Three Ways To Understand Power in The Digital Age

VIDEO: Danah Boyd on Our Broken Information Ecosystem (CNN) 

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I’m most likely going to write a full piece on this topic. In my view it’s the most fundamental and pressing question of our time. Whatever the problem; Climate collapse, rising authoritarianism or wealth inequality how can we solve anything until we address the fact that we are consuming and exchanging information online in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with coming to compromise, cooperation or a common good?

Until information is liberated from the attention economy then our problems and divides will surely only continue to deepen? Emotion is far more attentive than reason. And as long as information continues to be valued by the attention it can extract rather than the substantive value of what is being said then politics will continue its dark descent into a shouting match of anger and fear.

Anyway – enough ranting. This interview with Danah Boyd does a much better job than I in explaining the information ecosystem’s breakdown and the possible paths to a better future:

Danah Boyd on the Spread of Conspiracies and Hate Online

COLUMN: Lessons From History on Corporate Power:

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Give this excerpt from William Dalrymple’s new book ten minutes of your time. You won’t regret it. A fascinating look at the violence of the East India Company and how we often neglect the role of private companies in colonialism. We still think the British government invaded India when in reality it was an unbridled corporate entity that:

” The East India Company began seizing chunks of India in the mid-18th century, a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, ruthless and mentally unstable corporate predator — Robert Clive. India’s transition to colonialism, in other words, took place under a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors..” 

https://www.ft.com/content/0f1ec9da-c9a6-11e9-af46-b09e8bfe60c0

PODCAST: Surveillance Capital: Are We Just Raw Material? 

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Shoshanna Zuboff is a writer we should all be listening to right now. Why does it matter that our data is being captured? How is our behaviour being monitored and modified by tech companies? And how do we reclaim privacy rights as citizens in the digital age? The author of the mammoth book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” sits down with Roz Urwin here to answer these questions and more:

https://play.acast.com/s/intelligencesquared/942b5c25-afe0-4c65-9e34-3f5462338065

 

Also because this is my website and there’s no rules, here’s a tiny desk concert I’ve been listening to this week that’s fucking amazing:

 

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Mindfulness Myth Will Make You Miserable

Mindfulness has gone mainstream. From education to healthcare, the corporate world to criminal justice, parliament to the military, this ancient Buddhist tradition has been reignited in the Western conscience as the old cure for modern ills. The practice encourages, mostly through meditation, the observation of present thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations in a non-judgemental way. By being more mindful, advocates argue we can develop life-changing skills to temper the stresses of the modern world and begin the journey to enlightened, healthy and happy existence. 

But critics argue the evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness is not strong. In a recent academic article, a number of psychologists and cognitive scientists warn that despite the hype, ‘misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead the public to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.’

There are no doubt certain benefits to meditation and being aware of one’s emotional state. But the mindfulness industry has co-opted these tools and over-promised their utility to sell us more stuff, from ‘mindful eating’ to wellness apps.

Far from making us happier, modern mindfulness is actually inhibiting us from tackling the real issues causing stress in our lives by trying to sell us internal solutions to external problems. If we are overworked and underpaid the problem isn’t our internal wrangling but the external conditions of our unfulfilling work life. Mindfulness tells us our problems are all in our head. But no amount of meditating can conceal the fact we may just need a new job. 

 

Sources & further reading:

The Problem With Mindfulness:

https://theconversation.com/the-problem-with-mindfulness-115648

The Mindfulness Conspiracy:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/14/the-mindfulness-conspiracy-capitalist-spirituality

 

Fakebook: Why Deep Fakes Mean Deep Trouble

Video and audio are the most visceral mediums of human communication. From the movies that reduce us to tears to the music that lift our spirits, what we see and hear has huge power to shape our beliefs and guide our behaviour.

We all know when we watch Star Trek or immerse ourselves in EDM that we are suspending reality in order to feel a thrill of escapism. But what if reality was suspended permanently?

