🇺🇸 Well, that was expected — “I’ve recorded this here since it feels like the chronology of events and the smaller details are already evaporating, and this helps me wrap my head around a tiny fraction of it. If you happen to read this, don’t take this at face value (nor anything else on the web for that matter). Do your own research and correct me if you think any of the timestamps are wrong.”
📺Fox News and the real insurrection — “After Democrats said they planned to impeach Trump again, Fox opinionators echoed the risible Republican talking point that such a move would be provocative; after Twitter banned Trump, they pivoted to bash Big Tech. Yesterday morning, Jeanine Pirro compared Amazon’s decision to boot Parler, an app popular among right-wing extremists, from its web-hosting services to Kristallnacht—the night, in 1938, when Nazis in Germany killed around one hundred Jewish people and arrested tens of thousands more”
₿ Lost Passwords Lock Millionaires Out of Their Bitcoin Fortunes — “Of the existing 18.5 million Bitcoin, around 20 percent — currently worth around $140 billion — appear to be in lost or otherwise stranded wallets, according to the cryptocurrency data firm Chainalysis. Wallet Recovery Services, a business that helps find lost digital keys, said it had gotten 70 requests a day from people who wanted help recovering their riches, three times the number of a month ago.”
🕸️ Pirated Academic Database Sci-Hub Is Now on the ‘Uncensorable Web’ — “As evidenced by Sci-Hub’s own problems, the decentralized web is being built out of fears of deplatforming. As the internet’s access points are increasingly centralized in the hands of a few actors, certain applications – most recently, Twitter-alternative Parler – have faced censorship at the hands of web server providers, app stores and DNS certificate authorities.”
🏛️ Internet 3.0 and the Beginning of (Tech) History — Here technology itself will return to the forefront: if the priority for an increasing number of citizens, companies, and countries is to escape centralization, then the answer will not be competing centralized entities, but rather a return to open protocols. This is the only way to match and perhaps surpass the R&D advantages enjoyed by centralized tech companies; open technologies can be worked on collectively, and forked individually, gaining both the benefits of scale and inevitability of sovereignty and self-determination.
Quotation-as-title by Vauvenargues. Image from bottom-linked post.
🤔 We need more than deplatforming — “But as reprehensible as the actions of Donald Trump are, the rampant use of the internet to foment violence and hate, and reinforce white supremacy is about more than any one personality. Donald Trump is certainly not the first politician to exploit the architecture of the internet in this way, and he won’t be the last. We need solutions that don’t start after untold damage has been done.”
💪 Demands and Responsibilities — “If you demand rights for yourself, you have to demand those same rights for others. You have to take on the responsibility of collective action, and you yourself act in a way that benefits the collective. If you want credit, you have to give credit. If you want community, you have to be communal. If you want to be satiated, you have to allow others to be sated. If you want your vote to be respected, you have to respect the votes of others.”
🙅 Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About Section 230 Of The Communications Decency Act — “While this may all feel kind of mean, it’s not meant to be. Unless you’re one of the people who is purposefully saying wrong things about Section 230, like Senator Ted Cruz or Rep. Nancy Pelosi (being wrong about 230 is bipartisan). For them, it’s meant to be mean. For you, let’s just assume you made an honest mistake — perhaps because deliberately wrong people like Ted Cruz and Nancy Pelosi steered you wrong. So let’s correct that.”
🧐 What Wikipedia saw during election week in the U.S., and what we’re doing next — “To help meet this goal, we hope to invest in resources that we can share with international Wikipedia communities that will help mitigate future disinformation risks on the sites. We’re also looking to bring together administrators from different language Wikipedias for a global forum on disinformation. Together, we aim to build more tools to support our volunteer editors, and to combat disinformation.”
Quotation-as-title by the Goncourt Brothers. Image from top-linked post.
It’s difficult not to say “I told you so” when things play out exactly as predicted. Four years ago, when Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the USA, many had ominous forebodings.
