Our emerging culture of shame

Jules_Arsène_Garnier_-_Le_supplice_des_adultères

I remember a speech that the novelist Tom Wolfe gave on CSPAN or some such back in the 1990s in which he said something like “Nietzsche predicted that the 20th century would be the age of ideology, and that the century after the age of morality, and I believe him” I’ve never been able to find the source of the quote, but the more the 21st century rolls on, the more I’m finding it to increasingly, frighteningly true.

Thing is, I didn’t really get Wolfe’s point at the time given that the 90’s were a period in which relativism of one sort or another was so ascendant- at least on college campuses -in America. While such relativism dominates it’s hard to  see that the ultimate outcome is  either going to be a growing inability to distinguish genuine communication from manipulation and propaganda, or more surprisingly, will result in an environment of cultural and political fanaticism where seemingly everything, including the interpersonal give and take of everyday life, becomes subsumed into unresolvable moral conflicts.

All that’s probably pretty confusing, so let me start with the latter point, and especially one peculiar aspect of this reality which all of us are probably guilty of.  If we most often recognize moral fanaticism when it comes in the form of shootings and bombings done by humans who act like automatons, much, much more often it comes in the form of nasty tweets and comments by us. This verbal violence we inflict aims to psychologically rather than physically injure- to inspire shame, through which we hope to enforce our own ideal of what is right and just. It’s a behavior I myself have engaged in and felt superior while doing so, and hadn’t thought of questioning until I read  Jon Ronson’s, remarkable, hilarious, and incredibly sad, book So you’ve been publicly shamed.

The book starts off with a story that would not have made sense until our early 21st century world. A group of academic researchers, without Ronson’s permission, created a bot with his name- a simulcra that sends out tweets he finds alien. For the academics it’s a kind of experiment in postmodern theories of the self. For Ronson it’s identity theft.

It’s in the Twitter mob that came to Ronson’s defense that he found the subject for his book. At first aligned with their anger over the blatant attempt to misrepresent his identity, Ronson became both disturbed and intrigued by the forceful and sometimes violent rhetoric of those who used Twitter to shame his tormentors into taking down their bot.

Ronson then goes on a journey to understand this online shaming, a journey that takes him to some strange and sometimes disturbing places. There’s Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced science journalists who confessed his misdeeds in front of a live frothing Twitter wall. There was the case of Justine Sacco whose thoughtless, many thought racist, joke led to the end of her career and threats against her life.

This justice of the mob in part grows out of the nature of the internet itself. Social media democratizes power, but this is a power stripped of the accumulated lessons of history. The problem is not so much that groups collectively pursue what they believe to be right and just. It is that they do so without all the mechanisms designed for discovering some shadow of the truth. To actually discern whether someone actually deserved any public reprobate or other form of social punishment would actually require some agreed upon mechanism for deciding upon an approximation of the truth.

This amounts to frankly boring procedures whose purpose is to restrain emotion especially the desire for revenge which arises out of our need for justice. Something  that in a different context Jaron Lanier referred to as “low pass filtering” and is an essential component of the civilization in which we live that we take for granted at our peril.

These procedures and emotional restraints are exactly the opposite of a Twitter mob, and in a clever twist that I’m not sure Ronson was aware of, like the creators of the tormenting bot that began his quest to understand shame, such mobs are impervious to facts because they do not believe anything resembling truth actually exist.

Yet this is more my darkness and bleak perspective poking through than what can be found in Ronson. He wants nothing to do with a resurrected Gustav Le Bon, or even something like the Stanford Prison Experiment. (As a side note he points out that this famous demonstration of the human potential for depravity was mostly fake. There was only one “evil” guard, and he was acting the part he thought he was expected to play. It made me wonder how much the villainy of the present and future will be influenced by what the media has defined a villain to be.)

Ronson, however, sees the kinds of dark rhetoric that is so often found on the internet, as less a reflection of human darkness than something that arose out of the anarchic spirit of the early internet itself. A spirit which, though it might no longer exist on the corporatized web, can still be found on a forum like 4chan.

I think this less jaundiced view of human beings stems from Ronson’s obvious compassion towards our flawed nature. Because (I believe) he rightly, holds true evil to be very rare, he needs to explain the prevalence of human “baddness”, our verbal attacks upon persons we believe have committed moral infractions such as Justine Sacco or Jonah Lehrer.

His explanation ends up being remarkably similar to that of the evolutionary psychologist, Mark Pagel, in his book Wired for Culture. Pagels argued that our inhibitions against violence can most quickly be unleashed against those who violate the norms of the groups to which we belong. Our unrivaled capacity for violence, and shame is a form of violence whose aim is most often coercion, is but the dark side of our equally unrivaled capacity for culture.

But unlike Pagels, Ronson is driven to understand the desire to police norms through shame caused by himself. Reflecting on what had driven his own engagement in online shaming he writes:

… it was the desire to do something good that propelled me. Which was definitely a better thing to be propelled by than group madness. But my desire had taken a lot of scalps- I’d torn a lot of people I couldn’t now remember- which made me suspect that it was coming from some weird dark well, some place I really didn’t want to think about. Which is why I had to think about it. (109)

It’s the same impulse that led so many East Germans to report their neighbors activity to the Stasi:

It was an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing. (271)

Ronson’s book could not have come at a better time for shame seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance lately. The journalist David Brooks has recently done some fascinating pieces on the subject, the most important takeaway from which I think should be, when he said:

Some sort of moral system is coming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of this new moral system?

Here Brooks is building off of the work of writers like Andy Crouch, whose work he cites:

Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.

…there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

… people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is celebrity — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform.

On the positive side, this new shame culture might rebind the social and communal fabric. It might reverse, a bit, the individualistic, atomizing thrust of the past 50 years.

On the other hand, everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along.

I think this description of Brooks/ Crouch is really onto something and that someone with just the right eye in the 1980’s and 90’s who had combined the kind of psychological lynchings on shows like Jerry Springer, with the kinds of assaults on privacy and paparazzi caused destruction and politically driven character assassination, along with the democratization of media and communications technology might have gotten the zeitgeist of 2016 eerily correct. It’s weird, but for how technologically advanced we are, the culture our technology is helping give rise to looks like something out of the morally balkanized Reformation period, combined with the prying, social climbing and vindictiveness of the court at Versailles.

This points to how I differ from either Brooks or Crouch’s view that the “new shame culture might rebind the social and communal fabric.” It probably is the case that the use of shaming as punishment is the oldest way in which human groups have enforced their norms, though one might respond to Brooks and Crouch that shame culture is only possible in tribal scale societies and becomes impossible once a society is too large for any individual to be able to keep track of all of his neighbors business.

That objection, however, isn’t really true. You can indeed use shame to enforce norms across large societies as anyone from a large society like China, South Korea or Japan will tell you. There was even a famous book about it The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. In that book she contrasted Western cultures where norms were enforced via externalized guilt with Japan where similar norms were enforced through shame.

Indeed I’ve been wondering of late how the large shame based societies in East Asia have been interacting with the new social media, curious if Neal Stephenson’s prediction of how the internet in China way back in 1994 has becoming true. Stephenson wondered that while the internet in the West promised grassroots democracy:

…. but the Chinese are just as apt to think of it as a finely engineered snare for tying the whole country together even more firmly than its predecessor.

If the internet hasn’t even brought grassroots democracy to countries where republicanism is a deep, indeed defining, part of their identity, it certainly won’t bring it to China, which means only the darker aspect of Stephenson’s prediction can come true. But I digress.

Back on topic, it is nevertheless the case that thinking we are moving from a guilt culture to a shame culture thanks to communications technologies, and that this shame is robust enough to hold up a large society such as ours because it can do so for even larger societies in Asia, actually collapses upon inspection. The distinction between East Asian shame based societies and our own formerly guilt based one is just how heterogeneous Western societies are compared to their counterparts. That is, you need a shared understanding of what is “shamable” behavior and what is not for shame to work as the basis for enforcing social norms in the first place, which probably entails some shared understanding of the truth or deference to some group that defines good and the truth. In fact we’re moving in the opposite direction.

