Magic, Miracles and Policy

Ronnie Hawkins, aka the Hawk. A strong believer in miracles, and booster of popular miracle worker Adam Dreamhealer (not his real name).

In an otherwise erudite essay on the deterioration of knowledge due to atrophying web links, Jonathan Zittrain unfortunately chooses to introduce the subject with a reference to Arthur C Clarke’s quote on sufficiently advanced technologies being indistinguishable from magic. The point of course is that magic isn’t real, that it’s just science that we don’t know yet. Clichéd and overused perhaps, but it did trigger the thought about what magic really is, what we mean by it when we say ‘magic’. It’s a contentious thing: do you believe in magic? The cosmopolitan contemporary answer should be ‘why of course not! that’s just a childish diversion!’ Magic tricks are just that: tricks, entertainment, distraction. Yet the question of what it is that we believe has never seemed so pertinent, so immediate as it appears today. The US Government recently released their UFO files, and a good deal of Americans believe in aliens – 29% according to a USA Today poll in 2013, one third in 2019 according to Gallup. What is as interesting is what people do not believe – namely, that the government is telling the truth. 68% of those surveyed in 2019 believed that the Government was hiding what it really knew about the aliens – a fair achievement given those same people didn’t believe the Government was particularly competent. But belief in things like aliens has little to do with statistics, numbers and science.

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Temporal Gospel

In the modern lexicon, the phrase ‘gospel’ means something that is undeniably true. But does truth change over time?

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the late Pope John Paul II defended capital punishment, ‘…to redress the disorder caused by the offence’. While the pontiff considered the problem ‘in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity,’ it was heavily caveated; it was an almost reluctant accession to conservatism. Nevertheless, ‘[p]ublic authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime,’ the pope wrote. Within two years, however, it was no longer church teaching. The update in 1997 to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while recognising that the death penalty had long been considered appropriate on the part of legitimate authority, that was no longer the case. ‘Today,’ the Catechism goes at section 2267, ‘there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.’ In 2020, Pope Francis cemented the position of the Church in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti. ‘There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide,’ Pope Francis writes in section 263. How could an institution so committed to dogma, doctrine, and a unitary truth shift so dramatically in such a short period of time?

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Loneliness and The Cyborg Transmutation

Robots need friends too!

In the late nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution kicked into gear, social alienation became a significant concern of both social workers (in particular religious pastors and ministers) and policy makers. Durkheim’s anomie was one of the first studies of the phenomenon (The Division of Labour in Society, 1893), though it’s conceivable that such alienation was only made possible by urbanisation and the size of communities permitted through industrialization. Simmel (The Philosophy of Money, 1900) and Tönnies (Community and Civil Society, 1887) each looked at the money system and the built environment respectively as contexts for understanding alienation. Man was alienated from his species essence, in Marxist terms, a fundamentally economic alienation from labour and the product of that labour. The fullest expression of that alienation is ‘in the role of machines in modern life,’ (Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation, 2009) those things that take touch away, that dehumanise. The industrialisation of the machine in the form of the city scaled that effect to community and social dimensions.

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Facebook: The Legitimacy of a Nation State

The Oversight Board: An abstract name for a group charged with making stuff right.

The analogy has been drawn before – that Facebook is like a country. As far back as 2010, The Economist suggested that Facebook was beginning to look like a nation state, comparing a meeting between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the new Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron as ‘more like diplomacy’. In 2014 the Financial Times quoted Zuckerberg as saying to a new hire ‘[t]he best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company.’ In 2018, Vox declared Facebook a Monarchy. But its most recent challenges and changes – specifically the establishment of a new ‘oversight’ board – have been towards addressing a fundamentally political challenge: establishing Facebook’s legitimacy.

