The Intended Banality of American Surveillance

I wrote this a few days before I read the very revealing article on Laura Poitras in the NYT. Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Michael Miranda, being detained for 9 hours at London’s Heathrow airport a few days ago is even more shocking. While this post is not a direct response to these recent articles and events, it does confirm the suspicions I’ve raised here.

The bargain was struck. Keep us safe at any cost. For the most part we can believe they have kept us safe. We hadn’t processed the cost. We were never asked to sacrifice for the country like generations passed. We were encouraged to live our free American lives with even more gusto. Only now has the cost become evident. We certainly had an inkling as to what the cost would be. Yet, we weren’t explicitly asked. No amendments to The Constitution were made. Yet they’ve gone ahead and taken our right to privacy as payment for security.

Aside from activist voices, the mainstream, while mildly worried, is not livid. Consider how unacceptable we consider authoritarian governments spying on their citizens to be. Think about stories from history involving the KGB, Gestapo and secret police. Why were they so bad? It’s still, hopefully, early stages, but NSA has the potential to be the next ignominiously evil acronym.

The US government has the most sophisticated propaganda machine in the world. Where contemporary authoritarian regimes like Turkey, China and Russia clumsily provoke their citizens to achieve their ends, America cleverly seeks to placate its “model” citizens—at any cost. The net affect of this citizen-first strategy is a widespread consensus of trust. The US government exploits this trust collateral to justify wars, drone strikes, torture and to obfuscate severe capitalist corruption.

The Snowden Crisis has come at a time when the US propaganda information strategy was not fully complete. While many have become comfortable with living publicly and sharing online it is still a new phenomenon. We were being groomed by both market and governmental forces to live without regard for our privacy. Snowden revealed a true conspiracy of corporations and the government colluding together in engineering citizen behaviour to feed their respective needs. The government hungers for information, corporations for brand engagement. The prospect of joint benefits to be reaped from cooperation between these two forces must have been irresistible. The free market, in cooperation with the government, creates the potential for extremely rapid, large scale innovation. Looking at the meteoric rise of big tech in such a short time, it’s no stretch to conclude this conspiracy has happened and continues.

The secret is out that NSA has been watching all along (or has the capability to watch). We citizens haven’t yet been sufficiently primed to live knowingly without privacy. Yet we must be pretty close as the general feeling towards NSA seems a lot closer to apathy than outrage.

It all comes back to the mainstream belief in the benevolence of our government. Many minority groups in America know the sting of government betrayal all to well. Yet America’s blank check still rests with its rank and file whom it encourages to be selfish, myopic and comfortable. I’m not too hopeful NSA will cease its operations in compromising our privacy. The outrage doesn’t seem to be there. Another brilliant American propaganda strategy is the trivialization of free speech in itself. We can talk of these things openly and casually. With so much opinion the truth becomes diffused, diluted and sanitized. We become confused. Only if NSA missteps by compromising the comfort of the mainstream will there be the will to dismantle this program.

I’m reminded of Martin Niemöller’s famous statement on the dangers of political apathy. He was referring to the inaction of German intellectuals after the Nazi’s rise to power. Nazi Germany is often the most extreme example to cite, but there are crucial lessons to be learned from history.

“First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Repression rebranded

There are two op-eds in this weeks New York Times that seem to compliment each other by two authors of complete opposite spectrum and intent.

The Romantic Advantage by David Brooks

The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ by Julian Assange

Brooks writes about how American companies excel at branding to create the impressions of trust and value among customers. He writes China companies have only focused on the bottom-line and thus won’t be a true market threat until they learn how to brand.

Assange writes a response to the book “The New Digital Age” by Google’s Eric Schmidt and former Condoleeza Rice/Hilary Clinton advisor Jared Cohen. He accuses Schmidt and Cohen of heralding the age of compromised privacy via the symbiotic relationship of the government and Silicon Valley and exporting American interests globally using passive means with technology. “Without even understanding how, they have updated and seamlessly implemented George Orwell’s prophecy.”

