New publication on sonar

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I’m thrilled to have contributed a chapter entitled “Ping and the Material Meanings of Ocean Sound” to Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker’s impressive volume, Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment (Routledge, 2016). Go to my Publications for the full citation information and link to my chapter.

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Quebec Austerity Smells Like Tear Gas

I’m attending the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Montreal at the moment. As I was returning to the conference hotel (Fairmont Queen Elizabeth) around 9:30 pm, hundreds of demonstrators marched peacefully down Blvd. Rene-Levesque in protest of the Quebec government’s austerity plan. Suddenly, riot police ran past me and fired a barrage of tear gas canisters into an intersection crowded with demonstrators. I could have missed something of course but it seemed to me to be a strange response to very peaceful protest, particularly given the recent news of a student protester in Quebec City who was hit in the face by a police tear gas canister.  I asked a man standing close by who told me he lives here what had happened, and he advised me that the police sometimes need to respond when “protesters get too close the buildings.” Seems like a rather high price to pay for walking near buildings. Austerity smells a lot like tear gas tonight in Montreal.

Scrubbing the future with Bill C-51

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, centre, promised CSIS would not use new powers to target lawful protest or artistic expression.
One of the key themes in the literature on law and policy in network or information societies is the idea that governments and private institutions are increasingly preoccupied with preventing unwanted behaviour. In addition to the traditional mix of after-the-fact prosecution through sanctions and deterrence of future transgression through the threat of sanction, the contemporary regime of governance, what Jack Balkin calls the “national security state,” adds technologies of prediction and prevention. As anticipated in many science fiction narratives, such as Minority Report, the target of regulation is gradually shifting from past behaviour to future behaviour, from behaviour that has already occurred to behaviour that may occur. While this trend isn’t new, it is becoming more pronounced in many areas of law and policy as digital and genetic techniques and the discourses surrounding them prop up the dream of perfect prediction and prevention.

This week, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney is asking Canadians to believe him that has looked into (or “scrubbed,” to use the Minority Report term) the future and it is marked by the rise of “radical jihadists.” Bill C-51 is packed full of preventative features, criminalizing the “promotion of terrorism” for example, which has alarmed the Privacy Commissioner and many academics looking into the proposed legislation. The idea here is that there is causal relationship between speaking about hurting or killing people and actual violence. As Blaney puts it, “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber; it began with words.” A crude analogy, even by the often low rhetorical standards of Blaney and company, but Blaney at least makes his point clear: by preventing speech that could be interpreted as promoting harm to Canadians, C-51 will prevent actual harm to Canadians. This is Minority Report-style governance at its finest.

The problem that Blaney faces now is persuading Canadians that the future really is full of radical jihadists – that this threat is so great that it is worth granting tremendous new powers to the security and law enforcement organizations with reduced public oversight of those organizations. Three people died in “terror”-related attacks in Canada in 2014; while this is of course a tragic loss of life, the mobilization of new security measures in anticipation of a rising tide of jihadist terrorism in Canada likely seems ill-advised to many Canadians who know that there are far greater threats right now that aren’t being properly managed the current government. Asbestos, for example. The federal government continues to support the asbestos industry and its products despite 368 asbestos-related deaths in Canada in 2013. Terror-related deaths would need to rise by well over 300 percent in the future to even begin to compete with asbestos as a cause of death in Canada.

JS

Gmail and the engineering of choice

New-Gmail-Inbox-for-Android

The secret of Google’s success isn’t so secret. As documented by countless news stories, including this documentary on CBC, the recipe for Gmail’s success includes the following:

Ingredient #1: Hot Sauce (the algorithm that ranks websites by links rather than by other measures of popularity).

Ingredient #2: the “clean” and uncluttered look of the Google search website (in comparison to Google’s competition in the 1990s) as well as many of its other services, such as Gmail.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt likes to tell the story of he learned that Google’s slogan — DON’T BE EVIL — can actually play an important role in decision-making within the company. The story goes that one day a number of high-ranking Google employees were discussing certain forms of advertising that could be incorporated into Google’s services. At one point, an engineer pounded his fist on the table and said, “That’s evil!” Schmidt says that this generated a discussion which led the group to decide that they shouldn’t make the change in advertising.

The details about what sort of changes in advertising Google was considering at this point aren’t a part of the official narrative. But it seems to me that, since then, Google has gradually waded into territory that at least one Google engineer considered to be “evil.”

Among those changes are the strange “categories” (or “tabs”) that keep popping up at the top of my Gmail inbox: Promotions and Social.

Today, I tried to removing them from my Gmail app on my Android smartphone. I consider myself to be relatively good at these things but there simply was no straightforward way of removing these “categories” from my inbox. I can go into Settings and unselect them, but there’s no “save” button. So if I unselect these categories and return to my inbox, voilà, the unselected categories are still there.

