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Geocracy

The Demented Style of Politics

Photographer: TETrebbien | Source: Unsplash

Dementors

The creepiest man I ever met was a CIA officer turned academic scholar of terrorism. We sat across a table on a couple of occasions in the early 2000s; even his presence in the room was disturbing and every time he spoke, I felt a shiver passing down my spine.

It's not as if he was saying the most evil things; in fact, some of what he said was factual and much of the rest was reasonable, if on the conservative end of the spectrum. It's just the way he expressed his opinions – no scratch that – it was the way he carried himself in the world that was the problem. Like everyone and everything was suspect and it was his job to wring the truth out of the world. Quite different from a regular thug or a mafioso – there was no bullying – just a presumption that very bad things exist and it was his job to be worse in response.

I can still picture his way of smiling at the stupidity of others; it was a dementor’s sneer. The dementor is the bad guy on the good side – please don't ask me to define who is good and who isn't; that's beyond this essay's pay grade. But however you define it, and "good" is felt viscerally rather than intellectually, there's often a person or an institution whose job is to be bad in the service of that good.

What was once the province of the secret police has now become a standard function in our social network driven world – every Whatsapp group has its own dementor, a man (it’s always a man) who takes upon himself to channel the dark side.

Why do such dementors exist? Why are they (sometimes) celebrated?

My friend was very ill, he called me and said: it’s enough to sit and do nothing, let’s do something at least. The main motivator was my friend, who saw in me the potential that I do not use. He was forbidden to go out into the cold, but he took the all  medicines in his fist, drank and said: Photography is more important than illness!
Photographer: Elijah O'Donnell | Source: Unsplash

Public Emotions

First, a digression on knowledge, power and emotion.

Starting with the work of Foucault, social science scholarship focused on the intimate relationship between knowledge and power in the modern world – my favorite in the genre is Ian Hacking’s Taming of Chance. Their argument was that modern societies gain legitimacy by exercising control over the processes of life (what Foucault calls biopower) through the collection of a certain kind of knowledge and the creation of new categories such as “population.”

For example, birth and death statistics are collected so that policies targeting population averages (public health policies for example) can be used to legitimize state power. Today’s breathless reporting about the Corona virus is a classic example of biopower and the Chinese state’s success & failure in exerting it. In other words the exercise of power demands certain knowledge regimes.

What’s happened in the last three decades is both an evolutionary growth of knowledge as power and a dramatic transition in its exercise. It’s no longer knowledge that’s being collected and categorized – it’s emotion as well. The technologies of surveillance can now directly access our limbic brain and don’t need to stop with rational categories such as population averages and GDP. Knowledge is often replaced by emotion because the technologies of control, surveillance etc have become more fine grained. The circling of information and emotion is subtler than the knowledge regimes of the past and can no longer be understood within what Foucault termed as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.”

In short: emotion is more important than knowledge and populations are no longer the unit of control.

For example: while I (try to) make the entire Hindu population fearful of Muslims, I can also use Whatsapp messages that target this particular village to lynch that particular Muslim. That combination of emotion, information and chaotic control is rather new and it's spawning a demented style of politics.

Photographer: William Krause | Source: Unsplash

What's the need for Dementors? Do they have a legitimate place in the world?

Of course I understand the strategic reason for having dementors on your side – the logic of every arms race forces all sides to acquire as big a weapon as possible, and dementors are powerful weapons. I get that. But are there are other reasons? Perhaps even more important ones?

For example: do dementors bring insights into the world that would otherwise not be available using "good" methods alone?

These arguments have several analogs. Let me recount two – one more innocent than the other:

  1. Do critics perform an important function? Consider the poisonous reviewer who routinely makes directors quit their profession and become insurance salesmen. Is that person really necessary? What good comes into the world as a result? One obvious answer: sharp criticism raises the level of the art as a whole, and since that world is rife with subjective insider assessments, it's not a bad thing when someone raises a stink (assuming it's a fair stink). The world doesn't need any more bad movies than it already has.
  2. Is torture ever justified? Let's say you catch a man who has smuggled a nuclear bomb into your country and has the key to turning it off but isn't divulging the key upon ordinary questioning. Is it OK to extract the information via torture?
    Most people – or so I suspect – will be fine with extracting the information via torture. But people under torture say anything to stop the pain – truth isn't their main concern. You really don't want the man telling you a falsehood that has you chasing the wrong corner of the city when the cloud goes up in the air. In any case, that information might be even more forthcoming if you drugged the man with a mind-loosener, so to speak. Torture as an instrument of knowledge strikes me as inherently flawed.

