Tag Archives: Thomas Piketty

Are digital technologies making politics impossible?

The Mask of Anonymous

“Well, maybe this: If you want to satirize the condition of a society, going after the apex of the pyramid is a waste of time. You need to attack the bottom. … And this requires the satirist to present the average citizen as a naïve sheep who fails to realize the hopelessness of his or her position.”   – Chuck Klosterman, I Wear The Black Hat

On January 27, 2000, President Bill Clinton congratulated his fellow Americans and himself, in his State of the Union speech:

“We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history. Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats. Never before have we had such a blessed opportunity and, therefore, such a profound obligation to build the more perfect Union of our Founders’ dreams.  We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs; the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years; the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years; the lowest poverty rates in 20 years; the lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rates on record; the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years; and next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history.”

Academics wrote of the end of history.

By Mike Davidson for Hillary for America

By Mike Davidson for Hillary for America

Recently though, politics has not been so grand nor so compassionate. Examples are abundant; here are just a few: the U.S. Congress’s pitiful response to the ZIKA virus, the corruption scandals in Brazil, Malaysia and South Korea, the imploding economy of Venezuela, Zimbabwean hyperinflation, the bank note farce in India, and a horrible war in Syria, and another in South Sudan. This sorry state of affairs has become normal for our post-millennium times, yet 2016 will be unique due to two events, BREXIT and the election of President Trump. Two others should also get an honorable mention: the ‘No’ vote in the Italian referendum, and the narrow defeat of Nobert Hofer, who belongs to the far-right Alliance party, in the Austrian Presidential Election. Hofer might have been the first far-right European president since World War II.

In the postmortems on the European events in the U.K., Italy and Austria, the phrase “digital technologies” was not bandied about much, nor how it threatened democracy much discussed, although hindsight may reveal a bunch of malign influences, murky conspiracy, and sinister programmers. During the BREXIT debate, there was plenty of lying of the good old fashioned kind; the most egregious porkie (rhyming slang: pork pie) was the big red bus emblazoned with “We send the EU ₤350 million a week”, and “let’s fund our NHS instead”. At any other time, any one of the European dramas would be a big thing, much discussed in the media. The honorable mentions might fizzle away. BREXIT will take years to effect, and yet may die – an anencephalic left in a side ward. Then, there is the surreality of Donald Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States of America.

This was so wildly improbable back in December 2015 that a bet placed on Trump would now yield 18 times the original stake. How did The Donald pull it off? Three days after her defeat, Hillary Clinton blamed her loss on FBI director, James B. Comey, and his announcement eleven days before the election. By December 8, she knew that: “It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences”, and implied that she had been robbed in the 2016 Presidential Election by fake news planted in the social media, principally Facebook. The CIA says they can prove that the Russian government was behind the hackers. The FBI isn’t so sure, maybe. The right-wing news website breitbart.com, which is run by President Trump’s (first) political strategist, has called the CIA reports fake news. Meanwhile, President Obama agreed that he had warned the Russians about hacking and has evicted a few from American soil, which brings us to the topic of this essay: “Are digital technologies making politics impossible?” As a high school term paper, a resulting essay might look something like this:

Digital technologies are what computers turned into and they are everywhere, even my dog. In olden times, computers printed things like the Snoopy my gran’ma has in her restroom downstairs. Then the hippies in California invented The Internet and PC’s, and soon everyone was happy and sending emails all the time. Then they got even happier when Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook and it became real easy to share pictures, messages and things with their friends. Now everyone spends hours and hours on Facebook, and don’t even watch TV no more.

Politics is what governments do. The government is run by people like Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama. Politics is about stuff what happens in other countries far away where they don’t have a clue how to do things right. Out there there are lots of really bad people like in Russia there is a very bad man called Putin, and other places there is ISIS who is also really, really scary.

Politics became impossible this year, because Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the American election. Hillary is much better at politics and has lots of friends in Washington D.C. and

New York, and said she could do things to help people. Donald Trump is really, really rich, like a billionaire, and is famous for being on “The Apprentice”. He would say “You’re fired”. He don’t know anything about politics and is friends with that Putin guy in Russia.