Fortunately, there are plenty of fixes to this problem, none of which seems straightforward.

My first thought as I began going through the steps to remove Promotions and Social was that Google seems to moving away from Ingredient #2 in its recipe for success.

My second thought was about an article by Ian Kerr et al. about “engineered consent” and its many uses in government and industry to persuade people to get in line with the organization’s interests and objectives.

A few examples:

1. You go to the airport and you are given the “choice” of either a backscatter x-ray (i.e., body scanner) or a pat down (which would take longer and which involves a person touching your body in such a way that likely result in a memorable but awful experience). By not making a spectacle of yourself, holding up the line, and requesting to have  the “traditional” pat down, you are “volunteering” and consenting to have your body virtually stripped of clothing and inspected by someone you can’t see.

2. You call your bank and are notified that your call may be recorded. By waiting to speak to someone, you are “volunteering” and “consenting” to have your call recorded.

In both examples (and one can think of countless others), there really isn’t much of a choice. “Consent” is acquired by making one of the two choices the only realistic option for most people seeking a particular goal (e.g., catching a flight; speaking to a human).

Drawing on the literature on decision-making, Kerr et al. argue that this type of engineering of choice is becoming widespread and is accompanied by a wide variety of justificatory discourses (public health, profit, national security, etc.). It is also based on some provocative research that suggests people are not as rational as they often think they are. The “subjective value” of costs and benefits decreases the further that they occur in the future. Moreover, “losses become less bad the further away they are in time, while gains become much less good.”

In other words, when confronted with the annoyance of Gmail Promotions and Social categories taking up a quarter of my inbox screen, the rational part of me will try to weigh the benefits against the costs of this annoyance. The costs might include things like giving away personal information and other privacy implications, the screen “real estate” that these chunky categories require, and my own desire to have some semblance of control over my inbox (not to be underestimated).

One important benefit is that if I decide to allow these categories to clutter my inbox, I don’t have to spend time figuring out how to get rid of them. That’s an immediate benefit (I don’t have to spend 5 – 10 minutes searching around for a fix), which, if I’m the rational actor that rational choice theory supposes I am, I weigh against the costs of keeping these annoyances at the top of my inbox.

The trouble is that these costs, particularly in regards to the privacy implications, are mostly unknown to me right now and probably won’t affect me immediately. Thus, I find myself weighing the immediate benefit against future costs — costs that I am liable (according to Kerr et al.) to perceive as “less bad” then they really are.

So Google seems adept at engineering my choices. What this means is that Google is neither “good” nor “evil.” Google is utterly ordinary. Like thousands of other organizations around the world, Google is doing whatever it can to make control seem like choice.

JS

A week of conflict in the global struggle over copyright

January 18-26 was a very busy week (well, eight days) for those of us following copyright reforms around the world. In just eight days, there were at least three widely-publicized conflicts between copyright owners, Internet firms and copyright reform activities. Here are three piracy stores that caught the attention of most major news outlets around the world:

wikipedia blacked out page in protest against proposed US laws to stop online piracy

January 18: Large copyright owners were disappointed when a pair of proposed anti-piracy laws in the U.S. became the target of an online “blackout” protest by Google, Wikipedia and other websites. The House of Representatives’ Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) were hailed by copyright owners as effective tools for, among other things, eliminating the threat of “rogue” websites based in foreign countries, which are allegedly responsible for flooding the web with pirated material.  Google and other opponents of the legislation largely succeeded in framing the proposed legislation in terms of censorship, and U.S. politicians were soon clamoring for a chance to show the media and the public how opposed they are to the legislation. The protest was remarkably successful, leading the Senate and Congress to postpone debate and discussion until the bills are amended to address the concerns raised by critics.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia have shut down one of the world's largest file-sharing sites, Megaupload.com, and charged its founder and others with violating piracy laws.

January 23: Copyright owners won a minor victory when New Zealand authorities arrested Kim Dotcom, the founder of cyber-locker MegaUpload. The arrest demonstrates that U.S. copyright owners appear to be able to mobilize police forces far beyond the United States. The arrest also seems designed to “send a message” that cyber-lockers or cloud storage sites are not immune to anti-piracy policing. This is also a test case for New Zealand’s new copyright legislation, which provides stronger protection for copyright by treating infringement as criminal activity. But it is a minor victory in the sense that there are many other similar sites which are still in operation and which will quickly fill the gap left by MegaUpload.

Protesters in Warsaw on 24 January, 2012

January 26: The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) — a proposed international agreement designed to clamp down on the global circulation of pirated and counterfeited goods — was met with opposition in Poland, where thousands took to the streets in protest. As Michael Geist notes, ACTA’s provisions for digital locks and its criminal sanctions for non-commercial infringement suggest that ACTA extends elements of the notorious U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to the international level.