Nevertheless, from just war theory to pre-emptive strikes, there's a sense that not only is violence justified under certain circumstances, it is both prudent and ethical to invest in the means to conduct such violence. Iron fist within the velvet glove and all that.

My take: while the existence of bad people arguably justifies generals, it doesn't justify dementors. What's the point in a moral community having people who view their own community with suspicion, even malevolence? People who will reliably and routinely harm innocent citizens because they don't care who they hurt.

And yet, dementors are all too common. Sometimes the person at the very top is themselves a dementor but more likely than not, the dementor is an employee rather than a boss. My suspicion is that every large organization – whether country, company or political party – has a known dementor on its payroll; in some organizations, even a mid-level boss has their own dementor. Drug cartels come to mind. Every Don needs a Luca Brasi, if you know the reference; that person is usually the boss' man and travels (or dies) with the chief.

Secret police, assassins, enforcers – the list of dementors is long. I can think of only one reason why they need to exist: the world is a genuinely bad place, or at least parts of it are.

There's been an explosion of literature on the authoritarian mind of late. Not surprising, given the recent successes of authoritarian politics. Everybody agrees that authoritarians both cultivate a climate of fear and use that climate to amass power. But what are the origins of fear and suspicion – and especially – what if there's existential grounding to those feelings?

Anxiety, paranoia, hate and other negative emotions are standard in all social networks. There's money to be made with those emotions and elections to be won. Plus, it's not only right wing nuts who use negative emotions as a lever: climate catastrophe and the fear it inspires is a standard tool in the progressive toolkit. Dementorship is a respected social role in today's world. It's the dementor's job to detect and amplify fear and suspicion as an existential mood, which is another way of saying the dementor is the yang to the authoritarian's yin.

Paranoia is common and spreading. If the success of right wing politics throughout the world is any sign, the public in many countries has been successfully convinced that they are surrounded by clear and imminent dangers. It's likely they trust the dementors more than the visionaries of a better future. There's every reason to believe the demented style of politics will find more takers as our system lurches from depression to climate collapse. All the more reason to identify the emotional core of the dementor's view of the world and find an antidote. But first, it has to be understood seriously and objectively.

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The State of Algorithmic Politics

Emotional Truths

Why is it that at a time when the future of human existence is threatened by climate change, the future of work is threatened by automation and the future of every other living being is threatened by humans, why is it that we are increasingly electing regimes guaranteed to destroy life as we know it?

That question haunts me everyday.

There’s a frightening answer: that without careful design and collective struggle, our default state might be to increase authoritarianism, clamp down on dissent and erect new borders while strengthening existing ones. That technology, which was supposed to make our lives better, is making it worse.

I have no doubt that technology plays a big role in making the authoritarian camp stronger; the romantic in me thinks it will also play a big role in imagining a better future, but the current moment belongs to those fighting for their share of a shrinking pie. One way they’re able to take more than their fair share is by drawing our attention away from where it needs to be, shifting our gaze towards powerless victims instead of tackling the problems created by the powerful.

Nevertheless, the authoritarians get it right in one respect: they articulate a world in crisis better than anyone else; their atmosphere of fear is more believable than the liberal intelligentsia’s vague pronouncements of universal humanity. It’s only when that fear congeals in the form of immigrants and traitors rather than corporations and the 1% that a falsehood is perpetrated. Whatever its problems with facts and reason, the right wing understands emotion better than progressives.

Not all progressives though — the school kids who are on strike saying “You will die of old age, we will die of climate change” are getting the emotional register exactly right, which is why their movement is spreading without having any money or power or central leadership. Unfortunately, having money and power makes it easier to spread your emotional register; recent events in India being a good case in point.

