Monday, December 14, 2020

Agenda for community control of the internet

The Internet is an odd industry. On one hand, there is often a low cost of entry for service providers which favors small firms, but there is also immense efficiencies of scale that favor legacy firms (e.g. network effects) -- and to top it off, there is immense value added by internet-focused activities. At the moment, most of this added value is being captured by a few big tech terms, who have become so powerful that they are even upending our political systems (at least in the USA).

With all this going on, there is negligible and ineffective regulation, and I see little promise that the state will establish a sustainable status quo like they did for the early 20th century utilities (water, electricity, etc). So this realm is my favorite target industry for a bottom-up revolution. 

I've been trying to figure out how I can contribute, recently being inspired by Bookchin's 'libertarian municipalism', even though I don't buy into the full package. But it does seem to be onto something in emphasizing the local community/municipality as the natural unit of political organization, with larger-scale organization being handled by confederation -- and that Internet services are the most tractable industry to organize according to these principles.

While I've been thinking along these lines, I discovered that the Tech Learning Collective is moving in these same directions -- with the focus of taking control of our broken communication systems as a defensive move against the new wave of despotism in America. (h/t C4SS).

I've excerpted the core items from their agenda below, with my own thoughts after that:

One: Become your own Google (Contacts, Calendar, Docs, etcetera).

Most of the common services that most people use for many of their day-to-day needs, such as keeping phone numbers synchronized across multiple devices, planning their days with a digital calendar, or drafting documents can be easily accomplished without involving large companies or sums of money. Abandon the search for “a more trustworthy alternative” to Google by providing the services you need for yourself. Just as one might learn to grow a small portion of one’s own food in a garden or greenhouse, commit to increasing your digital self-reliance over time as you hone your digital green thumb.

Be prepared for this to take some time. If you’re unsure where to start, join us for any workshops that sound fun to you! There’s no need to change all your habits at once. Instead, take note of the many daily activities that don’t require an Internet connection or even a Web browser to accomplish at all. Then simply, well, simplify.

In some cases, such as intra-office file sharing, streaming music from a personal library, or loading your favorite e-books to read at night, a local network rather than a connection to the global Internet is very often sufficient. Install a home-brew server to fill this simple role. It’s like the digital equivalent of potting a clipping of your favorite herb on your windowsill. The more you care for it, the more it will reward you.

In those situations where the Internet is truly necessary or dramatically more practical, Free, Libre, and Open Source Software is capable of providing many more features than those offered to you by the data-mining corporations, and more privately. There’s no need to code new apps or even to learn much if anything about how to code at all. Since there is so much existing software available already, nearly every imaginable need is accounted for. In fact, internally, Tech Learning Collective operates on self-hosted Free Software tools, like a CalDAV server for meeting schedules and reminders (replacing our need for Google Calendar), and an XMPP server for group chats (replacing our need for Slack).

Very soon, you will have taken your first step into a larger world.

Two: Gather others and practice connecting and communicating securely with them.

Once you can provide for even some of your own digital needs, you will find that you have surplus capacity (extra disk space, compute power, and/or bandwidth) that you can provide to others. (At Tech Learning Collective, we use old models of the cheapest computers available, such as the single-board Raspberry Pi, and we still have plenty of room to grow.) Use this excess as an opportunity to bring others you care about along in this journey with you. If they’re like you, pay it forward by showing them how to set up their own home-brew server as you did. Otherwise, share the excess by inviting them to make use of the services you once provided solely for yourself. The more you share, the more you’ll be continuing to hone your skills as a system administrator, becoming an ever more practiced and experienced “digital farmer” or tradesperson.

Things change dramatically when you begin to involve others, so you’ll have to start considering inter-user protections in a way you haven’t had to before. Security becomes (even more) important. You’ll have responsibilities not only for your own data, but someone else’s, too. This should feel new and different to you, because it is. Practice communicating about what, when, and why you’re taking certain actions that may affect other people, and do it using secure and private communications channels, like Signal Private Messenger groups or, of course, a self-hosted chat or federated microblogging service.