I can’t help but draw the conclusion that America has used its branding sophistication to remove the discomfort autocratic governments cause their citizens while still overreaching out of the bounds of true liberal democracy the way those governments do. We’ve got drones, Guantanamo, the government assassinating its own citizens, erosion of privacy…all of this has been branded as safety. The majority doesn’t complain (too hard) because the majority is perfectly comfortable. But in a world with Google and the government in bed together perhaps we need to take a sober look at what could happen. Although Facebook gets a lot of flack for its ambivalence for our privacy our real secrets are more likely contained in email. And which email client do you use? Yes, I thought so.

Trouble seeing through The Cloud

A year and a half ago I wrote about my desire to self-host in Your Own Personal Cloud. Terry Madley got me wanting to write about this again when I saw his trackback when he reblogged my original post. I think we started on some interesting discussion. The Cloud is even more pervasive now. I admit, in many aspects of my digital life, I have been engulfed. Where to even begin?


There are aspects of The Cloud where I gladly must wave a white flag of surrender. Mainly in the realm of media. It simply makes no sense at the moment to host video on one’s own web host. If this era of the web is all about User Experience, slow media consumption is simply unacceptable. I don’t do much video so this is one area where I simply don’t care. But I do lots of audio/music. I’ve been won over by SoundCloud. It does limit the amount of audio I can store unless I subscribe, but by keeping things lean I get to all the benefits/speed of The Cloud for free. This feeling of Cloud benevolence does not exactly extend to images. That’s a nice segway to a minor triumph over The Cloud.

Flickr Defection

Flickr. What comes to mind? A dying web brand? For me, it means my content being held hostage in The Cloud. Flickr WAS great. Unfortunately it appears to be in (slow) decline. This is a great lesson in what can happen when you outsource responsibility for your content. My wife has taken thousands of amazing pictures from our travels around the globe. Well, due to our being a bit transient, we nearly forgot to pay the premium Flickr bill one year. That was a close call. We would have lost all that data, tagging and hours of time poured into cataloging of our travel photos. The revelation for me was that if Flickr was going to be a crap social network, it really has very little reason to exist. Why not just self-host all these photos like we should have in the first place?

Without the phenomenal obfuscation layer of the Flickr interface, what are we trying to do here? Simply put our photos on the web in an easy way to view. WordPress is great at this. It’s even better with their Jetpack plugin which can do exactly what Flickr does: show what camera the photo was taken on, photo captions and most impressively serve up different photo sizes based on what device you’re viewing the photo on. Something new that Jetpack does is allow you to cache images on servers. I don’t know why they’re not charging for this but I’m thankful they’re not. This means you get great image load speed despite being on a regular host.

So that’s all great if I were starting from day one and had never posted any images to Flickr. Unfortunately we’re years into this with thousands of images locked up in Flickr. A very, very good soul, Bradt, has created a plugin for WordPress, Flickr to WP, that makes migrating from Flickr to WordPress delightfully easy. It’s scandalous that it only has 736 downloads. I would put this in my top 5 WordPress plugins of all time. So I tried it. And it worked like a dream. I got all the photos, captions, sets and photo camera slugs. Unbelievable. It remains to be seen what we’ll do next. Being designers, we need to put creative care into the site these photos now live on so it may be awhile before its ready to show.

Whatever happened to software?

I’m a designer. I use lots of software to do my work with. Suddenly there are a slew of essential apps that can only be utilized via The Cloud. A few are BrowserStack (for proofing websites on all browsers via real computers remotely) and InvisionApp (for sharing design prototypes with clients and collecting feedback). These are amazing uses of The Cloud. There’s more out there that is very tempting. Interestingly, Adobe Creative Cloud Suite are not true Cloud apps, however the pricing method is. This brings me to a gripe.