When we visited Utö, the most outer island of this beautiful archipelago in the place we call Finland, I allowed myself to be guided by the incredible energy of  Inca, the daughter of the family we were visiting there. She took me to a series of abandoned bunkers from the times this island was a military strategic point and there I found this graffiti that represent very well  the feeling of all that has to do with military, war, conflict and drama. With love from Korpo.
Photographer: Aarón Blanco Tejedor | Source: Unsplash

Algorithmic Politics in Kashmir

If you’re from my part of the world, you know that the Modi regime has changed the equation between the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the central government. I don’t have anything original to say about the politics of the event — read Srinath’s piece if you want a deeply informed overview — but instead, I want to direct your attention at how the event was managed.

The press has been talking about how the announcement was preceded by the cancelling of the Amarnath yatra, airlifting thousands of soldiers and the house arrest of the entire Kashmiri political class. All true, but they miss an important element whose consequences might be even longer term — the entire internet was shut down in Kashmir and remains so. You can’t Whatsapp your friends, you can’t send them videos on Tik-Tok or Snapchat, you can’t use messaging to organize protests or rallies.

In case you didn’t know it, India leads the world in temporary shut-downs of the internet. From local bureaucrats to the Home minister, government officials cite public security as a reason to suspend what’s become the normal mode of communication for most Indians. Since the medium is the message, the politics of free speech is the politics of the internet. The shut down of whatsapp, however temporary, is how the government controls people’s minds.

Moreover, the shut down is temporary by design.

Attention being the scarcest resource today, the way to control our minds is done by controlling our attention, whether by making us focus where businesses and governments want us to (let’s call those white holes) or by creating black holes of information where they would rather we didn’t look. There’s absolutely no advantage in making that black hole permanent because attention is fickle and it keeps shifting from one spectacle to the next. Smart governments and businesses are constantly creating and destroying white holes and black holes. From managing expectations about jobs to creating new images about anti-nationals, every modern state is in the business of constant focusing and refocusing of our attentions. Incidentally, the Chinese version of attention management during crises is subtler than the Indian version — instead of shutting down the internet, they have hundreds of thousands of people whose only job is to deflect attention away from the crisis by flooding social media and bulletin boards with innocuous posts.

The decision to shut down the internet in any district or state is an impromptu decision by some official who is handling many different pressures. Which is why I am skeptical of conspiracy based causal explanations: that there’s a hyper-intelligent cabal of scheming businessmen and politicians who are directing our minds as they see fit. Instead, I am more likely to believe that the rapid shifts of collective attention are systemic properties that can’t be ascribed to individual manipulators. The human visual system saccades every 300 milliseconds without any underlying motive or purpose. The winners at algorithmic politics are those who understand the inherently complex nature of the underlying system, just as the control systems in our brains that direct intentional visual search are built upon a layer of random saccadic movements.

In hindsight, it’s clear that print and broadcast media — newspapers, radio, TV etc — created new forms of democratic politics as well as new forms of authoritarianism. Why would it be any different with algorithmic media? Of course we are going to see new forms of politics — both the Arab spring and the Kashmir crisis are political responses to a new technological condition.

Question: Is resistance futile?

Answer: yes unless the treehuggers figure out how to capture and manage attention as well the treecutters, and in order to do so, they have to grasp how the attention economy differs from ideology and propaganda.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesseattle/32204594560/

Attention Management

Now I come to the central point of this essay: the algorithmic management of attention is substantially different from what we used to call propaganda, just as paying money to Google to rank highly on certain keywords is substantially different from launching a traditional print ad campaign. Yes, both are forms of advertising but there’s a world of difference in how the ads are placed in front of a customer and what the customer does with the ad when they are attracted to its message. Similarly, political advertising is also much more targeted today. Propaganda identifies a uniform, faceless threat. It’s the Jew, the communist, the Muslim. In contrast, the ideal algorithmic violence is personalized, localized and context dependent.

