Tag: politics (page 1 of 2)

Friday feudalism

Check out these things I discovered this week, and wanted to pass along:

  • Study shows some political beliefs are just historical accidents (Ars Technica) — “Obviously, these experiments aren’t exactly like the real world, where political leaders can try to steer their parties. Still, it’s another way to show that some political beliefs aren’t inviolable principles—some are likely just the result of a historical accident reinforced by a potent form of tribal peer pressure. And in the early days of an issue, people are particularly susceptible to tribal cues as they form an opinion.”
  • Please, My Digital Archive. It’s Very Sick. (Lapham’s Quarterly) — “An archivist’s dream is immaculate preservation, documentation, accessibility, the chance for our shared history to speak to us once more in the present. But if the preservation of digital documents remains an unsolvable puzzle, ornery in ways that print materials often aren’t, what good will our archiving do should it become impossible to inhabit the world we attempt to preserve?”
  • So You’re 35 and All Your Friends Have Already Shed Their Human Skins (McSweeney’s) — “It’s a myth that once you hit 40 you can’t slowly and agonizingly mutate from a human being into a hideous, infernal arachnid whose gluttonous shrieks are hymns to the mad vampire-goddess Maggorthulax. You have time. There’s no biological clock ticking. The parasitic worms inside you exist outside of our space-time continuum.”
  • Investing in Your Ordinary Powers (Breaking Smart) — “The industrial world is set up to both encourage and coerce you to discover, as early as possible, what makes you special, double down on it, and build a distinguishable identity around it. Your specialness-based identity is in some ways your Industrial True Name. It is how the world picks you out from the crowd.”
  • Browser Fingerprinting: An Introduction and the Challenges Ahead (The Tor Project) — “This technique is so rooted in mechanisms that exist since the beginning of the web that it is very complex to get rid of it. It is one thing to remove differences between users as much as possible. It is a completely different one to remove device-specific information altogether.”
  • What is a Blockchain Phone? The HTC Exodus explained (giffgaff) — “HTC believes that in the future, your phone could hold your passport, driving license, wallet, and other important documents. It will only be unlockable by you which makes it more secure than paper documents.”
  • Debate rages in Austria over enshrining use of cash in the constitution (EURACTIV) — “Academic and author Erich Kirchler, a specialist in economic psychology, says in Austria and Germany, citizens are aware of the dangers of an overmighty state from their World War II experience.”
  • Cory Doctorow: DRM Broke Its Promise (Locus magazine) — “We gave up on owning things – property now being the exclusive purview of transhuman immortal colony organisms called corporations – and we were promised flexibility and bargains. We got price-gouging and brittle­ness.”
  • Five Books That Changed Me In One Summer (Warren Ellis) — “I must have been around 14. Rayleigh Library and the Oxfam shop a few doors down the high street from it, which someone was clearly using to pay things forward and warp younger minds.”

The best way out is always through

So said Robert Frost, but I want to begin with the ending of a magnificent post from Kate Bowles. She expresses clearly how I feel sometimes when I sit down to write something for Thought Shrapnel:

[T]his morning I blocked out time, cleared space, and sat down to write — and nothing happened. Nothing. Not a word, not even a wisp of an idea. After enough time staring at the blankness of the screen I couldn’t clearly remember having had an idea, ever.

Along the way I looked at the sky, I ate a mandarin and then a second mandarin, I made a cup of tea, I watched a family of wrens outside my window, I panicked. I let email divert me, and then remembered that was the opposite of the plan. I stayed off Twitter. Panic increased.

Then I did the one thing that absolutely makes a difference to me. I asked for help. I said “I write so many stupid words in my bullshit writing job that I can no longer write and that is the end of that.” And the person I reached out to said very calmly “Why not write about the thing you’re thinking about?”

Sometimes what you have to do as a writer is sit in place long enough, and sometimes you have to ask for help. Whatever works for you, is what works.

Kate Bowles

There are so many things wrong with the world right now, that sometimes I feel like I could stop working on all of the things I’m working on and spend time just pointing them out to people.

But to what end? You don’t change the world by just making people aware of things, not usually. For example, as tragic as the sentence, “the Amazon is on fire” is, it isn’t in and of itself a call-to-action. These days, people argue about the facts themselves as well as the appropriate response.

The world is an inordinately complicated place that we seek to make sense of by not thinking as much as humanly possible. To aid and abet us in this task, we divide ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, into groups who apply similar heuristics. The new (information) is then assimilated into the old (worldview).

I have no privileged position, no objective viewpoint in which to observe and judge the world’s actions. None of us do. I’m as complicit in joining and forming in and out groups as the next person. I decide I’m going to delete my Twitter account and then end up rage-tweeting All The Things.

Thankfully, there are smart people, and not only academics, thinking about all this to figure out what we can and should do. Tim Urban, from the phenomenally-successful Wait But Why, for example, has spent the last three years working on “a new language we can use to think and talk about our societies and the people inside of them”. In the first chapter in a new series, he writes about the ongoing struggle between (what he calls) the ‘Primitive Minds’ and ‘Higher Minds’ of humans:

The never-ending struggle between these two minds is the human condition. It’s the backdrop of everything that has ever happened in the human world, and everything that happens today. It’s the story of our times because it’s the story of all human times.