Globally it’s even worse, which is why I think a project such as Jennifer Jacquet’s proposal to use “shaming at scale” to pursue environmental justice, however laudable, just isn’t feasible over the long term, and would likely fail in the same way it has failed in the US where efforts to shame CEOs and companies over horrors such as global warming leads to deliberate agontology which is quickly followed up by a nationalist backlash against “elites”using the language of environmental protection and human rights to pursue their own agenda.

Yet while the difficulty in using shame to enforce social norms globally and broadly across Western societies may end up being a fool’s errand that doesn’t mean it won’t be tried. Maybe we’ll use AI to overcome the the fact that shame becomes harder to enforce once it gets so big there are more people than you could ever personally know, let alone keep track of. Though in that case- those who control the AI will also control the social norms. Or maybe we’ll find ourselves in something like David Brin’s Transparent Society- gag. In the end it might happen, but that makes it even more important that we understand what Ronson has to say about the soul destroying effects of shame and the attempts to escape it.

One response to shame is to become shameless. Ronson finds this in a group whose shame “cure” is based on the adoption of radical honesty. The group spends most of its time insulting one another. This might be yet another way to explain the rise of Trump- as a revolt of the shamed who have declared their own shamelessness.

I think what many of Trump’s supporters are revolting against, over and above legitimate economic grievances, is the sense that they are not merely ridiculed as “white trash”, by what they think are “smug”, “liberal”, “elites”. Perhaps they feel that well off people who believe themselves to be superior think they are supposed to feel ashamed for what they think. Their anger and total transparency are forms of protection against shame.

Given the absence of shared norms and a  shared understanding of truth all continued shame and ridicule seems to do is to cause people to become even angrier and in their anger they have torn up not merely their filters, but the very civility that makes shared political life possible.

Another response to shame which Ronson explores which is applicable to our situation is not transparency but the mask. “Reputation management” is now a service meant to smother in the banal and benign something that has brought a person into public derision.

We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive was to be bland. (266)

It’s also incredibly expensive, which is why in the transparent society before us only the poor and lower middle classes are actually seen through. 

Lastly Ronson, jumping off of the work of the psychologist James Gilligan ,shows how deep shame is perhaps universally at the root of extreme violence, that those driven to such violence see it as a way to expunge their otherwise unbearable shame. Even should we not be capable of Ronson-level compassion towards fellow our human beings, given the ever increasing capacity of “the little guy” to exercise violence ,this is not a seed we should continue to sow.

 

Shedding Light on Peter Thiel’s Dark Enlightenment

Eye of Sauron

Lately I’ve been experiencing quite a bit of deja vu, and not in the least of a good kind. The recent bout was inspired by Ben Smith’s piece for BuzzFeed in which he struggled to understand how an Ayn Rand loving libertarian like the technologist Peter Thiel could end up supporting a statist demagogue like Donald Trump. Smith’s reasoning was that Trump represented perhaps the biggest disruption of them all and could use the power of the state to pursue the singularity and flying-cars Theil believed were one at our fingertips.

What Smith didn’t explore was how a small group of Silicon Valley centered thinkers and technologists who call themselves “neo-reactionaries” have been evolving in an authoritarian direction known as “the dark enlightenment” over the last couple of years. Hence my deja vu, for back in 2014 I had written a post on this movement, and the reasons for its appearance. In many ways neo-reactionaries were a kind of harbinger of Trumpism – the movement’s open misogyny and racism, and especially the desire for a return to authoritarian control. To put Thiel’s Republican speech in its neo-reactionary context, see below.

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There has been some ink spilt lately at the IEET over a new movement that goes by the Tolkienesque name, I kid you not, of the dark enlightenment also called neo-reactionaries.  Khannea Suntzu has looked at the movement from the standpoint of American collapse and David Brin  from within the context of a rising oligarchic neo-feudalism.

I have my own take on the neo-reactionary movement somewhat distinct from that of either Suntzu or Brin, which I will get to below, but first a recap.  Neo-reactionaries are a relatively new group of thinkers on the right that in general want to abandon the modern state, built such as it is around the pursuit of the social welfare, for lean-and-mean governance by business types who know in their view how to make the trains run on time. They are sick of having to “go begging” to the political class in order to get what they want done. They hope to cut out the middle-man. It’s obvious that oligarchs run the country so why don’t we just be honest about it and give them the reins of power? We could even appoint a national CEO- if the country remains in existence- we could call him the king. Oh yeah, on top of that we should abandon all this racial and sexual equality nonsense. We need to get back to the good old days when the color of a man’s skin and having a penis really meant something- put the “super” back in superior.

At first blush the views of those hoping to turn the lights out on enlightenment (anyone else choking on an oxymoron) appear something like those of the kind of annoying cousin you try to avoid at family reunions. You know, the kind of well off white guy who thinks the Civil Rights Movement was a communist plot, calls your wife a “slut” (their words, not mine) and thinks the real problem with America is that we give too much to people who don’t have anything and don’t lock up or deport enough people with skin any darker than Dove Soap. Such people are the moral equivalent of flat-earthers with no real need to take them seriously, though they can make for some pretty uncomfortable table conversation, and are best avoided like a potato salad that has been out too long in the sun.

What distinguishes neo-reactionaries from run of the mill ditto heads or military types with a taste for Dock Martins or short pants is that they tend to be latte drinking Silicon Valley nerds who have some connection to both the tech and trans-humanist communities.

That should get this audience’s attention.

To continue with the analogy from above:  it’s as if your cousin had a friend, let’s just call him totally at random here… Peter Thiel, who had a net worth of 1.5 billion and was into, among other things, working closely with organizations such as the NSA through a data mining firm he owned- we’ll call it Palantir (damned Frodo Baggins again!) and who serves as a deep pocket for groups like the Tea Party. Just to go all conspiracy on the thing let’s make your cousin’s “friend” a sitting member on something we’ll call The Bilderberg Group a secretive cabal of the world’s bigwigs who get together to talk about what they really would like done in the world.

If that was the case the last thing you should do is leave your cousin ranting to himself while you made off for another plate of Mrs. T’s Pierogies.  You should take the maniac seriously because he might just be sitting on enough cash to make his atavistic dreams come true and put you at risk of sliding off a flattened earth.

All this might put me at risk of being accused of lobbing one too many ad hominems, so let me put some meat on the bones of the neo-reactionaries. The Super Friends or I guess it should be Legion of Doom of neo-reaction can be found on the website Radish where the heroes of the dark enlightenment are laid out in the format of Dungeons and Dragons or Pokémon cards (I can’t make this stuff up). Let’s just start out with the most unfunny and disturbing part of the movement- its open racism and obsession with the 19th century pseudo-science of dysgenics.

Here’s James Donald who from his card I take to be a dwarf, or perhaps an elf, I’m not sure what the difference is, who likes to fly on a winged tauntaun like that from The Empire Strikes Back.

To thrive, blacks need simpler, harsher laws, more vigorously enforced, than whites.  The average black cannot handle the freedom that the average white can handle. He is apt to destroy himself.  Most middle class blacks had fathers who were apt to frequently hit them hard with a fist or stick or a belt, because lesser discipline makes it hard for blacks to grow up middle class.  In the days of Jim Crow, it was a lot easier for blacks to grow up middle class.

Wow, and I thought a country where one quarter of African American children will have experienced at least one of their parents behind bars– thousands of whom will die in prison for nonviolent offenses– was already too harsh. I guess I’m a patsy.

Non-whites aren’t the only ones who come in for derision by the neo-reactionaries a fact that can be summed up by the post- title of one of their minions, Alfred W. Clark, who writes the blog Occam’s Razor : Are Women Who Tan Sluts?  There’s no need to say anything more to realize poor William of Occam is rolling in his grave.

