There’s a wonderful piece in the Atlantic talking about the accumulating scandals through which “the tech industry has gone from bright young star to death star”, with increasing public knowledge leading to a recognition that “Silicon Valley companies turned out to be roughly as dirty in their corporate maneuvering as any old oil company or military contractor”. It raises a crucial question: what happens if the controversies continue to accumulate while people remain inclined to use products upon which they have become profoundly dependent? How will these firms come to be seen if widespread rejection of their business practices co-exists with widespread use of their services? As Alex Madrigal puts it, “what if the news stays bad, but the people using their products can’t extract themselves from the platforms tech has built?” It’s a fascinating question for anyone interested in the politics of Silicon Valley and we could see this collapse of the tech mythology as facilitating a repoliticisation of (big) tech: things which were successfully framed as unalloyed social goods, so obviously beneficial to society as to be outside dispute, come to be contested and debated, as well as (we hope) subject to legal intervention and the construction of regulatory regimes.

Madrigal draws a fascinating parallel with the railroad network, using the work of the historian Richard White. The hyperbole with which the internet was greeted was once matched by a transcontinental rail network which opened up a seemingly infinite vista of possibilities to Americans, expanding the scope of social life and coming to define many people’s sense of the age in which they lived. However as controversies accumulated in the face of their novel practices (particularly the formation of their monopolies and the political lobbying operations used to defend them), they came to be widely recognised as detrimental to social life and this once lauded system was increasingly despised. The collapse of the mythology surrounding them “helped create an entire political ideology: the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. Much as the railroads generated the richest men of the time while being the object of vast political opposition, big tech increasingly finds itself the object of resistance while its founders enjoy the fruits of the “world-historic empires” they have built. The question this leaves is how we can ensure the collapse of the tech mythology goes hand-in-hand with a reigning in of the apparatus that has been built and the defensive elites who have made their fortunes from it.

This short article by Bent Flyvbjerg and Alexander Budzier makes a powerful case that “IT projects are now so big, and they touch so many aspects of an organization, that they pose a singular new risk”. It reports on a project they undertook analysing 1,471 projects,  comparing their expected budget and performance benefits to the eventual reality. While the average cost of these projects was $167 million, the largest project $33 billion. They found an average cost overrun of 27% but a much smaller subset of huge overruns, suggesting a potential for existential risks which are obscured if one merely looks at the averages:

Graphing the projects’ budget overruns reveals a “fat tail”—a large number of gigantic overages. Fully one in six of the projects we studied was a black swan, with a cost overrun of 200%, on average, and a schedule over- run of almost 70%. This highlights the true pitfall of IT change initiatives: It’s not that they’re particularly prone to high cost over- runs on average, as management consul- tants and academic studies have previously suggested. It’s that an unusually large pro- portion of them incur massive overages— that is, there are a disproportionate number of black swans. By focusing on averages in- stead of the more damaging outliers, most managers and consultants have been miss- ing the real problem.

They find that the biggest problems tend to arise when a spiralling IT project compounds the existing difficulties (e.g. “eroding margins, rising cost pressures, demanding debt servicing”) which an organisation is facing, What fascinates me here is the possibility that the IT projects may have been conceived wholly or partially to address these difficulties, instead making them even worse when the implementation of the technology fails.

I’m utterly gripped by Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland and its account of the meta-country being built through the ability of global elites to escape national jurisdictions, facilitated by an army of lawyers, accountants and wealth managers. One of the most incisive themes concerns the acceleration of this corruption and the difficulty which it creates for public or private investigators seeking to reconstruct events. Not only do investigators move more slowly than those they are investigating, they do so in a game which is rigged against them as it is much easier to hide wealth through global dealings than it is to find it from the vantage point of a particularly national jurisdiction. From pg 20:

The physicist Richard Feynman supposedly once said: ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.’ I feel the same way about the way offshore structures have warped the fabric of the world. But if this dizzying realisation sends me out of the house and away from my screen, there’s no escaping it. The building where I buy my morning coffee is owned in the Bahamas. The place I get my hair cut is owned in Gibraltar. A building site on my way to the train station is owned in the Isle of Man. If we spent all of our time trying to puzzle out what is really happening, we’d have no time to do anything else. It’s no wonder most sensible people ignore what the super-rich get up to. You follow a white rabbit down a hole, the tunnel dips suddenly and, before you know it, you find yourself falling down a very deep well into a new world. It’s a beautiful place, if you’re rich enough to enjoy it. If you’re not, you can only glimpse it through doors you lack the keys for.

