Freedom is not a goal, but a direction

Quelle: Cultural Revolutions

„I was most recently enlivened by a book, so I can’t think of anything more fitting for my return to this format than an account of it: 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, by the great Chinese artist Ai Wei-Wei.“ (Edward Snowden)

Ai Wei-Wei writes:

„Under the pressure to conform, everyone sank into an ideological swamp of “criticism” and “self-­criticism.” My father repeatedly wrote self-­critiques, and when controls on thought and expression rose to the level of threatening his very survival, he, like others, wrote an essay denouncing Wang Shiwei, the author of “Wild Lilies,” taking a public stand that went against his inner convictions.

Situations such as this occurred in Yan’an in the 1940s, occurred in China after 1949, and still occur in the present day. Ideological cleansing, I would note, exists not only under totalitarian regimes—­it is also present, in a different form, in liberal Western democracies. Under the influence of politically correct extremism, individual thought and expression are too often curbed and too often replaced by empty political slogans.“

The Danish director’s new Oscar-winning film Another Round is about a group of teachers who dedicate themselves to getting drunk. He talks about losing control, patching up his friendship with Lars von Trier and the death of his daughter

Quelle: Thomas Vinterberg: ‘There is a great need for the uncontrollable – but little room for it today’

„We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.

Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern.“

(Shoshana Zuboff, Jan. 29, 2021 in The New York Times)

Quelle: Opinion | The Coup We Are Not Talking About

Sofia, November 20 (Nikolay Velev of BTA) – Around the world, we are seeing the rise of different forms of technological totalitarianism but the future digital democracies will be able to combine the best of all systems: competition from capitalism, collective intelligence from democracies, trial and error, and the promotion of superior solutions, and intelligent design (AI), Dirk Helbing, a professor of computational social science, s

Quelle: Prof. Dirk Helbing: Digital Democracies will Be Able to Combine the Best of all Systems – News – BULGARIAN NEWS AGENCY

Henry Farrell

January 16, 2018

This essay is featured in Boston Review’s print issue, Global DystopiasOrder your copy today.

This is not the dystopia we were promised. We are not learning to love Big Brother, who lives, if he lives at all, on a cluster of server farms, cooled by environmentally friendly technologies. Nor have we been lulled by Soma and subliminal brain programming into a hazy acquiescence to pervasive social hierarchies.

Dystopias tend toward fantasies of absolute control, in which the system sees all, knows all, and controls all. And our world is indeed one of ubiquitous surveillance. Phones and household devices produce trails of data, like particles in a cloud chamber, indicating our wants and behaviors to companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Yet the information thus produced is imperfect and classified by machine-learning algorithms that themselves make mistakes. The efforts of these businesses to manipulate our wants leads to further complexity. It is becoming ever harder for companies to distinguish the behavior which they want to analyze from their own and others’ manipulations.

This does not look like totalitarianism unless you squint very hard indeed. As the sociologist Kieran Healy has suggested, sweeping political critiques of new technology often bear a strong family resemblance to the arguments of Silicon Valley boosters. Both assume that the technology works as advertised, which is not necessarily true at all.

Standard utopias and standard dystopias are each perfect after their own particular fashion. We live somewhere queasier—a world in which technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things. The world that the Internet and social media have created is less a system than an ecology, a proliferation of unexpected niches, and entities created and adapted to exploit them in deceptive ways. Vast commercial architectures are being colonized by quasi-autonomous parasites. Scammers have built algorithms to write fake books from scratch to sell on Amazon, compiling and modifying text from other books and online sources such as Wikipedia, to fool buyers or to take advantage of loopholes in Amazon’s compensation structure. Much of the world’s financial system is made out of bots—automated systems designed to continually probe markets for fleeting arbitrage opportunities. Less sophisticated programs plague online commerce systems such as eBay and Amazon, occasionally with extraordinary consequences, as when two warring bots bid the price of a biology book up to $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping). 

In other words, we live in Philip K. Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s. Dick was no better a prophet of technology than any science fiction writer, and was arguably worse than most. His imagined worlds jam together odd bits of fifties’ and sixties’ California with rocket ships, drugs, and social speculation. Dick usually wrote in a hurry and for money, and sometimes under the influence of drugs or a recent and urgent personal religious revelation. 

