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Watts vs Brin – Privacy vs Transparency

I’m a huge fan of Peter Watts, which won’t come as a secret to any regular reader of this blog.

Recently Watts got in to an argument with none other than David Brin, one of science fiction’s biggest names.

In a nutshell, this argument as I understand it is about privacy vs transparency. Brin seems to believe that a totally transparent society, where the public can look back at the government agencies that use mass surveillance, will deliver true freedom.

Watts, more sensibly, believes privacy is the answer, and that if we’re unable to prevent ourselves from being watched, at least we could maybe have the option to destroy our data rather than hand it over to the government.

Perhaps counter to expectation, in this argument between Watts and Brin it was Watts who came out on top – at least in my view – because his side of the argument seems much more sensible to me. Transparency only works insofar everyone involved plays on the same level. But the surveillance state has so much more power and so many more resources to bring to bear, that we as citizens – even if we’re allowed to look back, which right now we’re most assuredly not – have very little power over the surveillance state in return.

In the end the people who own the data have all the power. And we don’t own any of it.

Moreover, in the comment section of Watts’ latest blog post on the topic, Brin goes a bit apeshit and devolves in to hysterics, entirely bypassing the arguments Watts is making (politely, I might add) and resorting to childish name-calling.

I never really rated Brin as a writer, but to be fair I’ve only ever read one of his books (and was unimpressed). After this public spat with Watts, I see no reason to ever spend any money on Brin’s output.

Not that he’d care, anyway.

When I read about a TV news presenter being verbally abused for daring to not wear a poppy – the UK’s symbol of Remembrance Day – I find it hard to keep myself from flying in to a fit of rage.

It’s hard to overstate the profound ignorance of the tabloid-reading masses that are responsible for this exceptionally misguided expression of putrid hatred. Unfortunately it’s endemic of a growing trend in the UK to worship everything military and to uncritically accord the armed forces with heaps of respect.

I believe that’s a dangerous cultural phenomenon. The military is not something any country should take a great deal of pride in. A nation’s ability to kill and destroy is not something to boast about. At best, a country should view its military as a necessary evil, something that is an unpalatable requirement for engaging in international affairs.

A country that worships its military is a country that often shows little restraint in flexing that military muscle. In fact, the more a country praises its armed forces, the more likely it is to use those armed forces in the pursuit of their own economical and political goals. That used to be something solely associated with so-called ‘banana republics’, but since the 1950s it’s actually been a staple of western Realpolitik.

Here in the UK, the military is worshipped on a level that borders on a fascist ideology. Even people who are nominal pacifists say that soldiers deserve respect, and that on Remembrance Day we should honour those fallen in service of their country, regardless of the reasons for the war they died in.

I vehemently disagree with that. I do not believe we should separate soldiers’ deaths from the reasons they fought and died.

In fact, I believe we should closely scrutinise exactly why these soldiers were sent in to battle, and pay a great deal of attention to the reasons that are given for that.

Because when we do that, when we analyse exactly why we send armed troops to countries halfway across the planet, we quickly realise that the vast majority of soldiers who’ve died since the end of World War II died for no good reason at all other than to serve the interests of corporate profits and imperialist politics.

If Remembrance Day was purely about commemorating those who died in the first and second world wars, then I’d be perfectly fine with it. But that’s no longer the case. Instead Remembrance Day – and, by virtue of being its symbol, the poppy – has become about commemorating and idealising all soldiers who have died in all modern conflicts.

And that is nothing to solemnly commemorate. In fact, that’s something to get infuriated by. Countless thousands of lives lost because of political egos, corporate oil profits, and international trade rights. And that’s just counting the UK military – civilian casualties are orders of magnitude higher.

‘Defending democracy’ had fuck all to do with most of the wars fought since 1945 – it was nearly all greed and political face-saving.

Those are piss-poor reasons to send young men to their deaths. In fact, any life lost in the pursuit of those sinister goals should come with a powerful backlash against the corporate & political forces that caused it.

But that backlash is entirely absent, of course. Instead the UK population has bought in wholesale to the pro-military hype peddled by the politicians and eagerly supported by a cynical profit-chasing media, to such an extent that even an expression of neutrality – such as not wearing a poppy – is met with outpourings of hatred and bigotry.

That is profoundly sad, and deeply disturbing.

The GMO Scare – fact or fiction?

