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.

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’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.

The robots are coming! The robots are coming! After watching More Human Than Human, I’ve woken up preoccupied by the rise of the robots narrative and how inadequate it is for making sense of the cultural politics and political economy of automation. The film is an engaging exploration of artificial intelligence and its social significance. While its analysis is often superficial, it foregrounds the agency of the roboticists and thinkers who are shaping emerging technologies and this feels important to me. Nonetheless it sits uneasily with the film’s tendency to frame technological change as inexorable, able to be steered for good or evil but nonetheless impossible to constraint. This is a tension at the heart of disruption rhetoric, celebrating innovation as a form of creativity while holding it to be unavoidable. But this is just one way in which the film so starkly embodies a broader trend.

One reason it is important to see the figures shaping these developments is that it makes clear how white, male and Anglo-American they are. As Jana Bacevic observed, the film manifestly fails the Bechdel test. There are three women with speaking roles in the film, only of whom talks about her own work but does so in a way framed through the lens of the man whose memory powers it. As far as I can recall, every single person in the film is white, mostly American with a few northern Europeans thrown in for good measure. The only exception is a Russian-born women in the film who now works as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. This is problematic for many reasons, not least of all that much cutting edge work in artificial intelligence is taking place in China. By ignoring these developments, not only does the film undermine its own investigative mission but it further evacuates the political questions it raises by robbing them of their geopolitical dimension. Disruptive innovation is bound up in techno-nationalism, as machine learning becomes an arms race with epochal significance at a time when American power seemingly enters a state of terminal decline after years of domination without hegemony.

The film ends in a contemplative mode, reiterating familiar rumination about our future. Every sentence in the closing scene repeatedly invokes ‘we’ and ‘our’. Who are we? How does the white American author in his early 30s who provides the intellectual narration for the film come to articulate the agenda of this we? How does the older white American director who provides its substantive narration, with the film framed around his own personal project in disruptive innovation, come to articulate the agenda of this we? The ‘we’ here is devoid of politics. It is a we without a they as Chantal Mouffe would put it. At a time when the liberal order is in chaos, we ought to be suspicious to the point of paranoia about the emergence of a powerful narrative of civilisational renewal in which we can save ourselves or we can doom ourselves. It is Anglo-American capitalism mystifying its own bleeding age, making a religion out of its own products and celebrating them as world-making or fearing them as world-breaking. None of this is to deny hugely significant technological advances are occurring. But the rise of the robots narrative actively frustrates our understanding of it, systematically shutting down the intellectual space in which it becomes possible to think through the cultural politics and political economy of automation. Provincialising disruption is unavoidable if we want to understand the reality of putatively disruptive technologies.

This is a insightful reflection from Glenn Greenwald on the meaning of Jair Bolsonaro. He takes issue with the notion that Bolsonaro is Brazil’s Trump for three reasons: he explicitly advocates military dictatorship, he is subject to weak constitutional constraints and he is from an older far right rather than the contemporary alt-right movement. A huge portion of his vote in a country which until recently was dominated by the centre-left comes from a broader coalition than is being assumed, driven by a widespread contempt for Brazil’s ruling elites and Bolsonaro’s effectiveness in casting himself as their enemy. What is particularly striking is how readily international elites are willing to embrace Bolsonaro in spite of this and it remains to be seen what happens if and when he fails to live up to his promise of national renewal.

Why do expressions of wealth through social media attract such attention? How does something like rich kids of instagram provoke such morbid fascination in so many? In Uneasy Street: Anxieties of Affluence Rachel Sherman offers a penetrating account of the moral universe which wealthy New Yorkers have constructed for themselves, unpicking the ambivalence they feel concerning their own privilege. While materially embracing their privilege, they nonetheless feel a profound need to subjectively distance themselves from it, particularly in relation to their children.

