Around the Web

Issue No. 007

AI keeps snake-oiling, bankrupt surveillance, cultivating memory, evading algorithms, how space became a billboard, and a browser mitigating tremors.

Note: While the post is written in English, some links lead to articles in German.

A wild potpourri awaits you, dear reader, in this week’s issue. We are travelling from ancient history to the latest in AI snake oil. Turkey weighs a war against Kurdistan, I will cover this in the next issue. For now, I need to recover from my second bout of sickness in four weeks.

On a technical note: Images are currently not displayed in the RSS feed and, consequently, the newsletter. You can see everything on the website. I aim to fix this before publishing the next issue, and use more images going forward.

Enjoy the read.

This ain’t intelligence

A new Machine Learning model is reportedly able to spot depression in 88 percent of participants based on their tweets. Which is of course a terribly bad thing to do. Once such a model gets into the wild, how do you control who uses it to analyse who?

However, the bot can also be used after a post has made it into the public domain, potentially allowing employers and other businesses to assess a user’s mental state based on their social media posts. It could be used for a number of reasons, the researchers say, including for use in sentiment analysis, criminal investigations or employment screening,

No matter how good or bad, such models should never exist.

Giving the battered mind no rest-bite, we will see emotion detection implemented into Zoom, and other products in the upcoming months. The company promises to use ML models to help analyse digital sales pitches. It’s «ironic» that not even the companies building these snake oil products really believe in them.

But Ehlen recognized the limitations of the technology. “There is no real objective way to measure people’s emotions,” he said. “You could be smiling and nodding, and in fact, you’re thinking about your vacation next week.”

It is, of course, impossible for machine learning models to determine human emotion accurately.

This impossibility does not stop the implementation of models in ever more areas of life, Intel is reportedly seeking to implement emotion detection into classroom software.

The NYT Magazine published a long read on Open AI’s GPT-3 Large Language Model. Unfortunately, it did a mediocre job at best. Emily Bender, who was interviewed for the piece, published a response. In it, she dismantles the uncritical parroting of Open AI’s PR (and with it that of the wider industry), as well as providing a better framework for journalists to report on tech-solutionism.

Puff pieces that fawn over what Silicon Valley techbros have done, with amassed capital and computing power, are not helping us get any closer to solutions to problems created by the deployment of so-called “AI”. On the contrary, they make it harder by refocusing attention on strawman problems.

What are you looking at?

The spyware company NSO Group has been declared «valueless» to investors. NSO Group became infamous for their Pegasus software, which has been used against investigative journalists and activists around the world. Maybe building surveillance tools for autocrats isn't worthwhile. Mere weeks ago, German company FinFisher, which fished (I’m terribly sorry) in the same murky waters, has declared bankruptcy. I won’t even try to hide my Schadenfreude.

The participants of the Zurich Marathon last weekend have been subjected to facial recognition, without it being mentioned in the event’s privacy policy. After the event, participants were able to find images of their run, by uploading a selfie.

The Mute button in the video chat application of your choice might not do what you think it does. While the other participants cannot hear you, analysis of the streamed data shows that the companies providing the tools might well do.

They found that all of the apps they tested occasionally gather raw audio data while mute is activated, with one popular app gathering information and delivering data to its server at the same rate regardless of whether the microphone is muted or not.

What the companies do with the collected data will remain unclear.

It’s easier to guess what the FBI plans to do with its million dollar investment in surveillance technology. It’s far from new that acts of violence serve as the pretext to expand policing budgets, even if the institutions in question are already more than able to surveil what they want.

As the Rolling Stone reports, the FBI has been actively monitoring social media feeds during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Somehow they failed to do so in the run-up to January, 6th, 2021, when the Trump crowd stormed the US capitol.

The new documents suggest the agency has all the authority it needs to monitor the social-media platforms in the name of public safety — and, in fact, the bureau had done just that during the nationwide wave of racial justice protests in 2020. Critics of the FBI say that the bureau’s desire for more authority and surveillance tools is part of a decades-long expansion of the vast security apparatus inside the federal government.

Panopticon company Clearview AI is building a product to verify customer identity.

News from the past

Those white classical statues we’ve grown accustomed to might not always been so white. The aesthetic theory derived from the whitened image served as one of the predecessors of the anthropologists. Reality might have been more colourful, though.

Large polychrome tauroctony relief of Mithras killing a bull, originally from the mithraeum of S. Stefano Rotondo, dating to the end of the 3rd century CE. Now at the Baths of Diocletian Museum, Rome (photo by Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Coda has published one of the best articles on memory culture, spanning an ark from the south of the USA to Germany. The piece goes into depth why it’s so hard to achieve a form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung that does not stop when the own family gets involved.

Silence distorts memory in various ways. It can happen when a nation, collectively, refuses to engage with the realities of its past, opening up space for revisionist histories and feel good counter-narratives that gloss over the horrors of the past. Sometimes national silence is summoned as an act of avoidance; other times, to serve a political or ideological agenda.

The whole piece is long, but every sentence worth your time.

Social, they said

The internet has always been modernising language. You can view early abbreviated uses of language (kthxbye, lol) as an outlet needed in chat rooms or a quick way to communicate in online games, and Emoticons and Kaomoji offered to convey emotion through text.

With today’s algorithmic moderation system the pressure is different, though. Automated systems rank down specific words (or at least that’s suspected, as nobody knows how those systems work). This leads to a new form of online speak, dubbed Algospeak.

