Global Warning

I’m reading Nick Harkaway’s new novel, Gnomon which, like Dave Eggars’s The Circle, provides a gripping insight into our surveillance-driven future.

Before publication, Harkaway wrote an interesting blog post about why he embarked on the book. Here’s an excerpt from that post:

I remember the days.

I remember the halcyon days of 2014, when I started writing Gnomon and I thought I was going to produce a short book (ha ha ha) in a kind of Umberto Eco-Winterson-Borges mode, maybe with a dash of Bradbury and PKD, and it would be about realities and unreliable narrators and criminal angels in prisons made of time, and bankers and alchemists, and it would also be a warning about the dangers of creeping authoritarianism. (And no, you’re right: creatively speaking I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into.)

I remember the luxury of saying “we must be precautionary about surveillance laws, about human rights violations, because one day the liberal democracies might start electing monsters and making bad pathways, and we’ll want solid protections from our governments’ over-reach.”


I remember the halcyon days of April 2016 when I thought I’d missed the boat and I hadn’t written a warning at all, but a sort of melancholic state of the nation, and I really did think things might get better from there. Then Brexit came – I was half expecting that – and then Trump – which I was really not – and now here we are, with the UK boiling as May’s government and Corbyn’s Labour sit on their hands and clock ticks down and the negotiating table is blank except for a few sheets of crumpled scrap paper, and the only global certainty seems to be that this US administration will try to wreck every decent thing the international community has attempted in my lifetime, with the occasional connivance of our own leaders when they aren’t busy tearing one another to bits.

And now I’m pretty sure I did write a warning after all.

He did.

So what’s the problem with Facebook?

Interesting NYT piece by Kevin Roose in which he points out that the key question about regulating Facebook is not that lawmakers know very little about how it works, but whether they have the political will to regulate it. My hunch is that they don’t, but if they did then the first thing to do would be fix on some clear ideas about what’s wrong with the company.

Here’s the list of possibilities cited by Roose:

  • Is it that Facebook is too cavalier about sharing user data with outside organizations?
  • Is it that Facebook collects too much data about users in the first place?
  • Is it that Facebook is promoting addictive messaging products to children?
  • Is it that Facebook’s news feed is polarizing society, pushing people to ideological fringes?
  • Is it that Facebook is too easy for political operatives to exploit, or that it does not do enough to keep false news and hate speech off users’ feeds?
  • Is it that Facebook is simply too big, or a monopoly that needs to be broken up?

How about: all of the above?

Why populism is thriving

Martin Wolf has a brilliant review of Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World in Saturday’s FT ($). His review touches on two things in particular that have preoccupied me ever since the crash. One is the failure to hold those responsible to account; the other is about the way the losses run up by capitalist irresponsibility were then socialised — by loading them onto ordinary citizens. (If I remember correctly, the bailing out of the banks dumped a debt of Euro 30,000 on every Irish citizen.). The other was the way politicians conned the public into accepting that it was public excess rather than private greed that caused the crisis.

Two excerpts from Wolf’s review elegantly make these points. Here’s the first:

The scale and nature of the required response had significant political consequences. The public was enraged by the size of support for the banks and, even worse, by the payment of the bonuses apparently due to the bankers. This was made even more infuriating by the fact that hundreds of millions of ordinary people suffered by losing their homes and jobs, or by being the victims of post-crisis austerity. Many were also enraged that so few senior individuals were charged. The trust that must exist in any democracy between elites and everybody else collapsed. With trust gone, conspiracy-mongers and political mountebank had their day.

Yep. And here’s the second gem:

Perhaps most startlingly, conservative politicians in the US, the UK and Germany successfully reframed the crisis as the result of out-of-control fiscal policy rather than the produce of an out-of-control financial sector. Thus, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK’s coalition government, shifted the blame for austerity on to alleged Labour profligacy. German politicians shifted the blame for the Greek mess from their banks onto Greek politicians. Transforming a financial crisis into a fiscal crisis confused cause with effect. Yet this political prestidigitation proved a brilliant coup. It diverted attention from the failure of the free-market finance they believed in to the costs of welfare states they disliked.

Osborne’s hypocritical dishonesty made him, for me, the most loathsome politician in Britain. (Boris Johnson runs him close, of course, but whereas Johnson is loathsome-but-chaotic, Osborne is loathsome-but-coherent: he always believed in shrinking the state and was the brains behind Cameron’s leadership.) The idea of a trust-fund baby delightedly imposing economic hardship on poorer citizens turns the stomach. Just about the only good thing about Theresa May’s ascent to the premiership was the cool, calculated cruelty of the way she sacked Osborne.

All of which suggests that the best explanation for the waves of populism now breaking on our shores is simply that they are the long-delayed explosion of rage at the way people have been screwed by neoliberal capitalism. And the storm has some way to go before its force is spent.

