Technology and Society

Not-So-Funhouse Mirrors

December 3, 2018

So, a for-profit “Christian” “university” founded by an evangelical pastor that is being investigated for fraud is connected to some 140 LLCs that, among other things, run Amazon storefronts selling cheap goods at high prices as well as a publishing empire (also being investigated for fraud) that purchased Newsweek magazine at a bargain-bin price (firing Newsweek journalists who began to investigate their owners) and, incidentally, also runs storefronts including a bookstore that isn’t exactly running like a bookstore (you want to buy a book? Are you sure?)  . . . it’s a wild story. Art history professor and sometime-journalist Jenny Odell has pulled all the threads and ended up with a big ball of “what the heck is going on here?” for which she has no answer. It’s as if someone created an artificial intelligence bot and trained it on a mix of Amazon shopping habits, money laundering practices, and prosperity gospel evangelism before setting it loose to whir and spin off fraudulent businesses, a web of simulated reality that somehow is profitable.

This kind of unanticipated use of platform capitalism isn’t entirely new. Remember when, just after Amazon launched its self-publishing platform, weird books started showing up for sale that were random compilations of Wikipedia articles? Perfectly legal, because Wikipedia articles are in the public domain, but the packaging was designed to defraud people, and it often worked. I suppose we could go back to the early days of printing and the ways printers jumbled together stuff and sold it before the concept of copyright vested power in authors to control their work so it couldn’t scamper away and reproduce in unexpected places. Or we could contemplate machine-generated academic papers (so much more efficient than writing them!)* and automated essay graders (so much more efficient than reading them or, you know, teaching students anything).

It’s not without precedent. But there is something disturbing about the complexity and sheer weirdness of this scheme, as if it pulled some bits of modern life together into a shell company game where they began to replicate feverishly – website after website, company upon company, a simulation of contemporary commerce, all of it . . . melted into air, thin air. It’s fitting that one connecting thread Odell found among all of these businesses and websites is the word “dream.” This web of enterprises is made of such stuff as entrepreneurial dreams are made of. Great globalization shall dissolve, their cloud capped towers and gorgeous palaces made of baseless fabric, an insubstantial pageant.

I’m reminded of James Bridle’s creepy discovery of a wormhole in YouTube that sucks in small children whose parents unwittingly hand them a phone playing a kids’ show hoping for an hour of peace. An entire industry has sprung up to warp children’s programming. Yes, some of it is deliberately twisted by trolls who want to turn popular cartoon characters into mass murderers for a laugh, but much of it is algorithmically remixed and reproduced with bits rearranged in ways that make the videos not only deeply weird but often violent because the algorithm works that way – dragging us deeper and deeper into the muck. It’s why it’s so easy to deny facts – you can manufacture alternatives and web them together into an alternative reality and, for a variety of reasons, people will gravitate to that web and become stuck there.

I’m not sure what to conclude about all this other than that we must insist on designing humanistic values into our artificial systems, that we must compel systems that are designed to reward grotesque simulations and mindless faulty reproductions to change their rewards systems, that we must simultaneously oppose censorship and promote truth against invented falsehoods. The odd thing is I think we can do it, if we really want to. We found ways to take out the garbage in the past. It was clear the internet would be broken if we didn’t. There’s more garbage now, and much more money involved, but we depend too much on networked information to let the entire system become corrupted by fraud and chicanery. When the internet became an engine of commerce with attention as a currency, we neglected to build in the brakes. It’s not too late, or so must hope.

*Though the example I linked is satirical, there is an actual product on the market. So much more efficient than hiring someone to write your paper for you.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.