Saturday, June 29, 2019

Bait n' switch and distraction from the High Court. Don't be fooled.

 One man... one man... has chosen to send us on the path to civil war. And I’m asking those of you with some attention span to closely follow the reasoning... or rather rationalization... applied by Chief Justice John Roberts for allowing continued electoral cheating that even he called blatant. His rationale: that Federal courts may not interfere in the sovereign power of state legislatures even if those legislatures were outrageously, unfairly and illegitimately chosen by cheating. Cheating that then warps future elections so that cheating always wins

The Court has ruled that the people of such a state have no visible recourse to stop the cheating... not even by appealing to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. 

This is one of those moments when your grandchildren will ask: "Where were you when you heard...?" It ranks up there with Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11... and especially the firing on Ft. Sumter. This could be the day when hope died that our institutions weren't fatally suborned, as they had been in the 1850s. 

I knew it was coming, telegraphed in the oral hearings. It’s why I published my Minimal Overlap proposal which - unlike any other gerrymander-fix - is simple (three sentences), requires no complex "commissions," and grants state assemblies much of the leeway Roberts demanded... while decisively eliminating the fundamental injustice. (Yes, all that in three sentences. A senior federal appeals court judge called it interesting and plausible.) 

But I'm not here today to rail against that predictable decision, when John Roberts chose to be remembered in history alongside Roger Taney, as we'll now slog our way out of confederate treason, one muddy, cheating-biased battle after another.  

No, I want to point to other cases that supposedly show “balance,” as justices Roberts, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and even Thomas play a subtle game, each of them siding with the liberals on one or another side matter, in order to proclaim: “See? I am not a pure dogmatist tool!” 

Step back for the kind of perspective that (alas) you'll get nowhere else.

== The great pretense of ‘balance' ==

Look at the nuance and trickery here. Time and again the confederate cabal that used to be the Republican Party uses a method pioneered by Donald Trump across his life of ‘deals’ and Rupert Murdoch across his life of lies. 

Distract from your real aim by attacking something the other side cares about that seemed already settled. 
Hurt people, lots of people... 
... then agree to stop if they’ll give you everything you wanted (and more) from the original negotiation.

This method served Trump well in the world of slumlords, casinos and shivving construction contractors. He tried it with DACA and putting kids in cages and screeching at our allies and so far the method has 100% failed him. That is, till it proved effective on the Roberts Court.

 Having delivered on the only truly important matter - giving a free pass to gerrymander-cheating that will let the GOP retain power in 30 states even in the face of an anti-Trump electoral wave - Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Roberts and even Thomas get to be ‘swing votes’ and appear ‘judicious’ and evenhanded in decisions that mattered very little… like reiterating the right of federal agencies to interpret ambiguous rules. 

Or the silly uproar over citizenship questions on the census. 
Oh, you fell for that one?
As if that distraction ever mattered, or would have made a big difference in census compliance?
Or could not have been countered with a vigorous outreach campaign? 
Admit it, you fell for that one.  
As for DACA, that too was always intended to be a threat, a nasty hurting of innocents, followed by “concession,” once they got the real thing they want.

Stop giving in to distractions! The gerrymandering decision was McConnell’s goal, top to bottom, for the last four years. It was everything. And now we must pick up the only tool for citizen sovereignty that remains, once the US Supreme Court betrays the people.

(Late addendum! Aaaaand the Post fell for the trick, hook, line and sinker! "Data shows that Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh have disagreed more than any pair of new justices chosen by the same president in decades." Yep, they have the Post suckered and everyone else, giggling I presume.)

== Side note: does this help House subpoenas? ==

In bowing to state-level gerrymander-cheaters, Roberts declared the courts must defer to the sovereign authority of legislatures. Okay then, does that mean he'll support the right of committees in the U.S. House of Representatives to compel testimony and access records, while investigating Trumpist corruption? 

(For 25 years GOP-led committees asserted those powers in 'Clinton investigations' that found absolutely nothing, whatsoever.) 