The more software goes Cloud the more our personal finances bleed out, little by little, every month. Every great Cloud app or service is a monthly fee. It’s a genius pricing model actually.  They have found a way to lock in customers indefinitely.

Here’s one of my replies to Terry Madley which sums up my feelings on this matter:

I’ve been meaning to write about something regarding Cloud backlash. In the earlier days of personal computers and the web the financial model was very much centered on ownership. Now everything cloud is subscription based. It’s actually a much better business model because businesses never lose touch with the consumer. But the downside for consumers is this compounding of cloud services…things we need…but like you said, things that are for the most part disconnected from each other. And to my original personal cloud point…there is lost accountability. The more cloud services you have the more diluted and less organized and less responsible for your own data you become—not to mention the bleeding of one’s personal finance in daily expenses (this particularly hits home for me…i can’t not subscribe to certain things for work…but they are adding up tremendously). At least if the Personal Cloud remains viable enough costs are magnificently contained. 1 hosting bill and WordPress = free. And thankfully most premium WordPress plugins are not sold as subscriptions. You buy it, you own it. Hopefully that remains although subscription seems more lucrative over the long haul.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a love/hate thing when it comes to Cloud Apps. I just can’t subscribe to them all. It’s the same reason I love Rdio and hate iTunes. I simply can’t buy all the songs I listen to. But on Rdio, at least I can listen to them! (Or maybe that’s a bad point because I’m paying good Cloud subscription money for the Rdio privilege—but undoubtably less than I would on iTunes for much less music consumption.) Perhaps, as the world of web apps gets more compounded, there needs to be some kind of aggregate which gives one access to lots of software instead of me bleeding out money every which way. I love BrowserStack but I only use it maybe once a month during that phase of a project. Is it really worth the $20/mo to me? Maybe it is for now. When IE in all its forms finally dies it’s final death or is sued out of existence in a class action lawsuit by legions of designers and developers who will never get their precious time back…whoops, I digress. But anyway, when all that happens I won’t need BrowserStack as much anymore. Yes, Adobe Creative Cloud could be one primitive incarnation of this cloud software pricing model. Even though it’s more money than I’m comfortable paying out a month, unlimited access to all Adobe Software for $50/mo was ultimately too irresistible. But you see how that happened? One simply ends up giving in to The Cloud—because it’s just easier.

Good Cloud bad Cloud

To conclude, I suppose it’s all about discernment. Some of this Cloud stuff is good, some of it is necessary, some of it nice and some of it sucks. A good use of The Cloud is distributed media (Netflix, Rdio, Spotify). I’m a huge advocate of streaming because the consumer actually does get more for their money and it reduces the cultural desire for pirated media. Necessary is of course my spiel on web apps. Nice is perhaps services like SoundCloud and YouTube. I don’t know if I made a great case that those are irreplaceable. But they do provide a better user experience to consumers of one’s content. And bad…obviously Flickr. But here’s the thing, Flickr was/is huge. Just like Myspace and Friendster at one time. We entrust precious things to these nebulous Cloud entities. But can you really trust that they’re still going to be there years from now? If you self-host, the organizational and control equation gets a lot simpler. The reality is you’re going to bleed money in this internet world. But perhaps a better investment is in a good personal host over the long haul.

The unavoidable cloud (a ramble)

I’d written a post nearly a year ago about a mistrust I had of the cloud. By sprinkling one’s data across various provider’s cloud networks it breeds a lack of responsibility for one’s data. It makes it disposable (some argue this is good, why hold on to crap?). I still believe this to be true. Yet I’m beginning to think collecting all of one’s personal data on a private server may be an impossible ideal. It’s quite simple (and was indeed this simple to me when I’d written the original post). The servers that can actually power all your media reliably indefinitely are very expensive. The only media that you can reliably keep on a dedicated server that can be consumed comfortably is static (img, pdf and of course text).