The rise of “deepfake” technology has the power to fracture society’s ability to tell fact from fiction. The term ‘deepfake’ refers to video or audio that has been altered with the aid of deep learning technology, to usually show a person doing something they never did; or saying something they never said.

Though media has been artificially manipulated for decades, faster computers and easy-to-use, publicly available technology makes convincing deepfakes increasingly easy to produce and proliferate online.

The most famous example is film director Jordan Peele’s 2018 deepfake of President Obama (below) to sound the alarm about the potential abuse of the technology. Being a film director, Peele is well placed to speak of the power of video and audio to manipulate emotions and persuade us to see events in a way the creator wants us to.

Many experts have recently raised their heads above the parapet and began publicly expressing concern. “There are a few phenomena that come together that make deepfakes particularly troubling when they’re provocative and destructive,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland “We know that as human beings, video and audio is so visceral, we tend to believe what our eyes and ears are telling us.” Citron was talking about deepfakes in the context of politics. And how a foreign government may release fake videos to sew chaos in democracies and make citizens believe things that never happened.

But technology expert Jamie Bartlett has recently expressed the opposite concern. That the most damaging effect of the rise of deepfakes may not be that we are all duped into believing fakes, but that we will become so cynical that we will believe nothing at all.

“If everything is potentially a fake then everything can be dismissed as a lie.” If a future Trump is caught saying “grab em by the pussy” It’s a deep fake! He will proclaim.

What Can We Do To Protect Democracy?

A recent hearing of the U.S House Intelligence Committee sought expert advice on the best means for governments to respond to deepfakes. Professor Citron contrasted two recent viral examples. The first was a video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which her voice was doctored to make her sound drunk when delivering a speech. The second was a parody video of Mark Zuckerberg by the artist Bill Posters in which Zuckerberg is synthetically made to say he controls the world’s data and therefore controls the world.

Citron suggested it was right for the Pelosi video to be removed while the Zuckerberg video allowed to stay online:

“For something like a video where its clearly a doctored and impersonation, not satire, not parody it should be removed.. [but] there are wonderful uses for deepfakes that are art, historical, sort of rejuvenating for people to create them about themselves…” 

The moral and legal principle which Citron seemed to be suggesting is that deepfakes should be permitted in instances where a reasonable person would be able to distinguish it as a fake equivalent to a piece of satire or fictional art but prohibited in instances where the primary purpose of the video is to deceive and injure.

David Doermann, former project manager at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) echoed this sentiment and added that he believes another layer of verification will be needed online. He advocated a new law for social media companies to delay the publishing of videos until some initial verification can be done, akin to the Facebook ads verification.

“There’s no reason why these things have to be instantaneous.. we’ve done it for child pornography, we’ve done it for human trafficking.” 

Public debate continues to rage as to what legal measures should be implemented to protect our democracies from falsification and confusion. But there is at least strong consensus emerging that there is a need to act and to act fast.

As the political scientist Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1950s, the ideal conditions for authoritarianism to thrive is a society where “the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” 

The health of democracies all over the world will depend on finding ways to re-establish truth and authenticity of video and audio content. I’ll leave you with this final quote from Jamie Bartlett on what we can expect if regulation is not urgently implemented:

“In the face of constant and endless deep fakes and deep denials, the only rational response from the citizen will be extreme cynicism and apathy about the very idea of truth itself. They will conclude that nothing is to be trusted except her own gut instinct and existing political loyalties..” 

 

 

It’s Not About Chicken

Don’t get me wrong, I like chickens. As a child I loved visiting the farm and feeding the little chicks in their pen. I just don’t think when deliberating what’s at stake for the U.K in signing a post Brexit trade deal with the United States that poultry should be the focal point of debate. 

From Jeremy Corbyn to the BBC it seems everyone has bought into the idea that  chlorinated chickens entering the U.K food chain is the number one objection to a trade deal with Donald Trump. It’s bewildering to see political debate on respected current affairs progammes ask “Does Britain really want chlorinated chicken?” As if the primary impact of a trade deal with with the U.S is the quality of KFC.