The vertigo this induces can only be solved by recognising the inadequacy of methodological nationalism to make sense of the scale of this corruption, hence his notion of moneyland as something akin to a meta-country being built within the crumbling ruins of the Westphalian order. From pg 25.

Moneyland induces vertigo to such an extent that, once the idea had occurred to me, I felt dizzy because it explained so much. Why do so many ships fly the flags of foreign countries? Moneyland allows their owners to undercut their home nations’ labour regulations. Why do Russian officials prefer to build billion-dollar bridges rather than schools and hospitals? Moneyland lets them steal 10 per cent of the construction costs, and stash it abroad. Why do billionaires live in London? Moneyland lets them dodge taxes there. Why do so many corrupt foreigners want to invest their money in New York? Moneyland protects their assets against confiscation.

From Moneyland, by Oliver Bullough, pg 7:

It may seem like this question is specific to Ukraine and its former Soviet neighbours. In fact, it has a far wider significance. The kind of industrial-scale corruption that enriched Yanukovich and undermined his country has driven anger and unrest in a great arc stretching from the Philippines in the east to Peru in the west, and affected most places in between. In Tunisia, official greed became so bad a street vendor set himself on fire, and launched what became the Arab Spring. In Malaysia, a group of young well-connected investors looted a sovereign wealth fund, and spent the proceeds on drugs, sex and Hollywood stars. In Equatorial Guinea, the president’s son had an official salary of $ 4,000 a month, yet bought himself a $ 35 million mansion in Malibu. All over the world, insiders have stolen public money, stashed it abroad, and used it to fund lifestyles of amazing luxury while their home countries have collapsed behind them.

A corruption made possible by the limitlessness facilitated in a global economy. From pg 9:

Once upon a time, if an official stole money in his home country, there wasn’t much he could do with it. He could buy himself a new car, or build himself a nice house, or give it to his friends and relatives, but that was more or less it. His appetites were limited by the fact that the local market could not absorb endless sums of money. If he kept stealing after that, the money would just build up in his house until he had no rooms left to put it in, or it was eaten by mice. Offshore finance changes that. Some people call shell companies getaway cars for dodgy money, but –when combined with the modern financial system –they’re more like magical teleporter boxes. If you steal money, you no longer have to hide it in a safe where the mice can get at it. Instead, you stash it in your magic box, which spirits it away at the touch of a button, out of the country, to any destination you choose. It’s the financial equivalent of never feeling full no matter how much you

There’s a lucid account in Crystal Abidin’s Internet Celebrity of how eyewitness viral stars, briefly famous for their recorded reactions to an event, generate money for a whole range of unconnected actors. From 772-792:

Eyewitness viral stars present an interesting form of internet celebrity in that at every stage of their fame cycle, several actors profit from the value of their unwitting content creation –such as news networks and print media through clickbait and follow-ups that extend public interest in the viral star, the production and hawking of bootleg merchandise whose sales do not directly benefit the viral star, and the circuit of social media content producers’ covers, parodies, remixes, op-eds, and meme performances that enjoys surplus value from the viral star and their image rights without any returns or rewards to them above and beyond a namedrop or hyperlinked URL.

Being picked up by mainstream media reduces their agency over this process even further. While this account concerns a specific subset of viral stars, it highlights the core questions which a political economy of them needs to be sensitive to. Who benefits? How do they benefit? How does this benefit impact upon the viral star? What control can they exercise over the approach? The participatory ideology of social media tends to obscure these questions, reducing a complex sequence of events into the ‘five minutes of fame’ gifted to an individual.

