No Plastic Bags

Today, October the 5th 2015, England finally caught up with the rest of the UK in trying to encourage a nationwide experiment in positive constraints: No Plastic Bags. From today, all shops and chains with more than 250 employees (in total, not per shop) will have to charge at least 5p for a plastic bag.

On the face of it, this is an excellent initiative and not a moment too soon. Plastic bags are phenomenally damaging to our natural environment. They are not biodegradable and litter the countryside and pollute our rivers for, not decades, but hundreds of years after they have been discarded.

Plastic bags are also totally unnecessary. The number of times I am automatically handed a plastic bag when I’m only buying a banana and a block of cheese is a constant source of annoyance to me. Even when I do need some sort of conveyance to transport my produce from shop to home, I’d far rather be given something I can either use again or that I can throw in the compost, like a paper bag or cardboard box.

But…

You knew there was going to be a “but”, didn’t you?

While I applaud any attempt to encourage us to consume less plastic, I know from experience that you can’t force people to adopt a positive constraint. In fact, that’s a contradiction in terms. The “positive” refers to the free agency of the person affected. This, effectively, is a government-imposed negative constraint – albeit one that has very noble ambitions. And negative constraints don’t work very well in the long term.

It is far more effective to freely decide yourself to stop using plastic bags than it is to allow the pain and inconvenience of a 5p charge make that decision for you.

Fascinatingly, if you take a close look at the statistics, there may already be some evidence to back up my worries. Much has been made of the 78.2% reduction in plastic bag usage in Wales since they introduced the 5p plastic bag charge in 2012. However, if you look back through the data, plastic bag usage has increased every year since the charge, from 62 million in 2012 to 73 million in 2013 and 77 million last year (you can delve deeper on the BBC here).

This is, of course, still a huge drop from the 273 million plastic bags that were used in 2011, but it does make me worry about the long-term efficacy of such a scheme. Why? Because a negative constraint (or “stick”) approach like this provides only an extrinsic motivation for No Plastic Bags. Extrinsic motivation, for example when we are motivated by money, fame or public approval, is linked with lower levels of compliance and lower satisfaction when we achieve the object of the motivation.

What we need are postive constraints, where the motivation for the behavioural change comes from within each of us, so that the motivation is intrinsic. This is how our new No Plastic Bag habits will last, not just until we forget the pain of the 5p charge, but for the rest of our lives.

(But still: No Plastic Bags, yay!)

No Facebook

I joined Facebook on April 27, 2007. I left, over six years later, on September 22, 2013. Contrary to my friends’ expectations, I have survived the last two years almost unscathed. This is the story of my against-all-odds survival.

Why No Facebook?

I’m going to go with just three reasons why I quit Facebook. Only three, but they’re big ‘uns.

  1. Facebook is proven to make you miserable.
  2. Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
  3. Why do any of us use Facebook? I know it’s a bit Confucian to answer a question with a question, but still. Does anyone actually ask themselves why they’re on Facebook? When I eventually did, I had no good answer.

So let’s go through these in order.

Facebook makes you miserable

Have you heard of FOMO? It’s a highly contagious virus, that spreads rapidly through online social media. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I’m sure you know FOMO: it’s that feeling of mild dread that you could be having a much better time elsewhere.

  • When you’re at a standard house party and see on Facebook that there’s another happening across town and it’s fancy dress: FOMO.
  • When you’re at the BFI watching a François Truffaut double bill and see on Instagram that friends are having cocktails without you: FOMO.
  • When you take a trip to Paris with your mum and everyone’s tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn at a demo for refugees back in London: FOMO.

None of these experiences of FOMO would be possible without Facebook and other social media, amplified by the mobile power of the smartphone.

What’s the problem, you may well ask. The multitudinous benefits of social connectivity surely outweigh that mild feeling of FOMO dread, don’t they?

Not sure how to break this to you, but no.

In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers confirmed that FOMO was strongly linked to higher levels of social media engagement. The study also confirmed the obvious: that FOMO was associated with distracted driving and use of social media during lectures. Then the bombshell: FOMO was associated with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”.

FOMO, that modern virus of social media, makes you less motivated, more depressed and less content with your life.

 

Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.

This is the one I guess everyone already knows about. You know that Facebook is a business and has a business model. You know, I’m sure, that this business model is predicated on your personal data and selling that personal data to companies who want to sell shit to people, and that the most likely victims are your friends.

