Wednesday, October 16, 2013


P.S. to the last post on dysfunctional governments: The Italian government didn’t dissolve, apparently reason prevailed and Berlusconi’s former allies are starting to defect from his agenda. Also, this week Italians were dealing with the aftermath of the terrible drowning deaths of hundreds of African immigrants near the Sicilian coast.

The Germans are still negotiating (the terms of the coalition for their new government). Everyone is sort of bored with the whole thing by now.

The US government is of course still shut down, and now threatening to plunge the world economy into another financial crisis by defaulting on its debts. Contrary to the smug observations that the world isn’t ending without the government, innocent little children are affected. So now US billionaire oil philanthropists are being lauded for stepping in by throwing 10 million to emergency-fund Head Start. One step closer to plutocracy.

Meanwhile some people are questioning the overall functionality of the US political system, and wondering if a European style parliamentary system with less separation of powers might not be more efficient. I think the question is moot. What ails American democracy is not the separation of powers. Sure, this system is what makes the political process vulnerable to gridlock. But the gridlock occurs because those elected to office are now guided by those who pay their campaigns, and no longer by the electorate. As a result, they have forgotten their oath to uphold the laws (including the Affordable Care Act) of the United States. And instead they work to undermine them, make them unworkable, to then argue, correctly, that government doesn’t work. It reminds me of the strange logic of the virus that kills its host, and then perishes itself.

I do have to say that in a parliamentary democracy, in light of prolonged dysfunctional government such as currently in the US, someone would by now have issued a vote of no confidence, dissolved the existing government and initiated early elections to start over. If the elected people don’t have their shit together, lets’ fire them and start with new ones. It doesn’t always work, but it sure puts on a little pressure.

This P.S. ended up being much longer than planned. This post was supposed to be about something else: Discomfort and preoccupation with where the internet is going, increasingly evident in conversations on- and offline. As I observe this, I am grouping these collective feelings and thoughts into two larger groups:

The first is discomfort with social media and what techno-consumerism does to people. This video in a somewhat oversimplified, pseudo-scientific art school end of the year project kind of way describes how being “connected” makes people lonely, allegedly.

The second has to do with the invasiveness of internet tech companies, and the whole lack of privacy thing that just snuck up on us. We always knew that e-commerce companies were surveilling our consumer behavior, and sending us ads based on what we search for and what we like on facebook and what we read on twitter. Now we also know that the US government is surveilling every single communication we are having online.

The two discomfort groups are related: the interconnectedness of your social media platforms with each other, and with your email, with GPS and with e-commerce sites has already created a world in which nothing is private anymore, not what you eat, what you read, who you love, who you communicate with and what you say to them, what you purchase, and where you are and have been at any moment in time. Google will now show your name and profile in an ad next to an item that someone might purchase, if you have shared or +1’d that item. It sounds like a small thing, but is just an example of how you do one little thing online and it has reverberations in 17 different other virtual places. No conspiracy theorist or science fiction author could have thought of a more sinister system of observation.

The discomfort is shared by people from all arenas: 

Journalists - Roger Cohen, in one of the last issues of the International Herald Tribune (and btw, what is up with that - The International New York Times, really?)  last week wrote about his fear to lose touch with the “real” things and felt experience. "Echt" in German means real.
We have an "echt" deficiency these days. Everything seems filtered, monitored, marshaled, amelioreated, graded and app-ready - made into a kind of branded facsimile of experience for easier absorption. 
Funny. I read this in the "real" IHT, purchased at a newspaper stand in Certaldo, Italy. Now I can't link to it, because the newspaper doesn't exist anymore online. 

Frank Schirrmacher, editor of the FAZ also has written extensively about "das digitale Ich” - this other person out there, that is sort of you, but you are not really in control of it anymore. And its identity is relentlessly exploited commercially and for secret intelligence.

