Monday, November 09, 2015
Blissful Ignorance: How Environmental Activists Shut Down Molecular Biology Labs in High Schools
by Jalees Rehman
Hearing about the HannoverGEN project made me feel envious and excited. Envious, because I wish my high school had offered the kind of hands-on molecular biology training provided to high school students in Hannover, the capital of the German state of Niedersachsen. Excited, because it reminded me of the joy I felt when I first isolated DNA and ran gels after restriction enzyme digests during my first year of university in Munich. I knew that many of the students at the HannoverGEN high schools would be thrilled by their laboratory experience and pursue careers as biologists or biochemists.
What did HannoverGEN entail? It was an optional pilot program initiated and funded by the state government of Niedersachsen at four high schools. Students enrolled in the HannoverGEN classes would learn to use molecular biology tools that are typically reserved for college-level or graduate school courses to study plant genetics. Some of the basic experiments involved isolating DNA from cabbage or how bacteria transfer genes to plants, more advanced experiments enabled the students to analyze whether or not the genome of a provided maize sample was genetically modified. Each experimental unit was accompanied by relevant theoretical instruction on the molecular mechanisms of gene expression and biotechnology as well as ethical discussions regarding the benefits and risks of generating genetically modified organisms ("GMOs"). You can only check out the details of the HannoverGEN program in the Wayback Machine Internet archive because the award-winning educational program and the associated website were shut down in 2013 at the behest of German anti-GMO activist groups, environmental activists, Greenpeace, the Niedersachsen Green Party and the German organic food industry.
Why did these activists and organic food industry lobbyists oppose a government-funded educational program which improved the molecular biology knowledge and expertise of high school students? A press release entitled "Keine Akzeptanzbeschaffung für Agro-Gentechnik an Schulen!" ("No Acceptance for Agricultural Gene Technology at Schools") in 2012 by an alliance representing farmers growing natural or organic crops accompanied by the publication of a study with the same title (PDF), funded by this group as well as its anti-GMO partners, gives us some clues. They feared that the high school students might become too accepting of using biotechnology in agriculture and that the curriculum did not sufficiently highlight all the potential dangers of GMOs. By allowing the ethical discussions that were part of the HannoverGEN curriculum to not only discuss the risks but also mention the benefits of genetically modifying crops, students might walk away with the idea that GMOs may be a good thing. Taxpayer money should not be used to foster special interests such as those of the agricultural industry that may want to use GMOs, according to this group.
A response by the University of Hannover (PDF) which had helped develop the curriculum and coordinated the classes for the high school students carefully dissected the complaints of the anti-GMO activists. The author of the "study" with the polemic title that criticized HannoverGEN for being too biased had not visited the HannoverGEN laboratories, nor had he had interviewed the biology teachers or students enrolled in the classes. In fact, his critique was based on weblinks that were not even used by the HannoverGEN teachers or students and his study ignored the fact that discussing potential risks of genetic modification was a core curriculum topic in all the classes.
Unfortunately, this shoddily prepared "study" had a significant impact, in part because it was widely promoted by partner organizations. Its release in the autumn of 2012 came at an opportune time because Niedersachsen was about to have an election and campaigning against GMOs – which apparently included an educational program that would equip students to form a balanced view of GMO technology - seemed like a perfect cause for the Green Party. When the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed a coalition after winning the election in early 2013, nixing the HannoverGEN high school program was formally included in the so-called coalition contract. This is a document in which coalition partners outline the key goals for the upcoming four year period. When one considers how many major issues and problems the government of a large German state has to face – healthcare, education, unemployment, etc. – it is mindboggling that defunding a program involving only four high schools receives so much attention that it needs to be anchored in the coalition contract. In fact, it is a testimony to the influence and zeal of the anti-GMO lobby.
Once the cancellation of HannoverGEN was announced, the Hannover branch of Greenpeace also took credit for campaigning against this high school program and celebrated its victory. A Greenpeace anti-GMO activist also highlighted that he felt the program was too cost intensive because equipping high school laboratories with state-of-the-art molecular biology equipment had already cost more than 1 million Euros and that the previous center-right government which had initiated the HannoverGEN project was planning on expanding the program to even more high schools, thus wasting more taxpayer money.
The scientific community was shaken up by the decision of the new Social Democrat-Green government in Niedersachsen. This was an attack on the academic freedom of schools under the guise of accusing them of promoting special interests while ignoring that the anti-GMO activists themselves were representing special interests, including the lucrative organic food industry. Scientists and science writers such as Martin Ballaschk or Lars Fischer wrote excellent critical articles in which they asked how squashing high-quality, hand-on science programs could ever lead to better decision-making. How could ignorant students have a better grasp of GMO risks and benefits than those who receive formal education and could make truly informed decisions? Sadly, this outcry did not make much of a difference and it did not seem that the media felt this was much of a cause to fight for. I wonder if the media response would have been just as lackluster if the government had de-funded a hands-on science lab to study the effects of climate change.
In 2014, the government of Niedersachsen then announced that they would resurrect an advanced biology laboratory program for high schools with the generic and vague title "Life Science Lab". By removing the word "Gen" from its title and also removing any discussion of GMOs in the curriculum, this new program would leave students in the dark about GMOs. One could thus avoid a scenario in which high school students might learn about benefits of GMOs. Ignorance is bliss from an anti-GMO activist perspective because the void of ignorance can be filled with fear.
From the very first day that I could vote in Germany during the federal election of 1990, I always viewed the Green Party as a party that represented my generation. A party of progressive ideas, concerned about our environment and social causes. However, the HannoverGEN incident is just one example of how the Green Party is caving in to ideologies thus losing its open-mindedness and progressive nature. In the United States, the anti-science movement, which attacks teaching climate change science or evolutionary biology at schools, tends to be rooted in the right wing political spectrum. Right wingers or libertarians are the ones who always complain about taxpayer dollars being wasted and used to promote agendas in schools and universities. But we should not forget that there is also a different anti-science movement rooted in the leftist and pro-environmental political spectrum – not just in Germany.
I worry about all anti-science movements, especially those which attack science education. There is nothing wrong with questioning special interests and ensuring that school and university science curricula are truly balanced. But they need to be balanced and founded on scientific principles, not on political ideologies. Science education has a natural bias – it is biased towards knowledge that is backed up by scientific evidence. We can hypothetically discuss dangers of GMOs but the science behind the dangers of GMO crops is very questionable. Just like environmental activists and leftists agree with us scientists that we do not need to give climate change deniers and creationists “balanced” treatment in our science curricula, they should also accept that much of the "anti-GMO science" is currently more based on ideology than on actual scientific data. Our job is to provide excellent science education so that our students can critically analyze and understand scientific research, independent of whether or not it supports our personal ideologies.
Monday, October 12, 2015
Feel Our Pain: Empathy and Moral Behavior
by Jalees Rehman
"It's empathy that makes us help other people. It's empathy that makes us moral." The economist Paul Zak casually makes this comment in his widely watched TED talk about the hormone oxytocin, which he dubs the "moral molecule". Zak quotes a number of behavioral studies to support his claim that oxytocin increases empathy and trust, which in turn increases moral behavior. If all humans regularly inhaled a few puffs of oxytocin through a nasal spray, we could become more compassionate and caring. It sounds too good to be true. And recent research now suggests that this overly simplistic view of oxytocin, empathy and morality is indeed too good to be true.
Many scientific studies support the idea that oxytocin is a major biological mechanism underlying the emotions of empathy and the formation of bonds between humans. However, inferring that these oxytocin effects in turn make us more moral is a much more controversial statement. In 2011, the researcher Carsten De Dreu and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands published the study Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism which studied indigenous Dutch male study subjects who in a blinded fashion self-administered either nasal oxytocin or a placebo spray. The subjects then answered questions and performed word association tasks after seeing photographic images of Dutch males (the "in-group") or images of Arabs and Germans, the "out-group" because prior surveys had shown that the Dutch public has negative views of both Arabs/Muslims and Germans. To ensure that the subjects understood the distinct ethnic backgrounds of the target people shown in the images, they were referred to typical Dutch male names, German names (such as Markus and Helmut) or Arab names (such as Ahmed and Youssef).
Oxytocin increased favorable views and word associations but only towards in-group images of fellow Dutch males. The oxytocin treatment even had the unexpected effect of worsening the views regarding Arabs and Germans but this latter effect was not quite statistically significant. Far from being a "moral molecule", oxytocin may actually increase ethnic bias in society because it selectively enhances certain emotional bonds. In a subsequent study, De Dreu then addressed another aspect of the purported link between oxytocin and morality by testing the honesty of subjects. The study Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty showed that oxytocin increased cheating in study subjects if they were under the impression that dishonesty would benefit their group. De Dreu concluded that oxytocin does make us less selfish and care more about the interest of the group we belong to.
These recent oxytocin studies not only question the "moral molecule" status of oxytocin but raise the even broader question of whether more empathy necessarily leads to increased moral behavior, independent of whether or not it is related to oxytocin. The researchers Jean Decety and Jason Cowell at the University of Chicago recently analyzed the scientific literature on the link between empathy and morality in their commentary Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?, and find that the relationship is far more complicated than one would surmise. Judges, police officers and doctors who exhibit great empathy by sharing in the emotional upheaval experienced by the oppressed, persecuted and severely ill always end up making the right moral choices – in Hollywood movies. But empathy in the real world is a multi-faceted phenomenon and we use this term loosely, as Decety and Cowell point out, without clarifying which aspect of empathy we are referring to.
Decety and Cowell distinguish at least three distinct aspects of empathy:
1. Emotional sharing, which refers to how one's emotions respond to the emotions of those around us. Empathy enables us to "feel" the pain of others and this phenomenon of emotional sharing is also commonly observed in non-human animals such as birds or mice.
2. Empathic concern, which describes how we care for the welfare of others. Whereas emotional sharing refers to how we experience the emotions of others, empathic concern motivates us to take actions that will improve their welfare. As with emotional sharing, empathic concern is not only present in humans but also conserved among many non-human species and likely constitutes a major evolutionary advantage.
3. Perspective taking, which - according to Decety and Cowell - is the ability to put oneself into the mind of another and thus imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. This is a more cognitive dimension of empathy and essential for our ability to interact with fellow human beings. Even if we cannot experience the pain of others, we may still be able to understand or envision how they might be feeling. One of the key features of psychopaths is their inability to experience the emotions of others. However, this does not necessarily mean that psychopaths are unable to cognitively imagine what others are thinking. Instead of labeling psychopaths as having no empathy, it is probably more appropriate to specifically characterize them as having a reduced capacity to share in the emotions while maintaining an intact capacity for perspective-taking.
In addition to the complexity of what we call "empathy", we need to also understand that empathy is usually directed towards specific individuals and groups. De Dreu's studies demonstrated that oxytocin can make us more pro-social as long as it benefits those who we feel belong to our group but not necessarily those outside of our group. The study Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses by Xu and colleagues at Peking University used fMRI brain imaging in Chinese and Caucasian study subjects and measured their neural responses to watching painful images. The study subjects were shown images of either a Chinese or a Caucasian face. In the control condition, the depicted image showed a face being poked with a cotton swab. In the pain condition, study subjects were shown a face of a person being poked with a needle attached to syringe. When the researchers measured the neural responses with the fMRI, they found significant activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is part of the neural pain circuit, both for pain we experience ourselves but also for empathic pain we experience when we see others in pain. The key finding in Xu's study was that ACC activation in response to seeing the painful image was much more profound when the study subject and the person shown in the painful image belonged to the same race.
As we realize that the neural circuits and hormones which form the biological basis of our empathy responses are so easily swayed by group membership then it becomes apparent why increased empathy does not necessarily result in behavior consistent with moral principles. In his essay "Against Empathy", the psychologist Paul Bloom also opposes the view that empathy should form the basis of morality and that we should unquestioningly elevate empathy to virtue for all:
"But we know that a high level of empathy does not make one a good person and that a low level does not make one a bad person. Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one's appetites."
I do not think that we can dismiss empathy as a factor in our moral decision-making. Bloom makes a good case for distanced compassion and kindness that does not arise from the more visceral emotion of empathy. But when we see fellow humans and animals in pain, then our initial biological responses are guided by empathy and anger, not the more abstract concept of distanced compassion. What we need is a better scientific and philosophical understanding of what empathy is. Empathic perspective-taking may be a far more robust and reliable guide for moral decision-making than empathic emotions. Current scientific studies on empathy often measure it as an aggregate measure without teasing out the various components of empathy. They also tend to underestimate that the relative contributions of the empathy components (emotion, concern, perspective-taking) can vary widely among cultures and age groups. We need to replace overly simplistic notions such as oxytocin = moral molecule or empathy = good with a more refined view of the complex morality-empathy relationship guided by rigorous science and philosophy.
De Dreu, C. K., Greer, L. L., Van Kleef, G. A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(4), 1262-1266.
Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 525-537.
Shalvi, S., & De Dreu, C. K. (2014). Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(15), 5503-5507.
Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., & Han, S. (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(26), 8525-8529.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Blob Justice, Part 2
"For the people are all in all."
~ Herodotus III.80.
Last month I reviewed a small but representative selection of instances of Internet vigilantism. Whether we are talking about Cecil the Lion or Justine Sacco, the causes and the consequences may vary, but they share several characteristics, such as the speed with which events unfolded, and their very real-life consequences, such as ruined careers. But I elided the subtler mechanics of why these instances actually occur. Put another way, what gives rise to the mob in the first place? So, in a time-honored essayistic maneuver, I will revert to that quasi-mythical place Where All Things Began, aka ancient Greece.
The scene is ancient Persia, and our chronicler is the inimitable Herodotus. Having taken the throne in a coup, Darius debates the best form of government with the seven Persian nobles who were his co-conspirators. Considering how these things can go, it is a blessedly short discussion, with democracy, oligarchy and monarchy representing the three possibilities. The noble Otanes puts forward a lukewarm endorsement of democracy, but it's very much a straw man. He is more concerned with the shortcomings of monarchy than what might be the virtues of democracy. Another noble, Megabyzus, then speaks in support of oligarchy:
For there is nothing so void of understanding, nothing so full of wantonness, as the unwieldy rabble. It were folly not to be borne, for men, while seeking to escape the wantonness of a tyrant, to give themselves up to the wantonness of a rude unbridled mob. The tyrant, in all his doings, at least knows what is he about, but a mob is altogether devoid of knowledge; for how should there be any knowledge in a rabble, untaught, and with no natural sense of what is right and fit? It rushes wildly into state affairs with all the fury of a stream swollen in the winter, and confuses everything. Let the enemies of the Persians be ruled by democracies.
For his part, Darius acknowledges democracy and oligarchy, but it wouldn't be a spoiler to reveal that he ultimately settles on monarchy, with himself as the head of state. Thus Herodotus sets the stage for the war between the Greeks and the Persians. In a sense, the Histories can be viewed as a meandering meditation on the best form of government, whose merits are ultimately determined on the battlefield.
For Herodotus, that preferred form is Athenian democracy, as flawed as it might be, but the fear of the mob – and its placation – remained an obvious and persistent thread throughout history. Not much after Herodotus, Juvenal coined the phrase panem et circensis – bread and circuses – that were required to keep the Roman mobs placated (and from which the Hunger Games' totalitarian state Panem takes its name). Bread and circuses, in Juvenal's opinion, were the bare minimum that the Romans needed, once they had abdicated their ability to participate in political life. Consider also Edmund Burke's hand-wringing over the French revolutionaries who toppled Louis XVI ("They have found their punishment in their success"), or Dostoevsky's broader dictum, that "to begin with unlimited freedom is to end with unlimited despotism". The masses are to be feared and controlled, and it is only under the most propitious and unlikely circumstances that a system like democracy can harness their intrinsically destructive power.
Unfortunately, as satisfying as this all sounds, what makes this sort of analysis only partially relevant for our purposes is the fact that I am theorizing on a grand scale. Any discussion of ‘the best form of government' implies that we are concerned with nation-states; and when we speak of revolutions, or the prevention thereof, we imply a pile-up of discontent so substantial that its consequences become worthy of the historical record. The truth is that mob justice and vigilantism on the Internet don't possess these dramatic qualities. In fact, if revolution is the gold standard, I'm not sure if Internet-based mob justice really has any long-term effects. Instead, it seems to be more of a bit player that seems to merely strut and fret his hour on the stage.
So perhaps we can approach the phenomenon from the opposite direction, and begin with a theory based on individuals. Here is a proposition in that vein: ‘bully' is the singular of ‘mob'. So what, then, does bullying mean, within the context of current technology? Indeed, the Internet has made bullying easier than ever, but to say that the ease with which technology in general and social media in particular has allowed bullying to ‘scale' somewhat misses the point. Like anything else, the generative qualities of bullying are rooted in ourselves.
In a recent essay for The Baffler, anthropologist David Graeber takes a closer look at the social dynamics of bullying. For him, bullying is different from cowardice, and in fact there is a weird conflation of the two that ought to be resisted. That is, bullies are regularly dismissed – unmasked, if you will – as ‘cowards'. A bully engages in bullying because of a lack of self-esteem (and as if calling a bully a coward somehow disempowers him). However, Graeber cites research that reveals this as a just-so story; in fact, bullies usually have levels of self-esteem that are quite high. With typical provocativeness, he notes that "Blowing up a wedding party using an unmanned drone might be considered an act of cowardice. Personally flying an airplane into a skyscraper takes guts."
For Graeber, it's essential to note that any sort of human interaction occurs within a social setting. And the bully thrives precisely because the social – or better yet, institutional – context is an enabler of such cruelty. The schoolyard bully is "refracting" the school's disciplinary authority, and furthermore knows that the victim cannot run away, or will soon enough be forced to return to the same hallways and playgrounds, because there is literally no other place to go. Furthermore, the bully knows that any victim that strikes back, if caught, will likely be punished just as enthusiastically as the bully, all in the name of restoring order. In fact, the closer any specific social setting gets to being a ‘total institution' (a typology first identified by sociologist Erving Goffman that includes prisons, army barracks, psychiatric institutions, etc), the more fertile ground there is for bullying, or more ritualized forms of bullying, such as hazing. Within this context,
…most bullies act like self-satisfied little pricks not because they are tortured by self-doubt, but because they actually are self-satisfied little pricks. Indeed, such is their self-assurance that they create a moral universe in which their swagger and violence becomes the standard by which all others are to be judged; weakness, clumsiness, absentmindedness, or self-righteous whining are not just sins, but provocations that would be wrong to leave unaddressed.
Cynically speaking, bullies are freelance enforcers within an implied social order. But what I really liked about Graeber's discussion is the notion that the bully-victim dynamic is only completed with the presence of an audience. Post-Columbine research shows that proper humiliation only makes sense if it is performed in public – instances of private bullying are relatively rare (unfortunately, Graeber doesn't actually cite the literature so I am taking him at face value here). So there is not just the need for there to be an audience, but an acquiescent one as well, since even a few protesters from a crowd can easily break a bully's spell. Just think of bullying as performance – it is not enough for the victim to become brutally acquainted with his or her weaknesses. It must be reinforced within the context of the social arena. The size of the crowd doesn't matter that much, though, since rumor and innuendo easily take over from there.
What happens if we take Graeber's point about the bully's moral universe and the need to ‘redress' weakness, and cast it into the funhouse mirror of social media? It's actually a good point from which the phenomenon of mob justice arises. Think of it this way: the victim crosses some perceived normative boundary. The bully senses weakness and pounces with some egregious remark. Any response by the victim sets off a further round of bullying, with more and more people joining in. The conversation is augmented, shared, and amplified. This practice, commonly referred to as trolling, may have a single point of origin, such as Justine Sacco's tweet about AIDS in Africa, or it may metastize into a nearly incomprehensible flamewar of apocalyptic proportions, such as GamerGate. Eventually these pile-ons dissipate, but as I documented last month, not without lasting consequences for the victims.
As Graeber notes, "It's not that as a species we're particularly aggressive. It's that we tend to respond to aggression very poorly". The Internet is particularly good at exacerbating this dynamic. Whereas in real life we have the benefit of nonverbal cues, body language and other physical circumstances (eg, at some point, it's just time to go home), on social media we have only language to rely on. This is a tenuous thread, especially when platforms like Twitter make a virtue of brevity, which is enthusiastically achieved at the price of context. As Wittgenstein remarked, "understanding a sentence means understanding a language". It's the stripping away of not just context, but the patience or even tolerance for context, that really makes social media the minefield that it is today. No one is really given the chance to explain themselves, not because they can't, but because the technology is designed in a way that discourages nuance, disinterested argument and respect for one another. Another way of putting it is that no one goes on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit to have their mind changed about anything. Unsurprisingly, this a priori condition makes for rich hunting grounds for bullies.
Furthermore, there is a finely ironic objection to be addressed here, and that is the contention that social media is not, in the classic sense, a total institution. A few years ago this would have been a reasonable counter, but we are currently passing through an inflection point. Our live are increasingly being lived on line, and institutions of all stripes now look to these online personae to help them determine who we ‘really' are. As I noted in the case of Adria Richards, it is sufficient to be the ultimate victim of widespread bullying that can determine one's continued employment.
And if we do not choose to participate? For every troll, there are untold number of lurkers who may follow the altercation but do not participate in it. But frankly, there is no such thing as simply lurking, just as an inert audience is nothing but complicit in the act of bullying. The concept of "interpassivity", coined by philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Robert Pfaller, is another way of interpreting the bully's audience. Superficially, it is the substitution of passivity despite the potential for interaction. More subtly, it is the notion that the object is doing the work that the subject ought to be doing, facilitated by the way that object has been designed.
An example is that of laugh tracks on TV shows: according to Žižek, the purpose of the laugh track is not to soften you up and get you to laugh along. The laugh track is there to do the laughing for you. Thus in the virtual space that is the Internet, interpassivity is collectively generated. This is especially true when we observe the phenomenon of outrage. Even if we do not pile on to the bully's victim, or rush to defend him or her, we experience the voyeuristic pleasures of seeing two people scrap – people who are quite likely strangers to us and perhaps to one another as well. "Look at those two idiots go," we smugly say to ourselves, knowing that we are too good to lower ourselves to that level.
This Schadenfreudegasm is not in the least instructive, but rather functions as our very own panem et circensis. Except that we don't require the government to dole out anyof the state's treasury for this privilege – we generate and administer the placebo ourselves. And while mob justice onthe Internet may not teach us anything or change our minds in the slightest, it certainly has the deleterious effect of making us that much more reluctant to step into the public arena to offer our own opinions. In the meantime, our complicity is recorded in our clicks, which are duly sold off to advertisers and who knows who else. Bully, victim and audience all collapse into the same blob, and at a profit to boot. It almost makes one nostalgic for the simplicity of Megbyzus's mob: "It rushes wildly…with all the fury of a stream swollen in the winter, and confuses everything". Even a swollen stream eventually reaches the sea.
Monday, August 17, 2015
Blob Justice, Part 1
"Dear Cecil! I have no secrets from you."
~ Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost
Remember Cecil the Lion? It wasn't that long ago, but given the half-life of outrage on the Internet, I will forgive you a moment of head-scratching. Let me summarize that Cecil was lured from his protected home in Zimbabwe to an adjoining game reserve only to be shot, tracked for 40 hours, finished off, and finally decapitated by a dentist from Minnesota and his co-conspirators, all of whom, the Internet has resoundingly agreed, are cowards. Said dentist, a certain Walter Palmer, has since seen his business vandalized, and has gone into hiding after receiving death threats against himself and his family. He has generally been subjected to enough unpleasantries that would rival the most botched root canal. Such is the nature of Internet justice today.
You may cry, He deserves it! Killing such a magnificent beast, etc etc. I don't dispute the obviously reprehensible barbarism of this act. But the anachronistic nature of big game hunting has been followed up by the equally anachronistic resurgence of public shaming and mob justice. So let's take a closer look at how – or better yet, why – the citizenry of the Internet fearlessly takes up the mantle of vigilantism, and to what effect. I've decided to divide this post into two parts: this first part will discuss a few concrete examples of public shaming, and the second will look at some theoretical frameworks that may help us make sense of it all.
Before Cecil the Lion, there was Justine Sacco. For those of you with exceptionally long Internet memories – and to be clear, I'm not sure why having a long memory for things Internet-related is that useful, as it's just depressing to see the same things repeated in ever-quickening cycles – Sacco was the senior director of corporate communications for IAC, a billion-dollar media corporation. Jetting off to South Africa for family holidays in winter 2013, she tweeted a few poorly considered thoughts to her 170 followers but struck outrage gold with the one that said "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
We could try to parse what she actually meant by that. For example, a generous interpretation would be that she was sarcastically musing on the conditions of white privilege. It's more likely that she wasn't thinking very much at all. What is certain is that, by the time her plane landed, her career was effectively over.
As Jon Ronson wrote in an excellent article in the New York Times Magazine on Internet shaming, "The furor over Sacco's tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc." Although it took IAC a few weeks to fire her, the furor was so instantly incandescent that the company had to tweet that she was "unreachable" as she was still in the air. After her demise, Sacco opted for the classic redemption narrative, by volunteering for an NGO in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, she has not so much redeemed herself in the eyes of the public (as she wasn't a public figure to begin with) as simply sunk beneath the digital waves.
Let's also not delude ourselves that it's only the allegedly guilty parties that get their comeuppance. A few months before Justine Sacco's demise, software "developer evangelist" Adria Richards was attending a programmer conference on behalf of her startup SendGrid when she overheard two male attendees making crude sexual jokes. She tweeted the jokes and photos of the jokers, and within hours the two had been identified and reported to the conference organizers. Not long afterwards – and by ‘not long' I mean 24 hours – one of them had lost his job. As for Richards, she was subjected to a depressingly predictable barrage of online harassment, but the real corker came when her own employer fired her. In a blog post oh-so-delicately titled "A Difficult Situation" the CEO explained:
A SendGrid developer evangelist's responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.
What's really noteworthy here is not simply the weight of the consequences – people losing their jobs left and right – but the swiftness of it all. There is also the unsurprising fact that any corporation, even if it is a startup, has little to no tolerance for controversy of any sort. An employee who is in the news for anything other than rescuing kittens from a burning building is a liability, their own track record and talents notwithstanding. Further to their misfortune, both Richards and Sacco were communications professionals: Richards did community development, while Sacco held a fairly senior position in public relations for a much larger firm. Of course, the first lesson in communications/PR is to always be ahead of the story, but both Richards and Sacco never had a chance. Once their respective tweets had gone supernova, the narrative was permanently out of their hands. As communications professionals, I'm somewhat surprised that they were not more circumspect about their decisions in the first place; on the other hand, the fact that two communications professionals made such catastrophic errors holds out very little hope for the rest of us. We find social media attractive because, at first blush, it is liquid, dynamic and impermanent, but the presences that we have created over the years are ossifying into a permanent, easily searchable record. With the way that things are going, about half of the US population will be considered unemployable by the conflict-avoidant firms of tomorrow.
It is astonishing how the Internet, once its sights are set on an individual, incinerates immediately and without recourse. It's as if social media is a magnifying glass, concentrating the rays of righteous outrage, and we are ants, randomly selected to fry for some original sin committed 15 minutes earlier. Who could possibly survive in such a noxious environment, let alone thrive? I'm glad you asked, since this question brings us to the latest and greatest Internet outrage generator: Donald Trump. I would like to dub Trump the apotheosis of this phenomenon, but it's doubtful that anything can ever be considered apotheotic when it comes to the Internet.
Trump's great innovation has been to unapologetically, even gleefully ride the bucking bronco of Internet outrage. Every prediction of his demise has been premature, from his initial campaign salvo that Mexicans send us their rapists, to the dissing of John McCain's years as a Vietnam POW, to the most recent tussle with Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly. Professional wrestlers have leveraged the same formula for decades: trash talk the competition and never back down, even if or when you get thrashed by reality. But since we are playing in the political arena, the consequences have been wholly unintended, even by Internet standards: as Matt Taibbi writes in Rolling Stone, "The [other GOP] candidates have had to resort to increasingly bizarre tactics in order to win press attention. …So much for the cautious feeling-out period: For the candidates, it [is] toss grenades or die."
It's as yet unclear how this will play out. Some would like to argue that Trump is outing the GOP for what it is: a morally bankrupt ideology flush out of not just ideas but also support, outside of an increasingly irrelevant fringe. Others, especially on the left, are glorying in Trump's candid admission that he buys favors and that's how the political system works (although I'll point out that he didn't really say that, if elected, he would fix it). Taibbi looks at it very differently. For him, Trump's harnessing of the outrage machine has pulled the GOP even further to the right, with all the foreseeable consequences for bipartisan dialogue and general political sanity. Of course, the longevity of Trump's candidacy will be the ultimate measure of his influence, but I think that even at this early stage in the election cycle, the impetus of the race has decidedly shifted to grabbing media attention much sooner than otherwise would have been the case.
It's clear that the four individuals whose cases I have lightly sketched here occupy varying positions on the spectrum of verdict-by-Internet, and as such it's equally clear that social media vigilantism is, among other things, blind. Justine Sacco blew up her career with a thoughtless tweet. Did her message reveal a callow disregard for Africans, or was it indicative of the hopelessly pervasive casual racism that it feels like we will never resolve? I don't know. Adria Richards lost her own job after blowing the whistle on what she considered to be unconscionable sexism. Were the jokers in fact hard-boiled misogynists or just maladroit computer nerds? I don't know the answer to that, either. You may maintain that the answer is in fact irrelevant, but if so, I would ask, did anyone deserve to lose their jobs over these incidents? Another way of putting it is, Were the punishments commensurate to the crimes, which weren't even crimes, at least so far as I understand the law? As for Donald Trump, he really doesn't care what you think, and there's no one to fire him anyway, unless enough voters get together to shoo him away, which remains to be seen (Exhibit A: Silvio Berlusconi).
As for poor Cecil, what lessons can we draw from his untimely demise? If Walter Palmer is to be believed, it would seem that, however reprehensible the act itself may have been, he acted in good faith and within the law. The people who broke the law – by luring Cecil out of the park and into a game reserve – were his guides, or perhaps people hired by those guides. I am sure that the story is much murkier than that, of course, but I am reserving judgment for the moment. Social media has come down hard on the side of lion conservation, and the idea that paid-for hunting has any role to play in conservation has been ridiculed. For those of us who sit in front of our computer screens and not in Land Rovers on the savannah, it is all too easy to discount the presence of complex and stressed societies that live in proximity to these wild animals. How can this not be a factor? So I was interested to hear the BBC interview one of the scientists whose organization was tracking Cecil. When asked about the issue, he flatly said that, if it wasn't for hunting license fees that went into the local economy, the entire park would be poached out of existence within a few months. Not just lions, but anything that had market value. But you go tell the mob that – I'm not going to risk it.
Next month, I'll examine some more theoretical approaches to why Internet vigilantism happens. With the help of Herodotus, David Graeber and even Slavoj Žižek, I'll try to propose a more satisfying framework; I suspect it will begin with the concept of bullying. But in the intervening few weeks, I look forward to more excellent examples of outrage surfacing.
Monday, July 20, 2015
"We are at home with situations of legal ambiguity.
And we create flexibility, in situations where it is required."
