Month: April 2020
Here are links to music that I have either participated in making or made myself:
Amazon’s Underbelly 4.0: Consumer Data Harvesting Has Gone Too Far
Originally published on Occupy.com
This is Part 4 in a series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part, second part and third part.
Amazon has formed an uncomfortable, yet formidable, relationship with the government by creating surveillance technology, providing cloud storage for the government, and using its excess wealth to inordinately influence politics and policy.
On top of this, the company strives to intimately understand its customers by harvesting consumer data at unprecedented levels – ironically, without the consent or the acknowledgement of its customers.
One of Amazon’s newest privacy-shattering fetishes is developing artificial intelligence in order to enhance the shopping experience for its customers.
Amazon has developed its own search engine, A9, in order to expedite this endeavor. Like it or not, if you’ve done a search on Amazon then you’ve used the search engine. A9 claims to create a simple and convenient shopping experience for its customers.
It uses data from customers’ previous purchases and offers suggestions when users enter their queries. A9 also uses ranking algorithms to present the most relevant results to the user. It can remember everything that you’ve ever searched for, and it has the right to share that information with its retail sector. The A9 website proudly states:
“Our work starts long before a customer types a query. We’ve been analyzing data, observing past traffic patterns, and indexing the text describing every product in our catalog before the customer has even decided to search. As soon as we see the first keystroke, we’re ready with instant suggestions and a comprehensive set of search results.”
A9 is looking to expand its search capabilities to include visual searches. Amazon bought out a small startup called Snaptell to embark on its visual search journey. The visual search works by “overlaying relevant information over camera-phone views of the world around [our customers].” In other words, it allows customers to take pictures of CDs, DVDs, or video games and the app will identify the product and provide ratings and pricing information.
Amazon also acquired the website Goodreads in 2013. Amazon regularly reviews a customer’s highlighted words and notes in order to figure out what interests them. The company then sends suggestions to the person’s Kindle for e-book recommendations. It provides the same function when items are added to their cart using a collaborative filtering engine (CFE).
Even more troubling, in a letter to shareholders in 2017, CEO Jeff Bezos describes how Amazon Web Services (AWS) clients would potentially have access to these AI learning frameworks.
Many data collection schemes like clickstream analytics, data warehousing, recommendation engines, and fraud detection are all done through cloud-computing. Developers from other companies that do business with Amazon may have the ability to use the same deep-learning tracking software because of their adoption of AWS.
The companies already using AWS run the gamut, from McDonald’s, Netflix, Adobe and Capital One to GE and Pinterest. All of these companies have a vested interest in tracking the habits of their customers and will likely, and gladly, pounce on the opportunity.
Amazon candidly talks about its approach to gathering information about its customers. In fact, the company even compare its collection of information to a partner who learns more about you as your relationship grows. Of course, in this case it’s a one-way interaction: You don’t get to learn anything about how Amazon operates.
In the letter, Bezos candidly referenced the underbelly to which this series has referred: “Much of what we do with machine learning happens beneath the surface. Machine learning drives our algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deals recommendations, merchandising placements, fraud detection, translations, and more.”
“Though less visible,” he continued, “much of the impact of machine learning will be of this type – quietly but meaningfully improving core operations.” The type of AI to which he’s referring is focused on human behavior and habit.
That’s right: much of what they do with machine learning happens beneath the surface, so the general public has no idea of the company’s newest initiatives to expand its power.
If A9 and its counterparts represent such a glorious, reputable and helpful piece of technology, and if its intentions are truly noble and pure, then why are the majority of Amazon customers blissfully unaware of its existence? Amazon continues to be opaque about its involvement in our government and in our lives: in its sale of facial recognition technology to our government, in its supply of clandestine cloud service to national security agencies and local municipalities, in its manipulation of our political process, and our private data as well. Amazon should at least make its intentions and its actions transparent to its customers.
Amazon has access to a troubling amount of industry information: lucrative private contracts with local governments; private consumer data; financial resources to lobby political leaders; business deals to sell surveillance technology; and a massive fortune and wealth to boot. Amazon remains one of the most powerful and influential companies on Earth, and Jeff Bezos the richest man in history. He and the company have the ability and influence to change our world for the better. But instead this empire continues to consolidate power and wealth for itself.
