Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism – Jillian York

Amazon.com: Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance  Capitalism (9781788738804): York, Jillian C.: Books

Following closely in the footsteps of Rebecca Mackinnon and Shoshana Zuboff, Jillian York in her interesting, upcoming and provocative work, “Silicon Values”, distills the various anomalies involved in “content moderation” that is practiced (or abdicated) by the giants of technology such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Ms. York brings to bear her formidable experience with and exposure to content moderation and platform intricacies in alluding to various hits and misses that both distinguish and tarnish Big Tech. A writing style that is bereft of pretentiousness and hesitancy makes Silicon Values a riveting read.

Ms. York bemoans the fact that the most aspired for and valued attribute, in the form of freedom of speech is controlled and curbed by a handful of gargantuan personalities striding the very pinnacle of Big Tech and whose actions are influenced by and beholden to powerful political connections, financial prospects and influential lobbying. Tweets and posts of influential and award winning activists such as Wael Abbas, that not just expose, but also educate the people about police brutality and other abuses in Egypt, are thus take down by the social media sites after succumbing to intense ‘back room’ pressure exerted by either the concerned Government or people wielding power. These actions resorted to by the social media sites go against the very grain of freedom of expression, a fundamental right that has been recognised from time immemorial. As Ms. York educates her readers, isegoria, a concept that allowed all male citizens in Athens, to address the democratic assembly irrespective of the fact as to whether such citizens were rich or poor, was given total prominence. The only lacuna here being the disservice meted out to women.

Ms. York although chastising all the social media sites, reserves her ire for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The company has content moderation staff spread across three tiers. The staff at the lowest level, namely Tier 3, have a thankless task. They are forced to spend entire days viewing gruesome imagery and making instantaneous decisions to take down or leave in place a post. With a meagre paycheck totaling US$28,800 per annum and as pitiful as US$6 a day in India, these employees receive negligible to no training not to mention an absolute lack of mental health support. This has the unfortunate consequence of posts of import and gravity being mistakenly taken down.

In order to minimize such acts and to preserve the basic ethos of human rights across the globe, the Global Network Initiative (“GNI”) was incorporated. Yahoo!, along with Google and Microsoft were the founding members and a bevy of NGOs, academic institutions and shareholder groups joined the organisation. However, as Ms. York illustrates, a reliance on a multi-stakeholder model has rendered GNI, more or less, ineffective. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, then joined together to form the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (“GIFCT”). The objective of GIFCT was “disrupting terrorist abuse of members’ digital platforms.” Due to a deficiency in the definitions of the word terrorism etc, the work of GIFCT has also left a lot to be desired.

Ms. York also highlights other notable perils of the content moderation evil such as the takedown of posts by sex workers following the promulgations of the SESTA and FOSTA acts by the United States Government. Many of these sex workers who were reliant on their connections formed across the online network for information on client screening and other safety measures found themselves in the lurch. Another area of concern is technology assisted content moderation. Using tools of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Big Tech attempts content moderation, but sometimes with hilarious outcomes. Thus, the residents of the English town of Scunthorpe find their accounts taken down or even refused registration because the word lying between the alphabets S and h represents a common profanity. London’s Horniman Museum found its own spam filters blocking it since the filters perceived “Horniman” as akin to “horny man.” Another problem innate with content moderation is lack of expertise with regional languages/vernacular. Luganda the most widely spoken language in Uganda with more than 8 million users hardly finds content moderation experts, proficient to analyse acceptable and offensive posts.

Similarly, there seem to be divergent standards for allowing and rejecting “hate speech” and exhortations to violence. This is where Ms. York’s book is a huge let down. Her concentration seems to be so fixated only on the misdeeds and misguided philosophies of the extreme right, that a person who is unaware of her stellar credentials might be forgiven for believing her to be an integral part of a cabalistic left wing group. Whether it be waxing eloquent on the consequences of Brandenburg v Ohio decision, the misplaced rants of Donald Trump, or the “Hindutva” extremism in India, Ms. York seems to harbour an obtuse illusion that violence is the sole preserve of the right. Hence there is no reference to the merciless and systematic killing (and not just persecution) of the minorities in Pakistan, the planned elimination of right wing campaigners by the Left Government in the Indian state of West Bengal and a myriad other relevant scenarios.