Donald Trump’s inaugural address was a declaration of war on everything represented by these choreographed civilities. President Trump – it’s time to begin to get used to those jarringly ill-fitting words – did not conjure a deathless phrase for the day. His words will not lodge in the brain in any of the various uplifting ways that the likes of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy or Reagan once achieved. But the new president’s message could not have been clearer. He came to shatter the veneer of unity and continuity represented by the peaceful handover. And he may have succeeded. In 1933, Roosevelt challenged the world to overcome fear. In 2017, Mr Trump told the world to be very afraid.
He was all bluster, we were told. That it was rhetoric and would never be followed up with action.
Leaders are judged by their first 100 days in office. Wikipedia has a page outlining what Trump did during his, including things that, looking back from the vantage point of 2021, seem like warning shots: rolling back gun control legislation, stoking fears around voter fraud, cracking down on illegal immigration, freezing federal job hiring (except military), and engaging in tax reform to the benefit of the rich.
As a History teacher, it always struck me as odd that Adolf Hitler, a man born in Austria with brown hair, managed to lead a fascist party that extolled the virtues of being German and having blond hair. These days, I’m equally baffled that some of the richest people in our society — Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg — can pass themselves off as ‘anti-elite’.
Much of their ability to do so is by creating an alternative reality with the aid of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. These replace traditional gatekeepers to information with algorithms tweaked for engagement, attention, and profit.
As we know, whipping up hatred and peddling conspiracy theories puts these algorithms into overdrive, and ensure those who agree with the content see what’s shared. But this approach also reaches those who don’t agree with it, by virtue of people seeking to reject and push back on it. Meanwhile, of course, the platforms rake in $$$ from advertisers.
I get the feeling that there are a great number of people who do not understand the way the world works in 2021. I am probably one of them. In fact, given how much control we’ve given to algorithms in recent years, perhaps no-one truly understands.
Pandora’s Box is open. Those who realise that everything is a construct and theory-laden will control those who don’t. The latter will be reduced to merely wandering around an alternative reality, like protesters in Statuary Hall, waiting to be told what to do next.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), is a US-based non-profit that exists to defend civil liberties in the digital world. They’ve been around for 30 years, and I support them financially on a monthly basis.
In this article by Corynne McSherry, EFF’s Legal Director, she outlines the futility in attempts by ‘Big Social’ to do content moderation at scale:
[C]ontent moderation is a fundamentally broken system. It is inconsistent and confusing, and as layer upon layer of policy is added to a system that employs both human moderators and automated technologies, it is increasingly error-prone. Even well-meaning efforts to control misinformation inevitably end up silencing a range of dissenting voices and hindering the ability to challenge ingrained systems of oppression.
Ultimately, these monolithic social networks have a problem around false positives. It’s in their interests to be over-zealous, as they’re increasingly under the watchful eye of regulators and governments.
We have been watching closely as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, while disclaiming any interest in being “the arbiters of truth,” have all adjusted their policies over the past several months to try arbitrate lies—or at least flag them. And we’re worried, especially when we look abroad. Already this year, an attempt by Facebook to counter election misinformation targeting Tunisia, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and seven other African countries resulted in the accidental removal of accounts belonging to dozens of Tunisian journalists and activists, some of whom had used the platform during the country’s 2011 revolution. While some of those users’ accounts were restored, others—mostly belonging to artists—were not.
McSherry’s analysis is spot-on: it’s the algorithms that are a problem here. Social networks employ these algorithms because of their size and structure, and because of the cost of human-based content moderation. After all, these are companies with shareholders.
Algorithms used by Facebook’s Newsfeed or Twitter’s timeline make decisions about which news items, ads, and user-generated content to promote and which to hide. That kind of curation can play an amplifying role for some types of incendiary content, despite the efforts of platforms like Facebook to tweak their algorithms to “disincentivize” or “downrank” it. Features designed to help people find content they’ll like can too easily funnel them into a rabbit hole of disinformation.