A farewell to China

From an interesting parting shot by an American libertarian academic who has taught in China for some years and is now returning home.

China is a rising power but probably more importantly is a deeply illiberal, expansionist, authoritarian, police state opposed to human rights, democracy, free trade, and rule of law. Just as we need to consider the state, speed, and direction of change in the United States, China has been deeply illiberal authoritarian for many years, is becoming increasingly illiberal, and is accelerating the pace of change towards greater control. It both puzzles and concerns me having lived in China for nearly a decade as a public employee to hear Polyanna statements from China “experts” in the United States who talk about the opening and reform of China or refuse to consider the values being promoted. I was left mouth agape once when someone I would consider a liberal internationalist who values human rights informed me he was focused on business and would leave those other issues aside. The values represented by China cannot be divorced from its rise and influence. The rise of China represents a clear and explicit threat not to the United States but to the entirety of liberal democracy, human rights, and open international markets.

We see the world slowly being divided into China supported authoritarian regimes of various stripes that support its creeping illiberalism across a range of areas. The tragedy of modern American foreign policy is the history of active ignorance and refusal to actively confront the Chinese norm or legal violations. The Trump administration is utterly incapable of defending the values and assembling the coalition that would respond to American leadership as they face even greater threats from China.

The concern is not over Chinese access to technology to facilitate economic development for a liberal open state. The concern is over the use of technology to facilitate human rights violations and further cement closed markets. That is a threat for which neither the United States or any other democracy loving country should apologize for.

Even while making allowances for the author’s ideological position, some of his observations about everyday like in China are fascinating — at least to me. For example:

One of the most interesting thing to me was to see how my thinking evolved over time in China. Prior to coming, I was and still am a libertarian leaning professor. I had not given a lot of thought to human rights either in the United States or in China. While many are aware of a variety of the cases that receive attention, I think what struck me is how this filters down into the culture. There is a complete and utter lack of respect for the individual or person in China. People do not have innate value as people simply because they exist. This leads most directly to a lack of respect for the law/rules/norms.

One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. Cutting in line [I think this means barging in] is considered extremely rude because there is a sense of fairness and that people have equal rights. In China, line cutting is considered nearly standard operating procedure. There is a common and accepted respect for others even if just it is as simple as standing in line.

In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored. They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.

I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways.

Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.

If it’s the case — and I believe it is — that American’s position as a global hegemon is eroding, and that China might be its successor, then it’s worth thinking about what that might mean. While many of us are sceptical about — or critical of — aspects of American dominance, we understand and to some extent share many of the values that the Republic embodies (or aspires to). Coming to grips with Chinese hegemony will be traumatic, unless the West has been softened up by generations of home-grown authoritarian rule. (Now a distinct possibility for some of our democracies, I fear). It will be like living in a parallel universe which has a different kind of gravity.

Censorship 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

In the analogue world, censorship was relatively straightforward…

Read on

The bad news about false news

The most comprehensive study to date of misinformation on Twitter is out. The Abstract reads:

We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

‘Complexity’: ontology or just an epistemological tactic?

I’m reading Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. In Chapter 1 he reflects on the curious fact that nothing much changed as a result. “The strangest thing”, he writes,

was that instead of leading to a collapse of the right-wing neoliberalism that had enabled the catastrophe to happen, the crisis actually seemed to strengthen the Right. It took a rare degree of self-confidence or fortitude not to gasp dumbfounded at the roaring resurgence of the right so soon after the most catastrophic global economic collapse after the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Incongruity” seems too polite a term to describe the unfolding of events; “contradiction” seems too outmoded. Austerity became the watchword in almost every country; governments everywhere became the scapegoats for dissatisfaction of every stripe, including that provoked by austerity. In the name of probity, the working class was attacked from all sides, even by nominal “socialist” parties… The pervasive dominance of neoliberal doctrines and right-wing parties worldwide from Europe to North America to Asia has flummoxed left parties that, just a few short years ago, had been confident they had been finally making headway after decades of neoliberal encroachment. Brazenly, in many cases parties on the left were unceremoniously voted out because they had struggled to contain the worst fallout from the crisis. By contrast, the financial institutions that had precipitated the crisis and had been rescued by governmental action were doing just fine — nay, prospering at pre-crisis rates — and in a bald display of uninflected ingratitude, were intently bankrolling the resurgent right. Indeed, the astounding recovery of corporate profits practically guaranteed the luxuriant post-crisis exfoliation of Think Tank Pontification. nationalist proto-fascist movements sprouted in the most unlikely places, and propounded arguments bereft of a scintilla of sense. “Nightmare” did not register as hyperbolic; it was the banjax of the vanities.