What does this series of events suggest about the ongoing struggle over copyright reform?

For many years, copyright owners have lobbied governments around the world for national legislation and international agreements which suit the interest of owners, and these efforts were extremely productive in the 1990s. Key 1990s international agreements such as the WTO Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, the WIPO Copyright Treaty, as well as national legislation such as the DMCA, all catered to the interests of copyright owners in “stronger” protection of intellectual property.

The online and offline protests, as well as the considerable news coverage devoted to them, suggests that copyright owners are finding it difficult to dominate lobbying and public debate about copyright. Scholars, activists and journalists can take some of the credit for raising public awareness of what is actually at stake in this formerly obscure area of law. But the “game-changer” appears to be the rapid expansion of Internet firms like Google, and their ability and willingness to use the many means at their disposal to shift public opinion on copyright reform.

In my view, the delay of SOPA and PIPA is largely the result of Internet firms’ recognition of their shared economic interests in distancing themselves from overly-protective copyright regimes. In this context, copyright owners needed a small fish to fry, and MegaUpload (for which there are many legitimate uses and users) appeared to fit the bill.

John Shiga

Goodbye Big Four, Hello Big Three

Yesterday, Universal Music Group won one of the largest items ever to be auctioned in the music business: EMI’s recorded music assets, including works by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Cold Play, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and most of the Motown catalogue. The price tag: $1.9 billion USD.

Meanwhile, a Sony-led consortium purchased EMI’s music publishing division for $2.2 billion USD.

Regulatory approval of the two deals may take another year, and could lead to significant changes in the way that EMI is being split up and sold off.

But Universal is already busy managing public perceptions of its latest acquisition. Mick Jagger was glad that Universal, which he described as “people who really do have music in their blood,” now controls much of the Rolling Stones’ catalogue. And according to Cold Play manager, Dave Holmes, “This can only be positive for the artists and executives at EMI.” These comments suggest that, compared with EMI’s previous owners (Terra Firma, a private equity group, and Citigroup), Universal will provide a more musician-friendly environment.

So far, news reports aren’t giving a very clear picture of possible negative consequences of these deals. The only criticism appearing in the coverage at this point – that the deals are “sad” for British music and culture – seems to miss the broader implications. According to former EMI director, Brian Southall, “It is very sad that the whole of EMI’s recorded music division has gone to Universal. There are no British record companies left to buy EMI.”

Notably absent in the news coverage thus far is any sense of how the deal sets the stage for an unprecedented concentration of ownership in the music industry.

Scholars, music critics, musicians and fans have long decried concentrated ownership in the music business. Until the 1990s, the music industry was largely controlled by the Big Six: BMG, EMI, PolyGram, Sony, Universal and WEA. In the 1990s, Seagram (the Canada-based liquor company) purchased Universal and PolyGram and the Big Six became the Big Five. In 2004, Sony Music merged with BMG to become Sony BMG, leaving control of the music industry in the hands of the Big Four.

This week, we’ve seen another step towards what might be described as a virtual monopoly. EMI’s absorption into Universal and Sony puts much of the global music industry in the control of the Big Three. If approved by regulators, three corporations – Sony, Universal and Warner – will control approximately 80% of the music industry worldwide. (The numbers vary from country to country. In Canada, the combined market share of Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI in 2010 was 80.38%, according to a Nielsen/Billboard report.)

Perhaps in times of recession, consolidations on this scale seem unremarkable. Perhaps extremely concentrated economic power in media and culture has come to seem normal. It will be interesting to see how this story is covered in the next few days, but so far, nothing about this situation appears to be particularly worrying for commentators and reporters.

John Shiga

Post-Riot Gear: Social Media and the Rise of Peer-to-Peer Policing

Most news stories about law and digital media are newsworthy fit one of the two following narrative frames: (1) digital media are empowering people to overcome legal constraints; or, (2) digital media are becoming tools of social control. What I find interesting about the news coverage of the Vancouver riots is that it doesn’t fit neatly into either of these narrative frames. Instead, the story has turned into a public debate about social media as tools of control, which are themselves out of control.

When tools of control spin out of control

A few journalists have entertained the possibility that, instead of fearing public shaming via social media, the desire for a few seconds of Internet fame may have motivated some revelers to riot. As Margaret Wente wrote in her column last week,

Mark Leiren-Young, a writer for The Tyee, has a different view. He thinks this riot was a new phenomenon, one in which the presence of the social media actually egged on the rioters. After all, if you can’t be famous on TV, then at least you can be famous on Twitter and Facebook, even at the cost of possible arrest.

