“Some hidden percentage of what you are seeing online is not commentary from real people, but bought-and-paid-for, computer-generated propaganda”1
Except for everything published on this blog, of course :-) ↩
From a lovely rant by Paul Ford:
The blockchain can be a form of media. The writer Maria Bustillos is starting a magazine that will publish on the blockchain — which means it will be impossible to take down. (Disclosure: In theory, I’ll write for Maria, who’s a friend, and she’ll pay me in cryptocurrency, or what she calls “space jewels.”) One of her aims is to make it impossible for people—Peter Thiel, for example, who backed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker—to threaten publications they dislike.
You could even make a distributed magazine called Information of Vital Public Interest About Peter Thiel that would be awfully hard to sue into oblivion. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Literally. Try another thought experiment. Remember that anonymously created list of men who worked in media and who were alleged sexual harassers? You could, by whispering the allegations from one wallet to the next, put that information on a blockchain. You could make a web browser plug-in so that whenever someone visited a sexual harasser’s LinkedIn page, that page could glow bright red. You could have a distributed, immutable record of sexual harassment allegations on the internet. (Is there an economy around such allegations? Well, people do pay for gossip. GossipCoin?)
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.
Roger Bannister, the first man ever to run a mile in under four minutes, has died at the age of 88. I heard the news just after listening to radio reports of the latest in a long line of scandals about doping in sports. Then I read the splendid obit in the New York Times. This is how it begins:
On the morning of May 6, 1954, a Thursday, Roger Bannister, 25, a medical student in London, worked his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an early afternoon train to Oxford. He had lunch with some old friends, then met a couple of his track teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. As members of an amateur all-star team, they were preparing to run against Oxford University.
About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and though the day was blustery and damp — inauspicious conditions for a record-setting effort — a record is what they saw. Paced by Chataway and Brasher and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes — 3:59.4, to be exact — becoming the first man ever to do so, breaking through a mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.
And then, having broken the barrier, what did he do? Why, he ‘retired’ from competitive athletics in order to do something serious. “Now that I am taking up a hospital appointment,” he said in an address to the English Sportswriters Association that December,
I shall have to give up international athletics. I shall not have sufficient time to put up a first-class performance. There would be little satisfaction for me in a second-rate performance, and it would be wrong to give one when representing my country.
He worked as a neurosurgeon for the rest of his life.
It’s impossible to read this and not reflect on how competitive sport has changed in the intervening decades.
Even today, the Pathe news footage of his run is thrilling. May he rest in peace.
My Observer review of Andrew Keen’s How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age:
Many years ago the cultural critic Neil Postman predicted that the future of humanity lay somewhere in the area between the dystopian nightmares of two English writers – George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Orwell believed that we would be destroyed by the things we fear – surveillance and thought-control; Huxley thought that our undoing would be the things that delight us – that our rulers would twig that entertainment is more efficient than coercion as a means of social control.
Then we invented the internet, a technology that – it turned out – gave us both nightmares at once: comprehensive surveillance by states and corporations on the one hand; and, on the other, a strange kind of passive addiction to devices, apps and services which, like the drug soma in Huxley’s Brave New World, possess “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol and none of their defects”.
The great irony, of course, is that not all of this was inevitable…
This morning’s Observer column:
Here’s your starter for 10. Question: Apple’s website contains the following bold declaration: “At Apple we believe privacy is a fundamental human right.” What ancient English adage does this bring to mind? Answer: “Fine words butter no parsnips.” In other words, what matters is not what you say, but what you do.
What brings this to mind is the announcement that from now on, iCloud data generated by Apple users with a mainland Chinese account will be stored and managed by a Chinese data management firm – Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD). “With effect from 28 February 2018,” the notice reads, “iCloud services associated with your Apple ID will be operated by GCBD. Use of these services and all the data you store with iCloud – including photos, videos, documents and backups – will be subject to the terms and conditions of iCloud operated by GCBD.”
Tyler Cowen thinks not:
I would like to hazard a prediction that no, it cannot happen here. I won’t claim it could never happen over the centuries, rather that it can’t happen in anything recognizably like the America of today.
My argument is pretty simple: American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.
This yields a new defense of Big Government, which is harder to take over, and harder to “turn bad,” than many a smaller government…
Worth reading in full. It’s adapted from a chapter he’s written for Cass Sunstein’s latest collection: Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America
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.