On the whole, Silicon Values in an invigorating, insightful and incisive distillation of the surveillance imposed upon free speech by the bastion that is Big Tech in the digital world.

(“Silicon Values” will be released by Verso Books (US) on the 2nd of March 2021)

No Rules Rules: NETFLIX and the Culture of Reinvention – Reed Hastings & Erin Meyer

Amazon.com: No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention eBook:  Hastings, Reed, Meyer, Erin: Kindle Store

The co-founder and CEO of NETFLIX, Reed Hastings and acclaimed business author Erin Meyer blow open the lid on an unusual and unique workplace culture that permeates the DNA of one of the world’s most successful entertainment companies. After Ricardo Semler’s groundbreaking memoir “Maverick”, that more than merely raised eyebrows with its sensational disclosure of some not so conventional workplace practices at Semco Corporation, Brazil, “No Rules Rules” is perhaps the only other book of this kind in terms of impact and introspection. A finalist for the FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year 2020, “No Rules Rules” even though mostly an exercise in self-approbation, has candour written all over it.

Netflix houses more than 8,600 odd employees produces its own award winning original TV shows and entertains more than 150 million customers dispersed across 90 jurisdictions. In the year 2009, Patti McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix, McCord, along with Reed Hasting, revealed the Netflix Culture Deck which at the time set the cat amongst the pigeons in Silicon valley and beyond. Controversial in its hue and colour, the Netflix Culture Deck espoused many ideas and concepts on hiring and firing, employee freedom and workplace culture that were not just revolutionary but downright peculiar. In “No Rules Rules”, both Hastings and Meyer – in alternate sections – dwell more about the practices that have made what Netflix is today.

The philosophy articulated by Hastings is fundamental in its simplicity – hire the best available talent; pay them top of the market compensation; dismantle all controls and constraints such as vacation policies and approval processes; incorporate an ecosystem of unvarnished and forthright feedback and empower the superstar employees. Hence, “The Keeper Test.” Will a manager go the whole hog to retain an employee if the latter is an indispensable resource? If yes, then the organisation gets to keep the star performer. If the manager deems otherwise, then the concerned employee would be relieved and given a generous severance package. This policy ensures that at any given point in time, the organisation is brimming with “talent density.”

Netflix also has an “uncounted” vacation policy. This policy – which since its introduction by Netflix has found many other  adherents in Virgin Atlantic, Webcredible, and Mammoth, amongst others – simply means there are no limits to how many days an employee can go on vacation. “Leading by example”, Hastings himself sets off on vacations for at least five weeks, if not more, according to Meyer.

Another singularly unique policy is the extraordinary degree of freedom accorded to employees to make their own decisions, thereby making redundant the notion of hierarchies. Managers also have unfettered authority to make financial commitments within without approvals. The credo here being, “don’t seek to please your boss”, but do what is best for the company. Hastings leaves no stone unturned to inform his readers that he does not peddle the notion of “We are family”. A family is unlikely to either disown or fire anybody because the concerned individual is not fit for executing his/her responsibilities. More likely than not, someone will step up to make up for and hide the inadequacies of the delinquent individual. This notion is injurious for corporate culture. According to Hastings, a company ought to be viewed as a team having its sights on a championship or the Olympic gold medal. “We want the best performer in every position,” the CEO writes. “Like any team competing at the highest level, we form deep relationships and care about each other.”

However, Hastings is quick to admit that even Netflix does not believe in a complete abdication of any form of oversight and rule-making endeavours. A classic case in point being the organisation’s processes for employee safety and sexual harassment, customer data privacy, and financial reporting. Those are domains, “where error prevention is clearly more important than innovation,” Hastings emphasizes.

The most striking feature of the book lies in the chronicling by employees from various part of the globe who enumerate on the Netflix culture and values. From Japan, United States of America, Brazil, and India, these employees hold forth on both the allure and intimidation of being at Netflix.

While “No rules rules” makes for some fascinatingly aspirational reading, it also brings to the fore a very important, reflective and practical question. Can the groundbreaking policies and principles that for the bedrock of Netflix be extrapolated across the world to encompass industries and conglomerates irrespective of the sector in which they operate and the domain in which they discharge their business? The answer unfortunately is a resounding “NO”. Even Hastings acknowledges this fact at the end of the book, when he candidly concedes that in an organisation such as manufacturing where noncompliance with even a seemingly inconsequential of rules may define the difference between life and death, rules, procedures and processes need to be adhered to in an uncompromising fashion. Yet, there are innumerable organisations which can take a leaf out of the Hastings handbook in so far as empowering employees go.