Hillary Clinton lost because of Fake News. Like I said, everyone spends their time on Facebook and don’t watch TV much. They get news from their friends. This is called echo chambers. Because everyone trusts their friends that bad man Putin paid people to pretend to be everyone’s friend and tell awful lies. That Jestin Coler says right-wing people believe anything bad about colored people, China, gays, Democrats, the left-wing media conspiracy and Hillary Clinton.

Fixing fake news is difficult because like I said right-wing people like it, and don’t care much if most people think they are stupid. Some people make money making fake news, sometimes a lot. We need to copy China. China has a Great Chinese Firewall and can tell whether the news is from China or just fake. If you live in China and you send fake news a police man will take you to a special camp to educate you. That might work here.

This fictional essay, from one of Klosterman’s naïve sheep might be worth a B minus – appalling academese, I know, but it’s a fair summary of the Fake News circus of Spring 2017. Would Hillary Clinton substantially improve on its substantive? She did leave US national security to a computer you might buy at Best Buy. Her fellow Democrats fared little better.

The blistering pace of modern invention leaves everyone a little amnesiac. It wasn’t so long ago that a mobile phone was the size of a brick, and computer programs PUSHed and POPped data a byte at a time. Any worthwhile book on “digital technologies” ought to define what the beast is, describe it and how it got to be. This ought to be eminently readable but also tech savvy, touching on areas such as the Deep Web, Dark Fiber, Deep Mind, and perhaps Deep Thought.

In my opinion, there are two crucial facts that the Fake-News FBI-conspiracy circus is uncannily obtuse about.

Thing1:

The first fact is the failure of the polls to predict President Trump. Newsweek reported: “By almost every metric, Clinton was the favorite to win. Trump’s presupposed loss was so unanimous among the political pundit class that he was used as an example to put the 2016 World Series into context. On October 30, after the Cubs fell behind to the Indians two games to one, FiveThirtyEight gave the Chicago squad less chance than our current president elect …. It should have been a sign.” That is except for The National “Enquirer: The Voice Of America!”, who along with an exposé about Tom Cruise’s girlfriend starring in a lesbian porn movie, claimed that, “The ENQUIRER drove light years ahead of the “lame”stream media …. Though The ENQUIRER did not follow the strict rules statistical samples, they proved to be the ONLY accurate results”. Perhaps Agent K’s assessment in Men In Black is true:

Kay: [at newsstand] We’ll check the hot sheets.

Jay: *These* are the hot sheets?

Kay: Best investigative reporting on the planet. Read the New York Times if you want, they get lucky sometimes.

Jay: I cannot believe you’re looking for tips in the supermarket tabloids.

Kay: [front-age article about farmer’s stolen skin] Not looking for. Found.

Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry by Mike Licht

Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry by Mike Licht

Thing2

The second fact is that the supposed chuckleheads who voted Trump into the Presidency and the spinsters from Rhyl who voted for BREXIT agreed with Thomas Piketty and his tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I doubt that Brer Cletis et al. have heard of Piketty, nor do they know much about negative interest rates, Gaussian copula functions or the Panama Papers, but they have intuited the principle political truth of our times: the richer you are the richer you are getting, and this is now a problem. Although one should not go overboard about the wisdom of crowds, the Trump presidency clearly shows that the Trumpers and Trumpettes know that Globalization has made Thing2 The Problem.

Finally, the bad side of Globalization has become a political hot potato. We are lucky that it happened, and if social media contributed to it, that too is good. Back in 2002, Bo Karlson et al. from Wireless@KST published the seminal Wireless Foresight: Scenarios of the Mobile World in 2015. The book is prescient, as it predicts Fitbits, Google Glass, Siri, Netflix, Internet of Things, and has much to say about how this was to come about. It posits four scenarios: two were slow and environmentally friendly, one was disruptive and the last Orwellian. Karlson favored the disruptive “Wireless Explosion – Creative Destruction” scenario. This is the one we got: we won.

