Friday, 30 June 2017

Facebook & Arbitrary Power

"Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many - they are few."

Facebook has just proved itself to be an idiot again - or rather its algorithms have proved idiotic. Its guidelines on 'nudity' (a particular cultural neurosis emanating from the dark recesses of American disgust with the otherwise perfectly natural human body) are actually crystal clear that if an 'artist' paints a nude, then it is somehow just dandy.

This is, of course,  a concession to the nonsensical idea that, for some romantic reason, artists can represent safely what is not permitted in the real world. However, those are the guidelines - no nudity (except for a political concession to breast feeding mothers) unless it is art and then it is permitted. Let us be clear - if it is an artistic representation, it is expressly permitted.

In this particular case, I posted, in a Closed Group dedicated to art and with members who are all invited adults, a picture by the mid-level baroque female painter Artemisia Gentileschi, somewhat of a feminist icon. Indeed, I have the cynical notion that Facebook only backed down when I threatened to set the feminists on it for blocking their heroine, one of the few female artists to 'make it' in the seventeenth century - actually a fairly average and over-hyped artist.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, not only did their moronic algorithm not recognise a work of art and blocked it but the operation did something unconscionable - it arbitrarily halted me from posting anything and anywhere for 24 hours. It gets worse by the way, but wait for the end on that one.

My response was immediate, aggressive and utterly contemptuous. They got a message on their help desk every five minutes for two hours pointing out the idiocy of the blocking with a one hour twitter campaign of direct contempt for their inability a) to recognise art and b) to understand their own guidelines as well as an expression through every means of direct anger and outrage that they should arbitrarily block anyone for 24 hours rather than just block something that their idiot algorithm could not recognise as a rather unerotic bit of baroque flummery.

The net result was that the block on my posting was lifted within six rather 24 hours and the picture was restored but my contempt for this arbitrary act and algorithmic stupidity has returned me to my high level of distrust for Facebook that had existed some three or four years ago when they suspended my account without adequate cause and were forced to relent after another time-wasting and determined twitter campaign and complaints to the regulatory authorities in Ireland. At least this time, it was a matter of hours and not months!

But then they blundered again. This time in a way that is almost comical. I made it clear to two Groups that I would no longer be posting on them as a mode of resistance to self censorship but also to preseve rights that now seemed to threaten my right to post in some 15 or so others of an educational nature.

A debate ensued in which a bit of consciousnes was raised about Facebook's arbitrary power and then I commented on another sixteenth century Northern Renaissance nude, posted in the past where others saw 'attachment unavailable'. In other words, Facebook had arbitrarily stopped others from seeing it without giving me fair warning of why this was so. When I commented on it, the result was that the algorithm stupidly marked this art work (well within Facebook's guidelines) as problematic and, yes, in another arbitrary act, banned me from posting for another 24 hours. There is a moron out there, either a programmer or an AI.

Facebook needs to understand that it has every right to set the rules for its platform but there are two things it cannot do. First, it cannot breach its own guidelines - those guidelines give a rather silly priority to art but that commitment to permit art must be met. Second, blocking a picture may be unfortunate and immature but it is permissible within those guidelines. However, it is outrageous that it can behave like a medieval despot and remove posting rights and make threats of loss of account on any basis, let alone a breach of its own guidelines. Body neurosis is tiresome - it shows a weak and decadent culture incapable of standing up for maturity. It also evidences an even more tiresome American cultural imperialism. But this weird thing about Art/Good and Body/Bad remains Facebook's privilege. Arbitrary incompetence or algorithmic malice does not.

What is really disturbing here is something much deeper. Because of its administrative errors, my digital existence is being put at threat because these blunders are inexorably leading to my own digital arbitrary execution.  

The Debate on the Art Group during the brief period when I had access to posting was instructive because Facebook's acts are raising a sort of 'revolutionary consciousness' through its arbitrary acts which have not just affected me. It is a sinister algorithmic attempt at socialisation that is going very badly wrong.

I do not accept defeat but I recognise the reality of power which is that Facebook, if I persist, can remove, in an arbitrary way, my entire six year Facebook ouevre comprising engagement in over 15 groups and with nearly 400 Friends and 160 Followers. In other words, Facebook, like a despotic ancien regime estate, can execute me in the digital world on the whim of one of its own aristocratic algorithms. It is as decadent, corrupt and villainous as any ancien regime. 