Capitalist Leeches

Like ugly leeches latching on to susceptible legs, satiating their appetite

Displaying neither manners nor etiquette and being irritatingly trite

Respecting neither privacy of time nor the fact that it is a bloody holiday

Abusing channels of communication just so they can have their way

When will these idiots understand what they are doing isn’t at all right

Will there dawn a day when they realise that their IQ is less than that of a Troglodyte

Troglodyte Troglodye just get the hell out of my sight

Troglodyte Troglodyte here’s wishing you a very good night!

(Word Count: 95)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #189

Don Quixote’s Regret

(Image Credit: Crispina Kemp)

In an alternate universe, Don Quixote, oblivious to the pleadings of Sancho Panza would have made a full tilt at the windmills, sitting astride his grumpy steed Rocinante. Even for the Quixotic character such a move would have posed a challenge due to the location of the windmills. It would not just have been a stern test of Rocinante’s speed but also stamina. Am willing to wager that the aging bastard would have outrageously tossed his master off his back and made for safe ground.

The sight of every windmill, with due respect to its utility is a monumental testimony to the originality of Miguel de Cervantes. However, the current generation that is held ransom to swipes, slides and selfies isn’t intrepid enough to think of either Cervantes or Don Quixote.

A real tragedy that would have made even the eccentric hidalgo from La Mancha shed a tear of regret.

(Word Count: 150)

Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #111 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.

Be Lazy

Arranging conference calls with a frenzy hitherto unseen

To plunging headlong into a vortex everyone seems so keen

Not even taking a reflective breath or even just a pause

Ah! the mighty warriors and their cudgels of a corporate cause

Might just help looking at the word languid

Am a changed man since the time I did!

(Word Count: 57)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #188

Taken

Drowned in her laughter, I am transported into a different world

To her charms and elegance I am completely sold

Over frothing mugs of beer we spend hours totally oblivious to the mundane

In an insane Planet we are the only two who are sane

However there is one niggle that can never be overcome

The Sunflower is already taken thus leaving me a sad bum

(Word Count: 66)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #187

The Shallows: What The Internet is doing to our Brains – Nicholas Carr

The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online : NPR

This is a book that I have finished reading 8 years later than when I should preferably have. But as is the case with wisdom, good habits, realisation, and love, better late than never. “The Shallows”, (a Pulitzer Prize Finalist), penned by acclaimed author, Nicholas Carr, issues a wakeup call that is timely, topical and terrifying. Bringing to bear, the prescience of Socrates and the peculiarities of the science of neuroplasticity, Carr dissects in an astonishingly lucid manner the deceptive perils of an inviting buffet of virtual richness that the internet offers us all. 

The book opens with a bleak throwback, as Carr takes his readers back in time to the climax of the seminal Science Fiction movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In this master piece by Stanley Kubrick, the supercomputer HAL issues anguished pleas as it is being dismantled. “My mind is going. I can feel it.” HAL laments. The internet, while not exactly ripping our minds to shreds, is ‘rewiring’ our cerebral circuits that are marvelously, yet vulnerably malleable. Employing the pathbreaking proclamations and postulations of the legendary communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan, to describe how the internet has subtly yet, undoubtedly taken over our minds, Carr painstakingly brings to us the stark essence of McLuhan’s immortal phrase, “the medium is the message”

In the internet era, where communications take place at a frenzied pace and where web hopping makes the phrase pub-hopping seem extraordinarily pedestrian, a noticeable change can be found in the reading habits of people. As Carr points out, the trend now is to ‘skim through’ lines, sentences, paragraphs and pages rather than deep read in peace and calm. Similar to the phenomenon of spending as little time as possible at each website, and clicking furiously on one hyperlink that leads to the next, which in turn, leads to another, we also surf the pages of a book with scant regard to either the meaning or essence contained within. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves”, writes Carr.

It is precisely to award such a flurry of distractions that Carr retreated to the mountains of Colorado from the suburb of Boston to expedite the writing of this book. “When I began writing The Shallows, toward the end of 2007, I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words. I tended to write in disconnected sprits, the same way I wrote when blogging.” He also deactivated his Twitter account, stayed off from Facebook, “shut down” his automatic news reader, and abstained from checking emails for long stretches of time.