No. Of course he won't. 
But it does suggest the writhe-maneuver Roberts will use -- side-stepping any ruling at all - claiming the Court cannot intervene in a tiff between the Legislative and Executive Branch. 

Malarkey? Yes. But It leaves Pelosi & co. having to enforce subpoenas with just the Capitol Police, while Trump and A.G. William Barr have every other big guy with a gun in D.C.

Or do they? There is a way around this. A clever approach that I will not relate here.

But let's get back to the main topic, the gerrymandering decision that appears to leave us with no recourse against treason-level cheating, other than revolution. Well... almost no recourse.

== One last option? ==

One of you, Erik Brandsberg, suggested a drastic measure that could work, short of violent revolution.  It is quite clear in the Constitution: "Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members. 

"The majority in the House of Representatives can set guidelines for electoral fairness, as long as they are not extreme, written to be impartial, providing for equal representation, etc. The rules should be clear and indisputable in their application... based on the fairness of the districts they were elected from. This is a power bestowed upon the house and senate individually that no other branch or chamber can dictate." 

A boldly aggressive move... but Mitch McConnell has declared this to be nothing less than a knife fight. He chuckles and brags about it. And so...

== And finally... ==

The well-reported outrage about Trump’s meeting (again) with his KGB-trained handler, Vladimir Putin, revolves around their jocular mocking of concern about Kremlin interference in U.S. elections, and the even creepier jests about “getting rid” of journalists. 

(See a vivid portrayal of just a hundred of the journalists killed or disappeared under the New Czar; and Trump then praised MBS, the journalist-killing Saudi prince.)

But there’s a more telling moment. It's when Trump agreed with Putin’s earlier statement the ‘liberalism’ was ‘obsolete.’ In fact, they meant two different things. Two Scoops referred to U.S. Democrats.

But Putin, in an interview with the Financial Times, meant a far broader definition of the term -- the entire experiment in “liberal” democracy, flat-fair markets, open accountability, free speech and all the other innovations pushed by Locke, Adam Smith and the U.S. founders. Its day is done, he declared, confidently.

To see where he intends this to take this planet instead, with Czarist instincts and KGB ferocity - but freed of any Marxist idealist incantations - I recommend you get a short but chilling, near-future science fiction novel by Vladimir Sorokin called DAY OF THE OPRICHNIK. Then two novels about the coming U.S. Civil War: TEARS OF ABRAHAM by Sean Smith and OUR WAR by Craig DiLouie (pre-order).

Our ancestors stood up. You may have to.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Court steps up? Oregon shenanigens! And the meaning of July 4.

For starters: Peter Denning interviews me about “resilience” of our critical infrastructure, from the power grid and cell-phones to transportation, food supplies and solar roofs, in the new issue of Communications of the ACM (CACM). I offer a dozen measures - some of them incredibly easy/cheap - that could improve robustness against shocks, by orders of magnitude, preventing us from ever facing a “Postman” situation. 

For those of you who aren’t ACM member-nerds, I’ll post a version some time. And yes, I’m qualified as a physicist, electrical engineer and longtime consultant on these matters with corporations and agencies. But frankly, it’s the science fiction. Of course it is.

== Three Court decisions that will change America and the World ==

Cardinal Richelieu - recalled as the "Three Musketeers" villain - is quoted as saying, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” 

Now the conservative U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Richelieu’s favor. Well, in favor of police who arrest you over any minor thing, even if it is clearly in retaliation for something you said. This eats away at what was the leap in citizen rights we experienced — (without press notice) - in 2013 when the courts and Obama administration ruled that citizens may record the police in public. We must add this to our list of reasons to be active!

Still, there is a court that is higher than the Supremes! Jury nullification. Talk your neighbors into saying “no way is that right.” Then talk all of them into voting.

== A birthday gift to the nation? ==

Of course the most-important American, right now is Chief Justice John Roberts. He has already used a technicality to reverse Republican cheat-gerrymandering in Virginia, allowing that state's rising majority of smart people to finally get a fair vote. But it's the looming Court decisions re Wisconsin and Maryland that could truly end that blatant travesty, returning democracy to America.