Genetically modified organisms – GMO – are a hot topic at the moment, with loads of people weighing in on the debate. Especially the anti-GMO stance receives a lot of attention, fuelling scare stories about the hazards of GMO crops and food.

However, there seems to be precious little facts in these scare stories. Fortunately there have also been a few recent articles that provide a more balanced, fact-based perspective on GMO foods:

This thoroughly researched article on Slate debunks a GMO scare story published in Elle magazine – not quite a staple of fact-based reporting – and delves deeper in to the scientific evidence about GMO foods.

Turns out there’s no evidence whatsoever suggesting that GMO food is any more dangerous than regular food:

“Since GMOs were introduced into the food supply almost 20 years ago, there has not been one documented case of any health problem in humans—not even so much as a sniffle—linked to GMOs. The American Medical Association, whose physician members would have long ago picked up on a GMO-allergy connection, definitively rejects such speculation. “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature,” it has stated. That scientific consensus has been endorsed by every major science oversight body in the world.”

But, say the GMO skeptics, what about the correlation between the growing consumption of GMO food in America and the rise in autoimmune disorders?

“The rise in such problems, including allergies, started long before GMOs were introduced. Incidences of these same conditions across U.K., Europe and in other countries where there is no consumption of GM foods match U.S. trends. To put this claim in perspective, the upward slope also tracks with the cumulative wins of the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, the GDP of China, and indeed the increased consumption of organic foods over a similar period of time. In other words, the alarming connection that Shetterly alludes to in her piece is completely random.”

An article on Grist explores the issues of allergenic proteins originating from GMO foods. Turns out that in this respect GMO foods are actually safer than regular foods and are being tested much more thoroughly for new allergens:

“First, there just aren’t many new proteins in GE food (all allergens are proteins) — you are adding just a couple. It’s much riskier to introduce a new food from another country, each of which contains hundreds of new proteins, Taylor wrote, and yet we subject new foods to less safety testing. (When the first kiwis were shipped into the United States in 1962, they weren’t tested because they were an established food, but, as it turned out, they did cause allergic reactions in some people.)

Furthermore, Taylor said, the new genes in transgenic plants generally express very low amounts of protein (when a gene causes an organism to make a protein it’s called expression). Allergens generally account for more than 1 percent of the proteins in a food, while the proteins expressed by transgenic DNA are much more sparse.”

The New York Times published a balanced piece about the use of genetic modification to help oranges resist a specific type of bacteria:

“Oranges are not the only crop that might benefit from genetically engineered resistance to diseases for which standard treatments have proven elusive. And advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests. Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested.”

Many anti-GMO activists point to the evils of Monsanto and how scientific studies are funded by biotech companies and thus cannot be trusted. But there’s abundant independent research in to GMO foods (over a third of peer-reviewed studies on GMO are independently funded), and a great many independent health organisations have undertaken their own studies in to the health risks associated with GMO crops.

The results are unanimous and clear: GMO foods are perfectly safe, and probably necessary to maintain sustainable agriculture that sufficiently feeds our growing population.

While I consider myself a left-wing thinker, on this particular issue I vehemently disagree with the anti-GMO stance prevalent in the political left.

For me it’s a bit like climate change, vaccination, and evolution: there is an unassailable scientific consensus, with only a tiny minority of dissenting voices that lack any form of empirical evidence. Unfortunately in this case public opinion is eager to embrace the – very vocal – fringe lunatics.

Thoughts on Free Speech and Online Privacy

I’ve been struggling to make up my mind about a number of issues that are currently hot topics in the UK.

On the one hand I’m a fierce proponent of free speech, and have previously defended people’s right to say and write things many of us would find disagreeable, even deplorable.

I don’t think it’s healthy that people get locked up for making bad jokes on Twitter, or saying things that rub some politician the wrong way. Freedom of speech should include the freedom to offend.

But then, on the other hand, I think some elements of the British press have taken their free speech liberties too far and are now actively spreading lies and disinformation in the pursuit of cheap pageviews and circulation figures, without being held to account in any way. The result is a deeply misinformed public serving as the playthings of media moguls that set the tabloid agendas, and the politicians they sponsor.

On top of this, there have been many instances in recent times of this freedom being taken to extreme lengths by individuals as well. Specifically threats of rape and murder via social media sites such as Twitter.

The media’s abuse of free speech (and I truly think tabloids are abusing their right to free speech, instead of treating it with the care it deserves) is currently the purview of the Leveson inquiry and its proposed legislation.