Still, what he captured with genius was the ontological unease of a world in which the human and the abhuman, the real and the fake, blur together. As Dick described his work (in the opening essay to his 1985 collection, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon):

The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. 

These obsessions had some of their roots in Dick’s complex and ever-evolving personal mythology (in which it was perfectly plausible that the “real” world was a fake, and that we were all living in Palestine sometime in the first century AD). Yet they were also based on a keen interest in the processes through which reality is socially constructed. Dick believed that we all live in a world where “spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into heads of the reader.” He argued: 

the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans—as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. My two topics are really one topic; they unite at this point. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. 

In Dick’s books, the real and the unreal infect each other, so that it becomes increasingly impossible to tell the difference between them. The worlds of the dead and the living merge in Ubik (1969), the experiences of a disturbed child infect the world around him in Martian Time-Slip (1964), and consensual drug-based hallucinations become the vector for an invasive alien intelligence in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). Humans are impersonated by malign androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and “Second Variety” (1953); by aliens in “The Hanging Stranger” (1953) and “The Father-Thing” (1954); and by mutants in “The Golden Man” (1954). 

This concern with unreal worlds and unreal people led to a consequent worry about an increasing difficulty of distinguishing between them. Factories pump out fake Americana in The Man in the High Castle (1962), mirroring the problem of living in a world that is not, in fact, the real one. Entrepreneurs build increasingly human-like androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, reasoning that if they do not, then their competitors will. Figuring out what is real and what is not is not easy. Scientific tools such as the famous Voight-Kampff test in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie based loosely on it) do not work very well, leaving us with little more than hope in some mystical force—the I Ching, God in a spray can, a Martian water-witch—to guide us back toward the real. 

We live in Dick’s world—but with little hope of divine intervention or invasion. The world where we communicate and interact at a distance is increasingly filled with algorithms that appear human, but are not—fake people generated by fake realities. When Ashley Madison, a dating site for people who want to cheat on their spouses, was hacked, it turned out that tens of thousands of the women on the site were fake “fembots” programmed to send millions of chatty messages to male customers, so as to delude them into thinking that they were surrounded by vast numbers of potential sexual partners. 

These problems are only likely to get worse as the physical world and the world of information become increasingly interpenetrated in an Internet of (badly functioning) Things. Many of the aspects of Joe Chip’s future world in Ubik look horrendously dated to modern eyes: the archaic role of women, the assumption that nearly everyone smokes. Yet the door to Joe’s apartment—which argues with him and refuses to open because he has not paid it the obligatory tip—sounds ominously plausible. Someone, somewhere, is pitching this as a viable business plan to Y Combinator or the venture capitalists in Menlo Park. 

This invasion of the real by the unreal has had consequences for politics. The hallucinatory realities in Dick’s worlds—the empathetic religion of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the drug-produced worlds of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the quasi–Tibetan Buddhist death realm of Ubik—are usually experienced by many people, like the television shows of Dick’s America. But as network television has given way to the Internet, it has become easy for people to create their own idiosyncratic mix of sources. The imposed media consensus that Dick detested has shattered into a myriad of different realities, each with its own partially shared assumptions and facts. Sometimes this creates tragedy or near-tragedy. The deluded gunman who stormed into Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria had been convinced by online conspiracy sites that it was the coordinating center for Hillary Clinton’s child–sex trafficking ring. 

Such fractured worlds are more vulnerable to invasion by the non-human. Many Twitter accounts are bots, often with the names and stolen photographs of implausibly beautiful young women, looking to pitch this or that product (one recent academic study found that between 9 and 15 percent of all Twitter accounts are likely fake). Twitterbots vary in sophistication from automated accounts that do no more than retweet what other bots have said, to sophisticated algorithms deploying so-called “Sybil attacks,” creating fake identities in peer-to-peer networks to invade specific organizations or degrade particular kinds of conversation.

