Americans particularly liked this. They were very conscious of color, ethnic and other social boundaries; this the Brits, not to mention the American Southland, thought great. And the Germans really liked the ordnung. Hell, the German American Bund had a huge rally at Madison Square Garden. It's not that They're Back - they never went away. Some of the names have changed to Koch, Norquist etc., but the Mellons, Chaifes, Rockefellers and many others are still in the game and probably always will be.

Denis Neville said...

James F Traynor said…“they never went away…the names have changed…but they are still in the game”

They are no better than gangsters, scheming with each other for profit.

Bertolt Brecht explained the rise of Hitler in the capitalist world in “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” He shifted the setting from Germany to Chicago where a small-time racketeer, Arturo Ui, seized control of the cauliflower trade.

Brecht’s famous final line warning was that, even if Hitler is dead, "the bitch that bore him is in heat again."

4Runner said...

Let's see if I can make this somewhat relevant. Art Basel is happening this week here in Miami & Beach. It's an absurd assemblage of stuff deemed to be art--some of it not too bad. The nouveaux riches have swarmed into town, their pearly-white megayachts crammed into our harbor. Pearly Harbor? Really, I've never seen so many shiny & sleek vessels. We rode our humble bikes down town to dockside--actually, for us proles Miami has been installing some decent bike lanes. For a bit of diversion from all the 1984-ish gloom, check out the site and their topical slide show.

Kat said...

It was nauseating after the election that they were speaking of some sort of new coalition. A huge data mining operation with a carefully tailored message to each individual voter does not a coalition make.
That Verizon patent is mind boggling and it seems incredible that anyone would allow such a thing in their home. At this point I would believe that nobody would, but we have become accustomed to having our privacy chipped away at and who knows? It could very well start to seem entirely normal to many people.
Ethan Roeder's "little ol' me?" act is just too much. My guess is in different company he is quite willing to talk up the power of his operation.
BTW-- enjoying the guest posts! (maybe "enjoy" isn't quite the word to use when reading about greenwashing by the armed forces.)