She includes useful questions for social networks to answer about content moderation:
Is the approach narrowly tailored or a categorical ban?
Does it empower users?
Is it transparent?
Is the policy consistent with human rights principles?
You can’t tech your way out of problems the tech didn’t create. And even where content moderation has a role to play, history tells us to be wary. Content moderation at scale is impossible to do perfectly, and nearly impossible to do well, even under the most transparent, sensible, and fair conditions
I’m so pleased that I don’t use Facebook products, and that I only use Twitter these days as a place to publish links to my writing.
Instead, I’m much happier on the Fediverse, a place where if you don’t like the content moderation approach of the instance you’re on, you can take your digital knapsack and decide to call another place home. You can find me here (for now!).
One of the reasons I’m not active on Twitter any more is the endless, pointless arguments between progressives and traditionalists, between those on the left of politics and those on the right, and between those who think that watching reality TV is an acceptable thing to spend your life doing, and those who don’t.
Interestingly a new report which draws on data from 10,000 people, focus groups, and academic interviews suggests that half of the controversy on Twitter is generated by a small proportion of users:
[The report] states that 12% of voters accounted for 50% of all social-media and Twitter users – and are six times as active on social media as are other sections of the population. The two “tribes” most oriented towards politics, labelled “progressive activists” and “backbone Conservatives”, were least likely to agree with the need for compromise. However, two-thirds of respondents who identify with either the centre, centre-left or centre-right strongly prefer compromise over conflict, by a margin of three to one.
Interestingly, the report also shows difference between the US and UK, but also to attitudes before and after the pandemic started:
The research also suggested that the Covid-19 crisis had prompted an outburst of social solidarity. In February, 70% of voters agreed that “it’s everyone for themselves”, with 30% agreeing that “we look after each other”. By September, the proportion who opted for “we look after each other” had increased to 54%.
More than half (57%) reported an increased awareness of the living conditions of others, 77% feel that the pandemic has reminded us of our common humanity, and 62% feel they have the ability to change things around them – an increase of 15 points since February.
As I keep on saying, those who believe in unfettered capitalism have to perpetuate a false narrative of competition in all things to justify their position. We have more things in common than differences, and I truly believe the collaboration is our default operating system.
I deactivated my Twitter account this week. I’ve done that before, but this time I’m honestly not sure if I’ll reactivate it.
Given that I get a fair few links through Twitter, I wonder if the kind of things I share in these weekly link roundups will change? We shall see, I guess. You can connect with me via the Fediverse: https://mastodon.social/@dajbelshaw
Drawing on the entire history of radical thought, while seeking to plumb their common depths, 33 Myths of the System, presents a synthesis of independent criticism, a straightforward exposure of the justifications of the world-system, along with a new way to perceive and understand the unhappy supermind that directs, penetrates and even lives our lives.
While I didn’t agree with absolutely everything in this free e-book, it’s fair to say it blew my mind. Highly recommended, especially for thoughtful people. One of the best things I’ve read in the last decade in terms of getting me to question… everything.
In any case, Twitter’s response to the incident offered further cause for distress. The company’s initial tweet on the subject said almost nothing, and two hours later it had followed only to say what many users were forced to discover for themselves: that Twitter had disabled the ability of many verified users to tweet or reset their passwords while it worked to resolve the hack’s underlying cause.
The near-silencing of politicians, celebrities, and the national press corps led to much merriment on the service — see this, along with Those good tweets below, for some fun — but the move had other, darker implications. Twitter is, for better and worse, one of the world’s most important communications systems, and among its users are accounts linked to emergency medical services. The National Weather Service in Lincoln, IL, for example, had just tweeted a tornado warning before suddenly going dark. To the extent that anyone was relying on that account for further information about those tornadoes, they were out of luck.
Casey Newton (The INterface)
I didn’t actually deactivate my Twitter account because of the hack — that was actually more to do with the book mentioned above — but as a verified user, this certainly reinforced my decision. Just a reminder that at least one person with nuclear codes uses Twitter as their primary means of communication.
