The Shirky- Morozov Debate or how FaceBook beat Linux

One thing that struck me throughout the 2012 presidential contest was the Obama campaign’s novel use of Big-Data and targeted communication to mobilize voters. Many of these trends I found somewhat disturbing, namely, the practice of micro-mobilization through fear,  the application of manipulative techniques created in commercial advertising and behavioral economics to spur voter mobilization, and the  invasion of privacy opened up by the transparency culture and technology of social media.

These doubts and criticisms were made despite the fact that I am generally an Obama supporter, would ultimately cast my vote for the man, and was overall delighted by the progressive victories in the election, not least the push back against voter suppression which had been attempted, and only at the last minute thwarted, in my home state of Pennsylvania.

The sheer clarity of the success of the Obama campaign’s strategy makes me think that these techniques are largely a fait accompli, and will be rapidly picked up by Republicans to the extent they can. Political commentators have already turned their eyes to the strategy’s success,  completely ignoring the kinds of critical questions brought to our attention, for instance, by,Charles Duhigg, in The New York Times only a few weeks ago.

Given their effectiveness, there might be very little push-back from liberal voters regarding the way the 2012 campaign was waged, and such push-back might be seen as demands for unilateral disarmament on the part of Democrats should they come from Republicans- in which case the demand might quite rightly be seen as just another example of the GOP’s attempts at voter suppression. Or, should such push back against these techniques come from a minority of progressives in, or allied with, the Democratic party who are troubled by their implications, such complaints might be written off as geriatric whining by out of touch idealists who have no clue on how the new era of networked politics works. And this would largely be right, the campaigns of 2012, and the Obama campaign most especially, have likely brought us into a brand new political era.

A recent article in Time Magazine gives a good idea of how the new science of campaigning works: it is data driven, and builds upon techniques honed in the world’s of advertising and psychology to target both individuals and groups strategically.
Like the world’s of finance and government surveillance it is a new ecology where past, and bogus, claims by individuals to be able to “forecast the future” by ” gut-instinct” has fallen before Big Data and the cold brilliance of the quants.

That data-driven decision making played a huge role in creating a second term for the 44th President and will be one of the more closely studied elements of the 2012 cycle. It’s another sign that the role of the campaign pros in Washington who make decisions on hunches and experience is rapidly dwindling, being replaced by the work of quants and computer coders who can crack massive data sets for insight. As one official put it, the time of “guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes’” is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived.

One can feel for a political pundit such as Michael Gerson who attacked the political predictions of the data savvy Nate Silver in the same way one can feel sympathy for the thick-necked, testosterone heavy, Wall Street traders who were replaced by thinner-necked quants who had gotten their chops not on raucous trading floors but in courses on advanced physics.  And, at the end of the day, Silver was right. Gerson’s “observation” about the nature of American politics in his ridiculous critique of Silver-  given the actual reality of the 2012 campaign- is better understood as a lament than an observation:

An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.

Put another way: The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics. If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.

My main objections here are that this is an aspirational statement- not one of fact, and that the role Gerson gives to pundits, to himself, is absolutely contrary to reality- unless one believes the kind of “clarity” found by paying attention to the talking heads on Fox News is actually an exercise in democratic deliberation.

Yet, there are other ways in which the type of political campaign seen in 2012 offer up interesting food for thought in that they seem to point towards an unlikely outcome in current debates over the role and effect of the new communications technology on politics.

In some sense Obama’s 2012 campaign seems to answer what I’ll call the “Clay Shirky- Evgeny Morozov Debate. I could also call it the Shirky-Gladwell debate, but I find Morozov to be a more articulate spokesman of techo-pessimism (or techno-realism, depending upon one’s preference) than the omnipresent Malcolm Gladwell.

Clay Shirky is a well known spokesperson for the idea that the technological revolution centered around the Internet and other communications networks is politically transformative and offers up the possibility of a new form of horizontal politics.

