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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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..” 

 

 

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Fascism Is So Tempting

(Image: Sky News

Have we forgotten what fascism means? Today calling someone a “fascist” is  more an insulting slur than a description of one’s political ideology.

In a recent speech historian and author Yuval Noah Harari argued that too often is fascism confused with nationalism. Harari argues that nationalism has been one of the most benevolent ideologies in human history. Nations are communities built up of millions of people who don’t know each other yet care about one another and cooperate because they share a common belief in nationhood.

Some people like John Lennon imagined that without nationalism the world could live as one. Far more likely argues Harari is that we would be living in tribal chaos. The most progressive and prosperous nations in the world such as Sweden, Switzerland and Japan all have a strong sense of national identity. Conversely, countries with a weak sense of nationalism such as Congo, Libya or Afghanistan tend to be violent and poor.

The difference between nationalism and fascism is that while nationalism tells you the nation is unique fascism tells you the nation is supreme. In democratic nations most people have multiple layers to their national identity. For example I am loyal to my family, my employer my friends and my football team. None of these loyalties preclude loyalty to my nation. And when my identities do conflict, I strike a balance and hierarchy based on what is most important at the time.

Fascism on the other hand tells us to ignore complex identities. It tells us the only identity that matters is national. All moral and ethical questions can be answered by simply asking, is this good or bad for the nation? For the fascist, whether a movie, monument or massacre is justified depends on whether it advances or undermines the goals of the nation. Uncomfortable truths or individuals do not matter, what matters is collective order and national harmony.

The recent 29th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre serves as a stark reminder to the horror of fascism. (Even if the description of modern China as a ‘fascist State’ is debatable.) Yet Harari argues that most of us do not understand fascism. In Western popular culture fascism is depicted as “evil” “savage” “cruel” with its leaders imagined as Disney villain caricatures.

If that was the case why is it so seductive? Why would people follow such evil, ugly villains? The problem with this depiction is that real-life fascism often appears valiant, beautiful and destined. This is something Christianity has understood for a long time. In Christian art, Satan is often depicted as the fallen angel – beautiful, charming and difficult to resist.

Fascism feels irresistible for similar reasons. Beauty, nostalgia and propaganda cultivate the belief of belonging to the most beautiful and special group in the world, the nation. To resist a return to fascist dictatorship we must not fear the politician who tells the ugly truth but the one that tells the beautiful lie.

Why Universities Are Just A Corporate Conveyor Belt

A Career Fair is a microcosm. A dizzying snapshot into the absurd world of work. Fake smiles, branded ‘gifts’ and the unnaturally perky trainee enlightening you how his internship last summer really gave him an insight into “the culture of the firm” and explaining how he is now “making a global impact” working with multinationals seeking to “restructure their taxes more efficiently.”  

The hollow atmosphere and disorienting degree of pretense is an apt introduction into the artificial and often contradictory way of corporate life. The initial flood of smiles and joy mimic the beginning of the corporate career. Lively work nights out and complimentary company perks are used as bait during internship programs to give the illusion that life at the company is a balanced, eclectic mix of work and fun.

Yet as soon as you sign your name on the dot the fun quickly evaporates and is replaced with entrapment and demands of constant productivity. Fourteen hour days at a desk drowning in cesspools of endless files and spreadsheets sacrificing every piece of your soul to help Company A merge with company B to make profit X – because “that’s just how the world works – whether you like it or not.” 

Yet it’s our resignation and acceptance of this status quo which is most baffling. With the existential crises of climate change, smartphone addiction and global corporate domination all looming large, why are we content with the best and brightest minds of our generation being snapped up by banks and law firms putting endless energy into continuing the cycles of profit maximisation and wealth insulation to further cement and exacerbate the problems threatening our collective future?

Former head of Data at Facebook, Jeff Hamerbacher aptly summarised the situation when speaking about his genius graduating class from MIT, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads – that sucks.” 

The people best equipped to tackle and solve the world’s problems are the ones being actively recruited to make them worse.

The people best equipped to tackle and solve the world’s problems are the ones being actively recruited to make them worse.

