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The grotesque inequality embodied by Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg is a threat to democracy | Jeff Sparrow




The higher the monkey climbs, the more he exposes his backside.

So too with the super rich.

Oxfam tells us that a mere 10 people now possess more wealth than the bottom 40% of humanity – and that the richest 20 tycoons collectively own more than the entire GDP of sub-Saharan Africa.

You’d think that such obscene inequality would encourage the wealthy to adopt a certain modesty – even if only for self-preservation. Yet today’s extremely online billionaires love nothing more than raising their metaphorical posteriors for the admiration of the crowd.

Take Elon Musk.

Between April 2020 and April 2021, Musk reportedly made nearly US$140bn.

In the United States at the time, the average annual wage was about US$75,000.

In other words, Musk earned a mind-boggling 1.86m times more than the average American: some $383m each and every day.

What morality could possibly justify such a disparity?

Did Musk work 1.86 million times harder than everyone else? Was he, perhaps, 1.86 million times smarter?

The last few weeks have, rather definitively, settled such questions.

Having acquired a social network seemingly on a whim, Musk set about running Twitter via Twitter, a process that provided a tweet-by-tweet glimpse of his very David Brent management energy.

He posted a video of himself carrying a sink into Twitter HQ. He fired thousands of employees – and then, as the site’s functionality wobbled, asked some of them to come back. He insisted the remaining staff print out code they’d written, and then told them to shred it. He tweeted – and then deleted – a link to a conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi, even while touting Twitter as a news source.

Most spectacularly, he monetised blue-tick certification, a policy that (as absolutely everyone predicted) unleashed a torrent of verified parodies.

An account purporting to be the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly promised free insulin, sending the company’s real world stock plummeting. “Pepsi” tweeted, “Coke is better”. A blue-ticked “George W Bush” declared, “I miss killing Iraqis” – and his pal “Tony Blair” tweeted back, “Same tbh.”

Mario gave the finger from an “official” Nintendo account; verified Mr Bean invited users to take advantage of his cunnilingus skills.

On Thursday, Twitter staff resigned in droves, rejecting Musk’s demand for them to become “extremely hardcore”. Speculation mounted that the whole platform would collapse.

As the site descended into a Marx Brother’s farce, Groucho’s line from the movie Duck Soup came to mind: “Gentlemen, [he] may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot. But don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

Meanwhile, over at Meta (the corporation previously known as Facebook), Mark Zuckerberg put on a similar display of concentrated ineptitude.

Not so long ago, the Zuck earned an eye-watering $28,538 a minute. Business Insider calculated the Facebook founder could, at that stage, hand over $100 to every living person in the US, and still keep more than half of his fortune intact.

The vast gulf separating Zuckerberg from the rest of the species perhaps explains his obsession with the virtual reality world of the metaverse. When, at a recent presentation, he enthused about the legs of Meta’s new avatars, his excitement suggested the blue fairy had finally promised that he’d one day become a real human boy.

Unsurprisingly, most normal people do not want to work in the metaverse (think a three-dimensional, never-ending Zoom meeting, conducted in a nausea-inducing headset) and so, the more Zuckerberg throws money at virtual reality, the more Meta’s stock plunges. Its market value has dropped a staggering $700bn, with the result that 11,000 people are losing their jobs.

It’s easy to mock the vanity projects of the tech elite. It’s also important.

A few years back, the Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi noted that, if you had earned $5,000 each and every day from 1493 onwards, you’d still have less money than Jeff Bezos – even after his divorce.

The monstrous scale of global inequality renders genuine democracy a farce. A few years ago it was reported that about 40% of Americans couldn’t raise $400 to cover an emergency. Does anyone really think their votes give them the same political power as Bezos, who, according to one calculation, makes US$3,715 every second?

To put it another way, Musk shelled out dollars with a billion or so to spare.

Disgraced crypto-tycoon Sam Bankman-Fried
Disgraced crypto-tycoon Sam Bankman-Fried Photograph: FTX/Reuters

Something’s gone very wrong when basic infrastructure maintenance seems wildly utopian, while the hare-brained schemes of man-child oligarchs become increasingly routine.

In part, we can blame a media too often prone to slobber over the intersection of wealth and technology.

The disgraced crypto-tycoon Sam Bankman-Fried succeeded in parting so many investors from their money partly because of the fawning coverage he so regularly received. As Vox put it, the press portrayed SBF “as an unassuming, nerdy savant, frequently noting his down-to-earthness, his messy mop of hair, his penchant for wearing T-shirts and shorts, his Toyota Corolla.” Investors were enamoured of the fact that he wasn’t a buttoned-up entrepreneur; he played computer games during pitch meetings, and like other modern-day founders, his eccentricities were taken as proof of his distinct genius.

In the famous Hans Christian Andersen fable, those who ignored the king’s nakedness revealed their craven servility. With its reportage of the man it dubbed the “crypto emperor”, the New York Times went one step further: its headline explicitly lauded SBF’s sans pants wardrobe as central to his scruffy mystique.