“There’s a line we have to toe, it’s an unending battle of saying something and trying to get the message across without directly saying it,” said Sean Szolek-VanValkenburgh, a TikTok creator with over 1.2 million followers. “It disproportionately affects the LGBTQIA community and the BIPOC community because we’re the people creating that verbiage and coming up with the colloquiums.”

Elon from Twitter

Shortly after it was announced that Elon Musk will join Twitter’s board, it was announced that Elon Musk will, in fact, not join Twitter’s board. Shortly after it was announced that Elon Musk will not join Twitter’s board, Elon Musk announced that he wants to buy Twitter. Twitter said no, though it was unlikely that Musk ever intended to follow through.

Tesla’s vows continued in the meantime. An analysis found bot activity, which seems to correlate with rises in Tesla’s stock market.

Enjoy capitalism

A first investigation of the collapse of an Amazon warehouse last year, showed signs that some columns supporting the building might not have been anchored to the floor. Results are preliminary, and Amazon denies any wrongdoing.

Workplace safety has never been Amazon’s specialty, things went even more downhill in 2021.

The ad market is seemingly even more rigged than we would have thought. It seems like most of the money pumped into the market never reaches the publications offering the ad placements in their content. A good time to remember that digital ads might be completely useless.

Capitalism must expand and commodify every last thing on earth. And earth is not enough, so capitalism moves to commodify space too, changing the final frontier into a billboard.

The new space race pursued by the likes of Bezos, Musk, and Virgin’s Richard Branson taps into that same thirst for inspiration and transcendence. Their companies are pushing the limits of technology in remarkable ways. At the same time, there is something deeply unsettling about the space barons’ capitalist swagger. They measure the grandeur of space in terms of dollars and Bitcoin. They look out into the cosmic expanse and see another frontier for business expansion, ripe for profit-making colonies, mining operations, and satellite swarms.

The world is burning

New reporting by The Intercept shows, yet again, how the industrial capital tries to undermine scientific publications and concerted action against the climate crisis.

Many scholars have noted the influential role the [Global Climate Coalition] played in obstructing climate policy in the 1990s, but the first peer-reviewed paper on the group, published this week, reveals that the original and lasting intention of the GCC was to push for voluntary efforts only and torpedo international momentum toward setting mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

The climate catastrophe does not care about this too much. Chile is rationing water for its residents. The same is happening in the vicinity of Tesla’s Giga Factory in Brandenburg, Germany.

World Wide Web

The open Web has always been there, sometimes ignored, and forgotten. Is a renaissance underway as tiredness of the walled gardens of Facebook et al. increases? It seems like, as Anil Dash argues in his new post A Web Renaissance.

While the core technology of the web is decades old, the tools that help make it and run have been quietly evolving into something extraordinary in the last few years, too. There’s a flourishing of powerful new frameworks that make it simpler than ever to build flexible, responsive, useful sites. New hosting platforms let those sites be deployed and delivered faster and more reliably than ever. And you can build one of these sites in literally under a minute, then collaborate with people anywhere in the world to iterate on making the site better.

Don’t-call-them-overlay-company AudioEye sent a cease & desist letter to accessibility specialist Adrian Roselli for criticising the company on Twitter. AudioEye is one of several companies who've come under criticism for marketing that claims foolproof accessibility from day one. According to AudioEye’s lawyers, it is a misrepresentation of the company to classify them as an overlay vendor, as they offer manual testing, too.

The W3C, the governing body of the World Wide Web, is seemingly in disarray.

DuckDuckGo has launched a new privacy-centric browser. It’s built on top of WebKit, and as such for now a Mac only product. Using WebKit is an interesting move, as most of the recent newer browsers (Brave, Edge) use Chromium as their base. DuckDuckGo has decided that Chromium includes too much of Google to be good. One stand-alone feature is the Browser’s ability to automatically interact with some cookie banners, rejecting cookies as a user visits a website.

The road to hell is paved with crypto intentions

Jordan Belfort, best known as the Wolf of Wall Street, is now into crypto. He held a workshop in house. Participation fee? One Bitcoin, which is roughly $40,000. All guests were male, to Mr. Belfort’s astonishment.

As they dined on caviar and rigatoni, some of the guests shared stories of their own debauchery; Mr. Belfort, it turned out, was not the only wolf in the room. Two guests discussed the mechanics of pursuing younger women without risking entanglement in a “sugar baby” situation. Someone speculated about how an enterprising strip club owner might incorporate NFTs into the business.

Can't imagine why only bros participated.

The Bitcoin conference is done and dusted. Two articles and a podcast to get you into the loop:

The crypto mining world tour continues. After being ousted from China, and pariahed in Kazakhstan, miners were turning their attention to the USA. NowNew York may crackdown on crypto mining, too

Utilising the iPad’s accelerometer, there is a new stabilised browser for users dealing with hand tremors.

Being photographed in conflict and war and ending up in viral image, might haunt you forever.

In today’s conflict you risk being called a Crisis Actor, in addition to your trauma. Suspension of Belief explains the genesis of this conspiracy theory.

War is gendered and homophobic. The Russian war in Ukraine is no exception.

Wonder what happens if you accept only necessary cookies? In case of the Deutsche Bahn app, it opens a Pandora’s box of tracking technology regardless.


That’s it for this week. If you’ve made it this far, why not recommend Around the Web to a friend?

Around the Web will be on hiatus next weekend, as I’ll celebrate two birthdays. The next issue will come to your inboxes on April, 30th. Until then, stay sane and hug your friends.

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