Seizing land and fake robots, break dancing solidarity
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
Here’s what I’m reading today:
A very informative/powerful site documenting work to end no-knock raids, which preceded the murders of Breonna Taylor and Amir Locke.
How the global break dancing community is organizing to protect Afghan artists
The long legacy of the US government seizing Black land
How to adapt to life with rising seas
A ship full of Porsches is on fire in the ocean?!
And, a Very Strange Fish.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
One of the two reality shows I watch is The Circle, Netflix’s socially-distanced version of Big Brother where reality contestants chat, fight, and flirt their way to a cash prize all on a virtual social network. The antics are fun, the way race, gender, and sexuality plays out on the platform is fascinating and upsetting, and I just find the clunky fake automation of the social network software hilarious. Basically The Circle is your basic social network which players operate by yelling at their TVs. Everything is supposedly automated but the way the AI perfectly interprets commands like “Circle, set that picture with me in the cute cardigan as my profile pic” or “Circle message: does it smell fishy in here or is it just me hashtag catfish hunter and then add a fish emoji and… do you have an emoji of a cat detective or something?” is so goofy! It’s plainly evident that some operator is backstage dictating for these contestants but the fact that everyone keeps up the charade makes the show very funny to watch!
The Circle isn’t the first or only instance of fake automation, in fact the official name for the phenomenon, a “mechanical turk,” dates back to the 18th century.
Under The Hood
The original Mechanical Turk was a chess playing robot made to look like an Ottoman caricature, hence the questionable name. If you’re familiar with the fortune telling Zoltar arcade game, the Mechanical Turk is much the same but with a chess board. However, being invented in 1770, the robot wasn’t actually automated but was instead operated by a human stuffed into the desk beneath the chess board who operated the turbaned puppet’s arm. Thus a mechanical turk = a machine with a human operator that gives the illusion of functioning on its own.
Despite their ancient origins, mechanical turks are more prevalent now than ever before. The desire to provide seamless automated experiences online has led more than just The Circle to hide their human labor behind a whizz-bang gimmick. In fact there’s a whole website where you can get paid a tiny unregulated wage to moderate comments, tag images, service help-chats and a whole assortment of the little tasks that appear to be automated from the other side of the screen. The website is called MTurk and it’s run by labor-exploiter extraordinaire Amazon.
But Bezos isn’t the only tech-billionaire getting in on the fake-automation game. Google has been siphoning all our labor and disguising it as automation for over a decade.
Remember this? Remember THINGS? Yes reCaptcha, a project started by some Carnegie Mellon kids in 2007 and snapped up by Google in 2009 used everyone’s labor to Digitize ALL The Books and bring about features like the Ngram Viewer. Yes this also means that Google has all the words to all the books while libraries have to shell out big bucks to Elsevier for research by authors who were forced to relinquish copyright. I’m sorry but what is the point of property as a concept if it just gets stolen by more powerful people? Oh you’re saying the point of property is theft??!
Reverse Image Search
Google is done digitizing books but still going strong with its labor Captcha. The reCaptcha of today, where you have to choose which image is a train or a cat or whatever serves to train Google Street View’s image recognition AI (all the better to surveil you with my dear) – and also to just tag and categorize things while the automation is still in progress. So the takeaway is don’t trust anyone who says something is “automatic.” Odds are someone’s labor is being exploited down the line, and beyond that our society relies on stealing ancient energy gifted to ancient fossilized organisms by the sun. So until we get to a less automated and more intimate way of living our lives, Google owes me a W2.