In reality, as the analyst Mike Burgersburg pointed out, long before his company collapsed, Bankman-Fried’s flaws had always been obvious – at least, to those who cared to look.

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“[H]e never came off as being that bright,” Burgersburg said, “Like, either he’s admitting that he’s committing fraud, or saying shit that just doesn’t make sense.”

When people show you who they are, Maya Angelou warned, believe them the first time.

To that end, the relative transparency of the internet constitutes a tremendous boon, providing oversharing plutocrats with all the digital rope necessary to publicly hang themselves.

For instance, Musk’s recent antics reveal just how much of a bullet we dodged when his promise to land a man on Mars by 2021 failed to eventuate: one shudders to imagine an interplanetary colony governed according to the methods currently reigning on Twitter.

The grotesque inequality that billionaires embody provides no basis to run a society in space. It’s even more toxic down here on Earth.

Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist

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Singapore pulls plug on COVID tracking program • The Register




Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Thursday that it was finally pulling the plug on its COVID tracking program.

On February 13, the city-state’s TraceTogether (TT) program, which uses the Bluetooth radios in mobile phones to track movements, and its business check-in system SafeEntry (SE) will come to a halt.

According to the ministry’s announcement, the government had already begun stepping down TT and SE, and would no longer require infected persons to submit TraceTogether data.

“SE data is no longer being collected, and MOH has deleted all identifiable TT and SE data from its servers and databases,” said the department.

The exception is data that was controversially used off-label in a murder investigation.

The systems will remain intact – as well as registration details including name, business registration, and mobile phone number – in case there is a need for reactivation. One example given is if a more dangerous COVID-19 variant were to spread. Apps will also remain available.

The ministry told members of the public, who haven’t been required to have them since last year, that they may “uninstall their TT App, and enterprises may do the same for the SE (Business) App.”

Furthermore, those with a physical TT token, which came in handy for the non-tech savvy as a device that exchanges anonymized identifiers, were asked to return the dongle for recycling.

Singapore began developing the open source TraceTogether at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. The app constantly sought out other Bluetooth-enabled devices that ran the app and logged when they were in close proximity. The country required users to register and inform authorities if they contracted COVID-19 and used the app to draw up lists of contacts who were then isolated.

Other countries, including Australia, based their apps on the technology. While many nations seemed to flop at COVID tracking, Singapore fared somewhat better, even with similar technology. That success has been attributed to a culture willing to comply, combined with a government that modified behavior through other strict rules to keep the virus from spreading.

One example of the additional measures was tracking devices issued to travelers during a required one-week isolation after arriving.

In April, TT and SE became largely superfluous as their use was no longer mandatory except for select events. The efficacy of such systems relied on mass compliance so if some people weren’t using them, they were less effective anyway.

However, job postings for positions related to the program near that time sparked speculation that the system would remain in some form in the island nation, unlike in most other countries. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) told The Register in late March 2022 the job listings were merely for replacing existing employees.

Australia quit its app in August after it was deemed a massive failure. Japan followed in September, and China discontinued use of its tracking app in December. ®

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Irish biotech Ovagen raises €1.1m for germ-free egg production




Based in Co Mayo, Ovagen now plans to add 65 jobs over the next five years and hopes to see its revenue reach €42m by the end of 2027.

Irish biotech start-up Ovagen has raised €1.1m in an oversubscribed funding round led by the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN) for its germ-free egg production business.

Ovagen, based in Ballina, Co Mayo, is a biotech company that has developed a process of producing germ-free chicken eggs intended for use in the pharmaceutical industry for products such as vaccines.

According to Ovagen, up to 20pc – or one in five – egg-based vaccine batches are destroyed because of contamination.

Overall, more than 1bn eggs are used every year as ‘bio reactors’ to develop vaccines. Viruses are injected into the eggs to propagate the virus, which vaccine manufacturers can then use to develop vaccines for diseases including the flu, yellow fever, mumps and measles.

Dr Catherine Caulfield, CEO and co-founder of Ovagen, said that current vaccines are developed using specific pathogen free eggs, which are free of many bacteria and viruses, but they are not germ-free and a significant portion become contaminated.

“Our funders have been instrumental in supporting us on our long journey to make a concept a reality,” she said.

“At critical stages in our development, our angel investors have not only provided us with their financial backing, but they have also introduced us to other potential investors, as well as their highly influential industry contacts.”

Ovagen now aims to go to market with the “world’s first germ-free egg” in what is potentially a multimillion euro industry.

“The global potential of the company’s technology is vast and that is why this is the second time HBAN syndicates have backed Ovagen,” said Declan MacFadden, an HBAN spokesperson.

“Ovagen is now in prime position to launch its product and we are excited to see the impact that this ground-breaking development has in a highly lucrative global market.”

Following the latest investment, in which the Western Development Commission and an existing shareholder also participated, the company expects to add 65 jobs (it currently has 12 staff) over the next five years, with revenues reaching €42m by the end of 2027.

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Republicans grill ex-Twitter executives over handling of Hunter Biden story | House of Representatives




US lawmakers held a combative hearing on Wednesday with former senior staffers at Twitter over the social media platform’s handling of reporting on Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.