Beyond this neo-Nazism for nerds quality neo-reactionaries can make one chuckle especially when it comes to “policy innovations” such as bringing back kings.

Here’s modern day Beowulf Mencius Moldbug:

 What is England’s problem?  What is the West’s problem?  In my jaundiced, reactionary mind, the entire problem can be summed up in two words –chronic kinglessness.  The old machine is missing a part.  In fact, it’s a testament to the machine’s quality that it functioned so long, and so well, without that part.

Yeah, that’s the problem.

Speaking of atavists, one thing that has always confused me about the Tea Party is that I have never been sure which imaginary “golden age” they wanted us to return to. Is it before desegregation? Before FDR? Prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve (1913)? Or maybe it’s back to the antebellum south? Or maybe back to the Articles of Confederation? Well, at least the neo-reactionaries know where they want to go- back before the American Revolution. Obviously since this whole democracy thing hasn’t worked out we should bring back the kings, which makes me wonder if these guys have mourning parties on Bastille Day.

Okay, so the dark voices behind neo-reaction are a bunch of racist/sexist nerds who have a passion for kings and like to be presented as characters on D&D cards. They have some potentially deep pockets, but other than that troubling fact why should we give them more than a few seconds of serious thought?

Now I need to exchange my satirical cap for my serious one for the issues are indeed serious. I think understanding neo-reaction is important for two reasons: they are symptomatic of deeper challenges and changes occurring politically, and they have appeared as a response to and on the cusp of a change in our relationship to Silicon Valley a region that has been the fulcrum point for technological, economic and political transformation over the past generation.

Neo-reaction shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum. It has appeared at a time when the political and economic order we have had since at least the end of the Second World War which combines representative democracy, capitalist economics and some form of state supported social welfare (social democracy) is showing signs of its age.

If this was just happening in the United States whose 224 year old political system emerged before almost everything we take to be modern such as this list at random: universal literacy, industrialization, railroads, telephones, human flight, the Theory of Evolution, Psychoanalysis, Quantum Mechanics, Genetics, “the Bomb”, television, computers, the Internet and mobile technology then we might be able, as some have, to blame our troubles on an antiquated political system, but the creaking is much more widespread.

We have the upsurge in popularity of the right in Europe such as that seen in France with its National Front. Secessionist movements are gaining traction in the UK. The right in the form of Hindu Nationalism under a particular obnoxious figure- Narendra Modi -is poised to win Indian elections. There is the implosion of states in the Middle East such as Syria and revolution and counter revolution in Egypt. There are rising nationalist tensions in East Asia.

All this is coming against the backdrop of rising inequality. The markets are soaring no doubt pushed up by the flood of money being provided by the Federal Reserve,  yet the economy is merely grinding along. Easy money is the de facto cure for our deflationary funk and pursued by all the world’s major central banks in the US, the European Union, and now especially, Japan.

The far left has long abandoned the idea that 21st century capitalism is a workable system with the differences being over what the alternative to it should be- whether communism of the old school such as that of Slavoj Žižek  or the anarchism of someone like David Graeber. Leftists are one thing the Pope is another, and you know a system is in trouble when the most conservative institution in history wants to change the status quo as Pope Francis suggested when he recently railed against the inhumanity of capitalism and urged for its transformation.

What in the world is going on?

If your house starts leaning there’s something wrong with the foundation, so I think we need to look at the roots of our current problems by going back to the gestation of our system- that balance of representative democracy, capitalism and social democracy I mentioned earlier whose roots can be found not in the 20th century but in the century prior.

The historical period that is probably most relevant for getting a handle on today’s neo-reactionaries is the late 19th century when a rage for similar ideas infected Europe. There was Nietzsche in Germany and Dostoevsky in Russia (two reactionaries I still can’t get myself to dislike both being so brilliant and tragic). There was Maurras in France and Pareto in Italy. The left, of course, also got a shot of B-12 here as well with labor unions, socialist political parties and seriously left-wing intellectuals finally gaining traction. Marxism whose origins were earlier in the century was coming into its own as a political force.  You had writers of socialist fiction such as Edward Bellamy and Jack London surging in popularity. Anarchists were making their mark, though, unfortunately, largely through high profile assassinations and bomb throwing. A crisis was building even before the First World War whose centenary we will mark next year.

Here’s historian JM Roberts from his Europe 1880-1945 on the state of politics in on the eve, not after, the outbreak of the First World War.

 Liberalism had institutionalized the pursuit of happiness, yet its own institutions seemed to stand in the way of achieving the goal; liberal’s ideas could, it seemed, lead liberalism to turn on itself.

…the practical shortcomings of democracy contributed to a wave of anti-parliamentarianism. Representative institutions had for nearly a century been the shibboleth of liberalism. An Italian sociologist now stigmatized them ‘as the greatest superstition of modern times.’ There was violent criticism of them, both practical and theoretical. Not surprisingly, this went furthest in constitutional states where parliamentary institutions were the formal framework of power but did not represent social realities. Even where parliaments (as in France or Great Britain) had already shown they possessed real power, they were blamed for representing the wrong people and for being hypocritical shams covering self-interest. Professional politicians- a creation of the nineteenth century- were inevitably, it was said, out of touch with real needs.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Liberalism, by which Roberts means a combination of representative government and laissez faire capitalism- including free trade- was struggling. Capitalism had obviously brought wealth and innovation but also enormous instability and tensions. The economy had a tendency to rocket towards the stars only to careen earthward and crash leaving armies of the unemployed. The small scale capitalism of earlier periods was replaced by continent straddling bureaucratic corporations. The representative system which had been based on fleeting mobilization during elections or crises had yet to adjust to a situation where mass mobilization through the press, unions, or political groups was permanent and unrelenting.

The First World War almost killed liberalism. The Russian Revolution, Great Depression, rise of fascism and World War Two were busy putting nails in its coffin when the adoption of social democracy and Allied Victory in the war revived the corpse. Almost the entirety of the 20th century was a fight over whether the West’s hybrid system, which kept capitalism and representative democracy, but tamed the former could outperform state communism- and it did.

In the latter half of the 20th century the left got down to the business of extending the rights revolution to marginalized groups while the right fought for the dismantling of many of the restrictions that had been put on the capitalist system during its time of crisis. This modus vivendi between left and right was all well and good while the economy was growing and while the extension of legal rights rather than social rights for marginalized groups was the primary issue, but by the early 21st century both of these thrusts were spent.

Not only was the right’s economic model challenged by the 2008 financial crisis, it had nowhere left to go in terms of realizing its dreams of minimal government and dismantling of the welfare state without facing almost impossible electoral hurdles. The major government costs in the US and Europe were pensions and medical care for the elderly- programs that were virtually untouchable. The left too was realizing that abstract legal rights were not enough.  Did it matter that the US had an African American president when one quarter of black children had experienced a parent in prison, or when a heavily African American city such as Philadelphia has a child poverty rate of 40%? Addressing such inequities was not an easy matter for the left let alone the extreme changes that would be necessary to offset rising inequality.

Thus, ironically, the problem for both the right and the left is the same one- that governments today are too weak. The right needs an at least temporarily strong government to effect the dismantling of the state, whereas the left needs a strong government not merely to respond to the grinding conditions of the economic “recovery”, but to overturn previous policies, put in new protections and find some alternative to the current political and economic order. Dark enlightenment types and progressives are confronting the same frustration while having diametrically opposed goals. It is not so much that Washington is too powerful as it is that the power it has is embedded in a system, which, as Mark Leibovich portrays brilliantly, is feckless and corrupt.  

Neo-reactionaries tend to see this as a product of too much democracy, whereas progressives will counter that there is not enough. Here’s one of the princes of darkness himself, Nick Land:

 Where the progressive enlightenment sees political ideals, the dark enlightenment sees appetites. It accepts that governments are made out of people, and that they will eat well. Setting its expectations as low as reasonably possible, it seeks only to spare civilization from frenzied, ruinous, gluttonous debauch.