Consider a few hastily conceived scenarios from the near future. An android charged with performing elder care must deal with an uncooperative patient. A driverless car carrying passengers must decide between suddenly stopping, and causing a pile-up behind it. A robot responding to a collapsed building must choose between two people to save. The question that unifies these scenarios is not just about how to make the correct decision, but more fundamentally, how to treat the entities involved. Is it possible for a machine to be treated as an ethical subject – and, by extension, that an artifical entity may possess "robot rights"?
Of course, "robot rights" is a crude phrase that shoots us straight into a brambly thicket of anthropomorphisms; let's not quite go there yet. Perhaps it's more accurate to ask if a machine – something that people have designed, manufactured and deployed into the world – can have some sort of moral or ethical standing, whether as an agent or as a recipient of some action. What's really at stake here is the contention that a machine can act sufficiently independently in the world that it can be held responsible for its actions and, conversely, if a machine has any sort of standing such that, if it were harmed in any way, this standing would serve to protect its ongoing place and function in society.
You could, of course, dismiss all this as a bunch of nonsense: that machines are made by us exclusively for our use, and anything a robot or computer or AI does or does not do is the responsibility of its human owners. You don't sue the scalpel, rather you sue the surgeon. You don't take a database to court, but the corporation that built it – and in any case you are probably not concerned with the database itself, but with the consequence of how it was used, or maintained, or what have you. As far as the technology goes, if it's behaving badly you shut it off, wipe the drive, or throw it in the garbage, and that's the end of the story.
This is not an unreasonable point of departure, and is rooted in what's known as the instrumentalist view of technology. For an instrumentalist, technology is still only an extension of ourselves and does not possess any autonomy. But how do you control for the sort of complexity for which we are now designing our machines? Our instrumentalist proclivities whisper to us that there must be an elegant way of doing so. So let's begin with a first attempt to do so: Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Some time later, Asimov added a fourth, which was intended to precede all the others, so it's really the ‘Zeroth' Law:
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
The Laws, which made their first appearance in a 1942 story that is, fittingly enough, set in 2015, are what is known as a deontology: an ethical system expressed as an axiomatic system. Basically, deontology provides the ethical ground for all further belief and action: the Ten Commandments are a classic example. But the difficulties with deontology become apparent when one examines the assumptions inherent in each axiom. For example, the First Commandment states, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me". Clearly, Yahweh is not saying that there are no other gods, but rather that any other gods must take a back seat to him, at least as far as the Israelites are concerned. The corollary is that non-Israelites can have whatever gods they like. Nevertheless, most adherents to Judeo-Christian theology would be loathe to admit the possibilities of polytheism. It takes a lot of effort to keep all those other gods at bay, especially if you're not an Israelite – it's much easier if there is only one. But you can't make that claim without fundamentally reinterpreting that crucial first axiom.
Asimov's axioms can be similarly poked and prodded. Most obviously, we have the presumption of perfect knowledge. How would a robot (or AI or whatever) know if an action was harmful or not? A human might scheme to split actions that are by themselves harmless across several artificial entities, which are subsequently combined to produce harmful consequences. Sometimes knowledge is impossible for both humans and robots: if we look at the case of a stock-trading AI, there is uncertainty whether a stock trade is harmful to another human being or not. If the AI makes a profitable trade, does the other side lose money, and if so, does this constitute harm? How can the machine know if the entity on the other side is in fact losing money? Would it matter if that other entity were another machine and not a human? But don't machines ultimately represent humans in any case?
Better yet, consider a real life example:
A commercial toy robot called Nao was programmed to remind people to take medicine.
"On the face of it, this sounds simple," says Susan Leigh Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Connecticut in Stamford who did the work with her husband, computer scientist Michael Anderson of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. "But even in this kind of limited task, there are nontrivial ethics questions involved." For example, how should Nao proceed if a patient refuses her medication? Allowing her to skip a dose could cause harm. But insisting that she take it would impinge on her autonomy.
In this case, the Hippocratic ‘do no harm' has to be balanced against a more utilitarian ‘do some good'. Assuming it could, does the robot force the patient to take the medicine? Wouldn't that constitute potential harm (ie, the possibility that the robot hurts the patient in the act)? Would that harm be greater than not taking the medicine, just this once? What about tomorrow? If we are designing machines to interact with us in such profound and nuanced ways, those machines are already ethical subjects. Our recognition of them as such is already playing catch-up with the facts on the ground.
As implied with the stock trading example, another deontological shortcoming is in the definitions themselves: what's a robot, and what's a human? As robots become more human-like, and humans become more engineered, the line will become blurry. And in many cases, a robot will have to make a snap judgment. What's binary for "quo vadis", and what do you do with a lying human? Because humans lie for the strangest reasons.
Finally, the kind of world that Asimov's laws presupposes is one where robots run around among humans. It's a very specific sort of embodiment. In fact, it is a sort of Slavery 2.0, where robots clearly function for the benefit and in the service of humanity. The Laws are meant to facilitate a very material cohabitation, whereas the kind of broadly distributed, virtually placeless machine intelligence that we are currently developing by leveraging the Internet is much more slippery, and resembles the AI of Spike Jonze's ‘Her'. How do you tell things apart in such a dematerialized world?
The final nail in Asimov's deontological coffin is the assumption of ‘hard-wiring'. That is, Asimov claims that the Laws would be a non-negotiable part of the basic architecture of all robots. But it is wiser to prepare for the exact opposite: the idea that any machine of sufficient intelligence will be able to reprogram itself. The reasons why are pretty irrelevant – it doesn't have to be some variant of SkyNet suddenly deciding to destroy humanity. It may just sit there and not do anything. It may disappear, as the AIs did in ‘Her'. Or, as in William Gibson's Neuromancer, it may just want to become more of itself, and decide what to do with that later on. Gibson never really tells us why the two AIs – that function as the true protagonists of the novel – even wanted to do what they did.
This last thought indicates a fundamental marker in the machine ethics debate. A real difference is developing itself here, and that is the notion of inscrutability. In order for the stance of instrumentality to hold up, you need a fairly straight line of causality. I saw this guy on the beach, I pulled the trigger, and now the guy is dead. It may be perplexing, I may not be sure why I pulled the trigger at that moment, but the chain of events is clear, and there is a system in place to handle it, however problematic. On the other hand, how or why a machine comes to a conclusion or engages in a course of action may be beyond our scope to determine. I know this sounds a bit odd, since after all we built the things. But a record of a machine's internal decisionmaking would have to be a deliberate part of its architecture, and this is expensive and perhaps not commensurate with the agenda of its designers: for example, Diebold made both ATMs and voting machines. Only the former provided receipts, making it fairly easy to theoretically steal an election.
If Congress is willing to condone digitally supervised elections without paper trails, imagine how far away we are from the possibility of regulating the Wild West of machine intelligence. And in fact AIs are being designed to produce results without any regard for how they get to a particular conclusion. One such deliberately opaque AI is Rita, mentioned in a previous essay. Rita's remit is to deliver state-of-the-art video compression technology, but how it arrives at its conclusions is immaterial to the fact that it manages to get there. In the comments to that piece, a friend added that "it is a regular occurrence here at Google where we try to figure out what our machine learning systems are doing and why. We provide them input and study the outputs, but the internals are now an inscrutable black box. Hard to tell if that's a sign of the future or an intermediate point along the way."
Nevertheless, we can try to hold on to the instrumentalist posture and maintain that a machine's black box nature still does not merit the treatment accorded to an ethical subject; that it is still the results or consequences that count, and that the owners of the machine retain ultimate responsibility for it, whether or not they understand it. Well, who are the owners, then?
Of course, ethics truly manifests itself in society via the law. And the law is a generally reactive entity. In the Anglo-American case law tradition, laws, codes and statutes are passed or modified (and less often, repealed) only after bad things happen, and usually only in response to those specific bad things. More importantly for the present discussion, recent history shows that the law (or to be more precise, the people who draft, pass and enforce it) has not been nearly as eager to punish the actions of collectives and institutions as it has been to pursue individuals. Exhibit A in this regard is the number of banks found guilty of vast criminality following the 2008 financial crisis and, by corollary, the number bankers thrown in jail for same. Part of the reason for this is the way that the law already treats non-human entities. I am reminded of Mitt Romney on the Presidential campaign trail a few years ago, benignly musing that "corporations are people, my friend".
Corporate personhood is a complex topic but at its most essential it is a great way to offload risk. Sometimes this makes sense – entrepreneurs can try new ideas and go bankrupt but not lose their homes and possessions. Other times, as with the Citizens United decision, the results can be grotesque and impactful in equal measure. But we ought to look to the legal history of corporate personhood as a possible test case for how machines may become ethical subjects in the eyes of the law. Not only that, but corporations will likely be the owners of these ethical subjects – from a legal point of view, they will look to craft the legal representation of machines as much to their advantage as possible. To not be too cynical about it, I would imagine this would involve minimal liability and maximum profit. This is something I have not yet seen discussed in machine ethics circles, where the concern seems to be more about the instantiation of ethics within the machines themselves, or in highly localized human-machine interactions. Nevertheless, the transformation of the ethical machine-subject into the legislated machine-subject – put differently, the machines as subjects of a legislative gaze – will be of incredibly far-reaching consequence. It will all be in the fine print, and I daresay deliberately difficult to parse. When that day comes, I will be sure to hire an AI to help me make sense of it all.
Monday, June 29, 2015
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
Introduction by Bill Benzon
This month I've decided to turn things over to my good friend Charles Cameron, whom I've known for somewhat over a dozen years, though only online. He's a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.
But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh "Grazin in the Grass" Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.
To the bridge builders...
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
by Charles Cameron
I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.
It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.
The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.
The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.
And in all this, there is lyricism.
It is characteristic of St Francis that he is lyrical, not just in his great Canticle of Creatures but in his lifelong love of chivalry and the songs of the troubadours, in his words – like Orpheus, he could tame the beasts – and in his preaching to the birds.
Of St Francis, the Pope writes:
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast ..
Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.
It is only appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis titles his encyclical with the ongoing refrain of his chosen name-sake’s Canticle, Laudato Si’. The encyclical’s opening words set this lyrical theme and tone, which is indeed the theme behind Francis’ own pontificate and this encyclical in particular:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her…
Scott Beauchamp comments in his Baffler piece, It Sounds Like a Melody,
Laudato Si’ is 184 pages long. Only twenty-eight of those are about the politics of environmental change. The rest is theology.
It is. It also, as Beauchamp’s title suggests, sounds like a melody.
Beauchamp is quoting Ornette Coleman here, who said of his own playing, “it sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody.” An encyclical is not a melody, but in Francis’ voice it sounds like one.
Catholic and Orthodox
In proposing that Laudato Si’ is a work of bridge-building, I want to suggest reading it as an ecumenical document, bridging the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of 1054. Francis’ encyclical is explicit as to the ecumenical impact it hopes to achieve, mentioning and quoting Francis’ “beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion."
Indeed, when presented to the world at a conference in the Vatican, the encyclical was introduced by a panel that notably included Metropolitan John of Pergamon, representing Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is informally known as “the Green Patriarch”. John Chryssavgis writes of him:
No other church leader has been so recognized for his leadership and initiatives in confronting the theological, ethical and practical imperative of environmental issues in our time as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. He has long placed the environment at the head of his church's agenda, earning him numerous awards and the title ‘Green Patriarch'.
John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon himself is known, among other things, as the author of Preserving God’s Creation: three lectures on theology and ecology, published in 1989 and ‘90 in King’s College London Theological Review. In his introductory remarks at the conference announcing the encyclical, he said:
I should like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the honour to be invited to take part in this event of launching the new Encyclical of His Holiness Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. I am also honoured by the fact that His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has asked me to convey to you his personal joy and satisfaction for the issuing of the Encyclical. As some of you may already know, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been the first one in the Christian world to draw the attention of the world community to the seriousness of the ecological problem and the duty of the Church to voice its concern and try to contribute with all the spiritual means at its disposal towards the protection of our natural environment. Thus, back already in the year 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued an Encyclical to the faithful Christians and to all people of good will, in which he underlined the seriousness of the ecological problem and its theological and spiritual dimensions.
But these remarks do no more than touch the surface of the devotional theology in which the Orthodox approach creation. When Metropolitan John says “The issuing of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ is, therefore, an occasion of great joy and satisfaction for the Orthodox”, the words “great joy” convey the merest hint of what is intended.
Let me share and expand here some paragraphs of my guest blog at LapidoMedia, where I am currently serving as editor, Poetry, controversy and praise in Pope Francis’ Encyclical:
It has long been the Eastern Church which has taken an understanding of the sacred gift of the earth to its deepest and most profound levels.
Indeed, Orthodox theologians from St Maximus the Confessor down to the present day have held that the transformation of the earth is central to our human purpose. St Maximus explains the meaning of the world by saying, ‘that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into a eucharist, the path to deification.’ The world will become a “eucharist” – a word that describes both the great and continuing sacrifice of the Mass, and, literally in the Greek, a thanksgiving.
As man becomes less sinful and more like the Creator in whose image he was made, the world under his care becomes the paradise that has always been its destiny. Again, the high lyrical note sounds in Metropolitan John’s 1989 homily in Zurich, A Theology of Creation:
Christ, through his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit, has brought about the potential transfiguration of the universe. ... In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the Spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency.
These words express the Orthodoz’ fiery and blazing sense of the world as not merely “the ecology” in peril, not simply “the creation” even, but as the veil and symbol through which our creator aches to speak with us, to reveal his beauty, his love, his care.
Sacrament and Society
The words, the lyricism, the aspirations are so lofty that the secular mind may not reach them, and even the religious mind falter for lack of oxygen, but they are the sacramentally sustained basis for a move outward, into the world, driven by the exigencies of our pre-catastrophic situation.
Francis aims to appeal to both sacramental and social motivations, offering the sacramental value of the human individual as the driver for the highest and fullest movement towards love, truth, justice, and peace.
In my own early adolescence, my own mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, counseled me to anchor myself in the sacramental and move out into the world to accomplish what measure of social good I might find myself called and suited to. In his great book Naught for your Comfort – the first non-fiction book to challenge the inhumanity of Apartheid in his much lived South Africa – Fr Trevor made this causal link between the sacramental, contemplative and mystical life and the necessity for actions of social justice explicit, writing in a key paragraph:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
Similarly Pope Francis, from within his richly sacramental perspective, intends and calls for us to shift the world from what he perceives as its present, dire and eventually catastrophic course to one which will by contrast be loving, creative, and sustainable.
Liberal and Conservative
In bridging sacramental and social values, the Pope’s plea is unavoidably and interestingly controversial.
Let me draw again on my observations in my LapidoMedia post:
While those in the environmental movement worldwide welcome it, conservatives who doubt the theory of global warming – or celebrate the global market economy and consumerism – see the Pope’s encyclical as a radical attack on core values.
Ross Douthat in his New York Times op-ed, Pope Francis’ Call to Action Goes Beyond the Environment, notes that the encyclical “includes, as many liberals hoped and certain conservatives feared, a call to action against climate change.” It also contains, as many liberals feared and many conservatives will take comfort in, a clear statement of the Catholic Church’s continuing position on abortion.
“Since everything is interrelated,” Francis writes, “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” And “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
Both climate change believers and doubters, pro-choice and pro-life factions, will find their own concerns addressed in this encyclical. Indeed, Pope Francis offers both liberals and conservatives something to applaud and something to trouble them. And this brings us to the heart of the encyclical.
Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who “observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’.”
Both the environmental and pro-life strands in Francis’ encyclical stem from his view of the unity of God’s creation, and the human role, created ‘in the image of God’, within it. Indeed, it is this unified vision which makes the encyclical both richly welcome and deeply disturbing to many on both sides of some of the great divides of our time.
This in turn begs the question, what happens when an influential world figure of undoubted moral stature crosses the lines that usually separate opposing camps? Does he lose respect on both sides? Or does he begin to build a bridge between them?
Religion and Science
The same issue arises when we view Francis’ encyclical as building a bridge between religion and science.
Once again, we can turn to the Orthodox church for an early understanding of the situation. John Chryssavgis in Theology, Ecology and the Arts: Reconciling Sacredness and Beauty, tackles the longstanding “war” between religion and science, writing:
In his book Being as Communion, Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamon, arguably the foremost Orthodox theologian today, compares these two different approaches, and asserts that: Science and theology for a long time seemed to be in search of different sorts of truth, as if there were not one truth . . . This resulted in making truth subject to a dichotomy between the transcendent and the immanent.
One of the primary and visionary goals of the ecological initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been precisely the reconciliation of these two ways, which have long been separated and estranged. Pope Francis has the same visionary goal, expressing it in his detailed exposition of the science behind climate change. As a correspondent in the scientific journal Nature’s News blog put it, “never before has a pope drawn so resolutely from science, a sphere that has long been considered irreconcilable with essential Catholic religious beliefs.”
The encyclical’s passages include such purely scientific observations as this paragraph, chosen as much for its generality as for its detail:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.
And what of those who dispute this scientific consensus? He includes them in his regret and hope:
Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.
Christian and Muslim
That greater ecumenism which seeks to reconcile the world’s great faiths finds its quiet place in the encyclical too. St Francis – as Dr Hoeberichts demonstrates to my satisfaction in his Francis and Islam – had a willingness for his “little brothers” to live among the Saracens in humility and peace, at a time when this was far from the normative teaching of the church in those crusading times.
Idries Shah would take the matter further, observing that ”The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else” and that Francis’ poetry “so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes.”
Shah then goes on to recount the tale of St Francis and Brother Masseo arriving at a fork in the road. When Masseo asked which road they should take, Francis instructed him to “turn round and round as children do, until I tell you to stop.” When at last Francis gave the command to stop, Masseo found himself facing the road to Siena. "Then to Siena we must go," Shah tells us St Francis said – “and to Siena they went.”
Perhaps most suggestively, the Pope’s encyclical in a footnote quotes a Sufi poet:
The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...”
Again, the intense lyricism. And it is perhaps notable that Ibn 'Arabi, the Shaykh al-Akbar, quotes a closely similar saying from another North African master, Abu 'Uthman al-Maghr.
Ali al-Khawas’s words are drawn from his pupil Sha'rani’s Lata'if a-lminan wa-l-akhlaq, or al-Minan Al-kubra. Dr Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, a noted scholar of Sufism, has kindly allowed me to quote these two sentences as part of a longer translation which he hopes to publish in full in due course:
And among that which God, may He be blessed and exalted, has granted by means of Himself to me is [the following]: my not hastening to repudiate whoever stands up [during sama'] and engages in ecstatic dance, even if he were to be among transgressors or even if he was not used to it, since God (ta'ala) [during such a dance] might unveil the veil from some hearts, such that they would yearn for their primordial homeland and then sway, like the tree that, as it were, desires to pull its roots from the earth. I heard Sidi 'Ali al-Khawwāṣ (may God – ta'ala – have mercy upon him) say, "Samāʿ (the practice of both listening to the singing of spiritual poetry and music as well as dancing) has a great effect on the inrushing of [spiritual] truths [into the consciousness of the practitioner]
The attitude is a merciful and forgiving one – and once again, the whirling dance and song are at the heart of its inspiration.
His pupil, the scholar-sufi al-Sha'rani describes al-Khawwāṣ as “an unlettered man” and “a man who is totally hidden such that almost no one knew of his sainthood and knowledge except for the practicing scholars, for he is indeed a perfect man to us without any doubt!” Such was the poet-saint that the Pope quotes in his encyclical – In a footnote, yet another bridge from this second Francis to Islam.
Traditional and Immediate
In all of this, Francis is balancing the traditional – the magisterium or timeless teachings of the church – with the immediate – the crisis at hand.
Pope John XXIII, he notes, “addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire ‘Catholic world’ and indeed ‘to all men and women of good will’.” John XXIII spoke at a time when the world was ‘teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis.’ Pope Francis regards the current world situation as no less dire, and addresses a yet wider audience:
Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. … In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’
The final bridge Francis wishes to build is one he hopes we will cross – the bridge between his own and the church’s sacramental insight, and our will to cherish and protect our home, our niche, our planet.
* * * * *
I am indebted to Bill Benzon for his generous invitation for me to post at 3QD on the topic of the Encyclical, to Jenny Taylor for her permission to quote from my LapidoMedia blog post, to Alan Godlas for his permission to quote a part of his upcoming translation of the relevant passage from al-Sha’rani, and for further help regarding al-Sharani and al-Khawwas received from Jane Clark, Julian Cook, and others at Beshara.
Monday, June 22, 2015
The Long Shadow of Nazi Indoctrination: Persistence of Anti-Semitism in Germany
by Jalees Rehman
Anti-Semitism and the holocaust are among the central themes in the modern German secondary school curriculum. During history lessons in middle school, we learned about anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Europe during the middle ages and early modernity. Our history curriculum in the ninth and tenth grades focused on the virulent growth of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe, how Hitler and the Nazi party used anti-Semitism as a means to rally support and gain power, and how the Nazi apparatus implemented the systematic genocide of millions of Jews.
In grades 11 to 13, the educational focus shifts to a discussion of the broader moral and political context of anti-Semitism and Nazism. How could the Nazis enlist the active and passive help of millions of "upstanding" citizens to participate in this devastating genocide? Were all Germans who did not actively resist the Nazis morally culpable or at least morally responsible for the Nazi horrors? Did Germans born after the Second World War inherit some degree of moral responsibility for the crimes committed by the Nazis? How can German society ever redeem itself after being party to the atrocities of the Nazis? Anti-Semitism and Nazism were also important topics in our German literature and art classes because the Nazis persecuted and murdered German Jewish intellectuals and artists, and because the shame and guilt experienced by Germans after 1945 featured so prominently in German art and literature.
One purpose of extensively educating Germany school-children about this dark and shameful period of German history is the hope that if they are ever faced with the reemergence of prejudice directed against Jews or any other ethnic or religious group, they will have the courage to stand up for those who are being persecuted and make the right moral choices. As such, it is part of the broader Vergangenheitsbewältigung (wrestling with one's past) in post-war German society which takes place not only in schools but in various public venues. The good news, according to recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, is that Germans who attended school after the Second World War have shown a steady decline in anti-Semitism. The bad news: Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a bigger challenge for Germans who attended school under the Nazis because a significant proportion of them continue to exhibit high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes more than half a century after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Voigtländer and Voth examined the results of the large General Social Survey for Germany (ALLBUS) in which several thousand Germans were asked about their values and beliefs. The survey took place in 1996 and 2006, and the researchers combined the results of both surveys with a total of 5,300 participants from 264 German towns and cities. The researchers were specifically interested in anti-Semitic attitudes and focused on three survey questions specifically related to anti-Semitism. Survey participants were asked to respond on a scale of 1 to 7 and indicate whether they thought Jews had too much influence in the world, whether Jews were responsible for their own persecution and whether Jews should have equal rights. The researchers categorized participants as "committed anti-Semites" if they revealed anti-Semitic attitudes to all three questions. The overall rate of committed anti-Semites was 4% in Germany but there was significant variation depending on the geographical region and the age of the participants.
Germans born in the 1970s and 1980s had only 2%-3% committed anti-Semites whereas the rate was nearly double for Germans born in the 1920s (6%). However, the researchers noted one exception: Germans born in the 1930s. Those citizens had the highest fraction of anti-Semites: 10%. The surveys were conducted in 1996 and 2006 when the participants born in in the 1930s were 60-75 years old. In other words, one out of ten Germans of that generation did not think that Jews deserved equal rights!
The researchers attributed this to the fact that people born in the 1930s were exposed to the full force of systematic Nazi indoctrination with anti-Semitic views which started as early as in elementary school and also took place during extracurricular activities such as the Hitler Youth programs. The Nazis came to power in 1933 and immediately began implementing a whole-scale propaganda program in all schools. A child born in 1932, for example, would have attended elementary school and middle school as well as Hitler Youth programs from age six onwards till the end of the war in 1945 and become inculcated with anti-Semitic propaganda.
The researchers also found that the large geographic variation in anti-Semitic prejudices today was in part due to the pre-Nazi history of anti-Semitism in any given town. The Nazis were not the only and not the first openly anti-Semitic political movement in Germany. There were German political parties with primarily anti-Jewish agendas which ran for election in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Voigtländer and Voth analyzed the votes that these anti-Semitic parties received more than a century ago, from 1890 to 1912. Towns and cities with the highest support for anti-Semitic parties in this pre-Nazi era are also the ones with the highest levels of anti-Semitic prejudice today. When children were exposed to anti-Semitic indoctrination in schools under the Nazis, the success of these hateful messages depended on how "fertile" the ground was. If the children were growing up in towns and cities where family members or public figures had supported anti-Jewish agenda during prior decades then there was a much greater likelihood that the children would internalize the Nazi propaganda. The researchers cite the memoir of the former Hitler Youth member Alfons Heck:
"We who were born into Nazism never had a chance unless our parents were brave enough to resist the tide and transmit their opposition to their children. There were few of those."
- Alfons Heck in "The Burden of Hitler's Legacy"
The researchers then address the puzzling low levels of anti-Semitic prejudices among Germans born in the 1920s. If the theory of the researcher were correct that anti-Semitic prejudices persist today because Nazi school indoctrination then why aren't Germans born in the 1920s more anti-Semitic? A child born in 1925 would have been exposed to Nazi propaganda throughout secondary school. Oddly enough, women born in the 1920s did show high levels of anti-Semitism when surveyed in 1996 and 2006 but men did not. Voigtländer and Voth solve this mystery by reviewing wartime fatality rates. The most zealous male Nazi supporters with strong anti-Semitic prejudices were more likely to volunteer for the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the Nazi party. Some SS divisions had an average age of 18 and these SS-divisions had some of the highest fatality rates. This means that German men born in the 1920s weren't somehow immune to Nazi propaganda. Instead, most of them perished because they bought into it and this is why we now see lower levels of anti-Semitism than expected in Germans born during that decade.
A major limitation of this study is its correlational nature and the lack of data on individual exposure to Nazism. The researchers base their conclusions on birth years and historical votes for anti-Semitic parties of towns but did not track how much individuals were exposed to anti-Semitic propaganda in their schools or their families. Such a correlational study cannot establish a cause-effect relationship between propaganda and the persistence of prejudice today. One factor not considered by the researchers, for example, is that Germans born in the 1930s are also among those who grew up as children in post-war Germany, often under conditions of extreme poverty and even starvation.
Even without being able to establish a clear cause-effect relationship, the findings of the study raise important questions about the long-term effects of racial propaganda. It appears that a decade of indoctrination may give rise to a lifetime of hatred. Our world continues to be plagued by prejudice against fellow humans based on their race or ethnicity, religion, political views, gender or sexual orientation. Children today are not subject to the systematic indoctrination implemented by the Nazis but they are probably still exposed to more subtle forms of prejudice and we do not know much about its long-term effects. We need to recognize the important role of public education in shaping the moral character of individuals and ensure that our schools help our children become critical thinkers with intact moral reasoning, citizens who can resist indoctrination and prejudice.
Voigtländer N and Voth HJ. "Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1414822112
Artificially Flavored Intelligence
"I see your infinite form in every direction,
with countless arms, stomachs, faces, and eyes."
~ Bhagavad-Gītā 11 16
About ten days ago, someone posted on an image on Reddit, a sprawling site that is the Internet's version of a clown car that's just crashed into a junk shop. The image, appropriately uploaded to the 'Creepy' corner of the website, is kind of hard to describe, so, assuming that you are not at the moment on any strong psychotropic substances, or are not experiencing a flashback, please have a good, long look before reading on.
What the hell is that thing? Our sensemaking gear immediately kicks into overdrive. If Cthulhu had had a pet slug, this might be what it looked like. But as you look deeper into the picture, all sorts of other things begin to emerge. In the lower left-hand corner there are buildings and people, and people sitting on buildings which might themselves be on wheels. The bottom center of the picture seems to be occupied by some sort of a lurid, lime-colored fish. In the upper right-hand corner, half-formed faces peer out of chalices. The background wallpaper evokes an unholy copulation of brain coral and astrakhan fur. And still there are more faces, or at least eyes. There are indeed more eyes than an Alex Grey painting, and they hew to none of the neat symmetries that make for a safe world. In fact, the deeper you go into the picture, the less perspective seems to matter, as solid surfaces dissolve into further cascades of phantasmagoria. The same effect applies to the principal thing, which has not just an indeterminate number of eyes, ears or noses, but even heads.
The title of the thread wasn't very helpful, either: "This image was generated by a computer on its own (from a friend working on AI)". For a few days, that was all anyone knew, but it was enough to incite another minor-scale freakout about the nature and impending arrival of Our Computer Overlords. Just as we are helpless to not over-interpret the initial picture, so we are all too willing to titillate ourselves with alarmist speculations concerning its provenance. This was presented as a glimpse into the psychedelic abyss of artificial intelligence; an unspeakable, inscrutable intellect briefly showed us its cards, and it was disquieting, to put it mildly. Is that what AI thinks life looks like? Or stated even more anxiously, is that what AI thinks life should look like?
Alas, our giddy Lovecraftian fantasies weren't allowed to run amok for more than a few days, since the boffins at Google tipped their hand with a blog post describing what was going on. The image, along with many others, were the result of a few engineers playing around with neural networks, and seeing how far they could push them. In this case, a neural network is ‘trained' to recognize something when it is fed thousands of instances of that thing. So if the engineers want to train a neural network to recognize the image of a dog, they will keep feeding it images of the same, until it acquires the ability to identify dogs in pictures it hasn't seen before. For the purposes of this essay, I'll just leave it at that, but here is a good explanation of how neural networks ‘learn'.
The networks in question were trained to recognize animals, people and architecture. But things got interesting when the Google engineers took a trained neural net and fed it only one input – over and over again. Once slightly modified, the image was then re-submitted to the network. If it were possible to imagine the network having a conversation with itself, it may go something like this:
First pass: Ok, I'm pretty good at finding squirrels and dogs and fish. Does this picture have any of these things in it? Hmmm, no, although that little blob looks like it might be the eye of one of those animals. I'll make a note of that. Also that lighter bit looks like fur. Yeah. Fur.
Second pass: Hey, that blob definitely looks like an eye. I'll sharpen it up so that it's more eye-like, since that's obviously what it is. Also, that fur could look furrier.
Third pass: That eye looks like it might go with that other eye that's not that far off. That other dark bit in between might just be the nose that I'd need to make it a dog. Oh wow – it is a dog! Amazing.
The results are essentially thousands of such decisions made across dozens of layers of the network. Each layer of ‘neurons' hands over its interpretation to the next layer up the hierarchy, and a final decision of what to emphasize or de-emphasize is made by the last layer. The fact that half of a squirrel's face may be interpellated within the features of the dog's face is, in the end, irrelevant.
But I also feel very wary about having written this fantasy monologue, since framing the computational process as a narrative is something that makes sense to us, but in fact isn't necessarily true. By way of comparison, the philosopher Jacques Derrida was insanely careful about stating what he could claim in any given act of writing, and did so while he was writing. Much to the consternation of many of his readers, this act of deconstructing the text as he was writing it was nevertheless required for him to be accurate in making his claims. Similarly, while the anthropomorphic cheat is perhaps the most direct way of illustrating how AI ‘works', it is also very seductive and misleading. I offer up the above with the exhortation that there is no thinking going on. There is no goofy conversation. There is iteration, and interpretation, and ultimately but entirely tangentially, weirdness. The neural network doesn't think it's weird, however. The neural network doesn't think anything, at least not in the overly generous way in which we deploy that word.