Tim Urban

I think this is worth remembering when we spend time on social networks. And especially when we spend so much time that it becomes our default delivery method for the news of the day. Our Primitive Minds respond strongly to stimuli around fear and fornication.

When we reflect on our social media usage and the changing information landscape, the temptation is either to cut down, or to try a different information diet. Some people become the equivalent of Information Vegans, attempting to source the ‘cleanest’ morsels of information from the most wholesome, trusted, and traceable of places.

But where are those ‘trusted places’ these days? Are we as happy with the previously gold-standard news outlets such as the BBC and The New York Times as we once were? And if not, what’s changed?

The difference, I think, is the way we’ve decided to allow money to flow through our digital lives. Commercial news outlets, including those with which the BBC competes, are funded by advertising. Those adverts we see in digital spaces aren’t just showing things that we might happen to be interested in. They’ll keep on showing you that pair of shoes you almost bought last week in every space that is funded by advertising. Which is basically everywhere.

I feel like I’m saying obvious things here that everyone knows, but perhaps it bears repeating. If everyone is consuming news via social networks, and those news stories are funded by advertising, then the nature of what counts as ‘news’ starts to evolve. What gets the most engagement? How are headlines formed now, compared with a decade ago?

It’s as if something hot-wires our brain when something non-threatening and potentially interesting is made available to us ‘for free’. We never get to the stuff that we’d like to think defines us, because we caught in neverending cycles of titillation. We pay with our attention, that scarce and valuable resource.

Our attention, and more specifically, how we react to our social media feeds when we’re ‘engaged’ is valuable because it can be packaged up and sold to advertisers. But it’s also sold to governments too. Twitter just had to update their terms and conditions specifically because of the outcry over the Chinese government’s propaganda around the Hong Kong protests.

Protesters part of the ‘umbrella revolution’ in Hong Kong have recently been focusing on cutting down what we used to call CCTV cameras, but which are much more accurately described as ‘facial recognition masts’:

We are living in a world where the answer to everything seems to be ‘increased surveillance’. Kids not learning fast enough in school? Track them more. Scared of terrorism? Add more surveillance into the lives of everyday citizens. And on and on.

In an essay earlier this year, Maciej Cegłowski riffed on all of this, reflecting on what he calls ‘ambient privacy’:

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.

That is not consent.

Ambient privacy is particularly hard to protect where it extends into social and public spaces outside the reach of privacy law. If I’m subjected to facial recognition at the airport, or tagged on social media at a little league game, or my public library installs an always-on Alexa microphone, no one is violating my legal rights. But a portion of my life has been brought under the magnifying glass of software. Even if the data harvested from me is anonymized in strict conformity with the most fashionable data protection laws, I’ve lost something by the fact of being monitored.

Maciej Cegłowski

One of the difficulties in resisting the ‘Silicon Valley narrative’ and Big Tech’s complicity with governments is the danger of coming across as a neo-luddite. Without looking very closely to understand what’s going on (and having some time to reflect) it can all look like the inevitable march of progress.

So, without necessarily an answer to all this, I guess the best thing is, like Kate, to ask for help. What can we do here? What practical steps can we take? Comments are open.

Friday flinchings

Here’s a distillation of the best of what I’ve been reading over the last three weeks:

  • The new left economics: how a network of thinkers is transforming capitalism (The Guardian) — “The new leftwing economics wants to see the redistribution of economic power, so that it is held by everyone – just as political power is held by everyone in a healthy democracy. This redistribution of power could involve employees taking ownership of part of every company; or local politicians reshaping their city’s economy to favour local, ethical businesses over large corporations; or national politicians making co-operatives a capitalist norm.”
  • Dark web detectives and cannabis sommeliers: Here are some jobs that could exist in the future (CBC) — “In a report called Signs of the Times: Expert insights about employment in 2030, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship — a policy institute set up to help Canadians navigate the innovation economy — brings together insights into the future of work gleaned from workshops held across the country.”
  • Art Spiegelman: golden age superheroes were shaped by the rise of fascism (The Guardian) — “The young Jewish creators of the first superheroes conjured up mythic – almost god-like – secular saviours to deal with the threatening economic dislocations that surrounded them in the great depression and gave shape to their premonitions of impending global war. Comics allowed readers to escape into fantasy by projecting themselves on to invulnerable heroes.”
  • We Have Ruined Childhood (The New York Times) — “I’ve come to believe that the problems with children’s mental and emotional health are caused not by any single change in kids’ environment but by a fundamental shift in the way we view children and child-rearing, and the way this shift has transformed our schools, our neighborhoods and our relationships to one another and our communities.”
  • Turning the Nintendo Switch into Android’s best gaming hardware (Ars Technica) — “The Nintendo Switch is, basically, a game console made out of smartphone parts…. Really, the only things that make the Switch a game console are the sweet slide-on controllers and the fact that it is blessed by Nintendo, with actually good AAA games, ecosystem support, and developer outreach.
  • Actually, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Can Change a Culture (WIRED) — “Would native-speaker Swedes, seven years after getting a new pronoun plugged into their language, be more likely to assume this androgynous cartoon was a man? A woman? Either, or neither? Now that they had a word for it, a nonbinary option, would they think to use it?”
  • Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence (The New York Times Magazine) — “Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”
  • Why These Social Networks Failed So Badly (Gizmodo) — “It’s not to say that without Facebook, the whole internet would be more like a local farmer’s market or a punk venue or an art gallery or comedy club or a Narnia fanfic club, just that those places are harder to find these days.”
  • Every productivity thought I’ve ever had, as concisely as possible (Alexey Guzey) — “I combed through several years of my private notes and through everything I published on productivity before and tried to summarize all of it in this post.”

