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Capitalist ruins

Jakob Augstein, well-known German journalist and publisher, sees the need for a new Europe. Following Brexit, in his latest column (German) for the magazine Der Spiegel he puts it very eloquently: “The EU was built on the ruins of fascism. Today, it has to be re-built on the ruins of capitalism. The promise of Europe’s foundation was: no more war. Today, it has to be: no more inequity. (…)
“A caring Europe — that’s the modern variant of the peaceful Europe’s founding promise. And it’s the only promise left to possibly put the right-wing revolution to a halt.”

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in an essay published by Newsweek, seconds the apparent threat of the growing right wing: “Look at the strange bedfellows that found themselves together in the Brexit camp: right-wing ‘patriots,’ populist nationalists fuelled by the fear of immigrants, mixed with desperate working class rage — is such a mixture of patriotic racism with the rage of ‘ordinary people’ not the ideal ground for a new form of fascism?”

In a commentary (German), again for Der Spiegel, Hamburg/​Brussels based journalist Markus Becker furthermore quotes British reactions: “The European Union was pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate, said London’s former mayor Boris Johnson mid-May: they wanted to get the whole of Europe under their sway. ‘Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out,’ albeit by different methods than the EU, deemed Johnson.” Becker sees the dawning of a “dictatorship of the frustrated.” Hence his warning of referendums — at first glance, a way to involve the public with political decisions; but populists, propagandists, and demagogues were the ones to control the process of opinion-making, not by quality of arguments, but by emotions like fear, rage, even hatred. — Translations: B.M.

After all, money¹ does not make the world go ’round, but rather go down.

¹ More precisely, the boundless greed for it of a few and the lack of it for the many.

Newsflash

As of last Monday¹, I am working on new songs again. With “Make me do” being inspired by the open D tuning called “Vestopol” on my acoustic guitar, this time I changed one string, the F♯ string, down to an F, making the major chord a minor one and the tuning an Open Dm. Amazing, how much of a difference this teeny-tiny change makes to the sound of the guitar and the chordal possibilities; it even evokes a different style of strumming. So far, I have laid out four songs already, and I am truly thrilled.

¹ Actually, it was Tuesday.

R U bot or what?

Let’s stick with the online world a little longer. Having quoted Tariq Krim and the reasons for his falling out of love with technology yesterday, today I am inspired by a German article on the use of algorithms and programs in manipulating votes and elections. Quite the topic, isn’t it? Imagine a government being pushed into office despite a broad disagreement throughout the human population just by the power of bots shifting results.

Well, you might not even have to imagine; all evicence indicates that we are very close to this sort of tyranny. Based on a sociological study, said article states that 15 % of both Brexit supporters and adversaries on Twitter® are no humans but mere software.

Moreover, around 30 % of Donald Trump’s Twitter® followers apparently are bots, and 10 % of Hillary Clinton’s, too. This is not a brand-new phenomenon; six years ago, Twitter® bots did discriminate a Massachusetts politician, and in the 2012 elections in Mexico, the impressive amount of more than 10.000 fake user profiles seem to have supported the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Until today it is still true that a bot is not able to actually vote, but it is also very true that many voters are undecided and easily to be influenced by supposed fellow humans. So, the results of elections are in fact already shifted by those bots. Additionally, since the “techno doctrine” is invading more and more parts of our society, the day is nigh that we’ll be forced to vote electronically (as, for example, Germans are already forced to use the internet for tax returns). That will be the day when the actual count of votes will be open to hacks and fakes. Remember: the one in control of technology is the one in control. (That, by the way, is an essential part of “The Circle,” too.)

Also, you might want to remember that some of your Facebook® “friends”, some of the Twitter® posters you follow, some of the Amazon® recommenders of a product you consider buying, are probably small pieces of software, not actual people.

The end of the Internet?

Lü Buwei, a politician of the Qin state in the Warring States Period of ancient China (Wikipedia), supposedly once said: “Every ending is followed by a new beginning.” So, fellow internet inhabitants, let us not mourn the downfall of our favourite refuge — for that is what has to happen: the internet as we know it has to make place for a new online community. Tariq Krim, start-up entrepeneur, founder of Netvibes®, Jolicloud®, and former journalist, feels highly reluctant toward the WWW these days.

“The uncomfortable truth is that I fell out of love with the technology world and that I am not excited by the future anymore. At least the future that is being built today,” he writes in a Facebook® post, and he has good reasons for his critisism, “at least three things that make me fear this future.”

Firstly, he worries about “(the lack of) ownership. For many people, entering this new digital world means the end of ownership.” Spotify® owns our music, Netflix® our films and TV series, Amazon® all of the above and e-books, too. With quite dramatic consequences for the “real world,” too, as Tariq points out: “I didn’t mind subscribing to some services until I started to see, in Paris or everywhere I would go, that it also meant closing bookstores, record shops and even public libraries. That struggling magazines have to loose some of their identity to the advertisers. And Culture is becoming increasingly commoditized.”