It’s about identifying a specific yet random individual who carries an unwanted identity. Specific in that it’s a particular black or Muslim or LGBT person who happens to be in your vicinity. Random in that the perpetrators of violence couldn’t care less about that person’s individuality as long as they belong to a certain target identity. Specific yet random is the logic of “personalized” attention in the age of machine learning. When someone says personalized medicine is coming, they don’t mean that doctors will learn who you are as an individual and prescribe medicines accordingly. Instead, they will use patterns of genetic data, dietary habits and life history to prescribe medicines. That personalization will work reasonably well for another person whose genetic patterns are close enough to yours.

Similarly when Google shows ads based on your browsing history, it uses your statistical footprint as the input to its predictive engine, without caring whether you are a real person or a robot. The statistical person is often a reasonable proxy to a living, breathing individual but important principles are lost in translation.

Specific randomness is the underlying model of the gig economy. When I order a cab on Ola or Uber, I am getting a specific driver, an actual human being who sits behind the wheel. At the same time, I don’t care much about him besides the fact that he’s a qualified and licensed driver and that the car is reasonably neat and functional. He can be replaced by another person without any loss of customer experience. To the extent that the gig economy is the future of employment, specific randomness tells us where jobs are going until they are all replaced by robots.

In any case, the widespread availability of the specific randomness is impacting politics as much as business. That’s one reason why we are seeing new forms of political violence emerge as a result of algorithmic media — in India, we see it in the eclipse of the riot and the emergence of lynching as the chief instrument of street violence. In the US you’re seeing increasing numbers of mass shootings. In both cases, it’s as if a machine learning algorithm infected the brain of a lynch mob or a gun toting avenger and turned his mind to violence. In propaganda there’s a strong connection between the official party line and the violence on the street. Intellectuals were murdered during the cultural revolution because Mao said so. In contrast, there’s a tenuous link — if any — between the pronouncements of Trump and the shooter in the street.

We don’t know how deep learning algorithms identify the features that make them good at identifying cats in videos. As Judea Pearl keeps saying, causality is a hard problem for the AI that drives machine learning. I believe that understanding the causes of spontaneous violence is an equally hard problem for algorithmic politics. For the same reasons. And it’s obviously more important to understand the emotional causes of algorithmic politics than the causal structure of cat videos.

Google doesn’t care whether they understand the causality behind their models as they are predictive. Every once in a while their algorithms will make obvious mistakes or contribute to racial profiling but that’s the price of doing business. In contrast, progressive politics of any kind will have to care about real people (or real animals if you’re an animal rights person like me) and therefore, questions of causality are crucial.

Let me end this essay with a provocative possibility: that the future of politics isn’t between left and right, but between predictors and explainers. Predictors use data to drive people’s emotions in the direction they want without care about who is hurt and how. Their target is the specific yet random person. Predictive politics is the political equivalent of Google’s ad words. In contrast, explainers care about the actual people behind their statistical signatures. Progressive politics should privilege explanations over predictions. It’s harder in every sense of that term.

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Hard Laddoo Politics and the Viagra of History

Most people I know have a whatsapp story to tell of that deranged uncle or classmate who simultaneously believes that Hinduism is the religion of peace and nonviolence and that Muslims and other interlopers have to dealt with severely, i.e., anywhere between abjection and annihilation.

It seems we are soft laddoos who need to become hard laddoos ASAP, but good news is at hand; if press reports are to be believed we are recovering our wilted hardon after thousands of years of softness. Jai ho. Of course, that hardness comes with 56 inch chests, virulent patriarchy and unconcern for anyone whose lot in life is worse than yours.

Let’s say 10% of the population (an underestimate) has swallowed this viagra of history. Surely the richest 1% is overrepresented in the list of viagra poppers. They own all the tv stations and run all the corporations, so their class interests and their psychological biases reinforce each other.

The only things they don’t own yet is the state and civil society — I mean they own most of it, but there are still some institutions that continue to protect the subsistence farmer and the migrant labourer.

Which is why the subversion of democracy is of paramount importance. Which is why you need to create a surveillance state and invent new categories of treason. Note how both of these are advanced in the name of development.

The easy answer is to label these developments as fascism. I don’t think so — what we are seeing is an entirely new phenomenon of concentrated control in the age of rapid flows of capital and information.

It needs a new name. Meanwhile, Hail Viagra!