The experience of listening to audio or video on a slow server is nearly intolerable. There’s a very high chance you’re going to give up. Media cloud servers like Amazon’s are great but I find it rather annoying to upload media through their tedious interface. I’d rather just do that in the comfort of my WordPress. Amazon is a pay per usage model. I’ve done this a few times and those nickels rack up pretty fast.

Enter the free cloud. YouTube beckons us. And SoundCloud gives us a taste for audio in the cloud (there is a ceiling on what you get for free). Now we’ve got Instagram hosting our photos (free). All these cloud services are social and often fun.

Guess what’s happening to me? Fragmentation. I started this blog to collect my online parts. Yet I remain pulled in a million directions. At least my text lives on my own database for which I am solely responsible for (as long as the hosting provider doesn’t drop the ball). Look at my widgets though. Most are just aggregators (with the exception of Twitter which I actually do archive to this site thanks to the wonderful HL Twitter plugin). I would like a plugin that could pull in my Instagrams directly into post formats on this site. The same for data. I don’t develop these types of apps but the fact that it’s so difficult to get a proper RSS for Instagram or see a live XML of scrobbles suggests to me that they just don’t want me to pull the data for myself. Why would they? These cloud applications provide amazing utility. More than we can hope for in the form of open source apps in many cases (at least for now).

But let me provide an example of what could happen to your precious media and data when you choose the cloud. We only need to look to Flickr. Do you still use Flickr as a social tool? I don’t. But for awhile it was a very convenient repository for images. Mainly because it had a good application for categorizing, tagging and distributing images. This made sense for our travel blog which we started at the end of 2008. Flickr hasn’t changed since that time. It’s not cheap either. The allure of Flickr slideshows is completely gone because the embeddable ones are Flash and thus completely useless on mobile devices. We have thousands of pictures nicely organized on Flickr. I believe I’ve found a WordPress plugin that can allow me to download my photos and regain the keys to the online display of our travel photos. But this is work. This is the cost when you invest your time, trust and data into the cloud. When it’s time to move you have quite a chore on your hands.

I don’t do much video these days. I think for video this existential problem becomes more palpable. You pretty much have to use YouTube or Vimeo so your videos will play smoothly. But if you just read my Flickr conundrum you may find the same issues when you’ve accumulated a wealth of data and  you’d like to move it. This is why in the long-run I think I’m much better off hosting it all, even the difficult media.

These days this is increasingly difficult. My tiny website can’t hope to run as fast as YouTube, Facebook or any of the others. It also seems redundant to keep a cloud copy and manually maintain personal copies of media. This is why I hope for more applications that utilize cloud app APIs which can auto-archive that difficult media back to my own site. This way you get all the speedy goodness of the cloud without being beholden to services when they become mediocre (Flickr).

Facebook knows (us) best

Of all the top social networks Facebook most successfully satisfies our vanity. We’ve all gone online. We want our existence reinforced. Facebook has claimed a monopoly on our actual personal networks. Twitter, Google+ and Diaspora are biased to connecting outwardly, helping us forge new networks. While this is a more noble premise if you believe in the potential of the world wide web, it also makes these networks much more disposable.

I recently allowed my birthday to appear for my Facebook friends. I received over thirty birthday wall posts. This personal and very human connection got me thinking that this is where Facebook’s advantage lies. Only Facebook virtually guarantees feedback on the signals we put out now matter how small our networks. This is because for most we’ve replicated our real life social networks on Facebook and nowhere else online.

Continue reading Facebook knows (us) best

The Future of SoundCloud

(This is my response to the ReadWriteWeb Article Is SoundCloud The Next YouTube? [Interview] which I posted in the Disqus forum of the post and is duplicated here).

It’s curious that something like SoundCloud didn’t rise at the same time as YouTube. Sound could have even become a feature of Youtube but perhaps they already had their hands full with copyright lawsuits. IMHO the success of SoundCloud is tied to its portability and need to look closely at Youtube’s viral embed video strategy. In an increasingly mobile web the SoundCloud flash embed just isn’t going to cut it (remember that YouTube switched over to iFrame embeds so the media works seamlessly on iOS devices). A personal gripe is that there’s no official RSS feeding for SoundCloud (although there are makeshift solutions).

