Pluralistic: 26 Aug 2020

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Today's links

Surveillance Capitalism is just capitalism, plus surveillance (permalink)

You've probably heard Zuboff's excellent coinage "Surveillance Capitalism" and perhaps you've read the paper it was introduced in, or the book that it led to.

Today, I've published a response to that book, "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism."

I wrote "How to Destroy…" after reading Zuboff's book and realizing that while I shared her alarm about how Big Tech was exercising undue influence over us, I completely disagreed with her thesis about the source of that influence and what should be done about it.

Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism a "rogue capitalism," a system that has used machine learning to effectively control our minds and shape our behavior so that we can no longer serve as market actors whose purchase decisions promote good firms and products over bad ones.

Because of that, Big Tech has a permanent advantage, one that can't be addressed through traditional means like breakups or consent decrees, nor can it be analyzed through traditional privacy lenses.

But I think that's wrong. It's giving Big Tech far too much credit. I just don't buy the thesis that Big Tech used Big Data to create a mind-control ray to sell us fidget spinners, and that Cambridge Analytica hijacked it to make us all racists.

So I wrote "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism," a short book that delivers a different thesis: Big Tech is a monopoly problem. In fact, it's just a part of a wider monopoly problem that afflicts every sector of our global economy.

Accidentally and deliberately, monopolies create all kinds of malignant outcomes. If the company that has a monopoly on search starts serving wrong answers, people will believe them – not because of mind control, but because of dominance.

But monopolies have an even graver failure-mode: when a large, profitable industry collapses down to 4 or 5 companies, it's easy for those companies to agree on what they think policy should be.

And being monopolists, they have lots of spare cash to convert that agreement to actual policy. What's more, once an industry is monopolized, everyone qualified to understand and regulate it probably came from one of the dominant companies.

Think of how the "good" Obama FCC chairman was a former Comcast exec and the "bad" Trump FCC chair is a former Verizon lawyer.

There's a name for regulatory outcomes driven by collusion among monopolists whose regulators come from their own ranks.

We call them: "Conspiracies."

When social scientists investigate conspiracists, they find people whose beliefs are the result of real trauma (like losing a loved one to opiods) and real conspiracies (the Sackler family and other Big Pharma barons suborning their regulators).

The combination of real trauma and real conspiracies gives ALL conspiracies explanatory power. This is brilliantly documented in Anna Merlan's "Republic of Lies," one of the most important books on the rise of conspiratorial thinking I've read.

Surveillance Capitalism is a real, serious, urgent problem, but not because it accidentally led to a working mind-control ray and then turned it over to Nazis.

It's a problem because it is both emblematic of monopolies (which lead to corruption, AKA conspiracies) and because the vast, nonconsensual dossiers it compiles on us can be used to compromise and neutralize opposition to the status quo.

And Big Tech does exert control over us, but not with mind-control rays. Lock-in (and laws that support it) allows Big Tech to decide how we can use our devices, who can fix them, and when they must be thrown away.

Lock-in is an invitation to totalitarianism: the Chinese government observed the fact that Apple alone could decide which apps can run on Iphones, then ordered Apple to remove apps that allowed Chinese people privacy from the state.

I'm sure that the Uyghurs in concentration camps and the Falun Gong members having their organs harvested are relieved that Apple abetted their surveillance for reasons other than mere marketing.

This is the core of my critique, the reason I wrote this book: we should be suspicious of all corporate control over our lives, and should insist on nothing less than absolute technological self-determination.

The idea that "if you're not paying for the product, you're the product," suggests the simplistic solution of just charging for everything. But the reality is that in a monopoly, you're the product irrespective of whether you're paying.

We deserve to be more than products.

I am so grateful to Onezero for the incredible look-and-feel of my new book. It's a free read on their site, with a really fantastic new nav system that will help you pick up where you left off.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the spectacular artwork that Shira Inbar did for the book, and the tireless efforts of my editor, Brian Merchant, who championed it internally and is ultimately responsible for the brilliant package you see before you.

I'm also excited to note that this will be shortly coming out as a print book, doubtless just as beautiful as this digital edition.

I know it's a longread, but I hope you'll give it a try.