These matters combine with a third constitutional crisis before us... whether Congress truly is an equal (indeed Constitutionally foremost) branch of government, able to compel testimony under its inherent powers of investigation and oversight. Powers the GOP used for 25 years to harry Obama and the Clintons, uncovering zilch. Now that light is pouring the other way, and money-laundering revelations are about to burst the dam, Trumpist-Foxites hypocritically aim to castrate that power, forever. 

There is ample precedent that Congress has this power: Under the 1934 Jurney vs. McCracken decision, the Supreme Court says Congress can detain people who refuse to provide information. Adam Schiff is talking about fines. This article lays it out

These separate issues revolve around one principle: legislature sovereignty. John Roberts earlier admitted that blatant political gerrymandering was wrong, but refused to intervene in the “proper domain” of state legislatures, a stance so clearly bogus.... But indeed, my 'Minimal Overlap' solution to gerrymandering would nullify the 'legislative sovereignty' excuse perfectly! Plaintiffs in gerrymandering cases should refer to it.

Okay, let's suppose Roberts favors acceptance of 'legislature prerogative' as an excuse not to rule on gerrymandering, then how can he rule against the U.S. Congressional prerogative of oversight? Someone needs to make that explicit.

Note: In fact, I know a way Congress might bypass the Supreme Court, by appealing to the fourth branch of government. I spoke to a few Congressional aides about the idea. It would work... once... and then likely always. If only Democratic politicians had as much brains as heart. (There is also a way to make every House member (including Republicans) fiercely protective of subpoena power - by granting every member - majority or minority - one-per-year. I explain elsewhere.)

Amid one of the most crucial Supreme Court seasons ever, look up Roger Taney, who goes down as one of the most despised names in American history - a posterity Taney wouldn't have imagined, when named Chief Justice. But before he died – knowing Lincoln would be re-elected by a landslide - he saw ignominy and infamy would be his fate. You should spread word so modern Americans know about that horrid man, who ensured there would be no way out except violent convulsion. Will what happened in phase 4 of the U.S. civil war occur again, if our current phase 8 goes hot? It will, if blatant cheats empowering the New Confederate Treason are left in place.  America’s destiny is largely in the hands of the man currently sitting in the same chair.

== Oregonian goings-on ==

You've seen reports out of Oregon, how Democrats have super-majorities and the governor and plan to enact climate change legislation for the sake of their grandchildren... but need two Republicans to show up to make a quorum. And so, GOP state senators are fleeing to Idaho, chased by state police ordered (legally) to collar them back to their jobs.

What theater! The NPR and other reports are interesting... yet I've heard none that pull back to recall a similar case back when Tom DeLay's GOP took over Texas, vowing to rip redistricting out of the hands of bipartisan commissions and gerrymander like hell. In 2002, Democratic state legislators fled to Oklahoma, rather than give DeLay a quorum. Rick Perry used a series of tricks to bypass them and the era of GOP super-cheating -- emulated everywhere the party got power -- began.

Does that sound like a tit-for-tat similarity. Both sides do it?  Well except that:

1) The dems in 2002 Texas were protesting spectacular cheating aimed at a raw power rape, ending fair elections. The 2019 Republicans pulling this quorum trick in Oregon are trying to prevent a cap-and-trade system that's proved to work well in California, helping save the world... because some oligarch-owned coal plants in Idaho and Utah might have to close. Both times, the stink of evil-brimstone points in the same direction.

2) In both cases, right wing armed militias threatened violence against Democratic legislators.

Well. Except for that... and everything else... similar cases. It's history that deserves to be remembered.

And finally... worth the wait. You'll gasp!

== July 4 musings... take inspiration form the Declaration ==

In light of the looming American anniversary... and efforts by a pompous pretend-king to hijack it... I was just re-reading the U.S. Declaration of Independence (USDI) - a worthy step in humanity’s climb out of darkness, though with many painful steps left to go.

