Personal Digital Resistance
By Thomas Neuburger
I've been writing lately about how "critical mass" is needed if the rebellion of the people of the U.S. — the revolt of the many against the small number of owners of almost everything worth owning — is to have any real effect.
That the rebellion is now in progress is not in question. It's highly visible but weak — most are not prepared to take part in it — and since Bernie Sanders surrendered his sword to Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic Primary, it's been either very weakly led or led from the right.
In short, the nation is full of people with rebellions feelings, but more or less empty of people taking rebellious actions.
Because those feelings aren't going away — the underlying causes of those feelings elected Donald Trump once, nearly elected him twice, and would have elected Bernie Sanders had he been allowed a place on the general election menu — the nation's in a kind of limbo. In the 1960s and early 70s, it was easier to "take action" — if you were of a certain generation, almost everyone you knew was taking action with you.
Not so today.
I've also written about Anonymous, wondering when (or if) the women and men of the digital guerilla left would enact revenge for the incarceration, persecution and, until his health gives out, attempted killing of Julian Assange. (When his health does give out, we can remove the word "attempted" from that last sentence.)
I'm not recommending that revenge, mind you, but it seems to this novelist's eye like an obvious next plot point, something the middle chapters of a modern political thriller might well pivot toward.
So far, though, nothing from that quarter. All's quiet on the digital front, and seems likely to remain so.
Does all this angry quiet mean people's only choices lie with actions just in the margins? With voting, for example (assuming you can find a candidate who actually represents your interests)? Or with sign-on petitions, get-out-the-vote campaigns for candidates you think might actually make a difference, or chain-yourself-to-a-tree actions that may stop — perhaps — one hated, dangerous pipeline, but not the others that the Biden administration is supporting?
All of the above acts of resistance are worth consideration and well worth doing. But until the popular resistance reaches critical mass (it's easy to ask) how will my drop of water help fill a bucket that's oceans too small to begin with? Especially if my drop costs me weeks and months of time I just don't have?
Once you eliminate all the illegal, immoral and violent alternatives that are easy but wrong to do, what's left? What's a latter-day, wannabe hippie-without-comrades to do?
Gumming Up the Digital Works with AdNauseum
Mario Savio famously said, "There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, and you've got to make it stop."
There are, in fact, dozens of ways to gum up the works of the machine, lots of ways to throw chaff at the enemy's radar, and in the example below, poison their big-data wells — actions that will work and won't take months of the time most people don't have.
Here's just one. The target is Google and its predatory and monopolistic advertising practices. The side benefit of this act of resistance is, it pollutes Google's profile of who you are, what you like, and what you want.
If you use any browser but Chrome (and even for that there's a workaround), install the add-on AdNauseum. (More information here.) It works in the background to make sure you don't see ads, but better, it will "click" on every ad presented to your browser as you're surfing the Net. If in a four-hour session you're presented with 5,000 ads, it will click on each of them. (There are settings that allow you to be more selective in which ads you target.)
Imagine what that would do, if done in sufficient numbers, to Google's cash cow, its monetizable data pool. (Actually Google has two cash cows. The other is government contracts.) And even if the number of users isn't yet sufficient (yet) to pollute the whole data pool, you'll pollute your own pool-part beyond recognition. No more ads for used RVs just because you contemplated, once, riding the county lanes of the great Northwest. Google will think you have babies you never had, interests you've never entertained, and houses in France and Hong Kong.
Poisoning the Data Pool
How to poison the data that Big Tech uses to surveil you
Algorithms are meaningless without good data. The public can exploit that to demand change.
Every day, your life leaves a trail of digital breadcrumbs that tech giants use to track you. You send an email, order some food, stream a show. They get back valuable packets of data to build up their understanding of your preferences. That data is fed into machine-learning algorithms to target you with ads and recommendations. Google cashes your data in for over $120 billion a year of ad revenue.
Increasingly, we can no longer opt out of this arrangement. In 2019 Kashmir Hill, then a reporter for Gizmodo, famously tried to cut five major tech giants out of her life. She spent six weeks being miserable, struggling to perform basic digital functions. The tech giants, meanwhile, didn’t even feel an itch.
Now researchers at Northwestern University are suggesting new ways to redress this power imbalance by treating our collective data as a bargaining chip. Tech giants may have fancy algorithms at their disposal, but they are meaningless without enough of the right data to train on.
The piece recommends three forms of resistance:
• Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, which involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
• Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
• Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead. [emphasis added]
AdNauseum falls into the second category. The folks at MIT Tech Review have even written up a separate AdNauseum report here. Check it out if you're so inclined.
At some point, all of these acts of resistance will have to reach critical mass or the machine will grind away until the Climate Reckoning washes the planet clean. There are high-effort ways to reach critical mass, and I admire all of them. It's endless effort, for example, to write these pieces knowing the reach is mainly within the barracks of believers.
But for people with demanding lives who are looking for high-leverage, but low-effort acts of resistance, those are many as well. Consider starting today, with AdNauseum.