Next, his concerns focus on the “algorithmic choice. (…) Today, it’s really hard to accept the fact that the machine should decide what’s important for me. Because as good as the algorithms are, they are black boxes with very little control over them.” But “content, like life, is about finding pleasure in messy and unpredictable situations. It’s about content serendipity and friends mentorship. It's about all these little things technology wants to make impossible in the future.” So true, isn’t it? Friends know me so much better than any machine ever could (because a machine wouldn’t understand my sense of humor, my erratic, almost capricious mood and taste swings, my … incalculability), hence I’d prefer any friend’s recommendation over all those algorithm-based “you-might-like-that-toos.”

Lastly, Tariq mentions “the impossibility to slow down.
“There’s an incredible paradox to see the rise of meditation and mindfulness in Silicon Valley while most products that are built are designed to accelerate time and stress.
“While the Dunbar number of meaningful interactions with other humans is around 120, our social graphs are breaking records every day about how many people we can talk to.” Actually, Dunbar’s number seems to be a little higher even, namely around 150 in average. Which is still vastly exceeded by the amount of Facebook® friends, Twitter® followers, Instagram® fans one might have. (I can not even imagine to know and relate to the overwhelming count of 120 or 150 persons.)

Tariq then concludes, envisioning a “sort of slow web that is to technology what slow food is to processed things,” and a “sort of ‘organic sustainable slow technology’.” I second that and would like to invite everyone reading this to our new community of “slow webizens.” As I wrote earlier, in my text City Zen: let’s rather be idle than busy for a change. Let’s read full length texts instead of Twitter® bits and tl;drs. Let’s breathe, and float, and close our eyes every now and then. — Sources: Tariq Krim @ Facebook®, German translation @ Zeit Online

What’s normal, anyway?

“The reputed normal is composed of the least common multiple of prejudices and superstition. It resides in the heads of those too lazy to question themselves.” — Swiss-​German author Sibylle Berg in her most recent column (German) for the magazine Der Spiegel; translation: B.M.

Manipulation rules

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country (…) We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society (…) In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons (…) who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.— Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations,” in: “Propaganda” (Routledge, 1928)

City Zen

I have lived in cities quite a while. But for almost a decade already, I prefer staying in rural areas. Not that I’m much of a “nature guy”; I am not so much into hiking or biking, not a busy gardener (yet), nor bird watcher or bee counter (and no tree hugger either, mind you). But I appreciate the proximity to all things green and growing, and I also appreciate the basic, laid-​back lifestyle of many, if not most, ruralists¹. Even those who are not working in the fields or breeding cattle seem to be more earnest, down-​to-​earth, and at the same time merrier than your average time-​lacking urban dweller: always in a hurry, always busy, always on top of it all.

Still, the inhabitants of a country or state are called “citizens,” implying that those from towns and towers are the predominant species. That is so chauvinistic! Each city’s every street corner should get warning signs applied, similar to those on cigarette boxes, “LIVING IN THE CITY CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH,” “URBAN LIFE IS A DANGER TO YOU AND EVERYONE NEXT TO YOU”! Bad air, bad attitude, bad atmosphere are the downsides of a vague possibility for inspiring encounters and collaborations.

In cities, you can buy anything and everything, but you can never be sure of the product’s quality, especially when it comes to food. In the countryside, however, you may grow your own vegetables, fruits, raise rabbits, or befriend an organic farmer. With TTIP on the threshold, with herbicide and fertilizer producers pushing for their poisons’ permits to be extended indefinitely despite indications of their apparent carcinogenic “side effects,” industrial food is really not getting any better but increasingly worse instead. (Tragically, this is true for many products carrying an “organic” stamp, too.)

Many a friend I hear complaining about the demanding harshness, breathlessness, tension, and anonymity of urban existence. Actually, there are means to make city life a little less stressful and a little more enjoyable. Just try to adopt rural behaviour while inside city limits:

If none of the above works: move to the countryside. I promise, you will not regret it. It will change your life, of course, but for the better.

Possible alternatives: Move to the outskirts of a small town. Take long vacations (at least two months) at a secluded beach, in a little village, or a mountain hut. (Don’t forget to send me a postcard then.)

¹ Unfortunately, there’s a growing number of citywo…men who just own a house in the countryside, but have grown up and still work and spend a lot of time in the city; those are just as tense as any other urban person, hence spreading their illness countrywards.

² I am well aware that it is impossible to walk heads-​down all the time. Just do it whenever possible. (Also, I am well aware that this is not an adoption of rural behaviour. Outside cities and towns I’d recommend quite the opposite!)

³ This may not appear a “rural recommendation” either, but it is the right thing to do, wherever you live. The more people demand to use buses and trains, the more buses and trains will be put on road and rail.