Elsewhere I discuss how the USDI is about the colonies’ “patient sufferance” and fruitless efforts at negotiation with British oligarchs - which the 1860s secessionist oath-breakers never did. This time, I want to point at just one of the indictments against King George III. It leaped out at me!

"He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.'

Whaaa? Re-read that. Especially in today's context. Oh sure, many aspects of the USDI read as brutishly imperfect from our later perspective… as we will seem brutes to our better descendants, I hope!

Still, as we approach July 4 -- and insipid attempts by confederates to hijack it -- let’s recall that it is the direction of progress that matters - keeping the arc of history bent toward justice. 

Moreover when confederates and their foreign allies and would-be kings are driven out of Washington, and our temples cleansed of treason, we will lift our eyes to a shared future of amiable-adult argument -- actual fair politics -- over how to keep improving, with charity for all and malice towards none.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

China's rationalizations for hostility and "clash of civilizations"

Elsewhere I’ve dissected a recent trend of Chinese authorities: issuing intellectual rationalizations to justify absolute, centralized rule. See “Central Control over AI... and everything else,” where I appraise the incantations now pouring from Tsingua University and other PRC academies, proclaiming that only top-down control by a paramount hierarchy – one dedicated to neo-adjusted and constantly re-defined Marxist principles – can possibly prevent rogue or deleterious AI…

...or provide care for a population facing technological unemployment…
...or solve environmental degradation...
...or confront dozens of other modern/future ills. These memes are pushed not only at all levels of internal Chinese media, but also upon the 300,000+ Chinese nationals who are students at U.S. universities, compelled to report-to and attend indoctrination sessions at nearby Confucius Institutes.

This tsunami of rationalization and control is dangerous enough when combined with another doctrine – that westerners are too stupid to control their bourgeois appetites and hence all predatory mercantilist practices are justified, the way a farmer can make use of dumb herd animals. (This applies to both U.S. consumers and the CEOs of western companies, who eagerly bare their necks in exchange for the allure of minuscule China market shares.)

But it is the final, volatile layer -- a relentless drumbeat of resentment propaganda blaming all of China’s past ills upon western – especially American – colonialism, that completes a chowmein of toxic memes. Together, they comprise a recipe for disaster. 

To be clear, this concoction is clever in many ways. It reflects the pure fact that the current PRC leadership clade is smart… nearly all are former engineers. Indeed, they are perhaps 10% as smart as they think they are, which is damned smart! One helluva lot smarter than America’s current leader-caste. But in a way, that is the point. 

This is not a clash of leaders, but of systems. Moreover the biggest danger to us all lies in the fundamentally delusional insanity of centralized, authoritarian/hierarchical rule.

== The same pattern, over and over ==

I’ve spoken elsewhere and often about the lesson of 60 centuries of human history – that gangs of large males will pick up cudgels and beat society into a pyramid of inherited privilege. Yes, this serves to benefit their sons, but it also leads to deluded statecraft. Even brilliant kings and oligarchies are inevitably followed by disastrous ones. That lesson is apparent across five continents and 6000 years, in the litany of mistakes and horrors called “history.”

Dialing in, just two of China’s paramount leaders illustrate what’s wrong with self-justified, autocratic government… the Dowager Empress Cixi who died in 1908, after wrecking any chance of a Meiji-style modernization, and Mao Zedong, whose successive endeavors – purging all non-communists, the Korean War, the Great Leap Forward, the Four Pests campaign, the Hundred Flowers Trap, and the Cultural Revolution were calamitous examples of unquestioned authoritarianism wedded to obstinate maladministration, incredible blunders enforced with utter ferocity. 

Those two paramount leaders were as catastrophic for China as anything wrought by Europe, Russia, Japan (but not America) via colonialism. Moreover, they weren’t exceptions. Across 3000 years, only rarely was the Central Kingdom’s model of governance any different. 