So what does a rebel do? He does, as Churchill points out, like any oppressed peasantry take to the hills ... or he engages in guerrilla activity or he emigrates or he gets educated and plots or he engages in a calculated 'dumb insubordination' and 'go slow' or he raises the next generation to understand power and eventually seize it. Or all of those as circumstances dictate. The understanding of power is a fine art - first one must know one's powerlessnes (which few really appreciate) and then one must know the power of the powerless (as Foucault pointed out) in its insidious ability to destroy its oppressor. Eventually conditions change and there is a revolution against arbitrary power.

Every arbitrary act by the ancien regime increases resentment and eventually the heads of the aristocrats roll, eventually humanity will command these AI-driven platforms by revolutionary fiat. I engaged the platform in struggle and temporarily won the 'pay rise' to which I was owed anyway but the power relationship has not changed and the capitalist may still fire me at will when conditions change. He may have put me on a blacklist. Indeed, that is what happened. Within hours of the first suspension, I got 'locked out' again with the suspicion that I am a 'marked man'

I can engage in an idle and short term trades union reformism or I can take the revolutionary route and plan for the long game - the utter overthrow of the arbitrary regime and its replacement by a dictatorship of the subjects! The Art Group remains - it just does not have me posting. It is for others to carry on the revolution in the factory. Better to die on your feet than live in fear on your knees so off to the hills I go with mental kalashnikov in my fist. My investment elsewhere is too valuable in the revolutionary cause and there is nothing they can do about that except 'kill' me. And, if they kill me, others will arise to protest their arbitrary power. My very small amount of power has been redirected with more force. The only thing I can hope is that I have raised the revolutionary consciousness of my own fellow Facebook proletariat.

What is going on here? I think Facebook is running scared of legislation from an equally neurotic government structure and is trying out algorithms that restrict and contain us, all on the spurious grounds of protecting us. The platform is weak and governments are oppressive and, between them, we could be but nuts in their nutcracker. The answer is simple as it is to all arbitrary power - expose it, fight it and apportion blame where it is due: in this case, cowardly and greedy unchecked corporate power and weak and oppressive states. We must never be the nuts ... the nut cracker must be broken, and we should be allowed to grow into great oaks.

Appendix: My Protest At The Second Suspension

To Facebook

I cannot believe your stupidity or is it the stupidity of your algorithms. Yesterday, you suspended me for 24 hours on a seventeenth century artwork which met your guidelines. Six hours later you restored me. I commented on 'old' posting of a sixteenth century artwork (well within your guidelines) this morning and you suspended me again for 24 hours. Now I fear that your algorithms are marking me out for account loss on your idiot mistakes.

This really is not acceptable. I want the painting restored. I want the 24 hour suspension lifted. I want my algorithm corrected to remove all references to these arbitrary actions outside your guidelines.

If this is not done clearly and quickly, I will do the following: I shall write to the regulatory authorities and to my elected representative (who is a member of a minority government putting datas regulation through Parliament); I will produce a blog posting on your failures which I shall circulate widely; and you will have a Twitter reference every ten minutes for as long as it takes.

This is an absolute outrage - two blunders in 24 hours against your own guidelines with arbitrary and unjustified attacks on service provision.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

A Very Personal Conclusion About Recent Events

Position Reserved, at various times, has been an outlet for exploring a variety of cultural and political issues of interest to me as well as a means of putting my case and the facts in controversial areas where the mainstream media have failed to 'get it right'. I am, with perhaps just very rare future interventions 'for the record', reducing activity, not only because of pressure of work but also because I may have run out of things to say in public. This posting says most of what I have left to say until the world changes again: then my opinions may have to change in response. From now on, you are likely to get only very rare personal ruminations as the mood takes me, maybe odd discussions of obscure academic papers that don't fit with my Goodreads account or anywhere else and, of course, statements of fact if some malign media half-wit decides to have another go at me.

There are three great lessons learned from several years of writing these posts.

