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2017 Retrospective Part 6: Out in the big bad world

January 4, 2018

This is the last part of my 2017 Retrospective series. In this one I explore global issues and trends in extracts from my posts over the year. Subjects include robots, big data, book-burning, echo chambers, political language, dog breeding, Harvey Weinstein and Kim Jong-Un. A pretty eclectic mix, I hope you’ll agree.

This piece, on the automation of politics, was written before the emergence of Theresa May’s alter ego, the Maybot:

Let’s say we have access to a giant database of every political speeches delivered by a prominent politician anywhere in the world over the past two hundred years. By no means impossible. The same goes for the millions of words written by journalists and other political thinkers during the same period. Not so unlikely. Google and others are in the process of digitising almost everything that’s ever been written.

So we have the raw materials. Now we need the factory. A software engine that builds customised opinion.

To create our message we set parameters. What style of delivery do we want? Populist? Cerebral? Aimed at what demographic group? Is there a speaker whose style we might want to emulate? Lincoln? Hitler? John F Kennedy? Boris Johnson (God forbid)? (From Pamphlets, polemics and the coming of RoboTrump)

It would be nice to think that we’ve become wise to the information warriors like Steve Bannon. I’m not sure, but there’s certainly a commercial opportunity out there:

The very fact that the tactics used to put Trump in the White House and drag the UK out of the European Union are becoming increasingly known and understood is some assurance that they will not be so effective next time round. The element of surprise will have been lost.

Still, the idea that we will continue to be helpless cannon fodder in the war between manipulative narratives isn’t very comforting.

But that helplessness is in itself a market opportunity. Just as for years companies like Norton, McAfee and Kaspersky have made money by protecting us from malware – worms, viruses and so forth – new players might emerge who will help us to protect our data, and help us to prevent ourselves from being manipulated without our knowing it, by more clearly identifying the provenance of information we receive and the destiny of the information we provide. (from Are we really Bannon fodder in an information war?)

The digital age offers opportunities most book-burners would have dreamed of. Thank goodness we still have paper:

Until the age of Gutenberg, very few of us owned more than a handful of books. The vast majority possessed none. Nowadays, an ordinary person like me can easily assemble a thousand books.

But if all our written words are in bits and bytes, like the contents of our brains they can easily be erased. If not destroyed, they can archived or embargoed. If Donald Trump’s propagandists decide to re-write history, or the People’s Republic of China resolves to hide stuff from its people by building a Great Firewall, it is easier for them to do so than it was for the Nazis with their book burning, or for the Mongols who coloured the waters of the Euphrates black with the ink of volumes from the House of Wisdom.

Which is why we need books. Paper ones that can be hidden in monasteries, under floorboards and in attics. The more there are, the more some will survive natural or human catastrophe. (From Celebrating World Book Day (the British version))

The manipulation of anger:

I can understand that if you are angry about one thing, you can easily be persuaded to be angry about another. And I reckon that that’s what Cambridge Analytica and their ilk are good at. And as people transfer their anger from one issue to another, their anger deepens and they find it harder to think of positives to balance the negatives. Which probably explains why when I get het up about Brexit, my thoughts turn to Trump. And then I think about how my shiny new IPad only charges up to 83%, and why our elderly dog seems determined to trip me up by constantly lurching into my path, and how members of my family constantly interrupt me when I’m in full flow.

Yet when I look further into myself, I realise that Trump and Brexit are only marginally responsible for my anger. They’re merely targets of opportunity. And the psychoanalysts of Big Data are simply discovering the obvious: that as you approach old age, you go in one of three directions – you get angrier with the world you think you see more clearly, you get happier by blotting out what’s staring you in the face, or you subside into a resigned indifference. (From Is Big Data turning me into Mr Angry?)

Why we must break out of our echo chambers:

But since Trump became president, the echo chamber, full of the sweet sounds of reason, has started to feel like a pressure cooker. The voices of reason were sounding like angry wasps trapped in a fish bowl. Over the past couple of weeks, since the Comey firing, the wasps have turned into buzz-saws. And now, with the allegations about Trump playing fast and loose with America’s most sensitive intelligence, the buzz-saws are morphing into swarms of shrieking harpies.

Before I lose my hearing altogether, I should break the chamber. I should try going out a bit more.

Maybe I should seek out a few hominids bearing tattoos of the cross of St George. I should sit down with them over a pint or two, and try to understand them as human beings rather than symbols of extremism. I would discover that they love their mothers. That they have nothing against blacks personally (or for blacks, substitute effing foreigners, Muslims, Jews, Pakis and so on) – it’s just that they think we should send the bastards home. (From Doctor, doctor – my echo chamber is sending me deaf!)

A perspective on the Manchester bombing, and how the internet fuels our reaction to such events:

In short, we can no more control the internet as it is now than we can the proliferation of other weapons of mass destruction.

But we need to recognise it for what it is. And that means you, me and everyone else who willingly posts, likes and transacts – not just the shadowy organisations we entrust with keeping us safe. We have personal responsibilities. Just as we wouldn’t dream of touching live electrical cables or lighting bonfires in our lounges, we need to understand the implications and risks of what we do on the internet.

The second reality is the importance of context. Nobody who has just lost a child in a bombing wants to be told that their loved one – statistically speaking – stood a far greater chance of dying through a knife crime, a drug overdose, a car accident or through natural causes. But our politicians have a responsibility to remind us that the chance of death through terrorism is still small. And governments should avoid public displays of action that cause people to be focused on terrorism to the exclusion of all other risks. (From Life after Manchester – pointing fingers or facing realities?)

