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Podcast: The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload – Episode 56

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna are joined by Sebastian Klovig Skelton to discuss the 20th anniversary of the Love Bug virus, Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism, the rise of virtual events in the wake of Covid-19 and Amazon’s difficulties with striking warehouse workers, concerning the virus

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna are joined by Sebastian Klovig Skelton to discuss the 20th anniversary of the Love Bug virus, surveillance capitalism on the account of Shoshana Zuboff, the rise of virtual events in the wake of Covid-19 (specifically a Digital Realty one) and Amazon’s difficulties with striking warehouse workers, in respect of coronavirus.

Recorded on Friday 1 May, International Workers Day, there was an “ordinary individual” versus “bigger forces” theme to the podcast. After some light-hearted chat about lockdown routines, some revolving around the daily Computer Weekly morning editorial Zoom call, Brian began the main part of the episode with a story about the author of the Love Bug worm, of which this is the 20th anniversary.

The concurrent (with this podcast episode) issue of the CW ezine features a story by investigative journalist and author Geoff White about Onel De Guzman, the Love Bug author who is 44 now, and was 24 in 2000. He was then a computer science student in Manila. He now works at a mobile phone repair shop in a shopping mall in Manila, where Geoff tracked him down. Victims of the virus got an email attachment labelled “Love letter for you”. It would overwrite files, steal passwords and send copies of itself to everyone in the victim’s Outlook address book. In 24 hours it infected 45 million machines.

It also inspired the Pet Shop Boys song Email on the Release album (2002).

Brian recounts some of his own experiences as a computer security journals editor around that time, and how his impression was that cyber criminals who were successfully prosecuted and jailed tended to be young, like the Love Bug author.

Back in 2000, surveillance capitalism was but a glint in the eye of Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, not to mention Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Seb has recently interviewed the author of The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power (2019), Shoshana Zuboff. The book is part of a backlash against big tech, and has had a high profile over the past year. But Seb was able to talk to her about how surveillance capitalism is intersecting with the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and public health crisis. 

Surveillance capitalism, according to Zuboff, is an economic logic that, like earlier forms of capitalism, evolved by taking something that previously existed outside the market, and bringing it into those market dynamics. So, while industrial capitalism claimed nature as the raw material for the forces of production, surveillance capitalism claims private human experience. That human experience (our experience) is captured in data, which is then repackaged in what Zuboff calls “prediction products”, which are sold in behavioural futures markets, making us raw material. 

Seb sketches in the historical context of the rise of surveillance capitalism, with the dot com boom and bust and 9/11 acting as a crucible. He says Zuboff stresses that no one consented to surveillance capitalism’s expropriation of private human experience, which amounts to digital dispossession upon which powerful, multibillion-dollar empires have been built. 

Zuboff thinks, says Seb, that the current health crisis is an opportunity for surveillance capitalism. “While it is a crisis for all of us, it is something like business as usual for surveillance capitalists, in the sense that it is an opportunity to, possibly, significantly enhance their behavioural data supply chains,” she says. But she also says it is not inevitable that the power of big tech will increase out of our control, and that the 2020s will be a crucial decade. “That means it depends on us. It depends on every single person who reads what you write and the conversations that they have with their people, and they have with their people, and so forth. It depends on the new forms of collective action in social movements. It depends on demanding new law, new institutions, from our elected officials.”

Whatever the possibility that the health crisis will augment the power of big tech, acting as a catalyst, for sure it has made the world even more virtual. Caroline has some observations on that from her datacentre beat apropos a virtual event she attended, organised by Digital Realty – a large datacentre and colocation service provider. It runs, explains Caroline, 267 datacentres around the world, and is working with a UN-backed Science Based Targets Initiative to promote the sustainability of datacentres. 

The datacentre world is, perforce, quite secretive, and they are known as energy guzzlers, says Caroline. The roundtable she attended was about addressing that, at a time when Covid-19 has seen massive demand for services. Caroline, having been sceptical about the value of virtual events, announced a conversion on the podcast. She also reflects on virtual datacentre tours and how they compare with the “real” thing.

While a datacentre – let’s say, for the sake of argument, an Amazon Web Services one – could well be a good place to practice social distancing, an Amazon warehouse is less so. Seb recounts on the podcast the story of the conflict between Amazon and (some of) its warehouse staff, especially in the US, where Chris Smalls has been sacked for protesting about how the company is treating its workers with respect to Covid-19. There has been a wave of Amazon worker strikes in Spain, Italy and the US in recent weeks.

Seb interviewed Smalls, who gave his side of the story of his dismissal by Amazon. He was the first person fired by Amazon following a coronavirus-related protest, although Amazon claims it was because he was violating social distancing guidelines. Smalls and Amazon are in a conflict of interpretation, which Seb details in his piece, The People vs Amazon: ‘They will have to answer to all of us’, says fired employee Christian Smalls, and speaks about in the podcast episode. There does, says Seb, seem to be a pattern of behaviour from Amazon. Vice News has uncovered memos that advocate using him to discredit the organising of workers. And Amazon-owned Whole Foods has been using heat maps to track unionisation efforts in stores.

Seb also notes that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, alongside the release of Amazon’s results, that all of its second-quarter profits, some $4bn, will be devoted to responding to Covid-19. 

But it seems apposite that the episode was recorded on International Workers Day; also the day Seb’s Christian Smalls piece was published. His interview with Zuboff is forthcoming.

           • Download this podcast •


Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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