Friday 7 February, 2020

The Digital Dictators: How technology strengthens autocracies

Sobering reading for recovering Utopians (like me). From Foreign Affairs:

Led by China, today’s digital autocracies are using technology—the Internet, social media, AI—to supercharge long-standing authoritarian survival tactics. They are harnessing a new arsenal of digital tools to counteract what has become the most significant threat to the typical authoritarian regime today: the physical, human force of mass antigovernment protests. As a result, digital autocracies have grown far more durable than their pre-tech predecessors and their less technologically savvy peers. In contrast to what technology optimists envisioned at the dawn of the millennium, autocracies are benefiting from the Internet and other new technologies, not falling victim to them.

Long essay. Worth reading in full.


Why do people buy SUVs?

I’ve often wondered about this, and concluded that SUV owners are either arrogant or frightened, or both. An interesting piece in Vice suggests that I was on the right track. It draws on Keith Bradsher’s examination of “how the auto industry convinced millions of Americans to buy vehicles that were more dangerous (for themselves and other people on the road), got worse gas mileage, were worse for the environment, and got them to pay a premium for the privilege of doing so.“ It succeeded because the industry mounted “quite possibly the most sophisticated marketing operations on the planet.” The image of prospective SUV purchasers that emerged from the research was deeply unattractive — and, reassuringly, correlated with my own hunches. That portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.

Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.

And it turned out that the auto industry’s own studies agreed with this general portrait of SUV buyers. Bradsher described that portrait, comprised of marketing reports from the major automakers, as follows:

Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

I knew it! It’s always nice to have one’s prejudices confirmed.


Remembering George Steiner

George died last Monday at the ripe old age of 90. I knew and liked him and have written an appreciation which is coming out in next Sunday’s Observer. Adam Gopnik has a nice tribute to him on the New Yorker site:

It was part of the genuine, and not merely patrician, seriousness of his view to see the war years as a fundamental rupture not just in history but in our faith in culture: educated people did those things to other educated people. It was not ignorant armies clashing by night that shivered George Steiner’s soul; it was intelligent Germans who listened to Schubert murdering educated Jews who had trusted in Goethe, and by the train load. This recognition of the limits of culture to change the world was the limiting condition on his love of literature, and it was what gave that love a darker and more tragic cast than any mere proselytizing for “great books” could supply.

May he rest in peace.


How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Useful rules from Tyler Cowen, who knows a thing or two about this.


Why I won’t be upgrading to Catalina any time soon

From Jon Gruber:

Then I think about software. And that means thinking about MacOS 10.15 Catalina. And those thoughts are not good. Off the top of my head I’m hard pressed to think of anything in Catalina that’s an improvement over 10.14 Mojave, and I can think of a lot of things that are worse. I get it that security and convenience are at odds, and it’s a difficult job for Apple to find the balanced sweet spot between the two. But Catalina clearly bends too far in the direction of security. By design, it’s just too inconvenient, with apps generating system-level alerts prompting for permission for things as rudimentary as being able to see the files on my desktop — sometimes when those apps are in the background, and I know that at the moment the alert appears those apps are not trying to read files on my desktop. But why in the world is the desktop treated as some sort of sensitive location?

Back in 2007 Apple ran a “Get a Mac” commercial mocking Windows Vista for this exact same sort of overzealous permission nagging. That’s exactly what Catalina feels like.

I think I’ll sit this upgrade out and wait for the next one.


Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.

The 26 words that created the Internet we have today

This morning’s Observer column:

Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy and the unidentified poster for defamation – and won. Prodigy argued that it couldn’t be held responsible for what anonymous users posted on its platform. The judge disagreed, arguing that the company was liable as the publisher of the content created by its users because it exercised editorial control over the messages on its bulletin boards in several ways and was thereby potentially liable for any and all defamatory material posted on its websites.