Centralised platforms crave data collection and thirst for trust from the communities they seek to exploit. These platforms sell bloated, overpowered hardware that cannot be repaired, vulnerable to drops in consumer spending or spasms in the supply chain. They anxiously eye legislation to compel encryption backdoors, which will further weaken the trust they need so badly. They wobble beneath network disruptions (such as the worldwide slowdowns in March under COVID-19 load surges) that incapacitate cloud-dependent devices. They sleep with one eye open in countries where authoritarian governments compel them or their employees to operate as an informal arm of enforcement. These current trajectories point to the accelerating erosion of centralised platform power.
Cade Diehm (The New Design Congress)
This is an incredible article that’s very well presented. I keep talking about the importance of decentralisation, and this article backs that up — but also explains how and why decentralised social networks need to do better.
While the upsides to remote work are true, for many people remote work is a poison pill — one where you are given “control” in the name of productivity in exchange for some pretty nasty long-term effects.
In reality, remote work makes you vulnerable to outsourcing, reduces your job to a metric, creates frustrating change-averse bureaucracies, and stifles your career growth. The lack of scrutiny our remote future faces is going to result in frustrated workers and ineffective companies.
I’m a proponent of remote work, but I was nodding along to many of the points made in this post. Context is everything, and there’s something to be said about being able to go home to escape work.
This week I changed the theme over at my personal blog to one that is much lighter. When I shared what I’d done on Mastodon, someone commented that they didn’t think it would make that much difference. This post was written by someone who popped up to rebut what they said.
INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic confirmed or reinforced about your view of society?
TOLENTINO: That capitalist individualism has turned into a death cult; that the internet is a weak substitute for physical presence; that this country criminally undervalues its most important people and its most important forms of labor; that we’re incentivized through online mechanisms to value the representation of something (like justice) over the thing itself; that most of us hold more unknown potential, more negative capability, than we’re accustomed to accessing; that the material conditions of life in America are constructed and maintained by those best set up to exploit them; and that the way we live is not inevitable at all.
I have to confess to not knowing who Jia Tolentino was before stumbling across this via the Hurry Slowly newsletter (although I must have read her writing before). This is a fantastic interview, which you should read in its entirety.
In a recent blog post, Twitter made a big deal of the fact that they are testing new conversation settings.
While some people don’t necessarily think this is a good idea, I think it’s a step forward. In fact, I’ve actually already tried out this functionality… on the Fediverse.
The Fediverse (a portmanteau of “federation” and “universe”) is the ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can intercommunicate with each other.
That’s a mouthful. Let’s get to the details of that in a moment and deal with a concrete example instead. Here is a screenshot showing what Twitter has learned from Mastodon (and other federated social networks) in terms of how to make conversations better.
The Fediverse feels like a very different place to Twitter. There’s a reason why you will find the marginalised, the oppressed, and very niche interests here: it’s a safe space. And, despite macho right-leaning posturing, we all need spaces online where we can be ourselves.
Of course ‘federation’ and ‘decentralisation’ aren’t words that most of us tend to use on a day-to-day basis. So it’s important to define terms here so you can see the inherent difference between using something like Twitter and something like Mastodon.
Note: I can pretty much guarantee by 2030 you’ll be using a federated social network of some description. After all, in 2007 people told me Twitter would never catch on, yet a few years later pretty much everyone was using it.)
Check out the diagram above. On the left, is the representation of a centralised platform. An example of that would be Facebook. You’re either on Facebook, or you’re not on Facebook. I don’t use any of Facebook’s products out of a concern for privacy, civil liberties, and the threat they pose to democracy. As a result, my ethical stance means that anything posted to Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp is inaccessible to me.It’s either have an account on their servers, or you don’t.