This business model is pretty much common knowledge; it’s part of the contract that we enter into with Facebook when we sign up. We agree to give away our names, emails, date of birth, family and friends, photographs, likes and soon dislikes, the events we attend and the groups we join – in short, everything we hold dear. In exchange, we don’t have to pay actual money to actual Facebook for access to their social network.

The problem is that not many people have thought through the full consequences of this business model. I certainly hadn’t until I heard Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, speak at the Elevate Festival.

Shoshana directs her analysis at Google, but the same applies to Facebook. She sees a new form of capitalism emerging, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”. This new form of economics is distinguished from the old forms in two ways:

  1. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as employees. Facebook has nearly 1.5 billion users (as of August 2015), but employs less than 11,000 people (as of June 2015). That’s one employee for every 136,000 users.
  2. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as customers. Facebook makes its money from selling data to other businesses: advertising makes up around 90% of its annual revenue, which was $12.4 billion in 2014.

If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need the people as either employees or customers, then what do these companies need us for? As we all know: product.

But the problem goes deeper. If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need us as either employees or customers, then the people have no control over what these companies do. We can’t withdraw our labour or withdraw our custom. As Facebook pursues its ambition of becoming more and more tightly integrated with the running of our societies, this has serious consequences for democracy.

The only thing we can do is withdraw our product: quit Facebook. (Actually, we can do something else: we can join Europe vs Facebook and sue the parasites, but it’s probably easier to quit.)

 

Why do any of us use Facebook?

However, I’m going to turn a blind eye to that doomsday scenario, partially because it makes me feel sick to think we’re sleepwalking into a future where Mark Zuckerberg can, on a whim, command an army of billions, and partially because it’s not why I quit Facebook.

Facebook is distracting. We pay a high price for social media. We don’t just hand over our personal data, we hand over a large dollop of our daily attention and focus. I used to scroll around Facebook, liking all the things my friends had done and getting little bursts of dopamine in return whenever anyone liked something I’d posted. Then I’d realise that a hour had passed and I still hadn’t written anything or done anything meaningful.

That attention and focus is limited. Every minute we spend attending to something on Facebook is a minute we can’t use to focus on our work, our garden or a good meal.

First of all, I used a technique I called Facebook Zen to clear my News Feed. For a few months, it was bliss: total silence. Then I started to wonder why I was on Facebook at all. Couldn’t I get everything I needed from the world? So I quit.

FB Profile photos
No more of this crap.

The most shocking thing was that I didn’t miss Facebook for a moment. I had been expecting some cold turkey horrific withdrawal symptoms. But all I felt was a little part of my brain that I hadn’t realised had been constantly thinking about Facebook was no longer thinking about Facebook. I had freed up roughly 1% of my brain’s bandwidth to work on a knotty problem, dream up a new book idea or notice the passing smell of jasmine.

I was liberated.

Two Years Later…

I still don’t miss Facebook.

I have, however, noticed that Facebook is increasingly becoming the main driver of content on the web. Facebook have the advantage over Google in that people will always prefer a friend’s recommendation over an anonymous search result. While at the moment Google is slightly better at precise searches for information, Facebook will triumph in the long term because of its social element.

Furthermore, as the whole world, every person and every business becomes embedded in their social graph, the internet could effectively cease to exist outside the four walls of Facebook. This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading. Now… Follow me on Twitter! That’s a joke (it’s not). Twitter is, in some ways, the social media of positive constraints: only 140 characters. I’d love to hear your stories of Facebook disconnection.

Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

This is the twenty-second in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

The fact that everybody at Elevate seems to be so bothered by the idea of another person using our data to make a profit, raises a question from the audience: Can capitalism and democracy co-exist?

According to Shoshana, actually, yes. “There are good arguments to be made that democracy emerged as a condition for capitalism to work,” she says. “Because the populations were required for industrial capitalism to be successful, over time, there was enough pressure on elites to give up some power.”

You could argue that democratic power was only gradually extended to all working age men as part of the deal to provide labour for capitalists after the industrial revolution – and that women were included only because they were needed to expand the workforce after the First World War.