If we see the examples above as external actors capitalising on someone’s unexpected moment of visibility, it shouldn’t obscure the fact that viral stars can also capitalise on their own visibility. The example of Grumpy Cat on loc 883 is instructive:

However, despite such extensive dispersals and the spread of her online fame, Grumpy Cat’s owner also did well to consolidate her celebrity and establish origin outlets and ownership over the images. For instance, recognizing the growth potential of Grumpy Cat’s new fame, owner Bundesen quickly claimed the name of the meme and established digital estates on Instagram as @realgrumpycat where she has over 2.4 million followers, 178 on Facebook as “The Official Grumpy Cat” where she has over 8 million followers, 179 and on YouTube as “Real Grumpy Cat” where she has over 37 million views. 180

However the capacity do this is unevenly distributed. I was particularly interested in Abidin’s discussion of brand managers and digital communications experts who specialise in help viral stars capitalise upon their celebrity.

I’ve intended to write about imposter syndrome for a number of years. Since my PhD, it has become less frequent yet somehow more acute when it occurs, possibly reflecting my transition from an academic identity as ‘social theorist’ to a para-academic identity as ‘digital sociologist’. Here’s what goes through my mind when I feel like an imposter:

  1. I’m a dilettante and will eventually be exposed as one. The only reason it has yet to happen is because the siloed quality of the academy means that people in one area are impressed by the fact I know something about another area, in the process assuming I know much more than I do. I’m a beneficiary of the accelerated academy I claim to find pernicious, creating the possibility that frequently making statements about a lot of topics be conflated with intellectual significance in a more meaningful sense.
  2. The essentially shallow quality of my thought gets revealed every time I ask a question at a seminar. When I can communicate via text or have time to prepare a talk, I’m able to dress up this shallowness in the performance of profundity. When people respond positively to my talks, it’s a response to a performance I’ve cultivated rather than the content of what I’ve said. I vividly convey a sense of being thoughtful but the thought never really goes anywhere. When people realise this, the illusion will be shattered.
  3. Knowledge doesn’t accumulate within me. I incorporate shiny insights from things I read but it passes out of me, never to return. My intellectual biography is a history of fleeting fixations, converted through rigid writing routine and intellectual slight of hand into academic capital. Gender and class combine to leave this ‘range’ being read as profundity, as opposed to an inability to focus. I perfectly embody exactly what I claim to be broken about accelerated knowledge production.

While Tommy Robinson has been denied a visa for his planned Washington visit, it seems he’s off to Australia for a speaking tour with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes:

Robinson is set to visit Australia in December for a five-city speaking tour with the Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes. The pair call themselves The Deplorables, a reference to Hillary Clinton’s name for some of Donald Trump’s supporters. On the website advertising the speaking tour, Robinson describes himself as an “independent journalist, political activist, author, and man of the British people”. Tickets for the events cost are priced at between $85 and $995.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/13/tommy-robinson-not-granted-us-visa-in-time-for-washington-visit?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

How many speaker tours like this are taking place? How much money is being generated by them? Are there service companies which assist in putting them together? How well do tickets for them sell? Who goes to these events and what motivates them? How much is driven by entertainment and how much is (costly) political participation? Do these events change the behaviour or attitudes of those involved? There are lots of questions here and if anyone knows of attempted answers, I’d love to read them.

In recent months, there has been increasing media coverage of the terrifying network of reeducation camps in which the Chinese government has interned hundreds of thousands of the Uighur people. This is only one part of a broader system of social control in which what Timothy Grose calls a ‘virtual custody’ has been constructed through the proliferation of “convenience police stations” at 200 metre intervals, a digital surveillance apparatus and state sanctioned home invasions in which “big brothers and big sisters” conducted 24m home visits, 33m interviews and 8m “ethnic unity” activities in less than two years. What I hadn’t realised was the role that China’s social credit system plays in this:

Yet the vast majority of detainees have not been convicted of any crime. Instead, the Communist party relies on an arbitrary social taxonomy – referred to officially as a “social credit system” – to identify targets. Metrics such as age, faith, religious practices, foreign contacts and experience abroad sort Muslims into three levels: “safe”, “normal” or “unsafe”. Those labelled “unsafe” face an imminent risk of detention.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/13/china-mass-incarceration-muslims-unchallenged-uighur

My understanding is that the social credit sanctions elsewhere in China have been predominately targeted at people in their capacity as consumers. This is not to minimise it because being locked out of credit and purchasing due to being designated ‘dishonest’ is an enormously significant penalty liable to impact upon every facet of life.

But are we seeing the next stage of this process in the oppression of the Uighurs? How will this trial of the social credit system be combined with other trials when the system is rolled out in full? Are we seeing a concrete techno-fascism being constructed before our very eyes? Not the diffuse fears and harms surrounding surveillance capitalism but a totalitarian system of datafication with reeducation camps at their core? While the potential role of private companies in the operation of the social credit system remains uncertain, firms have signed contracts for implementation with local governments. If the system operates effectively in China how long before these and other firms begin to offer related services to governments around the world?

This is the provocative phrase which James Williams uses to describe the attention economy on pg 87 of Stand Out of Our Light:

Uncritical deployment of the human-as-computer metaphor is today the well of a vast swamp of irrelevant prognostications about the human future. If people were computers, however, the appropriate description of the digital attention economy’s incursions upon their processing capacities would be that of the distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attack. In a DDoS attack, the attacker controls many computers and uses them to send many repeated requests to the target computer, effectively overwhelming its capacity to communicate with any other computer. The competition to monopolize our attention is like a DDoS attack against the human will.

I find this a curious description because a DDoS attack is a deliberate action undertaken in a coordinated way with malign intent. None of these descriptions are true of the attention economy, with even its deliberateness being a matter of individual action rather than aggregate outcome; the problem comes because multiple actors make demands on our attention at once, rather than there being a concerted effort to overwhelm us. In fact overpowering us might even be contrary to their interests.

I find the force this description has for Williams strange because it’s an obviously bad description in an otherwise well written book. I suspect it reflects the politics underpinning the book which I want to write about in a different post. As he says on pg 89, he sees this as a politics beyond politics, a meta game which define stage horizon of political life. It’s a framing which reduces the complexity of politics into the detrimental effects of tech firms upon our attentional capacities:

As a result, we ought to understand them as the ground of first political struggle, the politics behind politics. It is now impossible to achieve any political reform worth having without first reforming the totalistic forces that guide our attention and our lives.

There are some wonderful reflections in this Guardian interview with George RR Martin on the writing process, the power of fiction and losing yourself in your work:

When he’s really on a roll with his writing, “there are days when I sit down in the morning with my cup of coffee, I fall through the page and I wake up and it’s dark outside and my coffee is still next to me, it’s ice cold and I’ve just spent the day in Westeros.”

“When I began, I didn’t know what the hell I had. I thought it might be a short story; it was just this chapter, where they find these direwolf pups. Then I started exploring these families and the world started coming alive,” Martin says. “It was all there in my head, I couldn’t not write it. So it wasn’t an entirely rational decision, but writers aren’t entirely rational creatures.”

“I think that’s true of any fiction worth reading, that you’re really talking about people. And maybe it’s set in space or in a castle with dragons, maybe you set it in a suburban town where Dick and Jane live, or in some urban hell hole. Wherever you want to set your story, it’s still about people trying to make their decisions about what is right and what is wrong, how do I survive, questions of good and evil.”

On the other hand, once I really get rolling, I get into the world, and that happened recently with Fire and Blood. I was going to sleep thinking of Aegon and Jaehaerys and waking up thinking of them and I couldn’t wait to get the typewriter. The rest of the world vanishes, and I don’t care what I’m having for dinner or what movies are on or what my email says, who’s mad at me this week because The Winds of Winter isn’t out, all that is gone and I’m just living in the world I’m writing about. But it’s sometimes hard to get to that almost trance state.”