Three: Embrace physical proximity by interconnecting individually-owned infrastructure.

The Internet collapses the experience of distance because every location in cyberspace appears to be no further than any other location. Resist the temptation to abandon the physical realm, and thereby the Earth, by focusing instead on interconnecting your home-brew server or local network with the home-brew servers or local networks of those around you. This enables local coordination on local infrastructure, rather than on Facebook’s, which is a key step towards a community-owned and surveillance-resistant network.

Making such connections can start as simply as sharing your Wi-Fi password with a neighbor in exchange for splitting the monthly Internet bill, but soon you’ll want to go faster and reach farther. Replace weak wireless signals by running physical Ethernet cable across apartments (an easy task in older multi-family houses) or practice “roof-hopping” over longer distances in your neighborhood with more specialized radio equipment. In Detroit, for example, you can work with the Detroit Community Technology Project to gain hands-on experience doing exactly this. Many other cities have similar opportunities, and in those that don’t you can start your own more modest internetworking projects.

Once you reach your physical limits, use Virtual Private Networking (VPN) or Tor (Onion service) routing to connect your fledgling network with a more geographically distant friend’s, creating a proper (lowercase-i) internet among yourselves. You may need to piggyback on the existing (capital-I) Internet for this, or you may not, but in either case you’ll be building physical and digital power above and beyond merely electoral and representational power.

At this stage, you will likely benefit from installing Internet-like infrastructure, such as Domain Name System (DNS) servers. Since these are your own, you need not adhere to the familiar “dot-com” or “dot-org” domain names, nor must you register with and pay an external company for permission to be known by a given name. On your internet with your friends, everything is free.

Four: Grow communities by extending infrastructure and strengthen community power by building coalitions.

Reject the idea that successful mobilizations must be large, or that to do anything meaningful you must first do it “at scale.” Instead, build coalitions with neighbors and others in your locality by building on relationships already established through earlier work building physical infrastructure together. You can coordinate public actions that are small at first and scale over time as you gain experience working on and solving problems collectively. Coalition means scaling out, not scaling up.

When Trump lost last weekend, he didn’t just lose one election. He lost many individual State elections. What we witnessed this past week was only possible because of a cooperating coalition of individual actors and institutions moving in concert. That cooperation is what every lowercase-d democratic institution is in its essence. The same principle holds for the Internet, and that principle is the reason the Internet still has the potential to serve as a foundational platform on which we can continually choose to refute fascism. But not if we do so only on Twitter. Not if we limit our toolkit only to ballot boxes.

The actions I was thinking of are not quite so 'ground-up' and these, but are more about at least bringing Internet-based services (especially social media) under the control of distributed (and possibly, local) administrators.
  • City level ISP; wireless networks
  • City level email services
  • Decentralized/federated discussion boards (like NextDoor perhaps, but more focused options are available too)
  • Face to face file sharing (via SD cards and flash drives) -- copy entire digital libraries at once.
  • Local ID/certificate servers (OpenID?).



Monday, September 07, 2020

what is cultural marxism

 The idea of 'cultural marxism' is the big fad on the American right these days. I made the mistake of trying to figure out if there's anything to it, or whether it's just another bizarre conspiracy theory.

Since Tablet magazine normally publishes coherent essays, I'm taking this essay as one of the better arguments that there is something meaningful to the term (regardless of whether it is used coherently in typical online discourse).

Having read half the essay, I'm not on my way to being convinced.

The argument seems to have three steps:

1. post-Marx marxists decided that culture mattered. That it was shaped by the ruling class to support their political agenda.

2. The marxists then determined that they would have to challenge the cultural hegemony of the ruling class.

3. Somehow this brings us to the modern American left (with some sort of intolerance for ideas that support oppressive institutions).