“The rise of market-based capitalism and the rise of democracy have been very imbricated, very intermeshed,” Shoshana says. “There are very salient ways in which they depend upon one other.” This is why Google’s new business logic is such a threat to democracy.

Shoshana is somewhat optimistic about what this tells us about capitalism. “Capitalism has survived for many centuries,” she says, “not by being the same thing, but actually by always changing, by being very plastic.”

For the last five hundred years, our economic system has oscillated between embedded (“cooked”) and disembedded (“raw”) capitalism. In times when capitalism was “cooked”, Shoshana argues, it has been very productive for society, resulting in higher standards of living, better education and healthcare. But in times when capitalism is “raw”, such as early nineteenth century Britain, it has resulted in huge inequality, struggle and conflict.

According to Shoshana, capitalism has this flexible quality and, luckily for us, raw surveillance capitalism is only one market form that it could take. There are many other forms of capitalism that we can create and adapt for our society – including the commons. “I don’t think that we just give up on capitalism,” she says, “I think we take it and we make it what it has to be for us.”

2014_10_25_FORUM_FAIR_OPEN_IT24

Building Alternatives

One way of addressing the future of Dark Google would be to build alternatives to the technology of surveillance capitalism. “The problem,” Micah says, “is that the alternatives aren’t as good.” He finds DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, unsatisfactory for his needs, for example. “A third of the time, at least, I have to search Google instead,” he says. Personally, I’ve been using it since last year’s Elevate and have no complaints.

A search engine is one thing, but how can you build a new social network when you need, not just you, but all your friends to move from Facebook as well? Daniel suggests Diaspora, a dispersed social network that runs on personal servers. “Everyone could switch, invite all their friends and change,” he says, massively underestimating the technological capacity of most people on Facebook.

“This isn’t accessible to many people at all,” Micah argues. “And it’s hard to get out of this corporate dominance because these big companies are able to hire the best engineers in the world and pay them two hundred thousand dollars a year to make software that doesn’t crash.”

Daniel’s answer is to form technology solidarity networks with geeky friends, like CryptoParty. “I switched to Linux in 2006, but I had a friend to help me,” Daniel says. “Since then, I’ve learnt to love it.” It’s also important to remember that alternatives become better when more people use them and it’s not necessarily a case of either/or: there could be a transitional period where we use both Facebook and Diaspora; Windows and Linux.

2014_10_25_FORUM_REALITY_IS_THE_NEXT_BIG_THING37

But Felix is less optimistic. “I don’t think social change happens by adding small pieces into a pie,” he says. “We’re within a highly structured space that really constrains these things. The first hack is easy, the second hack is more difficult and it gets more and more difficult because it’s such a slanted space.”

In the early days of the internet, programmers deliberately designed protocols without a slant. Why, for example, can you change your email provider without losing your address book? Because that’s the way it was designed, without a slant; it is a network, but it is not a monopoly.

“You can’t do that with Facebook,” Felix says; it is also a network, but it is a monopoly that will not communicate with others. The Facebook protocol is slanted. “I’m sceptical about lobbying the government to do stuff,” he adds, “but this would be one thing to do: force these protocols so that different logics can interact.”

Micah isn’t so sure. “Even if Facebook made it easier to interoperate with other systems like Diaspora or email,” he says, “they could choose to do this, but they’re not actually being governed by a spec that we’ve collectively agreed on.” They would still be a company and their business model would still be surveillance capitalism; their assets would still be our data.

Micah is also critical of Ello, a new social network gaining traction from saying that their business model is not about tracking people. “But it’s also just a company,” he says. What they do in the future is their choice. “For this stuff to work,” Micah adds, “we need to agree on standards that make us all equal.”

2014_10_25_FORUM_REALITY_IS_THE_NEXT_BIG_THING33

Daniel wistfully describes how, in the EU, we discuss in excruciating detail the regulation of the light bulb, but do nothing about the technology that’s actually running our lives. “There is a lot of unreflective use of technology,” he says. For Shoshana, this is down to the modus operandi of the tech companies. “First they assert,” she says, “then they wait for push-back.”

Despite “hundreds and hundreds” of law suits against these companies, Shoshana wants much more from us. “So far there hasn’t been very much push-back,” she says. “They end up paying a small fine, which is pocket money or less, and so what they have institutionalised is what gets to stand,” she adds, sternly. “That’s why, when I talk about institutionalising, I’m not talking about just a building or a new kind of parliament; it’s a lot of more subtle stuff.”