The case alarmed an Oregon congressman (now a US senator), Ronald Wyden, who accurately perceived it as a mortal threat to the growth of the internet. It would mean that every online hosting service would need to have lawyers crawling over its site, thereby slowing exploitation of the technology to a crawl. So with another congressman, Chris Cox, he inserted a short clause – Section 230 – into the Communications Decency Act, which was then incorporated in the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act. The section itself is short (about a thousand words) but the core of it is a single sentence: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

That sentence laid the basis for everything that has followed. It constitutes, as the title of a recent book puts it, The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet. What it does is create a “liability shield” for online platforms…

Read on

Some institutions still work

Conor Gearty (an eminent human rights lawyer) wrote an interesting blog post about the Supreme Court’s decision that Johnson’s advice to the Queen on proroguing Parliament was unlawful. Excerpt:

Why did the Court do it? The constitutional reason – an entirely good one – is that the Court has deduced from the fundamental principles of representative democracy and accountable government a set of constraints on power that flow from these principles and which must, as a result, adhere to all exercises of public power, including those of the most senior political figures in the land (paras 41 and 46).

The deeper truth lying behind how these principles were deployed in this case leads us to something that was once a commonplace but these days is a glory rarely to be found in the shrill word of Brexit politics. In law, reason still matters. Facts are relevant. Nonsense doesn’t work. How can you justify the Prime Minister’s power by saying he is accountable to Parliament when you have just dispensed with Parliament? Why on earth do you need to cancel Parliament for weeks to do a Queen’s speech? Deceitful or deliberately obtuse replies to these basic questions might get you through a three-minute media interview or a noisy prime minister’s question time, but they can’t survive the forensic attentions of independently-minded lawyers with time to draw the non sequiturs, the contradictions and the lies to the surface.

This case is not about the judges seizing the policy agenda whatever the critics of the outcome might say. It is concerned with process not substance, with how things get done rather than what is done. Strongly hostile to democracy in days gone by, the judiciary have now embraced its fundamental tenets, taking to heart what we all say matters to us. In this decision, the judges are oiling the democratic machine, not telling it what to produce.

Great stuff. Worth reading in full.

What is law?

Lovely post by Conor Gearty on the British Academy’s blog:

Law is a technical subject, without doubt, but it courses through with large questions about the kind of world we live in and how best to protect the values that we as a society hold dear. The biggest, most extraordinary thing about law is something that we wouldn’t even have remarked upon just a few years ago, but at this time of ‘fake news’ and feelings about stuff driving policy is worth saying – and celebrating. Law is about reason – argument, logic, facts and evidence are its daily bread and butter. Now of course, behind that reason will often be the power of conservative reaction, willing and able to deploy the force of authority to crush dissent. Law will always be, and almost by definition is, wedded to preservation of the status quo. That said, it is surely a wonderful thing that, for all its faults, there is at least one remaining space in our political culture where words still matter and where promises made in the form of written undertakings (‘laws’) have consequences. A society that stops being governed by the authority of law and reverts to that of the ‘populist’, the priest or ‘the people’ is not a place where freedom will long survive.

Is this Britain’s ‘Reichstag Fire’ moment?

Sobering assessment in Prospect by Richard Evans:

But if Hitler’s rise teaches us anything, it’s that the establishment trivialises demagogues at its peril. One disturbing aspect of the present crisis is the extent to which mainstream parties, including US Republicans and British Conservatives, tolerate leaders with tawdry rhetoric and simplistic ideas, just as 
Papen, Hindenburg, Schleicher and the rest of the later Weimar establishment tolerated first Hitler and then his dismantling of the German constitution. He could not have done it in the way he did without their acquiescence. Republicans know Trump is a charlatan, just as Conservatives know Johnson is lazy, chaotic and superficial, but if these men can get them votes, they’ll lend them support.

