De omnibus dubitandum
2 Aug 2013
I’ve been struggling to make up my mind about a number of issues that are currently hot topics in the UK.
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…
22 Jul 2013
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.
14 Jun 2013
On 9 June 2013, Iain Banks died from cancer at age 59.
It’s hard to overestimate how much I love Banks’s writing. In my list of ten favourite non-fiction books, his solitary non-fiction effort is very near the top. My list of ten favourite literary fiction novels has three of his books on it. And over half my list of favourite science fiction novels of all time are Iain M. Banks books.
Even more than Hitchens, Iain Banks’ writing brought genuine joy to my life. And now he’s gone.
And I find that to be a profoundly sad thought.
Iain wasn’t done yet. He was nowhere near done. But cancer took him away, like it’s taken Hitchens, and taken family members, and taken friends.
Fuck you cancer. Fuck you very much.
4 Jun 2013
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.
“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:
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.
30 May 2013
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.
4 Apr 2013
Evgeny Morozov, the internet’s most renowned technology cynic, is not afraid to act as a polemical David to technology’s Goliaths. Not long after he thoroughly eviscerated the TED phenomenon he’s now set his sights on one of the internet’s biggest names: Tim O’Reilly.
In a lengthy article titled ‘The Meme Hustler’, Morozov takes O’Reilly to task for a range of buzzphrases and PR moves summarised as ‘meme-engineering‘. In doing so, he touches upon a number of highly intriguing ideas.
For example Morozov states that O’Reilly’s open source movement, having succeeded in supplanting Richard Stallman’s ‘free software’ concept as the de facto model for open software development, has paved the way for the current trend of closed source & closed platform appification of the internet:
“Now that apps might be displacing the browser, the openness once taken for granted is no more – a contingency that licenses and morals could have easily prevented. Openness as a happenstance of market conditions is a very different beast from openness as a guaranteed product of laws.”
He also exposes the Web 2.0 concept invented by O’Reilly for the hollow hypephrase that it is, pointing out that the technological trends that are viewed as a core aspect of Everything 2.0 predate the phrase – and the web itself – by some considerable margin:
“O’Reilly himself pioneered this 2.0-ification of public discourse, aggressively reinterpreting trends that had been happening for decades through the prism of Internet history – a move that presented all those trends as just a logical consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution. Take O’Reilly’s musings on “Enterprise 2.0.” What is it, exactly? Well, it’s the same old enterprise – for all we know, it might be making widgets – but now it has learned something from Google and Amazon and found a way to harness “collective intelligence.” For O’Reilly, Walmart is a quintessential Enterprise 2.0 company simply because it tracks what its customers are buying in real time.
That this is a rather standard practice—known under the boring title of “just-in-time delivery” — predating both Google and Amazon didn’t register with O’Reilly. In a Web 2.0 world, all those older concepts didn’t matter or even exist; everything was driven by the forces of open source and the Internet.”
I admit that after a brief period of skepticism I too was taken by the Web 2.0 hype, but like many I’ve also stopped using the phrase as I’ve become aware of its lack of substance.
Even social media, seen as the defining aspect of Web 2.0, is not a novel idea and has existed in primordial form since before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Berners-Lee’s eyes.
“For Postman, one of the main tasks of language is to codify and preserve distinctions among different semantic environments. As he put it, “When language becomes undifferentiated, human situations disintegrate: Science becomes indistinguishable from religion, which becomes indistinguishable from commerce, which becomes indistinguishable from law, and so on. If each of them serves the same function, then none of them serves any function. When such a process is occurring, an appropriate word for it is pollution.” Some words—like “law”—are particularly susceptible to crazy talk, as they mean so many different things: from scientific “laws” to moral “laws” to “laws” of the market to administrative “laws,” the same word captures many different social relations. “Open,” “networks,” and “information” function much like “law” in our own Internet discourse today.”
I recommend you read Morozov’s 16,000 word piece – his no-punches-pulled criticisms are always worthwhile, even if you disagree – and if you feel thusly inclined you can continue with the abundant retorts being published online in defence of O’Reilly.
The man himself posted a brief, albeit polite, dismissal on his Google+ profile.
18 Mar 2013
This video, a perfectly executed parody of the 9/11 ‘inside job’ conspiracy video Loose Change, highlights an important flaw of the human psyche: its capacity to interpret unconnected events and random facts in such a way as to imply a secret behind-the-scenes conspiracy:
The sad fact is that nearly always there is no conspiracy. People are bad at keeping secrets, and big conspiracies need a lot of people involved. Any complicated endeavour has too many things go wrong for conspiracies to be effective. Incompetence is often a more accurate explanation rather than inside knowledge or intricate conspiracies.
And, most of all, sometimes the world just doesn’t make sense, and bad stuff happens for no good reason.