Carr also informs us that we often, unknowingly, transform ourselves into the medium which we employ in the normal course, to send and receive our message. Plagued by debilitating indigestion, insomnia, and migraines in addition to experiencing deterioration in his eyesight, German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche got himself a curious typewriter called the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. Whilst this aided the author greatly in his writing endeavour, it also brought about a distinctive change to his writing style. In the philosopher’s own words, “The writing ball is a thing like me, made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys. Patience and tact are required in abundance as well as fine fingers to use us.”

Carr relies on a plethora of empirical research conducted by famed neuroscientists and experts in the field of neuroplasticity to bolster his argument that the internet is influencing us – none for the better – as a species. For example, there are lots of passages and pages devoted to the landmark work of Austrian-American psychiatrist Eric Kandel. Kandel who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in the year 2000, went on to show that short-term and long-term memories are formed by different signals. This is true in all animals that learn, from molluscs to man. This is where the book gets more than just a bit dense and esoteric. Dwelling on the differences between short term and long term memories, implicit and explicit memories, Carr elaborately and enthusiastically dives into the complicated field of neuroscience and the reader is left wondering whether the movie hall has projected the wrong cinema after an intermission. 

Carr, in addition to Kandel, draws on the works of many distinguished academic luminaries whose contribution span subjects, geographies and eras. Norman Diodge, J.Z. Young, Michael Matthias Merzenich, Rene Descartes, and H.G.Wells are some of the names that adorn the theories set out in Carr’s work. No wonder the endnotes to the book make for some reading that is as impressive as the main body itself of the book.

Carr also dwells on the perils of multitasking. We are continually switching back and forth between manipulating the keyboard of our laptops, sending and receiving a spate of instant messages, shifting between posting selfies on Instagram and updating status on Facebook, all the while expressing our angst in 280 characters (the character limit was 140 when the book was written) on Twitter. This multitasking warrants and demands allocation of attention to various objects simultaneously with no particular focus on any one particular object. It is such a relentless mental motion that has the incredible impact of altering the physiological structure of the brain at the cellular level. A part of the brain called hippocampus, informs Carr, has a different structure for the cabbies of London who have a prodigious capacity to remember every nook and cranny as compared to a person who drives using a GPS for navigation.

Even though I had no idea of this book until a few days ago, going through the same made me realise some subtle yet perceptible changes that had taken over my writing. Until a few years ago, especially before I got myself a well functional blog, I used to review books by initially setting out my thoughts on paper. I would first compose what the writer Anne Lamott famously describes as “shitty first drafts” and refine them by crossing out lines, striking out passages and scrawling additional squiggles in between words. Once I had my blog up and running, I began reviewing books solely on my personal laptop. Although the shitty drafts still appear on the screen, they are, as I introspect in hindsight, well and truly shitty. Words which were earlier idyllic, expansive, sincere, spontaneous, and non-judgmental are now edgy, restless, abstract, curt, short and angry. They are like virtual bee stings. There are deliberately “introduced” words that are extremely amenable to hyperlinks. Sheets which earlier used to look like messy abstract paintings in black and red are now replaced by perfectly symmetrical black lines punctuated with links in blue, or is it green? Even this particular review devotes a paragraph solely to cover the sources relied on by Carr. This is a paragraph that could easily have been excised from the review, but then again so would have been the hyperlinks!

Carr wonders whether Socrates could have pioneered history’s first technology scare. In the “Phaedrus,” the learned and pragmatic philosopher bemoaned the invention of books, which “create forgetfulness” in the soul. Sacrificing remembrance at the altar of writing, Socrates warned, that people with a penchant for reading were blindly trusting in “external written characters.” This might be the right time to think how an unfettered and total trust in the internet could impact us not just as communicators, but also as human beings.

“The Shallows” – time to bring back the long and undeservedly neglected fountain pen!