Doing this involves distinguishing themselves from the unthinking, unappreciative, uncaring embrace of wealth and instilling the related dispositions in their children. As she writes on pg 232, “They want to be in the middle, not in a distributional sense but rather in the affective sense of having the habits and desires of the middle class”. This relies on distancing themselves from “images of ‘bad’ rich people”. These images thus serve to legitimate inequalities by helping construct ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways to be affluent, something which was particularly pronounced among those in Sherman’s sample who had inherited their wealth. As she notes on pg 230, positive representations circulate of figures who are praised for how they acquired their wealth and how they subsequently relate to wider society:

In November 2016, James B. Stewart wrote a New York Times column in which he tried to pin down the net worth of British writer J. K. Rowling, author of the fantastically successful Harry Potter series. 1 In the piece he attributes his interest in her assets to the fact that she is “that all-too-rare commodity in the ranks of the ultrawealthy—a role model.” He continues, “Not only has she made her fortune largely through her own wits and imagination, but she also pays taxes and gives generously to charity. At a time of bitter disputes over rising income inequality, no one seems to resent Ms. Rowling’s runaway success.” What struck me about this piece, first, is that Stewart invokes two of the characteristics of the good wealthy person that I have described: Rowling is hard-working, as indicated by her upward mobility, and she gives back liberally. 2 He doesn’t mention her lifestyle, but a 2006 Daily Mail article describes her relatively moderate consumption as “a valuable and uplifting counterpoint to the circus of pointless and continuous spending” of other celebrities, and it seems unlikely that Stewart would think she was such a role model if she were perceived as an ostentatious consumer. 3

There was an excellent Vox piece recently which explored the myth of the frugal bllionaire. As Gaby De Valle summarises these representations, drawing on an interview with Sherman:

You may have heard that Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway whose net worth is somewhere around $87 billion, lives in a modest house he bought in 1958 for just $31,500. Or that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drives a stick-shift Volkswagen GTI. Maybe you’ve seen those articles floating around about how Bill Gates, who was once the wealthiest man in the world, wears a $10 watch. Or how Amazon head Jeff Bezos, who is currently the wealthiest man in the world, drove a Honda Accord for years after becoming a billionaire.

Most recently, the UK Sun reported that Michael O’Leary, the embattled CEO of budget airline Ryanair (which has been forced to cancel scores of flights amid strikes by pilots who say they’re underpaid and overworked), is as frugal in his everyday life as he is with his airline. Matt Cooper, the author of a forthcoming autobiography of O’Leary, told the paper that the airline CEO is “utterly ruthless and pathological about how much he hates spending money.”

https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/27/17907312/warren-buffett-mark-zuckerberg-mark-cuban-frugal-billionaires

These representations of admirable extremes co-exist with a broader tendency towards the normalisation of wealth. As Sherman describes it on pg 232, “lifestyles that would actually be quite expensive (including spacious homes, domestic employees, family vacations, and fashionable clothing) appear in ostensibly “middle-class” settings on television and in the movies”. I found myself reflecting on this recently in relation to the sitcom Modern Family. The family is portrayed as typical yet the grandfather is a multi-millionaire business owner while the families of his two children live a comfortable lifestyle for extended periods of time in LA on a single income.

It seems each of their houses would be worth well over a million, with the grandfather’s house being worth eight million. In the most recent season, they hire a yacht for a family vacation. These are not typical lifestyles yet they are represented in a way imbued with middleness even if they may be out of reach of most. Sherman’s crucial observation is how middle-classness in this sense is moral, defined by earned consumption within reasonable boundaries by people who are hard working. This matters for many reasons but not least of all because the defensiveness of the affluent goes hand-in-hand with this moralisation of lifestyle. Sherman writes on pg 235:

As we have seen, the people I talked with sometimes responded quite negatively to these critiques, interpreting them as personal judgments, as when high earners reacted defensively after President Obama advocated repealing high-wage tax cuts. But this tendency to feel personally affronted by public criticism of inequality also has to do with exactly the same process of attaching entitlement to individual merit. That is to say, to believe that J. K. Rowling should not have a billion dollars when other people have nothing is not to suggest she is a bad person for having the billion dollars. The distribution of the assets is the problem, not the individual behavior, disposition, or feelings—or any other characteristic—of the person holding the assets.