That’s just about the most succinct expression of the bewilderment that most of us felt — or certainly that I felt as I watched the UK post-crisis, Tory-led coalition government blaming the populace (or its Labour predecessor) for the debacle, and imposing ‘austerity’ as the punishment for popular irresponsibility rather than as the price of forcing the public to shoulder the costs of bankers’ greed and recklessness. And it’s why I always thought that, eventually, the penny would drop with electorates, and why the current ways of populist anger towards ‘elites’ comes as no surprise. In fact the only surprising thing about it is that it took so long to materialise.

Mirowski also picks up the strange inability of the left to pin the blame where it belonged: the financial services industry and the feeble regulatory regimes under which the madness and greed of the sector burgeoned. Here, for example, is Ezra Klein reviewing Inside Job, a documentary that made an admirable stab at naming names and fingering culprits. What made the financial crisis so scary, Klein wrote, was that

The complexity of the system far exceeded the capacity of the participants, experts and watchdogs. Even after the crisis happened, it was devilishly hard to understand what was going on. Some people managed to connect the right dots, in the right ways and at the right times, but not so many; and not through such reproducible methods, that it’s clear how we can make their success the norm. But it is clear that our key systems are going to continue growing more complex, and we’re not getting any smarter.

The fact that (as Mirowski points out) some commentators normally seen as left-of-centre felt obliged to attack the documentary is itself significant. It’s a symptom of how far the ice of neoliberalism has penetrated the radical soul. Less abstractly, it confirms my own working definition of ‘ideology’ as the force that determines how you think even when you don’t know you’re thinking. Klein’s hapless defeatism also echoes the feeble answer eventually provided by the British Academy to the question posed by the Queen to the luminaries of the LSE at the height of the crisis: why had none of those besuited, learned gents in the receiving line seen the catastrophe coming?

But against those who warned, most were convinced that banks knew what they were doing. They believed that the financial wizards had found new and clever ways of managing risks. Indeed, some claimed to have so dispersed them through an array of novel financial instruments that they had virtually removed them. It is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris. There was a firm belief, too, that financial markets had changed. And politicians of all types were charmed by the market. These views were abetted by financial and economic models that were good at predicting the short-term and small risks, but few were equipped to say what would happen when things went wrong as they have. People trusted the banks whose boards and senior executives were packed with globally recruited talent and their non-executive directors included those with proven track records in public life. Nobody wanted to believe that their judgement could be faulty or that they were unable competently to scrutinise the risks in the organisations that they managed. A generation of bankers and financiers deceived themselves and those who thought that they were the pace-making engineers of advanced economies.

All this exposed the difficulties of slowing the progression of such developments in the presence of a general ‘feel-good’ factor. Households benefited from low unemployment, cheap consumer goods and ready credit. Businesses benefited from lower borrowing costs. Bankers were earning bumper bonuses and expanding their business around the world. The government benefited from high tax revenues enabling them to increase public spending on schools and hospitals. This was bound to create a psychology of denial. It was a cycle fuelled, in significant measure, not by virtue but by delusion.

Among the authorities charged with managing these risks, there were difficulties too. Some say that their job should have been ‘to take away the punch bowl when the party was in full swing’. But that assumes that they had the instruments needed to do this. General pressure was for more lax regulation – a light touch. The City of London (and the Financial Services Authority) was praised as a paragon of global financial regulation for this reason.

Translation: It was all very complex, Ma’am. QED.

This is the resort to ‘complexity’ as an epistemological or ideological device. It’s a way of saying that some things are beyond analysis or explanation. Sometimes this is true: complex systems exist and they are inherently unpredictable and sometimes intrinsically incomprehensible. But a banking system run as a racket does not fall into that category.

Zuckerberg’s Frankenstein problem

Nice Buzzfeed piece by xxx about whether Zuck is really in charge, despite his controlling shares. Here’s the nub:

Facebook’s response to accusations about its role in the 2016 election since Nov. 9 bears this out, most notably Zuckerberg’s public comments immediately following the election that the claim that fake news influenced the US presidential election was “a pretty crazy idea.” In April, when Facebook released a white paper detailing the results of its investigation into fake news on its platform during the election, the company insisted it did not know the identity of the malicious actors using its network. And after recent revelations that Facebook had discovered Russian ads on its platform, the company maintained that as of April 2017, it was unaware of any Russian involvement. “When asked we said there was no evidence of Russian ads. That was true at the time,” Facebook told Mashable earlier this month.

Some critics of Facebook speak about the company’s leadership almost like an authoritarian government — a sovereign entity with virtually unchecked power and domineering ambition. So much so, in fact, that Zuckerberg is now frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate despite his public denials. But perhaps a better comparison might be the United Nations — a group of individuals endowed with the almost impossible responsibility of policing a network of interconnected autonomous powers. Just take Zuckerberg’s statement this week, in which he sounded strikingly like an embattled secretary-general: “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion,” he said.

Nice metaphor, this.

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

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.