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Language, Love and Meaning

Barreling through Eilenberger’s wonderful book on Weimar German philosophy, Time of the Magicians, themes begin to emerge. Some are forced, it has to be said, though language is certainly a consistent force. As Walter Benjamin had it, ‘the original sin of the philosophy of language in the modern era lies first of all in the fundamentally arbitrary nature of linguistic signs.’ (p.212) Ernst Cassirer ‘…understood man’s development through symbols as a continuous process of liberation that found its starting point in conceptual forms from which mythical thought derived.’ In other words, for Benjamin, language confused everything – that one is forced to theorise and philosophise through language limited the possibility of philosophy. Language of course was but one form of communication, one tool for concept formation; yet each concept, expressed as it had to be through nouns, imposed meaning on the thing, and distance between the signifier and the signified. For Cassirer, mythological concepts were as important as linguistic ones, allowing a level of transcendence – even if still wrapped in the stultifying chains of language.

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Fake News and Philosophy

One side effect of the global pandemic is the demise of the conspiratorial huddle, the plotting and the planning over a pint, the dreams of potential realised, riches won, utopias secured. There’s a comfort in the dream, with its glimmer of possibility; though also a buried rationalism that will soften the blow when, in the cold light of the morning, we leave those dreams to one side and pull on our work shoes. Where is the real person in all of this? Is the real person the dreamer, or the worker? Society is largely divided into these groups, of the dreamers and the workers. Most are workers, and some – the artists, musicians, poets – are dreamers. Few get rich – in either category – and happiness appears distributed with a similar consistency.

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Technopolitics

Twitter, Facebook and Google this week finally landed in exactly the position they have been resisting for ten years: front-row politics. In deciding to ban Donald Trump from their platforms, they have made a decision to decisively intervene in the US Presidency, denying one side its voice and making a judgement on the legitimacy or righteousness of that position. It’s really important to take a breath now, and understand just what this moment means.

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The Decline of Liberal Democracy

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. It was always contentious, that idea.

Having laid siege to the bastions of liberal democracy for the past several decades, the forces of reactionary, righteous partisanship can sense victory. Those on the left (though such a homogeneous block is anathema to our current condition – even the idea of homogeneity itself!), the forces of wokeness are terrified, huddled in digital groups, occasionally poking each other in the eye for perceived slights against an increasingly opaque agenda. Gender, race, and identity are more and more personalized, unitized and separated from community, rendering the former concepts meaningless. On the right, there is anger at perceived disenfranchisement, alienation and discrimination by educated elites in academia, media and politics. Around the world in the past four or five years, political victories in the West combined with a surging China and a reassertive Russia have succeeded not only in heading off a fourth wave of democracy, but in pushing back the advances of earlier generations.

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The Strengthening Legitimacy of Europe

Europe appears to have been strengthened by the Brexit process, though there remains considerable work to do.

As the seemingly agreed European-British trade deal approaches ratification, there has been a considerable degree of introspection over quiet glasses of port during the Christmas holiday, in consideration of what it all means. It does seem to be an important moment in the development of the European Union – it is certainly that for the UK – but what does it tell us about the European Project?

The decade from 2008 to 2018 was probably the worst in the history of post-War European integration, from the financial crisis, to the sovereign debt crisis, and (lest we think ‘Brexit’ was anything other than a derivative portmanteau) the risk of ‘Grexit’, the migrant crisis, countless terror attacks, the Brexit vote itself, and Donald Trump’s rejection of internationalism with its tacit approval for Russian aggression on Europe’s eastern borders.

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The Contested Space of Truth and History

The Abu-Ghraib image arguably defined that history far more than documentary evidence or subsequent investigations.

The Chinese appear to have fabricated an image to support a narrative that Australian soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan. In the modern media dominated world, negative stories are quickly suppressed and ignored where they can be confidently denied by a robust and well-disciplined communications strategies. However, when there’s a picture, it is more difficult. Audio and video make the story even more difficult, as they lend themselves to blind sharing, hot takes, and indiscriminate proliferation.

In the post-event / post-allegation battle for control of the narrative, and for a definitive version of events, truth becomes defined. The immediate aftermath is the most important time. Witness Bill Barr’s decision to release his (inaccurate) version of the Mueller Report in the US several weeks before the actual report was released; even though it was wrong, and ultimately provably so, the narrative was sufficiently blunted to as to protect his ‘client’, the American president.

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