This feeling of being affronted fascinates me. I’m convinced it’s a subtle factor which a political sociology of elites must take seriously, though it’s difficult to pin down without using the lens of cultural sociology. I’ve been most interested in its expression by billionaires but Sherman’s superb book has led me to see that these extreme cases reflect a broader cultural sociology of defensive elites, driven by a social celebration of wealth accumulation coupled with an ambivalence about the wealthy.

I was struck when reading this description of Donna Haraway’s work in Razmig Keucheyan’s Left Hemisphere of how useful the notion of détournement could be in navigating the contemporary politics of social media. As he writes on loc 4454:

Like a number of contemporary critical thinkers, Haraway subscribes to the strategic paradigm of détournement. Its origins go back to the artistic avant-gardes of the twentieth century, especially situationism. It consists in diverting an object or discourse from its original function in order to subvert its content and endow it with a politically or artistically new connotation. Thus, although cyborgs initially went hand in glove with capital, it cannot be excluded that they will make it possible to transcend certain aporiae in which advocates of a radical ecology and socialism are currently trapped.

What was once a position of untrammelled utopianism, in which the founding ideology of social media was uncritically reproduced in a fit of enthusiasm, increasingly heads towards its opposite. As the media sociologist John Thompson cautioned at an excellent event in Cambridge last week, it is dangerous to read back the characteristics of media by looking at their effects. If I understood his point correctly, the risk is that we end up ascribing causality to the media themselves which overlooks the many social and cultural factors operative beyond the platforms and the firms running then. Bad things are happening which involve social media therefore those bad things must originate with social media.

To be overly attentive to the media system in and of itself inadvertently reproduces precisely the utopian assumptions which we seek to overturn. I wonder if détournement in the sense of unweaving the participatory promise of social media (what I call the founding ideology above) from its embedding in a particular account of platforms could be a useful strategy for getting beyond this impasse? Rather than see domination as built into the structure of the platform itself, could the platform’s own ideology be usefully leverage in critique of the promised outcomes which its business model suppresses? Does the mood of cultural pessimism inadvertently exclude conversations about democratic governance and collective action orientated towards reform? Can these platforms be diverted from their original function?

I spent this afternoon at the Cambridge film festival, watching two films which couldn’t seem more different yet spoke to our current moment in oddly similar ways. All the President’s Men was released in 1976, telling the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal. The Waldheim Waltz was released this year yet deals with events from not long after the other film was made, specifically former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s run for Austrian President in 1986 and the scandal which erupted when his service as an intelligence officer for the Nazi SA was made public.

Both films featured elements familiar from our current political scene. Accusations of fake news, manufactured scandals and disingenuous accusations figured heavily. Consensual politics had broken down, replaced with claim and counter-claim as previously trusted adjudicators found their motivations questioned. Dark forces bubble to the surface and discursive order is revealed to be a precarious achievement. Seen in this light, both films embody continuities with our present moment and provide an engaging riposte to shrill invocations of the ‘post-truth’ crisis. The weaponisation of epistemology long predates Donald Trump and his ilk.

However there was a difference which I’ve found myself dwelling upon. In both films, the powerful weaponised epistemology in a reactive way. They sought to dig themselves out of holes, shore up their defences and turn the tide of public opinion in their favour. It was all tactics and no strategy. This might be a function of the format, as the strategising I’m talking about would not translate easily into either narrative, even assuming there is a historical record which confirms its existence. It’s nonetheless intriguing to consider the prospect that the strategic weaponisation of epistemology has expanded recently, even if its tactical weaponisation is long standing.

What I found particularly striking was the lack of preparation. Kurt Waldheim had engaged in impression management through his autobiography yet his war record sat in national archives, waiting for someone to bother to look. The Watergate conspirators left a trail which they only began to obfuscate once investigative reporters from a national newspaper were on the case. If this is the whole story, something which I’m not sure is true, it raises the interesting question of when preemptive spin and crisis communications began to transform the political landscape of epistemology. I suspect that once the expectation of weaponisation takes hold, in the sense of it being prudent to assume something will be used against you, it becomes a self-fulling prophecy as strategic thought becomes synonyms with prudent planning.