Pluralistic: Twinkfrump Linkdump (13 Apr 2024)

Originally published at: Pluralistic: Twinkfrump Linkdump (13 Apr 2024) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

Today's links

A bowl of goulash.

Twinkfrump Linkdump (permalink)

Welcome to the seventeenth Pluralistic linkdump, a collection of all the miscellany that didn't make it into the week's newsletter, cunningly wrought together in a single edition that ranges from the first ISP to AI nonsense to labor organizing victories to the obituary of a brilliant scientist you should know a lot more about! Here's the other 16 dumps:

If you're reading this (and you are!), it was delivered to you by an internet service provider. Today, the ISP industry is calcified, controlled by a handful of telcos and cable companies. But the idea of an "ISP" didn't come out of a giant telecommunications firm – it was created, in living memory, by excellent nerds who are still around.

Depending on how you reckon, The Little Garden was either the first or the second ISP in America. It was named after a Palo Alto Chinese restaurant frequented by its founders. To get a sense of that founding, read these excellent recollections by Tom Jennings, whose contributions include the seminal zine Homocore, the seminal networking protocol Fidonet, and the seminal third-part PC ROM, whence came Dell, Gateway, Compaq, and every other "PC clone" company.

The first installment describes how an informal co-op to network a few friends turned into a business almost by accident, with thousands of dollars flowing in and out of Jennings' bank account:

And it describes how that ISP set a standard for neutrality, boldly declaring that "TLGnet exercises no control whatsoever over the content of the information." They introduced an idea of radical transparency, documenting their router configurations and other technical details and making them available to the public. They hired unskilled punk and queer kids from their communities and trained them to operate the network equipment they'd invented, customized or improvised.

In part two, Jennings talks about the evolution of TLG's radical business-plan: to offer unrestricted service, encouraging their customers to resell that service to people in their communities, having no lock-in, unbundling extra services including installation charges – the whole anti-enshittification enchilada:

I love Jennings and his work. I even gave him a little cameo in Picks and Shovels, the third Martin Hench novel, which will be out next winter. He's as lyrical a writer about technology as you could ask for, and he's also a brilliant engineer and thinker.

The Little Garden's founders and early power-users have all fleshed out Jennings' account of the birth of ISPs. Writing on his blog, David "DSHR" Rosenthal rounds up other histories from the likes of EFF co-founder John Gilmore and Tim Pozar:

Rosenthal describes some of the more exotic shenanigans TLG got up to in order to do end-runs around the Bell system's onerous policies, hacking in the purest sense of the word, for example, by daisy-chaining together modems in regions with free local calling and then making "permanent local calls," with the modems staying online 24/7.

Enshittification came to the ISP business early and hit it hard. The cartel that controls your access to the internet today is a billion light-years away from the principled technologists who invented the industry with an ethos of care, access and fairness. Today's ISPs are bitterly opposed to Net Neutrality, the straightforward proposition that if you request some data, your ISP should send it to you as quickly and reliably as it can.

Instead, ISPs want to offer "slow-lanes" where they will relegate the whole internet, except for those companies that bribe the ISP to be delivered at normal speed. ISPs have a laughably transparent way of describing this: they say that they're allowing services to pay for "fast lanes" with priority access. This is the same as the giant grocery store that charges you extra unless you surrender your privacy with a "loyalty card" – and then says that they're offering a "discount" for loyal customers, rather than charging a premium to customers who don't want to be spied on.

The American business lobby loves this arrangement, and hates Net Neutrality. Having monopolized every sector of our economy, they are extremely fond of "winner take all" dynamics, and that's what a non-neutral ISP delivers: the biggest services with the deepest pockets get the most reliable delivery, which means that smaller services don't just have to be better than the big guys, they also have to be able to outbid them for "priority carriage."

If everything you get from your ISP is slow and janky, except for the dominant services, then the dominant services can skimp on quality and pocket the difference. That's the goal of every monopolist – not just to be too big to fail, but also too big to care.