It’s a long shot, but it’s possible that social media (or the desire for social media notoriety) encouraged some rioters to believe that smashing windows, burning cars, etc. would translate into online fame.  None of the news outlets I’ve been following have suggested that social media facilitated the planning of the riots.

The story thus far does not fit the “digital media are empowering people to overcome legal constraints.”

What has emerged instead is a story about digital media as instruments of control. But with a twist ending.

The Vancouver police have had no trouble enlisting citizens in the identification of rioters on the police department’s Facebook page. The department did well to update the page fairly quickly with a thread devoted to citizens photos of the rioters. However, the police quickly realized (as have some legal scholars) that the feeling of empowerment associated with social media combined with the demonization of the rioters in the national news media created the perfect conditions for online vigilantism.

The Vancouver Police Facebook page seems unable to contain vigilante energy within official channels. That energy has instead spilled over into peer-to-peer policing — the use of social media by individuals to act out a fantasy of perfect justice where the wrongdoers (and only the wrongdoers) get exactly what they deserve.

One of the most viewed news stories on the CBC website today is a commentary by lawyer Daniel Henry on social media as an instrument of law enforcement in the Vancouver riot aftermath. Henry points out that there is a significant difference between labeling someone in a post as “criminal” and describing an act with other, broader, more subjective adjectives; the person being accused of a crime can in turn sue for defamation if the photos, videos or other evidence do not support the poster’s accusations.

Henry points out that “It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of getting the bad guys.” In my view, this shift from a concern about riots to a concern about “outing” the riots is where the story gets interesting. The “mob” mentality which Henry and other commentators worry about is online, not in the streets.

But for such commentators, social media have no impact on the communication of what we might call “shame messaging.” Social media are a neutral tool which convey sentiments but which do not provoke or shape those sentiments and their communication.

It’s time to consider another possibility. The bigger picture in this case might be that social media, especially their photo-sharing capabilities, provide users with a seemingly immediate, direct and appropriate response to this particular public threat. In other words, users do not participate in this kind of photo-shaming simply to help the legal system do its job. There is much less deference toward the law among the photo-sharers than police might have expected. Photo-sharing allows alleged rioters to be punished right now. The “swift justice” of online shaming is possible precisely because it is able to operate outside of the legal process. Among the problems raised by the “outing” of rioter online is that social media favours speed over all other considerations, including proportionality in its administration of justice.

Why do people use social media to “out” other people — and why do they do it with such gusto?

It’s plausible that social media vigilantism is the predictable response of an enraged public accustomed to Facebook and Twitter as a mode of self-expression and engagement with public issues. But it’s also important to consider the possibility there is more to this flurry of accusatory photo-sharing than a sense of civic duty.

Sarah Kember, in her 1998 book, Virtual Anxiety, draws on a long line of theorists who have attempted to explain the cultural obsession with photographic images and argues that photographs are highly fetishized objects, and that this the proliferation of imaging technologies in the legal system and other modes of social control is a manifestation of this fetishization of photographs as truth. Photographs are often treated as “tokens” or “trophies” of those whom they depict. In the case of individuals or groups who are regarded as threats to social order, photographic images can give the photographer and the viewer the sense that they know truth of the photographic subject (e.g., isolating and naming the individual in the crowd) which in turn provides a sense of control over the threatening person or group.

From a legal perspective, the use of images of the rioters on Facebook, blogs and other social media should be supported in so far as users are “facilitating justice,” as Daniel Henry puts  it, “not working on substitute remedies.” But the point Kember is making is that photographs often perform a “substitute remedy” because the act of photographing is bound up with a desire to control the subject depicted. Photography renders the fleeting (and in this case, fleeing) subject in a form that seems durable, discrete, and fixed. The threat is reduced at least temporarily because the threatening person becomes an object which cannot look back at the viewer.

Vigilante uses of images and videos are an extreme (perhaps exaggerated) form of this urge to “capture” threatening subjects in photographic fetishism. Vigilante uses of images and videos in social media stem as well from the tremendous truth-value that law invests in photographic images.

The problem, as Kember points out, is that “Fetishism is always an inadequate and unstable means of control precisely because it is a compensatory mechanism” (p. 6). In other words, the more the act of photographing and displaying photographic images is invested with an almost magical ability to capture, punish and restore order (what Henry calls “substitute remedies”), the more that those images become reminders of what is actually lost. Henry, for instance, sees a very real possibility that the vigilante “frenzy” will further undermine “civilized democracy.”

In this way the technologies of control — in this case social media and digital images — can become intertwined with the threats which they are supposed to contain and neutralize. Digital cameras and social media — the new post-riot gear — are thus imagined to be as much of a threat to law and order as the riot itself.

John Shiga