Amazon’s continued occult actions must be brought to light so that a true examination of its power can continue.
Poem: Surreptitious Usurpers
these surreptitious usurpers –
like a brazen, sepulchral, slimy squid
these surreptitious usurpers –
are secretive and prodigious
conceitedly superior and vacuous
these surreptitious usurpers –
with uncompromising ruthlessness
with staggering thoughtlessness
with rapacious ravenousness
act secretly behind subtle veils of seduction
and these surreptitious usurpers,
with silvery scales of a basilisk
with hearts, souls, and spirits of stone
with slithering tongues
spew slim veils of supposed reality
spread darkness and perplexity
sell story after story
send missiles for perverted glory
consolidate their ascendancy
praise their own pathology
these surreptitious usurpers
submerging us in seas of deceit
severing off our self-sustaining feet
subjugating and coercing as they cheat
stomping swiftly up the staircase to our defeat
and the stupefied slaves –
slumbering and primitive
docile and submissive
stolid and passive
soon the scales will slide from our eyes
the stupefied slaves will start to realize
and we’ll take you by surprise
overcome your lies
and send you to your demise
© 2020 Chris Paulus
Decision points: compassion or hate?
The coronavirus is a not only a biological virus. It is a cultural virus. The virus is very deft at exposing our culture’s and our society’s grave shortcomings. It is causing much hardship, distress, and suffering, and in its wake, it is putting the rotting infrastructure of a decaying empire on full display.
We spend approximately 20% of our GDP on health care, but fail to even provide enough ventilators to our fellow, infected Americans. Our nurses are posting videos of themselves crying on live TV because they can get the appropriate amount of PPE. Jeff Bezos’ net worth skyrockets by a grotesque $24 billion in a couple of weeks, while Amazon will not provide adequate protection to its warehouse workers, and in fact will fire organizers trying to bring attention to that fact. Even more frightening, Whole Foods (owned by Bezos) is using a heat map to track employees to detect unionization activity. Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen gets to leave prison because of the COVID-19 threat, while many non-violent individuals in jail, many of them not even yet on trial, cannot be released from prison. Our leaders, instead of appropriately warning the American public of the dangers of COVID-19, sold stock while they were privately informed about the severity of the virus.
It is particularly disgusting that world’s rich continues to get lavishly richer, while a record number of 22 million Americans have applied for unemployment in a couple of weeks. That’s right. While most people are struggling to make ends meet, while many are losing their shitty jobs (and, along with it, their access to health care), and not even to able to pay their rent, the net worth of world’s top 10 billionaires net worth increased by a shocking $51 billion dollars. That’s with a b.
Meanwhile, our government is completely incapable of providing even the most basic needs to our citizens. Our callous and feckless leaders are staggeringly out of touch with the daily lives of even a moderately-affluent American. Steven Minuchin, the Treasury Secretary, recently suggested that Americans can live off $1,200 for 10 weeks. Nancy Pelosi, whose net worth is $16 million, recently talked about eating ice cream in front of expensive kitchen appliances, meanwhile Americans are forced to line up their cars for food distribution.
The virus is causing us to question a variety of standards of practice in our country. Why are people held in prison just because they can’t pay bail and they haven’t even gone to trial yet? Why are innocent children held in inhumane, unsanitary cages while they await deportation? How is it that we spend way more per capita for health care over any other developed country and we still can’t test everyone in the United States for COVID-19? Why is it that rich and famous people like Tom Hanks, Idris Elba, and NBA stars can get immediate testing and treatment, but the average, unsuspecting American is going to have to pay a deductible first? Don’t grocery store clerks and delivery drivers, who in the matter of weeks went from “low-skill labor” to “heroes who deserve hazard pay,” deserve a decent, living wage as well? Do we really need to stuff kids in a cement box for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week? Do we really need to keep voting for the “lesser of two evils” every election year?
Parents and guardians are now wondering: should teachers get paid more for dealing with our kids all day, all the time? Impostors like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz are being exposed for the frauds they are. Once revered media figures, like Ellen DeGeneres, are being exposed for the selfish and tone-deaf pricks they are.
The virus is holding up a mirror, and the image in the reflection is fucking disgusting. Many people are finally willing to accept it. Unfortunately, many also are not. It is certainly dark times. But, this is our opportunity to step up and create something that actually works for the everyday American.