So, echoing a deconstructionist approach, we would claim that the idea of ‘thinking' is really the problem. It is a sort of absent center, where we jam in all the unexamined assumptions that we need in order to keep the system intact. Once we really ask what we mean by ‘thinking' then the whole idea of intelligence, whether we are speaking of our own human one, let alone another's, becomes strange and unwhole. So if we then try to avoid the word – and therefore the idea behind the word – ‘thinking' as ascribed to a computer program, then how ought we think about this? Because – sorry – we really don't have a choice but to think about it.
I believe that there are more accurate metaphors to be had, ones that rely on narrower views of our subjectivity, not the AI's. For example, there is the children's game of telephone, where a phrase is whispered from one ear to the next. Given enough iterations, what emerges is a garbled, nonsensical mangling of the original, but one that is hopefully still entertaining. But if it amuses, this is precisely because it remains within the realm of language. The last person does not recite a random string of alphanumeric characters. Rather, our drive to recognize patterns, also known as apophenia, yields something that can still be spoken. It is just weird enough, which is a fine balance indeed.
What did you hear? To me, it sounds obvious that a female voice is repeating "no way" to oblivion. But other listeners have variously reported window, welcome, love me, run away, no brain, rainbow, raincoat, bueno, nombre, when oh when, mango, window pane, Broadway, Reno, melting, or Rogaine.
This illustrates the way that our expectations shape our perception…. We are expecting to hear words, and so our mind morphs the ambiguous input into something more recognisable. The power of expectation might also underlie those embarrassing situations where you mishear a mumbled comment, or even explain the spirit voices that sometimes leap out of the static on ghost hunting programmes.
Even more radical are Steve Reich's tape loop pieces, which explore the effects of when a sound gradually goes out of phase with itself. In fact, 2016 will be the 50th anniversary of "Come Out", one of the seminal explorations of this idea. While the initial phrase is easy to understand, as the gap in phase widens we struggle to maintain its legibility. Not long into the piece, the words are effectively erased, and we find ourselves swimming in waves of pure sound. Nevertheless, our mental apparatus stills seeks to make some sort of sense of it all, it's just that the patterns don't obtain for long enough in order for a specific interpretation to persist.
Of course, the list of contraptions meant to isolate and provoke our apophenic tendencies is substantial, and oftentimes touted as having therapeutic benefits. We slide into sensory deprivation tanks to gape at the universe within, and assemble mail-order DIY ‘brain machines' to ‘expand our brain's technical skills'. This is mostly bunk, but all are predicated on the idea that the brain will produce its own stimuli when external ones are absent, or if there is only a narrow band of stimulus available. In the end, what we experience here is not so much an epiphany, as apophany.
In effect, what Google's engineers have fabricated is an apophenic doomsday machine. It does one thing – search for patterns in the ways in which it knows how – and it does those things very, very well. A neural network trained to identify animals will not suddenly begin to find architectural features in a given input image. It will, if given the picture of a building façade, find all sorts of animals that, in its judgment, already lurk there. The networks are even capable of teasing out the images with which they are familiar if given a completely random picture – the graphic equivalent of static. These are perhaps the most compelling images of all. It's the equivalent of putting a neural network in an isolation tank. But is it? The slide into anthropomorphism is so effortless.
And although the Google blog post isn't clear on this, I suspect that there is also no clear point at which the network is ‘finished'. An intrinsic part of thinking is knowing when to stop, whereas iteration needs some sort of condition wrapped around the loop, otherwise it will never end. You don't tell a computer to just keep adding numbers, you tell it to add only the first 100 numbers you give it. Otherwise the damned thing won't stop. The engineers ran the iterations up until a certain point, and it doesn't really matter if that point was determined by a pre-existing test condition (eg, ‘10,000 iterations') or a snap aesthetic judgment (eg, ‘This is maximum weirdness!'). The fact is that human judgment is the wrapper around the process that creates these images. So if we consider that a fundamental feature of thinking is knowing when to stop doing so, then we find this trait lacking in this particular application of neural networks.
In addition to knowing when to stop, there is another critical aspect of thinking as we know it, and that is forgetting. In ‘Funes el memorioso', Jorge Luis Borges speculated on the crippling consequences of a memory so perfect that nothing was ever lost. Among other things, the protagonist Funes can only live a life immersed in an ocean of detail, "incapable of general, platonic ideas". In order to make patterns, we have to privilege one thing over another, and dismiss vast quantities of sensory information as irrelevant, if not outright distracting or even harmful.
Interestingly enough, this relates to a theory concerning the nature of the schizophrenic mind (in a further nod to the deconstructionist tendency, I concede that the term ‘schizophrenia' is not unproblematic, but allow me the assumption). The ‘hyperlearning hypothesis' claims that schizophrenic symptoms can arise from a surfeit of dopamine in the brain. As a key neurotransmitter, dopamine plays a crucial role in memory formation:
When the brain is rewarded unexpectedly, dopamine surges, prompting the limbic "reward system" to take note in order to remember how to replicate the positive experience. In contrast, negative encounters deplete dopamine as a signal to avoid repeating them. This is a key learning mechanism which is also involves memory-formation and motivation. Scientists believe the brain establishes a new temporary neural network to process new stimuli. Each repetition of the same experience triggers the identical neural firing sequence along an identical neural journey, with every duplication strengthening the synaptic links among the neurons involved. Neuroscientists say, "Neurons that fire together wire together." If this occurs enough times, a secure neural network is established, as if imprinted, and the brain can reliably access the information over time.
The hyperlearning hypothesis posits that schizophrenics have too much dopamine in their brains, too much of the time. Take the process described above and multiply it by orders of magnitude. The result is a world that a schizophrenic cannot make sense of, because literally everything is important, or no one thing is less important than anything else. There is literally no end to thinking, no conditional wrapper to bring anything to a conclusion.
Unsurprisingly, the artificial neural networks discussed above are modeled on precisely this process of reinforcement, except that the dopamine is replaced by an algorithmic stand-in. In 2011, Uli Grasemann and Risto Miikkulainen did the logical next step: they took a neural network called DISCERN and cranked up its virtual dopamine.
Grasemann and Miikkulainen began by teaching a series of simple stories to DISCERN. The stories were assimilated into DISCERN's memory in much the way the human brain stores information – not as distinct units, but as statistical relationships of words, sentences, scripts and stories.
In order to model hyperlearning, Grasemann and Miikkulainen ran the system through its paces again, but with one key parameter altered. They simulated an excessive release of dopamine by increasing the system's learning rate -- essentially telling it to stop forgetting so much.
After being re-trained with the elevated learning rate, DISCERN began putting itself at the center of fantastical, delusional stories that incorporated elements from other stories it had been told to recall. In one answer, for instance, DISCERN claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing.
Even though I find this infinitely more terrifying than a neural net's ability to create a picture of a multi-headed dog-slug-squirrel, I still contend that there is no thinking going on, as we would like to imagine it. And we would very much like to imagine it: even the article cited above has as its headline ‘Scientists Afflict Computers with Schizophrenia to Better Understand the Human Brain'. It's almost as if schizophrenia is something you can pack into a syringe, virtual or otherwise, and inject it into the neural network of your choice, virtual or otherwise. (The actual peer-reviewed article is more soberly titled ‘Using computational patients to evaluate illness mechanisms in schizophrenia'.) We would be much better off understanding these neural networks as tools that provide us with a snapshot of a particular and narrow process. They are no more anthropomorphic than the shapes that clouds may suggest to us on a summer's afternoon. But we seem incapable of forgetting this. If we cannot learn to restrain our relentless pattern-seeking, consider what awaits us on the other end of the spectrum: it is not coincidental that the term ‘apophenia' was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad in a monograph on the inception of schizophrenia.
Monday, June 01, 2015
Why Did America Kill Hundreds Of Thousands Of Iraqi Women And Children? Ask Jeb Bush
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
But he got asked the wrong question.
The right question to ask Jeb Bush is this:
"How dare you run for president when you should be dying of shame instead, because your brother is a war criminal?"
We seemed to have banished simple morality from all our discussions of public policy.
We call the Iraq War our "most serious foreign policy blunder" instead of what it really was: a war crime. An evil deed conceived by evil men because Saddam Hussein cut oil deals with Russian, French and other foreign oil companies, instead of with American oil companies — a snub that our two Texas oil men in charge, Bush and Cheney, could not abide. So they committed a war crime, and lied our whole country into their war crime.
Their act of evil makes the all-too-often-invoked Nazi analogy applicable to America. Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-Powell are the mini-Hitlers of our time, and our country, America, is the Nazi Germany of our time, because of the war crime of the Iraq War. Because of our evil, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women and children are dead.
We are a nation steeped in evil.
We are the biggest manufacturers and sellers of arms in the world. We export evil to an evil regime like Saudi-Arabia, the country that funded 9/11 and beheads women for adultery.
We have a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who took years to apologize for her vote to allow Bush and company to commit the evil of the Iraq War.
We had another female secretary of state, Madeline Albright, who was an apologist for evil on "60 Minutes" in December 1996. Read this exchange and weep:
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it."
We have our American Psychological Association in cahoots with our government in practicing torture. American psychologists — instruments of evil.
We have a police force who goes around shooting a black 12-year-old in a park playing with a toy gun stone-dead, and another black man running away in the back: a police force with trigger-happy racist evil doers in its midst. According to a black ex-cop, 15% of our cops will abuse their authority at every opportunity, 15% won't, and the other 70% will go either way, depending on how much their department has been corroded by the 15% who abuse their authority. (Personally, I think it's crazy to give young men in their 20s a gun and the authority to use it, when their brains haven't fully developed yet. Cops should NOT be allowed to carry guns till they're 30.)
We put a woman of conscience in jail for 30 years because she revealed to us the evil that our military wreaked in Iraq. We've done evil unto Chelsea Manning, when all she did was expose our evil.
We have an ex-president. Bill Clinton, who did nothing about a holocaust happening in Rwanda — a man who allowed monstrous evil to happen on his watch.
We experience a gunman's mass-killing of little children in Sandy Hook, and do nothing about gun control, because our politicians fear an evil organization, the NRA.
We believe it's OK to make a profit out of people getting sick. Our entire health insurance industry is an industry of evil.
We have a political party, the Republican Party, who is the face of pure evil. Because they hate our black president and his signature achievement, Obamacare, so much, many Republican governors refuse to expand Medicaid to poor people in their states (which will cost their states nothing), and so cause the unnecessary deaths of 17.000 Americans a year. The Republicans: a party who would kill their own people out of hate for our president. A party of stunning evil.
We have a teenage Pakistani girl, Malala, telling our president to stop his drone killings, but our president won't listen, because he likes his little evil habit of drone killings too much, and doesn't care that his drones kill more innocent folks than actual evil folks.
Verily, America is the exceptional nation. We Americans behave like the scum of the earth, and we don't even know it, let alone acknowledge it.
So let's take a look at our biggest war crime since the Vietnam War (which plunged Cambodia into a holocaust):
The Iraq War.
Why did we commit this deed of utter evil? Why did we kill innocent Iraqi women and children by the hundreds of thousands?
There are seven reasons why we invaded Iraq. Four of the reasons were real, and they were hidden from the American people. The remaining three were fake ones Bush and Co. used to bamboozle us — or as the pundits say, "to mislead us into war."
1. THE REAL CHENEY REASON: OIL
As CEO of Halliburton, Cheney shared the mindset of Texas oil barons. For them, Iraq was a mouth-watering treasure ripe for pillage.
In Cheney's Halliburton days, Iraq was producing almost three million barrels a day. However, there was potential for much more. Within 20 years, its oil fields could, if fully exploited, reach Saudi levels (full-steam, that's 11 million barrels a day).
So there was Iraq, "floating on a sea of oil" — this rich, plump, juicy plum.
Iraq was socialist. The state owned the oil. And the state was ruled by a two-bit dictator. He had to go: so let's invade Iraq and secure its oil fields for our oil companies.
Not that there's anything inherently evil about invading a country for its oil, especially if the invasion can be said to be some sort of liberation. It might be bad manners, but it's a good reason. Oil is oil. We use it, so maybe it ought to be ours to start with. You can do what you want with your country, as long as we get to pump out your oil. The only problem with this good reason: It doesn't sound all that good. Too damn mercenary. A scary, fake reason was needed to cover up the real reason.
2. THE FAKE CHENEY REASON: WMD
Paul Wolfowitz famously called WMD the "bureaucratic" reason for the war. In other words, not the real reason.
The question is, did Cheney himself believe his hype?
Let's consider the known facts. Cheney was looking for a reason to sell his oil war. He was bugging the CIA to come up with evidence that Saddam had to be taken out. He was grabbing on to the slightest hint, the merest rumor — on to any scrap of information, any data, any source, no matter how compromised or dubious. "Curveball," by all accounts an alcoholic, "crazy, congenital liar," was the source for Saddam's biological weapons, but the mobile labs turned out to be trucks that made helium for weather balloons.
Why would Cheney believe any of this crap when he had his good reason already – oil — and didn't need WMD to be a good reason, as long as it was enough of a reason to sell the country?
So he started the war before the UN could finish its investigation. And to stop any truth-telling, he went so far as to commit treason by leaking the identity of a whistleblower and former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, who happened to be a covert CIA agent.
Cheney and Chalabi, his Iraqi source who wanted a war so he could take over Saddam's job, fed their WMD "facts" to journalist Judy Miller, who dutifully wrote them up for publication in The New York Times.
The next day, if anyone asked Cheney about WMD – say, another reporter, or Tim Russert on TV — Cheney would quote the Times as a reliable source that reported that Saddam had WMD.
Slick. They even conned poor Colin Powell into trying to sell their story to the UN.
Cheney had a whole task force devoted to selling the war to the public: the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, which met weekly in the White House Situation Room. What a crew: Andrew Card, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes, and Mary Matalin – bare-faced liars who'd bullshit their own grandmothers insisting that they were virgins while fresh sperm was running down the insides of their guilty thighs.
When it was revealed that there were no WMD, Cheney and his conspiracy neatly sidestepped all responsibility and pointed at the CIA — acting like they'd been sheepishly fooled, and shaking their heads sorrowfully over the CIA's "faulty intelligence."
The New York Times duly reported this "fact," too. Having helped the warmakers to sell the war, our proud newspaper of record then helped these same instigators escape responsibility by blaming everything on the CIA.
A huge hew and cry was instigated over the CIA's "incompetence." George Tenet dutifully fell on his sword and was rewarded for his loyalty with a Medal of Freedom by the president himself.
"We were all wrong," they chorused. No, they weren't all wrong.
There were the bullshitters and the bullshitten. The bullshitters knew, and the bullshitten didn't. The whole hype was neatly flagged by the president himself when he made a funny film for reporters of him looking for WMD under the furniture at the White House and not finding a thing. Only a man who didn't believe any of it in the first place could make jokes about it.
Wink-wink, nod-nod: See me make fun of my own bullshit.
3. THE REAL BUSH REASON: VINDICATE HIS FAMILY'S NAME
Bush, also an oil man, subscribed to Cheney's oil reason – hadn't Texas oil companies given him $50 million to run for president? But he had his own reasons for wanting a war with Iraq before he even became governor of Texas.
For George W. Bush, son of George H.W. Bush, this was personal.
His dad had made war on Saddam. His dad did not like Saddam. The feeling was mutual. Saddam had tried to kill his dad. Saddam was a bad guy. A boogieman.
His dad had expected one of two things to happen after the Gulf War: that a Shiite uprising would topple Saddam, or that the Iraqi officer corps would remove Saddam for screwing up by exposing them to a war with America (the way the elite steps in and removes anyone who fails them).
But Saddam survived. The bastard was alive and well and taunting America. His survival was a personal blow to the Bush family prestige. Bush wanted to vindicate his family and "take out Saddam." The defier of America and the Bush family had to go.
4. THE FAKE BUSH REASON: 9/11
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks gave Bush a good fake reason to invade Iraq. He let it be known that Saddam was connected to 9/11, and cloaked the Iraq War in the mantle of a pre-emptive war on terror.
Former US government official and counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke revealed that Bush had asked him to find out if Saddam had anything to do with 9/11 right after it happened — even when Clarke told him there was no connection. (Actually, Saudis were behind it, but Bush allowed the Saudi royals — two-generational friends of the Bush family – to refuse the FBI access to any suspects in their country.)
Bush only had to hint at a connection between 9/11 and boogieman Saddam, and the rest of the country ran with it. A despairing American public wanted to believe it, so they did. Even after Bush himself admitted that there was no connection, more than 40% of the country still believed there was one.
5. THE REAL KARL ROVE REASON: RE-ELECTION
When Karl Rove watched Margaret Thatcher fight a teeny war in the Falklands in 1982, he noticed that her popularity soared because of it. A war can make you popular. Rove, now White House Senior Adviser, knew the best way to assure his boss's re-election was to make Bush a wartime president. The country always rallies behind a president at war.. A second term would give Rove the opportunity to push his far-right agenda through, starting with the destruction of Social Security.
6. THE REAL WOLFOWITZ REASON: U.S. EMPIRE
The other good but covert reason (like oil) was the neocon reason: to establish a US empire after we won the Cold War, when Russia couldn't check our imperial ambitions anymore. The neocons even had a cute name for our empire: the Pax Americana.
In 1992, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had a strategy report drafted for the Department of Defense, written by Paul Wolfowitz, then Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy.
In it, the US government was urged, as the world's sole remaining superpower, to move aggressively and militarily around the globe. The report called for pre-emptive attacks and ad hoc coalitions, but said that the US should be ready to act alone when "collective action cannot be orchestrated."
The central strategy was to "establish and protect a new order" that accounts "sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership," while at the same time maintaining a military dominance capable of "deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."
An imperial posture. Hubris of the highest order. The doctrine of a python fixing to hypnotize a helpless rat.
Wolfowitz outlined plans for military intervention in Iraq as an action necessary to assure "access to vital raw material, primarily Persian Gulf oil" and to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and threats from terrorism.
In 1997, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) was founded to press for this new strategy –- and for a war with Iraq. (The PNAC's members were Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Condi Rice, John Bolton, Richard Armitage, Elliot Abrams, Douglas Feith, James Woolsey, Scooter Libby and Zalmay Kahlilzad — now US Ambassador in Iraq.)
The PNAC urged:
a) a policy of "preemptive" war — i.e., whenever the US thinks a country may be amassing too much power or could provide some sort of competition in the "benevolent hegemony" region, it can be attacked, without provocation.
b) nuclear weapons would no longer be considered defensive, but could be used offensively in support of political/economic ends; so-called "mini-nukes" could be employed in these regional wars.
c) international treaties and opinion will be ignored whenever they are not seen to serve U.S. imperial goals.
d) The new policies "will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia."
In September 2000, with Cheney now VP, the Project released its grand plan for the future in a report titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century."
It reads like a clear prescription for empire.
The report begins with the premise that "The United States is the world's only superpower, combining preeminent military power, global technological leadership, and the world's largest economy ... America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible."
The report recommends new missions for the US armed forces, including a dominant nuclear capability with a new generation of nuclear weapons, sufficient combat forces to fight and win multiple major wars, and forces for "constabulary duties" around the world with American rather than UN leadership.
Hey, we've got to rule the world, y'all. As owners of the biggest military dick, we've got to wave it over the world's heads for all to see and fellate.
The report states that "the presence of American forces in critical regions around the world is the visible expression of the extent of America's status as a superpower" and proposes "a network of 'deployment bases' or 'forward operating bases' to increase the reach of current and future forces."
(Currently the US has over 800 military bases and deployments in different countries around the world, with the most recent major increase being in the Caspian Sea/Afghanistan/Middle East areas. Call it a Pax Americana if you want, but the real name for this is empire. Or evil empire.)
As for the Persian Gulf, the report says "the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein … Over the long term, Iran may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has."
Making no secret of its imperial posture, the report baldly remarks that "the failure to prepare for tomorrow's challenges will ensure that the current Pax Americana comes to an early end."
To further its ambition for a US empire, the PNAC channeled millions of taxpayer dollars to a Saddam opposition group called the Iraqi National Congress, which was formed by Iraq's self-styled leader-in-waiting Ahmed Chalabi. (The Project overlooked the fact that Jordan sentenced Chalabi in absentia to 22 years in prison on 31 counts of bank fraud). Chalabi's INC had been gaining support for its cause by promising oil contracts to anyone who helped put them on top in Iraq.
The Cheney oil conspiracy couldn't have wished for a better partner. The PNAC reckoned a Chalabi-led American protectorate in Iraq was needed to:
a) acquire control of the oil heads to fund the entire enterprise.
b) fire a warning shot across the bows of every leader in the Middle East.
c) establish a military staging area for the eventual invasion and overthrow of several Middle Eastern regimes, even those who were US allies.
In the September 2002 issue of his journal, Commentary, editor and fellow neocon Norman Podhoretz writes that the regimes "that richly deserve to be overthrown and replaced, are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil. At a minimum, the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as 'friends' of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority, whether headed by Arafat or one of his henchmen." This, he says, is all about "the long-overdue internal reform and modernization of Islam."
So this was the theory of empire in the Middle East.
The hard plan was to get a US company, Brown & Root, in there to build permanent American military bases.
Cheney's Halliburton and Brown & Root have worked cheek-by-jowl with governments in Algeria, Angola, Bosnia, Burma, Croatia, Haiti, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Somalia during terrible times for these countries. Many environmental and human rights groups say that Cheney, Halliburton and Brown & Root were central to these terrible times. Brown & Root was contracted by the Defense Department to build cells for detainees in Guantanamo Bay for $300 million (sounds like one more overcharge, doesn't it?). Another company with a vested interest in both a war on Iraq and massively increased defense spending is the Carlyle Group. Former President George H. W. Bush was himself employed by Carlyle as a senior advisor, as was long-time Bush family advisor James Baker III.
7. THE FAKE WOLFOWITZ REASON: FREEDOM FOR IRAQ
On May 7, 2005, Bush heralded a remarkable change in his Iraq policy in a speech in Russia of all places:
"We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability. We have learned our lesson; no one's liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security and true stability depend on the freedom of others. And so, with confidence and resolve, we will stand for freedom across the broader Middle-East."
This was a remarkable rhetorical about-face. Suddenly Bush was saying that instead of boning the Middle-East with a blood-hard military dick, he was going to zip up America's pants. Why this 180-degree turn?
Let's go back to what happened after the administration rigged a brilliant photo-op by staging the "spontaneous" pulling down of the Saddam statue and declared "mission accomplished" with Bush in a pilot outfit, his testicles deftly strapped to show a bulging package.
At first the Cheney conspiracy moved quickly to impose its neocon vision of empire on Iraq (even though, to its great surprise, our troops weren't welcomed with flowers as liberators, as Chalabi had promised). When the first viceroy, General Garner, a great friend of the Kurds, wanted to have elections, they pulled him out pronto, like an unwanted pig from their ripe little pasture. They sent in Paul Bremer instead with a list of instructions. He worked on establishing voting caucuses in various areas, with the voting taking place in a controlled manner over a number of months – a rather obvious attempt to rig elections in favor of US-paid cronies. Even after a smokescreen of tasking the UN to pick an Iraq leader, the US still foisted their own stooge on everyone, Dr. Ayad Alawi, who happened to be a former CIA-controlled Iraqi agent.
Bremer also decreed an entirely new economy. Corporate taxes were capped at 15%. Anyone could buy a business in Iraq and repatriate their profits. The stage was set for Texas to take over Iraq's oil fields. Bremer's decrees guaranteed the perfect Republican business-friendly state. The people would not necessarily be free, but the business people sure would.
In the event, these economic decrees turned out to be mere wishes on paper for empire. Because most disastrously, Bremer enacted two real-world decrees:
a) Urged on by Chalabi, he fired all the Sunni Baathists in government – the entire bureaucratic leadership who were actually running the country. In one instant, he created the insurgency, and gave them their leaders.
b) He fired the army too, and created the foot soldiers of the insurgency, as well as providing its weapons.
With these two acts of epic psychopathology, Bremer destroyed all security in Iraq. More: he nuked the entire fabric of a working Iraqi society, and ensured a rebellion (a mini-civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, with the Kurds ready to hive off into their own state). It ended up in the creation of ISIS by former fired Baathist generals, who today are set to take over Syria and Iraq.
It's got to be the most ham-handed, thoughtless act of modern history. It would have been better for Iraq if Bremer had covered its entire landmass in a six-inch coat of hillbilly diarrhea imported from Kentucky.
But then reality stepped in big-time to slap all US imperial pretensions back into the dark bunghole they'd steamed from. The leading Iraqi cleric, a doddering old codger from Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, got pissed at America for trying to rig elections. He demanded a same-day general election by all Iraqi citizens. He called out his followers, the 60% Shiite majority who'd been oppressed by Saddam, and they marched in thunderous protest against America's gerrymandering.
Abruptly, power switched — from the occupiers to the occupied. The Shiite majority flexed its muscles; the imperial Cheney oil conspiracy was forced to blink.
8. UNFORESEEN: THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
''Wars generate their own momentum and follow the law of unintended consequences," Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, once wrote.
Damn right. With al-Sistani and his Shiite majority calling foul, Chalabi was no longer an option (especially since he'd been unmasked as being an agent for Iran all along). Establishing military bases became more difficult. Most frustrating of all, divvying up Iraq's oil riches for Texas became less likely.
The administration was stumped; it couldn't go against 60% of the occupied. General elections were announced. In the election, they managed to rig a goodly chunk of votes for their stooge Alawi, but not enough to save his ass. A rigid Shiite won. Al-Sistani had single-handedly saved his nation from a US puppet government.
The real reasons for the war – oil and empire — were marching right out the door, leaving their holders bereft, and one of the fake reasons walked in and said, hey, I'm the only reason left for you to be in Iraq. So now freedom for Iraq turned out to be why we were in Iraq. This was the last thing the Cheney conspiracy had in mind.
Ironically, the fake reason of freedom killed the real reasons. Ironically, the folks who never wanted nation-building, who never prepared for it, suddenly found themselves doing it.
Needed: a new rhetoric to put an engaging face on this humongous, unforeseen f-up. Hence, Bush's speech. We're getting shat on, but we're smiling about it, all upbeat and bravado-positive, trying to ignore the Shiite crap in our teeth.
America went from the "paranoid style in American politics" during the Cold War to the post-9/11 swagger of the Bush "unilateral" style to what may now be called the "helpless giant" style. Instead of dominating the world, we're helping it to defy us.
Talk about the chuckling irony of history. We thought we were going to bone the planet, but now we're the ones being boned big-time — with Iraq as the world's most uncomfortable dick shoved right up our asses. Instead of guaranteeing our empire, the Cheney conspiracy has guaranteed its downfall. In the end, absolute power has turned out to be absolutely powerless.
For the ancient Greeks, hubris unerringly invited tragedy. But our hubris cannot even console itself with the dignity of tragedy.
We've ended up with something merely pathetic. Blame the nature of our hubris, which is not high-born, but sprouts instead from the shallow soil of our lust for oil and from the pitiful vainglory of us masturbating the biggest military phallus on earth. No nobility there. Only things grubby and mean.
Meanwhile our warrior kids, whose mothers live among us, got their faces blown off by explosive devices over there. For no noble cause at all. For the vanity of oil and empire. They died in vain, sacrificed by Bush-Cheney for absolutely nothing. Tragically, we lack the moral dimension one needs for true tragedy. We lack the heroism we demand of our troops. We're a nation of moral dwarves, starting with war criminals Bush, Cheney et al.
And now a brother of a war criminal will be running for president. And neither he, nor we, will raise an eyebrow in protest against this outcome of evil.
Cry, my beloved country. You were duped into war. You let down your sons and daughters. The stink of your grubby reasons will follow you for decades to come. Would that there was some miracle detergent to wash your hands clean. But there isn't. There is only the smell of blood crying out to you from countless graves -- thousands of our soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi women and children.
Monday, May 25, 2015
The “Invisible Web” Undermines Health Information Privacy
by Jalees Rehman
"The goal of privacy is not to protect some stable self from erosion but to create boundaries where this self can emerge, mutate, and stabilize. What matters here is the framework— or the procedure— rather than the outcome or the substance. Limits and constraints, in other words, can be productive— even if the entire conceit of "the Internet" suggests otherwise.
Evgeny Morozov in "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism"
We cherish privacy in health matters because our health has such a profound impact on how we interact with other humans. If you are diagnosed with an illness, it should be your right to decide when and with whom you share this piece of information. Perhaps you want to hold off on telling your loved ones because you are worried about how it might affect them. Maybe you do not want your employer to know about your diagnosis because it could get you fired. And if your bank finds out, they could deny you a mortgage loan. These and many other reasons have resulted in laws and regulations that protect our personal health information. Family members, employers and insurances have no access to your health data unless you specifically authorize it. Even healthcare providers from two different medical institutions cannot share your medical information unless they can document your consent.
The recent study "Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web" conducted by Tim Libert at the Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania) shows that we have a for more nonchalant attitude regarding health privacy when it comes to personal health information on the internet. Libert analyzed 80,142 health-related webpages that users might come across while performing online searches for common diseases. For example, if a user uses Google to search for information on HIV, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage on HIV/AIDS (http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/) is one of the top hits and users will likely click on it. The information provided by the CDC will likely provide solid advice based on scientific results but Libert was more interested in investigating whether visits to the CDC website were being tracked. He found that by visiting the CDC website, information of the visit is relayed to third-party corporate entities such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. The webpage contains "Share" or "Like" buttons which is why the URL of the visited webpage (which contains the word "HIV") is passed on to them – even if the user does not explicitly click on the buttons.
Libert found that 91% of health-related pages relay the URL to third parties, often unbeknownst to the user, and in 70% of the cases, the URL contains sensitive information such as "HIV" or "cancer" which is sufficient to tip off these third parties that you have been searching for information related to a specific disease. Most users probably do not know that they are being tracked which is why Libert refers to this form of tracking as the "Invisible Web" which can only be unveiled when analyzing the hidden http requests between the servers. Here are some of the most common (invisible) partners which participate in the third-party exchanges:
Entity Percent of health-related pages
What do the third parties do with your data? We do not really know because the laws and regulations are rather fuzzy here. We do know that Google, Facebook and Twitter primarily make money by advertising so they could potentially use your info and customize the ads you see. Just because you visited a page on breast cancer does not mean that the "Invisible Web" knows your name and address but they do know that you have some interest in breast cancer. It would make financial sense to send breast cancer related ads your way: books about breast cancer, new herbal miracle cures for cancer or even ads by pharmaceutical companies. It would be illegal for your physician to pass on your diagnosis or inquiry about breast cancer to an advertiser without your consent but when it comes to the "Invisible Web" there is a continuous chatter going on in the background about your health interests without your knowledge.