Under the Trump administration, FCC chair Ajit Pai dismantled the Net Neutrality rule, colluding with American big business to rig the process. They accepted millions of obviously fake anti-Net Neutrality comments (one million identical comments from addresses, comments from dead people, comments from sitting US Senators who support Net Neutrality) and declared open season on American internet users:

Now, Biden's FCC is set to reinstate Net Neutrality – but with a "compromise" that will make mobile internet (which nearly all of use sometimes, and the poorest of us are reliant on) a swamp of anticompetitive practices:

Under the proposed rule, mobile carriers will be able to put traffic to and from apps in the slow lane, and then extort bribes from preferred apps for normal speed and delivery. They'll rely on parts of the 5G standard to pull off this trick.

The ISP cartel and the FCC insist that this is fine because web traffic won't be degraded, but of course, every service is hellbent on pushing you into using apps instead of the web. That's because the web is an open platform, which means you can install ad- and privacy-blockers. More than half of web users have installed a blocker, making it the largest boycott in human history:

But reverse-engineering and modding an app is a legal minefield. Just removing the encryption from an app can trigger criminal penalties under Section 1201 of the DMCA, carrying a five-year prison sentence and a $500k fine. An app is just a web-page skinned in enough IP that it's a felony to mod it.

Apps are enshittification's vanguard, and the fact that the FCC has found a way to make them even worse is perversely impressive. They're voting on this on April 25, and they have until April 24 to fix this. They should. They really should:

In a just world, cheating ripoff ISPs would the top tech policy story. The operational practices of ISPs effect every single one us. We literally can't talk about tech policy without ISPs in the middle. But Net Neutrality is an also-ran in tech policy discourse, while AI – ugh ugh ugh – is the thing none of us can shut up about.

This, despite the fact that the most consequential AI applications sum up to serving as a kind of moral crumple-zone for shitty business practices. The point of AI isn't to replace customer service and other low-paid workers who have taken to demanding higher wages and better conditions – it's to fire those workers and replace them with chatbots that can't do their jobs. An AI salesdroid can't sell your boss a bot that can replace you, but they don't need to. They only have to convince your boss that the bot can do your job, even if it can't.

SF writer Karl Schroeder is one of the rare sf practitioners who grapples seriously with the future, a "strategic foresight" guy who somehow skirts the bullshit that is the field's hallmark:

Writing on his blog, Schroeder describes the AI debates roiling the Association of Professional Futurists, and how it's sucking him into being an unwilling participant in the AI hype cycle:

Schroeder's piece is a thoughtful meditation on the relationship of SF's thought-experiments and parables about AI to the promises of AI hucksters, who promise that a) "general artificial intelligence" is just around the corner and that b) it will be worth trillions of dollars.

Schroeder – like other sf writers including Ted Chiang and Charlie Stross (and me) – comes to the conclusion that AI panic isn't about AI, it's about power. The artificial life-form devouring the planet and murdering our species is the limited liability corporation, and its substrate isn't silicon, it's us, human bodies:

What’s lying underneath all our anxieties about AGI is an anxiety that has nothing to do with Artificial Intelligence. Instead, it’s a manifestation of our growing awareness that our world is being stolen from under us. Last year’s estimate put the amount of wealth currently being transferred from the people who made it to an idle billionaire class at $5.2 trillion. Artificial General Intelligence whose environment is the server farms and sweatshops of this class is frightening only because of its capacity to accelerate this greatest of all heists.

