On the subject of the collapse of the tech mythology, a wonderful Slate headline succinctly conveys the significance of what is taking place: Facebook is a normal sleazy company now.  As Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it, “Facebook is now just another normal sleazy American company run by normal sleazy executives, engaged in normal sleazy lobbying and corporate propaganda”. He lists the controversies which have surrounded Facebook in the last few years and the founder’s response to them:

Over the past three years, Facebook has been outed for abusing the trust of its users, sharing personal data with third parties like Cambridge Analytica, unwittingly hosting Russian-backed propaganda intended to undermine American democracy, amplifying calls for religious and ethnic violence in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and promoting violent authoritarian and nationalist leaders like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India. As these stories piled up and public trust eroded, the Times reports, Zuckerberg consistently exempted himself from crucial discussions with the Facebook security team and acted generally baffled that anyone would question his baby. After all, didn’t he just want, in his words, to “bring the world closer together?”

In contrast Sandberg initiated a lobbying operation with a particularly unseemly propaganda exercise attached to it, obviously at odds with the lofty rhetoric accompanying Facebook’s public pronouncements in the face of mounting scandal. Vaidhyanathan’s case is that the transition to sleaze is a recent phenomenon, reflecting the growing panic of a company which had formerly “made too much money to care about money and had too strong a reputation to care about its reputation”. Nonetheless, the mounting controversies are created by the platform working in the way it was designed to. As Vaidhyanathan says, “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”

However my suggestion is that we have to recognise the collapse of the tech mythology as a distinct factor, beyond the current crisis in Facebook. There is an increasing  politicisation of Big Tech, as firms which positioned themselves as outside the normal rules of capitalism are increasingly recognised as what is driving a shift in capitalism itself. Their epochal rhetoric of disruptive innovation, bringing the world together through the power of their platforms, decreasingly obscures the material interests they embody. Without this broader collapse of the tech mythology, it would be easier for Facebook to make it through their present storm.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between digital technology and contemporary finance, including the vast off-shore facets of its existence and the shadow markets which (as I understand them) traverse onshore and offshore, even breaking down the distinction between the two. An interesting example of this concerns the logistical challenge involved in creating the byzantine corporate structures upon which these mechanisms depend, with ever more sophisticated methods made available to ever less sophisticated companies as one of Oliver Bullough’s interviewees puts its on pg 87 of Moneyland. As Bullough goes on to write on pg 88, “the speed and cheapness of modern communications have made creating these companies ever easier, with devastating results for the law enforcement agencies trying to investigate them”. Only a couple of decades ago, “if a crook wanted a Pacific shell company, they had to go to the Pacific to get it. Now, they can get it online from their living room” (pg 87). It’s easy to pass over this quickly as a contingent detail but I think there’s something extremely significant to dwell on here.

From Moneyland by Oliver Bullough pg 101. As he points out, the logical end result of this is the creation of dynasties so that privilege persists and grows, as opposed to slowly diminishing over generations.

Wealth-X, a consulting company that maps the movements of the super-rich as if they are wildebeest, calculates that in 2016 there were 226,450 people in the world with assets worth more than $ 30 million (it calls them ultra-high-net worth people, or UHNWs), a 3.5 per cent increase on the year before. Collectively, their wealth had increased over the previous twelve months by 1.5 per cent to $ 27 trillion, which is roughly equivalent to the entire output of China and the United States added together. And the outlook for further increases is good: ‘SOLID GROWTH EXPECTED ACROSS THE ULTRA WEALTHY SECTOR,’ proclaims the company’s World Ultra Wealth Report 2017. ‘The global ultra-wealthy population is forecast to rise to 299,000 people by 2021, an increase of 72,550 compared with 2016 levels. UHNW wealth is projected to rise to $ 35.7 trillion, which implies an additional $ 8.7 trillion of newly created wealth over the next five years.’

If this prediction comes true, the planet’s UHNWs will have added the equivalent of the GDPs of Japan and Germany to their stock of wealth, in half a decade. Wealth-X sells its insights to the global class of lawyers, bankers and professionals that manages this wealth. The more wealth there is, the more they get paid. They have moved on from simply de-embarrassing assets, and now husband them, protect them, multiply them, and make them available to anyone who needs them anywhere in the world. The world has come a long way since that first elaborately organised eurobond drilled holes in the tanks of the great oil tanker of the world economy, and allowed tax dodgers and kleptocrats to make a fortune.

From Moneyland by Oliver Bullough pg 51:

Nevis prospers by renting its sovereignty to rich people who believe America is over-litigious, that women get too much money in divorce settlements, and that lawyers lie in wait for the successful. These beliefs are widespread among the rich, and Moneyland has given them the power to do something about it. Once upon a time, if wealthy Americans felt their country was over-litigious, they would seek to influence a political party to change the laws. If they felt their spouses’ divorce settlements were too generous, they could argue for legislation to be passed to change that. It might have taken a while, and it might have been imperfect, but that’s democracy for you. That process of messy compromise, of back-and-forth, has been replaced by asset protection. Instead of campaigning to change the laws, they have opted out of them altogether. If you’re an ordinary person, you still face the risk of litigation and divorce settlements, as American law demands. But if you’re rich enough, you can avoid US jurisdiction and tunnel into Moneyland, where your money is hidden from the rest of us.

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 reining 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.