On the right of the diagram, you can the representation of a distributed social network. Here, every server has a copy of what is on every other server. This is how bittorrent works, and is great for resilience and ensuring things are fault-tolerant. There are a couple of examples of social networks that use this approach (e.g. Scuttlebutt), but they’re primarily used for situations where users have intermittent internet access.
Then, in the middle is a federated social network. This is what I’m focusing on in this article. It’s kind of how email works; you can email anyone else in the world no matter which email platform they use. GMail users email Outlook users email Fastmail users. Only the data you send and receive with the person you are communicating with resides on each email server; you don’t have a copy of everyone in the whole network’s email!
So, just as with email, federated social networks have an underlying protocol to ensure that messages from one platform can be understood, displayed, and replied to by another. Those making the platform, of course, have to bake that functionality in; Facebook, Twitter, and the like choose not to do so.
What does this mean in practice? Well, let’s take three examples. The first is around 10 years ago when I decided to delete my Facebook account. That means I haven’t had an account there, or been able to access any non-public information on that social network for a decade.
On the other hand, about five years ago, I ditched GMail for Protonmail because I wanted to improve the privacy and security of my personal email account. Leaving GMail didn’t mean giving up having an email account.
Likewise, a couple of years ago, I decided to leave my Mastodon-powered social.coop account as I was getting some hassle. Instead of quitting the social network, as I would have had to do if this had happened on Facebook, I could quickly and easily move my account to mastodon.social. All of my settings were imported, including all of the people I was following!
An aside about moderation. What Twitter is doing with its new functionality is giving its users tools to do some of their own moderation. Other than that, the only moderation possible within the Twitter network is to ‘report’ tweets for spam or abuse. Moderators, acting on a network-wide scale then need to figure out whether the tweet contravened their guidelines. Having reported tweets before, this can take days and is often not resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.
Contrast that with the Fediverse, where people join instances depending on a range of factors including their geographic location, languages spoken, political and religious beliefs, tolerance for profanity, and so on. Fediverse users are accessing the wider network through a server that is moderated by people they trust. If they stop trusting those moderators they can move their account elsewhere, or even host their own server.
This leads to much faster, more local, and more effective moderation. Instance-level blocking is common, as it should be. After all, you have the right to discuss with other people things I find hateful, but it doesn’t mean I have to see them on my timeline.
You may be wondering about what how this looks and feels in practice. The above screenshot is from PixelFed, a federated social network that is a bit like Instagram. The difference, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is that it’s federated!
Check out the two posts on my Mastodon timeline above.
The top post is an example of someone on Mastodon ‘republishing’ the same thing they’ve posted on Twitter. They’ve literally had to do the manual work of separately uploading the image and entering the text on each social network, and have to maintain two separate accounts.
The bottom post, on the other hand, is my PixelFed post showing up in my Mastodon feed. No extra work was involved here: anyone’s Mastodon account can follow anyone’s PixelFed account, and it’s all down to the magic of open, federated protocols. In this case, ActivityPub.
There are many federated social networks — many more, in fact, than are listed on the Wikipedia page for Fediverse. One of my favourites is Misskey just because it’s so… Japanese. You can choose whatever suits you, and everything works together.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation said back in 2011 when writing about federated social networks:
The best way for online social networking to become safer, more flexible, and more innovative is to distribute the ability and authority to the world’s users and developers, whose various needs and imaginations can do far more than what any single company could achieve.
Richard Esguerra (EFF)
As many people reading this will be aware, I have skin in this game, a dog in this fight, a horse in this race because of MoodleNet. The difference is that MoodleNet is not only a federated social network, but a decentralised digital commons. Educators join communities to curate collections of openly-licensed resources.
This poses additional design challenges to those faced by existing federated social networks. We’re pretty close now to v1.0 beta and have built upon the fantastic thinking and approaches of other federated social networks. In addition, we’ve added functionality that is specific (at the moment, at least) to MoodleNet, and suits our target audience.