Twitter has failed to become a true mass medium, but remains extraordinarily important to politics, since it is where many politicians, journalists, and other elites turn to get their news. One research project suggests that around 20 percent of the measurable political discussion around the last presidential election came from bots. Humans appear to be no better at detecting bots than we are, in Dick’s novel, at detecting replicant androids: people are about as likely to retweet a bot’s message as the message of another human being. Most notoriously, the current U.S. president recently retweeted a flattering message that appears to have come from a bot densely connected to a network of other bots, which some believe to be controlled by the Russian government and used for propaganda purposes. 

In his novels Dick was interested in seeing how people react when their reality starts to break down. A world in which the real commingles with the fake, so that no one can tell where the one ends and the other begins, is ripe for paranoia. The most toxic consequence of social media manipulation, whether by the Russian government or others, may have nothing to do with its success as propaganda. Instead, it is that it sows an existential distrust. People simply do not know what or who to believe anymore. Rumors that are spread by Twitterbots merge into other rumors about the ubiquity of Twitterbots, and whether this or that trend is being driven by malign algorithms rather than real human beings. 

Such widespread falsehood is especially explosive when combined with our fragmented politics. Liberals’ favorite term for the right-wing propaganda machine, “fake news,” has been turned back on them by conservatives, who treat conventional news as propaganda, and hence ignore it. On the obverse, it may be easier for many people on the liberal left to blame Russian propaganda for the last presidential election than to accept that many voters had a very different understanding of America than they do. 

Dick had other obsessions—most notably the politics of Richard Nixon and the Cold War. It is not hard to imagine him writing a novel combining an immature and predatory tycoon (half Arnie Kott, half Jory Miller) who becomes the president of the United States, secret Russian political manipulation, an invasion of empathy-free robotic intelligences masquerading as human beings, and a breakdown in our shared understanding of what is real and what is fake. 

These different elements probably would not cohere particularly well, but as in Dick’s best novels, the whole might still work, somehow. Indeed, it is in the incongruities of Dick’s novels that salvation is to be found (even at his battiest, he retains a sense of humor). Obviously, it is less easy to see the joke when one is living through it. Dystopias may sometimes be grimly funny—but rarely from the inside.

Friday, 10 July 2020

The Corona Crisis Reveals the Struggle for Our Future

by Dirk Helbing

For a long time, experts have warned of the implications of a non-sustainable world, but few have understood the implications. Today’s economic system would enter a terminal phase, before a new kind of system would raise from the ashes. For sure, the digital revolution allowed the machinery of utility maximization to reach new heights. Today’s surveillance capitalism sells our digital doubles, in other words: detailed digital copies of our lives. It became increasingly clear that we would be next. People were already talking about the value of life, which, from a market point of view, could be pretty little – considering the fact of over-population and the coming wave of robotic automation. I have warned that some have worked on systems that would autonomously decide over lives and deaths of people, based on a citizen score reflecting what their “systemic value” was claimed to be.

Then came the Corona Virus. Even though the world had been warned in advance of the next great pandemic to come, COVID-19 hit the world surprisingly unprepared. Even though it started to spread in early December 2019, there was a shortage not only of respirators, but also of disinfectants and face masks as late as April 2020. And so, many people died an early death. Some doctors took triage decisions as in war times, and old or seriously ill people did not stand good chances to be helped. Some doctors relied on “terminal care”: basically, they gave opiates and sleeping pills to patients they could not save, and put them to death.

Our health and lives cannot be ruled by market forces alone. Now thousands of scholars are calling for a way out of the crisis

Working humans are so much more than “resources”. This is one of the central lessons of the current crisis. Caring for the sick; delivering food, medication and other essentials; clearing away our waste; stocking the shelves and running the registers in our grocery stores – the people who have kept life going through the Covid-19 pandemic are living proof that work cannot be reduced to a mere commodity. Human health and the care of the most vulnerable cannot be governed by market forces alone. If we leave these things solely to the market, we run the risk of exacerbating inequalities to the point of forfeiting the very lives of the least advantaged.

How to avoid this unacceptable situation? By involving employees in decisions relating to their lives and futures in the workplace – by democratising firms. By decommodifying work – by collectively guaranteeing useful employment to all. As we face the monstrous risk of pandemic and environmental collapse, making these strategic changes would allow us to ensure the dignity of all citizens while marshalling the collective strength and effort we need to preserve our life together on this planet.

