The Technical is Political

This morning’s Observer column:

In his wonderful book The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt traces the origins of the Renaissance back to the rediscovery of a 2,000-year-old poem by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). The book is a riveting explanation of how a huge cultural shift can ultimately spring from faint stirrings in the undergrowth.

Professor Greenblatt is probably not interested in the giant corporations that now dominate our world, but I am, and in the spirit of The Swerve I’ve been looking for signs that big changes might be on the way. You don’t have to dig very deep to find them…

Read on

Telling it like it is

I love Dave Eggars’s writing. He was the guy who convinced me in the summer of 2016 that Trump might win. The key persuasive text was a report he wrote of a Trump rally which he attended out of interest. It was the most perceptive thing I read in the entire year and it led to me spending four days of my holiday in Provence trying to write something about the possibility and implications of a Trump victory. But then I made the mistake of reading Nate Silver and was soothed by his polling predictions. So I abandoned the essay.

Now Eggars has written another lovely essay based on spending time in Arizona around the time of Trump’s speech there. I was particularly struck by this passage:

We ate while standing in the restaurant, near the front door, and I talked to the two young men, who were unfailingly polite and eager to debate the merits of Trump and what the country needed and deserved. I told them how incongruous I found it, that they could be so good-mannered and open to debate, when the man they were supporting — and this they admitted readily — was rude, unkind, erratic, and disunifying.

“But at least he’s honest,” one of the young men said.

He indeed said this. I didn’t know where to start.

We talked for about 10 minutes more, and finally we all shook hands, told each other to be safe out there, and went on our respective ways. Outside in the cooling night, it occurred to me that these bright young men, like James, were drawn to Trump not for what he was saying, but how he said it. It did not matter so much what he said. Or if he lied. Or if he inflamed animosities or bullied opponents. What mattered was that his unstudied, unrehearsed way of expressing himself was itself evidence of honesty. They equate unfiltered expression with truth.

Thus a politician who speaks carefully, who measures his or her words — or worse, who reads from a prepared speech — is being a politician, i.e., someone who does not tell the truth. Conversely, someone who speaks off the cuff, who has no script, who tweets without any consultation from staff, is inherently more honest.

These young men, and millions of other Trump supporters, do not care so much about what is or is not the truth. They care only that their elected leaders speak to them candidly, even when they’re lying…

My reading of this is that Trump will go the distance, and that Trump 2020 isn’t a fantasy either.

Facebook, Russia and Trump

From Jack Shafer’s swamp diary:

Facebook became an unindicted co-conspirator in the Trump Tower scandal as it turned over more than 3,000 political ads purchased for $150,000 through more than 470 Russian accounts during campaign 2016. “Facebook is in a bind,” media scholar Darcey Morris tweeted. “Either they admit the ads had an effect or they admit their ad system is bogus.” The president was having no part of the Facebook story, tweeting, “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook. What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?” Next up in the investigative crosshairs will be Twitter, which has agreed to talk to the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the election. The company hasn’t specified whether the discussion will be open or closed to observers, Wired reported.

How much longer can Trump insist that Russian interference is all a big hoax? The Department of Homeland Security, hardly a flat-Earth proponent, told election officials in 21 states this week that Russian government hackers had targeted them in the 2016 campaign, although vote tallies were untouched. According to a McClatchy report, congressional investigators and the Justice Department think the Trump campaign’s digital operation, captained by son-in-law Jared Kushner, might have helped the Russians target voters with fake news in 2016. “There appears to have been significant cooperation between Russia’s online propaganda machine and individuals in the United States who were knowledgeable about where to target the disinformation,” said Mike Carpenter, who worked on Russia matters at the Pentagon until recently. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., believes the Russians targeted women and African-Americans in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Facebook meets irresistible force

Terrific blog post by Josh Marshall:

I believe what we’re seeing here is a convergence of two separate but highly charged news streams and political moments. On the one hand, you have the Russia probe, with all that is tied to that investigation. On another, you have the rising public backlash against Big Tech, the various threats it arguably poses and its outsized power in the American economy and American public life. A couple weeks ago, I wrote that after working with Google in various capacities for more than a decade I’d observed that Google is, institutionally, so accustomed to its customers actually being its products that when it gets into lines of business where its customers are really customers it really doesn’t know how to deal with them. There’s something comparable with Facebook.

Facebook is so accustomed to treating its ‘internal policies’ as though they were something like laws that they appear to have a sort of blind spot that prevents them from seeing how ridiculous their resistance sounds. To use the cliche, it feels like a real shark jumping moment. As someone recently observed, Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ are crafted to create the appearance of civic concerns for privacy, free speech, and other similar concerns. But they’re actually just a business model. Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ amount to a kind of Stepford Wives version of civic liberalism and speech and privacy rights, the outward form of the things preserved while the innards have been gutted and replaced by something entirely different, an aggressive and totalizing business model which in many ways turns these norms and values on their heads. More to the point, most people have the experience of Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ being meaningless in terms of protecting their speech or privacy or whatever as soon as they bump up against Facebook’s business model.

Spot on. Especially the Stepford Wives metaphor.

One rule for big data, another for the rest of us…

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week, much of the tech world was temporarily unhinged by a circus in Cupertino, where a group of ageing hipster billionaires unveiled some impressive technology while miming the argot of teenage fandom (incredible, amazing, awesome, etc) and pretending that they were changing the world. Meanwhile, over in the real world, another tech story was unfolding. Except that this is not just a tech story: it’s a morality tale about how we have come to inhabit a world in which corporate irresponsibility, incompetence and greed goes unpunished, while little people can’t get a loan because they have an incorrect blemish on their credit records, which is almost impossible to detect and correct.

This story concerns Equifax, an outfit of which I’m guessing you’ve never heard. Nor had I. It’s one of the three largest American credit agencies (the others are Experian and TransUnion). Its business – its only business – is to collect, securely store and aggregate information on more than 800 million individual consumers and nearly 90m businesses worldwide…

Read on

Oh, and there’s a UK angle on this…