Transparent New World

Today, I want to recommend a book to all those who didn’t read it yet: “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. The story unfolds around a young woman, Mae, who starts her new job at an internet company that might be described as a mix of Google® and Facebook®, with a few more ingredients. All the reservations and concerns I have against my fellow wo…men being hooked on their digital profiles are confirmed and elaborated on by this dystopian novel. Frightening enough, most of the developments depicted by Eggers are done, or in the making, already.

Let me show you some excerpts, and let me add: Close your Facebook®, Google®, YouTube®, Dropbox®, Twitter®, Instagram®, and whatever else accounts you have. Close them all, today, for good. For your own good. (Yes, I am serious.)

“Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know — they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”

This, to me, is the most brilliant paragraph, because it delivers a very convincing explanation as to why people tend to lemming blindly toward “social” networks and into surveillance. (The underlying theory is backed up by the fact that an increasing number of young people, asked for their goal in life, want to become a “star,” “YouTuber,” or otherwise famous.)

“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-​social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”

Counters Mercer, Mae’s once boyfriend and the novel’s one of two antagonists who keeps warning her.

“SECRETS ARE LIES”
“SHARING IS CARING”
“PRIVACY IS THEFT”

These three mottos are invented by Mae herself while she’s stepping up The Circle’s hierarchical ladder; it is certainly not by accident that they resemble those found in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-​Four”.

“(…) the volume of information, of data, of judgements, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable — it was too much.”

This is a brief moment when Mae doubts her job, her calling, The Circle. It won’t last long, though.

“Suffering is only suffering if it’s done in silence, in solitude. Pain experienced in public, in view of loving millions, was no longer pain. It was communion.”

There she is, “back on track,” so to speak.

Really, everyone: read this. It’s mind-​opening and scary and will make you rethink your being online. If you don’t quit now, today, all of this will come true. And that would be absolutely terrifying. — Sources/​further reading: Goodreads, GradeSaver, Telegraph, Canadian author Margaret Atwood in The New York Review of Books

P.S.: While you’re at it, you might additionally read the … well — blueprint of a sort for “The Circle” (at least in parts), Aldous Huxley’s dystopia “Brave New World,” followed by the aforementioned “Nineteen Eighty-​Four”. Finally, to calm your nerves a little, read “Island,” Huxley’s last novel and a utopian vision of a better world made possible by combining Western science with Eastern (mainly Buddhist) wisdom.

All under control

Many, if not most, people hope for sport, exercises, and health apps to expand and control their life expectancy. They try to control their lives’ risks by signing countless insurance contracts. Companies, governments, and law enforcement agencies use big data analysis to predict and control future behaviours. Undoubtedly, the one thing modern men fears most is the loss of control.

There’s at least three downsides to this control mania.

First off, it’s an illusion. We are not in control, however desperate we try. Life has its own way of surprising us; people with a healthy lifestyle, well-​fed, well-​trained, non-​smoking, die at an early age while smokers, sport refusers and greasy meat eaters get to live 90+ years.

Secondly, the desire for control strips us of real experiences. If everythings goes as expected, our brains go into hibernation since there’s nothing to compute. But we are designed hungry for something new, hence the growing market for extreme sports, exotic travels, and so forth. (Those distractions happening in a controlled manner and environment, too, makes them way less satisfying than the real thing, though.)

Lastly, control is rarely left in our own hands. Self-​proclaimed sports scientists decide which exercises to do (happily changing their minds every now and then), app developers put average values into their programs that might well not apply to a certain individuum, insurance companies define exception over exception in the fine print, making sure they won’t have to cover your claims, and governments … well, Edward Snowden was not the first to demonstrate how recklessly data miners assume that anyone might be guilty of something, so everyone must be observed and surveilled. — This text was partly inspired by an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel.

Excuses

“Every person I know is pretty poorly constructed. Everyone has an excuse for not dealing. But eventually that’s all they are — excuses.” — Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), in: “Dollhouse” (Season 2, Episode 1, “Vows”; Joss Whedon 2009)

New, again

My website has been undergoing changes, and not for the first time. I will not promise for this design to be lasting any longer than all the others, but I’ll try to stick to it.

Changes include:

Part of this development is inspired by, among others, Justin Jackson and his reminiscence of the web in the nineties. He is, I am, and many others are, tired of what the German language calls “klickibunti” websites, which roughly translates to “clicky-​gaudy”: fancy flashy gimmicks, embedded videos, large images, all that stuff that eats up bandwidth — something you don’t have to worry about as long as you are not leaving your fiber-​optic, 100-​Mbit connected home. Start traveling, dear programmers, and realise: there’s many places on the globe where your cool sites don’t work at all, or at least are slow as hell. (That is one important reason for the increasing use of add-​ons like AdBlock and NoScript, btw.)