The first point is trivial. It seems obvious to me, but maybe that's because I'm influenced by Marxists. But I'm pretty sure this idea can be found as far back as the US slavery abolitionist movement (where F. Douglas described how Christianity was shaped by slavers to support the institution of slavery) and the French revolution (again, where the church was seen as an extension of the state). It probably goes back much farther. Another critic noted Hobbes. Maybe the Reformation too. I'd expect you could even find this attitude in the ancient world...every revolutionary will find that traditional culture was an extension of the traditional ruling class. And the mechanism is easy enough to see - the ruling class has the resources to create cultural artifacts and to promote and deliver these artifacts to an audience. There are plenty of examples from history of the elite judging culture by whether it will put the wrong ideas into the heads of the lower classes...and making efforts to purge dangerous ideas from the culture.

The second point seems trivial too. Of course the Marxists would recognize this. Here is the watered down conspiracy theory. They were pretty open about their intent to challenge the status quo of culture. I'm sure they did it with some amount of success. But it's a huge leap to suggest that Marxism is the only (or primary) source of criticism of traditional American culture.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Attempting to make anonymous online donation

I recently attempted to make an anonymous donation online. It was a bit of a pain, here's how it worked for me.

1. Purchased a Walmart gift card in cash at the store ($50, $4 purchase fee).
2. Registered card on Walmart website. I tried to use Tor, but got blocked at the Captcha test -- for some reason Tor is often incompatible with Captcha. I ended up registering with Firefox -- after the fact, it occurred to me that I may have been able to route my Firefox traffic through Tor. I used the store's address as my "billing address". Even though Walmart claimed that the card was activated immediately, it took a few hours before their website recognized it as an active card.
3. Created an account on Patreon (the recipient was using Patreon). I used a pseudonymous email address for this -- I expect this email could be tracked back to me with a little effort, but I don't expect anyone would expend that effort. I'm only slightly concerned at repercussions from this donation -- not due to current laws, but due to a growing disregard for free speech, such as with the anti-BDS laws. I was able to create the account using Tor (but not on the first attempt for some reason).
4. Paid Patreon using the gift card. For some reason the Patreon website did not allow me to enter the card's number using Tor, so I switched over to Firefox. Now that I've set up the payment, I'm switching to contacting Patreon with Tor.
5. Potential problem: The gift card is not supposed to be used for recurring payments. I set up a small monthly donation. We'll see if it gets rejected next month. It would be nice if I could transfer all the money to Patreon or another intermediary, and then pay it out a bit at a time, but I don't know if that's possible. I see that Patreon accepts PayPal as a payment source, and I think they let you keep an account. So maybe that would be the way to do it.

End result: Not very effective. Probably not worth the time (except as a exercise).

1. Patreon knows who I donated to, and they have my IP address and my pseudonymous email -- and my Walmart gift card.
2. Walmart has my IP address and knows where I bought the gift card.
3. The recipient has my pseudonymous email.

I'm most concerned with Patreon as a weak point -- I can imagine an antagonistic entity forcing them to release their payment records, and then opening a file on everyone who has donated to targeted organizations. But even in that case, they would have to do some extra work to figure out who I am (though maybe contacting my ISP would be enough).

(this post was composed through Tor browser)

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Epstein suicide: do we trust the state?

Eptstein's suicide looks like the latest in a series of decisions that will protect his associates. Maybe the FBI can get to the bottom of this and let us know what happened. But that's not the real question that faces the public now -- the question is whether we trust the system to reveal what Epstein was up to and who else was involved. This case is prompting conspiracy theories among people who are not normally prone to such things... it may reveal a more widespread loss of faith in American institutions. Or maybe not.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The efficiency of public services

I've become more acquainted with the workings of state agencies over the past few years, and consequently have become more interested in some of the theories about the efficiency with which the government delivers public services.

When looking at the inefficiencies of government services, I've previously focused on the big picture issues:
  1. The agency problem: The government is not necessarily attempting to achieve what the people (or a person) wants -- it has its own agenda.
  2. The information problem: Even if the government were fully committed to serving the needs of the people, it would not know how to serve those needs as well as the people themselves do. 
Along these lines, you could also define "the control problem", by which I mean that the state is a massive, complicated institution, making it very hard for the elected officials to actually assure that federal employees are doing what the elected officials think they should be doing. This issue exists in any institution,  but it creates some special problems for democratic states, which will be the focus of this post.

