Mark Zuckerberg like James Halliday from Ready Player One – and that’s the problem

The film Ready Player One portrays a future when the real-world is so unpalatable, people prefer to live in a virtual reality created by the late, all-powerful founder James Halliday.

The story, set in 2045, came to mind while watching Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testify before US Congress on Wednesday.

Who controls what you see? (Image: Pixabay)

As Senators asked questions about what exactly this platform – which gave Russia access to American hearts and minds – was doing to the country, Zuckerberg kept referencing the awesomely humble beginnings of the company.

Like in the film, questions of the platform’s merits were answered by the earnestness of the founder’s personality.

Swap Halliday for Zuckerberg and the concept of the inventor-god ruling over his subjects has eerie parallels. In the film and the real world, any political question is subsumed by the personal.

“I believe deeply in what we’re doing,” Zuckerberg assured. Facebook began in his dorm room at university, he said, a point he kept repeating.

The film is fun but the vision of one tech whiz lording over the imaginations of the masses is, from a political perspective, frightening and repulsive. It’s a world where users hand over their autonomy to a platform with no process for these people to come together and make their voices heard.

Ready Player One is just entertainment. But it’s telling that a depiction of a tech world is founded on such neo-feudalism.

Unfortunately, Facebook represents a kind of neo-feudalism built around Zuckerberg’s vision. And it appears to be running headlong into our shared reality, the one with rules, rights, and real-life consequences.

Read the rest here at The Age.

SXSW 2018: How the tech world aids Russia’s war on the West

I will be speaking about how the tech world aids Russia’s war on the West at the SXSW conference in Texas in March.

There is a lot to discuss.

The topic has many moving parts.

So please join me…


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The best offense is an existential defense

A new paper by Jolanta Darczewska and Piotr Żochowski, from the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, offers some valuable insight into the mentality behind Russia’s active measures against the West.

'I blame society'
‘I blame society!’… or in Russia’s case, Western society (a scene from Repo Man)

One fundamental idea is that Russia is the victim of the West, which then gives Moscow the right to ‘defend’ itself by inherently subversive means.

As Darczewska and Żochowski write:

The narrative strategy imposed by Russia blurs the boundaries between war and peace, between the offensive and the defensive. A key ingredient of this strategy is shaping Russia’s image as the victim of the West’s cynical game, and enforcing the belief that this is a war between two sides. Meanwhile, the situation is actually inherently asymmetric: the aggressor is undertaking unilateral actions, while the party being attacked can only judge the scale of the devastation after the fact.

The paper, published in the Russian Analytical Digest, also makes an important point about the lack of fundamental ideology in Russian actions today (my emphasis added)…

Active measures were the subject of in-depth studies in the West during the Cold War. A cursory review of them leads to the conclusion that the contemporary repertoire is largely a continuation of the same ideas, although Russia has given up trying to change the world according to ideological preferences, which underpinned the conceptual Cold-War basis of its active measures in that period.

The doctrinal model justifying Russia’s present activity is similarly inflexible: it is based on a contrast between the worlds of Russia and the West, the basis for which is the civilisational distinctiveness of the ‘Russian world’, duly expanded to cover the ‘Eurasian world.’ The strategic narration based on this so-called geopolitical scientific conception, and the criteria of ‘truth’ deriving from it, is simplified, adapted to the specific nature of the target audience, and displays a diverse range of thematic and ideological concepts.

Moreover, this is a narrative free of the embarrassing burden of a system of values (which even today Russia has failed to create), and which in practice boils down to undermining the values of others. Geopolitics also determines the tone of the narrative, which is dominated by the rhetoric of confrontation. The United States and NATO have become a kind of ‘absolute enemy,’ which questions the role of Russia as a world power, abuses its trust and constantly humiliates it, shaping the global situation by means of ‘colour revolutions’.

The rivalry with the United States and NATO has become the most universal ‘argument’ of Russia’s domestic (the creation of an illusion of danger and of pervasive anti-Russian hysteria, or Russophobia) and foreign policy. Calling foreign values (such as the sovereign right of Georgia and Ukraine to determine their own paths of development and choice of alliances) into question presents this as an act of defence of Russia’s sovereignty, and as a mirror response to the cynical games of the West.

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#China influence afoot? Secure your hashtags, Australia

Given the surge of news and developments around the China influence story, it’s worthwhile to consider what Australians would do if they found the hashtag #Chinainfluence blocked in their own social media conversations.

More likely, the term could be drowned out. Or rendered unusable.


So imagine if trolls or bots or other coordinated teams of humans undertook a campaign to suppress the productive use of hashtags like #auspol, or #dastayari or #UFWD or #SouthChinaSea or one as broad as #China itself in Australian social media conversation.

Trolls could be located overseas even as they influenced or squelched domestic Australian discussion.

It’s not as if China doesn’t already do this domestically as a way to shape and derail public conversation.

The ability to micro-blog relevant news on the subject of influence campaigns on social media platforms such as Twitter has become the norm for the nation’s class of  academics, researchers, policymakers and self-selected members of the informed public.

In a crisis, would important news about Australian national security be accessible on this platform?

Think about how reliant communications regarding Australian national security are on a foreign-based platform with an incredibly uneven record of countering abuse and misuse.

The social media companies are staffed with people who confuse the concept of “free speech” with the action of coordinated trolling campaigns, often driven by nation states.

That means, when authoritarian nations are exploiting social media platforms to undermine democracies, don’t expect timely or effective help from the company.

As Australia begins addressing influence operations conducted on its own shores by foreign powers, it’s important to consider the enormous vulnerability of social media that many in Australia’s political class and civil society have embraced as normal, and even desirable.

What kind of backup plans and redundancies does the nation has in place to prevent discussion on social media from being stymied, manipulated and disrupted?

It’s just a thought.

But one worth thinking about now – before a crisis hits.

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