Yet, as the experience in authoritarian societies such as Libya, Egypt and Syria shows (and even the authoritarian wonderchild of China is feeling the heat) democratic societies are not the only ones undergoing acute stresses. The universal nature of the crisis of governance is brought home in a recent book by Moisés Naím. In his The End of Power Naím lays out how every large structure in society: armies, corporations, churches and unions are seeing their power decline and are being challenged by small and nimble upstarts.

States are left hobbled by smallish political parties and groups that act as spoilers preventing governments from getting things done. Armies with budgets in the hundreds of billions of dollars are hobbled by insurgents with IEDs made from garage door openers and cell phones. Long-lived religious institutions, most notably the Catholic Church, are losing parishioners to grassroots preachers while massive corporations are challenged by Davids that come out of nowhere to upend their business models with a simple stone.

Naím has a theory for why this is happening. We are in the midst of what he calls The More, The Mobility and The Mentality Revolutions. Only the last of those is important for my purposes. Ruling elites are faced today with the unprecedented reality that most of their lessers can read. Not only that, the communications revolution which has fed the wealth of some of these elites has significantly lowered the barriers to political organization and speech. Any Tom, Dick and now Harriet can throw up a website and start organizing for or against some cause. What this has resulted in is a sort of Cambrian explosion of political organization, and just as in any acceleration of evolution you’re likely to get some pretty strange mutants- and so here we are.

Some on the left are urging us to adjust our progressive politics to the new distributed nature of power.  The writer Steven Johnson in his recent Future Perfect: The case for progress in a networked age calls collaborative efforts by small groups “peer-to-peer networks”, and in them he sees a glimpse of our political past (the participatory politics of the ancient Greek polis and late medieval trading states) becoming our political future. Is this too “reactionary”?

Peer-to-peer networks tend to bring local information back into view. The fact that traditional centralized loci of power such as the federal government and national and international media are often found lacking when it comes to local knowledge is a problem of scale. As Jane Jacobs has pointed out , government policies are often best when crafted and implemented at the local level where differences and details can be seen.

Wikipedia is a good example of Johnson’s peer-to-peer model as is Kickstarter. In government we are seeing the spread of participatory budgeting where the local public is allowed to make budgetary decisions. There is also a relatively new concept known as “liquid democracy” that not only enables the creation of legislation through open-sourced platforms but allows people to “trade” their votes in the hopes that citizens can avoid information overload by targeting their vote to areas they care most about, and presumably for this reason, have the greatest knowledge of.

So far, peer-to-peer networks have been successful at revolt- The Tea Party is peer-to-peer as was Occupy Wall Street. Peer-to-peer politics was seen in the Move-ON movement and has dealt defeat to recent legislation such as SOPA. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East were toppled by crowd sourced gatherings on the street.

More recently than Johnson’s book there is New York’s new progressive mayor-  Bill de Blasio’s experiment with participatory politics with his Talking Transition Tent on Canal Street. There, according to NPR, New Yorkers can:

 ….talk about what they want the next mayor to do. They can make videos, post videos and enter their concerns on 48 iPad terminals. There are concerts, panels on everything from parks to education. And they can even buy coffee and beer.

Democracy, coffee and beer- three of my favorite things!

On the one hand I love this stuff, but me being me I can’t help but have some suspicions and this relates, I think, to the second issue about neo-reactionaries I raised above; namely, that they are reflecting something going on with our relationship to Silicon Valley a change in public perception of the tech culture and its tools from hero and wonderworker to villain and illusionist.

As I have pointed out elsewhere the idea that technology offered an alternative to the lumbering bureaucracy of state and corporations is something embedded deep in the foundation myth of Silicon Valley. The use of Moore’s Law as a bridge to personalized communication technology was supposed to liberate us from the apparatchiks of the state and the corporation- remember Apple’s “1984” commercial?

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Yes, we are in a condition of hyper economic and political competition largely engendered by technology, but it’s not quite clear that we as citizens have gained rather than “power centers” that use these tools against one another and even sometimes us. Can anyone spell NSA?

We also went from innovation, and thus potential wealth, being driven by guys in their garages to, on the American scene, five giants that largely own and control all of virtual space: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Micro-Soft with upstarts such as Instagram being slurped up like Jonah was by the whale the minute they show potential growth.

Rather than result in a telecommuting utopia with all of us working five hours a day from the comfort of our digitally connected home, technology has led to a world where we are always “at work”, wages have not moved since the 1970’s and the spectre of technological unemployment is on the wall. Mainstream journalists such as John Micklethwait of The Economist are starting to see a growing backlash against Silicon Valley as the public becomes increasingly estranged from digerati who have not merely failed to deliver on their Utopian promises, but are starving the government for revenue as they hide their cash in tax havens all the while cosying up to the national security state.

Neo-reactionaries are among the first of Silicon Valleians to see this backlash building hence their only half joking efforts to retreat to artificial islands or into outer space. Here is Balaji Srinivasan whose speech was transcribed by one of the dark illuminati who goes by the moniker Nydwracu:

 The backlash is beginning. More jobs predicted for machines, not people; job automation is a future unemployment crisis looming. Imprisoned by innovation as tech wealth explodes, Silicon Valley, poverty spikes… they are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings, and this is something which we need to identify as false and we need to actively repudiate it.

Srinivasan would have at least some things to use in defense of Silicon Valley: elites there have certainly been socially conscious about global issues. Where I differ is on their proposed solutions. As I have written elsewhere, Valley bigwigs such as Peter Diamandis think the world’s problems can be solved by letting the technology train keep on rolling and for winners such as himself to devote their money and genius to philanthropy.  This is unarguably a good thing, what I doubt, however, is that such techno-philanthropy can actually carry the load now held up by governments while at the same time those made super rich by capitalism’s creative destruction flee the tax man leaving what’s left of government to be funded on the backs of a shrinking middle class.

The original generation of Silicon Valley innovators is acutely aware of our government’s incapacity to do what states have always done- to preserve the past, protect the the present and invest in the future. This is the whole spirit behind the saint of the digerati Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation in which I find very much to admire. The neo-reactionaries too have latched upon this short term horizon of ours, only where Brand saw our time paralysis in a host of contemporary phenomenon, neo-reactionaries think there is one culprit- democracy. Here again is dark prince Nick Land:

 Civilization, as a process, is indistinguishable from diminishing time-preference (or declining concern for the present in comparison to the future). Democracy, which both in theory and evident historical fact accentuates time-preference to the point of convulsive feeding-frenzy, is thus as close to a precise negation of civilization as anything could be, short of instantaneous social collapse into murderous barbarism or zombie apocalypse (which it eventually leads to). As the democratic virus burns through society, painstakingly accumulated habits and attitudes of forward-thinking, prudential, human and industrial investment, are replaced by a sterile, orgiastic consumerism, financial incontinence, and a ‘reality television’ political circus. Tomorrow might belong to the other team, so it’s best to eat it all now.

The problem here is not that Land has drug this interpretation of the effect of democracy straight out of Plato’s Republicwhich he has, or that it’s a kid who eats the marshmallowleads to zombie apocalypse reading of much more complex political relationships- which it is as well.  Rather, it’s that there is no real evidence that it is true, and indeed the reason it’s not true might give those truly on the radical left who would like to abandon the US Constitution for something more modern and see nothing special in its antiquity reason for pause.

The study,of course, needs to be replicated, but a paper just out by Hal Hershfield, Min Bang and Elke Weber at New York University seems to suggest that the way to get a country to pay serious attention to long term investments is not to give them a deep future but a deep past and not just any past- the continuity of their current political system.

As Hershfield states it:

 Our thinking is that the countries who have a longer past are better able see further forward into the future and think about extending the time period that they’ve already been around into the distant future. And that might make them care a bit more about how environmental outcomes are going to play out down the line.