Thoughts on the deterioration of political oratory:

Years ago I stumbled on to a language called Simplified English. It’s purpose is to ensure that in an international environment you should easily be able to learn a thousand words of English – enough to prevent catastrophic misunderstandings in fields such as aviation. Hence if you look out on to the wing of the aircraft taking you to Majorca, you will see the words “No Step” emblazoned on a part of the wing that is not built to withstand a technician jumping up and down on it like a demented gorilla.

The point about Simplified English is not just that there is a limited vocabulary, but that only authorised words and phrases can be used. Could it be that the sloganators have latched on to this in their inventive choice of words for the likes of Mrs May?

Certainly, monotonous though she may be, she is at least clear, in her gnomic kind of way. Unlike Boris Johnson, who sprays words about with the glee of a two-year-old boy peeing in a paddling pool.

I fear that from now onwards we shall have to endure both styles of discourse: politicians like May being clear and saying nothing, and incontinent orators like Johnson and Donald Trump saying the first things that come into their heads in incoherent lumps of brown, disconnected verbiage. (From Political oratory in 2017: the battle between clarity and incontinence)

California plans to stop its citizens from acquiring dogs unless they come from shelters, much to the fury of those who seek pure-breeds:

As Martin Luther King might have said if he had been a dog lover, we should surely be valuing our animals for their character rather than the colour of their fur. What’s more, perhaps if we had a bit more human miscegenation, we wouldn’t be giving ammunition to the racists and bigots who, nearly fifty years after Dr King’s passing, continue to infest our public life on both sides of the pond. (From Building the perfect dog – or not)

The first of three posts on the abuse of women by men with power:

Weinstein will no doubt be followed in the moral dock by others in his field. He may be the most powerful executive named and shamed, but he won’t be the last. After all, the casting couch has been around since the dawn of Hollywood. We can expect a wildfire of accusations against all manner of famous people in the coming months. And I have no doubt that some of his peers who are energetically casting him into the outer darkness will themselves, like Robespierre, the grand inquisitor of the French Revolution, end up at the guillotine.

When the shame storm has played itself out, will America enter a new era in which sexual exploitation becomes a career killer? I doubt it. At least not as long as Donald Trump rules the roost, and not as long as Hollywood continues to feed the public appetite for depictions of murder, rape and sexual exploitation. (The Sun God of Morality feasts again)

After Weinstein, attention shifts to Kevin Spacey:

Will the disgrace of a hundred Kevin Spaceys serve to rewire our brains, and change the habits and attitudes built up over a hundred generations? I don’t think so.

For me, the issue is less about how men treat women, though that’s part of it. It’s more about how people treat people. How the young treat the old, and vice versa. How the rich treat the poor. How we treat the mentally ill. How we treat people with different faiths, ethnic origins and skin colour. How we treat the uneducated and disadvantaged.

These are the perennial questions, against which the experiences of a multitude of actresses, political interns and other victims of pathetic, bullying men pale somewhat into insignificance.

Solve the bigger problem, and we’d go a long way towards reducing the lesser one that is exercising us all today. (From The Outing Storm)

As predicted, the outing spreads. I question the effect of what might turn into a form of cultural chemotherapy:

Or how about we accept that we live in an imperfect world, in which imperfect acts have been carried out ever since we came down from the trees? That we have laws that forbid us from going beyond existing societal norms. And that when norms change, laws usually follow.

That we recognise that there’s a line to be crossed, and that no matter who crosses it – President, Congressman, Member of Parliament, actor, teacher or garbage collector, gay or straight, transgender or intersex, the consequences will be the same: disgrace in one form or another. That line might move forwards, backwards or sideways as each generation succeeds the previous one, but it will always be underpinned by one fundamental principle: respect for the individual. (From Rooting out the pussy-grabbers)

An impressive new book by Laurence Rees on the Holocaust causes me to speculate where and how the next one will arise – as it surely will:

Countries that are relatively immune to international outrage – probably because they possess nuclear weapons and have sufficient resources to satisfy a dominant majority, but not everyone – would quite conceivably carry out programmes of extermination with impunity. Indeed, if Germany had developed nuclear weapons before the US, it’s likely that within short order there would have been no Jews left in continental Europe, rather than scattered survivors.

As the waters inundate coastal cities, and reduce arable land to salt marshes, or as the great rivers, exhausted by diversion to parched regions, dry up, who would bet against extreme solutions to protect the powerful many at the expense of the weaker few? Or even the powerful few against the weaker many. (From A new Holocaust history and an old question: could it happen again?)

And finally, no review of 2017 would be worth its salt without some reference to Kim Jong-Un and his nukes:

Aside from the potential toll in lives – and that’s a big aside, especially if the conflict turns nuclear – we have to consider the economic consequences of a second Korean war. We may think that the deaths of a million nameless Asians is sad, even horrific, but of little consequence to those of us who have never visited Korea or Japan.

But the potential economic shock should get our attention. South Korea’s economy is the thirteenth largest in the world. Japan’s is the third. Think of the disruption to supply chains that a conventional war – let alone a nuclear conflict – might cause. We have come to rely on our Samsung phones, our Toyota cars and all the components manufactured in both countries that are essential to the technology that keeps us ticking just about everywhere in the world.

Think also of the insecurity that would follow a nuclear detonation in anger. A taboo, once broken, is no longer a taboo. The unthinkable becomes thinkable. Soon enough those who have never sought nukes might think again.

This would not be a local war. In its consequences, it would be a global war, and perhaps a foretaste of worse to come. So you could argue that we should be more concerned than we appear to be. (From North Korea – some game of poker)

And that, dear friends, is what I had to say about 2017. Six parts and extracts from a hundred posts barely scratched the surface.

Time to return to the here and now. 2018 awaits.

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