Weimar’s democracy did not exactly commit suicide. Most voters never voted for a dicatorship: the most the Nazis ever won in a free election was 37.4 per cent of the vote. But too many conservative politicians lacked the will to defend democracy, either because they didn’t really believe in it or because other matters seemed more pressing. As for rule by emergency decree, few people thought Hitler was doing anything different from Ebert or Brüning when he used Hindenburg’s powers to suspend civil liberties after the Reichstag Fire on 28th February 1933. That decree was then renewed all the way up to 1945. In this sense, democracy was destroyed constitutionally.

Which is exactly what’s going on in the UK at the moment.

The lesson, says Evans,

seems to be that to prevent the collapse of representative democracy, the legislature must jealously guard its powers. Can we rely on that happening today? It doesn’t help that the British parliament, as was its counterpart in Weimar, has become more or less paralysed on the most important issue of the day. As in Weimar, the only majorities are negative ones—against, for example, Theresa May’s Brexit deal as well as, so far at least, every available alternative.

Now and then

I had lunch yesterday with an old (and elderly) friend who is in a despairing mood about what is happening to his country (the US) and the UK. Part of our conversation was about the nature of the seismic change that we both sense in those two democracies. (This was a theme of my earlier post below.)

Later in the evening, I sent him an excerpt from a column by my Observer colleague, Andrew Rawnsley, which illustrated one aspect of the change.

When people refer to the British constitution, they are talking about a hotch-potch of such conventions, combined with ancient charters, precedents, international agreements, legislative bolt-ons and unwritten understandings. The fabric of this messy tapestry is held together by a crucial thread. That is an underlying assumption that everyone can be trusted to behave in a proper way. In the absence of a formal constitution, British democracy is heavily reliant on politicians acting with honour and playing fair.

What if they don’t? What happens then? We may be about to find out if Boris Johnson faces a no-confidence vote this autumn, loses, refuses to quit as prime minister and barricades himself in Number 10 for long enough to force through a no-deal Brexit before an election can take place. This is a scenario so grotesque as to be scarcely believable. That doesn’t make it an impossible one.

What Rawnsley’s article illustrates is what we are discovering about the fragility of our democracies. Their survival depends on politicians respecting norms. But they seem to have no recourse to people who don’t respect — indeed flaunt their contempt for — those norms. So Johnson could lose a confidence vote and yet ignore the conventions. And as far as one can see there’s nothing that we could do about it — even if two million people marched in protest in London, he could sit it out.

Ah well, people say, that’s what you get when you don’t have a written constitution and make do with an ad-hoc patchwork quilt of conventions, precedents, jumbo jumbo and laws that passes for one in Britain. But the Americans do have a written constitution and a fat lot of use that seems to be in dealing with Trump. Again, what’s so shocking to liberals is the way the president is contemptuously flouting norms that were once regarded as semi-sacred. For example, it was more or less unthinkable until 2016 that a sitting president would use his office to enrich himself and his family in flamboyant style. (Think of the way the Trump hotel in Washington is now being milked for profits derived from foreign clowns who stay there in the hope that it might gain them some favour in the White House.)

The other topic in yesterday’s gloomy conversation was the awful sense of impotence many citizens (or subjects, in the UK case) feel as they watch this wanton despoliation of democratic norms. In that context, this quotation from a piece by Niamh Cullen in the London Review of Books, puts a nice historical spin on it:

“When I began to research my book on Piero Gobetti”, she writes,

the precocious young anti-fascist journalist and early victim of Mussolini, the world in which he lived seemed very remote to me. I could relate little of the post-1918 anger and desperation – the obsession with borders and national grievance, the struggle to make ends meet in times of unemployment and rising inflation, the angry men convinced they had been dispossessed – to my own circumstances. It was Dublin in the mid-2000s and the city was still feeling pretty boomy, with little hint of the global recession to come. The ideas and institutions of the EU seemed broadly secure and democracy was taken for granted. Now with the rise of populism and nationalism across Europe and the US, as responses both to the global recession and to the migration crisis, the anxiety, anger and fear of the 1920s and 1930s seem a little more real.

And now?