This popped up in my Twitter feed this week and brought joy to my life. So simple but so effective: either randomly go to, or browse radio stations around the world. The one featured in the screenshot above is one close to me I forgot existed!
Every time we get a new kind of tool, we start by making the new thing fit the existing ways that we work, but then, over time, we change the work to fit the new tool. You’re used to making your metrics dashboard in PowerPoint, and then the cloud comes along and you can make it in Google Docs and everyone always has the latest version. But one day, you realise that the dashboard could be generated automatically and be a live webpage, and no-one needs to make those slides at all. Today, sometimes doing the meeting as a video call is a poor substitute for human interaction, but sometimes it’s like putting the slides in the cloud.
I don’t think we can know which is which right now, but we’re going through a vast, forced public experiment to find out which bits of human psychology will align with which kinds of tool, just as we did with SMS, email or indeed phone calls in previous generations.
An interesting post that both invokes ‘green eggs and ham’ as a metaphor, and includes an anecdote from an Ofcom report towards the end about a woman named Polly that no-one who does training or usability testing should ever forget.
What future learning environments need is not more mechanization, but more humanization; not more data, but more wisdom; not more objectification, but more subjectification; not more Plato, but more Aristotle.
William Rankin (regenerative.global)
I agree, although ‘subjectification’ is a really awkward word that suggests school subjects, which isn’t the author’s point. After all of this, I can’t see parents, in particular, accepting going back to how school has been. At least, I hope not.
This guide… is meant to give you hope and fear. To beat COVID-19 in a way that also protects our mental & financial health, we need optimism to create plans, and pessimism to create backup plans. As Gladys Bronwyn Stern once said, “The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”
Marcel Salathé & Nicky Case
Modelling what happens next in terms of lockdowns, etc. is not an easy think to understand, and there are many competing opinions. This guide, with ‘playable simulations’ is the best thing I’ve seen so far, and I feel I’m much better prepared for the next decade (yes, you read that correctly).
By the time Michel de Montaigne wrote “Of Experience,” the last entry in his third and final book of essays, the French statesman and author had weathered numerous outbreaks of plague (in 1585, while he was mayor of Bordeaux, a third of the population perished), political uprisings, the death of five daughters, and an onslaught of physical ailments, from rotting teeth to debilitating kidney stones.
The ubiquity of suffering heightened Montaigne’s attentiveness to the complexity of human experience. Pleasure, he contends, flows not from free rein but structure. The brevity of existence, he goes on, gives it a certain heft. Exertion, truth be told, is the best form of compensation. Time is slippery, the more reason to grab hold.
There’s a children’s book that I love, The Greentail Mouse by Leo Lionni. It plays on the old theme of the town mouse and the country mouse. In this telling, the town mouse comes to visit his cousins in their rural idyll, and they ask him about life in the town. It’s horrible, he says, noisy and dangerous, but there is one day a year when it’s amazing, and that’s when carnival comes around. So the country mice decide to hold a carnival of their own: they make costumes and masks, they grunt and shriek and howl and jump around like wild things. But then, at some point, they forget that they are wearing masks; they end up believing that they are the fierce creatures they have been playing at being, and their formerly peaceful community becomes filled with fear, hatred and suspicion.
Dougald Hine is taking Charlie Davies’ course Clarity for Teachers and is blogging each day about it. This is from the last post in the series. I’m including it partly to point towards Homeward Bound, which I’ve just signed up for, and which starts next Thursday.
First I search for my new item of interest, then I filter the results by “People I Follow.” (You can try it out with some of my recent searches: “Roger Angell,” “Captain Beefheart,” and “Rockford Files.”) Depending on the subject, I might have pages and pages of links, all handily selected for me by people I find interesting.
In his most recent newsletter, Austin Kleon referenced this post of his from five years ago. I think the idea is a great one and I’ll definitely be doing this in future! Twitter move settings around occasionally, but it’s still there under ‘search filters’.
Perhaps the most counter-intuitive truth of the universe is that the more you give to others, the more you’ll get. Understanding this is the beginning of wisdom.