The proceedings set the stage for the agenda of a newly Republican-controlled House, underscoring its intention to hone in on longstanding and unsubstantiated allegations that big tech platforms have an anti-conservative bias.

The House oversight committee called for questioning recently departed Twitter employees including Vijaya Gadde, the social network’s former chief legal officer, former deputy general counsel James Baker, former head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth and former safety leader Anika Collier Navaroli.

The hearing centered on a question that has long dogged Republicans – why Twitter decided to temporarily restrict the sharing of a story about Hunter Biden in the New York Post, released in October 2020, the month before the US presidential election. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle used the opportunity to interrogate moderation practices at Twitter and other tech firms.

“The government doesn’t have any role in suppressing speech,” said Republican committee chairman James Comer, hammering the former employees for censoring the Post story.

people sit at table in congressional chamber
James Baker, former deputy general counsel at Twitter; Vijaya Gadde; former chief legal officer at Twitter; Yoel Roth, former global head of trust and safety; and the former employee Anika Collier Navaroli attend the hearing. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

In that report, the Post said it received a copy of a laptop hard drive from Donald Trump’s then-personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter initially blocked people from sharing links to the article for several days, citing concerns over misinformation and spreading a report containing potentially hacked materials.

In opening statements on Wednesday, the former Twitter staffers described the process by which the story was blocked. While the company explicitly allowed “reporting on a hack, or sharing press coverage of hacking”, it blocked stories that shared “personal and private information – like email addresses and phone numbers” – which the Post story appeared to include. The platform amended these rules following the Biden controversy, and the then CEO, Jack Dorsey, later called the company’s communications about the Post article “not great”.

Roth, the former head of safety and integrity, said on Wednesday that Twitter acknowledged that censoring the story was a mistake.

“Defending free expression and maintaining the health of the platform required difficult judgment calls,” he said. “There is no easy way to run a global communications platform that satisfies business and revenue goals, individual customer expectations, local laws and cultural norms and get it right every time.”

men in congressional chamber
Yoel Roth prepares to testify. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Elon Musk, who purchased the company last year, has since shared a series of internal records, known as the Twitter Files, showing how the company initially stopped the story being shared, citing concerns from the Biden campaign, among other factors.

Republican theories that Democrats are colluding with big tech to suppress conservative speech have become a hot button issue in Washington, with congress members using various tech hearings to grill executives. But experts say claims of anti-conservative bias have been disproven by independent researchers.

“What we’ve seen time and again is that companies are de-platforming people who are spreading racism and conspiracy theories in violation of the company’s rule,” said Jessica J González, co-chief executive officer of the civil rights group Free Press.

“The fact that those people are disproportionately Republicans has nothing to do with it,” she added. “This is about right or wrong, not left or right.”

Musk’s decision to release information about the laptop story comes after he allowed the return of high-profile figures banned for spreading misinformation and engaging in hate speech, including the former president. The executive has shared and engaged with conspiracy theories on his personal account.

Republican lawmakers seem to have found an ally in Musk, and repeatedly praised him during Wednesday’s proceedings. The rightwing congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene used her time on the floor to personally attack the former Twitter employees and complain about her own account, which was suspended for violating the platform’s policies on coronavirus misinformation.

“I’m so glad you’ve lost your jobs,” she said. “I am so glad Elon Musk bought Twitter.”

man in front of image of new york post with headline 'biden secret emails'
The oversight committee chairman, James Comer, a Republican, makes opening remarks. Photograph: Jemal Countess/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

But Democrats on Wednesday used their time in the House to explore how the Trump administration engaged with Twitter, revealing that the former president himself tried to interfere with content decisions.

In response to questioning from the new representative Maxwell Frost of Florida, the former Twitter content moderation executive Navaroli confirmed that in 2019 Trump tried to have an insulting tweet from internet personality Chrissy Teigen removed from the platform. In the tweet, which was read for the record, Teigen referred to Trump as a “pussy ass bitch”. Twitter denied the White House’s request, and it remains online today.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further sought to disprove bias against conservative speech on Twitter when she asked about an instance in 2019, when a tweet from Trump including hate speech was kept online despite violating platform policies.

The former president told Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to their countries, a clear violation of Twitter’s policies regarding abuse against immigrants, but was not penalized, Navaroli confirmed, and the rules were changed.

“So Twitter changed their own policy after Trump violated it to accommodate his tweets?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So much for bias against the rightwing on Twitter.”

The White House has sought to discredit the Republican investigation into Hunter Biden, calling them “divorced-from-reality political stunts”. Nonetheless, Republicans now hold subpoena power in the House, giving them the authority to compel testimony and conduct an aggressive investigation.

In opening statements at Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland expressed frustration that the first tech-focused panel of the session is focused on the Hunter Biden story, which he called a “faux scandal”. He said private companies under the first amendment are free to decide what is allowed on their platforms.

“Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession,” he said of the laptop story. “What’s more, Twitter’s editorial decision has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam. Some people think it was the right decision. Some people think it was the wrong decision. But the key point here is that it was Twitter’s decision.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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