And from further commentary on that segment:

 Hershfield is not using the historical age of the country, but when it got started in its present form, when its current form of government got started. So he’s saying the U.S. got started in the year 1776. He’s saying China started in the year 1949.

Now, China, of course, though, is thousands of years old in historical terms, but Hershfield is using the political birth of the country as the starting point for his analysis. Now, this is potentially problematic, because for some countries like China, there’s a very big disparity in the historical age and when the current form of government got started. But Hershfield finds even when you eliminate those countries from the equation, there’s still a strong connection between the age of the country and its willingness to invest in environmental issues.

The very existence of strong environmental movements and regulation in democracies should be enough to disprove Land’s thesis about popular government’s “compulsive feeding frenzy”.  Democracies should have stripped their environments bare like a dog with a Thanksgiving turkey bone. Instead the opposite has happened. Neo-reactionaries might respond with something about large hunting preserves supported by the kings, but the idea that kings were better stewards of the environment and human beings (I refuse to call them “capital”)  because they own them as personal property can be countered with two words and a number King Leopold II.

Yet, we progressives need to be aware of the benefits of political continuity. The right with their Tea Party and their powdered wigs has seized American history. They are selling a revolutionary dismantling of the state and the deconstruction of hard fought for legacies in the name of returning to “purity”, but this history is ours as much as theirs even if our version of it tends to be as honest about the villains as the heroes. Neo-reactionaries are people who have woken up to the reality that the conservative return to “foundations” has no future. All that is left for them is to sit around daydreaming that the American Revolution and all it helped spark never happened, and that the kings still sat on their bedeckled thrones.

 

A world ruled by networks

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One of the more confusing characteristics of our age is how it trucks in contradiction. As a prime example: the internet is the most democratizing medium in the history of humankind giving each of us the capability to reach potentially billions with the mere stroke of a key. At the same time this communication landscape is one of unprecedented concentration dominated by a handful of companies such as Facebook ,Google, Twitter, and in China, Baidu.

For quite some time now I’ve been trying to figure out a way to wrap my head around this incongruity. A recent book called The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo I think has taken me at least part of the way there.

Thinkers who focus on the internet tend to take an either utopian or dystopian track. Sometimes they even managed to combine both of these views by presenting the early history of the internet as a kind of Eden which was lost corporate to greed and the state’s insatiable hunger for power.

What makes Ramo’s argument interesting is that he transcends this division by claiming the internet’s seemingly contradictory tendencies to move towards both the diffusion and the concentration power are built into the nature of the internet as a network itself. Jaron Lanier has done something similar, and I myself, in part,  jumping off of Lanier, have also tried to make the point that the what appear to be rival panoptic or anarchic destinies of the internet are instead merely different sides of the same phenomena. What makes  Ramo’s case in The Seventh Sense different from either Lanier or myself is that he largely openly embraces the new order, connects its development to the science of networks, and tries to foresee the geopolitical implications of power moving in this direction.

We are far too deep into the age of ISIS beheading videos on YouTube and online mobs for the early utopian hopes for the internet continue to be plausible, and unless you are Parag Khanna, we are no longer so naive as to think that connection naturally bring with it understanding and compassion for the other. Ramo is no utopian either. Writing:

The simple, once- appealing idea that connection is liberation is wrong. To connect now is to be encased in a powerful and dynamic tension. (120)

Our current communications architecture makes diffuse networks of individuals who share a common goal possible- it is therefore a tool of enormous empowerment. Such networked powers, however, erode and undermine all established powers that have failed to reorganize themselves for the network age.

This pulling movement, the way that cores and distributions of power mercilessly jerk at certain once- essential structures and objects and people, explains a lot about our age, including the failure of institutions we once relied upon. Connection changes the nature of an object. That’s true for your doctor, your bank account, your army-  and for billions of people whose lives will soon alter irreversibly once they connect to markets to knowledge to the world. We have to ask just how many of the scaffolds humans erected, ones that were essential for Enlightenment- era advances, will now be pulled down. (121)

Though he doesn’t apply it, the case Ramo makes in The Seventh Sense is a good way to understand the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Trump has essentially leveraged Twitter and the media’s weakness for sensationalism to successfully pull off a coup of a major political party. He’s been able to do this because a large part of the American public no longer trusts once venerated institutions and elites, including the fact- checking role of the 4th estate itself.

At the same time networks flatten traditional power structures they are built on power laws that filter communications through only a handful of hyper-concentrated nodes. As Ramo puts it:

…. the massive data centers they built, they realized, are so large that they are nothing less than computers that are the size of massive buildings. Solar fields are their power supply; entire rivers are there cooling tubes. and they enable nothing less than Magic instant knowledge, connection to distant lands, a constant picture of what humanity knows. This is the growing, heroic scale of operations now. (73)

Another way in which Ramo might be said to explain the current Trumpian turn is his argument that we are moving from an era of openness to one of gates. That is, an increasing effort and desire to establish protocols and “walls”, although, not necessarily centered on the nation-state.  Indeed after the era of tearing down walls and globalization that followed the end of the Cold War we appear to be entering the golden age of wall building. Vulnerability in the age of networks leads to a desire not only to surveil, but to tightly control who can enter what Ramo calls a “gateland”  and under what circumstances. Yet the rising prominence of gatelands is less about the “revenge of geography” than a coming age of topology. In topology what matters less is physical proximity than the connection between points. Far-flung cities might be more connected to one another through financial and cultural connections than either are to their more geographically proximate hinterlands.      

In an age of networks it is the plumbing that counts, and those who control the means of connection wield an enormous amount of power. And what makes this situation incredibly dangerous is that neither the public nor the political class understand these systems of connection, nor could they, which is not an argument the for  lack of intelligence of either. Rather, only a very narrow slice among the tech-elite understand these things. Ramo calls them the “New Elite”, and like Plato’s dream of philosopher kings, he sees a real danger that they might seize control, or we might surrender control to them, as our society becomes so increasingly complex to become incomprehensible.  Artificial intelligence is becoming the primary tool to deal with this incomprehensibility, most especially the flood of all types of data brought about by the networked world.

In the short to medium term Ramo sees a battle being waged between the old order and those who have developed the seventh sense, the ability to understand and navigate the world of networks, and those individuals and institutions that either cling to the old order or fail to master networks. These networks Ramo then envisions struggling between themselves with the last battle being one between the human network masters and the AI they have created and deployed to survive the age of networks.

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For all its insight the seventh sense is not without its problems. Pegged as the heir to Henry Kissinger, Ramo argues for a globalist project that is ultimately untenable. He urges the US to use its historical legacy as the primary creator of today’s global networks to seek to create the world’s dominant gatelands.

Yet that ship has already sailed. It’s not only that other large countries, most importantly China, have already decided that they will establish their own gatelands, it is that the very mood of the US itself seems to be moving in the direction of much more circumscribed national gatelands. Ramo also exhibits a degree of technological determinism, and this very determinism blinds him from seeing that the future will be full of surprises, including the surprise of technologies we now believe inevitable never actually arriving.

One alternative future he did not explore is the return to dominance of centralized powers after they have mastered the age of networks, which is just one of the crazy futures that might be seen to exist in embryo in the current technological and social order. Still, even if Ramo failed to inspire me to develop a seventh sense, or even if I remain uncertain as to what such a sense even is, he did help me to see the present more clearly, which is the first step towards understanding the future.

 

Before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness

Contrasts

In 1832 the English architect, Augustus Pugin, published his beautiful book Contrasts. The book was full of sketches in which Pugin juxtaposed the bland, utilitarian architecture of the 19th century with the intricate splendor of buildings built in medieval Europe.

By any honest reckoning Pugin was being unfair. The buildings he selected as symbols of modern banality not only weren’t the 19th century’s best, he tended to draw such structures from the most unflattering angles while engaging in an early form of airbrushing when it came to the flaws of of the Gothic structures he so loved.