Panama Papers

Panama Papers

Any worthwhile book on modern global politics, possible or otherwise, ought to describe how the world became a village and the roles that digital technology played in this process. Such a book ought to examine how power has bled away from nations to organizations, bigger and smaller, which may ignore national boundaries and can manipulate national law. An example is the wrangle about taxes between Apple, Eire and the EU.

Just over one hundred years ago, in one day, 84,710 men from France, men from Britain, and men from Germany died a violent death in a field in Flanders. They had their faults but they also had families, friends and sweet-hearts. At Christmas, they had sung Silent Night. Such loss shattered the notion of Pro Patria Mori, destroyed the four absolute monarchies which entered the war, and would take supreme world power away from Europeans and give it to others. Today, we marvel at how the decision-makers chose a War to End All Wars. Also, we are reminded that many of their considerations were frankly trivial and how they sheltered under a common delusion that their choices could not harm them personally. Comparing their times and ours, we find that equality in wealth is roughly the same, elites who are aloof, fearful, and ill-prepared, technology that has run well beyond the ken of all but a handful, and most people dispirited and poor. To this, our times can add global warming, unprecedented environmental destruction, tens of millions of refugees and atomic bombs. What could go wrong?

So, say should The Donald and Teresa and buddies be unable to recast our world, do we, we humans, have a Plan B? One that does not involve hundreds of millions of people dying. One that does not wreck our planet, forever. One that attempts to live up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Any worthwhile book ought to suggest ways to recast our world. I believe we can, we will, and that it will be quick. After all, gay marriage became law in only a few short years. We have the technology, we have the talent, how might it happen?

A mustard seed

Cognitive Bias Codex - 180+biases, designed by John Manoogian III

Cognitive Bias Codex – 180+biases, designed by John Manoogian III

We love stories. We met them in childhood when we learn their conventions. They grow up with us and are pressed into business, history and politics. The adult world employs those linear, narrative conventions found in fairy stories to shape our understanding and our reasoning. The same tools are used to make sense of the Norman Conquest and World War 2, Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci and Quantum Mechanics, and the invention of the printing press and the Industrial Revolution. The minuscule size of the human working memory means that anything more complex than a Russian novel requires a crib sheet.

The usual workaround in the study of the past is to focus on a few individuals or events, and exclude the rest into a fuzzy background, occasionally narrated by Charlie Brown’s teacher. Complexity is hidden within flabby labels, caricature and generalization. When writ small, as in a TV show, these errors are magnified: traditions and peoples are squashed into cartoonish stereotypes, and the world is drawn as a spectator event viewed through soap opera glasses. This simplification has real world consequences. Did Aleppo fall to Assad partly because the US media portrayed his enemies primarily as jihadists like ISIS? No wonder Vladimir Putin pores over and vets school textbooks.

The world is now too complicated to rely on narrative technique alone; story telling needs an upgrade.

A good model for the process of this upgrade is the development of the procedural computer language C into the Object-Oriented C++. Bjarne Stroupstrup did this by adding keywords, so C++ is commonly described as a superset of C. The purpose of the Object-Oriented methodology is to reduce computer bugs by making code reuse part of the design of the language and to promote careful thought at the start of a project, rather than optional.

CPT-OOP objects and classes

CPT-OOP objects and classes

My book will suggest candidates for History++..  Descriptive linguistics and the Classic Style in writing are promising. History++  would be at home with math, be it Game Theory, Statistics, or Linear Modeling. It would facilitate connecting humans, history and Big Data. It would recognize that people are people, and listen to Kahneman and Tversky. It would live in a real world of volcanos and famines, the Life-World and bacteria, fashion and sex.

History++ would eschew magic. Its Classic Style would deal in concrete events, choices, and where possible measures. These are bound together in a causal network. They are effected by an environment, including all the above and more, marshalled by a notion from descriptive linguistics: some rules are necessary, e.g. Newtonian physics, and others are optional to various degrees, all are relevant at the cutting face.