I recently read a short essay by Mao - “Combat Liberalism” - that is especially crisp and instructive. In it, Mao concisely displays his laser focus and brilliance, slashing at every Western notion of reciprocal tolerance, diversity of viewpoint, pragmatic negotiation, flat hierarchies, individual rights, accountability, voluntary cooperation and open-ended/creative competition. As in more recent works by the Unabomber – Theodore Kaczynski – Mao is clear-eyed and open in describing what he hates about liberal modernism. “We stand for active ideological struggle because it is the weapon for ensuring unity within the Party and the revolutionary organizations in the interest of our fight.”

A few of his strictures are sensible, like denouncing gossip. (Indeed, traditional Chinese Confucianism preaches many wise virtues for despots to rule better than their peers; still atrociously, but slightly better, much as chivalry and catholicism were supposed to moderate feudalism, in the west.) And yet, for the most part, Mao’s doctrines can be summarized as follows: attack fiercely any non-conformity to party dogma, even as that dogma changes; don’t tolerate any diversity of view; obey and conform your thoughts to party discipline.

“Liberalism is extremely harmful in a revolutionary collective. It is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension. It robs the revolutionary ranks of compact organization and strict discipline, prevents policies from being carried through and alienates the Party organizations from the masses which the Party leads.”

Mao intelligently surveys what you and I would call the strengths of liberalism, traits that liberal democracies exploited to grow, to innovate and discover/correct errors. These include: freedom of speech, diversity, voluntary-cooperation, fair-competition, extended negotiation, pragmatism, individualism, encouraging brashly-critical confidence in the young, and fostering vast pools of liberated talent. Only Mao denounces all of these as indulgences, sapping the ferocious, unified purpose of a single-minded party. A centralized entity that we would call… well… hive-like. A society of ants or bees.

Gosh, we humans are capable of such amazing dissonance! In abstract, it’s a dichotomy that should be subject to scientific falsifiability through evidence, were that not yet another bourgeois-liberal value.

What we’re witnessing is a fascinating rift over human destiny that appears to be zero-sum, either-or. For indeed, liberalism cannot survive in Mao's world, and in a successful liberal society Maoism becomes a quaint campus fad -- a pickup rant at parties.

Moreover, this dichotomy raises questions on a much broader scale, including the Fermi Paradox! For example: which approach seems more likely to have prevailed on millions of worlds out there, anywhere that sapient life built civilizations?

And which path seems more likely to evade the countless traps, pits and minefields that must be crossed, in order to attain the stars?

Well, well. Let’s stay closer to Earth. Because we know the real answer here. Mao’s approach – centralizing ferocious power and repressing all deviance, then concocting rationalizations to call this good, is not new. Nor is it (except in certain persistent styles) particularly Chinese or Marxist! It is the boring pattern that erupted nearly everywhere that humans achieved agriculture. 

The experimental evidence is before our eyes. Those who use priestly dogma-incantations to justify hierarchical-oligarchic rule – whether by kings, lords, priests or commissars – bear a burden of proof that it ever worked well over multi-generation scales. Or that any fifty such hierarchies accomplished – combined – what liberalism has, while gradually spreading ever-wider its horizons of inclusion, across just the last 200 years.

== The Trade War means ==

You think I exaggerated, above? Bill Bishop, at Axios and Sinocism, provides a wealth of links and insights about the Central Kingdom. In one of his newsletters, he cites, several well-known hawks who have been quite vocal in their desire to see trade talks fail:

"I very much hope that the negotiations will break down," said Dai Xu, a professor at China's National Defence University and a retired air force colonel.  "Once the negotiations are over, the United States will be finished, for sure...we kick out all the American companies and bring all of ours back....No way will Trump be re-elected."

"The US openly sees us as their biggest enemy," said Tan Yungang, an air force colonel. "The United States will block China more than they did the former Soviet Union."

"Chinese people need to have backbone," said Prof Dai. "I am very opposed to one of our traditional concepts, which is that no matter how much others have hurt China, we are educated to forget...what's the meaning of remembering the history without the hatred? It's meaningless."