The second type of free speech abuse is, to me, a vulgar breach of the sacred right to speak your mind. That sort of despicable behaviour should be stamped out wherever it occurs.

I welcome debate on controversial issues, and I think insults are an unavoidable part of online discourse (or any form of discourse, really). But when you start to threaten people you don’t agree with, you are simply a catastrophic loser severely lacking in intellectual acumen.

The thing I’m struggling with, though, is how we handle those sorts of threats.

Threatening to hurt another person is already illegal. The problem is that on Twitter and other sites these threats are made anonymously (making the perpetrators even more pathetic, lacking even the most basic courage).

Because they’re anonymous, the law can’t act against them. And so re-emerges the debate about making it less easy for people to be anonymous on the internet, and to allow for stricter tracking of what people do online.

And that, I believe, is not a good thing.

Transparency is not the solution. Transparency will merely succeed in shifting the balance of power to those who own the data. And we, as citizens, will not be the ones owning the data. It will be owned by corporations and governments, and I genuinely don’t trust those organisations to use it for the betterment of mankind.

If you think having your entire life laid bare to big data analysis is perfectly fine as you have nothing to hide, you haven’t been paying attention. (Also, you definitely won’t have read Orwell’s 1984.)

Yet, if we’re to effectively fight against those anonymous cowards who threaten and abuse people online, we will have to sacrifice some of our online privacy.

Is that a worthwhile trade?

Or was Benjamin Franklin right when he wrote that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Is that sort of vile, deplorable hate speech simply the price we have to pay for our freedoms? Is it something we’ll have to accept and live with? Or should we embrace a more totalitarian state so we can stamp out these ‘unwanted elements’?

I think that, by writing this down, I’ve actually started making up my mind at last…

News broke today that the UK government wants to force all internet service providers to block pornography by default, forcing users to ‘opt-in’ before they can visit sites that are deemed to contain pornographic content.

This utterly deranged policy has a great many problems associated with it. I’ll list a few:

First and foremost, in describing this new policy PM David Cameron commits the grave and unforgivable error of conflating porn with images of child abuse. This is probably a deliberate and highly cynical move – a common political sleight of hand known as “think of the children” – intended to position the porn-blockade as somehow being aimed against child porn.

This is of course utterly farcical. Child porn is already highly illegal and actively blocked and deleted whenever it is found. There’s no need to introduce another law or policy to fight it. On top of that, most of the sharing of child porn imagery happens in the ‘dark net'; usenet groups, private forums, peer-to-peer services, all of which are beyond the scope of ISPs to identify and block, and whose users are technologically savvy enough to make a mockery of any attempt at blocking.

Second, a nationwide blockade of porn would depend on a self-selected group of politically motivated civil servants to decide what is pornography and what is not. As we have already learned, what one person calls artful erotic imagery, another person would classify as hardcore porn. It’s hardly a clearly defined category.

As a result, a porn blockade will leave a lot of forms of art and personal expression on the wrong side of the filter.

Third, at its root this is simply an attempt to censor the internet. Censorship is anathema to free expression, and free expression is the essential foundation of an open and inclusive democratic society.

In light of the highly questionable recent conduct of the UK government and its various agencies, it’s very easy to imagine this porn blockade to be expanded to other forms of content the government finds ‘objectionable’, and to create a list of all people who have decided to opt out of the blockade for ‘intelligence gathering purposes’.

Fourth, such a blockade is easily interpreted as a method to absolve parents from their responsibility to educate their children about safe internet usage.

This is not a good thing. Parents should talk to their children about the good things and bad things to be found online, and parents can very easily install all kinds of content filters – on their computers as well as enabled via their ISPs – to prevent their children from viewing porn, if they so wish.

That is what parents should be doing (there’s literally no excuse not to), and it sure as hell is not the government’s job to step in where parenting skills fail.

Fifth, David Cameron is showing staggering amounts of hypocrisy by wanting this blunt force porn filter, but not acting against the blatantly sexist Page 3 phenomenon. This truly reveals the porn block for the mind-bogglingly cynical point-scoring move that it is.

By not acting against Page 3, Cameron shows he genuinely doesn’t care about the objectification of women and sexist attitudes in his country, and simply wants to appease The Sun so it’ll say nice things about him.

