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McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Issue 54: The End of Trust
published by McSweeney’s
McSweeney’s first fully non-fiction issue had the Electronic Frontier Foundation as an advisor, and is so full of great writing that I ran out of sticky tabs.
Are you interested in surveillance capitalism and how we are going to survive it? McSweeney’s Issue 54 is for you! While it was published in 2018, it remains completely topical.
At the time I’m writing this, active dis- and misinformation campaigns from a variety of sources are hoping to influence the public in multiple countries to change their votes or behaviors with “stories” about the elections, the global pandemic, civil rights, race relations, protest voting, and other topics. These campaigns are using technology to inexpensively spread their messages, often through unwitting social media consumers, if not through individuals easily converted to new causes online. Meanwhile, a major social media platform is being criticized for secretly changing its algorithms to favor right-wing figureheads have been chummy with the company’s CEO. The manipulation had measurable, real financial impacts on sidelined news organizations, though the changes were hotly denied at the time. (You can read more here in Clara Jeffries’ Twitter Thread on this topic , which has some great links to other resources on this story.) There is no obvious path in this development to hold this platform accountable for its actions, or to keep it from giving resources to bad actors to spread misinformation.
There are companies using technology you enjoy to change your behavior, and the strange discomfort you feel about what you’ve shared with them (and their business partners, seen and unseen) is based on real concerns.
Issue 54 isn’t a compilation of the single-breach/oversight articles you’ve already read. This thoughtful collection of essays spans the technical AND the philosophical: the embrace of daily life surveillance by both “free” capitalist societies AND repressive regimes; the way data is used to maintain existing power structures, so majority communities tolerate surveillance at the expense of law-abiding minorities whose efforts for social justice are violently repressed; how individuals receiving any social services are forced to give up data about their families that the wealthy can keep to themselves; and what could happen if we reframe privacy from an individual choice to a community-wide asset, whether information is demanded by government authorities or corporate entities selling our data for profit.
This collection is SO THOUGHTFUL. In a world where people are programming their own biases into AI, it’s also quite urgent. I recommend this collection with great enthusiasm – and concern about where we think we’re going, versus where we actually seem to be going.
I sometimes think I expect too much. I’m reading McSweeney’s 54: The End of Trust, and thinking of my early (early 1990s) ideals around the Internet and personal computing, which were both evolving so rapidly.
Confession: I thought that everyone I knew would be doing AMAZING THINGS with this technology, especially once software and hardware evolved for key activities like music composition, video editing, digital painting, and more. I was certain that everyone I knew had a hidden composer/filmmaker/author/artist in them just WAITING to get out.
But… it’s 2020, and most people I know use this truly amazing content creation/sharing infrastructure to: post photos of their (purchased meals), post photos of themself drunk, make their children self-conscious by “sharenting” (oversharing as parents), repost unreliable information found on unreliable source pages of dubious origin, or watch (and repost) cat videos.
*me staring at the reader with alarmed expression*
Yes, there is some nice citizen science stuff, and the libraries are doing a great job, but I EXPECTED that.
No, really, I didn’t expect [gestures toward the screen] this. I thought tech would revolutionize education and communication and film and science in ways that… HAVE NOT HAPPENED. I did not anticipate “social media” where people talk about themselves endlessly, and misrepresent how they look and live to their “friends.” I was not cynical enough to envision paid “influencers” peddling products. I would not have anticipated the web being used to hype imaginary events like the Fyre Festival. I did not think so many people had an inner scam compulsion and/or marketing ambition and/or cat obsession to resolve.
I… feel like such a wacky optimist.
ANYWAY, the End of Trust is really good, and I can tell because I am using up tape flags over things I want to dwell on further. It’s a great sign. I’ll write about it, of course.