Not all voices are uniformly hostile. Da Wei, Assistant President and Professor at the University of International Relations in Beijing, says there may be a way to avoid a new type of Cold War, but adds a pessimistic scenario if we have one "I think it is a comprehensive confrontation...If that happens it will last for quite a long time. That's a tragedy for everyone" 

And again, I strongly recommend folks out there read Frederik Pohl’s prescient novel THE COOL WAR.

== A clash of civilizations? Or models for Star Trek? ==

Again, I've got no problems with the neo-communist People's Republic of China and the liberal United States of America vying as models for future humanosphere culture. Indeed, I expect the average, baseline human in 2200 to have somewhat Asiatic features and for Chinese to be one of our top languages. It's not about nations per se, but models for individual psychology and social governance. Across all of history, for 6000 years, the model in 99% of agricultural societies was a pyramid of command by a few, who cheated to ensure limitations on competition by the sons and daughters of the poor, and who then had court priests concoct rationalizations for why the mandate of heaven must be vested in all-powerful top authoritarians.

Of all the world's pyramidal cultures, China's was probably the least awful, in that there were systems ensuring a little meritocratic rise. A future human civilization based on the Chinese model might reach ecological balance and make some progress... but it would remain power-biased (imperial) and insistent upon conformity. Even if the end result is consensus-benevolent (and history shows no examples), it will emphasize homogeneity, not agility. Instead of the stars, we will get hives.

Ours is the best ever version of a diamond-shaped society, designed to limit cheating, foster diverse questioning and maximize the number of capable competitors in any field. Periclean Athens and Florence were other rare examples -- vastly more creative, but with one glaring disadvantage. Liberal experiments are inherently unstable and vulnerable to innovative cheaters, requiring constant tweaking of the regulatory systems to evade mob populism or oligarchic putsches.

Several times, American generations rose to meet that challenge. If we fail this time, perhaps liberalism is fatally flawed.

Were this all there is, to Sino-West competition, I'd say let the games commence. Alas, the PRC leadership uses their sovereignty as a base of operations for cheating.  Worse, they justify their behavior by stirring nationalistic wrath in the population, based on exaggerations or outright lies...

...which is why I deem vital that we take on the polemical front. I know a few meme-zingers that could be useful there. But their best effectiveness requires deployment at the right time and place, by the right messenger. And I am not the one. Nor is this the time or place.

Again, I summed up how the PRC Politburo has its state theoreticians busy justifying why only a centralized communist central committee can possibly guide humanity into the future that faces dangers like uncontrolled Artificial Intelligence and automation-generated unemployment.  The rationalizations of scholars like Feng Xiang are very smart... worth reading... and ultimately spectacularly false.




1. For some big picture from another angle, see Jiayang Fan’s fascinating article on China's superstar science fiction author Liu Cixin, his epic trilogy, and on the future and the rise of science fiction in China – and across the world.  My family hosted him at our home. We did not press him re political matters, as this writer did. But the mix of optimism and fatalism we all observed is most-telling. As is Da Liu's (at least official) opinion that today's  PRC leadership has no other choice -- it is forced to be all-controlling, lest chaos ensue.

To be clear, I understand Da Liu's perspective. Certainly the fierce One Child Policy, which may have saved the world, could not have happened in a democracy (as Rajiv Gandhi discovered, when he tried something like it, in India). On the other hand, where do you draw the line?  Twenty-five years ago, I thought China planned to do a staged loosening, starting down at the level of towns and cities, allowing a vigorous and open civil society to deliver the synergies of freedom (e.g. using light to root out corruption) in local governance, while retaining control nationally. Then, a decade later, this loosening would spread to provincial governments, and so on.  A social contract that might have engendered patience with clear rewards. It's what the commissars would do, if they were sincere, if their freinds-to-the-workers rationalizations were true. Alas, it is not what they are doing.