Devarillada Gudi – Beechi

Devarillada Gudi (Kannada) | Libraywala

The late Rayasam Bheemasena Rao, popularly known by the nom de plume of “BeeChi”, (he preferred to employ his pen name in the bilingual and thus it was ಬೀchi), was a famous Kannada humourist. He was referred to as the George Bernard Shaw of Karnataka. A blend of satirical humour and philosophical musings is the usual imprimatur of this writer and “Devarillada Gudi” (Temple Without God) is no exception. An unexpected invitation to visit Russia, when it was still the Soviet Union, as part of a delegation consisting of authors from across the world (with the exception of the United States) accords a rare opportunity for the 62 year old ಬೀchi not just to venture out of the country, but also experience the culture of a nation that is humongous in its breadth and reach. In “Devarillada Gudi”, the author reminisces his nineteen day sojourn of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic and is held in thrall by a country not just well renowned for its communist philosophy but also for being solidly atheist. A non-confirming individual himself, ಬೀchi, ponders along with his readers about various aspects that have an intersectionality with atheism in so far as culture, freedom and socialism are concerned.

But even before he can leave the shores of Mother India ಬೀchi is giving a harrowing taste of bureaucracy and red tapism when he visits Madras (now Chennai) for his passport. Mr. Muthuswamy and officer with a stentorian voice and a stolid demeanour almost puts paid to ಬೀchi’s hopes by being as intransigent as possible in processing his application. This after sitting on it for full eighteen day period. Only a visit to Delhi and to the right “connections” ensures that the author gets his passport in the nick of time! In the flight, ಬೀchi gets a ‘flavour’ of Russia, when a fellow passenger takes copious swigs of alcohol straight from the bottle without bothering about the need for or the presence of glasses. ಬೀchi is in absolute thrall of Soviet Russia right from the moment he sets foot in the country. Staring out the window of his hotel room in Moscow that over looks the river, he takes in the sights, sounds and smells of the nation. There are some passages in the book that are cringe worthy though. One of the first things that he asks his guide is for the location of prostitutes! Upon getting a response that such a practice is not found anywhere within the land, he sets off into a reflective bout that has at its core the concepts of fidelity and chastity.

Although a severe attack of duodenal ulcer resulted in the author abdicating his drinking habit that extended for three and a half decades, he still continued smoking and carried his favourite brand of “Ganesh Beedis” even to Soviet Russia. In an enclosed market area, he fishes out his smoke pack and is about to light a beedi when an Indian friend residing in Russia for a long time, gently dissuades him from putting flame to his beedi. When ಬೀchi protests stating that there are no signs prohibiting smoking, his friend informs him that not smoking in a public place is a civic attribute that requires neither enforcement not monitoring. The friend also takes him to a basement within the marketplace where there is a separate and expansive smoking lounge.

Surprisingly, ಬೀchi is extremely reticent and almost entirely silent on the actual writers’ conference itself. Other than devoting a complete chapter to Syed Sajjad Zaheer (whom the author affectionately refers to as Comrade Banne Bhai) an Urdu writer, Marxist ideologue and radical revolutionary who worked in both India and Pakistan. In the pre-independence era. Sajjad Zaheer comes down to attend the conference from London, but meets with an untimely death, felled by a massive heart attack. ಬೀchi also describes the Lal Bahadur Shastri memorial in Tashkent and the impeccable manner in which the memorial has been maintained in stark contrast to the sheer neglect that Shastriji’s own country has chosen to take towards preserving the legacy of one of its most loved, gentle and yet formidable of all former Prime Ministers.

The book however frays the reader’s nerves no end with ಬೀchi’s obsession towards atheism. He beats the trumpet of skepticism so much and at every drop of a hat, that the reader can be forgiven in accusing the author of being tone deaf. According to Hindu tradition, the medium of paper is associated with Saraswathi, the Goddess of Knowledge. Hence books and papers are accorded the greatest degree of not just respect, but reverence even. Hence when the former Governor of Karnataka Shantaveri Gopala Gowda created a ruckus in the State Assembly by tearing a speech and stomping on it to show his displeasure, the media took him to the cleaners for being downright disrespectful. ಬೀchi attempts to give an abominable twist to the whole episode. He wonders that since on aircrafts there is no facility for the use of hand faucets in the loo and the only available option is toilet paper, wouldn’t the act of relieving oneself itself be showing scant disregard to a worshipped piece of tangible item? If this argument sounds the least bit didactic, wait for the next one – what about the donkeys that merrily chew on paper?

These are the kind of passages that are bone jarring in what is otherwise an entertaining an engaging book. If only ಬೀchi had taken it a bit easy on the atheist quotient, “Devarillada Gudi” would have made for a fantastic read. And yes, by the way wasn’t the whole idea underlying the book a writer’s conference in Moscow?