By acting in favour of the Daily Mail’s anti-porn crusade (itself an endeavour of truly epic levels of hypocrisy) Cameron shows that he is eager to pander to a misguided foaming-at-the-mouth rant from the newspaper so it’ll write in favour of him.

In short, Cameron cares only about votes. When it comes to genuinely helping fight sexist attitudes, his ‘fucks given’ meter stands firmly at zero.

This is just a sampling of reasons that make this horrifically misguided porn filter a bad move. Truly, the UK is steam-rolling towards totalitarianism where any whiffs of freedom are rooted out and everything put in service of the capitalist superstate.

Silicon Valley’s Dangerous Religion

Continuing the technology-scepticism of previous posts, I came across an article about Google that’ll effectively serve to eradicate any remaining optimism you may have had about our internet-enabled utopia arriving any time soon.

In Has Google Gone Gaga, a scathing demolition of Google’s vision of the future, The Sunday Times’s Bryan Appleyard finds exactly the same pain point that Evgeny Morozov so effectively identified:

“The Singularity, Ayn Rand, the elitism, the moral pretensions and the dreams of island states are all sending the same message – that Silicon Valley is a small, highly intelligent, obsessive, hubristic and deluded community. Its values are not ours. We should, of course, embrace its ingenuity and the gadgets it showers upon us, but we should be wary of the ‘terms and conditions’ attached. These include not just the inane legalisms that come with the software, but also the ideology, the rhetoric, the world-dominating fantasies and, of course, the tax avoidance.”

This cult-like Silicon Valley mentality expresses itself in many different ways:

  • A form of techno-fetishism where [big data/mobile apps/the industrial internet/augmented reality/any other hip trend du jour] are presented as the key to a richer future for all, with slickly produced TED-talks as the preferred propaganda medium;
  • Big dotcom companies headquartered at insular corporate campuses with a dizzying array of extracurricular services (laundry, restaurants, gyms, libraries, etc) so no one ever need to leave work except to sleep, effectively becoming isolated little worlds where the harsh realities of daily life are kept at arms length;
  • Incestuous venture capitalist circles through which previous dotcom millionaires fund fledgling startups with valuations based on nothing but hyped up coverage on technology blogs;
  • The wholehearted embrace of frighteningly ignorant anti-government & anti-regulation libertarianism as the key to unlocking a technology-enabled nirvana for all mankind;
  • All this founded on an astounding level of intellectual hubris, emerging from the painfully mistaken assumption that the Silicon Valley elite is smarter than everyone else and should be given the freedom to experiment at will.

Fortunately the voices opposing this navel-gazing quasi religion are growing, with recent books from Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier serving as welcome antidotes to this Scientology-like cult behaviour.

This double review of Morozov’s and Lanier’s books in the Times Literary Supplement is a very worthwhile read, and highly recommended if the aforementioned Bryan Appleyard article got your curiosity peaked.

The Purpose of The Internet

If you want to understand why this world is as fucked up as it is, you need look no further than the internet.

Heralded as a great liberating technology, the internet is often seen as a leveller, an equaliser of playing fields where everyone has a voice and anyone can become successful.

But one look at the world wide web’s largest companies makes a lie out of that fantasy. Because these companies are not equalisers, they’re not promoters of meritocracy and opportunity.

The Googles and Facebooks and Yahoos of this world are all advertising platforms.

Advertising is what made Google what it is today. You, as a user of Google’s search engine and email service and video platform and everything else it offers you, are not Google’s customer. You are the product.

Advertisers are Google’s customers. Google sells your time and attention to advertisers. All those free services are the bait to keep you coming back to Google so it can show you more ads.

On Facebook you may think you’re socialising with friends and chatting about common interests and activities. But what you’re actually doing is giving Facebook more information that it can pass on to advertisers so they can target you more effectively.

Advertising is the engine that drives the internet economy.

Think about that for a moment. And think about what advertising actually is, in and of itself.

It’s corporations screaming messages at you to BUY MORE STUFF. Advertising does not teach us anything. Ads don’t enlighten us in any way nor enrich us in any way shape or form.

In fact, advertising makes us poorer – mentally and financially, in ways both direct and indirect.

The internet began as an intellectual endeavour to aid the sharing of knowledge for the betterment of all mankind. It didn’t take very long for it to become a gigantic corporate engine, designed to bombard people with advertising 24/7, which in turn is designed to make you shut up and buy stuff.

Welcome to the future.

Adamus

 Adamus
Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

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