Header image via Jessica Hagy at Indexed

Neoliberalism in any guise is not the solution but the problem

Today’s quotation-as-title is from Nancy Fraser, whose short book The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born in turn gets its title from a quotation from Antonio Gramsci.

It’s an excellent book; quick to read, straight to the point, and it helped me to understand some of what is going on at the moment in both US and world politics.

First, let’s explain terms, as it is a book that presupposes some knowledge of political philosophy. ‘Neoliberalism’ isn’t an easy term to define, as its meaning has mutated over time, and it’s usually used in a derogatory way.

There’s a whole history of the term at Wikipedia, but I’ll use definitions from Investopedia and The Guardian:

Neoliberalism is a policy model—bridging politics, social studies, and economics—that seeks to transfer control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. It tends towards free-market capitalism and away from government spending, regulation, and public ownership.

Investopedia

In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.

Guardian

To me, it’s the reason why humans go out of their way to engineer situations where people and organisations are pitted against each other to compete for ‘awards’, no matter how made-up or paid-for they may be. It’s a way of framing society, human interactions, and reducing everything to $$$.

In that vein, the most recent issue of New Philosopher, features an essay by Warwick Smith where he uses the thought experiment of an AI ‘paperclip maximiser’. This runs amok and turns the entire universe into paperclips:

I recently heard Daniel Schmachtenberger taking this thought experiment in a very interesting direction by saying that human society is already the paperclip maximiser but instead of making paperclips we’re making dollars — which are primarily just zeroes and ones in bank databases. Our collective intelligence system has on overriding purpose: to turn everything into money — trees, labour, water… everything. It is also very good at learning how to learn and is extremely good at eliminating any threats.

Warwick Smith

This attempt to turn everything into money is basically the neoliberal project. What Nancy Fraser does is identify two different strains of neoliberalism, which she explains through the lenses of ‘distribution’ and ‘recognition’:

  • Reactionary neoliberalism — moving public goods into private hands, within an exclusionary vision of a racist, patriarchal, and homophobic society.
  • Progressive neoliberalism — moving public goods into private hands, while using the banner of ‘diversity’ to assimilate equality and meritocracy.

The difference between these two strands of neoliberalism, then, comes in the way that they recognise people. Note that the method of distribution remains the same:

The political universe that Trump upended was highly restrictive. It was built around the opposition between two versions of neoliberalism, distinguished chiefly on an axis of recognition. Granted, one could choose between multiculturalism and ethnonationalism. But one was stuck, either way, with financialization and deindustrialization. With the menu limited to progressive and reactionary neoliberalism, there was no force to oppose the decimation of working-class and middle-class standards of living. Antineoliberal projects were severely marginalized, if not simply excluded from the public sphere.

Nancy Fraser

It’s as if the Overton Window of acceptable public political discourse served up a menu of only different flavours of neoliberalism:

Ideologies are oriented within a narrative that spans the past, present, and future. We can argue over visions of what education should look like within a society, for example, because we’re interested in how the next generation will turn out.

In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff explains that instead of shackling themselves to ideologies, Trump and other populist politicians take advantage of the 24/7 ‘always on’ media landscape to provide a constant knee-jerk presentism:

A presentist mediascape may prevent the construction of false and misleading narratives by elites who mean us no good, but it also tends to leave everyone looking for direction and responding or overresponding to every bump in the road.

Douglas Rushkoff

What we’re witnessing is essentially the end of politics as we know it, says Rushkoff:

As a result, what used to be called statecraft devolves into a constant struggle with crisis management. Leaders cannot get on top of issues, much less ahead of them, as they instead seek merely to respond to the emerging chaos in a way that makes them look authoritative.

[…]

If we have no destination toward we are progressing, then the only thing that motivates our movement is to get away from something threatening. We move from problem to problem, avoiding calamity as best we can, our worldview increasingly characterized by a sense of panic.

[…]

Blatant shock is the only surefire strategy for gaining viewers in the now.