Big Tech needs a corrective, and that corrective – antimonopoly enforcement – is part of a global movement that addresses deep, systemic problems in every sector. This is a moment for us to seize, but we have to understand where the problem really lies.

It's blursday (permalink)

Time has become a meaningless concept but still your idiotic computer clock ticks on, insisting that today is a different day than yesterday.

There's an app for that.

Jk. There's actually a very short perl script for that, courtesy of JWZ, which will convert the fictitious date your computer stubbornly insists upon into the actual date.

For example, as I type these words, it is:

Tue Mar 178 12:09:22 PM PDT 2020

Here's that perl so you can fix your own computer's clock readout:

perl -e 'use Date::Parse; use POSIX; my @t = localtime; print strftime ("%a Mar ", @t) . int (1 + 0.5 + ((str2time (strftime ("%Y-%m-%d 3:00", @t)) – str2time ("2020-03-01 3:00")) /(606024))) . strftime (" %X %Z %Y\n", @t);'

(Image: Dennis van Zuijlekom, CC BY-SA)

Optimizing banana-geometry with machine learning (permalink)

For those of us who use work to cope with stress and anxiety with work, the plague months have been an oddly productive time.

For data scientist Ethan Rosenthal, it was an opportunity to optimize his banana-sandwich process.

Rosenthal's ideal peanut-butter and banana sandwich is calibrated to have precisely the same amount of banana in every mouthful.

Naturally, Rosenthal eschews obviously incorrect solutions to this like mashing the banana or cutting it into lengthwise, rectangular slices.

Rosenthal wants to figure out how to cut banana cross-sections and then arrange them such that they cover as much of the bread-slice as possible without overlapping ("maximizing the packing fraction"). And he used machine learning to do it.

The pretrained Mask-RCNN torchvision model (with a Resnet backbone) made it easy to detect and measure a banana and a slice of bread from a photo. Applying the scikit-image library allows him to calculate a "skeleton" for the banana that corresponds to its curvature.

A scipy-based least squares optimization fits a circle to the skeleton. From there, compute a "centroid" for the banana ("which corresponds to the center of mass of the banana mask if the banana mask were a 2D object") and create a reference angle for a radial transection.

Scikit-image's profile_line function allows for a radial orientation, the first step towards identifying the seed- and stem-ends of the banana.

Now that the model is oriented "angularly with respect to the center of the banana and radially in terms of the start and end of the banana along the radial line," he computes the angular start and end of the banana.

All that remains is to slice the banana into "evenly spaced angles and drawing a rectangular slice at each angle spacing." Adjust the resulting ellipses to account for the peel-thickness, convert to polygons, and you're in business.

Despite being a pretty simple rectangle, the bread still needs some computational work, but it's pretty simple (the key is using a python-based rotating calipers on the segmentation mask). Now you've got a clean bread-box and polygonal, ellipsoidal banana slices.

There's only one problem: fitting a bunch of arbitrary polygons into a box is NP -hard or maybe NP-complete – that is, the ideal solution is uncomputable (similar to the "traveling salesman" and "knapsack" problems).

Rosenthal's best-fit solution recursively applies nest2D and comes up with a good approximation of an optimal solution in finite time.

He's packaged the result in a command-line package called "nannernest" that takes a JPEG as its sole argument and spits out an optimal slice-and-arrange pattern for any given banana and bread-slice.

Just look at it.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago 1930 catalog of Fraternal Order gags and punishments

#15yrsago Oakland sheriffs detain people for carrying cameras

#5yrsago North Dakota cops can now use lobbyist-approved taser/pepper-spray drones

#5yrsago Illinois mayor appoints failed censor to town library board

#5yrsago Former mayor of SLC suing NSA for warrantless Olympic surveillance

#5yrsago Austin Grossman's CROOKED: the awful, cthulhoid truth about Richard Nixon <a "="" 87597377="""" href="></a>

#5yrsago IBM's lost, glorious fabric design <a href=" https:="" mepelman="" qtxg="" users="" visits="">

#5yrsago Health's unkillable urban legend: "You must drink 8 glasses of water/day"

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Waxy (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 506 words (53659 total).

Currently reading: Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

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