First, that search for some special meaning in the world is pretty futile. The world is as it is. It should be understood just as it is. This is not simply a matter of having a prejudice towards science but having an essential scepticism towards all human narratives. The questions have always to be - who invented the narrative and for what purpose and who is using the narrative and why as well as whether a narrative is true. Truth is a sticky issue. Many facts are not recoverable. All facts are interpretable. A moderate scepticism about all stories we tell ourselves, while understanding that narratives are still necessary for society to function, is the way forward.

The end game is thus detachment but with a degree of compassion for peoples' need to tell stories and a decision somewhere along the line to construct a workable but flexible story for oneself that best accords with the facts of one's condition in life. In my case, my narrative is rather workaday. Having exhausted most evenues surrounding the magical and the spiritual and the ideological, I am really perfectly happy just to go with the flow now and maintain an ethic of civilised survival. My core values are what they always were - a mish-mash of existentialism, libertarianism and basic compassion for the weakest and most troubled.

Second, the melange of social narratives criss-crossing our culture and competing with each other have now gone beyond a joke. It is easy to condemn the dreamers and ideologues as stupid but even the most formally intelligent seem to have extended their psychological flaws and preferences into complex systems and structures that seek to bend reality to their will. There is nothing more deviantly sinister than the human ego that denies that it is an ego. Again, detachment and a determination to stand one's ground with one's own story, while being questioning about its own validity against the facts, is easily the best stance. Social existence is a brutal struggle within a framework of accepted conventions and order and it should be seen as such. It cannot be otherwise and those looking for reason and perfection are doomed to disappointment.  Two areas of recent life brought this into focus.

The Exaro experience, whether good or bad in the sum, demonstrated the degree to which power manipulates narrative. The conduct of the mainstream media in this matter made me understand, without condoning, the resistance of populists to the claim that their propagandistic fake news was actually any worse than the constant devious manipulation of the MSM. It often struck me that the MSM's real gripe with Trump was that he was exposing their monopoly of falsehoods by simply making what they do subtly be done more crassly.

Fortunately the internet permits the individual to challenge the MSM on the record (which is what I have done on several occasions) knowing that, while the exercise is rather futile, the bulk of MSM coverage is equally transient and distrusted by anyone with half a brain. At least there are now many voices telling half-truths and porkie pies rather than just a few with presumed authority - that is progress of a sort since the detached observer can now compare far more narratives and then use their judgment to come up with some rough approximation of reality.Admittedly, most apparently highly educated people seem to have a problem with their judging faculty but, hey (as Tony Blair used to say), you can't have everything.

The second area of interest was and remains transhumanism which I intend to remain involved with, albeit in my classically detached way. This is a school of thought of considerable importance in translating the coming technological revolution into sets of questions that need asking and which still pass most politicians by. This community has produced creative ideas around the application of innovation like cryptocurrencies and technologies like automation. It has promoted ideas that are now being looked at by policy-makers such as Universal Basic Income. It has also created, however, some insanely apocalyptic thinking about existential risk and a quasi-religious narrative that can make practical men like me cringe with embarrassment.

And why? Because too many of the enthusiastic nerds and engineers involved still read too much science fiction and find themselves driven by their own extrapolations and weak understanding of 'really existing humans' rather by any understanding of social and political reality. Still, although the hysteria surrounding these communities and their often shambolic organisation is a bit depressing at times, nevertheless, these are the people throwing up all the ideas now about the possibilities for humanity, ideas that correct our stupid belief in certainties. Square the flaccid complacent folk culture of the establishment with the trans-human lunacies and you might yet get to see a pathway to understanding future probabilities.

Finally, there is politics. Oh my God, politics! This has become the art of posturing one's story as if your powerlessness mattered, at least as far as most social media discourse is concerned. Most people simply do not understand the nature of power and how to use it. They cannot accept that simply having strong opinions is too often just posturing that expresses psychological anxieties or is a primitive demand for respect in the ape-like world of social competition yet moves the world not one jot forward. We all have opinions but few of us truly understand where power actually lies, when and where we can make some small difference and how acquiring more power by its very nature shapes us into the victims of our own wielding of it if we are not aware of what is happening to us. We all need to make positive decisions on how to use the little power that we have effectively and with full understanding of probable consequences.

