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 News And The Internet Don’t Mix

(Image: Steve Cutts)

The way in which we consume information determines how we interpret it.

In his seminal work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winning behavioural psychologist  describes how two basic systems govern the way we think. We have a primal ‘system one’ way of thinking which is fast, impulsive and emotional. We also have a ‘system two’ form of thinking which is slow, deliberative and logical.

Democracy demands we use ‘system two’ thinking in order to function. Our institutions are designed to arrive at logical, evidence-based decisions. Our legal systems are designed to apply standards of ‘reasonableness’ in solving disputes. And our media should, in theory,  be designed to engender healthy, informed, public debate.

The internet, by contrast, is designed for impulse. Everything is fast and personal. We click, like, swipe and tweet as our neural circuits light up and react to stimuli like notifications, clickbait and automatically playing video. The internet creates an effortless, instantly, interactive experience which allows us to constantly redirect our attention to whatever grabs it in the moment never settling on one task or focus.

The speed and responsive nature of the internet means not only is it a distracted medium for news consumption but also a highly emotional one. Unlike when reading a physical newspaper in which you digest information and can contemplate it’s content in manageable morsels, online news comes at you fast and encourages you to instantly share your emotional response to a story on a public platform. Today people barely get past the headlines before erupting in a tweet-storm of rage or entering the cesspit of crass comments to vent their anger and opposition.

The toxic environment for discussion and debate we all witness online is a natural manifestation of the internet’s fast and fleeting format.  Studies repeatedly show that the more moral and emotional language used in political headlines and tweets, the more likely they are to receive likes, shares, comments and retweets.

Thus in the competition for clicks, reasoned, logical and important information is often traded for stories that can manufacture outrage, anger and fear. If we want live in a world where media can inform citizens, reflect healthy disagreement and host democratic debate then we must begin to accept the current business model and infrastructure of the internet is incompatible with this objective.

We should also be concerned by the increasing extent to which online news consumption is being dictated by for-profit algorithms. In the same way the food industry has exploited our natural craving for fat, salt and sugar, so too is the attention industry exploiting our natural curiosity for conspiracy, mystery and doubt to lead us down a dangerous rabbit hole of consuming more extreme content in the name of “engagement.”

Youtube is the worst offender. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written on just how manipulative Youtube’s recommended videos and autoplay function are in encouraging extreme consumption:

“Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultra-marathons. It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes”

The Wall Street Journal also conducted an investigation of YouTube content finding that YouTube often “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources”. 

Tufecki describes this recent phenomenon as “the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look “behind the curtain,” to dig deeper into something that engages us.” As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads users down a rabbit hole of extremism and profits from the process.

The internet has opened up access to unlimited libraries of information allowing us to learn more about the world than ever before. However from inhibiting reasoned discussion to encouraging extreme consumption today’s diet of digital news isn’t making us smart it’s making us sick.

Selfie: How We Became So Self Obsessed

We live in strange times. A generation of selfies and self harm. We create edited online personas of people seemingly living perfect lives. Yet behind the screens insecurity, vanity and depression are the defining characteristics of our culture.

People absorb culture like sponges. Every time we open our phones we internalize the competitive game of likes, retweets and follows as we strive to reach the false cultural concept of the — “perfect self” —  (why did I only get 12 likes on my last post?! I’m better that that!) and when we don’t receive positive, dopamine fueled feedback we hate ourselves for failing. Hence the recent spikes in self-harm, body dysmorphia, eating disorders and suicide can be attributed to this damaging culture of ‘social perfectionism.’

This is the argument of a brilliant new book by author Will Storr who traces our story of self obsession back to Ancient Greece and Aristotle. Storr describes how the Greek concept of “selfhood” was heavily based on individual self improvement and through the persistence of personal will one could obtain the optimal level of spiritual, mental, physical, and material being.

Fetishizing the self permeated the Western conscience ever since. Storr decides to live with monks in a secluded monastic settlement, enrolls in the infamous California retreat centre named the Esalen Institute where the “self-esteem” movement is said to have been born and finally stays with the tech evangelist entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley to try and piece together how the modern self was formed and how we can survive it.

This is a phenomenal exploration of Western culture and through Storr’s blend of interviews, personal reflection and analysis the book reads like a Louis Theroux documentary. There are times when chapters can feel verbose and Storr spends a third of the book discussing the Esalen Institute and the libertarian movement’s impact on the social and political direction of the 20th century. Yet it’s a book that has stuck with me a month after reading and opened my mind to the extent our motivations and opinions of ourselves are products of a deeply individualistic culture of perfectionism.  I can’t recommend it enough.

 

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There is No Anti-Elite

“If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere”

 

Theresa May condescendingly cackled as a rapturous applause erupted in the hall of the 2017 Conservative Party conference.

No longer was the Prime Minister going to tolerate the smug, cosmopolitan elite who spend their summers in San Francisco and winters in the Andorran alpine sneering down with disgust upon those who embrace national pride and British identity.

For too long the “citizens of the world” have had it all their own way at the expense of “ordinary, decent people”. And while the last three decades of  liberalization in the global economy have brought financial and cultural enrichment to the London elite it has come at the cost of devastating traditional industries and working class communities whose livelihoods depended upon the mining and steel industries.

Instead of trying to better understand this pain and work toward making globalization an inclusive project that works for everyone, elites have lazily opted to label those who are suffering as closed minded, nationalistic bigots.

The establishment has morally and politically failed to articulate a compelling vision of the future which includes a better life for working class people. Instead Parties have abandoned the poor in the dark corridors of Amazon warehouses to scrape by on the scraps of the gig economy.

Yet recent political events suggest this political ignorance is unsustainable. The rise of authoritarianism, increasing hostility aimed at immigrants and the collapse of political centrism reveal a rapid decline of faith in the liberal system. By downplaying the flaws of globalization, liberal elites have paved the way for self acclaimed “anti-elites” to claim the conversation and sprout the narrative that immigrants, experts and independent media are at the core of the problem.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak -a self described citizen of the world – best explained why anti-elites are not the answer to society’s ills:

“We have to make one thing very clear not everyone who voted for Brexit is a xenophobe, how could anyone think that? Not everyone who voted for Trump is an Islamaphobe and not everyone who votes in a certain way is a racist, of course they’re not it’s ridiculous!

But here is where I differ, the populist demagogues are also telling us that they are the spokespeople for the “real people” and I want us all to be very careful about that dichotomy. Who are the real people and who are the unreal people? What does that mean? We are currently seeing a shift in elites – one elite is losing ground [liberal elites] but let us understand that Marine La Pen is no less elite than the people she is criticizing. She is also part of the establishment. So many of the figures from Victor Orban to Vučić – one after another in every country, they’re also part of the elite except it’s a different elite with a different world view.”

The once maligned authoritarians of Europe are feasting on the crisis of European liberalism. Aided by the polarizing effects of social media they have exploited the anger and fear experienced by many in the precarious, instability of the twenty-first century. Part of that exploitation is trying to seduce us to believe the false dichotomies of an “elite” and “anti-elite”of  “patriots” and “traitors”.

In challenging the elite of cold-hearted globalization beware the elite of hot-blooded nationalism.