Long-term erosion of trust

Interesting article on Slashdot about the historical roots of the weaponization of doubt and scientific disagreement by special interests.

It is notable that these phenomena start at scale with the pervasive political engagement of corporations with American politics in the 1970s and ’80s: this is the moment in which business as a whole detaches from automatic support for a particular political party (choosing its battles and the champions for them –whether financing an insurgent movement, litigation, legislative lobbying, and so forth– on a case-by-case basis), and also the dawn of the end-of-ideologies era. These themes are well discussed by Edward Walker in Grassroots for Hire (2014).

As for the present predicament, one is reminded of an NYT op-ed from last year by William Davies, “Everything Is War and Nothing Is True” on public political discourse:

Social media has introduced games of strategy into public discourse, with deception and secrecy — information warfare — now normal parts of how arguments play out

or of a similarly-dated piece by Z. Tufekci on the commercial side of things:

The internet is increasingly a low-trust society—one where an assumption of pervasive fraud is simply built into the way many things function.

There definitely seem to be systemic aspects to this problem.

Surveillance acquiescence conundrum

Politico.eu recently ran an interview with Ciaran Martin, the outgoing chief of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre. In it, Martin raises the alarm against Chinese attempts at massive data harvesting in the West (specifically in regard to the development of AI). This issue naturally dovetails with the US debate on the banning of TikTok. Herein lies the problem. Both national security agencies and major social media companies have endeavored to normalize perceptions of industrial data collection and surveillance over the past decade or two: that public opinion might be desensitized to the threat posed by foreign actors with access to similar data troves is therefore not surprising. The real challenge in repurposing a Cold War mentality for competition with China in the cyber domain today, in other words, is not so much a lag in Western –especially European– ICT innovation (Martin is himself slipping into a pantouflage position with a tech venture capital firm): it is a lack of urgency, of political will in the society at large, an apathy bred in part of acquiescence in surveillance capitalism.

The Social Dilemma

I have belatedly joined the masses in seeing the Netflix documentary. I was surprised that throughout the presentation the issue was framed as one of individual (recreational) choice and of manipulation of interests and inclinations: such a way of seeing the dilemma completely elides the extent to which the platforms have penetrated the workplace, providing compelling market incentives in favor of participation for work reasons to those who are perfectly aware of what the tech companies are doing. Much like the rebuttals to Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism argue, the problem with the analysis is not technological, but social and economic.

Disinformation and hacking the power grid

Interesting study (via Schneier) on how to use disinformation to attack the power grid. In essence, one is trying to game the profit-maximizing behavior of consumers (in this case, through fake information on discounts in electricity used during peak times), nudging them in precisely the opposite direction of market signals, hence overloading the grid. The general obscurity of electricity pricing for the consumer (much of which may be by design) is an important enabler of this hack.

Inter-institutional trust deficit

Piece in Axios about tech companies’ contingency planning for election night and its aftermath. The last paragraph sums up the conundrum:

Every group tasked with assuring Americans that their votes get counted — unelected bureaucrats, tech companies and the media — already faces a trust deficit among many populations, particularly Trump supporters.

In this case it is not even clear whether a concurrence of opinion and a unified message would strengthen the credibility of these actors and of their point of view or rather confirm sceptics even further in their conspiracy beliefs.