What I've seen in government agencies is that the employees are extremely constrained, to the point that it is difficult for them to do their jobs. There are tons of bureaucratic hoops. Some of these are the natural result of working for a big institution and trying to coordinate large numbers of people (which includes the public, and not just the employees). But I believe many of them are consequences of the need to maintain "the public trust". This is especially complicated because government employees are working with tax dollars -- forcibly confiscated wealth. If a government employee overcharges (or does not fulfill their commitments), it's a scandal. In contrast, if a private company does the same, its just a bad business decision. Throughout the institution, people are more forgiving of corruption in private institutions -- both because the costs are often limited to people who are inside the institution, and because others (e.g. customers) are free to walk away. As a result, government employees are wrapped in red-tape to avoid corruption -- every decision goes through several layers of approval to make sure that nobody is abusing their position. Of course, it can only stop a fraction of the corruption out there, and it probably costs more money than it saves. But the point that elected officials can claim they are doing everything in their power to stop corruption, and everything revolves around CYA rather than GID.

Another problem with government agencies is that everything is ultimately a performance -- the ultimate justification for government activities is that they get supportive officials re-elected.

While I'm on this topic, the conventional Republican complaints hold no water.
  1. Workers need to fear losing their jobs. Complacency is rarely a problem among career civil servants, that I've seen. I think Republicans just want to maintain a general culture of financial insecurity, so that they can better push around workers.
  2. Agencies need more efficient management (hence, the hiring freeze). Again, the Republicans talk a big game, but have no idea how to improve management. If management seems bloated, it is a consequence of the control problem described above. It is exacerbated by the Republican drive to hold worker's feet to the fire. Policies like the hiring freeze don't magically make agencies do more with  less -- in fact, it just makes the operation of the agencies more complicated (more layers of approval to make a hire), and increases the administrative burden. Ultimately, all of this stuff ends up being just another form of political performance -- one more thing to distract employees from the jobs they are supposedly hired to perform.
If the elected officials want to make government agencies efficient, they need to start by looking at their own behavior. Start by setting clear strategic plans (wouldn't NASA love that), and then allocating the money needed to implement those plans. Let the agencies know how much they have to spend and what they are expected to accomplish. And stop denigrating the employees.

p.s. Maybe "control" is the problem. Maybe the solution is to trust the employees. Or shrink the state to the point that it can be efficiently managed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Small government for the small folk

I asked previously whether "regular Americans" have any influence over the government. For those of us who think the answer is effectively "no", we may think of ourselves as "the small folk". My view is that the small folk amount to perhaps 3/4 of the population (others say 90%). This leads to the seemingly contradictory proposition that elections could be easily decided by the people who have no influence. However, this is not a contradiction, for a couple of reasons. First, part of what makes small folk "small" is that they do not have the resources to organize around myriad policy issues, and therefore they have no say as the elite micromanage policy decisions to their own benefit. Related to this, the small folk are not the people who run for office or decide who gets on the ballot -- so the conclusion that small folk could decide the election depends on someone actually running that small folk would want to vote for. Given these realities of political power, what is the best outcome that small folk like us can obtain from voting?

The first thing to recognize is that if the small folk are going to be anything but pawns in politics, we need to vote as a block. If we allow ourselves to be recruited to the campaigns of elite, their arsenal of marketing strategies will drag us into culture wars, special-interest favor seeking, or whatever pet cause they can use turn us against each other so that they continue milking us. To have any electoral power, the small folk must organize around a single issue, or a coherent and durable platform. This is the traditional strategy of socialist movements -- while it had some success prior to WWII, the elites have figured out how to neutralize it since then: paternalistic social welfare policies dampened the urgency of reform, pro-establishment worker organizations were cultivated to replace radical organizations, the threat of foreign tyrants was used to rally workers around the flag, and finally cultural disagreement was politicized (made into "a war") to create divisions among the people. The New Deal could be considered a victory for the worker's movement, but it did not change the basic power structure and class dynamic of American society, and eventually the USA fell back into the old patterns of elitist greed, unmediated by a sense of elite solidarity with the (white) working man.