To clarify, in the E.U chicken producers must adhere to strict hygiene and welfare regulations throughout the process of rearing, slaughtering and producing poultry. But in the U.S, regulation and hygiene standards are incredibly lax and substituted with a legal requirement to wash chicken carcasses in chlorinated baths to kill off bacteria, remove feces and make chicken safe to eat. What misery and disgusting conditions are inflicted upon chickens before they are slaughtered is for the market to decide.  

This is one example of how safety and welfare standards differ dramatically in the United States compared to the European Union. And it’s significant because when trade deals are signed, states usually agree to give equal access to producers from both countries to each other’s market.

If U.S producers are allowed to flood U.K supermarkets with cheap chlorinated chicken the question is, will giant American food conglomerates have to sign up to stricter hygiene measures to match the U.K’s regulations? Or will the U.K ‘harmonise’ its laws with the U.S and lower standards for everyone?

One might argue that this is a false dichotomy. Just because we allow U.S produce into Britain doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards for British farmers here. Britain can still enforce higher welfare and safety standards.

That is true but let me present the following scenario. A 2014 Populus survey found that price is the most important factor in purchasing meat for 61% of U.K consumers. If  supermarkets were to be flooded with cheaper American produce, and U.K poultry farmers started going out of business because consumers were switching to the cheaper alternatives, do you think the government would let British poultry farming collapse or would they slash regulations to cut the costs of production and make U.K farmers more competitive?

This is the context in which U.S chlorinated chickens should be discussed. It should be a gateway to a wider conversation about how a trade deal with the U.S will likely be a pretext for deregulation, threaten British industry and provide massive companies like Tyson foods with extensive legal rights in the UK.

But that’s not what happens, the public debate starts and ends at a costs/benefit analysis of eating chlorinated chicken. The economic right love this, as it presents objections to a trade deal as minor and rather trivial. In reality a trade deal would be a massive corporate power grab for U.S multinationals to ransack the welfare state and hamstring future regulation by gaining legal standing to sue the British government for potential infringements of investor rights guaranteed under a trade agreement.

This power transition is what Brexit has always been about for the American and British right. “Throwing off the shackles” of the European Union, of democratic accountability  and state controls in order to turn Britain into market run hellhole where government has no role in healthcare or food safety.

We must begin to take back control of the conversation and counter the narrative that objections to the deal are trivial in matter. Next time someone tries to drag the debate towards the pros and cons of chlorinated chickens – let’s politely tell them no. That we’d rather start from the point of corporate power and the potential weakening of democratic state controls. That we’d rather start the discussion with what a trade deal would mean for the NHS, for the BBC and for other treasured public institutions. We’d like to start with who is lobbying for a deal, how much money they have spent and how much they personally have to gain. After that, we can go for wings.

 

 

The Corporate Capture of Social Change

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”

Anand Giridharadas isn’t afraid of controversy. His debut book Winner Takes All is a blistering take down of the faith put in the biggest beneficiaries of capitalism to lead capitalism’s reform and change the world for the better.

Be it the next Silicon Valley start up or philanthropic foundation, the underlying assumption pushed by the rich is always that business, entrepreneurship and the private sector are the most efficient and effective means of tackling society’s collective problems.

Giridharadas describes how even the language of social change which has historically been associated with grassroots movements, social justice and mass protest has been colonised by market logic and the billionaire class.

Rather than discussing social change as being rooted in rights, justice and systemic reform, the new corporate conception of social change sees inequality, climate change and poverty as a set of technical problems with market solutions. For these people  fixing the world is not about challenging powerful interests and overhauling a rigged economic system but about empowering “global leaders and opinion formers” to leverage “capital, data and technology to improve lives.”

What this actually means is cutting the public out of decision making for what the future should look like. Instead of community leaders, unions and businesses engaging in dialogue to decide whats best for their communities, we are instead told to look to McKinsey consultants and Goldman Sachs analysts to crunch numbers and provide reports on how to “restructure” the economy, to prepare for “inevitable” disruption and spur economic growth.