Douglas Rushkoff

We might be witnessing the end of progressive neoliberalism, but it’s not as if that’s being replaced by anything different, anything better.

What, then, can we expect in the near term? Absent a secure hegemony, we face an unstable interregnum and the continuation of the political crisis. In this situation, the words of Gramsci ring true: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Nancy Fraser

No matter what the question is, neoliberalism is never the answer. The trouble, I think, is that two-dimensional diagrams of political options are far too simplistic:

Political compass, via Wikimedia Commons

For example, as Edurne Scott Loinaz shows, even within the Libertarian Left (the ‘lower left’) there are many different positions:

Lower left cultural differences within the zone of solidarity (Edurne Scott Loinaz)

The Libertarian Left has perhaps the best to offer in terms of fighting neoliberalism and populists like Trump. The problem is unity, and use of language:

When binary language is used within the lower left it does untold violence to our communities and makes solidarity impossible: if one can switch between binary language to speak truth about capitalists and authoritarians, and switch to dimensional language within the zone of solidarity with fellow lower leftists, it will be easier to nurture solidarity within the lower left.

Edurne Scott Loinaz

For the first time in my life, I’m actually somewhat fearful of what comes next, politically speaking. Are we going to end up with populists entrenching the authoritarian right, going back full circle to reactionary neoliberalism? Or does this current crisis mean that something new can emerge?


Header image by Guillaume Paumier used under a Creative Commons license

Friday ferretings

These things jumped out at me this week:

  • Deepfakes will influence the 2020 election—and our economy, and our prison system (Quartz) ⁠— “The problem doesn’t stop at the elections, however. Deepfakes can alter the very fabric of our economic and legal systems. Recently, we saw a deepfake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bragging about abusing data collected from users circulated on the internet. The creators of this video said it was produced to demonstrate the power of manipulation and had no malicious intent—yet it revealed how deceptively realistic deepfakes can be.”
  • The Slackification of the American Home (The Atlantic) — “Despite these tools’ utility in home life, it’s work where most people first become comfortable with them. ‘The membrane that divides work and family life is more porous than it’s ever been before,’ says Bruce Feiler, a dad and the author of The Secrets of Happy Families. ‘So it makes total sense that these systems built for team building, problem solving, productivity, and communication that were invented in the workplace are migrating to the family space’.”
  • You probably don’t know what your coworkers think of you. Here’s how to change that (Fast Company) — “[T]he higher you rise in an organization, the less likely you are to get an accurate picture of how other people view you. Most people want to be viewed favorably by others in a position of power. Once you move up to a supervisory role (or even higher), it is difficult to get people to give you a straight answer about their concerns.”
  • Sharing, Generosity and Gratitude (Cable Green, Creative Commons) — “David is home recovering and growing his liver back to full size. I will be at the Mayo Clinic through the end of July. After the Mayo surgeons skillfully transplanted ⅔ of David’s liver into me, he and I laughed about organ remixes, if he should receive attribution, and wished we’d have asked for a CC tattoo on my new liver.”
  • Flexibility as a key benefit of open (The Ed Techie) — “As I chatted to Dames and Lords and fiddled with my tie, I reflected on that what is needed for many of these future employment scenarios is flexibility. This comes in various forms, and people often talk about personalisation but it is more about institutional and opportunity flexibility that is important.”
  • Abolish Eton: Labour groups aim to strip elite schools of privileges (The Guardian) — “Private schools are anachronistic engines of privilege that simply have no place in the 21st century,” said Lewis. “We cannot claim to have an education system that is socially just when children in private schools continue to have 300% more spent on their education than children in state schools.”
  • I Can’t Stop Winning! (Pinboard blog) – “A one-person business is an exercise in long-term anxiety management, so I would say if you are already an anxious person, go ahead and start a business. You’re not going to feel any worse. You’ve already got the main skill set of staying up and worrying, so you might as well make some money.”
  • How To Be The Remote Employee That Proves The Stereotypes Aren’t True (Trello blog) — “I am a big fan of over-communicating in general, and I truly believe that this is a rule all remote employees should swear by.”
  • I Used Google Ads for Social Engineering. It Worked. (The New York Times) — “Ad campaigns that manipulate searchers’ behavior are frighteningly easy for anyone to run.”
  • Road-tripping with the Amazon Nomads (The Verge) — “To stock Amazon’s shelves, merchants travel the backroads of America in search of rare soap and coveted toys.”

Image from Guillermo Acuña fronts his remote Chilean retreat with large wooden staircase (Dezeen)

Life doesn’t depend on any one opinion, any one custom, or any one century

Baltasar Gracián was a 17th-century Spanish Jesuit who put together a book of aphorisms usually translated The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence or simply The Art of Worldly Wisdom. It’s one of a few books that have had a very large effect on my life. Today’s quotation-as-title comes from him.

The historian in me wonders about why we seem to live in such crazy times. My simple answer is ‘the internet’, but I want to dig into a bit using an essay from Scott Alexander:

[T]oday we have an almost unprecedented situation.