I have come to the view that politics must be treated either as a cynical game played by moral inadequates (which is not to my taste) or be considered as an expression of core sentiments and values, beyond conventional morality, where one chooses rationally to see through the expression of our prejudices according to the power that one actually has. There are people out there who we should not want to have any power because of their intrinsic irrationalities and cruelties. Representative national democracy still strikes me as the best means of keeping these wolves off our backs even if our representatives are deeply flawed and not always the sharpest tools in the box.

Most people's values are rarely thought about, contradictory and situational but they do make up who we are and democracy squares millions of confused world views into something broadly consensual. Reforming the machinery of it all (as liberal nerds want to do) is less important than reforming the informations flows and education that enable people to make better judgments in their own interest and according to their own values. Even sociopaths have rights in this respect if only to balance out those dangerous radical empaths who think so much of themselves. To cut the posturing, I certainly put the economic and personal survival of myself and my immediate family first and anyone who doesn't do the same is already probably someone who needs to be kept an eye on.

Beyond that, I have a hierarchy of values which include the general sanctity of life (a Catholic upbringing), a loathing of bullying and sympathy for the underdog, a gut patriotism for soil though not blood, a distaste for people who break promises without clear explanation, a distaste for the use of secrecy to gain advantage and a prejudice against all forms of abstract universalism. There is also a belief in the benefit of pragmatic non-ideological flexibility that permits opinions and actions to change easily with new information. Part of that pragmatism is that you cannot take on the burdens of the world ... concern should start with the self and work outwards through concentric circles lest one become the sort of humanitarian Napoleon who destroys the world in order to save it. Much liberal universalism strikes me as being derived from immaturity and anxiety in weakly formed selves who are unable to build an independent existence outside the group-think of the ideologically like-minded.

I also seem to have been surrounded, through Brexit and recent political events, by many people who have taken what values they have out of their mental box but then constructed rigid systems from them that seem not only completely out of kilter with the facts but drives them to believe that things could be as they never can be. This is the idiotic politics of naive idealism, wide-eyed hope that almost always presages great cruelties and incompetencies. It is compounded by the hysteria of the media whose interpretative and analytical skills are barely existent in the drive to tell stories thoroughly detached from reality. Reading the FT on Brexit is watching a sort of cultural oozalum bird in full flight. Watching the BBC is like watching a rather confused old dear try to deal with the i-phone someone gave them for Christmas. Reading the Daily Mail is like being cornered by a perpectually snarling mad dog.

Over the last few years, I have decided that I don't really like people who don't have clear values (I have no problem with people whose core values are not mine) and who cover up their feelings with ideology and pretence. I have removed them quietly and without rancour from my social circle as intrinsically rather stupid and boring. Those who cover their class interest or personal interest with a coating of emotional idealism, whether it be their stake in the NGO industry or their interest in cheap labour to keep their fluffy businesses going, are perhaps the ones who most exhibit 'mauvaise faux'. Unfashionably, I still have an admiration for people who can put personal material interest second to personal values and I always prefer the ruthless materialist who knows that he is a ruthless materialist to the self-deluding clown who pretends they are not.

My own ideological positions are simple, pragmatic and contingent - for Brexit, for an intelligent democratic socialism (which, in my opinion, is only possible under conditions where sovereign democratic nation states can be abstracted from regulatory empires) and then for strong national defence directed at peace. War should be the ruthless defence of the homeland and never more. But even these are flexible positions. Brexit is a necessity for example but I see no reason why it should require a primitive and inflexible nationalism. I would go with the Corbyn-McDonnell approach if I trusted the Labour Party more, while I see no inflexible nationalism in the Johnson-Gove position. In other words, once Brexit is decided (as it has been), there is every reason to go with the flow of national consensus (which actually there is, despite the whining of Remoaners and the posturing of the Populists) and then and only then engage in struggle over whether it is to be a Brexit for Labour or a Brexit for Capital. The behaviour of Remainers is now a national embarrassment.

The same apples to democratic socialism. My heart is very much with Corbyn and McDonnell and I find myself cheering much of their speeches but then I look at the detail and sometimes blanch. The aspirations are great - they are mostly my aspirations - but then I look at my own experience in international affairs and the market and I see that the populist promises currently under offer, combined with the failed ideological liberalism of the still dominant soft Left of the Party, create reasons for serious concern. Will we see a twentieth century welfarism, shorn of warfarism, that still fails to understand the massive import of the coming technological revolution, fails to lead it and misses the boat just as Globalisation 2.0 takes hold as a mix of anarcho-capitalism, strong nation states and decaying authoritarian empires? Quite possibly.

At the moment, I see little more than platitudes reminsicent of Harold Wilson's 'white heat' and a weak sub-Marxist understanding of power. At the time of writing, I feel disinclined to renew my Party Membership in September. It would be better to become, once again, truly independent and observe with my customary detachment, employing what tiny power I have very carefully in the direction of understanding and managing Globalisation 2.0 rather than granting it to a mass party of semi-educated enthusiasts whose programme seems doomed to disappoint. Once Brexit is done, one might reconsider one's position.

However, all in all, I know what I want. I want a smooth Brexit broadly along the current Government's lines. Accordingly and logically, I want a stable Tory minority Government until that is completed precisely because the PLP and Labour activist membership cannot be trusted on the issue. This does not seem compatible with Labour Party membership for the next two years or so. And then, two or three years on, I want to see a strong and stable, radicalised and intelligent Labour Party come to power with a working majority of 50 or so to implement a programme of democratic socialism better than the one we saw in the catch-all 'package of measures' Manifesto of a few weeks ago. Brexit first, a credible democratic socialism second, Globalisation 2.0 third. 


Monday, 1 May 2017

When The Facts Change ... the British Election Plays Out

I am not sure I have been so detached from a General Election in my life. Others seem to feel the same - excepting committed left wing activists who are clearly highly energised, far more than conservatives who seem to be asleep and complacent, at least on social media.

Just under two weeks ago, it seemed simple. The issue was Brexit and that meant a simple decision - to go with a Government that promised to see it through against an Opposition that could not be trusted on the issue, perhaps despite itself. Two events have shifted opinion slightly though not yet decisively.

The first is the sheer energy of the beleagured Labour Party. While everyone else is complacent or whining about things already done, Corbyn's campaign team has come out slugging in all directions on matters that are quite separate from Brexit and which should be matters of public debate regardless of our entrapment in the European political project.

This is still, frankly, mostly talking to the support base, reminding wobblers that the faith is strong but it does seem to have pushed Labour up to 30% and halted the Party's decline even if the total package is not in place and still seems incoherent. Above all, Corbyn has raised issues of austerity, public services, poverty and peace and war that a complacent Conservative Party has thought to bury under the carpet.

The second was the intervention in The Sun of the pseudo-patrician Boris Johnson who managed, in one rather ridiculous attempt at populism, to alienate in a few hundred words many natural Labour voters who were prepared to give the Tories the benefit of the doubt on the basis of May's promise of good governance in a time of crisis.

He reminded us that the Parliamentary Tory Right operated in a sub-Churchillian rhetorical world that talked down to the voter and still behaved in foreign policy matters as if the Crimean problem was no more than a re-run of Palmerston's. May's barely suppressed irritation at the intervention was no comfort because it reminded us that these fools on the Parliamentary Right would have a say on Brexit when the right message to get across was one of national unity in the face of a potential foreign threat - and I don't mean Russia!

In fact, Johnson showed to his Leader a cynical disregard of the national interest in his own interest, not even the Party's. A big majority for May allows her to dispose of him, a rather second rate politician who managed to ride the tide of history last year but who is really surplus to requirements. By making a bid for leadership of the populist Tory Right as last of the Etonians, Johnson was really trying to ensure that he remained a Big Beast in a post-Election reshuffle and was quite prepared to knock off 1-3% of May's national unity vote to do so. I hope she sends him to the back benches for that act of occult disloyalty alone.
 
But why be so detached? This is certainly the most critical election in a very long time in terms of the national interest. Perhaps because it all appears to be absurd. Perhaps because the combatants seem not to be able to rise to the occasion for all their energy (Labour) or promise of stability (Tory). The Prime Minister mounted a sort of coup against a divided and useless Opposition which has not come to terms with the events of last year but seems incapable of ensuring that the Conservative Party conveys a national interest rather than a party interest argument for office.

The Labour Party itself is just not ready for office. It is deeply unstable and may end up being the lynch pin for a coalition that would include parties I really do not like. These parties will divert the people's resources and the State into issues (green, petty nationalist and liberal) that are irrelevant to our primary concerns which are economic survival and some degree of cultural cohesion. Their presence in Government would be disastrous.

On the other hand, the Tories are about as trustworthy as the Blairites, which is tantamount to saying no more trustworthy than a rattlesnake, on a number of issues. As we have seen with Johnson and his circle of buffoons, they seem to have rapidly degenerated into the worst sort of tub-thumping militaristic foreign policy and to be utterly blind to the necessity for necessary sacrifices to be necessarily made in a fair way.

Labour does not seem to get our serious economic situation (which actually has nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the previous Labour Government and the last lack-lustre Coalition Government). Its policies to date are a mish-mash of crowd pleasers without coherence. The Tories certainly do not get that their policies are set to create social problems that will cost more to rectify than the savings they hope to make from austerity.

Both sides are out of touch still with the country and its needs. Corbyn and Starmer have trimmed once too often. May and Hammond have no finger on the national pulse but are hoping merely to ride the general fear of instability in difficult times. The tribal loyalists on all sides may be getting very excited but what we really want is competence and, of course, stability so I am sticking to three principles for the moment:-

1. What we need as a country is not partisan stupidity, whether it comes from excitable activists or Boris Johnson, but strong Government to see us through Brexit and out the other side. Anyone seeking to limit strong Government in the hope of reversing the vote on June 23rd is giving comfort to the enemy in a tough negotiation on which all our futures depend. When Article 50 was invoked, from that day on, the EU became 'the other', our opponent. Not being able to trust a possible progressive coalition to understand this - which is actually one of choosing treachery over patriotism (there is nothing shameful in patriotism in a crisis) - is a serious barrier to voting Labour on June 8th.

2. Once Brexit is out of the way, the Tories really will need to be removed but not by a ramshackle, squabbling bunch of competing and rather dim-witted egoists. The Blairites and Hard Remainers need to be isolated and contained, the Liberals, Greens and Petty Nationalists thrust into the dustbin of history and a serious hard-edged alternative to class-based Toryism needs to develop that can seize power by democratic means in 2022. This can either be a transformed Labour Party or a New Party of the Left (since UKIP is now an obscene and destructive joke) but it has to happen or the Tories will complacently be in power for over a decade, only to be replaced by some depressing abortion of the Centre-Left carrying on the Tories' policies in muted form.

3. Theresa May and David Davis are tolerable as the caretakers in these difficult times but not so second raters like Johnson, Gove, Hammond and Fox. Moreover, even May should be tolerated only because of the need to see through Brexit. She should be challenged on her class-based politics, her Deep State militarism, her insistence on still being a poodle to Washington and the essential unfairness of her Government's approach to what should be fairly shared burdens as we adjust to new conditions. She is no more to be trusted than the Labour Party apparat that would knife Jeremy Corbyn at the drop of a hat.

So what would be the best result, knowing that such a result is not in our power and that each of us is making fine judgements on local constituency politics? In my case, Johnson has obliged me to withdraw, as a matter of honour, my planned loaned vote to our very nice and competent liberal Remainer Tory who will loyally serve his Prime Minister. It does not yet have a home to go to.

Nationally, out of my control, the best result would be a sufficient majority for the Government to be able to stand up to both Tory Remainers and Hard Brexiters alike during the process of negotiation, so long as there are no compromises on national democratic self determination, but also a relative strengthening of the Labour Party against the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Petty Nationalists (not necessarily in terms of numbers of seats but in terms of an increase in the share of the vote from the low opinion polling levels of recent weeks).

It would be good to see the Liberals wiped out, the Greens and UKIP positioned as extra-parliamentary forces and nothing else and the Petty Nationalists reduced to minority status in their own territories. It would also be good to see the balance in the PLP shift towards the Left and Corbyn secured as Leader in order to undertake the two to three year programme required to democratise the Labour Party and change its culture, with new candidates systematically in place before 2022.

By all means, given its base, the Labour Party should challenge the Tory Government throughout the Brexit process in the interests of the vulnerable and workers but it should not be so foolish as to seek to overturn the result on June 23rd or give comfort to the enemy during the negotiations. Once Brexit is out of the way, the Labour Party can surely, by then, have earned our trust as a unified national democratic socialist alternative to the decadent posturing of the current Party of the State.