Every morning, men and women, especially members of racialised communities, migrants and informal economy workers, rise to serve those among us who are able to remain under quarantine. They keep watch through the night. The dignity of their jobs needs no other explanation than that eloquently simple term “essential worker”. That term also reveals a key fact that capitalism has always sought to render invisible with another term, “human resource”. Human beings are not one resource among many. Without labor investors, there would be no production, no services, no businesses at all.

Every morning, quarantined men and women rise in their homes to fulfil from afar the missions of the organisations for which they work. They work into the night. To those who believe that employees cannot be trusted to do their jobs without supervision, that workers require surveillance and external discipline, these men and women are proving the contrary. They are demonstrating, day and night, that workers are not one type of stakeholder among many: they hold the keys to their employers’ success. They are the core constituency of the firm, but are, nonetheless, mostly excluded from participating in the government of their workplaces – a right monopolised by capital investors.

To the question of how firms and how society as a whole might recognise the contributions of their employees in times of crisis, democracy is the answer. Certainly, we must close the yawning chasm of income inequality and raise the income floor – but that alone is not enough. After the two world wars, women’s undeniable contribution to society helped win them the right to vote. By the same token, it is time to enfranchise workers.

Representation of labour investors in the workplace has existed in Europe since the close of the second world war, through institutions known as works councils. Yet these representative bodies have a weak voice at best in the government of firms, and are subordinate to the choices of the executive management teams appointed by shareholders. They have been unable to stop or even slow the relentless momentum of self-serving capital accumulation, ever more powerful in its destruction of our environment. These bodies should now be granted similar rights to those exercised by boards. To do so, firm governments (that is, top management) could be required to obtain double majority approval, from chambers representing workers as well as shareholders.

In Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, different forms of codetermination (Mitbestimmung) put in place progressively after the second world war were a crucial step toward giving a voice to workers – but they are still insufficient to create actual citizenship in firms. Even in the United States, where worker organising and union rights have been considerably suppressed, there is now a growing call to give labour investors the right to elect representatives with a supermajority within boards. Issues such as the choice of a CEO, setting major strategies and profit distribution are too important to be left to shareholders alone. A personal investment of labour; that is, of one’s mind and body, one’s health – one’s very life – ought to come with the collective right to validate or veto these decisions.

This crisis also shows that work must not be treated as a commodity, that market mechanisms alone cannot be left in charge of the choices that affect our communities most deeply. For years now, jobs and supplies in the health sector have been subject to the guiding principle of profitability; today, the pandemic is revealing the extent to which this principle has led us astray. Certain strategic and collective needs must simply be made immune to such considerations. The rising body count across the globe is a terrible reminder that some things must never be treated as commodities. Those who continue arguing to the contrary are imperilling us with their dangerous ideology. Profitability is an intolerable yardstick when it comes to our health and our life on this planet.

Decommodifying work means preserving certain sectors from the laws of the so-called free market; it also means ensuring that all people have access to work and the dignity it brings. One way to do this is with the creation of a job guarantee. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. A job guarantee would not only offer each person access to work that allows them to live with dignity, it would also provide a crucial boost to our collective capability to meet the many pressing social and environmental challenges we currently face. Guaranteed employment would allow governments, working through local communities, to provide dignified work while contributing to the immense effort of fighting environmental collapse. Across the globe, as unemployment skyrockets, job guarantee programs can play a crucial role in assuring the social, economic, and environmental stability of our democratic societies.

The European Union must include such a project in its green deal. A review of the mission of the European Central Bank so that it could finance this program, which is necessary to our survival, would give it a legitimate place in the life of each and every citizen of the EU. A countercyclical solution to the explosive unemployment on the way, this program will prove a key contribution to the EU’s prosperity.

We should not react now with the same innocence as in 2008, when we responded to the economic crisis with an unconditional bailout that swelled public debt while demanding nothing in return. If our governments step in to save businesses in the current crisis, then businesses must step in as well, and meet the general basic conditions of democracy. In the name of the democratic societies they serve, and which constitute them, in the name of their responsibility to ensure our survival on this planet, our governments must make their aid to firms conditional on certain changes to their behaviours. In addition to hewing to strict environmental standards, firms must be required to fulfil certain conditions of democratic internal government. A successful transition from environmental destruction to environmental recovery and regeneration will be best led by democratically governed firms, in which the voices of those who invest their labor carry the same weight as those who invest their capital when it comes to strategic decisions.