We have a lot of people… boasting of being able to tolerate everyone from every outgroup they can imagine, loving the outgroup, writing long paeans to how great the outgroup is, staying up at night fretting that somebody else might not like the outgroup enough.

This is really surprising. It’s a total reversal of everything we know about human psychology up to this point. No one did any genetic engineering. No one passed out weird glowing pills in the public schools. And yet suddenly we get an entire group of people who conspicuously promote and defend their outgroups, the outer the better.

What is going on here?

Scott Alexander

It’s long, and towards the end, Alexander realises that he’s perhaps guilty of the very thing he’s pointing out. Nevertheless, his definition of an ‘outgroup’ is useful:

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

Scott Alexander

Over the last three years in the UK, we’ve done a spectacular job of adding a hatred of the opposing side in the Brexit debate to our national underlying sense of xenophobia . What’s necessary next is to bring everyone together and, whether we end up leaving the EU or not, forging a new narrative.

As Bryan Caplan points out, such efforts at cohesion need to be approached obliquely. He uses the example of American politics, but it applies equally elsewhere, including the UK:

Suppose you live in a deeply divided society: 60% of people strongly identify with Group A, and the other 40% strongly identify with Group B. While you plainly belong to Group A, you’re convinced this division is bad: It would be much better if everyone felt like they belonged to Group AB. You seek a cohesive society, where everyone feels like they’re on the same team.

What’s the best way to bring this cohesion about? Your all-too-human impulse is to loudly preach the value of cohesion. But on reflection, this is probably counter-productive. When members of Group B hear you, they’re going to take “cohesion” as a euphemism for “abandon your identity, and submit to the dominance of Group A.” None too enticing. And when members of Group A notice Group B’s recalcitrance, they’re probably going to think, “We offer Group B the olive branch of cohesion, and they spit in our faces. Typical.” Instead of forging As and Bs into one people, preaching cohesion tears them further apart.

Bryan Caplan

So, what can we do? Caplan suggests that members of one side should go out of their way to be overwhelmingly positive and friendly to the other side:

The first rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. The second rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. If you really want to build a harmonious, unified society, take one for the team. Discard your anger, swallow your pride, and show out-groups unilateral respect and friendship. End of story.

Bryan Caplan

It reminds me of the Christian advice to “turn the other cheek” which must have melted the brains of those listening to Jesus who were used to the Old Testament approach:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

Matthew 5:38-40 (ESV)

Over the last 20 years, as the internet has played an ever-increasing role in our daily lives, we’ve seen a real ramping-up of the feminist movement, gay marriage becoming the norm in civilised western democracies, and movements like #BlackLivesMatter reminding us of just how racist our societies are.

In addition, despite the term being coined as long ago as 1989, we’ve seen a rise in awareness around intersectionality. It’s not exactly a radical notion to say that us being more connected leads to more awareness of ‘outgroups’. What is interesting is the way that we choose to deal with that.

Let’s have a quick look at the demographics from the Brexit vote three years ago:

Brexit demographics from The Guardian
Brexit demographics from The Guardian

Remain voters were, on the whole, younger, better educated, and more well-off than Leave voters. They were also slightly more likely to be born outside the UK. I haven’t done the research, but I just have a feeling that the generational differences here are to do with relative exposure to outgroups.

What’s more interesting than the result of the referendum itself, of course, is the reaction since then, with both ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ digging in to their entrenched positions. Now we’ve created new outgroups, we can join together in welcoming in the old outgroups. Hence LGBT+ pride rainbows in shops and everywhere else.

As I explained five years ago, one of the problems is that we’re not collectively aware enough of the role money plays in our democratic processes and information landscapes:

The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content.

Doug Belshaw

Sadly, in the west we invested in Computing to the detriment of critical digital literacies at exactly the wrong moment. That investment should have come on top of a real push to help everyone in society realise the importance of questioning and reflecting on their information environment.

Much as some people might like to, we can’t put the internet back in a box. It’s connected us all, for better and for worse, in ways that only a few would have foreseen. It’s changing the way we interact with one another, the way we buy things, and the way we think about education, work, and human flourishing.

All these connections might mean that style of representative democracy we’re currently used to might need tweaking. As Jamie Bartlett points out in The People vs Tech, “these are spiritual as well as technical questions”.


Also check out:

  • There is nothing more depressing than “positive news” (The Outline) — “The world is often a bummer, but a whole ecosystem of podcasts and Facebook pages have sprung up to assure you that things are actually great.”
  • Space for More Spaces (CogDogBlog) — “I still hold on to the idea that those old archaic, pre-social media constructs, a personal blog, is the main place, the home, to operate from.”
  • Clay Shirky on Mega-Universities and Scale (Phil on EdTech) — “What the mega-university story gets right is that online education is transforming higher education. What it gets wrong is the belief that transformation must end with consolidation around a few large-scale institutions”

There’s no viagra for enlightenment

This quotation from the enigmatic Russell Brand seemed appropriate for the subject of today’s article: the impact of so-called ‘deepfakes’ on everything from porn to politics.