Nevertheless, Shoshana is optimistic about the potential of capitalism to satisfy this need for institutionalising. “If enough of us decide that we’re fed up with the surveillance capitalism protocols of Facebook,” she explains, “that translates into economic demand and so there is, slowly constituting itself, a new kind of market place.” She gives the example of the 2013 launch of Qwant, a search engine that does not track users. “There are many other companies beginning to constitute themselves in this new space as a response to the crisis of surveillance capitalism,” she says. “That’s another way that capitalism works positively, to evolve in a way that is aligned with our interests.”

2014_10_25_FORUM_FAIR_OPEN_IT20

From the audience, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has what sounds like a wildly optimistic proposal. “We had unions, we had consumer organisations,” he says, of twentieth century capitalism cookery. “How is the Facebook user union doing? Is there any sense in expecting some kind of organisation of the users of these platforms?” I look up to see if he’s joking; he’s not. “Maybe we should be fighting within because not many people are going out,” he adds. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” Shoshana replies. “These are creative examples of new kinds of institutionalising!”

Micah is also optimistic about the direction in which programmers are taking encryption, a vital tool to combat the seizure of your data as surveillance assets. After the Snowden revelations, software developers realised that usability is an important security feature. “Now there’s all these projects to make encryption usable by everyone,” Micah says. “This is where things are shifting,” he adds. “It’s not in trying to get governments to change policies, it’s in trying to fix the broken holes in the internet.”

These holes are being steadily filled by programmers; you can take Facebook chat “off the record” with apps like Pidgin or Adium, for example. “We’re at the very beginning of this,” Micah says, “but it’s going in a good direction right now.”

So perhaps there is room for optimism; perhaps alternatives are on their way – Ello, Qwant, Loomio, CryptoParty, Pidgin, Adium, FreedomBox, Diaspora, Cryptocat. After all, as Elf Pavlik, a computer programmer who has lived without money or passport for five years, says, “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” Perhaps all we need is to support each other in making the right choices, conscious of the direction in which surveillance capitalism is taking us and determined to change course.

“I would like to end this session with a quote from another time when revolutions were going on,” Daniel says. “I would just modify it slightly,” he adds, with a smile. “Be realistic; demand the possible.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Data Disasters

This is the twenty-first in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Anton, from CryptoParty Graz is equally fearful. “There is no mass damage from mass surveillance,” he says, finding only a few small examples of people who have suffered from internet surveillance. “There was no big data disaster. I am afraid that we’ll need something like that to happen before the rest of the users wake up.”

Micah Lee, the man who put Edward Snowden in contact with Glenn Greenwald, hopes that the NSA leaks have been the first alarm clock. “But you might be right; that might not be enough,” he says. “We know they’re spying on everything we do, but people haven’t felt bad things happening to themselves.” He hurriedly corrects himself: “I’m sure some people have. If you live in the United States and are Muslim, I’m sure you are a lot more terrified than I am, living in the United States and being white.”

Nevertheless, historical examples of such data disasters come easily to mind for the panel. When they invaded the Netherlands, the Nazis used government data on religion to round up Jews; while, in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the US government used census data to round up Asian Americans. Today, of course, data collection is much deeper and more comprehensive than during the Second World War; a modern data disaster could be instant and inescapable. “Now, we’re just bleeding data with everything we do,” Micah says, “and this data is available to people who will start internment camps in the future.”

2014_10_25_FORUM_FAIR_OPEN_IT21

Felix is, however, quick to point out that most people don’t think of their governments as Nazis and the comparison could be misleading. “It’s not about the wholesale repression of entire populations, but the very precise targeting of individuals,” he says. “So it’s very hard to notice until it arrives at your doorstep and then you’re the only one when it arrives because it arrived at other doorsteps at other times, in other contexts.” Surveillance capitalism is not a problem for you, until it is – and then it might be too late.

The issue for Shoshana is less a privacy catastrophe than “a ubiquitous digital infrastructure that is monetised and that those revenue streams are produced by the interventions to modify our behaviour”. Shoshana quotes former NSA operative William Binney, who says we are very close to living in a “turnkey totalitarian state”, where we live in a permanent condition of “anticipatory conformity”. Shoshana coined this term in 1988 to describe the self-censorship we perform when, for example, we decide not to tweet a joke about bombing an airport.