Some users won't mind receiving targeted ads. "If I am interested in web pages related to breast cancer, I could benefit from a few book suggestions by Amazon," you might say. But we do not know what else the information is being used for. The appearance of the data broker Experian on the third-party request list should serve as a red flag. Experian's main source of revenue is not advertising but amassing personal data for reports such as credit reports which are then sold to clients. If Experian knows that you are checking out breast cancer pages then you should not be surprised if this information will be stored in some personal data file about you.
How do we contain this sharing of personal health information? One obvious approach is to demand accountability from the third parties regarding the fate of your browsing history. We need laws that regulate how information can be used, whether it can be passed on to advertisers or data brokers and how long the information is stored.
We may use information we collect about you to:
· Administer your account;
· Provide you with access to particular tools and services;
· Respond to your inquiries and send you administrative communications;
· Obtain your feedback on our sites and our offerings;
· Statistically analyze user behavior and activity;
· Provide you and people with similar demographic characteristics and interests with more relevant content and advertisements;
· Conduct research and measurement activities;
· Send you personalized emails or secure electronic messages pertaining to your health interests, including news, announcements, reminders and opportunities from WebMD; or
· Send you relevant offers and informational materials on behalf of our sponsors pertaining to your health interests.
Perhaps one of the most effective solutions would be to make the "Invisible Web" more visible. If health-related pages were mandated to disclose all third-party requests in real-time such as pop-ups ("Information about your visit to this page is now being sent to Amazon") and ask for consent in each case, users would be far more aware of the threat to personal privacy posed by health-related pages. Such awareness of health privacy and potential threats to privacy are routinely addressed in the real world and there is no reason why this awareness should not be extended to online information.
Libert, Tim. "Privacy implications of health information seeking on the Web" Communications of the ACM, Vol. 58 No. 3, Pages 68-77, March 2015, doi: 10.1145/2658983 (PDF)
Monday, April 27, 2015
Freedom as Floating or Falling
Nine days after 9/11, on 20 September 2001, President George W. Bush responded to the World Trade Centre attacks by addressing a joint session of Congress. He lamented that in the space of a 'single day' the country had been changed irrevocably, its people 'awakened to danger and called to defend freedom'. Out of the painful deaths of almost 3000 people germinates anger and a drive for retribution. The attackers, whom Bush terms 'enemies of freedom', are apparently motivated by envy as well as hatred:
They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
In this passage alone, there are four instances of 'freedom', and in the approximately 3,000-word-long speech from which it is taken, 'freedom' is invoked 13 times.
Given that the speech was a major statement of Bush's intent following the wound of 9/11 and that the US government uses the name 'Operation Enduring Freedom' to describe its War on Terrorism, it is clear that freedom is a crucial concept to the US and its allies. This is unsurprising, since the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island off the coast of New York City has long served as a symbol of freedom and the vaunted American myth of social mobility. But what does freedom consist of and is it a universal value? In other words, does everyone – men and women, and people from different classes, races, or religious backgrounds – experience it in the same way?
In 2014, Bangladeshi-origin writer Zia Haider Rahman published his fascinating and very male debut novel In the Light of What We Know. The book deals in part with 9/11 and its aftermath. One of Rahman's two main protagonists, Zafar, works in Afghanistan soon after the outbreak of war in 2001. He avers that the American occupiers 'justify their invasion of Afghanistan with platitudes about freedom and liberating the Afghani people'. Having studied law and worked for a US bank, Zafar is in some ways part of the American 'relief effort'. And yet he is simultaneously not part of it, due to his Bangladeshi background and brown skin. Because of this, coupled with his working-class origins, he sees through the rhetoric of freedom as platitudinous.
Later, Rahman's Zafar describes a raucous, sexually charged UN bar in Kabul, concluding, 'It was a scene of horror. This is the freedom for which war is waged'. Here he unpicks what the Americans mean by freedom. It bathetically involves a person being free to drink alcohol and explore his or her sexuality – whether within or outside marriage is not usually seen as important. To the occupiers, freedom is about individual choice in the free market. This means little to the majority of Afghans. As Zafar points out, the efflorescence of new drinking establishments under the occupation is popular with the local elite class, but 'the poor are disgusted'.
Out of freedom's sister word liberty comes the verb 'liberate', another word for saving. This idea of liberation and saving brings us to Lila Abu-Lughod's book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013). The anthropologist moves ideas about freedom into the realms of race, class, and gender. Herself a feminist with heritage partly in the global south, Abu-Lughod suggest that Western feminists see themselves as 'saving' their benighted Muslim sisters.
Abu-Lughod also scrutinizes the repercussions from one notion of freedom being extolled above all other values. She questions whether women's clothing can symbolize freedom or unfreedom, and whether forces that put limits on every individual's free will mean that, as Wendy Brown puts it, 'choice … is an impoverished account of freedom'. Abu-Lughod seems to suggest that the binary opposition of free and unfree is at the heart of twenty-first-century versions of Orientalism. She argues that American feminism is deceived by the 'powerful national ideology' of freedom and fails to recognize the unequal power relations that underpin this ideology.
Rather than accepting the premise that Western freedom contrasts with imprisonment by Islam, Abu- Lughod shows that believing Muslims have their own ideas about and goals for liberation. The Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad, also known by his birth name of Tim Winter, similarly writes that Islam represents 'radical freedom, a freedom from the encroachments of the State, the claws of the ego, narrow fanaticism and sectarian bigotry and an intrusive state or priesthood'.
The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. ... To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.
This somewhat tongue-in-cheek list intermixes trivial things, ideals, and rights. It also neatly illustrates that many apparent freedoms are culturally specific shibboleths that might alienate not just 'fundamentalists', but a good number of non-Western, non-Christian, non-male people (and many Western vegetarians including me would be put off by the bacon sandwiches!). Ideas of freedom are culturally located. Notwithstanding Rushdie's claims, liberty does not equate to wearing miniskirts rather than burqas.
I move now to Muslim women writers' ideas about freedom in Britain. Attia Hosain, who died in 1998, is known for the short story collection Phoenix Fled and novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, both set in India. However, she also wrote a promising putative novel about diasporic Britain, 'No New Lands, No New Seas'. Hosain worked on this between the 1950s and 1970s, but eventually abandoned the novel, perhaps because the virulent racism of the late 1960s onwards (typified by Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech and the subsequent rise of the National Front) made her migrant topics too painful to complete.
Her central migrant character Murad is having a minor breakdown in the paradoxically crowded, isolating capital of London. He frequently expresses the idea that he has been unmoored, thinking that his thoughts should be 'pegged down, hammered to solidity or he would fly into space, dissolving all matter into formlessness'. He remembers that when he first arrived in London 'he floated away with a wild incredulous sense of freedom'. Perhaps the most interesting instance of Hosain's portrayal of freedom as what David Bowie memorably described as 'floating in a most peculiar way' is this passage:
his happiest moments were in the in-between world where he was free yet not free of intrusive presences, as when at a concert his submerged thoughts would float above the music and cover it with a drifting film until he pushed it away, and under the sounds to which he forcibly attached his mind until the music emerged clearly as if he, with every nerve-end vibrating, were himself one of the instruments.
Although at certain moments, Hosain's text represents freedom as floating in an unnerving way, in this passage Murad's thoughts soar with the music. They are then brought back to earth by a 'drifting film', an image of feather lightness that nonetheless weighs down, of the film's transparency that still manages to ground the character again.
This idea of happiness coming from an in-between realm that at once represents freedom and bondage is illuminating. It's a notion that women especially can appreciate. The Cairo-born, London-resident writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif once said that she feels most free when she is writing on her own in a room but can hear her family busy with happy activities not far away. She finds contentment in being free and yet not free.
Although Hosain's ideal is a sublime freedom coexisting with unfreedom, breaking down the binary that Abu-Lughod so dislikes, the novelist recognizes that a banal version of freedom as individual choice is the one that prevails. Murad and his friend Isa together investigate 'the areas of liberty that London had given them'. The narrator notes that this is initially 'mostly in respect of women and wine, then through pubs and prostitutes to the poetry of freedom and friendship without the taboos of tradition, the constraint of custom and duress of duty'. It is a similar version of freedom to that which Rahman criticized: a prosaic lack of restraint in relation to 'women and wine'. Alliteration underscores the glibness of Murad's free indirect discourse on freedom here.
Formlessness, lack of solidity, freedom, and loneliness: these images echo again through the pages of Sudanese author Leila Aboulela's London novel, Minaret (2005). Hosain's notion of flying or floating up into space is inverted in the later text. Aboulela describes her Sudanese protagonist Najwa's metaphorical ‘fall' through space due to an encounter with the vertiginous liberties of the West.
What makes Minaret distinctive as a novel of Muslim experience is that it centres on a character's journey towards religion, rather than away. Many Anglophone novels about the British Muslim experience from the 1990s and early 2000s are about young Muslims discovering 'freedom', in the shape of a secular life, and independence from familial or kinship ties. In contrast, Aboulela's novel traces the Westernized protagonist, Najwa's, downwardly-mobile journey from her privileged position as a Sudanese minister's daughter, to exile in London when a coup dislodges her father from power, and eventually life as a domestic servant to a wealthy Arab family in the former imperial capital. During this descent, an unfurling religious identity sustains Najwa through her losses.
The supportive ties that Najwa discovers in her mosque are starkly contrasted with the supposed 'freedoms' of the non-religious world, which Aboulela portrays as being constrictive rather than liberatory. The notion of liberty in Western thought, since the time of Hobbes's Leviathan, has meant a freedom from external constraints and the right of individual self-determination. In Arab and South Asian thought, by contrast, freedom, hurriya in Arabic or azadi in Persian and Urdu, has typically had political, communitarian connotations. It would be wrong to suggest that Muslims have not hotly debated the concept of freedom over the centuries. In the Sufi tradition, freedom has been compared to ‘perfect slavery', which indicates not only that slavery in the Arab world was, in Amitav Ghosh's words, a relatively 'flexible set of hierarchies', but also that the institution was often used as a metaphor for understanding 'the relationship between Allah the "master" and his human "slaves"'.
I don't explain … my fantasies. My involvement in Tamer's wedding to a young suitable girl who knows him less than I do. She will mother children who spend more time with me… I would like to be his family's concubine, like something out of The Arabian Nights, with life-long security and a sense of belonging. But I must settle for freedom in this modern time.
The issue of clashing cultural understandings of liberty highlighted by this passage is particularly pertinent in the light of Abu-Lughod's analysis of the rhetoric of 'freedom' used to justify the War on Terror. With her evocation of Alf Laylah wa Laylah or The Arabian Nights, Najwa indicates that feminism has not usually considered non-Euro-American traditions when defining 'women's lib'. Yet Najwa's wish is itself problematic, especially since later chooses to perform Hajj rather than marry Tamer. This internal monologue smacks of lugubrious, even masochistic propensities.
Najwa has been brought up in a broadly Western tradition: she comes from an elite family that only pays lip service to Islam. Her early life, while affluent and sheltered, is nonetheless depicted as lacking some essential component. Within conventional limits, Najwa has considerable freedom in her dress, education and sexual relations. Yet she feels uneasy when strange men appraise her body in its revealing clothes, and her only sexual relationship with a Marxist exile in London is sordid and guilt-ridden. After a Leftist coup in Sudan leads to her father's imprisonment and eventual execution, her family is described as ‘falling' through space. This image of descent evokes the 'horror' inherent in too much liberty. Of course it also suggests the fall common to both Judeo-Christian and Qur'anic theology, whereby Adam and Eve/Hawwa were banished from the Garden of Paradise to live on earth. Najwa's fall is complete once her brother Omar is imprisoned for drugs and her mother dies. Freed from her caring duties, Najwa supposes that she should feel a sense of emancipation, but instead observes, 'this empty space was called freedom'.
To recapitulate the ideas explored in this article, the War in Afghanistan has led to the privileging of a Western dichotomy of freedom vs. unfreedom. Lila Abu-Lughod interrogates and genders this binary. Hosain anticipates these debates in her 1950s-70s fragment, while in a post-9/11 context Aboulela robustly challenges them. We should not forget, though, that ideas of political freedom are more crucial in the Muslim world now than ever. This is easily perceptible in the Arab Spring (now mournfully becoming known as the Arab Winter). I conclude with Soueif's quoting of a chant against the Egyptian regime: 'They said trouble ran in our blood and how'd we dare demand our rights | Oh dumb regime | understand | what I want: | Liberty! Liberty!'
Monday, March 30, 2015
STEM Education Promotes Critical Thinking and Creativity: A Response to Fareed Zakaria
by Jalees Rehman
All obsessions can be dangerous. When I read the title "Why America's obsession with STEM education is dangerous" of Fareed Zakaria's article in the Washington Post, I assumed that he would call for more balance in education. An exclusive focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is unhealthy because students miss out on the valuable knowledge that the arts and humanities teach us. I would wholeheartedly agree with such a call for balance because I believe that a comprehensive education makes us better human beings. This is the reason why I encourage discussions about literature and philosophy in my scientific laboratory. To my surprise and dismay, Zakaria did not analyze the respective strengths of liberal arts education and STEM education. Instead, his article is laced with odd clichés and misrepresentations of STEM.
Misrepresentation #1: STEM teaches technical skills instead of critical thinking and creativity
If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country's education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children's bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.
"The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity."
Zakaria is correct when he states that a broad education fosters creativity and critical thinking but his article portrays STEM as being primarily focused on technical skills whereas liberal education focuses on critical thinking and creativity. Zakaria's view is at odds with the goals of STEM education. As a scientist who mentors Ph.D students in the life sciences and in engineering, my goal is to help our students become critical and creative thinkers.
Students learn technical skills such as how to culture cells in a dish, insert DNA into cells, use microscopes or quantify protein levels but these technical skills are not the focus of the educational program. Learning a few technical skills is easy but the real goal is for students to learn how to develop innovative scientific hypotheses, be creative in terms of designing experiments that test those hypotheses, learn how to be critical of their own results and use logic to analyze their experiments.
My own teaching and mentoring experience focuses on STEM graduate students but the STEM programs that I have attended at elementary and middle schools also emphasize teaching basic concepts and critical thinking instead of "technical skills". The United States needs to promote STEM education because of the prevailing science illiteracy in the country and not because it needs to train technically skilled worker bees. Here are some examples of science illiteracy in the US: Fort-two percent of Americans are creationists who believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so. Fifty-two percent of Americans are unsure whether there is a link between vaccines and autism and six percent are convinced that vaccines can cause autism even though there is broad consensus among scientists from all over the world that vaccines do NOT cause autism. And only sixty-one percent are convinced that there is solid evidence for global warming.
A solid STEM education helps citizens apply critical thinking to distinguish quackery from true science, benefiting their own well-being as well as society.
Zakaria's criticism of obsessing about test scores is spot on. The subservience to test scores undermines the educational system because some teachers and school administrators may focus on teaching test-taking instead of critical thinking and creativity. But this applies to the arts and humanities as well as the STEM fields because language skills are also assessed by standardized tests. Just like the STEM fields, the arts and humanities have to find a balance between teaching required technical skills (i.e. grammar, punctuation, test-taking strategies, technical ability to play an instrument) and the more challenging tasks of teaching students how to be critical and creative.
Misrepresentation #2: Japanese aren't creative
Zakaria's views on Japan are laced with racist clichés:
"Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefitted enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, by contrast, can't do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation."
Some of the most innovative scientific work in my own field of scientific research – stem cell biology – is carried out in Japan. Referring to Japanese as "well-trained workers" does not do justice to the innovation and creativity in the STEM fields and it also conveniently ignores Japanese contributions to the arts and humanities. I doubt that the US movie directors who have re-made Kurosawa movies or the literary critics who each year expect that Haruki Murakami will receive the Nobel Prize in Literature would agree with Zakaria.
Misrepresentation #3: STEM does not value good writing
Writing well, good study habits and clear thinking are important. But Zakaria seems to suggest that these are not necessarily part of a good math and science education:
"No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (and the owner of this newspaper), insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the "narratives" to themselves and makes notes on them. In an interview with Fortune's Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: "Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
Communicating science is an essential part of science. Until scientific work is reviewed by other scientists and published as a paper it is not considered complete. There is a substantial amount of variability in the quality of writing among scientists. Some scientists are great at logically structuring their papers and conveying the core ideas whereas other scientific papers leave the reader in a state of utter confusion. What Jeff Bezos proposes for his employees is already common practice in the STEM world. In preparation for scientific meetings and discussions, scientists structure their ideas into outlines for manuscripts or grant proposals using proper paragraphs and sentences. Well-written scientific manuscripts are highly valued but the overall quality of writing in the STEM fields could be greatly improved. However, the same probably also holds true for people with a liberal arts education. Not every philosopher is a great writer. Decoding the human genome is a breeze when compared to decoding certain postmodern philosophical texts.
Misrepresentation #4: We should study the humanities and arts because Silicon Valley wants us to.
In support of his arguments for a stronger liberal arts education, Zakaria primarily quotes Silicon Valley celebrities such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. The article suggests that a liberal arts education will increase entrepreneurship and protect American jobs. Are these the main reasons for why we need to reinvigorate liberal arts education? The importance of a general, balanced education makes a lot of sense to me but is increased job security a convincing argument for pursuing a liberal arts degree? Instead of a handful of anecdotal comments by Silicon Valley prophets, I would prefer to see some actual data that supports Zakaria's assertion. But perhaps I am being too STEMy.
There is a lot of room to improve STEM education. We have to make sure that we strive to focus on the essence of STEM which is critical thinking and creativity. We should also make a stronger effort to integrate arts and humanities into STEM education. In the same vein, it would be good to incorporate more STEM education into liberal arts education in order to combat scientific illiteracy. Instead of invoking "Two Cultures" scenarios and creating straw man arguments, educators of all fields need to collaborate in order to improve the overall quality of education.
Illegibility And Its Anxieties
"I would like to understand things better,
but I don't want to understand them perfectly."
~ Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas
A few weeks ago I went to an evening of presentations by startups working in the artificial intelligence field. By far the most interesting was a group that for several years had been quietly working on using AI to create a new compression algorithm for video. While this may seem to be a niche application, their work in fact responds to a pressing need. As demand for video streaming, first in high definition and increasingly in formats such as 4K, hopelessly outruns the buildout of new infrastructure, there is a commensurate need for ever-greater ratios of compression of video data. It is the only viable way to keep up with the reqirements of video streaming, and companies such as Netflix are willing to pay boatloads of cash for the best technologies. But the presentation also crystallized some interesting and important aspects of AI that go well beyond not just niche applications, but the alarmist predictions of people like Steven Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. What are we really creating here?
This startup, bankrolled by a former currency trader who, as founder and CEO, was the one giving the talk, has engaged in a three-step development program. The first step involved feeding their AI – charmingly named Rita – with every single video compression algorithm already in use, and having it (her?) cherry-pick the best aspects of each. The ensuing Franken-algorithm has already been tested and confirmed to provide lossless compression at a rate of 75%, which is already best in its class. The second step in their program, which is currently in development, charges Rita with the taking the results of everything learned in the first step, and creating its own algorithm. The expectation is that they will reach up to 90% compression, which is really rather extraordinary.
So far, so good. The final step of the program – one which expects to yield a mind-boggling 99% compression ratio – is where things get really interesting. For Rita's creators are now ‘entrusting her' (I know, the more you talk about AI, the more hopeless it is to attempt avoiding anthropomorphization) with the task of creating her own programming language that will be solely dedicated to video compression. There was an appreciative gasp in the room when the CEO outlined this brave next step, and during the Q&A I wanted him to explain more about what this meant.
The exchange went something like this:
Me: Ok, so I understand the first two steps. People have been using techniques of fitness selection to evolve algorithms in ways that humans could not design or even anticipate. Also, there is no reason why an AI couldn't evolve its own algorithm, given a well-defined outcome and enough inputs. But this last step – the creation of an entirely new, purpose-built language, for one purpose only – is this a language that will then be available to human programmers via some sort of interface?
CEO: No. It will be a black box. We won't know how Rita came to design what she did, or how it works. Just that it does what it needs to do.
Me, stammering: But…but…how do you feel about that?
Random guy in the audience: How does he feel about it? He feels pretty good! After all, he's a shareholder.
At which point the entire room erupted in laughter.
It became quickly apparent that the intent of my question was misconstrued, however, since the discussion then turned to what always seems to be the elephant in the room when it comes to AI research: What are the moral implications of surrendering our agency, of which this seemed to be a prime example? The usual suspects were trotted out – Skynet, the Matrix, HAL9000, blah blah blah. (They could have also included Colossus: The Forbin Project, a 1970 sci-fi thriller along the same lines, whose stills I include here). But my point wasn't about whether or how we ought best welcome our new robotic overlords. Rather, it was about legibility. What happens when we create things, that then go ahead and create other things that we don't understand, or even have access to? More to the point, what is lost?
Arguably, this signifies an inversion of what is understood as ‘progress', at least in an epistemological sense. For example, plant and animal breeders have refined and elaborated breeds to bring out desirable traits (drought resistance, hunting skills, cuteness) for hundreds, if not thousands of years, without knowing the underlying genetic principles. The identification of DNA as the enabling epistemological substrate of this program has rapidly accelerated these activities, but this has only added to the general illumination of these previously known processes. Genetically modified organisms fall into this category, even if the eventual consequences do not. What AIs such as Rita are empowered to effect, on the other hand, is a deliberately sponsored obfuscation of these processes of knowing. The implied trajectory is that we are willing to create tools that will help us do more things in the world, but that in the process we strike a somewhat Faustian bargain, pleased to arrive at our destination but forfeiting the knowledge of how we got there.
Now, I want to be clear that I am not at all interested in making a moral argument. Unlike what Hollywood would have us believe, there seems little point in arguing whether AIs will turn out to be good or evil. Such anxieties are more redolent of our narcissistic desire to feel threatened by apocalypses of our own manufacture (eg, nuclear war) than a genuine willingness to think through what it might mean for a machine intelligence to be authentically evil, or good, or – which is much more likely – something in between. And the above exchange with the startup's CEO illustrates the blithe manner in which capital will always perform an end-run around these considerations. "Being a shareholder" is sufficient justification for the illegibility of the final outcome, with the further implication that we should all be so lucky as to be shareholders in such enterprises.
Rather, any moral argument should be understood as a proxy for how alien any given technology may seem to us. Perhaps our tendency to assign it a moral status is more indicative of how unsure we are about the role it may play in society. The operational inscrutability of an AI (and not, I should emphasize, its ‘motivations') make the possible consequences so unpredictable that we may seek to legislate its right to exist, and the easiest means for enabling a legislative act is to locate it on a moral continuum.
The use of the word ‘legislate' is appropriate here, since what we are attempting to do is to, quite literally, make the technology and its action in society legible to us. Linguistically, both words share the same Latin root, legere. And if we cannot make the phenomenon of AI legible, then we may at least quarantine its actions and sphere of influence. In William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, this was the remit of the Turing Registry, which enforced an uneasy peace between AIs, the corporations that run them, and the world at large:
The Turing Registry, named after the father of modern computing, operates out of Geneva. Turing is technically not a megacorp, but instead a registry, and the closest thing to a body of government as far as artificial intelligences are concerned. The Turing Registry exists to keep corporations who use AIs and the AIs themselves in check. Every AI in existence, whether directly connected to the matrix or not, must be registered with Turing to enjoy the full rights of an AI. AIs registered with Turing enjoy Swiss citizenship, though the hardware itself that contains the 'soul' is connected to enough explosives to incapacitate the being. Any AI suspected of attempting to remove this device, escape Turing control, or enhance itself without proper Turing approval is controlled immediately.
Aside from the delicious detail that AIs are Swiss citizens (hey, it's not just corporations that can be people), what Gibson indicates to us is that the battle for legibility, in an epistemological sense, is already lost. Pre-emptively quarantining and, failing that, blowing up miscreant AIs is the best that the inhabitants of Neuromancer can hope for. Of course, the narrative arc of the novel concerns precisely this: the protean manner in which an AI attempts to transcend this restricted state. And Gibson implies that humanity, with its toxic mix of curiosity, greed and anthropomorphizing tendencies, is all too willing to be enlisted in this task.
And yet, to a large extent AI as the container par excellence for these anxieties is just a red herring, for this kind of illegibility is already rampant. Superficially, we seem to require a locus – a concrete something to which we can point and say "That's an AI" – that then becomes the appointed site for these anxieties. In this sense we are content to believe that, when we saw Watson clobbering his fellow contestants on Jeopardy!, the AI is ‘located' behind a lectern, with his hapless human competitors standing side-by-side behind their own lecterns: a level playing field if there ever was one. Our imagination does not accede to the notion that Watson is a large bank of computers located off-stage, in a different state, even, and ministered to by a team of highly trained scientists and engineers.
In fact, AI is not at all needed to fulfill the anxieties of illegibility. It certainly ‘embodies' those anxieties successfully, despite its own distinct lack of embodiment, by playing on the idea that an AI is something that is kind of like us, but isn't us, but perhaps wants to become more like us, until in the end it becomes something decidedly not like us at all, at which point it will already be too late (see: Hollywood). Except the traces of illegibility are already ubiquitous, in the form of algorithms that may not fall under the rubric of AI but certainly instigate a cascade of events that correspond to what we would identify as AI-like consequences.
Consider this 2011 talk by developer and designer Kevin Slavin (you can get the Cliffs Notes version in his TED Talk): the fact that, at the time, about 70% of all stock trading was driven by algorithms buy and selling shares to other algorithms. Sure, computer scientists would tweak things here and there, but the cumulative effect of unassisted trading has led to some extraordinary outcomes. Most dramatically, the Flash Crash of 2010, which saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunge about 9% in a matter of minutes and on no news at all, was likely precipitated by a few rogue algorithms. In the absence of substantive regulation, the markets have learned to live with daily flash crashes.
The financial markets do not hold a monopoly on unintended consequences, however. Slavin also gives further examples of Algorithms Gone Wild with a funny anecdote concerning a biology textbook that was listed on Amazon initially at $1.7 million, only to have the price rise, in a few hours, to $23.6 million, which was odd because the book is out of print, and therefore no one was either selling or buying it. To Slavin, these are "algorithms locked in loops with each other", engaging in a form of silent combat. Critical to this point is that, while these developments occur at lightning speeds, the disambiguation, if humans even choose to pursue it, takes much longer. In the case of the Flash Crash, it took the SEC five months to issue its report, which was heavily criticized. To this day, there is no consensus on what actually happened in the markets that day. As for the biology textbook, it lives on merely as an anecdote for TED audiences.
So the consequences of an AI-like world are, in fact, here already. To invite AIs into the party is more or less beside the point. Our world has become so deeply driven by software that our capacity to ‘read' what we have created is already substantially, and, in all likelihood, permanently eroded. That this has happened only gradually and in subtle, nearly invisible ways has made it that much more dificult to realize. In this sense, AI, or at least a certain way of thinking about AI, may provide an interesting counterpoint.
If one goes back to its roots, AI research sought to understand intelligence as it existed in the world already, and take that learning and bring it in silico. That this has so far failed – despite substantial progress in the brain sciences – is uncontroversial and well understood. In parallel, the precipitous decline in the costs of computing, bandwidth and storage have enabled the rise of probabilistic approaches to intelligence, rather than behavioral ones, hence the primacy of the algortihm. As Ali Minai, professor at the University of Cincinnati, writes:
AI, invented by computer scientists, lived long with the conceit that the mind was ‘just computation' – and failed miserably. This was not because the idea was fundamentally erroneous, but because ‘computation' was defined too narrowly. Brilliant people spent lifetimes attempting to write programs and encode rules underlying aspects of intelligence, believing that it was the algorithm that mattered rather than the physics that instantiated it. This turned out to be a mistake. Yes, intelligence is computation, but only in the broad sense that all informative physical interactions are computation - the kind of ‘computation' performed by muscles in the body, cells in the bloodstream, people in societies and bees in a hive.
Minai goes on to equate intelligence with ‘embodied behavior in a specific environment'. What I find promising about this line of inquiry is its modesty, but also its ambition. If we begin from the premise that life has done a pretty fine job in not just evolving behavioral intelligence, but in doing so sustainably, this is a paradigm that leads us to a certain way of looking at not just the kind of work machine intelligence can do, but the place that it also ought to occupy, in relation to all the things that are already in the world. This is simply due to the fact that this kind of intelligence is can only exist based on embodiment. In contrast, the bare algorithms running around in financial markets or anywhere else are much more akin to viruses.
I do not know if it is possible to actually create a machine intelligence based on these principles – after all, this is something that has eluded computer and cognitive scientists for decades and continues to do so. But I do believe that such an intelligence will be more legible to us, even if its internal workings remain inscrutable, because our relationship to it will be based on behavior. If Minai's school of thought has merit, this may well be a saving grace. On the other hand, if there is any substantial danger posed by AI, it comes from an utter lack of constraint or connection to the physical world. The issue is whether we as a society will offer ourselves any choice in the matter.
Monday, March 23, 2015
Fatwas and fundamental truths
by Mandy de Waal
A South African literary event called 'The Time of the Writer' was to have been a moment of celebration for local writer Zainub Priya Dala. The author's debut novel, called What About Meera, was due to have been launched at the Durban festival.
Instead Dala was nursing injuries after being attacked at knifepoint with a brick and called [Salman] "Rushdie's Bitch!" The attack – which shocked and outraged SA's literary community – happened one day after Dala had expressed an appreciation of Rushdie's work.
"Dala was followed from the festival hotel and was harassed by three men in a vehicle who pushed her car off the road," a statement by Dala's publishers read. "When she stopped, two of the men advanced to her car, one holding a knife to her throat and the other hitting her in the face with a brick while calling her ‘Rushdie's bitch'. She has been treated by her doctor for soft-tissue trauma, and has reported the incident to the police."
The author – who is also a therapist who counsels autistic children – said through her publishers that she believed the attack stemmed from her voicing support for Rushdie's writing style. Dala was at a school's writing forum and was asked which writers she admired. She offered a list of writers including Arundhati Roy, and said that she "liked Salman Rushdie's literary style." After saying she appreciated Rushdie, a number of teachers and students stood up and walked out in protest. The next day Dala was attacked.
After discovering what happened to Dala, Rushdie Tweeted: "I'm so sorry to hear this. I hope you're recovering well. All good wishes." Dala's response? "Thank you. I have my family and children around me and am recovering."
SA literary site, www.bookslive.co.za stated that "the assault counts as an extension of Rushdie's complicated history with South Africa." BooksLive explained that Rushdie "was famously ‘disinvited' from a literary festival in 1988, after the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa was issued against him and his novel, The Satanic Verses."
Rushdie was invited to South Africa 27 years back by a top investigative newspaper to give a public lecture on censorship. He was due to have shared a platform with Booker prize winners Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.
As news of the invitation spread, the paper received threats of violence. The Africa Muslim Agency demanded that the invitation be withdrawn, and The Islamic Missionary Society stated that "there was every likelihood that [Rushdie] would be assaulted." The Islamic society warned that blood would flow. "There are secret Muslim hit squads who have vowed to avenge the honour of the Holy Prophet Muhammed," it stated.
After long, careful and painful negotiation by multiple parties involved in the event, the invitation was withdrawn, an outcome that JM Coetzee condemned. "Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation is bad news. Religious fundamentalism in general is bad news. We know about religious fundamentalism in South Africa. Calvinist fundamentalism has been an unmitigated force of benightedness in our history," Coetzee told a meeting in Cape Town.
"Wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante [ministers], giving their blessings," Coetzee added.
"There is nothing more inimical to writing than the spirit of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing. Fundamentalism means nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there. It stands for one founding book and thereafter no more books," he said.
"As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasise themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematised, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon," said Coetzee.
In the wake of this awful attack on freedom of speech and on a promising young writer, how does one show support for Dala? As anchor, author and journalist, Imran Garda eloquently tweeted, we support Dala by buying her book. By championing the "endlessness of writing" - her writing - we eloquently add to the roar of writers globally who condemn this heinous act.
Mandy de Waal is a writer and journalist based in Cape Town South Africa. Follow her on Twitter: @mandyLdewaal
Fireflies and Fiery Fatherly Love: An Excerpt from What About Meera by ZP Dala
South Africa: Clash of the Booker titans in The Guardian.
Monday, March 02, 2015
Everything Was Within Reach
"New York isn't your fantasy.
You're the fantasy in New York's imagination."
~ John DeVore, New York Doesn't Love You
There is a time-honored genre of literature that masochistically trucks with the fatalism and rejection of living in, loving and eventually leaving New York City. I know this is a real genre, because the fact that there is an anthology proves it. Writers especially, perhaps due to the ephemerality of their profession, seem to have an axe to grind when it comes to leaving New York. It's not that no other city generates this passion; rather, no other city has fetishized and memorialized this ambivalence to such an extent. To these writers, leaving New York is tantamount to an admission of failure, and they passionately rationalize the ways in which they have not failed. But New York evolves, like any other city, and it is worth asking if the reasons for leaving these days are substantially different from those of previous decades.
Joan Didion's 1967 classic essay "Goodbye To All That" sets the confessional tone that is implied in all of these narratives: "But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York." Didion's narrative concerns the years required for the imperceptible shading from wide-eyed ingénue to a vaguely numb and indifferent denizen. Her prose is compassionate, and wears the weariness of experience lightly: "It was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces...Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen". In the end, she does not fling New York away in disgust – she accompanies her husband to Los Angeles for a sabbatical away from the city. As a result she leaves New York almost accidentally, like remembering a few days after the fact that you forgot your umbrella in a restaurant, then deciding it wasn't worth the trouble of going back to get it.
Contrast this genteel regretfulness with John DeVore's recent aphoristic punch-up, "New York Doesn't Love You":
New York will kick you in the hole, but it will never stab you in the back. It will, however, stab you multiple times right in your face.
No one "wins" New York. Ha, ha.
You will lose. Everyone loses. The point is losing in the most unexpected, poignant way possible for as long as you can.
Complaining is the only right you have as a New Yorker. Whining is what children do. To complain is to tell the truth. People who refuse to complain, and insist on having a positive outlook, are monsters. Their optimism is a poison. If given the chance they will sell you out.
DeVore lives in a different New York from Didion: he doesn't really elaborate on what success might actually look like, for himself or for anyone else. Your plan, whatever it may be, will go wrong. Fifty years of water flowing underneath the Brooklyn Bridge will do that.
The fact that people ever talk about "making it" in New York – or what I call the Curse of Sinatra – is to confuse means and ends. Success doesn't go any further than not failing, and preferably you are failing less often than you are not failing. After 15 years in the city, most of the people I know who have succeeded (by failing less often than not failing) have, like some ragged tribe of castaways, burrowed themselves into fortunate living circumstances, and know that they can never leave, no matter how gross or expensive their neighborhood has become, because there is a snowball's chance in hell that they will ever get such a good deal anywhere else in town, at least anywhere within a 20-minute walk of a subway station. Forget the street preachers; in New York, real estate is the only form of salvation.
It's a little-known fact that Franz Kafka also wrote his own paean to leaving New York. I know, I know, Kafka hardly ever left Prague, but bear with me, because I propose that what we have here is the urtext of the genre.
By way of introduction, I'll note that we should approach Kafka most cautiously when he beguiles us with an innocuous title. Nowhere is this as effortless as in the posthumous ‘A Little Fable', which I reproduce here in its entirety:
"Alas," said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into."
"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
That sudden, implacably violent turn in the narrative: Where the hell did the cat come from? Wasn't the mouse's destiny to run into the trap at the convergence of the ever-narrowing walls, which even it saw quite clearly? The final six or so words are the literary equivalent of a punch in the face. But unlike the mouse, we are survivors of this tale, and as such have the luxury to go back and re-read it. At which point we realize our naïveté – from the start, the mouse wasn't in conversation with us, but with the cat. Kafka's compression is so extreme that time folds in on itself. The mouse exists in an eternal state of, if I may invent a tense, always-already-about-to-be eaten.
Of course, in order to keep the story short, the mouse must get eaten, but the trace that lingers, like smoke, is the mouse's incomprehension at its imminent fate. For the expectation of one doom, dogmatic and resigned, is usurped by another, wholly unanticipated one. The mouse may think, ‘Well, here's this cat, he seems a fine fellow and I'll tell him the sorry tale of my life of quiet desperation', whereas Kafka, never one to get in the way of a universe that gladly does the murdering of its own accord, simply allows the cat to get on with being a cat when presented with such an opportunity as a trapped, frightened mouse.
The sharpest irony in this little tale, however, is the cat's message. It is a death sentence masquerading as advice, and presented as if it were the simplest thing to do. As if the mouse could just turn around and walk off into a new direction. I like how Kafka chooses language as the means by which the cat ‘toys' with the mouse. In contrast, the only action is that of being eaten. That part – death – is silent. The cat plays the straight man in the pas de deux of narrator and executioner. The truth is that there is no other direction in which the mouse can go; the fate of the mouse is not just imminent, but, in the form of the cat, it is also immanent.
That cat, my friends, is New York. You think you're all set up to agreeably drink yourself to a gentle death on the Red Hook waterfront and then you get hit by a bus – or a tax audit. Whichever is worse, really. Or as DeVore puts it, "If New York were a cat, it would eat your face after you collapsed in the kitchen from a heart attack." This is the kind of place where it may take years for indifferent betrayal to fully blossom, but when it strikes, the end is swift.
But these days it really doesn't take years. This is the crucial difference between Didion leaving New York in 1967 and her exasperated descendants throwing up their hands in 2015. New York has changed, and why shouldn't it? The salient bit is that it is no longer the heady cocktail of danger and stimulation that drove a certain kind of artist and writer to come here.
In "Here Is New York" E.B. White proposes a rigidly delineated taxonomy describing New Yorkers: there are the natives, the commuters and the arrivals. White asserts that it takes all three constituencies to create New York as it existed in 1949, and this truth holds today. The natives are the city's institutional memory, and its commuters the blood that pumps economic oxygen into and out of Manhattan, giving New York its rhythm. But what can this last group, the arrivals – which is really the instigator of the very idea of the possibility of a romantic notion of New York – what can it hope for today?
He hasn't left yet, but in his own pre-emptive missive, David Byrne writes about what drove him and his peers to settle downtown in the 1970s:
One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships.
The world of After Hours, Liquid Sky and Downtown 81, let alone the home movies of Nelson Sullivan and Wild Style's director Charlie Ahearn – when going south of 14th Street quite literally meant taking your life into your own hands, when the words Alphabet City actually meant a quantitatively different world from the East Village – this world is no more. On the positive side of this Faustian bargain, we have gained an almost laughably safe city, where you can stumble anywhere in Manhattan and most of Brooklyn and Queens blind drunk because you know an Uber car will show up faster than Lt. Kilgore's napalm airstrike in ‘Apocalypse Now'. On the other side of the ledger, we have a city where the organic emergence of new forms of practice is basically throttled, and the margin for error is nearly zero.
While David Byrne may still be dithering about leaving, others have already done so. The musician and producer (and native New Yorker) Moby penned a similar letter a few months later, and the headline is pretty much all you need to know: "I Left New York For LA Because Creativity Requires The Freedom To Fail". Others have been following suit: in December the venerable Galapagos Art Space, after twenty years in Brooklyn, is decamping to Detroit. In explaining, Galapagos Director Robert Elmes channels Moby:
What drew us to Detroit is the realization that cities need three ingredients to attract or retain artists: time, space, and other artists. In NYC artists have one foot in a full time career and one foot in what is now a dream to find an affordable studio and to move their sculpture studio out of their kitchen because they have an ultimatum from three of their four roommates.
Who can resist upgrading to 600,000 square feet of space? This is what DeVore is really talking about. You spend your time earning the money to earn the access to space, and your principal activity with other artists is spent leveraging the leftover crumbs into something that might approximate artistic practice. That, and complaining. Which is your right. New York no longer abides the leisurely pace of a seeping alienation, à la Joan Didion. And in the end your plans are more likely to be torpedoed by a crappy credit score before you get fed up at not getting that gallery show that always seemed just within reach.
And yet, and yet. If you take a trip out to Queens, almost to the end of the 7 train, you will find the Queens Museum, and inside the museum there is an absolute gem, known as the Panorama of the City of New York. A scale model of all five boroughs, where 1 inch corresponds to 100 feet, the model has almost a million buildings, almost all of them handcrafted. Robert Moses commissioned the Panorama for that most optimistic of mid-20th century occasions, the 1964 World's Fair. A sinuous walkway meanders around this dizzying display, designed to be a replacement of the original simulated helicopter ride, but still evocative of it. As you gently rise and fall around the Panorama, the nearly 10,000 square feet of shimmering urban tapestry has the most confounding effect.
Once you get past the most natural impulse of immediately finding your apartment building and, if you have a job, your office; once you have located the landmarks such as the Empire State Building, and perhaps audibly gasped to see the Twin Towers still proudly anchoring the southern tip of Manhattan; once you have looked for all the things that are known to you, you can then step back and see exactly how much is unknown to you. For the length of one's tenure in New York is inversely proportional to the willingness one has to explore the city, and every neighborhood that's "worth" revisiting quickly acquires its short list of spots. The rest is the equivalent of "flyover country", if it gets flown over at all.
The Panorama takes this provincialism and merrily dashes it to pieces. After you get over the sheer size of Staten Island, your attention glides over hundreds of blocks of housing and industry. Suddenly you are privy to geographies that wholly escaped your attention. A mysterious canal in the middle of Brooklyn; a smattering of islands off the coast of the Bronx. Wait – the Bronx has a coastline? You scan parts of the Queens that you never thought existed. The model has a quiet optimism, a sense that the whole city somehow functions. It is flat – a level playing field. It is democratic. It is meritocratic. It is inviting – enticing, even. What do all those people down there do? It's all so very interesting. More than that, the city, by way of its proxy the model, extends its invitation to you.
You step back from all of this, and even though you know better, you can't stop yourself from thinking: "Goddammit, this town is huge. There's got to be a place for me here, somewhere. I can still make it in New York."
ISIS and Islam: Beyond the Dream
by Omar Ali
A few days ago, Graeme Wood wrote a piece in the Atlantic that has generated a lot of buzz (and controversy). In this article he noted that:
"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam"
The article is well worth reading and it certainly does not label all Muslims as closet (or open) ISIS supporters, but it does emphasize that many of the actions of ISIS have support in classical Islamic texts (and not just in fringe Kharijite opinion). This has led to accusations of Islamophobia and critics have been quick to respond. A widely cited response in "Think Progress" quotes Graeme Wood's own primary source (Princeton scholar Bernard Hakykel) as saying:
“I think that ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.”
Indeed. Who could possibly disagree with that? I dont think Graeme Wood disagrees. In fact, he explicitly says he does not. But that statement is a beginning, not a conclusion. What contingent factors and what historical events are important and which ones are a complete distraction from the issue at hand?
Every commentator has his or her (implicit, occasionally explicit) "priors" that determine what gets attention and from what angle; and a lot of confusion clearly comes from a failure to explain (or to grasp) the background assumptions of each analyst. I thought I would put together a post that outlines some of my own background assumptions and arguments in as simple a form as possible and see where it leads. So here, in no particular order, are some random comments about Islam, terrorism and ISIS that I hope will, at a minimum, help me put my own thoughts in order. Without further ado:
1. The early history of Islam is, among other things, the history of a remarkably successful imperium. Like any empire, it was created by conquest. The immediate successors of the prophet launched a war of conquest whose extent and rapidity matched that of the Mongols and the Alexandrian Greeks, and whose successful consolidation, long historical life, and development of an Arabized culture, far outshone the achievements of the Mongols or the Manchus (both of whom adopted the existing deeper rooted religions and cultures of their conquered people rather than impose or develop their own).
2. Islam, the religion we know today (the classical Islam of the four Sunni schools, as well as the various Shia sects) developed in the womb of the Arab empire. It provided a unifying ideology and a theological justification for that empire (and in the case of various Shia sects, varying degrees of resistance or revolt against that empire) but, at the very least, Islam and the nascent Arab empire grew and developed together; one was not the later product of the fully formed other. Being, in it's classical form, the religion of a (very successful and impressive) imperialist project, it is not surprising that its"official" Sunni version has a military and supremacist feel to it. Classical Islam is not intolerant of all other religions (though it is in principle almost completely intolerant of pagans) but the rules and regulations of the four classical schools all agree on the superior status of Muslims and impose certain restrictions, disabilities and taxes on the followers of the "religions of the book" that they do tolerate. By the standards of contemporary European "Christendom", many of these rules appear tolerant and broad-minded; and since Western intellectuals (leftists as much, or even more than rightists) are completely focused on European history and culture (and therefore,on the achievements and deficiencies of that culture), this relative tolerance is frequently remarked upon as a stellar feature of Islamicate civilization. But it should be noted that this degree of tolerance is quite intolerant compared to contemporary Chinese or Indian norms and is horrendously intolerant compared to post-enlightenment ideals and fashions. The imposition of Ottoman rules today would be most unwelcome even to post-Marxist intellectuals if they had to live under those rules. Of course, this does not mean they cannot speak highly of these norms as long as they themselves are a safe distance away from them, but such long-distance approval is of academic interest (literally, academic) and not our concern for the purposes of this post.
3. Modern states and modern politics (not just all the complex debates about how power should be exercised, who exercises it, who decides who exercises it etc., but also the institutions and mechanisms that evolved to manage modern states and modern politics) mostly reached their current form in Europe. They did not arise from nothing. Many ancient strands grew and intersected to create these states and their political institutions. And there are surely things about this evolution that are contingent and would have been different if they had happened elsewhere. But there are also many features of modern life that are based on new and universally applicable discoveries about human psychology, human biology and human sociology. They have made possible new levels of organization and productivity and in a globalized world (and the Eurasian landmass has had some sort of exchange of ideas for millennia, but this process has accelerated now by orders of magnitude) it is impossible for any large population to ignore these advances and suvive unmolested by those willing to take advantage of these advances.
The modern world that has been created is not just one random "civilization" among many. It is the cutting edge of human knowledge and the human ability to apply that knowledge to good and evil ends. Whatever else it may be (and there is no shortage of people who feel it is too oppressive, too unfair, too fast, too anxiety-provoking, too inhuman, etc etc.) it is an extremely powerful and progressive culture. You can reject it, and countless people (including, it seems, many of the most privileged intellectuals of this very civilization) do reject many aspects of it. But it should also be noted that there are degrees of rejection. Most of the critics (but not all of them) are either critics-from-within, who only reject certain aspects of it, or non-serious critics whose wholesale contempt for the project is not matched by any equivalent personal commitment or serious consideration of alternatives. Most of them also seem unable to do without critical aspects of modernity. Aspects you cannot have without having far more of the rest than they seem to care for. To give two random examples, I have never met a multiculturalist liberal or leftist in the West (including those of Desi origin) who is willing to himself or herself live under the restrictive sexual morality and the community-centric balance of community vs individual rights characteristic of "traditional cultures'. And I have NEVER met an Islamist who did not want an air-force (you can work out for yourself all the other innovations and institutional mechanisms that would be needed in order to have a competitive indigenous air-force).
In fact, forget traditional cultures, just look at Maoist China and the Khmer Rouge, both of whom explicitly rejected modern individualism and mere meritocracy and insisted they wanted to be "Red rather than Expert". One ended up honoring the legacy of Liu Bocheng and Deng Xiaoping over Mao, the other ended up on the proverbial "dust heap of history". There is a lesson (or several lessons) in those choices and their spectacular failure.
In short, the only people who can realistically stay outside of "our universal civilization" are either museum communities permitted to survive as quaint exemplars of bygone days (like the Amish) or VERY tiny communities that are so isolated and remote that they have escaped the maw of the Eurasian beast until now. Our universal civilization does not have to be seen as positively as Naipaul famously saw it, but it still has to be seen for what it is, a gigantic human achievement and a work in progress; all criticism and resistance being included within it (dialectics anyone?)
And it is important to note that this universal civilization is no longer exclusively European (and never was exclusively European for that matter). Soon, this universal civilization may be dominated by non-European people, a fact that Eurocentric PostMarxist intellectuals seem to have very great difficulty assimilating into their worldview. The institutions and ideas that developed in Europe (from earlier sources that came from all over Eurasia) in the last 400 years have been adopted and adapted already by several Asian nations (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), with China not far behind and India set to follow. Muslims are not special enough to escape that fate. The only thing truly remarkable about the Muslim core region is the widespread desire to integrate huge elements of modern civilization while remaining medieval in terms of theology, law and politics. Of course we are not unique in this desire; there are Indians and Chinese and Japanese who "reject modernity" as being too European, and who insist they have an alternative path. Whether they do or do not is to some extent a matter of semantics, but Muslims are not unique in claiming that "we are a fundamentally different civilization". Where we are unique (for now) is only in our inability to generate a genuinely open debate on this topic; the tendency in the Islamicate core is for almost everyone in the public sphere to pay lip-service to delusional or formulaic and practically meaningless Islamist ideals and to avoid direct criticism of medieval laws and theology. This is unlike how it is routine for Indians to criticize Indian "fundamentalists" or Christians to criticize Christian ones. And for that we have to thank the blasphemy and apostasy memes more than any intrinsic unchangeability of Islamicate laws and theology.
4. But while Islamicate empires (the dominant form of political organization in the middle east and South Asia from the advent of Islam to the colonial era) insisted they were "Islamic" and used Islam (especially in the first 500 years) as the central justification for their expansionist ambitions, there was another sense in which these same empires had a near-total separation of mosque and state. All these empires operated as typical Eurasian empires and they were, in most administrative details, a straightforward evolution of previous imperial patterns in that region. Religion was part and parcel of the empires, but religious doctrine provided practically no guidance to the political process. The rulers used religion to justify their rule, but the battle-axe determined who got to rule and how. Some rulers attempted to conduct an inquisition and impose their favorite theology on their subjects, but most were content to get post-facto approval for their rule from the ulama (and the ulama were happy to oblige). Islamic theologians accepted practically ANY ruler as long the ruler said he was Muslim and continued to work for the expansion of the Islamic empire. ALL four schools of classical Sunni Islam insisted that the ruler should be obeyed and rebellion was unislamic. This did not stop people from rebelling, but once a rebellion succeeded, the ulama advised submission to whatever ambitious and capable prince had managed to kill his way to the top. An imaginary idealized Islamic state was discussed at times but had little to no connection with actual power politics.
5. It must also be kept in mind that Empires governed loosely and interfered little with the everyday religious rituals of the ruled, especially outside the urban core. The rulers were interested in collecting taxes and continuing to rule. Most of the ruled gave as little as possible in taxes and had as little as possible to do with their rulers. This is not a specifically Islamic pattern, but it was practically a universal feature of Islamicate empires. Muslim religious literature developed no serious political thought. Power politics was guided more by “Mirrors of princes” type literature and pre-Muslim (or not-specifically Muslim) traditions and not some detailed notion of “Islamic state”. There is really NO detailed "Islamic" blueprint for running a state. The so-called Islamic system of government is a modern myth. Every Islamicate empire down to the late Ottomans ruled in the name of Islam, but they did so using institutions and methods that were typically West-Asian/Central-Asian in origin, or were invented to solve a particular Islamicate problem, but had no direct or necessary connection with fundamental Islamic texts and traditions.
6. After defeat at the hands of more capable imperialists and during the (relatively brief) colonial interlude, some people dug up the old stories of the rightly guided caliphs; It seems to me that early Islamicate fantasists (like Allama Iqbal in India) took it for granted that the everyday institutional reality of any "Islamic" state would, for the foreseeable future, be much closer to England than it was to Medina (witness for example his approval of the Grand Turkish assembly). Most Muslim leaders, like their Chinese or Japanese counterparts, were first and foremost interested in getting out from under the imperialist thumb. If they gave some thought to the form their states would take, their imagination ranged from Marxist Russian models to very poorly imagined Islamist utopias. But over time, stories frequently repeated can take on a life of their own. Islamist parties want to create powerful, modern Islamic states. But the stories they were using were more Islamic than modern. The result is that every Islamist party is forever in danger of being hijacked by those espousing simple-minded and unrealistic notions of Shariah law. It turns out that pretending to have “our own unique genius” is much easier than actually having any genius that can get the job done. Modern ideas (fascism, the grand theatre of modern media manipulation, modern methods of guerilla war) are used to promote legal codes and theology whose relationship with these new institutions has not been worked out yet (and I see no problem with sticking my neck out and saying "will NOT be worked out satisfactorily by ANY contemporary Islamist movement).
7. The MODE of failure may vary, but the failure of the Islamist political project in the next 20 years is inevitable. This is not because there can be no such project in principle, but because the project as it has actually developed in the 20th century is based on the twin illusions of an “ideal Islamic state” and an existing alternative “Islamic political science”…neither of which actually existed in history. AFTER this failure, there can certainly be new ways of creating modern, workable institutions that have enough of an Islamic coloring to deserve the label "Islamist" while incorporating all (or most) of the new discoveries in the hard sciences as well as in economics, human psychology, politics, social organization, administrative institutions, mass communication and so on.
8. I do want to emphasize that I do not believe Islamic theology per se is some sort of insoluble problem. It may be a difficult problem, but both liberals who are trying to discover modern fashions in that theology and "Islamophobes" who insist that the theology is a permanently illiberal fascist program are wrong in their emphasis on the centrality of this theology. As Razib put it in an interesting post on this topic on his blog, "Islam is not a religion of the book". NO religion is a religion of the book. People make religions and people remake them as the times demands. Messily and unpredictably in many cases, but still, there is movement. And in this sense, Islam is no more fixed in stone by what is written or not written in its text (or texts) than any other religion.
Someone commented on Razib's blog (and I urge you to read the post and the comments, and the hyperlinks, they are all relevant and make this post clearer) as follows:
"Well, if you take the Old Testament and Koran at face value, the OT is more violent. The interesting question is then why Islam ends up being more violent than Judaism or Christianity, and for that I agree you have to thank subsequent tradition and reinterpretation of the violence in the text. It appears that for whatever reason Islam has carried out less of this kind of reinterpretation, so what was originally a less violent founding text ends up causing more violence because it is being interpreted much more literally."
I replied that there is an easier explanation: Whether the text canonized as "foundational document" does, or does not, explain the imperialism and supremacism of the various Islamicate empires is a red herring. The Quran is a fairly long book, but to an outsider it should be immediately obvious that you can create many different Islams around that book and if you did it all over again, NONE of them have to look like classical Sunni Islam. The details of Sunni Islam (who gets to rule, what daily life is supposed to look like, how non-Muslims should be treated, etc) are not some sort of direct and unambiguous reading of the Quran. While the schools of classical Sunni Islam claim to be based on the Quran and hadith, the Quran and the hadiths are clearly cherry picked and manipulated (and in the case of the hadiths, frequently just invented) based on the perceived needs of the empire, the ulama, the individual commentators, human nature, economics, whatever (insert your favorite element here).
So in principle, we should be able to make new Islams as needed (and some of us have indeed done so over the centuries, the Ismailis being one extreme example; some Sufis being another) and I am sure others will do just that in the days to come. The Reza Aslan types are right about this much (though i seriously doubt that he can invent anything new or lasting; that does not even seem to be his primary aim). In fact, in terms of practice, millions of Muslims have already "invented new Islams". Just as a random example, most contemporary Muslims do not have sex with multiple concubines that they captured in the most recent Jihad expedition to the Balkans (or bought from African slave-traders for that matter). Not only do they not buy and sell slaves, they find the thought of doing so somewhat shocking. Also see how countless Muslims lived very obediently under British laws in the British empire and in fact provided a good part of the armies of that empire. Or see the countless Muslims who take oaths of loyalty to all sorts of "un-Islamic" states and, for the most part, turn out to be as loyal and law-abiding as any of their Hindu or Sikh or Christian fellow citizens in the various hedonistic modern states. Their "Islam" has already adapted itself to new realities.
What sets Muslms apart is really their inability (until now) to publicly and comfortably articulate a philosophical rejection of medieval (aka no longer fashionable) elements of classical Sunni Islam. And for all practical purposes, this is a serious problem only in Muslim majority countries. In other countries that have a strong sense of their own identity and of the necessity of their own laws, Muslims mostly get on with life while following those laws. In the Muslim majority countires, it is the apostasy and blasphemy laws (and the broader memes that uphold those laws) that play a central role in preventing public rejection of unfashionable or unworkable aspects of classical Islam. A King Hussein or a Benazir Bhutto or even a Rouhani may have private thoughts rejecting X or Y inconvenient parts of medieval Islamicate laws and theology, but to speak up would be to invite accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. So they fudge, they hem and haw, and they do one thing while paying lip service to another. Unfortunately, this means the upholders of classical Islam have the edge in debates in the public sphere. And ISIS and the Wahabis are not far enough from mainstream classical Sunni Islam for us to think they are just some demonic eruption from outer space; for example, classical Islamic theology recommends cutting the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, going on jihad (not just some inner jihad of the Karen Armstrong type, but the real deal), capturing slaves, buying and selling concubines, killing apostates and so on; ISIS of course goes much further in their willingness to kill other Muslims, to rebel against existing rulers and to bypass common humanity and commonly cited restrictions and regulations about prisoners, hostages, punishments and so on, but when they say classical Islam permits the first set of things noted above, they are not lying, the apologists are lying.
By the way, while this inability to frontally confront aspects of classical Islam that are out of sync with the current age is a serious problem in Muslim communities, it is not insoluble. The internet has made it very hard to keep inconvenient thoughts out of view. So even in Muslim majority countries, there will be much churning and eventually, much change. It's just that some countries will emerge out of it better than others.
ISIS itself will not get anywhere. Of course, in principle, an evolved ISIS living on in the core Sunni region is possible. But we make predictions based on whatever models we have in our head. Like most predictions in social science and history, these will not be mathematical and precise and our confidence in them (or our ability to convince others, even when others accept most of our premises) will not be akin to the predictions of mathematics or physics. But for whatever it's worth, I don't think ISIS will settle into some semi-comfortable equilibrium (irrespective of whether more capable powers like Israel or Turkey or even the CIA are supporting them or not). They will only destroy and create chaos. And eventually they will be destroyed. It is possible that in the process parts of Syria, Iraq and North Africa could become like Somalia; too messy, too violent and too poor to be worth the effort of pacification, even by intact nearby states. But even if a Somalia-like situation continues for years, it will not go on forever. The real estate involved is too valuable, the communities involved were too integrated in the modern world, to be left alone. Eventually someone will bring order to to those parts. Though it is likely that this "someone" will be local and will use more force and cruder methods than liberal modern intellectuals are comfortable with. The first stage of pacification is more likely to be handled by local agents of distant imperialists, not directly by the imperialists themselves. That is just the way it is likely to work best.
Of course, success and failure are always relative to something. If the zeitgeist (whatever that means) is no longer in favor of something then a "successful" policy would be one that achieves a soft landing. Since the zeitgeist is (almost by definition) unknowable in full in real time, even the soft landing is not going to land where the first planners of soft landing imagined it as being headed. Being able to land softly, wherever that may be is the best outcome we can hope for in many cases. With that cheery note, here are some other useful links (many extracted from an extremely learned discussion on smallwarsjournal) that shed light on some aspects of the above, raise opposing ideas, or help to understand where I am coming from.
Our religion problem by Babar Sattar in DAWN Pakistan.
Reforming the blasphemy laws, in many ways, an enlightened "Islam-based" initiative.
Razib Khan on "The Islamic State is right about some things".
From Zenpundit Charles Cameron on Misquoting Mohammed
"Brown is a Muslim, a professor at Georgetown, and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. His book Misquoting Muhammad — not his choice of title, btw — lays open the varieties of interpretive possibility in dealing with the Qur’an and ahadith with comprehensive scholarship and clarity. In light of the upsurge in interest in Islamic and Islamist religious teachings occasioned by Graeme Wood‘s recentAtlantic article, I asked Prof. Brown’s permission to reproduce here the section of his book dealing with abrogation and the rules of war.
Here then, with his permission, is an extract from Misquoting Muhammad. I hope it will prove of use both here and to others beyond the circle of Zenpundit readers. Spread the word!"
From a conservative Western perspective: The fantasy of an Islamic reformation.
"Q 2:256, “There is no compulsion in religion . . .” (lā ikrāha fī l-dīni) has become the locus classicus for discussions of religious tolerance in Islam. Surprisingly enough, according to the “circumstances of revelation” (asbāb al-nuzūl) literature (see occasions of revelation), it was revealed in connection with the expulsion of the Jewish tribe of Banū l-Nadīr from Medina in 4⁄625 In the earliest works of exegesis (see exegesis of the Quran: classical and medieval), the verse is understood as an injunction (amr) to refrain from the forcible imposition of Islam, though there is no unanimity of opinion regarding the precise group of infidels to which the injunction had initially applied. Commentators who maintain that the verse was originally meant as applicable to all people consider it as abrogated (mansūkh) by q 9:5, q 9:29, or q 9:73 (see abrogation). Viewing it in this way is necessary in order to avoid the glaring contradiction between the idea of tolerance and the policies of early Islam which did not allow the existence of polytheism — or any other religion — in a major part of the Arabian peninsula. Those who think that the verse was intended, from the very beginning, only for the People of the Book, need not consider it as abrogated: though Islam did not allow the existence of any religion other than Islam in most of the peninsula, the purpose of the jihād (q.v.)against the People of the Book, according to q 9:29, is their submission and humiliation rather than their forcible conversion to Islam.[...]"