First, what exactly are ‘deepfakes’? Mark Wilson explains in an article for Fast Company:

In early 2018, [an anonymous Reddit user named Deepfakes] uploaded a machine learning model that could swap one person’s face for another face in any video. Within weeks, low-fi celebrity-swapped porn ran rampant across the web. Reddit soon banned Deepfakes, but the technology had already taken root across the web–and sometimes the quality was more convincing. Everyday people showed that they could do a better job adding Princess Leia’s face to The Force Awakens than the Hollywood special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic did. Deepfakes had suddenly made it possible for anyone to master complex machine learning; you just needed the time to collect enough photographs of a person to train the model. You dragged these images into a folder, and the tool handled the convincing forgery from there.

Mark Wilson

As you’d expect, deepfakes bring up huge ethical issues, as Jessica Lindsay reports for Metro. It’s a classic case of our laws not being able to keep up with what’s technologically possible:

With the advent of deepfake porn, the possibilities have expanded even further, with people who have never starred in adult films looking as though they’re doing sexual acts on camera.

Experts have warned that these videos enable all sorts of bad things to happen, from paedophilia to fabricated revenge porn.

[…]

This can be done to make a fake speech to misrepresent a politician’s views, or to create porn videos featuring people who did not star in them.

Jessica Lindsay

It’s not just video, either, with Google’s AI now able to translate speech from one language to another and keep the same voice. Karen Hao embeds examples in an article for MIT Technology Review demonstrating where this is all headed.

The results aren’t perfect, but you can sort of hear how Google’s translator was able to retain the voice and tone of the original speaker. It can do this because it converts audio input directly to audio output without any intermediary steps. In contrast, traditional translational systems convert audio into text, translate the text, and then resynthesize the audio, losing the characteristics of the original voice along the way.

Karen Hao

The impact on democracy could be quite shocking, with the ability to create video and audio that feels real but is actually completely fake.

However, as Mike Caulfield notes, the technology doesn’t even have to be that sophisticated to create something that can be used in a political attack.

There’s a video going around that purportedly shows Nancy Pelosi drunk or unwell, answering a question about Trump in a slow and slurred way. It turns out that it is slowed down, and that the original video shows her quite engaged and articulate.

[…]

In musical production there is a technique called double-tracking, and it’s not a perfect metaphor for what’s going on here but it’s instructive. In double tracking you record one part — a vocal or solo — and then you record that part again, with slight variations in timing and tone. Because the two tracks are close, they are perceived as a single track. Because they are different though, the track is “widened” feeling deeper, richer. The trick is for them to be different enough that it widens the track but similar enough that they blend.

Mike Caulfield

This is where blockchain could actually be a useful technology. Caulfield often talks about the importance of ‘going back to the source’ — in other words, checking the provenance of what it is you’re reading, watching, or listening. There’s potential here for checking that something is actually the original document/video/audio.

Ultimately, however, people believe what they want to believe. If they want to believe Donald Trump is an idiot, they’ll read and share things showing him in a negative light. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not.


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Form is the possibility of structure

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein with today’s quotation-as-title. I’m using it as a way in to discuss some things around city planning, and in particular an article I’ve been meaning to discuss for what seems like ages.

In an article for The LA Times, Jessica Roy highlights a phenomenon I wish I could take back and show my 12 year-old self:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014.

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

Jessica Roy

Some games are just awesome. SimCity is still popular now on touchscreen devices, and my kids play it occasionally. It’s interesting to read in the article how different people, now responsible for real cities, played the game, for example Roy quotes the Vice President of Transportation and Housing at the non-profit Silicon Valley Leadership Group

“I was not one of the players who enjoyed Godzilla running through your city and destroying it. I enjoyed making my city run well.”

Jason Baker

I, on the other hand, particularly enjoyed booting up ‘scenario mode’ where you had to rescue a city that had been ravaged by Godzilla, aliens, or a natural disaster.

This isn’t an article about nostalgia, though, and if you read the article in more depth you realise that it’s an interesting insight into our psychology around governance of cities and nations. For example, going back to an article from 2018 that also references SimCity, Devon Zuegel writes:

The way we live is shaped by our infrastructure — the public spaces, building codes, and utilities that serve a city or region. It can act as the foundation for thriving communities, but it can also establish unhealthy patterns when designed poorly.

[…]

People choose to drive despite its costs because they lack reasonable alternatives. Unfortunately, this isn’t an accident of history. Our transportation system has been overly focused on automobile traffic flow as its metric of success. This single-minded focus has come at the cost of infrastructure that supports alternative ways to travel. Traffic flow should, instead, be one goal out of many. Communities would be far healthier if our infrastructure actively encouraged walking, cycling, and other forms of transportation rather than subsidizing driving and ignoring alternatives.

Devon Zuegel

In other words, the decisions we ask our representatives to make have a material impact in shaping our environment. That, in turn, affects our decisions about how to live and work.