Today, we are one stage on from self-censorship; our behaviour is being manipulated without our awareness at all. It’s the world of stimulus-response. “And that world comes in quietly,” Shoshana says, “without a big data catastrophe.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Power and “Social Gravity”

This is the twentieth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Nadim Kobeissi, creator of the encrypted chat app Cryptocat, criticises Shoshana’s argument from a different direction. “There is a kind of politics that I have grown to dislike very much, which is the politics of us versus them,” he says. “It’s very effective, when you are wanting to mobilise a political movement, to use absolute terms,” Nadim adds, taking issue with the strong language that Shoshana uses: “usurping the internet”, “they’re conquering the internet” and “they’re taking privacy rights for themselves”.

2014_10_25_FORUM_REALITY_IS_THE_NEXT_BIG_THING39

“It was never a question whether Google was harvesting user data,” Nadim points out. “It’s not the case that they have usurped society by forcing people to sign up for Google. People were voluntarily signing up and they were, in return, receiving a legitimate service.” Nadim sees the rise of Google and the tech giants in many more shades of grey than Shoshana has perhaps shown us. “Is it really like there’s this bunch of bad guys who are conquering the internet with internet soldiers?” he asks, his voice rising with incredulity.

But Felix is exasperated with this perception of the exchange, which he sees as a strain of Stockholm Syndrome. “I think this is a common misunderstanding of how power works,” he says. Felix explains that there are usually two ways of exerting power: the “hard power” threat of violence and “soft power”, like Hollywood films that give you “ideas” on how to lead your life.

“The way Google exerts power is neither through one nor the other,” Felix says. “I don’t meet anyone who likes Facebook, but I also don’t meet anyone who says, Okay, I’m going to quit it,” he adds. “This is a form of power that makes you voluntarily do something you don’t want.” All these technologies enable you to do some things and constrain you from doing other things; the problem is that you must either accept it or reject it wholesale. Here Felix agrees with Shoshana. “This is not a legitimate choice because it is: Do you want to talk to your friends or do you not want to talk to your friends?”

2014_10_25_FORUM_REALITY_IS_THE_NEXT_BIG_THING36

Felix illustrates his argument by bringing it right into the room. “We’re in a German-speaking country and we’re having an English-speaking discussion,” he says. “So the price to contribute to that debate is to learn English.” This cost, of course, has consequences. People whose first language is English will have no problem expressing themselves clearly, while people for whom English is a second or third language will find it much harder – but, remember, we’re all “free” to participate or not…

The same is true for using Facebook or Google. “We are free to operate under these conditions,” Felix says. “They don’t tell us any more what to do, but they just slant the playing field.” This exertion of power might be subtle, but it is no less effective than hard or soft power. Felix returns to Nadim’s objection: “Yes, this is not a territory that gets usurped,” he says, “but this is a territory that is getting slanted; to do certain things becomes harder, to do other things becomes easier.”

Felix calls this “social gravity” and it is changing, both online and off. You can choose to walk against the slant, but doing that will make your life more difficult and, unless you are superhuman, gravity eventually wins. I no longer have a Google account, which is annoying when I want to post or comment on YouTube videos, but I have kept my Microsoft account for email because that’s just too complicated to quit.

“We think about these things as communication platforms, but they’re not,” Felix says. “From the point of view of those who create these platforms, they don’t care what you say, as long as you produce data. They’re not about content, they’re about constraining and shaping behaviour.” Furthermore, as more and more people use these platforms, the slant gets steeper and steeper.

“A lot of people face a big dilemma,” Daniel says, “because you are drawn into these things; all your friends are there. Some people don’t even access their email any more.” This subtle social gravity is tilting us towards surveillance capitalism, whether we like it or not. “You can post every day, I hate Facebook,” Felix says, “and they like it, because you use the system!”

“I thought the analogy was interesting,” activist and cryptographer Bill Budington says. “It becomes slanted and then you lose your balance and, as time goes on, it becomes so slanted that the effect of gravity overtakes your ability to resist it.” He gives an example of the US government serving legal papers on people through Facebook because of their real name policy. “Facebook wants to become incorporated into the state apparatus,” he says. Do we want to live in a world like that?

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler