The Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

No Happy Endings To This Election Season

Barack Obama was elected US president in 2008. With approximately fifty-three percent of the popular vote and a 365-173 electoral college margin over his rival, John McCain. His party, the Democrats, commanded a 235-278 majority in the US House of Representatives, and a 57-41 majority in the US Senate. Despite this electoral and popular mandate, an obstructionist opposition, the Republican Party, aided by the results of the 2010 elections, soon made it the case that sixty votes in the Senate–a majority immune to the filibuster–became the new standard for passing legislation. From that determined standard for throwing sand in the legislative wheels to the current declaration that no Senate vote will be forthcoming on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is a long and sometimes winding, but consistently traveled on, road. (The many actual and threatened shutdowns of the Federal government were particularly well frequented destinations on this Republican-Tea Party activist route.) That journey conveys an ominous warning for what lies ahead, even if a Democratic president were to be elected in the fall of 2016.

First, even if Donald Trump is defeated–in the most optimistic of scenarios, by a landslide of overwhelming proportions–the forces he has unleashed, that particular febrile nativism and populism, which animated by a smoldering resentment over its systematic economic disenfranchisement, targets immigrants (or non-English speakers or Jews or blacks, take your pick), are not going away any time soon. That genie is out of the bottle; it has skipped smartly several steps down the road. The next president has to deal with it; as does the nation. The most charitable view of ‘Trump supporters’ is that they are a group looking for scapegoats, turned out to pasture by policies that have sent jobs overseas and by income inequality that has shrunk their wages.  Even under that presumption, whoever becomes president has to address the populist instincts that make Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump formidable opponents to Hilary Clinton. Failing that, that same discontent will continue to roil the American political landscape, to find the ugly–and increasingly violent–forums for expression that it has during the Trump presidential campaign.

Second, were Hilary Clinton to become president, the opposition she will face will be as fierce as any that Barack Obama had to face in his term. At least in one domain, and for all the wrong reasons–sexism and misogyny being prominent ones–Hilary Clinton is a unifier, not a divider. An electoral loss to Hilary will provoke unprecedented gnashing of teeth, much wailing and rending of garments. The same reaction to her that will animate Republican vitriol during the general election season–we have most certainly not seen the worst of it–will return during a Hilary Clinton administration. It will dog her steps too, just like another version of it did Obama’s–racism in that case, sexism in hers. Without an altered political environment (including a non-gerrymandered House of Representatives), there will be little prospect of substantive legislation during Clinton’s term(s).

This election season is going to have to answer for a great deal.


Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’: Who Will Bend Its Bars?

Yesterday morning, as the students in my Social Philosophy class and I discussed an excerpt from Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism, we ran out of time. As my students got up and started to head out for their next commitment (work or the next class), I began reading out loud the following passage:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

I’m glad to say that at least two or three students halted in their tracks and were visibly moved (by Weber’s writing, not by my sonorous reading.) This remarkable conclusion to Weber’s classic work has not lost any of its power to amaze over the years: it is–as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, “prescient”–it is poetic, it is wistful, it is also, I think, angry.

The “last ton of fossilized coal” is not yet burnt, the last barrel of oil is not yet extracted, so much damage remains to be done. Many rivers remain to be choked with waste and refuse, many mountainsides are still to be devastated by strip mining, many seas–and their denizens–are not fully clogged with plastic; the temperatures of the worlds oceans and atmosphere are still inching upwards; many communities remain to be immiserated. Meanwhile, our lives become ever more machinic, controlled and administered by Big Data and Big Banks, while fascists and corporate lackeys compete for the highest echelons of power.

Vacations and leisure time shrink, we spend less time with our families; to ask for more, for another bowl, is to ask for a resounding blow about our ears with the boss’ ladle. Nose to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel: that is where our salvation awaits. We will find deliverance in an office cubicle, the modern zone of spiritual connection with the higher powers that control our lives. When evening rolls around, the iron cage is unlocked and we are let out on furlough, with the reminder that ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Do not tarry too long with the family; hurry back soon; they cannot give you what work can.

Who will bend the bars of this cage? Not the jailers.

Note: Erez Maggor, a doctoral student in sociology at New York University, has pointed me to an essay by Peter Baehr titled “The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the abstract for which reads:

In the climax to The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber writes of the stahlhartes Gehäuse that modern capitalism has created, a concept that Talcott Parsons famously rendered as the “iron cage.” This article examines the status of Parsons’s canonical translation; the putative sources of its imagery (in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress); and the more complex idea that Weber himself sought to evoke with the “shell as hard as steel”: a reconstitution of the human subject under bureaucratic capitalism in which “steel” becomes emblematic of modernity. Steel, unlike the “element” iron, is a product of human fabrication. It is both hard and potentially flexible. Further, whereas a cage confines human agents, but leaves their powers otherwise intact, a “shell” suggests that modern capitalism has created a new kind of being. After examining objections to this interpretation, I argue that whatever the problems with Parsons’s “iron cage” as a rendition of Weber’s own metaphor, it has become a “traveling idea,” a fertile coinagein its own right, an intriguing example of how the translator’s imagination can impose itself influentially on the text and its readers.

My Daughter And The Hillary Clinton Candidacy

In the first draft of my review–forthcoming in Jacobin–of Doug Henwood‘s My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets The Presidency, I had included some lines that did not survive the first editorial take on my submission (I await, with some trepidation, the next editorial lowering of the boom.) Here is how it read:

Hilary is no…Eleanor Roosevelt…she is no feminist hero and should not be….I will not ask my three-year old daughter to look up to Hillary; she will find better feminist heroes elsewhere. Like her mother, who fights for the rights of unionized workers, something which Hillary, in her attacks on teachers unions in Arkansas, has shown herself incapable of in the past.

In my assessment, on this blog (here and here), of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I had often wondered whether the symbolic value of her presidency would be great enough to outweigh her political faults. In these ruminations, I could not but help think of my daughter (and others like her.) A mere toddler, sure, but by the time a Clinton presidency’s first term will terminate, she will be seven years old. (If Clinton serves two terms, my daughter will almost be a pre-teen by the time of the second term’s conclusion.) What would it mean to her to see a woman as president? Just for her, and for her sense of what is possible in this world, would it not be better that a woman become president–in preference to yet another old white man, even if he is a kindly Jewish socialist from Vermont?

I don’t think so. My daughter encounters many women who can serve as positive role models. I introduce her, on a regular basis, to my woman friends in my various social groups: professors, journalists, doctors, writers, lawyers, teachers, students, labor organizers, mathematicians, and so on. She sees women–at my gym–perform amazing feats of strength. (She sees her own mother perform some of these.) She is not lacking for inspiration, for the right kinds of images; she hears, as often as I can manage, stories of women’s power and achievement. She will still encounter sexism and patriarchy; that much, I cannot protect her from. But I try, on an ongoing basis, to prepare her for those inevitable encounters.  I try to expand her sense of what this world holds for her, and of the kind of room she can make for herself.

Women politicians and  leaders are an important component of her world-image but they, like any of the other women I introduce my daughter to, must show, by their commitment to ethical and political ideals that I think my daughter should live by, that they can serve as worthy exemplars for my daughter.  This same constraint applies to any of the other women my daughter meets. I doubt a woman who busts unions for a living, or a journalist who serves corporate interests, would evoke approving commentary from me. “Keep your distance from this kind of achievement” is what I think I would say.

I desperately want my daughter want to grow up in a kinder and more just world. I want her to grow up in a world without war, racism, and soul-and-life-crushing economic inequality. I do not think a candidate who has supported mass incarceration, helped throw helpless families off welfare, voted for an illegal war, and payed obeisance to–and aspires to membership in–the most powerful economic class in this nation, will make that kind of world.

A political post is but one station among many that a woman can occupy to serve as a role model for my daughter. And even that one must be occupied by a woman animated by the right kinds of principles. My daughter has many other heroes to look up to; she will be just fine without a Hillary Clinton presidency. And if Hillary Clinton does become president, I will make sure to point out to my daughter that were she to aspire to be president herself, she would hopefully seek out an alternate set of animating political and moral principles.

Hillary Clinton And The Supposed Political Windfall For Feminism

The ‘feminist legacy’ of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi is an ambiguous one. These women, in varying fashion, rose to great political power, and exerted it with varying degrees of aplomb. (They both earned nicknames that assimilated their visible displays of ‘steel’ into a stereotypical vision of male toughness.) Gandhi came to power in a nation whose imagined and real social role for women was sharply limited; it is unclear what Gandhi’s being in power had to do with the greatly increased visibility of women in Indian public life (the latter presence might well be linked with the changes in the political economy that have been introduced in India since the 1990s.) Thatcher’s ascendancy was seen as a victory for women in British politics while her policy support for women’s causes was widely debated. Again, in her case, it is not clear whether her tenure broke glass ceilings and rolled back the tide of sexism in British public life.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it is unclear to me that the election of Hillary Clinton as president will represent a windfall for feminism and women’s rights. The US of 2016 is not the England of  1979 or the India of 1966, but patriarchy–engaged in mutually supportive roles with corporate structures–still rules the roost here. The American corporate stronghold over politics, whose most visible symbol is the rampant economic inequality that so permeates the lives of American citizens, is better than most in co-opting potential foes as allies.  In its embrace, traditional identity politics matter for little (even as Barack Obama found that his being black was as potent a political force to be ranged against him as any other.)

Materialist feminists know that dismantling patriarchy will not be done without dismantling the economic system it works with; elect an economically privileged person to power and they will simply perpetuate class privilege. Their identity lies with their class, with their economic group, with the allegiances that ensure their economic and political power. Nothing in Hillary Clinton’s record–stretching back to her days in Arkansas–indicates that on taking power she will enact policies that will act to dismantle the very system that is her, and her family’s, best friend. To be sure, the symbolic value of her victory will be immense; it would send a powerful signal to many women, old and young, that their voices have been heard, that they have political representation of a kind, and that oft-repeated-claim that more young women will find it possible to dream about political power will sound ever more plausible.