When we don’t have data about what people actually do, it’s easy for ideology and opinions to get in the way. That’s why I’m interested in what Los Angeles is doing with its public transport system. As reported by Adam Rogers in WIRED, the city is using mobile phone data to see how it can ‘reboot’ its bus system. It turns out that the people running the system had completely the wrong assumptions:

In fact, Metro’s whole approach turned out to be skewed to the wrong kinds of trips. “Traditionally we’re trying to provide fast service for long-distance trips,” [Anurag Komanduri, a data anlyst] says. That’s something the Orange Line and trains are good at. But the cell phone data showed that only 16 percent of trips in LA County were longer than 10 miles. Two-thirds of all travel was less than five miles. Short hops, not long hauls, rule the roads.

Adam Rogers

There’s some discussion later in the article about the “baller move” of ripping down some of the freeways to force people to use public transportation. Perhaps that’s actually what’s required.

In Barcelona, for example, “fiery leftist housing activist” Ada Colau became the city’s mayor in 2015. Since then, they’ve been doing some radical experimentation. David Roberts reports for Vox on what they’ve done with one area of the city that I’ve actually seen with my own eyes:

Inside the superblock in the Poblenou neighborhood, in the middle of what used to be an intersection, there’s a small playground, with a set of about a dozen picnic tables next to it, just outside a local cafe. On an early October evening, neighbors sit and sip drinks to the sound of children’s shouts and laughter. The sun is still out, and the warm air smells of wild grasses growing in the fresh plantings nearby.

David Roberts

I can highly recommended watching this five-minute video overview of the benefits of this approach:

So if it work, why aren’t we seeing more of this? Perhaps it’s because, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out on his blog, most of us are governed by incompetents:

An ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence. Indeed most right wing think tanks are designed to turn the ideology of neoliberalism into policy based evidence. It was this ideology that led to austerity, the failed health reforms and the privatisation of the probation service. It also played a role in Brexit, with many of its protagonists dreaming of a UK free from regulations on workers rights and the environment. It is why most of the recent examples of incompetence come from the political right.

A pluralist democracy has checks and balances in part to guard against incompetence by a government or ministers. That is one reason why Trump and the Brexiters so often attack elements of a pluralist democracy. The ultimate check on incompetence should be democracy itself: incompetent politicians are thrown out. But when a large part of the media encourage rather than expose acts of incompetence, and the non-partisan media treat knowledge as just another opinion, that safegurd against persistent incompetence is put in danger.

Simon Wren-Lewis

We seem to have started with SimCity and ended with Trump and Brexit. Sorry about that, but without decent government, we can’t hope to improve our communities and environment.


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  • ‘Nation as a service’ is the ultimate goal for digitized governments (TNW) — “Right now in Estonia, when you have a baby, you automatically get child benefits. The user doesn’t have to do anything because the government already has all the data to make sure the citizen receives the benefits they’re entitled to.”
  • The ethics of smart cities (RTE) — “With ethics-washing, a performative ethics is being practised designed to give the impression that an issue is being taken seriously and meaningful action is occurring, when the real ambition is to avoid formal regulation and legal mechanisms.”
  • Cities as learning platforms (Harold Jarche) — “For the past century we have compartmentalized the life of the citizen. At work, the citizen is an ‘employee’. Outside the office he may be a ‘consumer’. Sometimes she is referred to as a ‘taxpayer’. All of these are constraining labels, ignoring the full spectrum of citizenship.

The quixotic fools of imperialism

As an historian with an understanding of our country’s influence of the world over the last few hundred years, I look back at the British Empire with a sense of shame, not of pride.

But, even if you do flag-wave and talk about our nation’s glorious past, an article in yesterday’s New York Times shows how far we’ve falled:

The Brexiteers, pursuing a fantasy of imperial-era strength and self-sufficiency, have repeatedly revealed their hubris, mulishness and ineptitude over the past two years. Though originally a “Remainer,” Prime Minister Theresa May has matched their arrogant obduracy, imposing a patently unworkable timetable of two years on Brexit and laying down red lines that undermined negotiations with Brussels and doomed her deal to resoundingly bipartisan rejection this week in Parliament.

I think I’d forgotten how useful the word mendacious is in this context (“lying, untruthful”):

From David Cameron, who recklessly gambled his country’s future on a referendum in order to isolate some whingers in his Conservative party, to the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who jumped on the Brexit bandwagon to secure the prime ministerial chair once warmed by his role model Winston Churchill, and the top-hatted, theatrically retro Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose fund management company has set up an office within the European Union even as he vehemently scorns it, the British political class has offered to the world an astounding spectacle of mendacious, intellectually limited hustlers.

When leaving countries after their imperialist adventures, members of the British ruling elite were fond of dividing countries with arbitrary lines. Cases in point: India, Ireland,  the Middle East. That this doesn’t work is blatantly obvious, and is a lazy way to deal with complex issues.