2. The clear answer to the Confucius Institute tactic is simple. Require all US undergrad and graduate students to take one class in civics. Just one light survey of constitutional and legal processes and how things work in a society that has rule-of-law. (Stuff our own students should be learning anyway and that would help them start or run a business.) No matter how sullen or superficially resentful of this requirement those 300,000+ Chinese students might act, for their handlers, most would return home thoroughly "infected" with such values, asking "why can't we have rule-of-law, too? And that memic infection will be more valuable, in the long run, than any amount of intellectual property that gets stolen from us.

3. Here's a fascinating on the scene description and here are mind-blowing composite crowd images of how 2 million people - 27% of the population of Hong Kong - thronged the streets a few days ago to protest and - at least for now - kill the infamous Extradition Bill and show young people all across China what's possible, with guts and brains and luck. Whatever victories the PRC achieves against the West - in loose alliance with the separate Putin-Saudi-mafiosi-Fox cabal - they are happening via skullduggerous methods that may turn and bite them. Whereas the failure mode they fear is legitimate expression and achievement of the will of the people. No wonder they feel a hot breath of time that is not on their side. 

Their worldwide oligarchic putsch - in conjunction with western quislings - has made great strides. Their confederate puppets took Washington. But our strengths are gathering. And Oswald Spengler was wrong about the Decline of the West.

Friday, June 14, 2019

On privacy and Surveillance Capitalism

I stored up for a bigger one, this time, in a topic wherein I actually know something! Though yes, in background we have worries about a looming U.S.-Iran war, which I've warned about since November 2017... and more recently... asking you to make sure your neighbors know terms like "Saddam's WMDs," "Tokin Gulf Incident," "Gleiwitz," and "Reichstag fire." (And see what Navy vet Jim Wright says about this recently, here.)   

Over the long haul, our way out of these messes will almost always be more light. Exposing the wicked. Which brings us to...

== Fear of exposure ==

Harvard Prof. Shoshana Zuboff’s new book - The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power - is a massive overview of the major quandary of our age. It's reviewed by Noah Smith at Bloomberg, who begins by citing a simplified view of my own Transparent Society. (In fact, a world awash in light won't end privacy. It is (I assert) the only possible way that citizens will be able to preserve some privacy.)

Zuboff's book is also reviewed in the Guardian – and yes, I’ve been asked my reaction. Here's a substantial and worthwhile extract from that review:

“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later."

Zuboff thus  connects to the recent works of Yuval Harari, who foresees a future society driven and propelled by "dataism." Back to the Guardian review. 

"Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”
Reviewer John Naughton continues: 
“While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and – dare I say it – Karl Marx.” 

(An aside: on a recent flight from DC, I sat across from a teenager who was reading Das Kapital. Old Karl has been re-awakened and is flying off the shelves, worldwide. And this resurrection was achieved by the gluttonous outrages of an oligarchy that seems bent on behaving exactly as KM described.)

== Simplistic, but with cause ==

Summarized in this interview, Zuboff correlates past episodes of rapacious colonialism with the way major data corporations treat us. Good line: Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.

“Demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists,” says Zuboff, “or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the internet is like asking old Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. It’s like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck, or a cow to give up chewing. These demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival.”

"At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx's image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human experience."  She examines several major organizations -- notably Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft -- that are in various stages of developing a "technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction-operation." In the end, "surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge." 

== And just like Marx... this model has fatal weaknesses ==

While describing valid complaits about info-greed by capitalists, Zuboff misses the key point that all elite accumulations of power will do this, trying to arrange for information to flow upwards, as it did into the manors, castles and cathedrals of old. This is monkey behavior; you see it in chimps. Hence, when she reflexively shouts "They're looking at you!" she and almost every other privacy paladin ignores the only possible conclusion from this tome:  that being seen is inevitable

Seriously, what is it she aims to accomplish with her book, with all its alarums, if failure of all constraints and freedom is unavoidable?

Time to step back. Maybe take a whiff of how our ancestors were treated when past elites similarly knew everything of any importance about those toiling below them in the villages and fields, when the aim of collecting "data" about the peasants (via priests and local gossips and by torture) was not about "selling them stuff." It was about life and death. About eviction from your hovel, or being levied into a hopeless war. It was about starvation.