Yet the public didn’t care about such artistic dissembling. Rather, Pugin ended up launching what became known as the Gothic Revival. A civilization undergoing the most stupendous technological and social transformation since the adoption of agriculture would dress itself up in the form of a religious culture that had passed from the seen centuries before with the Reformation.

I feel like we continue to engage in such nostalgic fantasies because a cartoon version of the past is so much easier to wrap our minds around than either the fractal present or the Stretch Armstrong of multiple, incompatible predictions regarding the future. Brexit is a version of nostalgia for a British Empire that will never return, just as Trump promises a return to American “greatness.” ISIS is the ultimate, terrifying, nostalgia trip and living in its “caliphate” must be a little like entering an Islamic version of colonial Williamsburg- all the more banal because the people living there think it is actually real.

There are many legitimate reasons to look to history, and I often do. The problem with our current fetish for the past is that we seem to be looking to it for whole social structures rather than as either a source of design and aesthetics or as object lesson in the eternal human capacity for both folly and resilience.

For someone left-of-center, such as myself, these right-wing and fundamentalist versions of nostalgia are easy targets. But the left, along with some of the more communitarian elements on the right, has its own version of such nostalgia. It is the way such longings for a return to the past have associated themselves with technology that have perhaps  prevented us from seeing it.

Unfortunately, Douglas Rushkoff’s recent book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus does precisely this. Hipster-like, it creates a vision of the future out of a nostalgaized version of the past. I say unfortunately because I was such a big fan of Rushkoff’s prior book Present Shock and was therefore looking forward to some genuinely novel solutions to our current institutional crisis that avoided facile techno-solutionism. Instead, what I found was the latest version of Pugin, an attempt to leap over the dilemmas of the present through the imagining of a past that never was. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The title of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus stems from protests in 2013- 14 over Google’s private bus service which opposition believed was exacerbating San Francisco’s already crippling housing crisis and skyrocketing levels of inequality. Rushkoff’s task was to answer the question of how a company whose motto was “Don’t be Evil” could end up the target of such intense public derision. To answer this question he cast his net wide into the origins of capitalism itself.

Stories of a Fall always start out by painting a picture of the paradise we have left behind, and Rushkoff locates his in strangest of all places- medieval Europe during the Crusades although in a version that is shorn of all its religiosity, fanaticism and barbarism and put in terms all of us aspiring bobos  can understand.

For a happy couple of centuries before industrialism and the modern era the business landscape looked a little bit like Burning Man, the famous festival for digital artisans.

The bazaar was a peer-to-peer economy, something along the lines of e-bay or Etsy, where attention to human relationships and reputation promoted better business. (16)

The snake that ended up ruining this paradise were the nobility.

The people’s economy were growing while the aristocracy remained stagnant or even shrank. The nobles had no way to keep up. They looked at this new phenomenon of wealth and wanted some for themselves…. (17)

…industrialism was about restoring the power of those at the top by minimizing the value and price of human laborers. This became the embedded value system of industrialism, and we see it in every aspect of the commercial landscape, then and now.   (19)

We spent all of the 19th and the majority of the 20th century in the age of industrialization, but then in the 1970’s a whole set of digital innovations occurred which up until recently, Rushkoff argues, held out the prospect of a return to what he sees as the more humane and peer-to-peer features of the pre-capitalist world. Think of the openness of the Internet when it first emerged as a new form of public space, or the enormous success and power of purely volunteer platforms like Wikipedia.

Instead of a golden age of the peer-to-peer we got Uber. Rather than facilitate the horizontal distribution of wealth and power digital technologies have give rise to almost unprecedented degrees of inequality, surveillance and control. The reason Rushkoff thinks this has happened is that we’ve retained capitalism’s  compulsion to extract value from labor, whether that’s through platforms that strip employees of benefits and protections, or because all of us have become digital peasants forced to grow data for our server lords that reap the harvest.

The solution to our dilemma, Rushkoff posits, is for us to preserve and expand digital technologies’ inherent capacity for peer-to-peer sharing and action. Creating an economy in which human element is restored. What could anyone object to when it comes to that? Unfortunately, a lot.

Let’s start with Rushkoff’s version of history. The problem with the type Manichean explanation he offers where there were good guys- peasants and the middle classes- versus bad guys- the nobility-  is that they inevitably end up glossing over what turn out to be extremely important historical details. Sure, the nobility played an initial role as the catalyst for industrialization with the enclosure movement in England, but once the process got going the nobility were soon sidelined to the extent that an industrial juggernaut like the United States didn’t need a nobility for industrialization at all. Not only that, the industrial revolution would so undermine the nobility that today they barely exist except in a mummified form as a version of celebrity, however adorable. But rather than quibble over interpretations of the past, what about the more important question of the future?

It certainly seems to be the case that the young of both the left and the right seem to favor a version of society and state as decentralized as possible. I myself used to belong squarely in this camp. What convinced me otherwise was both the failure of the Occupy movement along with the broken promises of digital utopianism itself. This was the case I made in a recent article:“Algorithms versus Hive Minds: a premonition on democracy’s future. “ That piece makes an argument I’ve only grown more convinced of in light of what seems to be near continuous institutional collapse and the often frightening ways new forms of power are being manifested in the realms of both business and politics. We have yet to come to terms with these developments, and are very unlikely to find any way of coming to do so by looking to the Middle Ages.

It is also the case that arguments for a peer-to-peer society seem oblivious to the kinds of infrastructure and expertise that go into any modern civilization. It’s a blindness that can only be truly cured through travel to societies in a state of early or failed development, or failing that to experience the convulsion of one’s society as the British are now with Brexit.

Peer-to-peer networks are not going to provide our medical care, or build our roads and bridges, or even, despite leaps of the imagination, fight our wars. They will not prove to be the source of most scientific and technological breakthroughs, provide more than a minority of our manufactured goods, and probably could not, even if our diets were greatly reduced in quantity and variety, provide for our food.

Perhaps, peer-to-peer technologies and universal information will provide ways for non-experts to do things currently impossible for even the most dedicated groups of amateurs. Still, no one should assume all of these networks will be good citizens like Wikipedia, nor is it necessary that decisions and power in such groups will take an egalitarian form.

Rather, they’re just as likely to be composed of groups set up by elites with dark political agendas – think the Koch brothers- and run by some algorithm. Anyone thinking about the future of social organization should study both Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The very ad hoc nature of groups brought together by networking technology mean that power will likely become even more concentrated in those groups that cohere over longer periods of time: namely private and public bureaucracies such as multinational corporations or the NSA.

Perhaps the unprecedented period of economic and technological growth that occurred over the last few centuries is indeed coming to a close. And perhaps we’re adjusting to this end of growth in the way civilizations in the past have, by a systemic retrenchment back to the local.  Though it might be the case that such forms of retrenchment are much less about collapse than the sign of civilizations capacity for adaptation and resilience, and even if such ages of retreat are much less barbaric than we imagine, the transition to them is often shocking and painful. For before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness.

 

Bruce Sterling urges us not to panic, just yet

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My favorite part about the SXSW festival comes at the end. For three decades now the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling has been giving some of the most insightful (and funny) speeches on the state of technology and society. In some sense this year’s closing remarks were no different, and in others they represented something very new.

What made this year’s speech different was that politics has taken such a weird turn, like something out of dystopian science-fiction that Sterling, having mastered the craft, felt obliged to anchor our sense of reality. He did this, however, only after trying to come to grips with exactly why had gotten so weird that the writers of The Simpsons seemed to be in possession of a crystal ball.

A read on events Sterling finds somewhat compelling is that put forward by Clay Shirky who claims that the age of social media has shattered something political science geeks call the Overton window.  The Overton window is essentially the boundary of politically acceptable discourse as defined by political elites. Sterling points out that in the age of broadcast television that boundary was easy to control, but with the balkanization of media- first with cable TV and then the Internet (and I would add talk radio) that border has eroded.