It is a measure of English Brexiteers’ political acumen that they were initially oblivious to the volatile Irish question and contemptuous of the Scottish one. Ireland was cynically partitioned to ensure that Protestant settlers outnumber native Catholics in one part of the country. The division provoked decades of violence and consumed thousands of lives. It was partly healed in 1998, when a peace agreement removed the need for security checks along the British-imposed partition line.

I’d love to think that we’re nearing the end of what the Times calls ‘chumocracy’ and no longer have to suffer what Hannah Arendt called “the quixotic fools of imperialism”. We can but hope.

 

On ‘radical incompetence’

One of the reasons I’ve retreated from Twitter since May of last year is the rise of angry politics. I can’t pay attention to everything that’s happening all of the time. And I certainly haven’t got the energy to deal with problems that aren’t materially affecting me or the people I care about.

Brexit, then, is a strange one. On the one hand, I participated in a democratic election to elect a government. Subsequently, a government formed from a party I didn’t vote for called a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. As we all know, the result was close, and based on lies and illegal funding. Nevertheless, perhaps as a citizen I should participate democratically and then get on with my own life.

On the other hand of course, this isn’t politics as usual. There’s been a rise in nationalistic fervour that we haven’t seen since the 1930s. It’s alarming, particularly at a time when smartphones, social media, and the ever-increasing speed of the news cycle make it difficult for citizens to pay sustained attention to anything.

This article in The New York Times zooms out from the particular issues of Trump and Brexit to look at the wider picture. It’s not mentioned specifically in the article, but documentary evidence of struggles around political power and sovereignty goes back at leats to the Magna Carta in England. One way of looking at that is that King John was the Donald Trump of his time, so the barons took power from him.

It’s easy to stand for the opposite of something: you don’t have to do any of the work. All that’s necessary is to point out problems, flaws, and issues with the the person, organisation, or concept that you’re attacking. So demagogues and iconoclasts such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, whose lack of a coherent position wouldn’t work at any other time, all of a sudden gain credibility in times of upheaval.

Like so many political metaphors, the distinction between “hard” and “soft” is misleading. Any Brexiteer wanting to perform machismo will reach for the “hard” option. But as has become increasingly plain over the past two years, and especially over recent weeks, nobody has any idea what “hard” Brexit actually means in policy terms. It is not so much hard as abstract. “Soft” Brexit might sound weak or halfhearted, but it is also the only policy proposal that might actually work.

What appear on the surface to be policy disputes over Britain’s relationship with Brussels are actually fundamental conflicts regarding the very nature of political power. In this, the arguments underway inside Britain’s Conservative Party speak of a deeper rift within liberal democracies today, which shows no sign of healing. In conceptual terms, this is a conflict between those who are sympathetic to government and those striving to reassert sovereignty.

I’m writing this on the train home from London. I haven’t participated in or seen any of the protests around Trump’s visit to the UK. I have, however, seen plenty of people holding placards and banners, obviously on their way to, or from, a rally.

My concern about getting angry in bite-sized chunks on Twitter or reducing your issues with someone like Trump or Johnson to a placard is that you’re playing them at their own game. They’ll win. They thrive on the oxygen of attention. Cut it off and they’ll whither and be forced to slink off to whatever hole they originally crawled from.

A common thread linking “hard” Brexiteers to nationalists across the globe is that they resent the very idea of governing as a complex, modern, fact-based set of activities that requires technical expertise and permanent officials.

[…]

The more extreme fringes of British conservatism have now reached the point that American conservatives first arrived at during the Clinton administration: They are seeking to undermine the very possibility of workable government. For hard-liners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is an article of faith that Britain’s Treasury Department, the Bank of England and Downing Street itself are now conspiring to deny Britain its sovereignty.

What we’re talking about here is ideology. There’s always been a fundamental difference between the left and the right of politics in a way that’s understood enough not to get into here. But issues around sovereignty, nationalism, and self-determinism actually cut across the traditional political spectrum. That’s why, for example, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, can oppose the EU for vastly different reasons to Jacob Rees-Mogg, arch-Brexiteer.

I haven’t got the energy to go into it here, but to me the crisis in confidence in expertise comes from a warping of the meritocratic system that was supposed to emancipate the working class, break down class structures, and bring forth a fairer society. What’s actually happened is that the political elites have joined with the wealthy to own the means of cultural reproduction. As a result, no-one now seems to trust them.

What happens if sections of the news media, the political classes and the public insist that only sovereignty matters and that the complexities of governing are a lie invented by liberal elites? For one thing, it gives rise to celebrity populists, personified by Mr. Trump, whose inability to engage patiently or intelligently with policy issues makes it possible to sustain the fantasy that governing is simple. What Mr. Johnson terms the “method” in Mr. Trump’s “madness” is a refusal to listen to inconvenient evidence, of the sort provided by officials and experts.

There have been many calls within my lifetime for a ‘new politics’. It’s nearly always a futile project, and just means a changing of the faces on our screens while the political elite continue their machinations. I’m not super-hopeful, but I do perhaps wonder whether our new-found connectedness, if mediated by decentralised technologies, could change that?

Source: The New York Times