I've found no proposals from conventional activists that would protect most Americans from being reduced to peasants at the mercy of the elite. Some progressives seek a reinstatement of the post-WWII social contract (with some updates), but this agenda has consistently failed to gain electoral traction. Even worse, it depends upon a sense of noblesse oblige from the elite, which is unlikely to be revived short of some crisis comparable to the threat of nationalist or communist revolutions*. Socialist radicals see an opportunity to revive their old big-government agenda, but struggle to overcome horrible legacy of state-socialism, ranging from economic stagnation in the West and India, to routine atrocities in the Stalinist regimes.

Any agenda that focuses on the state as a solution to our problems grinds to a halt when people balk at handing more authority to distant elites. The progressive agenda has failed to appeal to conservative populists, who see progressive policies as embodying an urban cosmopolitan culture that conflicts with their own judgement. Likewise, the socialist program fails to live up to its ideass due to the inevitable problems that arise when one group of people tries to impose decisions on another group. The political and organizational weakness of these statist approaches argues for an anti-state (i.e. libertarian) approach to establishing a shared political agenda for the small folk.

A libertarian approach first recognizes the limited ability of the small folk to control the state. If there is only one thing that we can tell the government to do, we should tell it not to take more authority on itself, because that authority will inevitably give more discretion to the elite at our expense. A libertarian approach also recognizes the diversity of the small folk. We are not going to agree on how to live our lives and organize our communities, so detailed prescriptions should be left out of a political platform to help us stay above the factionalism and culture-wars that the elite use to divide us. Progressives claim that the reduction of government is inherently elitist, but they ignore that even a small government must make many policy choices that can tilt society toward either an elitist or egalitarian outcome. An egalitarian libertarian coalition will focus on dismantling any government policy that gives one person power over another.

The details of this agenda remain to be worked out, but numerous ideas are circulating in the left-libertarian community, some of which I tried to document in a (incomplete) Left-Libertarian platform. Setting that aside for now, we can still discuss whether a "small government" strategy  is sufficient to promote the welfare of "the small folk".

Progressives and socialists make a strong case that many people need immediate, tangible economic support if they are going to get out of the poverty trap that the elites have pushed them into. They propose that healthcare and education should be provided as a right, and income should also be supported through a variety of interventions. I don't see this as essential to a broad-based radical movement, because fore a radical movement gained enough political power to guarantee those rights, it would have enough social and economic clout to provide decent social services on its own. Since that economic power would increase as egalitarian libertarians whittle away the privileges of the elite, those problems would be solved as quickly by a "small government" approach as by establishing new government programs. Perhaps the strength of the statist approach is that the agenda of the radicals could dovetail with the agenda of progressive reformers, such that basic anti-poverty benefits could be won even when the radical movement has moderate influence in society.

The egalitarian libertarian response should be to carefully avoid removing anti-poverty programs while aggressively targeting "pro-poverty" policies. For instance, taxes that affect the poor should be slashed, with the unapologetic reasoning that government benefits tend to be proportional to wealth.

Finally, there is one place where even "small government" advocates should support programs that superficially increase the size of government -- when the lack of  those programs is a way to push the cost of other government programs onto the poor. A prime example would be to fully fund defense lawyers for those accused of crimes. When the government decides to criminalize an activity (such as drug use), it needs to account for the full cost of that policy, including the cost of providing a fair trial.

*Trumpism could be a wake-up call to the cosmopolitan elite of US business school, but I've yet to see any evidence that their repulsion is sufficiently strong or widespread to provide a meaningful response to Trump's pitch.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Town meeting or Monarchy?