After all, the business-case for AI is so very thin that the industry can only survive on a torrent of hype and nonsense – like claims that Amazon's "Grab and Go" stores used "AI" to monitor shoppers and automatically bill them for their purchases. In reality, the stores used thousands of low-paid Indian workers to monitor cameras and manually charge your card. This happens so often that Indian technologists joke that "AI" stands for "absent Indians":

Isn't it funny how all the really promising AI applications are in domains that most of us aren't qualified to assess? Like the claim that Google's AI was producing millions of novel materials that will shortly revolutionize all forms of production, from construction to electronics to medical implants:

That's what Google's press-release claimed, anyway. But when two groups of experts actually pulled a representative sample of these "new materials" from the Deep Mind database, they found that none of these materials qualified as "credible, useful and novel":

Writing about the researchers' findings for 404 Media, Jason Koebler cites Berkeley researchers who concluded that "no new materials have been discovered":

The researchers say that AI data-mining for new materials is promising, but falls well short of Google's claim to be so transformative that it constitutes the "equivalent to nearly 800 years’ worth of knowledge" and "an order-of-magnitude expansion in stable materials known to humanity."

AI hype keeps the bubble inflating, and for so long as it keeps blowing up, all those investors who've sunk their money into AI can tell themselves that they're rich. This is the essence of "a bezzle": "The magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it":

Among the best debezzlers of AI are the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy's Arvind Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor, who edit the "AI Snake Oil" blog. Now, they've sold a book with the same title:

Obviously, books move a lot more slowly than blogs, and so Narayanan and Kapoor say their book will focus on the timeless elements of identifying and understanding AI snake oil:

In the book, we explain the crucial differences between types of AI, why people, companies, and governments are falling for AI snake oil, why AI can’t fix social media, and why we should be far more worried about what people will do with AI than about anything AI will do on its own. While generative AI is what drives press, predictive AI used in criminal justice, finance, healthcare, and other domains remains far more consequential in people’s lives. We discuss in depth how predictive AI can go wrong. We also warn of the dangers of a world where AI continues to be controlled by largely unaccountable big tech companies.

The book's out in September and it's up for pre-order now:

One of the weirder and worst side-effects of the AI hype bubble is that it has revived the belief that it's somehow possible for giant platforms to monitor all their users' speech and remove "harmful" speech. We've tried this for years, and when humans do it, it always ends with disfavored groups being censored, while dedicated trolls, harassers and monsters evade punishment:

AI hype has led policy-makers to believe that we can deputize online services to spy on all their customers and block the bad ones without falling into this trap. Canada is on the verge of adopting Bill C-63, a "harmful content" regulation modeled on examples from the UK and Australia.

Writing on his blog, Canadian lawyer/activist/journalist Dimitri Lascaris describes the dire speech implications for C-63:

It's an excellent legal breakdown of the bill's provisions, but also a excellent analysis of how those provisions are likely to play out in the lives of Canadians, especially those advocating against genocide and taking other positions the that oppose the agenda of the government of the day.

Even if you like the Trudeau government and its policies, these powers will accrue to every Canadian government, including the presumptive (and inevitably, totally unhinged) near-future Conservative majority government of Pierre Poilievre.

It's been ten years since Martin Gilens and Benjamin I Page published their paper that concluded that governments make policies that are popular among elites, no matter how unpopular they are among the public:

Now, this is obviously depressing, but when you see it in action, it's kind of wild. The Biden administration has declared war on junk fees, from "resort fees" charged by hotels to the dozens of line-items added to your plane ticket, rental car, or even your rent check. In response, Republican politicians are climbing to their rear haunches and, using their actual human mouths, defending junk fees:

Congressional Republicans are hell-bent on destroying the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau's $8 cap on credit-card late-fees. Trump's presumptive running-mate Tim Scott is making this a campaign plank: "Vote for me and I will protect your credit-card company's right to screw you on fees!" He boasts about the lobbyists who asked him to take this position: champions of the public interest from the Consumer Bankers Association to the US Chamber of Commerce.

Banks stand to lose $10b/year from this rule (which means Americans stand to gain $10b/year from this rule). What's more, Scott's attempt to kill the rule is doomed to fail – there's just no procedural way it will fly. As David Dayen writes, "Not only does this vote put Republicans on the spot over junk fees, it’s a doomed vote, completely initiated by their own possible VP nominee."

