Discover more from The Terminal
Fake news, fake shrimp, and yet more stolen apes
+ a handful of links of varying quality
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All the news thats fit to print
A good bit from Sam-Adler Bell in Intelligencer, on the rise and fall of the Biden administration’s disinformation board:
“Disinformation” was the liberal Establishment’s traumatic reaction to the psychic wound of 2016. It provided an answer that evaded the question altogether, protecting them from the agony of self-reflection. It wasn’t that the country was riven by profound antinomies and resentments born of material realities that would need to be navigated by new kinds of politics. No, the problem was that large swaths of the country had been duped, brainwashed by nefarious forces both foreign and domestic. And if only the best minds, the most credentialed experts, could be given new authority to regulate the flow of “fake news,” the scales would fall from the eyes of the people and they would re-embrace the old order they had been tricked into despising. This fantasy turned a political problem into a scientific one. The rise of Trump called not for new politics but new technocrats.
This picks up the threads of an earlier essay by Joe Bernstein in Harper’s, which describes the contemporary discourse on disinformation as a “war of restoration” by traditional truth-bearing institutions of the political centre, which have been repeatedly humbled by the economic and social crises of the last few decades.
I was thinking about disinformation with respect to the Australian election that just passed on the weekend. One of the great unknowns prior to Election Day was the eventual impact of the the United Australia Party vote, which was often treated as a cipher for the impact of online disinformation thanks to the party’s antivax fixations, huge Facebook ad spend and bizarre campaigns about Australia becoming a vassal state of the World Health Organisation. In the end, the answer was: not all that much. They seem likely to score a Senate seat in Victoria — rendered ineffectual by the progressive majority — and they did scrape off a chunk of the vote in otherwise safe, outer-suburban Labor seats, but the doom-and-gloom portents did not really pay out. (They were outpolled in Queensland by the Legalise Cannabis party, which “ran one radio ad” and “printed seven shirts”.)
In short: if this was the disinformation election, with a population still adrift on febrile pandemic currents and ripe for exploitation by sinister online actors, it was an anticlimax. After two years of restiveness and people spending a truly inordinate amount of time on the computer, the predicted political outcome was largely muted. What solutions are offered to the (not insignificant) section of the population hit hardest by lockdowns and therefore most alienated from mainstream politics and most responsive to UAP messaging leaves to be seen.
But, while I find myself in strong agreement with much of what Adler-Bell and Bernstein say, I also think fears about online misinformation are at the very least gesticulating at a real phenomenon, and not just finding easy explanations for fundamental political failures. Every term that has emerged and then been outmoded and discarded — fake news, filter bubbles, rabbit holes, echo chambers — has tried to capture some aspect of how the internet mediates our political and social lives, and the fundamental sense of wrongness it engenders. Like the contemporary arguments over online free speech, it’s less about what it says it’s about and more about how technology structures our experience, and how the social order shifts to account for that.
A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.
In that way I see the current discourse on online misinformation — putting aside its obvious role as a site for political conflict — as kind of like the universal parental debate about screen time for kids. It doesn’t attract quite the same level of media attention as the evils of misinformation, but it’s also probably the single technological topic that generates the most actual thought from the general population.
In both cases there’s a sense that living our lives through a screen changes things quite dramatically — and quite possibly not for the better — but nobody has a clear answer on exactly how, or what could be done about it. All we can do is gesture vaguely at its contours as it escalates.
Today’s generative AI nightmare
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the saga of Seth Green’s stolen Bored Ape, which he was intending to turn into some kind of gentle network cable comedy — also starring LinkedIn blowhard Gary Vee — along with the rest of his library of NFTs. (Who this is meant to appeal to is beyond me, but anyway.) The crux of this story is that Bored Apes, as with other NFT collections, convey usage rights with ownership. So if you own an ape, you’re entitled to commercially exploit its likeness within certain parameters.