Shirky sees the potential of governance to follow the open source model of software development found in collectively developed software such as Linux and Github that allow users to collaborate without being coordinated by anyone from above- as opposed to the top-down model followed by traditional software companies i.e. MicroSoft.  Although Shirky does not discuss them in his talk- the hacktivists group of Anonymous and Wikileaks follow this same decentralized, and horizontal model. As of yet, no government has adopted anything but token elements of the open source model of governance though they have, in Shirky’s view embraced more openness- transparency.

In an article for the journal Foreign Affairs in 2011 entitled The Political Power of Social Media, an article written before either the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street movements had exploded on the scene, Shirky made a reasoned case for the potential of social media to serve as a prime vector for political change. Social media, while in everyday life certainly dominated by nonsense such as “singing cats”, also brought the potential to mobilize the public- overnight- based on some grievance or concern.

Here, Shirky responded to criticisms of both Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov that his techno-optimism downplayed both the opiate like characteristics of social media, with its tendencies to distract people from political activity, along with the tendency of social media to create a shallow form of political commitment as people confuse signing an online petition or “liking” some person or group with actually doing something.

I do not agree with all  of what Morozov has to say in his side of this debate, but, that said, he is always like a bracing glass of cold water to the face- a defense against getting lost in daydreams. If you’ve never seen the man in action here is a great short documentary that has the pugnacious Belarusian surrounded by a sort of panopticon of video screens where he pokes holes in almost every techo-utopia shibboleth out there.

In his The Net Delusion Morozov had made the case that the new social media didn’t lend themselves to lasting political movements because all such movements are guided strategically and ideologically by a core group of people with real rather than superficial commitment who had sacrificed, sometimes literally everything, in the name of the movement. Social media’s very decentralization and the shallow sorts of political  activities it most often engenders are inimical to a truly effective political movement, and, at the same time, the very technologies that had given rise to social media have increased exponentially the state’s capacity for surveillance and the sphere of a-political distractions surrounding the individual.

And in early 2011 much of what Morozov said seemed right, but then came the Arab Spring, and then the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the former at the very least facilitated by social media, and the latter only made possible by it. If it was a prize fight, Morozov would have been on the mat, and Shirky shaking his fist with glee. And then…

It was the old-school Muslim Brotherhood not the tech-savvy tweeters who rose to prominence in post-Mubarak Egypt, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement faded almost as fast as it had appeared. Morozov was up off the mat.

And now we have had the 2012 presidential campaign, a contest fought and won using the tools of social media and Big Data. This suggests to me an outcome of the telecommunications revolution neither Shirky nor Morozov fully anticipated.

Shirky always sides with the tendency of the new media landscape to empower the individual and flatten hierarchies. This is not what was seen in the presidential race. Voters were instead “guided” by experts who were the only ones to grasp the strategic rationale of goading this individual rather than that and “nudging” them to act in some specific way.

Morozov, by contrasts, focuses his attention on the capacity of social media to pacify and distract the public in authoritarian states, and to ultimately hold the reins on the exchange of information.

What the Obama campaign suggests is that authoritarian countries might be able to use social media to foster a regime friendly political activity- that is to sponsor and facilitate the actions of large groups in its own interests, while short circuiting similar actions growing out of civil society which authoritarians find threatening.  Though, regime friendly political activity in this case is likely to be much more targeted and voluntary than the absurdities of 20th century totalitarianism that mobilized people for every reason under the sun.

The difference between authoritarian countries and democratic ones in respect to these technologies, at least so far, is this: that authoritarian countries will likely use them to exercise power whereas in democracies they are only used to win it.

If 2012 was a portent of the future, what Web 2.0 has brought us is not Shirky’s dream of “open-sourced government” which uses technology to actively engage citizens in not merely the debate over, but the crafting of policies and laws, an outcome which would have spelled the decline of the influence of political parties.  Instead, what we have is carefully targeted political mobilization based on the intimate knowledge of individual political preferences and psychological touch- points centrally directed by data-rich entities with a clear set of already decided upon political goals.  Its continuation would constitute the defeat of the political model based on Linux and the victory of  one based on FaceBook.

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Would Kierkegaard Tweet?

Recently I had one of those incidents of intellectual synchronicity that happen to me from time to time. I had grudgingly, after years of resistance, set up a Twitter account (I still won’t do Facebook). For whatever reason Twitter reminded me of a book I had read eons ago by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called The Present Age.  I decided to dig the book out from the catacombs of my dusty attic to find out what my memory was hinting at.  More on that synchronicity I mentioned later.

The Present Age is Kierkegaard’s 1846 attempt to think through the spiritual and existential consequences of the new condition of a cheap and ubiquitous press.  The industrial revolution wasn’t only about the accelerated production of goods, but also enabled the mass production of information.  The art of printing was ripe for a revolution having remained essentially unchanged since Guttenberg in the 1400s.

In 1814 the Times of London acquired a printing press with a speed of 1,100 impressions per minute. The widespread adoption of this technology gave rise to extremely cheap publications, the so-called, “penny press”, that were affordable for almost anyone who could read.  The revolution in printing lit a fire under the mass literacy that had started with Guttenberg extending the printed word downward to embrace even the poorest segments of society and was facilitated by the spread of public education throughout the West.

This revolution had given rise to “the public” the idea of a near universal audience of readers. While some authors, such as Charles Dickens, used this 19th century printing revolution to aim at universal appeal Søren Kierkegaard really wasn’t after a best seller status giving his works such catchy titles as Fear and Trembling.

What Kierkegaard is for can be neatly summed up in one quote from The Present Age:

If you are capable of being a man, then danger and the harsh judgment of reality will help you to become one. (37)

Kierkegaard wanted individuals to make choices. Such choices came with very real and often severe ethical consequences that the individual was responsible for, and that could not be dismissed. The ethical life meant a life of commitments which were by their very nature hard for the individual to fulfill.

One of the main problems Kierkegaard saw with the new public that had been generated by the cheap press was that it turned everyone into a mere spectator.

The public is a concept that could not have occurred in antiquity because the people en masse, in corpore, took part in any situation which arose, and were responsible for the actions of the individual, and moreover, the individual was personally present and had to submit at once to the applause or disapproval for his decision. Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction ‘the public’, consisting of unreal individuals who never are and can never be united in an actual situation or organization- and yet are held together as a whole”  (60).

The issue for Kierkegaard here is that, since the rise of the press, the world had become enveloped in this kind of sphere of knowledge which had become disconnected from our life as ethical and political beings. A reader had the illusion of being a participant in, say, some distant revolution, famine, or disaster, but it was just that, an illusion. Given how much this world commanded our ethical and political attention, when in reality we could do nothing about it, Kierkegaard thought people were likely to become ethically paralyzed in terms of those issues where we really could, and should, take individual responsibility.

And now back to that synchronicity I had mentioned. Right around the same time I had dug up my dusty copy of The Present Age I was walking through the local library and happened to pass a 2011 book by Evgeny Morozov called The Net Delusion. On a whim I brought the book home and when I cracked it open to my surprise saw that he had a chapter dedicated to the Danish philosopher- Why Kierkegaard Hates Slacktivism.  Morozov’s point was that the internet gives us this illusion of participation and action that requires very little on our part. We sign this or that petition or make this or that donation and walk away thinking that we have really done something. Real change, on the other hand, probably requires much more Kierkegaard-like levels of commitment. These are the types of commitments that demand things like the loss of our career, our personal life, and in the case of challenging dictatorships, perhaps the loss life itself.  The ease of “doing something” offered by the internet, Morozov thought might have a real corrosive effect on these kinds of necessary sacrifices.

It is here that synchronicity plot thickens, for both Kierkegaard and Morozov, despite their brilliance, miss almost identical political events that are right in front of them.  As  Walter Kaufmann in the introduction of my old copy of The Present Age points out Kierkegaard totally misses the coming Revolutions of 1848 that were to occur two years after his book came out.

The Revolutions of 1848 were a series of revolts that ricocheted across the world challenging almost every European aristocracy with the demand for greater democratic and social rights. Rather than having acted as a force suppressing the desire for change, the new press allowed revolution to go viral with one revolt sparking another and then another all responding to local conditions, but also a reflecting a common demand for freedom and social security. Individuals acting in such revolutions were certainly taking on very real existential risks as states cracked down violently on the revolts.

Similarly, Morozov’s Net Delusion, published just before the beginning of the 2011 Arab Spring, missed a global revolution that, whatever the impact of new technologies such as Twitter, were certainly facilitated rather than negatively impacted by such technologies.  The Arab revolutions which spread like wild-fire inspired similar protests in the West such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement that seemed to require more than just pressing the “like button” on Facebook for the committed individuals that were engaged in the various occupations.

When it came to the Revolutions of 1848, Kierkegaard was probably proven to be right in the end as the revolutions failed to be sustained in the face of conservative opposition paving the way for even more revolutionary upheaval in Europe in the next century.  Only time will tell if a similar fate awaits the revolutions of 2011 with conservative forces regrouping in autocratic societies to stem any real change, and Western youth becoming exhausted by the deep ethical commitments required to achieve anything more than superficial change.

  • Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age , Translated by Alexander Dru, Introduction Walter Kaufmann, Harper Torchbooks, 1962
  • Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion, Public Affairs, 2011

Panem and the dueling dystopias

As was mentioned in my prior review of the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins got the inspiration for the idea for the books while watching American reality television juxtaposed with the very real horrors of the Iraq War. If the first book, for all its violence, concentrated on the decadence of the Capitol, the second book, Catching Fire take us much deeper into the dystopian tyranny of Panem, and it is the combination of these two versions of dystopia that Collins has skillfully packaged in the form of a children’s novel that most sparks my interest.

Catching Fire, tells the story of what unfolds after Katniss and Peeta have returned victorious from the Hunger Games. Their act of defiance at the end of the games, threatening to commit suicide rather than follow the cruel logic of the games which permits only one victor, has proven a spark that begins insurrections against the tyranny of the Capitol. Rebellion only grows as the Capitol tries to manage the story of Katniss and Peeta and put an end to their worship as heroes. But, what has begun can not be stopped and here we are shown the deep violence at the heart of Panem that transcends the dark cruelty of the ritualized brutality found in the spectacle of the games.In desperation, the Capitol isolates rebellious districts and attempts to starve them into submission. It tortures, imprisons’ , and, as appears to be hinted at towards the end of the novel,commits an act of genocide against District 12 the home of Katniss and Peeta.

As the philosopher have always told us, tyranny, being based upon fear, is the worst form of government. Such fear can only lead to three results in the individual: paralysis, flight, or the decision to fight back. The tyranny of the Capitol has been based on the institutionalized fear of the Hunger Games, along with the “memory” of the Capitol’s complete destruction of District 13 during the last rebellion. Katniss and Peeta had broken the spell of the games. Katniss herself entertains ideas of flight only to ultimately decide on courageous rebellion, and the peoples of the districts become inspired to end their paralysis and fight back not only by her, but by the hope that District 13 has somehow survived and remained beyond the control of the Capitol

On a superficial level what Collins has done here is something quite interesting and groundbreaking, for she has managed to combine successfully the two rival versions of dystopia that have held us in their spell since the first half of the last century. Those two versions are, of course, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Orwell aimed to capture the brutality of totalitarianism, in both its right-wing, and left-wing varieties. The dystopia of totalitarianism was characterized by Orwell as “a boot stomping on a human face, forever”. It was a state based upon not only fear, as were all tyrannies of the past, but the need for the absolute submission of the individual. Obedience was not enough. The soul of the individual was a territory the totalitarian state aimed to bring under its will, and the aim of the state was to surround its subjects in an omnipresent web of surveillance that took from them not only their public but their private lives as well.

Huxley took a much different, and many argue more prescient, view of dystopia in his Brave New World. For him, tyranny was less likely in the modern era to take the form of a regime based on fear and total control, than it was to be based on the population being lulled into submission by entertainment, consumption, sex, and satiety.

In his brilliant, if horribly ill timed book, The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov, argues that we have been blinded to the nature of modern tyranny by seeing the distinction between Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions of utopia as an either- or question. Thinkers, such as Herbert Marcuse, have made a pretty good case that the West has many of the features of the dystopia presented in Brave New World. We are a society that has, willfully or not, been distracted from politics by a plethora of entertainment, advertisement, and pleasures. As Morozov points out, many non-Western regimes  that are in every sense of the word, authoritarian, have caught onto this trick. States like Russia and China let people watch or buy whatever they wish. The reality and dreams of limitless consumption appear to steer attention and energy away from politics and thus leave current political elites entrenched. “Bread and circuses” as the Romans used to say is the best way to control the masses.

Morozov insists that just because regimes have learned from the West how to lull their people  to sleep ala Brave New World does not mean that Orwell should be left in the dust. For, when deemed necessary as the only means of retaining their grip on power,  manyauthoritarian regimes have shown themselves capable of 1984 style violence. We need both Huxley and Orwell to understand dystopia in the present, and Collins has managed to combine both.

The Capitol is a Brave New World style dystopia through and through. Its citizens are enthralled, not merely, by the reality TV “entertainment” of the Hunger Games, but by seemingly endless consumption, celebrity, and vanity. A great metaphor for the Capitol can be seen in a common practice there which Collins presents to us almost as an afterthought. “Citizens” of the Capitol have a habit of eating everything in sight at their major social gatherings. The way they pull this off is to ingest a liquid that makes them vomit between periods of gorging. This occurs even in periods when the Capital is trying to starve the people of rebellious districts into submission or death.

Yet, if within the world of the Capitol dystopia takes on the form of a Brave New World the way the Capitol brutally treats the districts is straight out of 1984. It tortures, murders, terrorizes, and commits acts of genocide.

Collins could not have anticipated that within several years of writing her novel the whole scene of the Capital trying to bring the rebellious districts to heel would be replicated in the real world as challenged tyrants resorted to the fear of extreme violence to keep themselves in power: Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria where the horrors continue. Only where the forces of the regime refused to kill their own people, such as Egypt, was enormous bloodshed avoided.

The Panem analogy could also easily be applied to the US if one sees America itself as the Capitol and the world at large as the districts. We are a consumerist and entertainment paradise that spies upon, brutalizes, and attempts to control the rest of the world.  No matter if this analogy holds or not it’s pretty certain that if Aldous Huxley were brought to early 21st century America he’d think he’d stepped into his Brave New World, but Orwell could not say the same for 1984, at least not within the United States itself.

Still, the best real world version we have for Panem is not, despite all its flaws and injustices, the United States, but China. The developed eastern China is enthralled to a versions of consumerism that would make even Americans blush. As long as the Chinese Communist Party can keep the money flowing they remain largely unchallenged even if a blind renegade such as Chen Guangcheng
can periodically bring the injustices, of at least local governments to light. If eastern China is Collin’s Capitol, its Tibetan and Xijiang regions are its districts, which inspire brutal crackdowns wherever their inhabitants get a little too uppity for the PRC’s taste. It will be interesting to see how the Hunger Games movies, and the inevitable copycats they will spawn will play in China. This potential of a now global film and media industry to pose deep questions may be the only way to balance out its tendency to lull society into a state of passive acceptance of the current order.

No one in the West should become smug on the basis of this characterization of China as Panem.  Rather, we should remain ever vigilant for any movement in the direction of 1984 and push back hard on any extension of the power of the state to imprison, silence, torture, spy upon, or lie. Huxley’s dystopia, which is probably the one we live in, is based upon the state having solved the problem of scarcity and stuffing the people until they no longer know what freedom is for. This may be characteristic of a very particular period of human history following the Second World War, but this might prove to have been a golden age of economic equality which we have exited permanently.

If we do not, sometime soon, emerge from the current economic crisis, if the model of middle class consumer society proves irretrievably broken, then all bets are off. Elites may be challenged in ways they have not since the early part of the last century and one of the possible, if unlikely, dystopian outcomes would be a return of at least some of the features of the tyranny on display in 1984.