I feel as if I now have a little more insight into how it might feel to see the ideas and institutions of the state collapse around you, and yet still go about your life as if nothing much has changed. In the last several years, with the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, Brexit, the migration crisis and the increasingly palpable effects of climate change, the world has profoundly shifted on its axis. Yet I have done little about it. I imagine these feelings of inertia and dread – the conviction that something should be done to prevent this downward slide combined with the strong sense that I can do nothing – is what it might have been like to live through the normalisation of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. This is not to suggest that Johnson, Trump et al. are similar to Mussolini – they may be, but that is a whole different issue – but rather that the sense of crisis that people lived with in the 1920s has parallels to our own time, as the extreme becomes normal, and it becomes gradually more difficult to imagine how things could be different.

Our recent history, in a nutshell

From John Lanchester, opening a thoughtful and informative LRB essay on the idea of Universal Basic Income. “The broad outline of 21st-century history, its first couple of decades anyway”, he writes,

is starting to become clear. A period of credit-fuelled expansion and runaway financialisation ended with an abrupt crash and an unprecedented bank bailout. The public’s reward for assuming the bankers’ losses was austerity, which crippled the recovery and led to an interminable Great Recession. At the same time, increasing automation and globalisation, and the rise of the internet, kept first-world wages stagnant and led to an increase in precarity. Elites did fine, and in the developing world, especially Asia, economies grew, but the global middle class, mainly located in the developed world, felt increasingly anxious, ignored, resentful and angry. The decades-long decline in union power made these trends worse. The UK had its longest ever peacetime squeeze on earnings.​1 In response to this the political right played one of its historically most effective cards – Blame the Immigrants – and achieved a string of successes from Brexit to Trump to Orbán to Bolsonaro to Salvini and the AfD, succeeding in normalising its new prominence to such an extent that a quasi-fascist party scored 34 per cent in the French presidential elections, which were nonetheless hailed as a triumph for the ‘centrist’ winner.

That’s a pretty good summary, IMHO. Characteristically good piece by a terrific explainer. Worth reading in full.

The technical is political. Now what?

Bruce Schneier has been valiantly going on about this for a while. Once upon a time, digital technology didn’t have many social, political or democratic ramifications. Those days are over. Universities, companies, software engineers and governments need to think about this — and tool up for it. Here’s an excerpt from one of Bruce’s recent posts on the subject:

Technology now permeates society in a way it didn’t just a couple of decades ago, and governments move too slowly to take this into account. That means technologists now are relevant to all sorts of areas that they had no traditional connection to: climate change, food safety, future of work, public health, bioengineering.

More generally, technologists need to understand the policy ramifications of their work. There’s a pervasive myth in Silicon Valley that technology is politically neutral. It’s not, and I hope most people reading this today knows that. We built a world where programmers felt they had an inherent right to code the world as they saw fit. We were allowed to do this because, until recently, it didn’t matter. Now, too many issues are being decided in an unregulated capitalist environment where significant social costs are too often not taken into account.

This is where the core issues of society lie. The defining political question of the 20th century was: “What should be governed by the state, and what should be governed by the market?” This defined the difference between East and West, and the difference between political parties within countries. The defining political question of the first half of the 21st century is: “How much of our lives should be governed by technology, and under what terms?” In the last century, economists drove public policy. In this century, it will be technologists.

The future is coming faster than our current set of policy tools can deal with. The only way to fix this is to develop a new set of policy tools with the help of technologists. We need to be in all aspects of public-interest work, from informing policy to creating tools all building the future. The world needs all of our help.

Yep.

What Trump doesn’t know

From Kara Swisher:

I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell the president, but someone has to: Social media is not the public square, not even a virtual one.

Not Facebook. Not Reddit. Not YouTube. And definitely not Twitter, where a few days after Facebook announced it was barring some extremist voices like Alex Jones, President Trump furiously tapped out: “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”

He can monitor (yes, that’s definitely a creepy word) and watch all he wants, but it will not matter one bit. Because the First Amendment requires only that the government not make laws that restrict freedom of speech for its citizens…