This is pitched as a decentralised content empire, built from the ground up instead of being imposed from above. Instead, it plays out more like gigantic cultural psyop, as you’re forced to see cartoon apes in all sorts of bizarre projects and configurations, despite little evidence the broader pop culture sphere has much interest in them at all.
Unfortunately for Green, what also matters is copyright law. And when the actor’s NFT collection was pilfered by a scammer in early May, he lost the commercial rights to his show’s cartoon protagonist, a scruffy Bored Ape named Fred Simian, whose likeness and usage rights now belong to someone else.
“I bought that ape in July 2021, and have spent the last several months developing and exploiting the IP to make it into the star of this show,” Green told Vaynerchuk. “Then days before — his name is Fred by the way — days before he’s set to make his world debut, he’s literally kidnapped.”
Because everything to do with NFTs is built on an infinite hierarchy of hype and variously flavoured bag pumps, I find it impossible to evaluate whether this is just an elaborate promotional bit or not. Such are deeply weird incentives of this space that even if it isn’t promo, it sort of transforms into promo anyway.
Certainly Green’s tweet saying he is “looking forward to precedent setting debates on IP ownership & exploitation” does not get me particularly excited for anything. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a precedent-setting legal case attempting to actually litigate what exploitable commercial rights are conveyed by owning an NFT, and whether they are actually transferred when stolen.
You might well ask: what problem is any of this solving? The last days of Rome vibe of it is compelling, at least.
Here’s a good story from Rest of World about InDriver, a taxi app developed in Yakutsk, the capital of the Russian republic of Sakha. It only accepts cash, is optimised for long distances, and allows haggling over price.
As a result of its unique setup, it has become popular in developing markets where Uber’s model is more alien:
Attitudes toward haggling are a key indicator that a country will take off, Fedorov explained. The app has been very well received in a country like Pakistan, where haggling is part of everyday life. But inDriver’s market research shows that it wouldn’t work quite as well in South Korea or Japan, where haggling is not a societal norm.
Ryman Sneed, who is 39 and lives in Mexico City, discovered the inDriver app about six months ago, after a friend recommended it. She said that now she uses it frequently instead of Uber. “If I have cash, then I’ll be more prone to use inDriver, just because it’s always cheaper,” she told Rest of World. She usually offers about 10 pesos over the app’s suggested price for a trip in order to get a driver faster. She said she preferred some aspects of Uber, such as the option to pay by card and greater standardization of vehicles, “but then I go with inDriver because, for me, I’d rather pay less and have a somewhat less comfortable ride — it’s negligible for me.”
This is a great example of a technology which seem more or less neutral in its operation actually containing a kind of embedded political order. Uber is at its core an incredibly simple proposition: you press a button, a car comes, it takes you to your destination, and you pay automatically. But embedded in that simple workflow is a wide variety of assumptions that might not map neatly to a local economy and culture.
You can read clashes between those assumptions and a local culture as a pretty simple situation — some cultures are going to have a different national car stock, or a different payment preference, or a varied geography. But on a deeper level its interesting to see the degree to which major software platforms project a certain kind of globalised, standardised vision of seemingly simple processes everywhere they touch.
Then, for whatever reason, the places experiencing more friction with this imposed way of doing things see more parallels with processes exported from Siberia than California.
This seems to be popping up all over the place: music artists are complaining they’re being pressured into being TikTok content machines by their labels.
Good writeup on the Australian election and the shrinking vote of the major parties, from The Piping Shrike: “One of the dullest campaigns in living memory ended up with one of the most interesting results. The two are not unrelated.”
On the legal and financial cleanup of Lehman Brothers, parts of which persist in a zombified state since its collapse in 2008: “The bank whose collapse marked the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis is only mostly dead. These are the people attending to its last remains ahead of its final court cases.”
Thought this was interesting and thoughtful on the ‘hearing voices movement’.
From last year, but I didn’t catch it at the time: tracing the genesis of the Hollywood scandal as a media genre back to the trial of Fatty Arbuckle.
A story on the conspiracy culture which tracks earthquake warnings and imagines them as evidence of a sinister puppetmaster.