Sure, elites always had imbalanced advantages when it came to surveillance  and it's worrisome, as it always was! But it's what they can do to you that matters. And right now what they can do - the plaint of Zuboff and most privacy paladins - is intrusively try to sell you stuff. 

Now, there are reasons why that business model is doomed, but that's beside the point. The way to limit what the mighty can do to you with your information is not to limit what elites know. There is not a scintilla of a chance that can happen and no example across the history of our species when it ever actually occurre.

The solution is not to (impossibly) blind elites, but to strip them naked, so that - no matter what they know about you, they hare severely hampered at using it against you.

That remedy has actually been used effectively, across the last 200 years. I give example after example, in The Transparent Society. 

== The reflex is addictive ==

Alas, Our earnest and sincere paladins of progress and freedom keep issuing hysterical screams "They're LOOKING at you!" without ever offering even a glimpse at the only remedy that can possibly work.

This power to shape behaviour for others’ profit or power is entirely self-authorising. It has no foundation in democratic or moral legitimacy, as it usurps decision rights and erodes the processes of individual autonomy that are essential to the function of a democratic society. The message here is simple: Once I was mine. Now I am theirs.

Yet the author displays stunning contempt for the masses:There can be no exit from processes that are intentionally designed to bypass individual awareness and produce ignorance, especially when these are the very same processes upon which we must depend for effective daily life. So our participation is best explained in terms of necessity, dependency, the foreclosure of alternatives, and enforced ignorance.”

Mind you, I agree with the overall call to action: “Our societies have tamed the dangerous excesses of raw capitalism before, and we must do it again….  We need new paradigms born of a close understanding of surveillance capitalism’s economic imperatives and foundational mechanisms.” 

Um sure. But doesn’t that imply that the solution is either state paternalism or else leveling the playing field?

Alas, the inevitable tilt is toward the former:  “GDPR [a recent EU law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the EU] is a good start, and time will tell if we can build on that sufficiently to help found and enforce a new paradigm of information capitalism.”

Except… does she point to a single paternalistic privacy protection or restriction that has ever effectively limited the data-aggrandizement processes that she decries?

In spurning other suggestions, Prof. Zuboff commands that the tide go out: “For example, the idea of “data ownership” is often championed as a solution. But what is the point of owning data that should not exist in the first place?” 

“So what is to be done? In any confrontation with the unprecedented, the first work begins with naming. Speaking for myself, this is why I’ve devoted the past seven years to this work… to move forward the project of naming as the first necessary step toward taming. My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young.”

Vague, vague, vague arm-wavings after a 900 page, well-documented call for resignation and despair, avoiding any look at the one thing that ever worked. The only thing that can.

== A fictional perspective ==
Someone report back on this new novel - Golden State, by Ben H. Winters, author of the alternate history, Underground Airlines. As reviewed on NPR: The world as we know it has been destroyed, and though we never find out exactly how, it appears it had something to do with a pandemic of lies. In the Golden State, lies are against the law, and the main enforcers of the truth are known as Speculators. If it's against the law to lie, it must also be against the law "to hypothesize, to imagine versions of what might have happened. But when you are trying to solve, for example, a suspicious death, sometimes it is necessary to hypothesize so we can try to follow the leads and crack this case. So to do that there are individuals within the Golden State, a special sort of law enforcement officer who has license to speculate."

It doesn’t sound remotely human or plausible – like those absurd films and tales abut dystopias that ban emotion – but perhaps an interesting thought experiment about a type of transparency.

And finally...

The object of the videogame DietDash is to travel through the aisles of a supermarket and avoid sugary foods. While it’s not an exciting game, overweight people who play it win in real life by losing up to 3.1 percent of their bodyweight after 8 weeks. The game was developed at Drexel University and researchers there are seeking recruits for a newer, highly gamified version of the shopping simulation.  Huh.