Here’s the conservative, David French’s, view on what Donald Trump himself has done to the Overton window:

Then along came Donald Trump. On key issues, he didn’t just move the Overton Window, he smashed it, scattered the shards, and rolled over them with a steamroller. On issues like immigration, national security, and even the manner of political debate itself, there’s no window left. Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table. The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left’s race and identity-soaked politics.

All this certainly resembles what Moisés Naím has described as the end of power where traditional institutions and elites have lost control over events largely as a result of a democratized communication environment. Or, as Sterling himself put it in his speech the political parties have been:

“Balkanized by demagogues who brought in their own megaphones”.  

Sterling thinks it’s clear that the new technology and media landscape is a contributing factor of the current dystopian ambiance. The world has tended to take some very strange turns during the rise to dominance of new forms of media and new forms of economy, and maybe this is one of the those moments where old media and tech is supplanted by the new in the form of the “Big five” Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft. Sterling thinks the academic Shoshana Zuboff is onto something when she describes this new order as surveillance capitalism an economic order based on turning the private lives of individuals into a saleable commodity.

Sterling is clearly worried about this but is also certain that the illusion of techno-libertarianism behind something like Bitcoin isn’t the solution. Some alternative technological order can’t solve our problems, but if it can’t solve them then perhaps technology itself isn’t the primary source of our problems in the first place.

Evidence that technology alone, or the coming into being of surveillance capitalism, isn’t to blame can be seen in the global nature of the current political crisis. The same, and indeed incomparably worse, problems exemplified by the rise of Trump in the US are apparent almost everywhere. Middle Eastern states have collapsed, an anti-immigrant anti-globalization right is on the rise across Europe, Great Britain is threatening to exit the EU further weakening that institution with dissolution. Venezuela is on the verge of collapse, nationalist tensions continue to roil Asia, the global economy continues to suffer the injuries from the financial crisis even as economic policies become increasingly unorthodox. A much more environmentally and politically unstable world looms.

Yet Sterling points out that there’s one people that seem particularly calm through this whole affair and do not seem generally to be panicked by the bizarre turn politics has taken in the US. The Italians see in Trump America’s version of their own Silvio Berlusconi. If politics in the US follows the Berlusconi model after a Trump victory (however unlikely), then though we may be in for a very seedy political period it will not necessarily be a dangerous or chaotic one.

As for myself I am not as sanguine as Sterling about the idea of a president Trump given that he will have at his disposal the most powerful military and survelillance apparatus on the planet. Francis Fukuyama who also pointed the resemblance between Trump and Berlusconi thinks Trump’s flirtation with violence is much more troubling.

Nevertheless, Sterling certainly is right when he points out that, in light of historical precedents- say the 1960’s- the level of political violence we have seen in 2016 is nothing to panic over. Nor is society in any way in a state of collapse – the lights are still on, food is still available, we are not entering some survivalist scenario- for the moment.

While events elsewhere may continue to take the world in a dystopian direction as a result of state and institutional collapse, the dystopia the US will most likely enter will be much less of the type found in science-fiction novels. It is one where the US is governed by a gentrified political elite which clings to its own power and the status quo while Americans remain distracted by the “glass lozenges” of their smart phones. Where mass surveillance isn’t scary a la Minority Report because it isn’t all that effective, or as Sterling puts it:

“Is there anybody with a drone over their head who is actually doing what the guys with the drones want?”

It’s a world where everything is failing but nothing has truly and completely failed where we have plenty to be unhappy about but also no reason in particular to panic.

 

How dark epistemology explains the rise of Donald Trump

Conjurer_Bosch

We are living in what is likely the golden age of deception. It would be difficult enough were we merely threatened with drowning in what James Gleick has called the flood of information, or were we doomed to roam blind through the corridors of Borges’ library of Babel, but the problem is actually much worse than that. Our dilemma is that the very instruments that once promised liberation via the power of universal access to all the world’s knowledge seem just as likely are being used to sow the seeds of conspiracy, to manipulate us and obscure the path to the truth.

Unlike what passes for politicians these days I won’t open with such a tirade only to walk away. Let me instead explain myself. You can trace the origins of our age of deception not only to the 2008 financial crisis but back much further to its very root. Even before the 1950’s elites believed they had the economic problem, and therefore the political instability that came with this problem, permanently licked. The solution was some measure of state intervention into the workings of capitalism.

These interventions ranged on a spectrum from the complete seizure and control of the economy by the state in communist countries, to regulation, social welfare and redistributive taxation in even the most solidly capitalist economies such as the United States. Here both the pro-business and pro-labor parties, despite the initial resistance of the former, ended up accepting the basic parameters of the welfare-state. Remember it was the Nixon administration that both created the EPA and flirted with the idea of a basic income.  By the early 1980’s with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher the hope that politics had become a realm of permanent consensus- Frederick Engel’s prophesied “administration of things”- collapsed in the face of inflation, economic stagnation and racial tensions.

The ideological groundwork for this neo-liberal revolution had, however, been laid as far back as 1945 when state and expert directed economics was at its height. It was in that year that Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in a remarkable essay entitled The Use of Knowledge in Society pointed out that no central planner or director could ever be as wise as the collective perception and decision making of economic actors distributed across an entire economy.

At the risk of vastly over simplifying his argument, what Hayek was in essence pointing out was that markets provide an unrivaled form of continuous and distributed feedback. The “five year plans” of state run economies may or may not have been able to meet their production targets, but only the ultimate register of price can tell you whether any particular level of production is justified or not.

A spike in price is the consequence of an unanticipated demand and will send producers scrambling to meet in the moment it is encountered. The hubris behind rational planning is that it claims to be able to see through the uncertainty that lies at the heart of any economy, and that experts from 10 000 feet are someone more knowledgeable than the people on the ground who exist not in some abstract version of an economy built out of equations, but the real thing.

It was perhaps one of the first versions of the idea of the wisdom of crowds, and an argument for what we now understand as the advantages of evolutionary approaches over deliberate design. It was also perhaps one of the first arguments that what lies at the very core of an economy was not so much the exchange of goods as the exchange of information.

The problem with Hayek’s understanding of economics and information wasn’t that it failed to capture the inadequacies of state run economies, at least with the level of information technologies they possessed when he was writing, (a distinction I think important and hope to return in the future), but that it was true for only part of the economy- that dealing largely with the production and distribution of goods and not with the consumer economy that would take center stage after the Second World War.

Hayek’s idea that markets were better ways of conveying information than any kind of centralized direction worked well in a world of scarcity where the problem was an accurate gauge of supply vs demand for a given resource, yet it missed that the new era would be one of engineered scarcity where the key to economic survival was to convince consumers they had a “need” that they had not previously identified. Or as John Kenneth Galbraith put it in his 1958 book The Affluent Society we had:

… managed to transfer the sense of urgency in meeting consumer need that was once felt in a world where more production meant more food for the hungry, more clothing for the cold, and more houses for the homeless to a world where increased output satisfies the craving for more elegant automobiles, more exotic food, more elaborate entertainment- indeed for the entire modern range of sensuous, edifying, and lethal desires. (114-115).

Yet rather than seeing the economic problems of the 1970’s through this lens, that the difficulties we were experiencing were as much a matter of our expectations regarding what economic growth should look like and the measure of our success in having rid ourselves (in advanced countries) of the kinds of life threatening scarcity that had threatened all prior human generations, the US and Britain set off on the path prescribed by conservative economists such as Hayek and began to dismantle the hybrid market/state society that had been constructed after the Great Depression.

It was this revolt against state directed (or even just restrained) capitalism which was the neoliberal gospel that reigned almost everywhere after the fall of the Soviet Union, and to which the Clinton administration converted the Democratic party. The whole edifice came crashing down in 2008, since which we have become confused enough that demons long dormant  have come home to roost.

At least since the crisis, economists have taken a renewed interest in not only the irrational elements of human economic behavior, but how that irrationality has itself become a sort of saleable commodity. A good version of this is Robert J Shiller and George Akerlof’s recent Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. In their short book the authors examine the myriad of ways all of us are “phished” – probed by con-artists looking for “phools” to take advantage of and manipulate.