In response to this cultural virus, our culture is producing antibodies – antibodies that are activating our immune system and igniting an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response will manifest into populist movements. We are seeing the tinder for this: the now disenfranchised Bernie voters (which represent the majority of under 40, Latino, Arab, and young African-Americans); the worker’s strikes at Whole Foods, Amazon, Instacart, and hospitals; staggering levels of unemployment; and rent strikes. While all of this is going on, our government is unable, or unwilling, to respond rationally or urgently. Let us not forget about the smoldering ashes of the Occupy Wall Street and continuing efforts of the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter movements. Those are just a few of the signs.
These populist movements can manifest in mainly two ways – good or bad. It might seem juvenile and reductionist to frame it in such simple terms. But I believe this is where we are truly at.
The bad will occur if the populist movement is centered on hate and ignorance (against Muslims and undocumented immigrants, e.g.) We see examples of this already. Groups of armed, white men with Confederate flags are gathering outside of the Michigan state capitol chanting “Lock her up” for simply enforcing some guidelines to keep the public safe. Not surprisingly, it has recently been discovered that these groups are funded by a political group that is indeed heavily funded by Betsy DeVos (Michgan Freedom Fund, Michigan Conservative Coalition). Trump is continuing the ignite that civil unrest by tweeting “Liberate [name of state]” for almost all of the states in the U.S. There are now protests in Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia, among others. His docile and vacuous sycophants are obsequiously parroting an even more docile and vacuous leader. Dumb idiots taking orders from a hateful, dumb, idiot leader. Sound familiar?
On the flip side, the good will happen if the movement is centered on compassion and love. A good populist movement will be non-violent and will focus on the issues. A true and honest movement will question the unequal institutions in our society and propose compassionate and rational solutions to our country’s problems and correctly identify the causes. We see examples of this as well. There was already a lot of tinder for this from the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. Now, the flames have been stoked when a progressive candidate like Sanders (who is really a moderate in most countries but considered a radical in our fucked up political landscape), the political manifestation of those two populist movements, has now been denied the nomination two election years in a row (for a variety of reasons). Progressive voices and ideas are continually maligned in cable news media and on Twitter. The entire agenda of the Sanders movement was ostracized by a fabricated “Bernie bro” myth.
At this point, we can go either way. And unfortunately, given our president’s actions and his power, I would place money on the “bad” at this point. But things these days can turn around quickly. There are also plenty of signs to place your money on the “good.”
I know. I’m like you. I don’t want to rock the boat. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Many of us want to live a simple life: go to a job that makes us moderately happy, or at least is only marginally depressing; forge meaningful relationships with friends, significant others, and family; treat others with the respect that they dish out; and contribute in some meaningful way to the environment around you.
The splinter in that cute, little proverbial puppy paw is that there is an elite cadre of people whose motives are much more sinister and domineering. I’m talking about the 1% of the country that owns as much wealth as the entire middle class. I’m talking about assholes like Richard Branson who owns his own island but claims he needs government money to keep his business afloat.
The more enduring problem: they have all the power. Richard Branson will most likely get what he wants.
The scales are tipped wildly in their favor. The fact of the matter is: if their power is left unfettered, they will kill us. They truly have no end to their greed. In the middle of a pandemic, the government (that they control) shelled out $1,200 bread crumbs to the people, while the largest corporations got a $500 billion dollar bailout. Even more menacing is that their addiction to fossil fuels will cook our Earth to a level on par with Venus.
Before we can enjoy our simple lives and create meaningful communities and lives with our loved ones, we must first rein in the oligarchic elite trying to take that simple future away from us. Their looting has gone largely unnoticed by the relatively opulent. But trust me, the population will continue to get squeezed for less and less and less.
I follow the lead of Chris Hedges on the solution. The elite cadre of individuals have stripped every mechanism of power from us: the media, the Congress, the judicial system, and the economy. The only way to retake power is through massive, non-violent, civil disobedience. We must obstruct, disrupt, and paralyze the gears of the system. As Mario Savio says: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. You have got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, and upon all the apparatus. And you’ve got to make it stop.”
That time is now. You can no longer passively take part. Which side are you on?