Universities should carry a considerable portion of blame. The biggest banks, investment funds and law firms have been allowed to monopolise the career opportunities of graduates and given an unfettered access to students without any pushback. Luxury events, sponsored lecturers, paid internships and on campus brand ambassadors are just some of the ways they cement hegemony and normalise corporate careers at a time when students are apprehensive about their future.

Many are not even aware that there are viable alternative career options outside corporate. One minute your in university, then suddenly all your peers are scrambling for job application deadlines and your family keep asking you “what are you doing after college?” In a flurry of insecurity and pressure you decide to apply for lack of better alternative and take the security of salary over the time to do something different. 

Many of those who enter these industries never re-emerge. They initially justify taking the position by saying things like it’s a steady income straight out of college or a good stepping stone to the career they really want. Yet after two years the lifestyle becomes so draining, so exhausting and so financially comfortable that most never decide to take the risk of stepping outside and trying to do something with meaning and value.

In order to confront this corporate capture of youth and redirect the next generation of work to meaningful, constructive and fulfilling jobs it’s essential we begin to break down the false image and empty branding of the corporate lifestyle. It is not glamorous successful and prestigious, it is brutal, greedy and callous. The sooner we accept that the sooner we move forward.

 

Why Satire Isn’t Funny

It’s often promulgated that satire is the great weapon of the powerless against the powerful. Nothing can send the unhinged megalomaniac or deranged despot faster into a toddler tantrum than simply being laughed at.

Yet there is growing criticism that today’s mainstream political satire serves to promote rather than undermine the establishment and extremist politicians. By providing the likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg a platform to sit on comedy panel shows and project a “down to earth” persona, willing to “have a laugh” often at their own expense, the viewer (voter) is more likely to associate that politician with the entertaining likable character from TV as opposed to the extremist politician who wants to take away their healthcare or reproductive rights.

Author and scriptwriter James O’Farrell argues that politicians are actually desperate to be satirized as they know it elevates their profile and popularity. He is scathing of the smug, condescending, supposed “satire” of Donald Trump on shows such as SNL, arguing that there is rarely any meaningful or constructive purpose to sketches but that they merely exemplify the arrogant, dismissive attitude of America’s elite toward a serious threat to the future of democracy and global power dynamics.

“At times where there ought to be outrage, comedy substitutes it with ironic acceptance”

The countless number of comedians who masquerade as political commentators see Trump as a goldmine, an endless supply of gags. But is this laughter helpful? Or is it emblematic of the same ignorance The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged when saying  “we missed it” in relation to the paper’s failure to chronicle the rise and genuine appeal of Donald Trump in a grossly divided, unequal society before it was too late.

Satire can be a brilliant means of entertainment but is it the politicians who are getting the last laugh?

Catalonia: Is Independence Worth It?

Author: Anna Pomortseva

Puidgemont in Brussels, members of Catalan Parliament under threat of imprisonment and more than 1000 firms transferred from Catalonia to Madrid, has Catalonia declared Independence ?

 

” 8 segundos de independencia ” – a new proverb for Catalonia, which speaks of a temporary phenomenon.

The temporary phenomenon is the time period of independence, when on October 10th Carles Puidgemont signed a declaration of separation from the Kingdom of Spain. However, after just 8 seconds he stopped the process. What was it? The failure of the referendum and the triumph of Madrid?

The decision of the Parliament of the Generalitet of Catalonia resulted in negative reactions among supporters of independence. Yet it is necessary to mention that the process of separation needed to be paused to guarantee security and stability for residents.

In dealing with such a volatile situation, Catalonia isn’t ready for an immediate and violent break in relations with Spain. Who will control borders, how will wealth and power be shared, and will a new republic remain within the European market ? The best case scenario would be if Madrid & Barcelona could discuss and solve these questions and salvage the Catalan economy from the turmoil it is in now. But it sounds like utopia, doesn’t it?

In Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which has never been invoked in Spain’s four decades of democracy, the central government is allowed to take control of any of its 17 autonomous communities during crisis situations and may restrict power in the region for a certain period of time. However, the Article does not give a right to completely abolish autonomy in the region.