"Both verses that are said to have abrogated Quran 2:256 speak about jihad. It can be inferred from this that the commentators who consider Quran 2:256 as abrogated perceive jihad as contradicting the idea of religious freedom. While it is true that religious differences are mentioned in both Quran 9:29 and 9:73 as the reason because of which the Muslims were commanded to wage war, none of them envisages the forcible conversion of the vanquished enemy. Quran 9:29 defines the purpose of the war as the imposition of the jizya on the People of the Book and their humiliation, while Quran 9:73 speaks only about the punishment awaiting the infidels and the hypocrites in the hereafter, and leaves the earthly purpose of the war undefined. Jihad and religious freedom are not mutually exclusive by necessity; religious freedom could be granted to the non-Muslims after their defeat, and commentators who maintain that Quran 2:256 was not abrogated freely avail themselves of this exegetical possibility with regard to theJews, the Christians and the Zoroastrians. However, the commentators who belong to the other exegetical trend do not find it advisable to think along these lines, and find it necessary to insist on the abrogation of Quran 2:256 in order to resolve the seeming contradiction between this verse and the numerous verses enjoining jihad. p. 102-3t al-_arab). Despite the apparent meaning of q 2:256, Islamic law allowed coercion of certain groups into Islam. Numerous traditionists and jurisprudents ( fuqahā_) allow coercing female polytheists and Zoroastrians (see magians) who fall into captivity to become Muslims — otherwise sexual relations with them would not be permissible (cf. q 2:221; see sex and sexuality; marriage and divorce). Similarly, forcible conversion of non-Muslim children was also allowed by numerous jurists in certain circumstances, especially if the children were taken captive (see captives) or found without their parents or if one of their parents embraced Islam. It was also the common practice to insist on the conversion of the Manichaeans, who were never awarded the status of ahl al-dhimma. Another group against whom religious coercion may be practiced are apostates from Islam (see apostasy). As a rule, classical Muslim law demands that apostatesbe asked to repent and be put to death if they refuse."
The pact of Umar
"In the name of Allah, the merciful Benefactor! This is the assurance granted to the inhabitants of Aelia by the servant of God, 'Umar, the commander of the Believers. He grants them safety for their persons, their goods, churches, crosses - be they in good or bad condition - and their worship in general. Their churches shall neither be turned over to dwellings nor pulled down; they and their dependents shall not be put to any prejudice and thus shall it fare with their crosses and goods. No constraint shall be imposed upon them in matters of religion and no one among them shall be harmed. No Jew shall be authorised to live in Aelia with them. The inhabitants of Aelia must pay the gizya in the same way as the inhabitants of other towns. It is for them to expel from their cities Roums (Byzantians) and outlaws. Those of the latter who leave shall be granted safe conduct... Those who would stay shall be authorised to, on condition that they pay the same gizya as the inhabitants of Aelia. Those of the inhabitants of Aelia who wish to leave with the Roums, to carry away their goods, abandon their churches and Crosses, shall likewise have their own safe conduct, for themselves and for their Crosses. Rural dwellers (ahl 'I-ard) who were already in the town before the murder of such a one, may stay and pay the gizya by the same title as the people of Aelia, or if they prefer they may leave with the Roums or return to their families. Nothing shall be exacted of them.
Witnesses: Khaledb.A1-Walid, 'Amrb.A1-Alp, 'Abdar-Rahmanb. 'Awf Muawiya b. Abi Sufyan, who wrote these words, here, In the year 15 (33).
Winston King states in the Encyclopaedia of Religion, 2nd Ed., Vol. 11
“Many practical and conceptual difficulties arise when one attempts to apply such a dichotomous pattern [ sacred / profane ] across the board to all cultures. In primitive societies, for instance, what the West calls religious is such an integral part of the total ongoing way of life that it is never experienced or thought of as something separable or narrowly distinguishable from the rest of the pattern. Or if the dichotomy is applied to that multifaceted entity called Hinduism, it seems that almost everything can be and is given a religious significance by some sect. Indeed, in a real sense everything that is is divine; existence per se appears to be sacred. It is only that the ultimately real manifests itself in a multitude of ways—in the set-apart and the ordinary, in god and so-called devil, in saint and sinner. The real is apprehended at many levels in accordance with the individual’s capacity.” p.7692,
Paul Radin, Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin in connexion with early societies”Where there is little trace of a centralized authority, there we encounter no true priests, and religious phenomena remain essentially unanalysed and unorganized. Magic and simple coercive rites rule supreme”.p.21
Carl Schmitt in Political Theology,
“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts‟ (p. 36)
or again in The Concept of the Political that
“The juridic [sic] formulas of the omnipotence of the state are, in fact, only superficial secularisations of theological formulas of the omnipotence of God‟ (p. 42).
Monday, February 23, 2015
The Love Of Money
by Mandy de Waal
"I never realised that I had a problem until quite recently. Before this I thought it was normal. I thought that everyone thinks (about money) the way I do," says Charles Hugo (not his real name) on the phone from an upmarket seaside resort on South Africa's Cape coast.
"It doesn't matter how much money I earn, I always feel I need more." As Hugo describes his relationship with money, his speech is carefully measured. The forty-something year old former banker-cum-currency trader pauses for a while during our conversation, and then adds: "It was only recently I realised I have a problem."
For as long as Hugo can remember money has featured as a complex protagonist in his life. The dominant force in his decision making, this man measures everything in terms of what it will cost him and if the value he'll be getting from the transaction will be worthwhile. It doesn't matter if the transaction is an emergency trip in an ambulance or going into a restaurant for a sirloin.
"Every time a decision needs to be made, the first thing I think about is the financial impact. It doesn't matter what it is. I will always find a money angle to each and every decision," he says. "If someone has a problem I won't think about the person or the emotion." For Hugo cash is cognitive king.
"I used to think everyone was like this. That money came first in everyone's lives. It's only during the past couple of years that I've realised this is not the case." Today Hugo – who doesn't want his identity to be revealed publicly – is in his early forties. Hugo talks about having a problem and about being obsessed with money. A couple of times the word ‘addiction' enters the conversation. "I have an addiction to money," he says, adding that his ‘obsession' with money causes problems in his interpersonal relationships because he thinks very differently from those he cares about.
MONEY - THE EARLY YEARS
To understand how Hugo's relationship with money evolved, the writer of this article asks him about his early memories – about the events that shaped his formative years. "I didn't ask for things often because I knew the answer would always be about money," says Hugo, who was told by his father that money was something one had to work very hard for. Hugo internalised the idea that extreme effort and difficulty was associated with financial reward.
"When I was about eight years old and in standard one I went through a period at school where I always had a pain in my stomach. The teacher would get sick of me and send me to sick bay, and then my parents would be called and I would be sent home. I didn't realise it then, but thinking about this now I understand why this happened. I guess I thought that if I wasn't at school my dad wouldn't have to pay for me to be there. At that time I had a strong sense of wasting my dad's money and of definite guilt. I didn't fully understand it then, but if I think about this now, those same guilt feelings arise. To be honest, if I spend money on something now, I still feel guilty about it," Hugo says.
As Hugo's school career progressed he found he thought about money often. " It was constant. It was a worry," he says, adding that the thoughts mostly related to how he was going to earn money or get by once he left school. "Whatever I was busy doing at the time… well, I wouldn't think about what I was doing, but rather about money."
When it comes to psychological disorders that are related to money, what's evident is that—gambling aside—there are no easy definitions or neat borders for containment. Money is an indispensable part of our daily lives – as integral as sex and food. Most people wake up in the morning and go to work in order to make money, and this is never thought of as pathological. Far from it – it is an activity that's characterised as very healthy. It is a responsible citizenry that gets up and keeps the cogs of the consumerist machine moving. More so, society lauds those who rise up through the capitalist ranks to become captains of industry or breakout entrepreneurs.
SHUFFLING BIG MONEY
Hugo describes a time in his late twenties, when he shuffled funds around for a financial institution and was earning some R300,000.00 a month. "I was working in a bank and there were retrenchments. I was put into an admin role where I was dealing with money," he says, explaining that the designation he found himself in wasn't supposed to be a money-making position.
"I turned this into a massive money-making division for the business. All I was doing was moving money around. I started this admin function with some R100 million, but when I was done I was dealing with R20 billion," Hugo says, adding: "This put me in my element. It was like a dream come true. Every day I could get up and move money around. I never realised it at the time. I didn't know it was what I could do or how to do it. But I just fitted into this role perfectly. The longer I did this the better I became at doing it. My whole focus was on the money – moving the money around and making more money."
When the bank realised what a boon Hugo was, he was given financial rewards, which only served to intensify his drive to make more money. "The bonuses just spurred me on. At that time I had calculations going in my head non-stop. All I thought about every day was how much I would make and what it would take to make this grow," he says.
A defining moment for Hugo at the time was going on leave, and spending his entire vacation consumed with the thought about how to make more money. Being away from the day-to-day minutiae enabled Hugo to review how he was working for the bank. "I looked at the bigger picture," Hugo says, declaring that in the month after he returned to work he'd made more in that month than he'd made the whole year. "It was non-stop thinking about how to make more and more," he confesses.
THERE'S NO PATHOLOGY
Trying to deconstruct what presents as an obsession with lucre is something of a challenge because an addiction to money is not a pathology that is officially recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM codifies mental conditions and is a diagnostic standard used globally by mental health professionals. The only addictive disorders associated with money recognised by the DSM is gambling disorder, which is defined as a process disorder, or an addiction to an activity (like sex, for instance, or internet gaming.)
"We have a situation where the leading diagnostic manual isn't prepared to commit to a behavioural addiction as something that they are willing to codify," a psychiatrist who used to practice in London, and who asks for his name to be withheld, tells me. "If this is not even codified as a disorder, where do we start decreeing that something is beyond norms, or even pathological? Do we make that judgement from our own value-set?" he asks, and then answers his own question: "For many people this behaviour might sit well within their own set of values," the psychiatrist explains.
The psychiatrist continues: "One of the requirements for codifying a disorder as pathological, the criteria is that it must have negative consequences for a person's physical, mental, social or financial well-being. In other words, there must be some form of tangible destruction going on, in one or more of these key areas. In fact most clinicians would be reluctant to commit something as pathological if no damage has been done."
We live in a society where amassing wealth is simultaneously revered and reviled. Greed was classified a vice as far back as the 4th century when Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus penned a list of what he called ‘evil thoughts' in Greek. This list became the ‘seven deadly sins' two centuries later when it was revised as such by Pope Gregory I, based no doubt on Matthew 6:24: "No-one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon" (or "God and riches").
THE RELIGION OF GREED
Fast forward to the 21st century and you'll discover a time when greed had all but become a religion. I'm talking about the excessive eighties, that period personified by Gordon Gekko - the protagonist in Oliver Stone's ‘Wall Street'. Gekko sums up the spirit of this capitalist period without a conscience: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works." A ruthless corporate raider, Gekko tells a packed annual shareholder's meeting in a seminal scene from the film: "Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind."
Gekko epitomises the capitalist ideology of the latter half of the twentieth century, a time when America's economic growth was on the ascendancy and materialism was rampant.
In 1983, sociologist Philip Slater saw what was happening in the States, and called for caution by labelling money "America's most powerful drug." In his book, "Wealth Addiction" he examined consumerist American society. Slater described what he saw like this: "Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they'll have jobs and get enough money to buy things." Thirty years on, its interesting to see that status is no longer as important as it once was to Americans.
SUCCESS = MONEY?
An Ipsos MORI Global Trends Survey of more than 16,000 people across 20 states showed that people who took this global survey in the US largely no longer measure success by what they own. However attitudes in Hugo's home country are quite different. By way of contrast South Africans are fairly materialistic but are much more likely to feel under pressure to make money or be successful than the global average.
The Ipsos data revealed that 33% of South Africans surveyed say they measure their success by the things they own in contrast to 21% of Americans. This compares with 71% of respondents in China, 58% in India and 16% in Britain. The research also shows that 66% of South Africans feel enormous peer pressure to succeed. For people surveyed in the US this figure was 46%.
In South Africa, Hugo struggles to work with his obsession with money. "I am currently trading on the financial markets in my personal capacity, and it is a huge challenge to get my emotions out of the way when it comes to making a decision about entering and exiting… about taking a trade or not taking a trade. Often my emotions start overtaking the rational reasons why I am doing this," he says.
Hugo describes how he often needs to wrestle with himself internally to ensure that his decision-making isn't hijacked by his emotions. "Managing my emotions so that they don't impinge on what I am doing takes huge effort. This would be an ideal vocation if I could take money out of the equation, but what I do now to make money is directly related to money. But now I try to manage this in a different way," he says.
Hugo isn't going for professional counselling but spends time speaking to people, and works on trying to be mindful and conscious of his thoughts, thought processes, decisions and actions. "Typically I try to take a step back. To do some breathing exercises for three to five minutes. I try to be mindful of the present moment in the hope that I can walk away from the situation at hand with a new light, or a new insight or perspective," he says.
PENNIES AND PRINCIPLES
The moral of this story? Understanding our psychology and the role that money plays in it, requires an appreciation of complexity. On an individual level, what we think of as dysfunction, may not be. On the contrary, what we think of as sick could be the projection of our own value system flexed in judgement of another.
On a macro or systemic level Hugo's advice makes sense. Isn't it time we stepped away from the means we use to measure success in order to re-examine how useful this is to our lives and to society? Don't we need to become more conscious about our relationship with money in order to really understand how our ties to financial transactions hinder, harm or help us?
Monday, January 05, 2015
He's So Ronery
"Data made flesh in the mazes of the black market."
~ William Gibson, Neuromancer
Sometime last September, to add to what was already a fairly stressful month, I received a text message from my bank inquiring about some charges that had been made to my credit card. Once I got on the phone with a representative, I was asked if I had spent a few thousand dollars the previous evening at a nightclub in Sofia, Bulgaria. I told them that I hadn't, and that I was furthermore upset that I hadn't even been invited. Two large dropped in a dump like Sofia – it must have been quite the party. The bank made me whole again, but I was left to wonder, like so many other people these days, about the inscrutable question of how my card had been procured and deployed with all the instantaneity allowed by today's global flow of money and data – concepts that are becoming increasingly interchangeable or even undifferentiated. In all likelihood, neither I nor the bank will ever know what happened, and the event was written off simply as a cost of doing business.
This event reproduced itself more recently on a much larger scale. What has become known as the "Sony Hack" is continuing to reverberate across several worlds: computer security, entertainment and even foreign policy, to name a few. Much of the conversation seems to be concerned with the whodunit aspect of things: Who could possibly have had the skills and chutzpah required to not only spirit away approximately 100 terabytes of information of every stripe from underneath the multinational's nose, but then also proceeded to wipe much of the data from the network itself? Even though the breach was noticed on November 24th, it's a good bet that Sony itself still hasn't assessed the full extent of the damage. While things are nowhere near to shaking out, let's consider some of the consequences that have so far followed the smashing of this particular piñata.
Fast forward about, umm, fifteen minutes after November 24th, and we already had our culprit, which could be no one other than North Korea (I guess Iran got a bye because we need them right now in order to fight Islamic State). I find it challenging to believe North Korea was involved. Eleven years ago, Kim père didn't seem quite so phased the last time a Hollywood satire "took him out" – is it possible that Kim fils is such a thin-skinned grasshopper?
Seriously, though, a good reason to be wary of the whodunit parlor game is the sheer paucity of real information. As with Edward Snowden's NSA leaks, we only know what has been released so far, the odd communications of the hackers responsible, and, to a much lesser degree, what has been divulged by those directly affected (for a fairly disinterested view, check out Bruce Schneier's postings, especially here and here; the mark of a true authority is the ability to remain undecided). Without a doubt, it's been a feast for anyone interested in anything that Sony Pictures produces, or the position that it generally occupies in our culture. For one thing, the leaks have provided a delightful opportunity for tut-tutting the casual racism, sexism, ageism and general backstabbing that still seems to constitute the lingua franca of the entertainment industry – and probably many other industries, were their kimonos to be opened as well. And however the hack was conducted, corporate infosec has yet again been revealed as the emperor with no clothes. Given the breaches we have experienced in the past few years (for example, 70 million credit cards stolen from Target almost precisely a year earlier), this comes as no real surprise, either.
What's more interesting are the consequences for US and North Korean gameplay. This event has provided exactly the right fuel for the brinksmanship that both sides have excelled at for decades. Even if the DPRK had little or no hand in the hack, the US gets to tighten the screws with additional sanctions, this time attempting to target the country's (admittedly very real) cyberwarfare capabilities. For its part, the North Korean propaganda machine will scale fresh heights of shrillness and maybe fire another missile or two into the sea, giving it a higher ledge from which the international community will eventually have to talk it down with concessions. Kim Jong-Un now has even more and better reasons to consolidate power. Also, the DPRK's offer of a joint investigation into the actual culprits, which the US was bound to turn down, was pretty clever. Everyone gets to pull a few treats from the piñata once it's been cracked. It's easy to imagine Kim Jong-Un popping up a fresh batch of popcorn in his underground lair and kicking back to the movie that's now unfolding.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room, also known as "The Interview". We, or at least some of us, have been put in the awfully strange position of striking a blow for freedom by watching a Seth Rogen movie. As is well known, the Guardians of Peace (the group taking responsibility for the hack, not to be confused with the Burundian militia of the same name, although that would set a new bar for globalization) made enough threats that the film was initially pulled from theaters. The ensuing "free speech" backlash saw criticism from President Obama all the way to feel-good author and astute businessman Paolo Coelho, who bizarrely offered to buy the distribution rights for $100,000. The film was subsequently set up for online distribution, then gingerly released through a few independents and small chains. This led to the next unanticipated consequence: we suddenly had a real-world case study for digital distribution of first-run films.
As Paul Tassi correctly noted, this was far from a perfect case, since the release was, to put it mildly, chaotic. Nevertheless, marketers will be reading these tea leaves carefully. 2014 ended with box office receipt down 5.3% from the previous year, and studios will be redoubling their efforts to make sense of the continuing fragmentation of the distribution and payment landscape. If "The Interview" is the canary in the coal mine, the outlook isn't good. Budgeted at $44m, as of Tassi's December 29th article it had only take in $15m in online revenue, and by January 4th it had taken in almost $5m in physical box office sales.
Given that the film had the sort of PR any flack would give a right arm for, why such a poor showing? Let's not forget that while some of us outsmarted the terrorists by streaming the film in our homes, others perhaps took the whole striking-a-blow-for-freedom concept a bit too far, since almost as many people illegally downloaded the film. Had the film gone into wide release on Christmas Day, as was originally intended, Tassi quotes source that believe it would have made its entire budget back in the first weekend. A $7 streaming rental – even less, if split among a roomful of friends – is not going to do a declining industry any favors. The model is clearly in need of further tweaking.
So who should we be listening to as we attempt to disentagle the mess that is the Sony hack? To me, one of the main assumptions that requires unpacking is the idea that there must be a single group behind this, motivated by a single purpose. There is an astonishing menagerie of actors within hacking culture who opportunistically form temporary, anonymous groups for the achievement of some more-or-less identifiable goal. Even Anonymous – perhaps the best-known of these – could not resist getting a piece of the action, as per the below message posted on PasteBin on December 19th:
We know that Mr. Paulo Coelho has offered Sony Entertainment a sum of $100,000 for the rights of the movie; where he shall then be able to upload the movie onto BitTorrent. Obviously, you shall not be responding to his generous offer - so please respond to ours with a public conference, we wish to offer you a deal... Release "The Interview" as planned, or we shall carry out as many hacks as we are capable of to both Sony Entertainment, and yourself. Obviously, this document was only created by a group of 25-30 Anons, but there are more of us on the internet than you can possibly imagine.
What's a poor CEO to do? One group of hackers breaks the piñata open while another demands that you go about your business like an honorable corporation. In an age where we are way past the idea of accountability, there really isn't pleasing everyone, or anyone, any longer. (A further irony is that PasteBin was one of the anonymous sites where the Guardians originally dumped the contents of C-suite mailboxes, payroll lists and other goodies. There is no technology whose blade cuts only one way.)
We have to begin from a different point of view – that of the forces arrayed against the information systems of any organization. These systems are constantly being prodded and jerked around from the outside by anyone with an internet connection and the ability to fill in a website name. And because you have to trust your employees somewhat, these same systems are always already compromised from the inside. A group on the outside may have the expertise but only idle malice in mind, while a disgruntled insider might have the motivation, but lack the tools to do truly widespread damage. Even if the two manage to find one another, the coherence of the act is still disputable. In a very real sense, it is only the act of observing the event that allows for this probabilistic wave function of motivation to collapse into a stable agenda. Given the current lack of information, it is easy to forget that we are just reflecting back to ourselves the narratives that we have already accepted, eg: North Korea is bad; hackers are terrorists; employees cannot be trusted. Whichever one you believe in the most is your explanation to the Sony hack.
I came to this conclusion after reading some analyses performed by infosec firms, Since their bread and butter is protecting corporations like Sony from just these sorts of situations, they have rushed in to make sense of the situation. With the FBI tight-lipped about what they know, these players are one of the only sources of – if not accurate then at least interesting – third-party information concerning the hack. And since their business depends on their credibility, they are perhaps the least incentivized to sensationalism.
Curiously, I cannot find a single infosec firm that pegs North Korea, certainly not directly. These firms' knowledge of hacking tools and culture makes it clear that malware, techniques and virtual points of reference like IP addresses are often and easily traded, imitated or faked. This of course does not completely discount the idea of DPRK involvement, but it makes proving it much more difficult. Hence the argument for an opportunistic alliance. One of them, Norse, has been developing the disgruntled-insider theory:
At the center of Norse's findings is Lena, a woman who had worked for Sony for 10 years in a senior technical position until she was laid off in May during a corporate restructuring. "Lena had the technical knowledge to facilitate the type of attack Sony had, which is why… she remains a person of interest," Norse's Stammberger says. "There are other individuals as well. There's a pretty short list of specific individuals, and we know their names, addresses, and nationalities. They seem to have some connection to this incident."
If accurate, "Lena" might be the closest thing to a smoking gun that anyone will be able to find. Norse briefed the FBI for three hours last week on their findings, but the agency remained mum on what they know. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to look at the agency's exact words: "The FBI has concluded the government of North Korea is responsible for the theft and destruction of data on the network of Sony Pictures Entertainment." Crucially, this does not mean that they participated in the hacking of the network, from the inside or the outside. In fact, if you were to go to PasteBin and download some Sony executive's emails and then delete them, you could be accused of exactly the same thing.
Could it be that the entire foreign policy kerfuffle is based on an ill-considered or, worse, opportunistic reading of what the FBI said? Or is the agency providing the White House with a face-saving out if it is revealed that the DPRK was hardly involved? These are difficult questions that may never be wholly resolved. But in the meantime, no matter who swung the bat, there's plenty of candy for all the kids, so why ruin a good thing while you've got it?
As for that night club in Sofia where my credit card got taken for a wild ride, I did a little extra research. I found out from friends of friends that it's a small place that, more likely than not, is used as a money-laundering front. It turns out that the party I imagined – sleazy Eastern European gangsters in track suits, snorting coke off of strippers' fake boobs – never happened. How disappointingly appropriate.
Monday, December 08, 2014
Heat not Wet: Climate Change Effects on Human Migration in Rural Pakistan
by Jalees Rehman
In the summer of 2010, over 20 million people were affected by the summer floods in Pakistan. Millions lost access to shelter and clean water, and became dependent on aid in the form of food, drinking water, tents, clothes and medical supplies in order to survive this humanitarian disaster. It is estimated that at least $1.5 billion to $2 billion were provided as aid by governments, NGOs, charity organizations and private individuals from all around the world, and helped contain the devastating impact on the people of Pakistan. These floods crippled a flailing country that continues to grapple with problems of widespread corruption, illiteracy and poverty.
The 2011 World Disaster Report (PDF) states:
In the summer of 2010, giant floods devastated parts of Pakistan, affecting more than 20 million people. The flooding started on 22 July in the province of Balochistan, next reaching Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and then flowing down to Punjab, the Pakistan ‘breadbasket'. The floods eventually reached Sindh, where planned evacuations by the government of Pakistan saved millions of people.
However, severe damage to habitat and infrastructure could not be avoided and, by 14 August, the World Bank estimated that crops worth US$ 1 billion had been destroyed, threatening to halve the country's growth (Batty and Shah, 2010). The floods submerged some 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of Pakistan's most fertile croplands – in a country where farming is key to the economy. The waters also killed more than 200,000 head of livestock and swept away large quantities of stored commodities that usually fed millions of people throughout the year.
The 2010 floods were among the worst that Pakistan has experienced in recent decades. Sadly, the country is prone to recurrent flooding which means that in any given year, Pakistani farmers hope and pray that the floods will not be as bad as those in 2010. It would be natural to assume that recurring flood disasters force Pakistani farmers to give up farming and migrate to the cities in order to make ends meet. But a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Valerie Mueller at the International Food Policy Research Institute has identified the actual driver of migration among rural Pakistanis: Heat.
Mueller and colleagues analyzed the migration and weather patterns in rural Pakistan from 1991-2012 and found that flooding had a modest to insignificant effect on migration whereas extreme heat was clearly associated with migration. The researchers found that bouts of heat wiped out a third of the income derived through farming! In Pakistan, the average monthly rural household income is 20,000 rupees (roughly $200), which is barely enough to feed a typical household consisting of 6 or 7 people. It is no wonder that when heat stress reduces crop yields and this low income drops by one third, farming becomes untenable and rural Pakistanis are forced to migrate and find alternate means to feed their family. Mueller and colleagues also identified the group that was most likely to migrate: rural farmers who did not own the land they were farming. Not owning the land makes them more mobile, but compared to the land-owners, these farmers are far more vulnerable in terms of economic stability and food security when a heat wave hits. Migration may be the last resort for their continued survival.
It is predicted that the frequency and intensity of heat waves will increase during the next century. Research studies have determined that global warming is the major cause of heat waves, and an important recent study by Diego Miralles and colleagues published in Nature Geoscience has identified a key mechanism which leads to the formation of "mega heat waves". Dry soil and higher temperatures work as part of a vicious cycle, reinforcing each other. The researchers found that drying soil is a critical component.. During daytime, high temperatures dry out the soil. The dry soil traps the heat, thus creating layers of high temperatures even at night, when there is no sunlight. On the subsequent day, the new heat generated by sunlight is added on to the "trapped heat" by the dry soil, which creates an escalating feedback loop with progressively drying soil that becomes devastatingly effective at trapping heat. The result is a massive heat-wave which can wipe out crops, lead to water scarcity and also causes thousands of deaths.
The study by Mueller and colleagues provides important information on how climate change is having real-world effects on humans today. Climate change is a global problem, affecting humans all around the world, but its most severe and immediate impact will likely be borne by people in the developing world who are most vulnerable in terms of their food security. There is an obvious need to limit carbon emissions and thus curtail the progression of climate change. This necessary long-term approach to climate change has to be complemented by more immediate measures that help people cope with the detrimental effects of climate change by, for example, exploring ways to grow crops that are more heat resilient, and ensuring the food security of those who are acutely threatened by climate change.
As Mueller and colleagues point out, the floods in Pakistan have attracted significant international relief efforts whereas increasing temperatures and heat stress are not commonly perceived as existential threats, even though they can be just as devastating. Gradual increases in temperatures and heat waves are more insidious and less likely to be perceived as threats, whereas powerful images of floods destroying homes and personal narratives of flood survivors clearly identify floods as humanitarian disasters. The impacts of heat stress and climate change, on the other hand, are not so easily conveyed. Climate change is a complex scientific issue, relying on mathematical models and intrinsic uncertainties associated with these models. As climate change progresses, weather patterns will become even more erratic, thus making it even more challenging to offer specific predictions.
Climate change research and the translation of this research into pragmatic precautionary measures also face an uphill battle because of the powerful influence of the climate change denial lobby. Climate change deniers take advantage of the scientific complexity of climate change, and attempt to paralyze humankind in terms of climate change action by exaggerating the scientific uncertainties. In fact, there is a clear scientific consensus among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is very real and is already destroying lives and ecosystems around the world.
Helping farmers adapt to climate change will require more than financial aid. It is important to communicate the impact of climate change and offer specific advice for how farmers may have to change their traditional agricultural practices. A recent commentary in Nature by Tom Macmillan and Tim Benton highlighted the importance of engaging farmers in agricultural and climate change research. Macmillan and Benton pointed out that at least 10 million farmers have taken part in farmer field schools across Asia, Africa and Latin America since 1989 which have helped them gain knowledge and accordingly adapt their practices.
Pakistan will hopefully soon engage in a much-needed land reform in order to solve the social injustice and food insecurity that plagues the country. Five percent of large landholders in Pakistan own 64% of the total farmland, whereas 65% small farmers own only 15% of the land. About 67% of rural households own no land. Women own only 3% of the land despite sharing in 70% of agricultural activities! The land reform will be just a first step in rectifying social injustice in Pakistan. Involving Pakistani farmers – men and women alike - in research and education about innovative agricultural practices in the face of climate change will help ensure their long-term survival.
Mueller, Valerie, Clark Gray, and Katrina Kosec. "Heat stress increases long-term human migration in rural Pakistan." Nature Climate Change 4, no. 3 (2014): 182-185.
Notes Of A Grand Juror
"A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, if that's what you wanted."
~ New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler
About a dozen or so years ago, I had the instructive misfortune to be called for Manhattan grand jury duty. To this day, though, it has armed me with plenty of anecdotes for any sort of "that's the way the system works" conversation. Once you see how the sausage of justice gets made in the courtroom, you can never really unsee it, and that's not a bad thing. The grand jury process – and its failures and possible remedies – is obviously central to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, but in my opinion hasn't received nearly enough attention. Let me draw on some of my own experiences to illustrate why this is the case, and argue why any meaningful response to Brown, Garner and others must, at least for a start, be sited within the phenomenon of grand jury.
As context, New York City is one of the few cities that maintains continuously impaneled grand juries to maintain the flow of indictments that feeds the criminal justice system. When I served, there were four such juries, two of which were dedicated exclusively to drug cases. Fortunately, I was selected for one of the other two; after all, variety is the spice of life. During our month-long tenure of afternoon-shift service, we heard 94 cases, and we returned indictments, if I'm not mistaken, for 91 of those. For this service we were compensated $40 per day, which, in a fit of self-serving civil disobedience, I refused to report on my income tax return.
Keep in mind that the purpose of the jury is two-fold: to establish that a crime was committed, and that the person under indictment had some involvement with said crime. This involves the mapping of an often messy reality onto the abstract but finely delineated nature of criminal statutes. To achieve this, the prosecutor – almost always a fresh-faced Assistant District Attorney (ADA) seemingly just out of the bar exam – would present just enough facts to the jury to ensure probable cause for both the crime and the person charged with said crime. The evidence may include testimony from officers, experts or other witnesses, and it ought to be noted that probable cause is a much lower standard of proof than what petit juries encounter in trials, which is the beloved "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Note that I haven't said anything about the defense. That's because we saw not a single defendant for any of the 94 cases we heard over the course of December 2003. During our induction into grand jury, we were assured that defendants and/or their attorneys had every right to participate in the indictment proceedings. At some point people on the jury began asking if we would ever see a defendant and the bailiff said it was highly unlikely. The reason for this is our first indication of the particular kind of sausage-making that goes on within the criminal justice system: most cases end in plea bargains. Defense attorneys generally wait for the indictment to find out how incriminating the evidence is, and then act accordingly. If the indictment is backed by strong evidence, the horse-trading around cooperation begins, in hopes of a reduced sentence. Beginning in the 1980s, this was used as a comprehensive strategy by the New York DA's office to dismantle the Mafia: arrest the street-level operators and flip them, one by one, in the hopes of moving up the food chain. Rinse, lather, repeat. More recently, they have tried the same tactic on insider-trading cases, although some have proven tougher to crack than others.