The continuum of human life and events, are not loped into ages of this material or that person. Instead, it grounded in Rubicon events, which have direct and indirect participants who make choices and who have their own histories, agenda and character; events framed by beliefs, the natural world, and technology; events that are essential to understanding the world they leave in their wake. Caesar’s Rubicon choice is not one of these Rubicon events; if he won big in Gallia, he always intended to return to Rome. One such event is the arrival Cortez’s first treasure ship at Seville, on December 9, 1519.

Labels should be scrutinized. Flabby ones, with their overflowing steamer trunks of baggage, would be ridiculed and discarded. For example, “populism”: it has become the cliché of a speaker, no one in particular, rabble rousing. It connotes Mark Antony, Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, Mussolini, Martin Luther King and Donald Trump. It’s quintessentially snobby and smug, and should be retired, immediately. History++ would employ the notion, borrowed from Object Oriented program design, called encapsulation. By requiring a strict provenance, History++ would limit 20:20 hindsight and woolly pontification. Its aim is the eloquent simplicity of the C++ keyword, “this”.

For example: How does narrative interpret the choices made by Henry, second of that name King of England, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, and Lord of Ireland, and in particular his support for the common law? Simon Schama’s narrative view, in his excellent “A History of Britain”, is that Henry chose trial by jury because he honored his coronation oath, i.e. Henry was a nice guy and deserves a statue in Parliament Square.

Bueno de Mesquita’s game theory approach suggests that his choice was financial and part of the cold war against the Pope. He chose trial by jury over trial by ordeal, because trial by ordeal was miraculous and the business of the church. It was good business, too, and, for Henry, depriving the church of a nice little earner was a good move. So, a 12th Century squabble over land becomes a part of the stream of events which leads to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The difficult birth of a German king and the hemophilia of the son of another are part of the event stream leading to World War I.

History++ really takes off when it leaves the halls of academia.

this is aztec gold. for real by erin leigh mcconnell

this is aztec gold. for real by erin leigh mcconnell

This how I envision the first block of the 6th grade history class, History of the America. Teacher comes in, takes the register, and announces that today is August 27, 1520. You are either a spices merchant in the town of Ghent, or the spice mechant’s wife. Today you are going to see the treasures on display bought to Ghent by Charles V, the Spanish king. On the way in you bump into a German artist called Albrecht Dürer. You see golden bells, “earrings and nose ornaments of exquisite workmanship, and feathered ornaments mounted in jewels, and there were even ‘books such as the Indians use.” There was an Aztec calendar, “a golden wheel ‘seventy-nine inches in diameter, of a thickness four reales’’ cover in magic symbols and malevolent gargoyles. A ceremonial shield made of feathers. You are rather frightened by the four Aztec warriors dressed in war paint, feathers and precious little else. Ok, kids, I have a question for you: how do we know any of this is true? The teacher quotes Dürer’s diary for that day, and by the by introduces the class to the notion of primary sources. Mrs. Krabappel now invites questions and there are so many of them. The rest of the class, she spends curating those questions as per the teacher’s guide, assigning who will investigate and report on what, all in preparation for next lesson, the Spice merchant’s source of pepper. a Portuguese which leads us to Prince John, the rounding of that African cape, and the dedication of Hagia Sophia and the fall of Constantinople. Back to Charles V’s grandparents, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Fall of Granada, the Spanish Inquisition, and Columbus, and Pre-Columbia America. The Vikings.  Arrival of the French and then the Brits.

Public policy might model Bueno de Mesquita’s predictions about Iran. Imagine the US sitting down to negotiate with Iran with his game plan. Public policy would require little to be hidden. News reportage would no longer be a TV soap but a sports report.

Of course, there will be timid souls, historians afraid of math, officials guzzling the gravy train, who would prefer the current ruinous state of affairs. I hope this idea will find friends with the intellectual courage, the insight and the foresight to bring it to the world soon.

Once done, the superset nature of this idea make it antifragile; criticism can only make it stronger. Our global networks would give it geometric growth, and as Albert Einstein said “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. … .” It would be wonderful if we could say of our work, the words written by Martin Luther of his faith:

“Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing,… .”