We have had more than enough time to see what happens when labor, the planet, and capital gains are placed in the balance under the current system: labor and the planet always lose. Thanks to research from the University of Cambridge, we know that “achievable design changes” could reduce global energy consumption by 73%. But those changes are labor intensive, and require choices that are often costlier over the short term. So long as firms are run in ways that seek to maximise profit for their capital investors alone, and in a world where energy is cheap, why make these changes? Despite the challenges of this transition, certain socially minded or co-operatively run businesses – pursuing hybrid goals that take financial, social and environmental considerations into account, and developing democratic internal governments – have already shown the potential of such positive impact.

Let us fool ourselves no longer: left to their own devices, most capital investors will not care for the dignity of labour investors, nor will they lead the fight against environmental catastrophe. Another option is available. Democratise firms; decommodify work; stop treating human beings as resources so that we can focus together on sustaining life on this planet.

• Isabelle Ferreras (University of Louvain/FNRS-Harvard LWP), Julie Battilana (Harvard University), Dominique Méda (University of Paris Dauphine PLS), Julia Cagé (Sciences Po-Paris), Lisa Herzog (University of Groningen), Sara Lafuente Hernandez (University of Brussels-ETUI), Hélène Landemore (Yale University), Pavlina Tcherneva (Bard College-Levy Institute), Miranda Richmont Mouillot, Israr Qureshi (Autralian National University), Clare Wright (La Trobe University), Isabelle Martin (University of Montréal), Neera Chandhoke (Delhi University), Lukas Clark-Memler (University of Oxford), Alberto Alemanno (HEC Paris-NYU Law), Elizabeth Anderson (University of Michigan), Philippe Askénazy (CNRS-Paris School of Economics), Aurélien Barrau (CNRS et Université Grenoble-Alpes), Adelle Blackett (McGill University), Neil Brenner (Harvard University), Craig Calhoun (Arizona State University), Ha-Joon Chang (University of Cambridge), Erica Chenoweth (Harvard University), Joshua Cohen (Apple University, Berkeley, Boston Review), Christophe Dejours (CNAM), Olivier De Schutter (UCLouvain, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights), Nancy Fraser (The New School for Social Research, NYC), Archon Fung (Harvard University), Javati Ghosh (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Stephen Gliessman (UC Santa Cruz), Hans R. Herren (Millennium Institute), Axel Honneth (Columbia University), Eva Illouz (EHESS, Paris), Sanford Jacoby (UCLA), Pierre-Benoit Joly (INRA – National Institute of Agronomical Research, France), Michele Lamont (Harvard university), Lawrence Lessig (Harvard University), David Marsden (London School of Economics), Chantal Mouffe (University of Westminster), Jan-Werner Müller (Princeton University), Gregor Murray (University of Montréal), Susan Neiman (Einstein Forum), Thomas Piketty (EHESS-Paris School of Economics), Michel Pimbert (Coventry University, Executive Director of Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience), Raj Patel (University of Texas), Katharina Pistor (Columbia University), Ingrid Robeyns (Utrecht University), Dani Rodrik (Harvard University), Saskia Sassen (Columbia University), Debra Satz (Stanford University), Pablo Servigne PhD (in-Terre-dependent researcher), William Sewell (University of Chicago), Susan Silbey (MIT), Margaret Somers (University of Michigan), George Steinmetz (University of Michigan), Laurent Thévenot (EHESS), Nadia Urbinati (Columbia University), Jean-Pascal van Ypersele de Strihou (UCLouvain), Judy Wajcman (London School of Economics), Léa Ypi (London School of Economics), Lisa Wedeen (The University of Chicago), Gabriel Zucman (UC Berkeley), and 3000 more scholars from more than 600 universities across the globe.

The full list is available at https://democratizingwork.org/

The explosion in data volumes, processing power, and Artificial Intelligence, known as the „digital revolution“, has driven our world to a dangerous p

Source: The Automation of Society is Next: How to Survive the Digital Revolution by Dirk Helbing :: SSRN