The glaring contradiction of putting the winners of our broken economy in charge of its repair is that the winners are actually quite comfortable with the status quo. Why would Goldman Sachs want solutions to social change if social change threatens their status, money and power?

By capturing social change within their control they are able to ensure social change is not pursued at all. Angel Gurria secretary General of the OECD describes the top down approach as “changing things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all.”

[END of part 1]

 

 

Why Technology Changes Who We Trust

Trust is the foundation of all human connections. From brief encounters to intimate relationships, it governs almost every interaction we have with each other. I trust my housemates not to go into my room without asking, I trust the bank to keep my money safe and I trust the pilot of my plane to fly safely to the destination.

Rachel Botsman describes trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.” The bridge that allows us to cross from a position of certainty to one of uncertainty and move forward in our lives.

Throughout history, trust has been the glue that allowed people to live together and flourish in cooperative societies. An absence, loss or betrayal of trust could spark violent and deadly consequences.

In recent decades the world has witnessed a radical shift in trust. We might be losing faith in global institutions and political leaders but simultaneously millions of people are renting their homes to complete strangers on Air BnB, exchanging digital currencies like bitcoin or finding themselves trusting bots for help online. Botsman describes this shift as a new age of ‘distributed trust.’

Instead of a vertical relationship where trust flows upwards from individuals to hierarchical institutions, experts, authorities and regulators, today trust increasingly flows horizontally from individuals to networks, peers, friends, colleagues and fellow users.

If we are to benefit from this radical shift and not see a collapse of our institutions, we must understand the mechanics of how trust is built, managed, lost, and repaired in the digital age. To explain this new world, Botsman provides a detailed map of this uncharted landscape and explores what’s next for humanity.

Watch below:

And for a more detailed account listen here: https://play.acast.com/s/intelligencesquared/rachelbotsmanandhelenlewisontechnologyandtrust

 

Identity Politics: Commonality or Common Enemy?

(Image: Patrick Record)

From the Trans Rights Movement to the rise of the ‘White Right’, identity has become a powerful force in modern politics.

The shift away from broad based party politics to a more tribal system divided along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation is generally described as the rise of Identity Politics.

Peter Franklin has also labeled the phenomenon as “Cultural Marxism” – a merger of Marxist economic theory with postmodernist philosophy. The former contests control over the means of production (i.e. industry, agriculture, etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of class;  while the latter contests control over the means of social construction (language, identity etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of privilege and power.

Cultural Marxists are those who believe that from the beginning of time, everything from language to morality has been constructed by and for, a tiny elite (white men). Society has internalised the structural misogyny and racism embedded in these historical institutions to the point that they see it as ‘normal.’

Given this inequality, many members of marginalised groups say that identity politics is not a choice. History has shoehorned women and minorities into an oppressive and violent social system which was designed to exclude and oppress them. The expansion of gender pronouns, fight for equal pay and emergence of identity based politics is about reclaiming and redistributing social power in a more equitable way.

Most people would accept that it is perfectly legitimate for groups to organise under one banner to fight imbalances of power. However Jonathan Haidt argues that it depends what type of identity politics is adopted. There are two main strands, the first is commonality identity politics. During the 1960’s, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King fought racial injustice by appealing to the common humanity of all people. ‘I have a dream’ was underpinned by the idea that humanity is one family and that Blacks were being excluded and denied equal dignity.

The second version is common enemy identity politics. This is the idea of uniting groups based on a belief that there is one group that is the root of all evil. Haidt suggests this is a dangerous strain of identity politics which has become more potent in recent years, as rather than using group identity to absorb marginalised groups into a common whole, it uses group identity to pit society’s groups against each other.

Opinions are divided as to whether identity politics today is causing more harm than good. What’s certain is that identity is not going away. And it would be a mistake to think the solution to easing social tensions lies in surgically removing identity from the heart of politics. Instead we should work to ensure groups can communicate with one another and air disagreements within a framework that cultivates a commitment to the common whole rather than a hostility to a common enemy.