Apologists for the USA routinely assert that the government is "democratic" -- that it is a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people". Modern progressives often bemoan the diminishment of democracy, hearkening back to a period (1950s-1970s) when "regular" citizens had a voice in government, and policymakers took heed of their interests. Skeptics of this progressive mythology, frequently point to white-male supremacism during this period, as well as the substantial differences in power that existed between white-male workers, managers, and the power elite. But still, the progressives adhere to this sunny view of the state, and demand that all right people should happily support "their" government.

A contrasting view is that the state is fundamentally elitist and exploitative, even in the USA. Here, the state was established by a narrow elite in order to subjugate the rest of society. With the state being structured around domination, it is fundamentally incapable of being democratic. Granted, the state does have some democratic aspects -- most notably elections, equality before the law, and civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. However, these do not change the fundamental nature of the state, they just give it some procedural accountability and restrain the arbitrary use of power. Perhaps these concessions were made to gain broader support from the general populace, or perhaps they were established to mediate conflict among the elite, but either way they are a big improvement over absolute monarchies, totalitarian regimes, or naked kleptocracy.

These two views essentially treat the USA as either a scaled-up New England town-meeting, or a reformed monarchy. Perhaps the distinction is not too important, since the USA is clearly influenced by both traditions. Geniuses such as Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill aimed to design institutions from democratic first-principles, but it looks to me that they were still trying to design something that functioned very much like the monarchies that they were familiar with. Even if town-meetings were being used as a starting point, it could be that the town-meeting does not scale up well; that coordinating with strangers requires the delegation of authority, and the desire for rapid, centralized decision-making is fundamentally elitist. During the foundation of the USA, democratic idealists were clearly in the minority, as most of the decision-makers arose from the colonial elite, and many championed elitist attitudes, even aside from racism and sexism.

Progressives seem to view that elitism as essentially receding into history, pushed aside first by Jacksonian democracy, then by the slow and ongoing extension of civil and economic rights to women and racial minorities. Yet many conservatives, perhaps stuck in the Jacksonian era, see a new nexus of elitism centered around the university network, which extends its influence into government by educating the ranks of bureaucrats and technocrats who are constantly telling regular folk how to live their lives. And of course, socialists consider the USA to be tightly controlled by the capitalist class.

Amidst all these conceptions of power and powerlessness, I find myself wondering "what is power for?" The nature of the state is clearly to create power differentials -- to allow one group of people to exert power over the rest of society. Why do we go along with that? Engles had a dream that once people gave up the idea of dominating and exploiting each other, the state would transform into a simple administrative agency, coordinating economic activity. However, the rejection of racism and sexism a generation or two ago has not made control of the state any less contentious -- if anything, Americans seem to be ever more strongly divided over who should control the state. Perhaps this reflects the aimlessness of the state -- it is no longer clear who the state is meant to dominate, so what is it's purpose? Perhaps we've moved from an era when the state acted as the executive committee for a broad, stable ruling class (white males), to an era of true democracy, where each election is an opportunity for one faction to establish themselves in a dominant position over the remainder of society.  Having established an institution that necessarily dominates people and redistributes their wealth through both direct and indirect mechanisms (e.g. taxes and copyrights, respectively), all of us are now perpetually at risk of becoming its next target.

Which brings me back to the initial question that motivated this post -- can "regular folk" (even those with Socio-economic status in the 70th percentile) exert reasonable control over the state? Can we choose more than one issue to base our votes on, or does trying to engage in the full range of political debate just sap our energy and diffuse our effectiveness? If we do choose one issue, is it just a matter of personal preference, whereby each of us focusing on a topic that motivates us, we end up covering all of the bases? Would that strategy allow the elite to easily pit us against each other, such that they can continue to systematically shift wealth to their own associates, while we tear at each other over the culture war. Or is there an issue or principal that can be elevated above all others, that can shift power back to the people? To me, the single issue seems to be "small government", or perhaps "small government socialism"