Following an indictment, defense attorneys will counsel their clients to go to trial only if they think they have an exceptionally good chance of beating the rap, if not on the facts of the case then by virtue of a sympathetic judge, and so on. Like all lawyers, defense counselors look at their field of play in terms of scenarios and probabilities. In this sense, the pursuit of "justice" is not a pursuit of truth, but an exercise in risk management, negotiation and compromise. The facts, such as they might be, are there to serve those ends, and not the other way around. This is very important to keep in mind when we come to consider the Brown and Garner cases.
This brings me to the other essential point: recall that we as jurors were instructed to "map" certain statutes onto actual events and people. How do you go about doing this? As noble as "a jury of your peers" may sound, I hope that I am never in a position to be judged in this way. For the law per se is not a simple thing, and this sort of mapping exercise guarantees plenty of ambiguity along the way. For a grand jury that is essentially treated as an indicting machine, a broad variety of statutes come into play. And in the interest of securing an indictment, the DA will throw as many charges as possible against the suspect, in the hopes that at least one will stick.
Fortunately, the state is kind enough to provide a guide to navigating the complexities of statutory law: the prosecutor himself. If you think this is a conflict of interest of the highest order, you would be right. You would also have no choice in the matter. Of course, all the ADAs we dealt with were unfailingly polite and more than willing to read out the relevant statutes as many times as was necessary, but keep in mind that they are in the room to get their indictments. They regretted to inform us that they could not help us in interpreting the evidence in relation to the statute, only the statute itself. That, putatively, was our sacred duty.
So what did I learn while I was a grand juror? For one thing, the cops can pretty much arrest you for anything. Secondly, the people who get busted proceed to get themselves even more busted. Examples include: if your friend is driving you around in his newly stolen car, don't have a stolen handgun on your person (on the other hand, the two may have had some shared instrumentality, which I suppose is reasonable). But you should definitely not have a rock of crack cocaine in your pocket while you jump a subway turnstile. (Of course, if I'd been white while jumping that particular turnstile I probably wouldn't have been searched. Just saying.)
Thirdly, the cops know the law way better than you, and use it to their advantage. Example: a group of four guys are walking down the street, and the police observe two of them conducting a drugs-for-cash transaction. Shortly afterwards, all four get into a car. The cops then proceed to bust them, because the law says that anyone in a car with drugs in it can be charged for possession. Why settle for two collars when you can have four?
Fourthly, cops lie. A lot. We had to put up with some extraordinary claims made by officers, some of whom testified anonymously, in order to protect their undercover identities (it's interesting what anonymity does to your perception of whether someone is telling the truth). You were on the roof of a sixth-floor walkup without binoculars and you saw a drug deal go down four city blocks away? For real? The suspect didn't have any stolen goods on him when he was arrested but somehow had them once he emerged from the police van? No kidding! On the few occasions that we were confronted with particularly egregious lies we threw out the indictments with relish. But more often than not we were left seething amongst ourselves, during the deliberation period that was the only occasion when we were left alone as a group. Just because one cop lied at one point didn't invalidate the entire case if there was an overwhelming amount of other evidence, so in this way the lying cop gets a bye. He knew it, we knew it and he knew that we knew it. It's also worth mentioning that even if we disagreed with the law itself, we nevertheless had no choice but to indict, if the "evidence" was strong enough, as with the example of the four guys in the car above.
Eventually, in the course of our daily proceedings a curiously adversarial dynamic developed. As a jury, we did our best to establish a solid understanding of what transpired for any given case. But much of it felt like being in Plato's cave. We only saw what the prosecutors and police wanted us to see, and would further guide us, as much as possible, in how to see it. Due to the confidential nature of the proceedings, note-taking was prohibited. And without the counterbalancing presence of a defense counsel, or of the salutary effects of cross-examination, the end result was, more often than not, a shrug of the shoulders and a vote to indict.
To my further dismay, this happened with increasing frequency, especially as we approached the Christmas holidays. Unlike the zero-sum game that is a petit jury trial, there is a further dilution of responsibility, that goes something like this (and here I am pretty much quoting a fellow-juror) "Well, an indictment isn't that big of a deal, the defense attorney can figure out what to do with it next, and at the worst the guy will get a fair trial." What this indicates is more proximity bias that anything else: the first time you raised your hand to indict someone it was a very big deal, but now that you've done 60 of them and you're really thinking about having to see your in-laws again, it's really not such a whopper.
In general, there is a modicum of intellectual rigor required to attend to this process with any sense of awareness and responsibility. And yet we had jurors whose English was far below the standard needed to follow legalese; who probably hadn't had to think analytically about anything in decades; or who just plain didn't care, or rapidly reached that point. If there is anything accurate about Reginald Rose's "12 Angry Men," whose quotes and stills pepper the present article, it is the fact that a jury's seats are by no means guaranteed to be occupied by reasonable, disinterested citizerns (thank goodness Henry Fonda was one of them). To this day, if there is a better reason as to why a liberal arts education remains of vital importance to our society, I cannot think of one.
"Look, you know how these people lie!
It's born in them…they don't know what the truth is!"
~ Juror 10 (Ed Begley)
If the purpose of the system is to generate indictments, then the system works really well. Hence the well-known quote from chief justice Wachtler about the indictability of ham sandwiches. It's not so much the masterful rhetoric of the prosecutor, the infallibility and selfless dedication of the police, nor the relentless pursuit of truth. It's the fact that the incentives are all lined up correctly to produce indictments. The cops provide the evidence and the warm bodies, the prosecutors the indictments. Each depends on the success of the other.
This extends beyonds the hermetic enclosure of the courtroom, since prosecutor is an elected position, and must do his level best to gain the endorsement and support of the police union. (If anyone doubts the importance of the union in the eyes of a cop, please consider the recent stairwell shooting of Akai Gurley, where the two patrolmen in question were MIA for the first six minutes following the shooting. It turns out that Officer Liang, who allegedly fired the shot, was texting his union rep). The grand jury, as blind as Justice itself, stammers and dodders its way through the mess, eventually just glad to get it over with. Not quite a rubber stamp, but not too far off, either.
Now, all of this falls apart in a grand way when the tables are turned and it is the cops that are under indictment. Suddenly, the whole system of incentives is under threat of short-circuiting. Because, if I have sketched it out well enough, the point of the system is not the disinterested pursuit of justice; nor is it the ongoing process of risk management, negotiation and compromise; but rather it is the perpetuation of the system itself. In this sense it is no different from any other bureaucracy. In order for the system to remain coherent and orderly, indicting cops is to be avoided at all costs.
How do the participants extricate themselves from this? As usual, The Onion is on it with a handy guide. But in fact the answer is even simpler. One thing that may have been only implicit in the above description I should now make explicit: in none of the 94 cases we considered did the DA fail to recommend charges. Remember that an indictment is a mapping exercise. It is inconceivable to take a group of lay people and just point them to a book of criminal statutes. And yet, thanks to the extraordinary release of the complete transcript of the Darren Wilson indictment, we know that this is precisely what happened. Remarkably, this action seems to have been within the DA's discretion. Moreover, in the few pages that were released concerning the Garner case, there was no mention of what charges – if any – were recommended to the jury. From viewing the videotape, it's pretty incredible to think that Daniel Pantaleo, the officer in question, could not be charged, at the very least, with involuntary manslaughter.
Now, we can talk all about the latitude that use-of-force laws grant in the courtroom, etc etc, but if the jury isn't even told what statutes might possibly apply, it's pretty uncertain that they will come to agree on anything. As an example, consider the fact that, during our grand jury induction, we were told that not only did we have the right to strike down the charges recommended to us by the DA, but we also had the right to search out other statutes and recommend them to the DA as charges instead. Not that we ever did that – safe as houses, we were.
Still don't believe the lengths that the system will go to protect itself? Consider another, fairly unpublicized detail in the Garner case. If you've seen the video (and, truth be told, we don't know if or how much of it was seen by the grand jury), you'll notice that Pantaleo isn't the only cop around. What about those other guys? The five-or-so other cops involved in taking Garner down were all granted immunity from prosecution in return for their testimony. Obviously, the DA was wasting immunities, since their testimony was such shit that he couldn't get an indictment from cherry-picking what those five eyewitnesses saw. And Pantaleo, like Darren Wilson in the Brown trial, testified before the grand jury himself, so I guess defendants do show up under extraordinary circumstances. In any case, no one was mistaken for a ham sandwich here, folks.
Back in the real world, the failure to indict the police responsible for the deaths of Brown and Garner has spawned an understandable backlash of protest. But while the subject of protest is clear, the objective is emphatically unclear. Much like the Occupy protests following the 2008 financial crisis, people accepted that there was plenty to protest about, but the fledgling movement lost much credibility due to the illegibility of any actual demands of the protesters. Now, these latest protests are part of the mighty stream of the civil rights movement, so credibility is not what's at stake here. Rather, I fear that the opportunity for real, targeted reform will slip us by, because as it is presently constituted, the system will continue to not indict police. It simply has no other choice.
People can shout about structural racism all they want, and they can go down the rabbit holes of stop-and-frisk, police body cams, reparations, or whether #crimingwhilewhite is an unworthy hashtag (for fuck's sake). Most of these are worthy causes but, since they do not address the procedural site that is clearly at the heart of the matter, attempts to address police violence through the court system will run relentlessly into the same bottleneck as before. Rather, the system of incentives needs to be broken at exactly this critical juncture. To this effect, I propose that any killing carried out by police be immediately referred to a special prosecutor – one who is outside of the Backscratchistan fiefdom that we currently have for handling run-of-the-mill cases. I cannot imagine I am the first to do so.
This was further refined in a recent discussion with fellow 3QD author Jeff Strabone, who suggested, quite correctly, that the referral should be made automatic for the killing of any unarmed civilian. Since this type of change would have to be enacted by the relevant state legislature, including the fact that the victim was unarmed creates the additional advantage of being politically much more difficult to resist. Without this kind of reform #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe will soon enough join #Kony2012 in the #DustbinOfHistory.
But perhaps the solution is even simpler. As Jami Floyd noted to WNYC's Brian Lehrer the day after the indictment against Officer Pantaleo was thrown out, the United States is the only country to still use grand juries to decide anything. When one considers that at least two other countries still use the Imperial system of measurements (the United States being in the august company of Liberia and Myanmar), it is amazing to consider that, globally speaking, the pound and the foot enjoy more popularity than grand juries. But we've always been proud of our exceptionalism, haven't we?
Monday, November 10, 2014
In Trust We Truth
"All this – all the meanness and agony without end
I sitting look out upon
See, hear and am silent."
~ Walt Whitman
On a recent Facebook thread – about what, heaven help me remember – someone posted a comment along the lines of "This is what happens when we live in a post-truth society." I honestly cannot recall what the original topic was about – politics? GamerGate? Climate change? Who knows – you can take your pick, and in the end it's not really that important. The comment struck me as misguided, though, and led me to contemplate not so much the state of ‘truth' as a category, which has always been precarious (see: 2,500 years of philosophy), but of the conditions that may or may not lead to the delineation and bounding of what we may consider to be sufficiently, acceptably truthful, and how technology has both helped and hindered this understanding today.
I responded to the commenter by suggesting that we live not so much in a ‘post-truth' society as a ‘post-accountability' society. It is not so much that truth is disrespected, distorted or ignored more than ever before, but rather that the consequences for doing so have (seemingly) dwindled to nearly zero. One could argue that this is vastly more damaging, because the degree of our accountability to one another profoundly influences how and if we can arrive at any sort of truth, period. Prior to the onset of information technology, there were well-established (and of course, deeply flawed) mechanisms for generating and enforcing accountability. Now, this mechanism of information technology that has relieved us of accountability is already so deeply enwoven into our society that not only will we never put the genie back in the bottle, we are at a loss to imagine how to ever get this genie to play nice. Except the problem is that this kind of righteous outrage is, in fact, entirely an illusion.
Instead of arguing about truth as an objective, abstract and hopefully attainable category, let's assume that truth (or whatever you want to call it) is a sort of consensus, and that consensus is reached through processes of trust (we respect each other's right to have a say) and accountability (we take some responsibility for what we say to each other). These are all fundamentally social processes, and as such haven't really changed very much over time. What interests me is how the insertion of technology into this discourse has changed our perceptions of the burdens that these concepts –truth, consensus, trust and accountability – are expected to bear.
Roughly speaking, technology has begotten two completely contradictory streams of development in this regard. This is old news – one person finds a better way to make fertilizer and someone else finds a way to build a better bomb using that fertilizer. In this sense technology merely functions as an amplifier for whatever tendencies are coursing through society's veins. Within the context of accountability, the two streams may seem to be paradoxical, but this is only superficial. Let's first touch on how technology has played a largely beneficial role in the elaboration of the paradigm of accountability.
Most obviously, there are the successes that have allowed a tremendous blossoming of commerce. An early, pressing problem faced by ecommerce was the creation of trust between buyers and sellers in an anonymous, disembodied marketplace. Buyers were interested in what they could buy online, but reluctant to fork over cash to anonymous strangers. In 1995, eBay was one of the first to propose a simple accountability mechanism for trader-to-trader transactions: buyers and sellers left feedback for one another confirming (or critiquing) speed of shipping, quality of goods, etc. Today, the approach is received wisdom, but at the time no one knew if would actually work. But this feedback system has continued to underpin the success of eBay and many other ecommerce sites, as witnessed by the success of AliBaba, current record-holder for the world's largest stock market IPO. It's no mean feat to create trust between buyers and sellers in a market as notoriously dodgy as China's.
Moreover, the applications of this mechanism seem to have grown well beyond the simple trader-to-trader transaction. We are now accustomed to reading book reviews on Amazon, restaurant reviews on Yelp, accommodation reviews on TripAdvisor, among many others. Reviews are also arguably being used to put the screws on part-time entrepreneurs such as AirBnB hosts and Uber drivers, but that is a topic for another time. It is sufficiently uncontroversial to say that, in a very concrete sense, we are becoming ever more reliant on an army of anonymous commenters to help us in our sensemaking of what to read, eat, buy or see.
Trust and accountability mechanisms have expanded in even subtler ways, specifically in the way that machine participants trust one another within a given system. Perhaps the most compelling example of this is bitcoin, the crypto-currency whose wild price oscillations (and shady applications) managed to grab global headlines for, well, at least a few minutes. The obvious need to prevent a party from double-spending an amount of bitcoin, which after all is a bunch of numbers sitting on a hard drive somewhere, led bitcoin's designers to include the notion of a block chain. The block chain accomplishes this through a concept called proof-of-work:
[Proof-of-work] is counterintuitive and involves a combination of two ideas: (1) to (artificially) make it computationally costly for network users to validate transactions; and (2) to reward them for trying to help validate transactions. The reward is used so that people on the network will try to help validate transactions, even though that's now been made a computationally costly process. The benefit of making it costly to validate transactions is that validation can no longer be influenced by the number of network identities someone controls, but only by the total computational power they can bring to bear on validation.
Basically, each machine on the network must validate all transactions, and all transactions must match across all machines. In the meantime, all transactions remain anonymous, even though the block chain, stored on each participant's machines, retains the entire record of all transactions (you can really go down the rabbit hole here). The computational intensity required means that no one individual can fake a transaction and fool the other participants. This is counterintuitive because we think of the goals of software design as privileging lighter, faster and simpler solutions.
A waggish take might see this as little more than make-work for the digital age. Nevertheless, the critical element here is that there is no central authority that vets the transactions. The network validates itself as it goes along, and, if everything works as it should, participants that act in bad faith are rooted out as a matter of course. I suspect that this sort of decentralized, distributed trust mechanism will find itself refined and deployed in many ways – for example, in credit systems for validating bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers. But it also occupies an important place within our narrative: this is what accountability looks like if you're a machine. From the point of view of a machine, it is a straight line from accountability to trust, and from there to consensus and truth. You just need plenty of electricity.
The looming problem with all the cases I have described so far is that they fall within a very narrow category: that of trader-to-trader transactions. In every case, the subject under discussion is clearly an object or service that is to be consumed (or evaluated or whatever – but the final purpose is consumption, let's be clear about that). There is always an implied value at stake – the feedback or ranking or other process being applied to it is simply there to clarify, refine or nudge the final value one way or the other. This is the meat and potatoes of not just microeconomics, but almost every "disruptive" idea to come out of Silicon Valley. As a result, the amount of attention these cases command is far out of proportion to our sensemaking as a whole. In this worldview, truth is indistinguishable from, or is rather interchangeable with, price discovery.
But there is still all that squishy stuff where technology has hung us out to dry. Why has technology failed to help us resolve, on a social level, issues like the link between autism and vaccines, or whether Barak Obama was born on American soil or not? Let alone the realities of climate change or evolution? Why do sites like Snopes.com or the Annenberg Center's FactCheck.org seem to be engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to disabuse us of disinformation, or why do we need them at all? Most importantly, why has technology, which otherwise has been such a staunch ally in concretizing the invisible hand, been unable to bring us any closer when it comes to a shared set of values?
At the beginning of the second essay of In The Shadow Of The Silent Majorities, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard writes:
The social is not a clear and unequivocal process. Do modern societies correspond to a process of socialisation or to one of progressive desocialisation? Everything depends on one's understanding of the term and none of these is fixed: all are reversible. Thus the institutions which have sign-posted the "advance of the social" … could be said to produce and destroy the social in one and the same movement.
Baudrillard asserted that political action – or at least, the kind of political action that mattered – becomes impossible when social processes disallow the "masses" from anything but the observation of spectacle. This process takes protest – or for that matter any kind of political action – and subsumes it into media, which then converts it into merely another object for consumption. Writing in 1978, Baudrillard was essentially finishing off Marxism as a plausible revolutionary theory. But he was mostly concerned with top-down media technologies and the manner in which once-meaningful events are rendered into meaningless theater, or rather whose meaning resided exclusively in their own theatricality. A good example is his examination of the transformation of political party conventions here in the United States. Once political conventions became televised, decisions of any consequence ceased to be made at those events. They simply became spectacle; the spectacle of the thing in question becomes the thing itself. If you want a good overview of what he had in mind, see Paddy Chayefsky's "Network", filmed a few years earlier: Howard Beale and the Ecumenical Liberation Army are essentially Baudrillardian poster children.
A good twenty years later, the World Wide Web began its inexorable crawl across (and of) the globe. Baudrillard was a troublemaker and a provocateur, so I assume that he would have gleefully jumped on the subject, but in a 1996 interview he admitted "I don't know much about this subject. I haven't gone beyond the fax and the automatic answering machine…. Perhaps there is a distortion [of oneself online], not necessarily one that will consume one's personality. It is possible that the machine can metabolize the mind." In one of his last major works, The Vital Illusion he lamented in a Nietzschean fashion that "The corps(e) of the Real – if there is any – has not been recovered, is nowhere to be found."
Fifteen years after publication of The Vital Illusion, we are in a better place to evaluate the effects of technology, and the view is not encouraging. For the same mechanisms that have allowed such a preternatural calibration of transactional value seem to be exacerbating the consensus around values that cannot be transacted. The fact is that there is an entirely different set of assumptions at work here. Venkatesh Rao put it well on his stimulating blog, Ribbon Farm, when he discussed the differing nature of transactions when participants are price-driven (ie, traders) or values-driven (as he puts it, saints):
Traders view deviations from markets as distortions, and fail to appreciate that to saints, it is recourse to markets that is distortionary, relative to the economics of pricelessness. Except that they call it "corruption and moral decay" instead of "distortion." To trade at all is to acknowledge one's fallen status and sinfulness.
If we consider the insertion of technology into this dynamic, the fact emerges that we have not designed technology to help us in our, shall I say, more saintly endeavors. Technology subsumes these squishier, values-driven behaviors into itself as best as it can, but it cannot ever do so completely. What's left is the flotsam and jetsam of Reddit, White House petitions, comment threads anywhere, Anonymous and LulzSec and cross-platform flame wars ranging from Mac vs PC to Palestine vs Israel. There is no shortage of bridges under which Internet trolls lurk, waiting to pounce on anyone who displeases them.
For anyone who doubts that there are real-life consequences to this, GamerGate is perhaps the best example of this. When the women targeted in this shitstorm are confronted with such a quantity of death and rape threats that they flee their homes, or are forced to cancel speaking engagements because a university cannot guarantee that someone won't bring a concealed weapon to a lecture, I am left with a distinct pining for that good old Baudrillardian unreality. Whether there will be any real-life consequences for the people who commit such acts, this remains to be seen. Furthermore, there is no reason why unaccountability cannot, and will not, continue its expansion. Like cosmic inflation, it does not need a reason to keep going, or anticipate a boundary to detain it.
There is an old Wall Street adage about any significant market downturn: "When the tide goes out, you see who's been swimming naked." The Web has flipped this on its head: the tide just keeps coming in, and more and more people are leaving their trunks on the beach. Moreover, it is simply too late to redesign the Internet for greater accountability. The last (or first?) idea that had any hope of accomplishing this was Ted Nelson's Xanadu Project. Nelson invented the very idea of hypertext, but in his world, which he originally conceived in 1960 and is detailed in one of the best articles to ever appear in Wired, every image or piece of text would be traceable back to its source. This past June, in an Onion-worthy headline, The Guardian announced the "World's most delayed software released after 54 years of development".
Perhaps in another, alternative universe, Xanadu became the default design template for an Internet that encouraged not just price accountability. In the meantime, and back in this universe, what technology has exposed is only what we have always known: that we are a fractious, quarrelsome and undependable lot. This is why I maintain that any hand-wringing about the state of the conversation on the Web is ultimately a red herring. That we haven't designed one of our most extraordinary technological infrastructures to help us get closer to any sort of ‘truth' shouldn't surprise us in the least. As for the original Facebook conversation that sparked this contemplation, after making my ‘post-accountability' suggestion, my comment received a dutiful ‘like' or two. As far as civilized dialogue goes, I'll take it.
Monday, November 03, 2014
Islam, Colonization, Imperialism and so on
by Omar Ali
At about 6 pm on Sunday evening, a young suicide bomber (said to be 18 years old) blew himself up in a crowd returning from the testosterone-heavy flag lowering ceremony held every evening at the India-Pakistan border at Wagah, near Lahore.
Presumably this young man (a true believer, since a fake believer would find it hard to explode in such circumstances) had wanted to target the ceremony itself (usually watched by up to 5000 people every day, most of them visitors from out of town) but the military had received prior intelligence that something like this may happen and there were 6 checkpoints and he was unable to get to the ceremony, so he waited around the shops about 500 yards away from the parade site and exploded when he felt he had enough bodies around him to make it worth his while.
About 60 innocent people died. Many of them women and children. Including 8 women from the same poor family from a village in central Punjab who were visiting relatives in Lahore and decided to go to the parade (whether as entertainment, or as patriotic theater, or both). The bombing was instantly claimed by more than one Jihadist organization but it is possible that Ehsanullah Ehsan’s claim will turn out to be true. He said it was a reaction against the military’s recent anti-terrorist operation (operation Zarb e Azb: “blow of the sword of the prophet”), that his group wants "an Islamic system of government" and that they would attack infidel regimes on both sides of the Indian-Pakistani border.
The Indian authorities decided to suspend their side of the parade for the next three days. But on Monday evening, the Pakistani side decided to hold their parade as usual and a crowd was on hand. Cynics have pointed out that most of the “crowd” looked like soldiers in civilian clothes, but that is not fair. The “show of resilience” meme is a very ancient and well-developed meme and has solid credentials and should not be easily dismissed. I personally wish both India and Pakistan end this ridiculous ceremony someday (soon), but on this particular occasion a show of resilience was the smart move. But then, the respected corps commander of the Pakistani army corps in Lahore, General Naveed Zaman (an outstanding officer, himself on the Taliban’s hit list for his role in various anti-terrorist operations) made a statement and beat his chest a bit about how we are a brave nation, we are back the next day and “look, on the Indian side it’s like a snake has sniffed them”, the implication being, they are cowards, they didn’t show up, but look at us, we are back and we are strong.
This is par for the course for the Pakistani army (whose propaganda software was designed and built for only one enemy, and whose soldiers are motivated to attack Jihadi terrorists by being told that the Jihadists are all Indian agents, I am not kidding) but is still telling: the day after one of the biggest massacres of civilians by a Jihadist terrorist bomber (there being no other kinds in our area these days, though the Tamil Tigers showed that a Tamil Hindu version is indeed possible, and in fact preceded the adoption of this particular weapon by Islamist terrorists) the senior army officer in the region could only taunt the Indians across Eastern border.
Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the Boko Haram terrorists announced that most of the 276 girls they kidnapped have been “converted to Islam” and married off. So the matter is settled.
And in Iraq, the “Islamic State” has been buying and selling captured Yezidi girls as slaves in the best medieval Arab tradition. In the video below, the young men of IS can be seen joking about the topic (the translation is by Jenan Moussa, an Arab journalist, not by MEMRI, so discerning viewers can view it without violating any of the standard guidelines):
Boko Haram has also gone ahead and blown up some Shias in Nigeria as they commemorated Moharram, while their fans have apparently shot a Shia in the face in, of all places, Sydney.
My point is this: the Salafist-Jihadist meme, so carefully nurtured and brought together in the Afghan-Pakistan border region by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1980s, is now global and will soon come to your neighborhood if your neighborhood happens to be in the core Islamicate territories of the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, Londonistan or Mississauga. Many different narratives about this phenomenon are in the market, ranging from Neocon propaganda and Fox News to Islamist apologetics and Marxist “class-based analysis”. For Western and Westernized liberals of a particular disposition, there are also “commentators” like Pankaj Mishra, who can be relied upon to press all the politically correct buttons without committing to anything resembling a coherent description, prediction or prescription. I would like to add some random thoughts to this mélange:
1. We are all human beings. And in the great Eurasian landmass, we have been mixing, biologically and culturally, for thousands of years. It is not possible that a relatively recent religious movement (Islam) has somehow significantly altered the biology of the people involved. This is a trivial observation, but some people on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide seem to have some misapprehensions about this, so it is worth reiterating. Going beyond that, I would add that even as a cultural phenomenon, Islam is not from some other planet. It evolved within pre-existing cultures, borrowing and altering already existing cultural memes. Much of “Islamic history” is the history of an initial (very successful and very extensive) Arab conquest, followed by some further conquests (primarily in Central Asia and India) by Islamicized Turkic invaders. Only in Indonesia and Malaysia did the initial wave arrive as traders and the subsequent conquests and conversions were almost entirely the work of local converts. This makes early South East Asian Islam a bit of an outlier, but that is another story. Only by disregarding most of history can we regard these conquests (and their associated missionary activities) as somehow completely unique. There are some peculiar features of Islamicate civilization, but not as many as its fans or its detractors would like to claim.
2. That being said, Islamicate civilization developed a remarkable degree of consensus on it’s core doctrines in the Islamic heartland. Even Shias and Sunnis converged on similarities in daily life and communal attitudes towards non-Muslims, towards women, towards apostasy, towards blasphemy, towards the notion of holy war. While agreeing with Razib Khan’s views about the relative unimportance of theology in general, I think modern life and the recent experience of colonization, decolonization and its associated psychopathologies have led to an unusual situation in the Islamicate world: while the pressures that cause religious revivalist movements or “fundamentalist” movements may be similar in non-Muslim communities (hence Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist identity-based semi-fascist fundamentalist movements), the material that is available to these movements and the historical background of the religions involved, makes it difficult to associate a detailed “shariah” with any of those movements. Sikhs can ban tobacco and kill blasphemers and traitors, Buddhist mobs can kill Muslims without compunction in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Hindu nationalists ban beef and carry out pogroms, but the notion of a Sikh state or a Hindu state or a Buddhist state is mostly the notion of a state where their co-religionists hold sway (or even hold exclusive title), but lacks consensus on any well developed legal code or even theology. This is not the case with Islam.
3. There is such a legal and theological framework in Islam and it has wide support in principle. In principle is, of course, not the same as in practice. Most Muslims know as much about Muslim theology as Christians know about Christian theology, which means they know very little. But because of widespread beliefs about blasphemy and apostasy, this “in principle” support translates into an inability to frontally challenge those who come armed with more detailed Islamic knowledge. For example, most Pakistanis may have no idea that classical Islamic law permits slave girls to be captured, used for sex (without marriage) and bought and sold as desired. If and when IS comes to Pakistan and wants to talk about buying and selling slave girls, most people will probably be shocked. It is possible that most people will initially even find some way to say this is wrong. But it is also my guess that when face to face with an IS ideologue, most people will be unable to argue for too long. Because he will have classical Islamic texts on his side and his opponent will have nothing beyond his human intuition of fairness and good behavior. Intuition will not stand against argument. And there will probably be no argument for too long because to argue too much would cross over into the zone of blasphemy. And most people (except maybe for the tiny sliver educated in Western or Western-style universities and out of touch with their own traditions almost completely) believe that blasphemers should be punished, and at least for the most extreme kinds of blasphemy, the punishment should be death. This, by the way, is just a simple empirical fact, easily checked if you step out among the people in that region.
4. Whenever the existing state order (in almost all cases, the product of recent Russian or West European colonization, so somewhat suspect in any case) falls apart, the next common denominator tends to be Islamist. And among those Islamists, the ways of the golden age are not some distant myth. Those books are still around, still honored, still relevant, still protected against criticism by blasphemy and apostasy memes. And those books include rules for holy war, for slave holding,for female legal inequality etc. that are no longer fashionable in the modern world. That is just how things happen to be.
5. The ruling elites in most Islamicate countries are not Islamist in practice and may not be so in principle either. But having taken the path of least resistance (or having received their Islam from Karen Armstrong or post-Marxist theorists) they have acquiesced in the glorification of medieval Islamicate norms, not as past history but as guides to present behavior. They will now be (literally in many cases) hoist on their own petard.
6. Elements of the ruling elite (especially in South Asia, where penetration of Western postcolonialist/postmodern/post-Marxist garbage has been most extensive within the elite) are vigorously opposed to many of these medieval norms, but have disappeared into an alternate universe where only White people have agency and therefore only White people are responsible for all events. This has effectively taken them out of the equation for now. They remain mostly harmless, but the opportunity cost of their withdrawal into la la land is not insignificant.
7. As the Bill Maher-Ben Affleck affair has shown, Western Liberals are generally clueless about Islamic history and the status of (most of) the Islamicate world with regard to issues like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, feminism and suchlike. This is NOT to endorse a particular Whiggish vision of history as the only valid path, with every community situated somewhere along the timeline from barbarian to Western liberal democracy. But it is to emphasize that opting out of this linear timeline is one thing, pretending that everyone is already at point X on the timeline while paying lip-service to multiculturalism is another. If Ben Affleck thinks that Western standards of “liberal democracy” (however defined and whether regarded as an endpoint or not) are not to be applied to everyone on the globe and that these standards are being used to demonize and colonize those who hold to different values and models, then he has a leg to stand on. But he (or others like him) seem to lose this admirable level of “nuance” when they get to specifics. Instead of saying that Pakistani Muslims do not permit free speech when it comes to X, Y and Z and who are we to comment or interfere (especially when we are just using this commentary to justify our invasion of this or that country), they are saying “there is no real difference in free speech norms between X and the US”, which is patently absurd. Other liberals (too numerous to list) will look at history as if European powers have real histories (with colonization, oppression, invasions, decimations etc, also with progress, emancipation, democracy, etc.) and everyone else lived on some other static planet with no history, no past and no future. I don’t have to go into detail, Wikipedia can solve this issue for anyone these days, but it is still surprising how few people will bother to even read Wikipedia before brandishing absurdities in this matter. The opportunity cost for this (loss of some Western liberals) is perhaps insignificant in real life, but since I tend to interact with some of these (very nice) people, I obsessively comment about them. Hence this comment.