This is an hilarious own-goal, one that only brings attention to a largely ignored – but extremely good – aspect of the Biden administration. As Adam Green of Bold Progressives told Dayen, "What’s been missing is opponents smoking themselves out and raising the volume of this fight so the public knows who is on their side."

The CFPB is a major bright spot in the Biden administration's record. They're doing all kind of innovative things, like making it easy for you to figure out which bank will give you the best deal and then letting you transfer your account and all its associated data, records and payments with a single click:

And now, CFPB chair Rohit Chopra has given a speech laying out the agency's plan to outlaw data-brokers:

Yes, this is some good news! There is, in fact, good news in the world, bright spots amidst all the misery and terror. One of those bright spots? Labor.

Unions are back, baby. Not only do the vast majority of Americans favor unions, not only are new shops being unionized at rates not seen in generations, but also the largest unions are undergoing revolutions, with control being wrestled away from corrupt union bosses and given to the rank-and-file.

Many of us have heard about the high-profile victories to take back the UAW and Teamsters, but I hadn't heard about the internal struggles at the United Food and Commercial Workers, not until I read Hamilton Nolan's gripping account for In These Times:

Nolan profiles Faye Guenther, president of UFCW Local 3000 and her successful and effective fight to bring a militant spirit back to the union, which represents a million grocery workers. Nolan describes the fight as "every bit as dramatic as any episode of Game of Thrones," and he's not wrong. This is an inspiring tale of working people taking power away from scumbag monopoly bosses and sellout fatcat leaders – and, in so doing, creating a institution that gets better wages, better working conditions, and a better economy, by helping to block giant grocery mergers like Kroger/Albertsons.

I like to end these linkdumps on an up note, so it feels weird to be closing out with an obituary, but I'd argue that any celebration of the long life and many accomplishments of my friend and mentor Anne Innis Dagg is an "up note."

I last wrote about Anne in 2020, on the release of a documentary about her work, "The Woman Who Loved Giraffes":

As you might have guessed from the title of that doc, Anne was a biologist. She was the first woman scientist to do field-work on giraffes, and that work was so brilliant and fascinating that it kicked off the modern field of giraffology, which remains a woman-dominated specialty thanks to her tireless mentoring and support for the scientists that followed her.

Anne was also the world's most fearsome slayer of junk-science "evolutionary psychology," in which "scientists" invent unfalsifiable just-so stories that prove that some odious human characteristic is actually "natural" because it can be found somewhere in the animal kingdom (i.e., "Darling, please, it's not my fault that I'm fucking my grad students, it's the bonobos!").

Anne wrote a classic – and sadly out of print – book about this that I absolutely adore, not least for having one of the best titles I've ever encountered: "Love of Shopping" Is Not a Gene:

Anne was my advisor at the University of Waterloo, an institution that denied her tenure for fifty years, despite a brilliant academic career that rivaled that of her storied father, Harold Innis ("the thinking person's Marshall McLuhan"). The fact that Waterloo never recognized Anne is doubly shameful when you consider that she was awarded the Order of Canada:

Anne lived a brilliant live, struggling through adversity, never compromising on her principles, inspiring a vast number of students and colleagues. She lived to ninety one, and died earlier this month. Her ashes will be spread "on the breeding grounds of her beloved giraffes" in South Africa this summer:

(Image: Valeva1010, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago The Pinkertons’ plan for climate change: a mercenary army that guards one-percenters as the seas rise

#5yrsago Ford CEO: we “overestimated” self-driving cars

#5yrsago Talking Radicalized with John Scalzi in the LA Times

#5yrsago Illinois almost passed a bill that banned devices that record you without your consent — and then Big Tech stepped in

#1yrago Gig apps trap reverse centaurs in wage-stealing Skinner boxes

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Recent appearances (permalink)

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Latest books (permalink)

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Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025
  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Bill Budington, Gord Doctorow, Ryan Singel.

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

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