Perhaps the largest stumbling block is the money issue as Wells Baum aptly pointed out. I’m skeptical as well of paying yet another vendor for this kind of service. I could just as easily post my audio to YouTube for free. YouTube makes its money on ads and that would probably be very difficult for SoundCloud to implement over mostly amateur audio (but again…it appears to pay off for Youtube when those videos go viral). The Facebook partnership is probably a step in the right direction toward audio virality and I should point out that SoundCloud does appear in many more places than it used to.

Another critique of SoundCloud is the web UI. It’s a social network…but not a good one (but neither is Youtube). I won’t go into detail as to why it’s not successful but the service has proved not compelling enough for me to immerse myself in like other social based services. (A great example of an immersive social music service is Rdio’s desktop app/site).

I think it’s interesting that Ljung concedes that “sound is more than just music.” He’s acknowledging that people are not looking to SoundCloud to be their audio entertainment like they would iTunes/Spotify/Rdio etc. But to browse SoundCloud right now one gets a feeling that is precisely what it wanted to be (which is noble). For discovery, SoundCloud is the true successor to MySpace Music (maybe even more than Facebook) and bands and established artists have a more effective way of sharing tracks than before.

It’s not bands alone that will be the tipping point for SoundCloud. It requires a renaissance of the audio medium itself for all users (again, the Youtube short-form video parallel). Here’s what I think it’s up against. Our ears. We have been conditioned by decades of professional audio engineering to have a bias for professional sounding audio. I’m sure you’ve heard recordings by amateur musicians on low-fi equipment. Unless you have a connection to the musician in question your ears are likely to reject poor quality audio. Another interesting point made by Djiung is that mobile apps can somewhat mimic professional audio to undiscerning listeners. That’s where SoundCloud diverges from the YouTube model. YouTube didn’t need high quality video to be successful (although I’m sure it didn’t hurt when it appeared, not to mention all those music videos). As most people don’t want to hear crap recordings the validity of recorded sound is questioned solely on presentation. This is not really SoundCloud’s problem, this is just our own conditioning. It could probably change fairly quickly if some low-fi sound recordings became viral and inspired genre’s suitable for audio sharing.

I’m a fan of the idea of SoundCloud. I think it’s got to be as free as YouTube and focused on ease and reach of audio distribution. Once that’s in place just let the users do the rest.

The Promise of Diaspora: The Future of Social Networks

Diaspora was introduced to most as an idea that was to be the open source, privacy focused alternative to Facebook via Kickstarter in 2010. That’s how I learned of it and originally that’s what I expected it to be. Now that the dream is in alpha reality and I have joined the network I can tell you that Diaspora is not exactly an alternative to Facebook (although for some it is). What I’ve come to realize is that Diaspora represents the future of social networking.

Diaspora doesn’t have the luxury of humble beginnings like the great open source success of WordPress. There are too many people who simultaneously love social networking and hate Facebook for Diaspora to evolve slowly and organically. The pressure for features will come from this group. However the most important task Diaspora has ahead of it is to become a connector between social networking sites. Continue reading The Promise of Diaspora: The Future of Social Networks

Bad band marketing on Facebook

I recently clicked on a band ad that intrigued me on Facebook. I’ve given Facebook enough info about myself that the algorithm can somewhat determine I like music of a particular sort. Sure, I do miss the music of the 80s (who doesn’t?). 22k fans. Not bad.

So I get to their Facebook page eager to check out these sounds. They’ve got a big audio player on the page. Great. I click the play button. Instead of sweet synth pulses I get a little popout that requests I ‘Like’ the song (or band, I can barely tell) so I can listen to it.

‘Like’ the track before I listen to it? How could I know I like it? Continue reading Bad band marketing on Facebook