8. More after I get some feedback; many or most of these comments are very likely to be misinterpreted by many people. This is partly because I am not a good enough writer, but partly because all of us use various heuristics to slot every commentator into pre-existing boxes. To see a little of where I am coming from, some of the following articles may be helpful. Thank you.
Monday, October 13, 2014
The Brooklyn Gentrifier's Playbook
"A New Yorker is someone who longs for New York."
These days, when the inevitable question of "What do you do?" pops up at a cocktail party or some such, I now simply answer, "I live in New York." A credulous follow-up might wish to clarify whether that is, in fact, how I make my living, at which point I try to steer the conversation to kinder, gentler topics. But after living in New York for 15 years, I feel my response is both perfunctory and justified. Anyone as deeply immersed in the city knows that living here really is its own, full-time occupation, since the city demands constant observation and reflection. And New York is especially amenable to this, given the breadth, density and accessibility of the city's neighborhoods, as well as New Yorkers' guileless embrace of real estate as a primary subject of conversation. It is perhaps the only city that I know of, where a stranger can walk into your apartment and ask, within the first 15 minutes, how much you rent pay for the privilege, and expect an answer.
In this vein, there has always been much talk about gentrification: where it is happening right now and where it will happen next, whether the desirability of the outcomes outweighs the costs, and, especially, who is being ousted. This last is not so much about the residents themselves, but rather the ongoing disappearance of beloved restaurants, bars and retail establishments, for example as documented by Jeremiah Moss's Vanishing New York. So what can be said about gentrification that has not already been said? Honestly, not a whole lot. There are still no good answers or responses, especially as New York reassesses its post-Bloomberg future.
However, gentrification has increasingly been treated as a monolithic concept, when in fact it is an umbrella term describing a continuum of variegated and uneven urban processes. The ‘improvement' of any neighborhood is the result of a bevy of actors, operating within a legal and social context that is unique to that neighborhood, and that itself sits within the larger context of the city and the state. Finally, even global financial circumstances play a role, for example, artificially low interest rates and the ease with which capital may travel. When gentrification is seen as a monolithic process, it is difficult to think about it as anything other than inevitable. But if we consider the different processes that are obscured into this single rubric, or more accurately, the different scales and velocities at which gentrification occurs, then we will be better equipped to engage the phenomenon itself, and not merely the label.
The late geographer Neil Smith clearly identified this in the late 1970s. First in his dissertation and then in his subsequent work, he characterized gentrification, especially in its accelerated forms, as fundamentally a process of capital, not of people.
Since the 1970s, gentrification has shifted from a marginal, fragmented process in the housing market to a large-scale, systematic and deliberate urban development policy. Gentrification has deepened as a comprehensive city-building strategy encompassing not just the residential market, but recreation, retail, employment, and the cultural economy.
Michael Bloomberg's three terms as mayor of New York City carried the precise hallmarks of such a "large-scale, systematic and deliberate urban development policy," or what could also be termed a love-fest between developers and city officials. While marquee projects such as the (successful) Atlantic Yards and (unsuccessful) Midtown East projects occupied most of the media spotlight, what remains less appreciated is the sheer scope of rezoning undertaken by the administration: upwards of 120 rezonings, almost all of which were approved, will continue to reshape the contours of New York for decades to come.
But how? At first, it may be surprising to hear that "the city planning department doesn't track…how much potential space was gained or lost, or how much value it's created by enabling development" for any given rezoning. However, zoning itself is not a monolithic concept: a block may be ‘upzoned,' ‘downzoned' or left unchanged (also known as ‘contextual'). Zoning delimits the ultimate population density for a given lot, and in fact, from 2003 to 2007, the net result was only a 1.7% net increase in capacity. This immediately leads to the next question: Who gets what kind of zoning? The contours of rezoning become clearer when one understands that
Upzoned lots tended to be in areas that were less white and less wealthy, with fewer homeowners. Downzoned lots tended to be areas that were more white and had both higher incomes and higher rates of homeownership than upzoned areas. Areas with contextual rezoning were even whiter and richer (with median incomes "much higher than that of the city"), and had "very high rates of homeownership." In other words, more privileged people were more likely to have the city change the zoning of their neighborhoods to preserve them exactly as they were.
Understood this way, the possible pathways for New York become clearer: rezoning defines and guarantees its own success. But rezoning is really only the beginning of real estate development. There is still the procurement of permits and the appeasement of local community boards. But developers are used to playing the long game, and one of the legacies of the Bloomberg (and Giuliani) administrations is a massive, tangled infrastructure of committees, advisory boards and public-private partnerships where real estate developers mix with city officials in order to clear hurdles, this being most easily achieved outside of the public eye and behind closed doors. (For an exceptionally clear-eyed exposition of this bureaucratic juggernaut, see the excellent documentary My Brooklyn by Kelly Anderson).
The bodies are buried in plain sight. I have already written about the fate of the Fulton Fish Market, which remains little changed today. For its part, ‘My Brooklyn' documents the redevelopment of Brooklyn's Fulton Mall and its impact on the African-American and Caribbean communities that depended on that commercial district. And the systematic dismantling of community resistance to the Atlantic Yards project was a big-city real estate bruise-fest whose definitive history remains as yet unwritten, but will doubtlessly launch a thousand urban social justice dissertations. Like the Bloomberg administration's zealous rezoning campaign, this web of governance is set to endure for a long time, and in the meantime, Brooklyn is in fact, becoming poorer.
These, then, are the macro policies that drive large-scale gentrification of substantial swathes of New York. However, there is a smaller scale at which gentrification operates, and one that is largely invisible to the media. Nevertheless, its effects on neighborhoods is no less decisive. As an example, consider the story of another part of Brooklyn, that of Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights. "The Ins and The Outs" is a vital and broad-ranging article, written by Vinnie Rotondaro and Maura Ewing, on the changing nature of one of Crown Heights' principal commercial thoroughfares. While readers outside of New York may most clearly remember it as the neighborhood gripped by a race riot back in 1991, after a generation Crown Heights has now been Columbused as the newest Brooklyn hotspot, with Franklin Avenue as its pulsing heart.
I have been to Franklin Avenue over the years but have been going more frequently, thanks to a friend who recently moved to the neighborhood. The rapidity of the transformation is nothing short of astonishing – in fact one of the defining features of gentrification in New York is that each episode seems to take less time than the previous. Franklin Avenue seems to follow the standard pattern of development, where delis become swish bars and pawn shops are replaced by up-market retail. And yet everything happens for a reason. One of these reasons has been MySpace Realty.
As documented by Rotondaro and Ewing, MySpace (and possibly a few shell corporations under its control) have engaged the neighborhood's landlords, aggressively making offers to buy buildings for cash. For MySpace, a landlord who says ‘No' only means ‘No' today. Once a building is sold to MySpace, it is time to get the residents out of the building, so that it can be renovated and put back on the market for rental rates that can be several times the existing rent. If they are lacking in savvy, most tenants are bought out at a discount, or even made to think that they have little choice in the matter. The holdouts – some of whom have been living in the building for decades and cannot afford to live anywhere else in the area – are then subjected to the usual shenanigans of deferred repairs, ignored infestations, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.
MySpace is using an old playbook, of course. Just as Anderson documented the strong-arm tactics of big-league developers in ‘My Brooklyn', Rotandaro and Ewing narrate a history of similar behavior but writ on a much more local scale. The results are much the same, however: a process of divide-and-conquer by capital leads to the decrease of the availability of affordable housing stock in a given neighborhood. And it is also important to recognize the fact that MySpace Realty's actions do not exist in isolation. As Franklin Avenue has become more ‘hip' the neighborhood has been primed for larger developers to buy up lots that are beyond the reach of a local firm: the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group was part of a consortium that purchased a nearby property that will likely become a luxury mixed-use development, with about $20m to be invested in the near future. And this is only one of several such transactions happening in the area. As one of the locals put it, "I don't know how to beat this. I don't know how anyone can beat this machine."
This same resident also asked the real question at the heart of any gentrification process: "I still think there's a better and more ethical way to get from a broken down, crime-ridden, drug-ridden neighborhood to a place that is safe and enjoyable for everyone while still maintaining a sense of community ownership." Capital can only provide a partial and ultimately unsatisfactory answer to this question – left to its own devices, it can only produce cookie-cutter development at market rates, with the end result being nothing but the relentless homogenization of any given neighborhood. The same people, shops and restaurants. Ironically, perhaps only the housing stock will remain to bear mute witness to the unique flavor that a neighborhood once had.
It is somewhat like the old philosophical paradox of sorites – if you have a heap of sand, and you remove grain after grain, at what point do you no longer have a heap of sand? What sorites points out is that we have ultimately failed to define what a ‘heap' is in the first place. Without this definition, you cannot know when a heap ceases to be a heap. Gentrification functions similarly – at what point does improvement become gentrification, or, to continue with the analogy of the heap, at what point is gentrification no longer that, but rather improvement?
I was reminded of this when my friend Alex Castle posted a wonderful essay on his own experience, somewhat misleadingly titled "Gentrification Is My Fault". Fittingly, it's in the form of a blog post. I say fittingly, because it is both interesting and important to note the commensurate nature of the media describing each of these levels of gentrification: the largest process is worthy of an acclaimed documentary; the local level merits long-form journalism; and the smallest is only given voice by its protagonist's memoir. Fitting, of course, is not the same as just, so it is important that these latter voices be given their due.
Castle's essay details the haphazard way in which he and his wife came to own a limestone townhouse in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, which was then a fairly rough-and-tumble section of Brooklyn, one that is in fact on the southern border of Crown Heights. Through a mix of good timing, thrift and hard work – all vital ingredients of the American Dream – the Castles have created exactly that for themselves. What I appreciate even more deeply is the way that Alex invested himself in the ownership and improvement of his home and, by extension, the neighborhood:
I didn't displace anyone; the place was abandoned, the basement was flooded with shit and the doors had been battered in. I spent the first five years we lived here working on the house all day and bartending all night. When I started I had no skills, I couldn't drill a hole in a board without splitting it. Now I know how to do wiring, framing, sheetrock, I can frame and hang a door (interior or exterior), put in a dishwasher, tile the floor. It took a long time, but it only cost materials.
But what is striking about this personal history – and this is the kind of story that can only be told as a personal history – is the ambivalence that even this engenders. On the one hand, through their temerity and foresight, the Castles expect that, by the time they retire, the mortgage will be paid off and they will be able to live off the income from renting their extra apartment (in New York, this is what's known as ‘winning'). But as Alex muses, "if Bruce Ratner calls me tomorrow and offers me $5 million for this house, is it my responsibility to ask what's going to happen to the property after I'm gone before I sell? Or am I just reaping the benefits of good planning?"
The Castles' experience echoes Neil Smith's point of departure in his own analysis of gentrification: "a marginal, fragmented process in the housing market." Thus, while tempting, it would be wrong to think that the fragmented and marginal become obsolete simply by virtue of the rise of capital. It's clear from this last example that all of these processes co-exist and eventually negotiate with one other – it is simply a consequence of the way in which a city embodies its limited, valued space. Even the much larger forces of capital-driven gentrification must still contend with property rights and the intentions and desires of smallholders who have invested decades of savings and work into their particular corner.
More importantly, the best bulwark against the kind of gentrification we all seem to wring our hands over is precisely the people who are perfectly aware of their rights and have no illusions of the true value of their stock. I am not making some petite-bourgeoisie argument here: this is as true (and vital) for tenants as it is for landlords. The only thing that is missing is all the other stories like Alex's. Where are they? Who is recording them, and bringing those people together into what is likely a common cause that is nevertheless representative of each person's own interests? I am perhaps being optimistic, but as Jefferson wrote, albeit in a different context, "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government."
Monday, September 15, 2014
The View From Nowhere
"Well, I haven't been there yet, and shall not try now."
~ Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Marlow, the protagonist of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, remorsefully blames an old obsession with maps for his eventual captaincy of a ramshackle steamship, set on a doomed mission up the Congo River. But Marlow was irretrievably fascinated by the blanks on the map – those were the places that were worth going. These days, when we look at a map, we expect objectivity and specificity, or to put it bluntly, the truth. Our sense of entitlement has only grown with the thoroughness in which maps have enmeshed themselves into our daily lives, whether it is via the GPS devices that guide our cars, or the maps on our smartphones that help us walk a few blocks of a city, familiar or not. We may forego the flâneur's pleasure of asking a stranger for directions, but where a certain calculus is concerned, it seems a small price to pay for getting us, without undue delay, to where we need to be.
There are no more places where cartographers must write terra incognita, or where myths and rumors were recruited as phenomenological filler. For just as nature abhors a vacuum, a map is a canvas that demands to be crammed with seemingly confident observations, and it would appear that every nook and cranny of the planet has already had some physical characteristics reassuringly assigned to it. Thus when maps fail us, we are left to decide whom to blame – the map, or ourselves.
I will give you a hint: we never blame ourselves. Rather, it is the map that is inadequate. But what this really implies is our refusal to abandon the conviction that there will be some future map that will capture the truth. Correlating directly with its pervasiveness, it becomes too easy to pass over the obvious fact that, like anything else, the practice of cartography is a fundamentally social practice. Consider not only how immersed we are in maps, as with the example of GPS, but also how extensively, constantly and surreptitiously we ourselves are mapped. Every time you allow an app on our smartphone to "Use Your Location," indeed with every swipe of a credit card, you are effectively performing an offering of yourself, or rather some quantifiable aspect of yourself, to some kind of mapmaking project, the vast majority of which you will never be aware, let alone see. We are, in fact, subjects of a distinctly cartographic flavor of what Michel Foucault called clinical gaze.
When we are thus swaddled in information that provides so much convenience and in turn seems to ask so little in return – in fact, what is merely a bribe, but an exceptionally effective one – the occasional failure of maps can be galling (or sometimes entertaining). Because we are convinced that a better map is always already right around the corner, this anxiety does not last. But what comfort is there when we are confronted with things that resist mapping?
The classic thought experiment here is Benoît Mandelbrot's seminal 1967 paper, published in Science, "How Long Is the Coast of Britain?" For the present purposes, I will only describe Mandelbrot's premise: the measurement of an irregular natural surface such as Britain's coastline is dependent on the unit of measurement. So if we were to use a yardstick with a unit length of 200km, we might conclude that the length of the coastline is 2400km, whereas if our yardstick were 50km, we would assert a length of 3400km. Indeed, as the unit of measurement approaches zero, the observed length of the coastline approaches infinity.
For Mandelbrot, this is a mathematical problem, and he uses the example to posit a method for approximating length. Eventually these and other investigations would lead him to elaborate the theories of self-similarity for which he is justly famous. But in the introduction to the paper, Mandelbrot writes:
The concept of ‘‘length'' is usually meaningless for geographical curves. They can be considered superpositions of features of widely scattered characteristic sizes; as even finer features are taken into account, the total measured length increases, and there is usually no clear-cut gap or crossover, between the realm of geography and details with which geography need not be concerned.
One of the advantages of Mandelbrot's mathematical approach is that it allows him to elide that essential question: Where is the "clear-cut gap or crossover"? For mapmakers, identifying that gap or crossover is at the heart of cartography. It may well decide the ultimate utility of a map to someone navigating a route in the physical world. And this is a decision that must be made by people. It is not enough that the map is right; it must also be right in the right way.
I want to be clear that I am not talking about what is commonly called ‘usability', or the loose set of principles that designers use to make legible their interventions in the world. ‘Usability' is a red herring, in the sense that the process of dressing up cultural artefacts, whether physical or virtual, for ‘usability' occurs only after the decisions of what should be ‘usable' (ie, legible) have already been made. To invent a brief and perhaps absurd example, consider a highway map. If we are driving, we use such a map to get from A to B, where points A and B are reachable by car. Thus, highways and side roads will be prominently featured; other geographic features such as elevation may or may not be relevant. But cartographers also locate significant landmarks to inspire detours (for an Information Age example, see Rand McNally's TripMaker), thereby implying that these are good things that belong on a map. On the other hand, these same maps will never include locations that we may want to avoid, such as Superfund sites. It is not difficult to imagine that a family with young children would want to know about – and avoid driving through – regions thick with pollution from, say, coal-fired power plants. We may initially react to this by saying "But these things do not belong on a map." Well, why wouldn't they? If instead our design brief were to create a map that would allow us to determine the healthiest route from A to B, our highway map may look very different indeed.
The decision to not include such items is intrinsically ideological and, as we will see below, also explicitly political. It is only through repeatedly being shown what a map is that we come to believe what a map should be. We are rarely told what a map is not. But at each turn we are assured of the objectivity that is at the heart of the enterprise.
Objectivity, understood as a sort of neutral omniscience, was tartly characterized by philosopher Thomas Nagel as "the view from nowhere." But having nowhere as one's originary viewpoint is akin to being lost inside one of Mandelbrot's endless, scale-free fractals. It is also irreconcilable when we attempt to, as we must, relate our knowledge of the world to the world itself (although for Nagel, reconciling the two is precisely what is needed to create an individual's worldview). Thus objectivity, or at least the set of social relationships and productions of knowledge that we ascribe to the idea of objectivity, is in fact a moral stance. Why?
Like anything else, objectivity has its own history. In a fascinating paper called The Image of Objectivity (and later a much more extensive book) Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison unpack this "panhistorical honorific [bestowed on] this or that discipline as it comes of scientific age." For them, the workings of objectivity are most apparent when manifested visually, specifically in the way atlases of many varieties – anatomical, botanical, X-ray – have been created and consumed over the centuries. These are not works of neutral omniscience, but artefacts that tell us "what is worth looking at and how to look at it." And to say that this is a moral practice is not far-fetched. They find that
…objectivity is a morality of prohibitions rather than exhortations, but no less a morality for that. Among those prohibitions are bans against projection and anthropomorphism, against the insertion of hopes and fears into images of and facts about nature: these are all subspecies of interpretation, and therefore forbidden. (p122)
Cartography has evolved in a similar fashion. From early cartographers inscribing empty spaces on their maps with "Here Be Dragons" (actually, they didn't) to Google Earth, one might think that there is a flawed but inexorable march towards an ever-finer approximation of reality (if not objectivity). After all, as Daston and Galison write, the moral imperative of objectivity recognizes that "the phenomena never sleep and neither should the observer; neither fatigue nor carelessness excuse a lapse in attention that smears a measurement or omits a detail; the vastness and variety of nature require that observations be endlessly repeated." And yet, there are forces at work that are greater than cartography and the technologies that have transformed it in the last few centuries, and these too should be recognized.
I came across a most extraordinary example of these other forces last week, in a long-form reportage by the Times-Picayune's Brett Anderson. "Louisiana Loses Its Boot" is Anderson's attempt to reconcile the rapidly changing (that is, receding) coastline of the state with the fact that the official state map has not been updated in fourteen years, and isn't likely to be any time soon. What he finds is a toxic mix of, on the one hand, galloping erosion and, on the other, benighted legislation that seems dead-set on ignoring the former. As a result, "the boot is at best an inaccurate approximation of Louisiana's true shape and, at worst, an irresponsible lie." (All citations below are from this article).
To be sure, Louisiana was always a devilishly difficult entity to map. The Mississippi is a notoriously fickle river, given to not just flooding its banks but rewriting them wholesale, as Harold Fisk's maps from the 1940s illustrate. And yet it is precisely this process that replenished the coastline: new sediment allowed vegetation to take hold and create adequate breakwaters and barrier islands, which in turn kept hurricanes from being the Gulf of Mexico's shock troops. The coastline was shifting constantly, but it was not receding. In fact, it was expanding. But once the Army Corps of Engineers "stabilized" the Mississippi in order to ensure commerce, this process of replenishment was severely stunted. As a result, hurricanes such as Katrina have had much greater impacts than would otherwise have been possible. The need for structural modification is not just limited to the river, either. Louisiana is the nation's second-largest oil producer and has "over 9,000 miles of navigation and pipeline canals…dredged in the state's coastal marsh." Adding projected sea level rises to the mix does not promise to make things any more pleasant.
One would think that the physical uncertainties of the situation would therefore call for as ‘objective' an approach to mapmaking as possible. After all, even without factoring in human impact, it is probably difficult enough to decide what is ‘walkable land' and what is not. Instead, the conflicting priorities of the fishing and energy industries have stalled Louisiana's famously corrupt politics from mandating a responsible accounting. Additionally, "the Department of Transportation and Development and the U.S.G.S. would have to agree on a shape and then implement a costly replacement plan for images currently in circulation." Oh, dear. And the U.S. Supreme Court has done its part to command the tides, too, when it decreed in 1981 that "the state boundary of Louisiana was no longer an ambulatory line that could move in response to changes in the coastline, and was henceforth immobilized as a set of fixed coordinates."
In this case, we resist any sort of accurate map only in order to avoid blaming ourselves. We would rather have the maps lie to us, for as long as possible. In the meantime and wholly apart from this tragicomic legislative context, an acre of coastal land is being lost every hour. So even if there was agreement, what kind of map could be created that would do coastal Louisiana justice? In Anderson's view, one that would throw the situation in a clear and unforgiving light: hence the loss of the boot. Such a map could only be a political tool:
A more honest representation of the boot would not erase the intractable disagreements — around global sea level rise, energy jobs versus coastal restoration jobs, oil and gas companies versus the fishing industry — that paralyze state politics, but it would give shape to the awesome stakes, both economic and existential, that hang in the balance.
Anderson's campaign to make the map explicitly political goes against the cartographic gaze that I described above, with its decentralization of power and accountability. It is no wonder that it has been met with resistance. But is it enough? When one looks at the current, tranquil state map of Louisiana, none of this decay, let alone conflict, is apparent. Of course, a citizen traveler might be roused to indignation if not action, once he attempts to reach a destination that no longer exists: a swamp where there was once a camp, the vast reaches of the Gulf where there was once a causeway or a barrier island. But how many people are there of that ilk?
And so we have turned a full circle of cartographic irony: from speculative maps that included places that never existed, to objective maps that show us places that no longer exist, but pretend as if they do. After all, what Marlow found, far up the Congo River and in the darkness of the human heart, could never be marked on a map. But for what can be recorded, whether it is Louisiana's coastline, the Arctic ice cap, or various star-crossed Pacific islands, we can only hope that eventually, as Borges once wrote, "in time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied."
Monday, June 23, 2014
A Far-Reaching Liquidation
"For the last twenty years neither matter
nor space nor time has been what it was."
~ Paul Valéry, 1931
Ever since Napster tore through the music industry like an Ebola outbreak, there has followed a ceaseless hand-wringing about the ever-decreasing "value" of music. Chart-busting hits have been replaced by body blows to an industry that was once fat and happy. From Napster's peer-to-peer networking model to the current ascendancy of streaming services, the big labels have seen their fortunes scrambled and re-scrambled by the onrushing and ever-changing technological landscape. This is further complicated by the fact that young people are its most desired demographic, but are also the most ardent adopters of said inconvenient technologies. It's easy to say that there is no going back – and there isn't – but how can artists respond to this seemingly unstoppable race to the bottom, now that the link between a work of music, and the physical artifact that is its vehicle, has been permanently sundered?
Earlier this spring, we received a candidate answer from the venerable hip hop outfit Wu-Tang Clan. The Wu-Tang have been secretly recording a new double album for several years, an event that would commonly be greeted with much rejoicing by their legions of fans. However, the zinger is that only one copy of the album will be made, destined to be sold to the highest bidder. Even more interesting is the fact that, prior to the auction, the record will tour "festivals, museums, exhibition spaces and galleries for the public as a one off [sic] experience." (Imagine the stringency of the security that will be required to keep this particular cat in its bag; I am already anticipating the Twittersphere lighting up in outrage as museum staff shine flashlights into people's ear canals, conduct full body cavity searches, and generally out-TSA the TSA.)
Of course, such acts of conceptual brazenness are usually (and usually regrettably) accompanied by a manifesto, and Wu-Tang does not disappoint...
...although they seem to prefer the term "edictum":
Is exclusivity versus mass replication really the 50 million dollar difference between a microphone and a paintbrush? Is contemporary art overvalued in an exclusive market, or are musicians undervalued in a profoundly saturated market? By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale, as any other contemporary art piece, we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music. We hope to steer those debates toward more radical solutions and provoke questions about the value and perception of music as a work of art in today's world.
Now, the Wu-Tang boys bring up a real issue here. It's not hard for musicians to look at the contemporary art world, with its bloated traffic in fetishized objects that seem to spring, fully formed, from an inexhaustible well of cynicism, and wonder what wrong turns their own art form has taken. The concept itself has a very appealing simplicity to it as well: it is the re-attachment of the content to its vehicle. And what a pretty vehicle it is, too. But what kind of a "radical solution" is this? Because once the auction goes through, whoever buys owns all the rights to the music. They can distribute the album or simply squirrel it away for personal listening pleasure. They can bury it in their backyard, or douse it with gasoline and torch it. They can be as democratic or as perverse about it as they may feel inclined.
However, my disquiet runs even deeper than that. From the "conceptus" (!) page of the album's site, we read that
…a new approach is introduced, one where the pride and joy of sharing music with the masses is sacrificed for the benefit of reviving music as a valuable art and inspiring debate about its future among musicians, fans and the industry that drives it. Simultaneously, it launches the private music branch as a new luxury business model for those able to commission musicians to create songs or albums for private collections. It is a fascinating melting pot of art, luxury, revolution and inspiration. It's welcoming people to an old world.
This nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of noblesse oblige makes me think that the author intended for this copy to end up on the Financial Times' How To Spend It, a sort of Whole Earth Catalog for the One Percent. While I value the provocative nature of Wu-Tang's act, I wish that they had stopped there. But by dressing up an old patronage system in new clothes, they are pointing to a cul-de-sac in the conversation. This has nothing to do with the radical opening of possibilities. It is merely about the enshrinement of exclusivity. It also grates against the intrinsic ephemerality that is the very nature of music. Even if I possess the only extant recording of a certain piece of music, I still cannot "consume" it just by looking at the recording. I have to play it, and once I have played it, that moment is gone. This is the deep appeal of streaming services. But the Wu-Tang Clan has conjured up the most radical opposite imaginable. Is it still music if it's never played? Or if there's no one around to hear it?
(There is another, greater irony here. Hip hop was once the voice of the urban voiceless in this country, and despite its commoditization here, it has gone on to fulfill this role in many others. Has hip hop reached yet another apotheosis on the way to perfecting its self-worship?)
I cribbed the title of this post (as well as the Valéry quote) from Walter Benjamin's seminal 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Anyone who has read (or who vaguely remembers reading) this essay would consider it the go-to critique for this sort of discussion. But Benjamin is mostly concerned with film and does not in fact mention music at all. It is also further problematic because Benjamin regards art as a point of contention between fascism and socialism – that the only possible response to the state gaining control of the reproduction of art is its politicization. The Wu-Tang stunt fits neither category. Instead, it's just another signpost along the way to the reductio ad nihilum of our late capitalist fantasyland.
However, there is another, more generous provocation that was offered by Beck in 2012. Beck, conjunction with McSweeney's, released a new album, except he didn't record a single note. Instead, he released 20 songs as sheet music, and invited everyone to create their own interpretation. You can view the results at Song Reader, the site set up to collect all these contributions. This may seem precious and retro, the kind of winking irony that would be at home in a snooty Williamsburg coffee shop. But this gesture is not dissimilar to the kind of "instruction art" that was refined by John Cage and Sol LeWitt, where the fundamental idea is that people can – and should – create the work for themselves.
Of course, prior to the advent of radio and 78s, sheet music was the primary vehicle by which music was distributed and popularized, and as such formed a significant part of the connective tissue of a society's culture. In her article "Before the Deluge: The Technoculture of Song-Sheet Publishing Viewed from Late Nineteenth-Century Galveston" author Leslie Gay notes that "communication technologies like song sheets are implicated within the myriad ways we build social relations, make exchanges and create meaning". There is something very important here: the idea of being a mere consumer is discarded. It is quite simply impossible. As a score, music only exists in its potential form. The musician is the vehicle. Put another way, the siting of "value" has shifted from the monetary expectation of the producer, to the experience of the participants.
Take as an example Russia in the 19th century, where orchestras would go on long tours. People in the town would know not only when the orchestra would come to town, but what it would be playing, sometimes months in advance. So households would procure piano reductions and work through the scores in anticipation of the big night. One can only imagine the intimacy with which the listeners were able to "consume" the music, having played through and argued over many of each work's nuances. In this way, the act of consumption was in fact replaced by an act of consummation.
Similarly, what makes the Song Reader project really groundbreaking is its expectations. In order to engage the work, you have to know how to read music. And I mean really read music – there are no guitar tabs here. There is something fascinatingly paradoxical about this. On the one hand, the fact that there is no authoritative recording – so far Beck has yet to put out a disc of his own interpretations – implies a vast artistic freedom. On the other, that world is only open to those who have a sufficient degree of a very specific kind of literacy (one that, nevertheless, was much more common a century ago than it is now). What Beck offers us is an invitation to engage deeply with the world around us, whether it is in the form of the text of the score, the playing of our fellow musicians, or the interpretations created by others. Having worked through this text ourselves, we are in a much subtler place, one that can appreciate why certain decisions may have been made or ignored. We have created a foundation for critique, and for pleasure.
The other, even more important implication in Beck's act is one of trust. Consider the courage that an artist must have in order to issue his art in the form of instructions. I'm pretty certain that Beck knows exactly how he thinks his songs should sound. I don't know if he thinks that he is more qualified than anyone else to interpret them. I know that if they were my songs, I would think that way. But by only giving the instructions, Beck is saying that this latter concern really isn't relevant. He is essentially saying "I trust you" to his fans. There is an empathetic generosity that is really rather astonishing. And what is given back to him is a richness of interpretation that will doubtless have an impact on the way he views his own composing.
This rhizomatic conception stands in stark contrast with the idea of a final object that is perfect, authoritative and unique, as is personified by the Wu-Tang Clan's gesture. The rhizome is resilient and unpredictable, whereas the unique object is non-negotiable and brittle. On account of its uniqueness, the object's ownership has real consequences, whereas the ownership of a score of music is of much less relevance to the purpose of that score's existence.
For its part, technology is always telling us that it will catalyze society into new, more effective forms of social organization. It does not necessarily ask what society is doing already, and what the value of that activity might be. Simultaneously, technology oftentimes devalues our own participation in society and especially culture by ensuring that that participation has less at stake. We are assured that we no longer need to read music in order to pretend to understand it; it only matters that we possess it.
Thus, in a final twist that emphasizes the poverty of choices with which technology eventually presents us, two Wu-Tang fans became determined to ensure the album's dissemination. This took the unsurprising form of a Kickstarter campaign. Since there was a rumored $5 million offering price for the album, the job of finding enough consumers committed to an altruistic redistribution was a daunting one. Indeed, by the time the fundraising window closed, the project had only raised $15,400. Maybe Wu-Tang's fans should have asked for a score instead.