Right now, the current process would have no influence on the economy. According to the available data, on October 22nd almost 1200 firms transferred their headquarters to other regions in Spain. The lists include CaixaBank, Sabadell, Gas Natural & Agbar. Companies explained their actions by citing how the uncertain political situation could lead to losses.

This is not hard to understand considering the complete chaos in Catalonia. Carlos Puidgemont has left Spain and fled to Belgium in order to avoid arrest. The decision came after the Spanish Prosecutor filed charges of sedition, rebellion and other violations against Puidgemont and members of the Catalan Parliament. One day later the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for fresh elections in December:

On October 31, Carlos Puidgemont announced in Brussels that the Parliament of Catalonia, which was dissolved by the Spanish government, recognized this decision and stopped its work before holding a long-term elections. Deposed leader Puidgemont said he was not trying to escape justice by travelling to Brussels; ” I’m not here to demand political asylum but in order to put Catalan crisis at the heart of the European Union ” he told reporters in Brussels. He added that his return to Catalonia depends on ” guarantees” of   “fair and independent treatment from Madrid “. It is important to also note that the former members of the regional government of Catalonia are accused of misuse public funds. The crime is punishable by 30 years in prison. On November 2nd, already 8 Catalan ministers have been jailed by a Spanish judge over their role in independence on October 1st that was declared illegal under Spain’s Constitution .

Puidgemont reacted to this decision in a televised address on Thursday evening, in which he claimed that “It is a very serious attack on democracy” and the elections on December 21st would be a “coup against the elections”.

There is still a huge divide between demonstrators. They are diverse, coming from all age groups and socioeconomic levels. More and more articles are highlighting that not all of Catalonia supports independence and many believe the Catalan government played their political game in order to meet their own ends.

“I want to be Spanish and I want to live in Barcelona. Who is the Catalonian government to take those rights from me ?” asked Maria Garcia , a resident of Barcelona.

Now on the streets across Catalonia we often here not “Si , Independencia Catalunya” but “Todos Somos Cataluna”, Spanish for “We are all Catalonia”

British historian Sir Antony Beevor believes in unity and that the separatist’s euphoria will be under threat of existence . He states, “Where the Catalans go from here , it’s difficult to tell -but one thing is certain: that the December 21 elections will show that there is not a majority in favor of independence and the world will breath a slight of relief , particularly the EU.”

It should be noted that the concept of holding referenda is becoming popular among regions nowadays. What does it mean for Scotland , Kurdistan , Basque Country and Catalunya to be separate ? Is it a right to self-determination or something more ? There are numbers of self-proclaimed states which are not internationally accepted and this is the major obstacle for such “communities ” in the international arena

Today,  many political scientists place more emphasis on the growth of nationalism as a precondition for separation . Simply said “back to the roots.” In the case of Catalunya , it is return to 1469 when the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castilie laid the foundation for a unified Kingdom of Spain .  There are no other reasons except the high level of nationalism in those communities to be separate from their country and call to the world that they have established new states. However, here is another question : Is it a possible for us to see a new referendum in the near future? Unilateral way to declare independence is an uneasy road for success.

An unrecognized state cannot join the UN or the EU , nor can they avail of the benefits of international financial institutions. Its citizens are less privileged than citizens of other recognized countries. There is always a possibility of territorial dislocations of newly formed states which may lead to contradictions between neighbours . Economic difficulties also can take place : a different currency , difficulties in attracting investment and often economic sanctions.

According to such scenario with so many disadvantages , new countries will face many difficulties on their road to independence . There is nothing to say it is impossible for such states to declare independence but they may not be internationally recognized and not hold status of statehood from the standpoint of international law.

It is a necessary question to ask: Is it worth it ? Instead of making a division of us on black and white , Catalan and Spanish , Turkish and Greek Cypriots , we should put our attention and maximum efforts to the burning problems in the world: poverty , pollution, climate change . As without the world , there will be no sense to the referendum.

This article was published in association with the IRAS Global Observer an eclectic blog of news, politics, history and philosophy from students at Jagiellonian University, Krakow: 

https://irasglobalobserver.wordpress.com/