Politicians - the German president (and no, it’s not Angela Merkel, remember, parliamentary democracy… our president is the head of the state with no political power but a figure with high moral integrity and authority), Joachim Gauck, spoke about this new age in his much-quoted speech on October 3rd (the German National Holiday aka Day of National Unity). Gauck praised the innovation, progress and possibility of the internet. But he also warns we have not thought about the consequences enough. Then he makes the link to German history:

Ausgeliefertsein und Selbstauslieferung sind kaum voneinander zu trennen. Es schwindet jene Privatsphäre, die unsere Vorfahren doch einst gegen den Staat erkämpften und die wir in totalitären Systemen gegen Gleichschaltung und Gesinnungsschnüffelei so hartnäckig zu verteidigen suchten. Öffentlichkeit erscheint heute vielen nicht mehr als Bedrohung, sondern als Verheißung, die Wahrnehmung und Anerkennung verspricht.

Roughly translated: There is no line any longer between involuntarily exposure and self-exposure. Citizens’ privacy from the state, which our ancestors have fought for to combat totalitarian spy systems, vanishes. Public exposure is no longer viewed as a threat, but as a promise for being noticed and recognized.

Gauck goes on to say that your digital “twin” makes you transparent, calculable, exploitable and manipulable ( I know, that’s probably not a word).

Writers - Another,  manifestation of unease includes Dave Eggers recently released book “The Circle”, and many of the reviews and the reactions to it. Guess what, one person even quit all social media for an entire week after reading the book. 

And finally, another great American author, Jonathan Franzen, just published a new annotated translation of the works of Karl Kraus, influential early 20th century satirist from Vienna. Franzen discovers that Kraus’ disdain with modernity back then mirrors his own angry rejection of techno-consumerism now. And does he go on about it in this essay published by the Guardian. And then he got a lot of pushback from online commenters.  

The historical perspective illustrates that this debate has been going on forever, is probably as old as humanity: on one side people worried that the manifestation of progress, modernity and the related new forms of communication specific to their time and age are the end of everything, or the end of whatever they hold dear - literature, silent films, letter writing, conversations over coffee, music that the composer is paid for, etc., etc. (These folks are often called Luddites, which is stupid, because they are not destroying anything.) And on the other side the people who engage in new forms of communication, profit from it, enjoy it and are part of, or born into the new culture. In 1964 Umberto Eco described the actors of this cultural division as the apocalyptics versus the integrated.

But then there are those of us who feel in between the two. Those on the fence. So Google “thinks” it is the best thing since sliced toast, that my email, google+, where I am located, and my blog are all connected. I think it is sort of convenient, when it works, but it’s also creepy.  Technology has moved forward, as many times before in history, but our ethical and moral thinking and subsequent rule-making has not caught up.

Being on the fence, I don’t have answers, only questions:

Does technology serve to reinforce what is already evil in our society and economic system? Or has it become an evil force in itself? Can technology, progress, innovation ever be neutral? (answer: no)

Is this time and age really as revolutionary as we think? Or are we freaked out/enthusiastic (take your pick) victims of "Gegenwartseitelkeit"? Who's not exited to live in sea-changing times. But how much of this great new world will still be significant 100 years from now? 

Or are we simply using new tools for the same ends?  Tom Standage  just published a whole book about the parallels between modern and historical social media. 

More pragmatically: Are the big shots of the internet – Google and the social media companies - going to address the privacy concerns of their consumers? Or are they going to barrel on, just losing the concerned folks on the way as they choose to drop out of the whole thing?  Or in other words, will there be a space in between, where you can take advantage of the internet as information source, communication and business tool, and still maintain privacy and control? Is the US government going to change its surveillance practices?

And on the other side, are people, the “users” going to self-teach a sensible practice of social media? Michele Filgate, the woman who quit facebook (which, I think, might just be slowly slipping through the bullshit filter of history, dropping down there with MySpace) and twitter for a week is back on, but she created some new rules for herself – to preserve her non-digital self, and her relationships.

I’ll quote the German president again:

Wie noch bei jeder Innovation gilt es auch jetzt, die Ängste nicht übermächtig werden zu lassen, sondern als aufgeklärte und ermächtigte Bürger zu handeln.
As with every innovation yet, we have to not let fear take over, but we have to act as enlightened and empowered citizens.

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