“We live our lives and I think there’s something in us that yearns for something more, more intense experiences. There are men and women out there who live their lives seeking those intense experiences, who go to the bottom of the sea and climb the highest mountains or get shot into space. Only a few people are privileged to live those experiences but I think all of us want to, somewhere in our heart of hearts we don’t want to live the lives of quiet desperation Thoreau spoke about, and fantasy allows us to do those things. Fantasy takes us to amazing places and shows us wonders, and that fulfils a need in the human heart.”

How can we reconcile the psychoanalytical and the reflexive? One way is to deny there’s a tension and the work of someone like Ian Craib illustrates how this can be so, excavating reflexivity as a site of fantasy that is itself acted on reflexively. We find the image of a powerful and boundless self intoxicating but sustaining it necessitates reflexivity in defence of this object. Rather than scrutinising our assumption that life should be without disappointment (Craib’s catch all term for the negative emotions which inevitably emerge from our engagements with a recalcitrant reality) we move into the next job, the next partner, the next home in the earnest hope that this time we can elude the mess of life which has followed us up till now. In this case, reflexivity misidentifies itself, mistaking a fallible and constrained capacity to calibrate our becoming in the world for a powerful and boundless capacity to build the life we aspire to. There is no tension between the psychoanalytical and the reflexive because we can’t understand one without the other.

However what about our super ego? What about injunction we feel to behave a certain way and meet specific standards? I think someone like Adam Phillips can be read in a similar way to Craib, concerned with the space of freedom which is closed down through our misidentification of these demands; a freedom which can only be embraced by recognising our own limitations. But  what about the pleasure we find in subordinating ourselves to these injunctions? This is something Žižek discusses on pg 195-196 of Like A Thief In Broad Daylight:

This, then, is what makes millions of us seek refuge in our opiums: not just new poverty and lack of prospects, but unbearable superego pressure in its two aspects –the pressure to succeed professionally and the pressure to enjoy life fully in all its intensity. Perhaps this second aspect is even more unsettling: what remains of our life when our retreat into private pleasure itself becomes the stuff of brutal injunction?

From a realist perspective on reflexivity (Archer, Donati, Sayer et al) these pressures arise from our concerns. It’s because facets of our world matter to us, unavoidably moving us to action, that the question of which action becomes so thorny and difficult. This pressure comes from a relation of concern to the world, even if this is inflected through the cultural coding which is situationally available to us. However for a figure like Žižek this would seem like an escape from the real issue, a lofty rationalisation which obscures the obsene core of ‘what matters to us’ . Even if we see ‘servitude to a cause’ (a phrase he uses later in the book) as a psychoanalytical reading of a reflexive commitment, there nonetheless seems to be a profound tension here.

Can these perspectives be reconciled? Is it possible to accept the existence of cultural injunctions which capture us on a psychic level while recognising the capacities of agents to (fallibly!) calibrate the relationship between themselves and their world? I suspect is isn’t and I’m not sure what this means for my broader interest in recognising the reflexive and the psychoanalytical.

I came across the following extract in the Stafford Beer archive at Liverpool John Moores University. It is from a letter which Beer writes to his children, offering insights into the character of existence as a Christmas present to them. His use of the term poise caught my attention. I first used the term poise in a masters dissertation  investigating the agency of LGBTQ youth in their negotiation of sexual normativity. I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant by it then and I’m still not certain now, in spite of it being a category which my thinking often comes back to.

By poise I’ve tended to mean something akin to a skilful and confident embrace of change. It connects to an observation Helen Kara made about changing tempos. Her experience resonated with me and it’s precisely in those moments of change when I often feel I lack poise, unravelling slightly and having to reassemble myself in order to cope with the change underway. But there’s much more to it than that, albeit in a way I’m still struggling to articulate. It’s too early in my encounter with Stafford Beer to know if he means poise in the same way. Nonetheless the focus on feeling in command of oneself in a way that renders one less susceptible to the vicissitudes of nature certainly rings a bell. To have poise is not quite to retain your shape through change, as much as exercise a second-order control over the change that is underway.