The techniques have become increasingly sophisticated as psychologists have gotten a clearer handle on the typology of irrationality otherwise known as human nature. Gains in knowledge always come with tradeoffs:

“But theory of mind also has its downside. It also means we can figure out how to lure people into doing things that are in our interest, but not in theirs. As a result, many new ideas are not just technological. They are not ways to deliver good-for-you/good-for-me’s. They are, instead, new uses of the theory of mind,  regarding how to deliver good-for-me/bad-for-you’s.” (98)

This it seems would be the very opposite of a world dominated by non- zero sum games that were heralded in the 1990’s, rather it’s the construction of an entire society around the logic of the casino, where psychological knowledge is turned into a tool against consumers to make choices contrary to their own long term interest.

This type of manipulation, of course, has been the basis of our economies for quite sometime. What is different is the level of sophistication and resources being thrown at the problem of how to sustain human consumption in a world drowning in stuff. The solution has been to sell things that simply disappear after use- like experiences- which are made to take on the qualities of the ultimate version of such consumables,  namely addictive drugs.

It might seem strange, but the Internet hasn’t made achieving safety from this manipulation any easier. Part of the reason for this is something Shiller and Akerlof do not fully discuss- that much of the information resources used in our economies serve the purpose not so much of selling things consumers would be better off avoiding, let alone convey actual useful information, but in distorting the truth to the advantage of those doing the distorting.

This is a phenomenon for which Robert Proctor has coined the term agontology. It is essentially a form of dark epistemology whose knowledge consist in how to prevent others from obtaining the knowledge you wish to hide.

We live in an age too cultured for any barbarism such as book burning or direct censorship. Instead we have discovered alternative means of preventing the spread of information detrimental to our interests. The tobacco companies pioneered this. Outright denials of the health risks of smoking were replaced with the deliberate manufacture of doubt. Companies whose businesses models are threatened by any concerted efforts to address climate change have adopted similar methods.

Warfare itself, where the power of deception and disinformation was always better understood has woken up to its potential in the digital age: witness the information war still being waged by Russia in eastern Ukraine.

All this I think partly explains the strange rise of Trump. Ultimately, neoliberal policies failed to sustain rising living standards for the working and middle class- with incomes stagnant since the 1970’s. Perhaps this should have never been the goal in the first place.

At the same time we live in a media environment in which no one can be assumed to be telling the truth, in which everything is a sales pitch of one sort or another, and in which no institution’s narrative fails to be spun by its opponents into a conspiracy repackaged for maximum emotional effect. In an information ecosystem where trusted filters have failed, or are deemed irredeemably biased, and in which we are saturated by a flood of data so large it can never be processed, those who inspire the strongest emotions, even the emotion of revulsion, garner the only sustained attention. In such an atmosphere the fact that Trump is a deliberate showman whose pretense to authenticity is not that he is committed to core values, but that he is open about the very reality of his manipulations makes a disturbing kind of sense.

An age of dark epistemology will be ruled by those who can tap into the hidden parts of our nature, including the worst ones, for their own benefit, and will prey off the fact we no longer know what the truth is nor how we could find it even if we still believed in its existence. Donald Trump is the perfect character for it.

 

Religion and Violence

One moring at the gates of the Louvre

Sometimes, I get the uneasy feeling that the New Atheists might be right after all. Perhaps there is something latently violent in the religious imagination, some feature, or tendency, encouraged by religion that the world would better be without.

I kind of got that feeling after Paris and Mali, I felt it a little bit more after the attack on the Planned Parenthood office attack in Colorado, but it really hits me when I reflect on the recent brutal killings in San Bernardino where both the intimate cruelty of the act- the persons killed were one of the killer’s co-workers whom he was supposedly friends with and knew well- and the fact that the other murderer was this man’s wife, and the mother of their young child. Nothing I know about human nature allows me to make sense of how far this couple was able to step outside our evolutionarily forged instincts against harming those whom we are intimate with, and where maternal bounds prove stronger than ties of any other kind. Maybe the physicist Steven Weinberg was right when he said:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

This seems to be the main point the New Atheists want to get across, as Steven Pinker did recently in a public discussion with Robert Wright on that topic, among others. Much more suffering, Pinker argued, has been caused by people acting in the name of religion than by those acting in the pursuit of self-interest in the form of raw power or wealth. For those who would counter with a list of the horrors committed by the secular totalitarian regimes in the 20th century Pinker would argue that such movements amounted to little more than religion in drag with God replaced by “History” or “Race”.

In light of recent events such an argument has the heavy feel of Truth in one’s hands, but upon reflection what seems solid begins to fall apart at the joints. To state the obvious, it simply cannot be the case that any religion is the primary cause of violence  because any society in which violence ran as deep as religious sentiment would very quickly destroy itself. Whatever Donald Trump might think, there are anywhere from 5- 12 million Muslims in the United States- were any significant portion of them driven to violence by their faith the country would truly be on fire. It’s a fact that is just as true when it comes to Christians opposed to abortion on moral grounds.

Religion has certainly been the source of many human conflicts and the origin of much suffering inflicted in the name of dogmatism, but has it really, as Pinker claims, inflicted more suffering throughout the whole of human history than all the other non-religiously based wars? Has the suffering inflicted by religious fanaticism been greater than that of oppression based on naked self-interest? Has religion not played an important role in both the charity to offset, or the direct challenge (as in the abolition of slavery) to such oppression? In any case, how in the world is one supposed to disaggregate those who were motivated to commit atrocities by their religious beliefs from those who used religion as a cover for self-interest or the blatant desire to destroy as no doubt a number of princes did during the Reformation.

It seems a gross over simplification to single out religion as a unique source of human violence. Nevertheless, I think we miss something important if we fail to see religious thinking and aspirations as indeed a deep aspect of the way the human capacity for violence has manifested itself in recent decades. This religious connection in large part grows out of the claims of the world’s major religions to be the unique possessor of spiritual truth and sole path to human salvation.

The potential for violence latent in such monopolistic truth claims is made even more dangerous by the world’s very democratization and the communications revolution of the past few decades. For in such an atmosphere religious institutions and elites are no longer able to control the beliefs and actions of their believers. It is a situation that bears an eerie resemblance to the European Reformation and Wars of Religion, but is now global in scope- our luck so far is that so very few of us have fallen under the spell of such a conflict and instead are under the enchantment of the consumerist paradise in which we live where life and its needs drown out everything else.

It’s not so much any particular religion’s claim that it is the possessor of the truth which is the origin of any tendencies towards violence as it is the belief of its adherents that they have the right to enforce conformity with their beliefs through violence if necessary. Still, with the exception of where, as is the case with ISIL, such a demand for conformity comes to rule or where deep sectarian divisions intersect with political conflicts within a society, much of this new violence appears to be waged almost as a form of communication, an attempt to break through the cacophony and materialism of pluralistic societies and be heard.

On this score, violence is just as likely to be racially (as it was in the case with Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, and Dylann Roof,  or even environmentally motivated e.g. Ted Kaczynski aka the “Unabomber”) as it is to emerge from religiously based commitments. One need not take the worldview behind such violence seriously, but one should certainly take it as a barometer of deeper social fissures and political failures that go unaddressed at our peril. The same types of systemic failures that have led many on the left, with more legitimate claims to justice, into the age of protests.

The more insular and unresponsive our political and economic elites appear and the more ideological conflicts in our societies become, the more likely it is that those who believe themselves to be permanently disenfranchised will turn to political conspiracies to explain events, and the more likely a small but very dangerous minority of these disaffected will turn to violence as a form of political action. Should that become the case, elites are likely to retreat even further into their gated communities and rely on technology as a means of social control absent democratic legitimacy, commitment to the common good, and the quest for international solidarity. Such a world would represent a dark, mechanized analog to the promise of universalism and concern for the other at the heart of all the world’s great religions: a noosphere absent a world soul.