Before you are old, attend as many funerals as you can bear, and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.
Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.
Kevin Kelly (The Technium)
The venerable KK is now 68 years of age and so has dispensed some wisdom. It’s a mixed bag, but I particularly liked these the three bits of advice I’ve quoted above.
We are, I would suggest, in a period of collective shock due to the pandemic. Of course, some people are better at dealing with these kinds of things than others. I’m not medically trained, but I’m pretty sure some of this comes down to genetics; it’s probably something to do with the production of cortisol.
It might a little simplistic to separate people into those who are good in a crisis and those who aren’t. It’s got to be more complex than that. What if some people, despite their genetic predisposition, have performed some deliberate practice in terms of how they react to events and other things around them?
I often say to my kids that it’s not your actions that mark you out as a person, but your reactions. After all, anyone can put on a ‘mask’ and affect an air of nonchalance and sophistication. But that mask can slip in a crisis. To mix metaphors, people lose control when they reach the end of their tether, and are at their most emotionally vulnerable and unguarded when things go wrong. This is when we see their true colours.
A few years ago, when I joined Moodle, I flew to Australia and we did some management bonding stuff and exercises. One of them was about the way that you operate in normal circumstances, and the way that you operate under pressure. Like most people, I tended to get more authoritarian in a crisis.
What we’re seeing in this crisis, I think, are people’s true colours. The things they’re talking about the most and wanting to protect are the equivalent of them item they’d pull from a burning building. What do they want to protect from the coronavirus? Is it the economy? Is it their family? Is it freedom of speech?
It’s an interesting suggestion for a thought experiment. Before we go any further, though, I want to preface this by saying these are the ramblings of an incoherent fool. Don’t make any investment decisions, buy any new clothes, or sever any relationships based on what I’ve got to say. After all, at this point, I’m mostly for rhetorical effect.
The first and obvious thing that I think will happen as a result of the pandemic is that people will get sick and some will die. Pretty much everyone on earth will either lose someone close to them or know someone who has. Death, as it has done for much of human history, will stalk us, and be something we are forced to both confront and talk about.
This may not seem like a very cheerful and hopeful place to start, but, actually, not being afraid to die seems to be the first step in living a fulfilling life. As I’ve said before, quoting it is the child within us that trembles before death. Coming to terms with that fact that you and the people you love are going to die at some point is just accepting the obvious.
If we don’t act like we’re going to live forever, if we confront our mortal condition, then it forces us to make some choices, both individually and as a society. How do we care for people who are sick and dying? How should we support those who are out of work? What kind of education do we want for our kids?
I forsee a lot of basic questions being re-asked and many assumptions re-evaluated in the light of the pandemic. Individually, in communities, and as societies, we’ll look back and wonder why it was that companies making billions of dollars when everything was fine were all of a sudden unable to meet their financial obligations when things weren’t going so well. We’ll realise that, at root, the neoliberalist form of capitalism we’ve been drinking like kool-aid actually takes from the many and gives to the few.
Before the pandemic, we had dead metaphors for both socialism and “pulling together in times of adversity”. Socialism has been unfairly caricatured as, and equated with, the totalitarian communist experiment in Russia. Meanwhile, neoliberals have done a great job at equating adversity with austerity, invoking memories of life during WWII. Keep Calm and Carry On.
This is why, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, despite the giant strides and inroads into our collective consciousness, made by the Occupy movement, it ultimately failed. When it came down to brass tacks, we were frightened that destroying our current version of capitalism would mean we’d be left with totalitarian communism: queuing for food, spying on your neighbours, and suchlike.
So instead we invoked the only “pulling together in times of adversity” meme we knew: austerity. Unfortunately, that played straight into the hands of those who were happy to hollow out civic society for financial gain.