Perhaps as Beer puts it, it’s a matter of holding on to your cosmic slice. This idea makes me think of the Deleuzian notion of lines of flight. If we conceive of this as an object of our own awareness, a sense of our own becoming in the world lurking at the heart of all life’s mysteries, poise is a capacity to take ownership of our line of flight. Not in the sense of control but in the sense of steering, made richer by contingency and more elaborate by uncertainty. Cultivating poise is not sufficient for human flourishing but I suspect it is necessary.

There’s a provocative argument on pg 81-82 of Žižek’s Like a Thief in Broad Daylight concerning the role of fascism in the contemporary liberal imagination. The invocation of the epochal enemy emerging from outside the political sphere allows the antagonism within it to be suppressed:

The demonized image of a fascist threat clearly serves as a new political fetish, in the simple Freudian sense of a fascinating image whose function is to obfuscate the true antagonism. Fascism itself is inherently fetishist, it needs a figure like that of a Jew, condemned as the external cause of our troubles –such a figure enables us to obfuscate the immanent antagonisms that cut across our society. My claim is that exactly the same holds for the notion of ‘fascist’ in today’s liberal imagination: it enables us to obfuscate immanent deadlocks which lie at the root of our crisis. The desire not to make any compromises with the alt-right can easily obscure the degree to which we are already compromised by

He argues that we can see this at the level of electoral strategy, with the rise of a liberal politics of fear which rests on ensuring we resist the new evil which is emerging. This is bringing about situations in which “a candidate emerges and wins elections as it were from nowhere, in a moment of confusion building a movement around his or her name – both Silvio Berlusconi and Macron exploded on the scene like this”. These manifest themselves through movements which “sound similar in their empty universality, which fits everyone and everything” using “slogans [which] designate the abstract sense of a victorious movement without any specification of the direction of the movement and its goal” (pg 77). I can see why people would take issue with his argument on pg 78 about the potential implications of this for democratic politics but I think his underlying point about the antagonism remaining obscure is certainly correct, even if the conclusions he draws from this are more contentious:

A classic liberal argument for voting for Clinton or Macron against Trump or Le Pen is that while it is true that what Clinton and Macron stand for is the very predicament that gave birth to Trump or Le Pen, not voting for Clinton or Macron is like voting for an actual disaster in order to prevent a possible future disaster. This argument sounds convincing, on condition that we ignore temporality. If Le Pen had been elected President in 2017, it could have triggered strong anti-fascist mobilization, rendering her re-election unthinkable, plus it could have given a strong push to the Leftist alternative. So the two disasters (Le Pen President now or the threat of Le Pen as President in five years) are not the same: the disaster after five years of Macron’s reign, if it turns out to be a failure, will be much more serious than the one which did not happen in 2017.

While I’m not convinced by his argument that it would be better for Le Pen et al to win because it gets tensions out in the open, I nonetheless find his concerns about the longer term trajectory of our present impasse extremely plausible:

The sad prospect that awaits us is that of a future in which, every four years, we will be thrown into a panic, scared by some form of ‘neo-fascist danger’, and in this way be blackmailed into casting our vote for the ‘civilized’ candidate in meaningless elections lacking any positive vision … Meanwhile we’ll be able to sleep in the safe embrace of global capitalism with a human face. The obscenity of the situation is breathtaking: global capitalism is now presenting itself as the last protection against fascism; and if you try to point out some of Macron’s serious limitations you are accused of –yes, of complicity with fascism, since, as we are told repeatedly by the big (and not so big) media, the extreme Left and extreme Right are now coming together: both are anti-Semitic, nationalist-isolationalist, anti-globalist, etc. This is the point of the whole operation: to make the Left –which means any true alternative –disappear.