But those same women, I fear, will find their paths to the ‘top’ blocked if the routes remain the same. And they will resolutely remain the same unless power–in this political and economic system–is exercised differently, for different ends, by those who attain it, by those who show their priorities lie with matters more weighty than the mere retention of that power. Hillary Clinton does little to indicate she will make the kinds of possibilities dreamed about by women more tangible, more substantial. Worse, her election could weaken those arguments which claim that women are economically and politically under-represented. Remember, the refrain will go, if she can make it, so can you.

CP Snow On ‘The Rich And The Poor’

In 1959, while delivering his soon-to-be-infamous Rede Lectures on ‘The Two Cultures‘ at Cambridge University, C. P. Snow–in the third section, titled ‘The Rich and the Poor’–said,

[T]he people in the industrialised countries are getting richer, and those in the non-industrialised countries are at best standing still: so that the gap between the industrialised countries and the rest is widening every day. On the world scale this is the gap between the rich and the poor….Life for the overwhelming majority of mankind has always been nasty, brutish and short. It is so in the poor countries still.

This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on. [C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, Canto Classics, pp. 42]

Well, well, what extraordinary, almost touching, optimism.

Sir Charles did not understand, or care to, perhaps, the extraordinary pertinacity of the rich, those in power, their capacity to manipulate political and economic systems, their almost total control of consciousness and imagination, their ability to promulgate the central principles of the ideology that drives the economic inequality of this world to ever higher levels. (Snow was certainly correct that the world would not remain ‘half rich and half poor’ – that fraction, an always inaccurate one, tilts more now in the direction of the one percent–ninety-nine percent formulation made famous by Occupy Wall Street.)

Snow was also, as many commentators pointed out at the time in critical responses to his lectures, in the grip of an untenable optimism about the ameliorating effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions on both the world of nature and man: as their effects would spread, bringing in their wake material prosperity and intellectual enlightenment, old social and political structures would give way. But science and technology can comfortably co-exist with reactionary politics; they can be easily deployed to prop up repressive regimes; they can be just as easily used to prop up economic and political injustice as not. There is ample evidence for these propositions in the behavior of modern governments, who for instance, deploy the most sophisticated tools of electronic surveillance to keep their citizens under watch, acquiescent and obedient. And automation, that great savior of human labor, which was supposed to make our lives less ‘nasty and brutish’ might instead, when it takes root in such unequal societies, put all workers out to pasture.

But let us allow ourselves to be captured by the hope shown in Snow’s lectures that such radical inequality as was on display in 1959 and thereafter, cannot be a stable state of affairs. Then we might still anticipate that at some point in the future, armed with–among other tools–the right scientific and technical spanners to throw into the wheels of the political and economic juggernaut that runs over them, the poor will finally rise up.

Teach Them Yo Damn Self

Tim Egan writes, in the midst of some sensible commentary on Walmart and Starbucks’ role in combating inequality:

It’s a sad day when we have to look to corporations for education…

But there is a certain kind of education–especially in the technology sector–for which it makes eminent sense to “look to corporations for education.”  To wit, we should expect corporations to train their employees in the particular technical tools that might be needed for them to perform their jobs well in their environments. This would be a boring and staid enough point were it for not for the pernicious effects that result from its being ignored by all concerned–universities and corporations alike.

I taught for several years in the computer science department at Brooklyn College, and during that period, served on the undergraduate curriculum committee. A constant refrain sent our way by those apparently in the know about the job market our graduates were entering was that we needed to make our education “more relevant.” Invariably, on closer inspection, I found that our department was being asked to provide instruction in highly specific computing tools and technologies–the current flavors of the month, if you will. We were constantly excoriated for concentrating too much on ‘abstract theory’ and not enough on ‘applied stuff’ – material that would help our graduates succeed in the job market. (Most of these jobs, as might be expected, were in the financial sector.)

It seemed to me then, as it does now, that an academic department was expected on take on a task, at its expense and time, that rightfully belonged to the employers. The department’s task–at the undergraduate level–as I understood it, was to provide basic instruction in the fundamentals of computer science so that our graduates could then go on to master more advanced concepts and techniques alike. It most certainly was not to displace aspects of this education in favor of instruction in specialized, domain-specific tools which would all too soon become obsolete. The net effect of following the advice of our corporate masters would have been to produce graduates severely lacking in an understanding of the fundamentals of their discipline, one which would enable them to transition smoothly to new technologies as and when an opportunity to apply them arose.

The corporate strategy was transparent enough to some: raise a din about the irrelevance of current university education, pressure universities to change curricula, and most importantly, cut training budgets to increase profit. Perhaps you wouldn’t even need to provide retraining when new technologies rolled around; you could dump the old, and just hire a new batch.

Note: In the past, it was standard practice for American research and development powerhouses such as Bell Laboratories to set aside fairly large budgets to provide post-graduate education to their new hires. An engineering or science student would typically be hired straight out of college with a bachelor’s degree, receive some training in his particular area of research at the labs, and then return to graduate school to earn an advanced degree. Tuition and expenses would be paid for by the labs. The graduate would then return to work on completion of his degree. I do not know what sort of post-degree commitment was expected, and whether any such programs currently survive.