Post-pandemic, as we’re rebuilding society, I think that not only will there be fewer old people (grim, but true) but the overall shock will move the Overton Window further to left than it has been previously. Those who remain are likely to be much more receptive to the kind of socialism that would make things like Universal Basic Income and radically decarbonising the planet into a reality.
Making predictions about politics is a lot easier than making predictions about technology. That’s for a number of reasons, including how quickly the latter moves compared to the former, and also because of the compound effect that different technologies can have on society.
For example, look at the huge changes in the last decade around smartphones now being something that people spend several hours using each day. A decade ago we were concerned about people’s access to any form of internet-enabled device. Now, we just assume that everyone’s gone one which they can use to connect during the pandemic.
What concerns me is that the past decade has seen not only the hollowing-out of civic society in western democracies, but also our capitulation to venture capital-backed apps that make our lives easier. The reason? They’re all centralised.
I’m certainly not denying that some of this is going to make our life much easier short-term. Being on lockdown and still being able to have Amazon deliver almost anything to me is incredible. As is streaming all of the things via Netflix, etc. But, ultimately, caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care.
Right now, we relying on centralised technologies. Everywhere I look, people are using a apps, tools, and platforms that could go down at any time. Remember the Twitter fail whale?
What happens when that scenario happens with Zoom? Or Microsoft Teams? Or Slack, or any kind of service that relies on the one organisation having their shit together for an extended period of time during a pandemic?
I think we’re going to see outages or other degradations in service. I’m hoping that this will encourage people to experiment with other, decentralised platforms, rather than leap from the frying pan of one failed centralised service into the fire another.
In terms of education, I don’t think it’s that difficult to predict what comes next. While I could be spectacularly wrong, the longer kids are kept at home and away from school, the more online teaching and learning has to become something mainstream.
Then, when it’s time to go back to school, some kids won’t. They and their parents will realise that they don’t need to, or that they are happier, or have learned more staying at home. Not all, by any means, but a significant majority. And because everyone has been in the same boat, parents will have peer support in doing so.
The longer the pandemic lockdown goes on, the more educational institutions will have to think about the logistics and feasibility of online testing. I’d like to think that competency-based learning and stackable digital credentials like Open Badges will become the norm.
Further out, as young people affected by the pandemic lockdown enter the job market, I’d hope that they would reject the traditional CV or resume as something that represents their experiences. Instead, although it’s more time-consuming to look at, I’d hope for portfolio-based approaches (with verified digital credentials) to become standard.
Education isn’t just about, or even mainly about, getting a job. So what about the impact of the pandemic on learners? On teachers? Well, if I’m being optimistic and hopeful, I’d say that it shows that things can be done differently at scale.
In the same way that climate change-causing emissions dropped dramatically in China and other countries during the enforced coronavirus lockdown, so we can get rid of the things we know are harmful in education.
High-stakes testing? We don’t need it. Kids being taught in classes of 30+ by a low-paid teacher? Get over it. Segregation between rich and poor through private education? Reject it.
All of this depends on how we respond to the ‘shock and awe’ of both the pandemic and its response. We’re living during a crisis when it’s almost certainly necessary to bring in the kind of authoritarian measures we’d reject at any other time. While we need to move quickly, we still need to subject legislation and new social norms to some kind of scrutiny.
This period in history provides us with a huge opportunity. When I was a History teacher, one of my favourite things to teach kids was about revolutions; about times when people took things into their own hands. There’s the obvious examples, for sure, like 1789 and the French Revolution.
But perhaps my absolute favourite was for them to discover what happened after the Black Death ravaged Europe in particular in the 14th century. Unable to find enough workers to work their land, lords had to pay peasants several times what they could have previously expected. In fact, it led to the end of the entire feudal system.
We have the power to achieve something similar here. Except instead of serfdom, the thing we can escape from his neoliberal capitalism, the idea that the poor should suffer for the enrichment of the elite. We can and should structure our society so that never happens again.
In other words, never waste a crisis. What are you doing to help the revolution? Remember, when it comes down to it, power is always taken, never freely given.