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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The Philosophy of Technology

Where does the human end, and the technology begin?

What do we think about when we think about technology? What are we really talking about? The philosophical consideration of technology begins with the relationship between technology and the human subject. From there, it extends to the relationship between the human subject and her environment. The very word between directly implies separation – two distinct entities – and therein lies our first dangerous assumption: is technology an extension of the human subject, as we in practice assume it to be? Is it somehow separate from her?

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The Politics of Posterity

Titus Livius, or simply Livy, Historian of Rome. The question is why did he write his histories?

In assessing the battlefield casualties Rome suffered in the first thirty years of the second century BC, Livy (c59 BC – c17 AD) estimates 55,000. The classicist Mary Beard distrusts the figures – and that number, she suggests, is far too low. In the first instance, ‘there was no systematic tally of deaths on an ancient battlefield; and all numbers in ancient texts have to be treated with suspicion, victims of exaggeration, misunderstanding and over the years some terrible miscopying by medieval monks.’ In addition, she continues, ‘[t]here was probably a patriotic tendency to downplay Roman losses; it is not clear whether allies as well as Roman citizens were included; there must have been some battles and skirmishes which do not feature in Livy’s list; and those who subsequently died of their wounds must have been very many indeed (in most circumstances, ancient weapons were much better at wounding than killing outright; death followed later, by infection).’ (SPQR, p.131-2)

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The Philosophical Influences of F. A. Hayek

Friedrich Hayek receives the Nobel Prize in Economics, in 1974

Friedrich Hayek is perhaps best known as the father of neoliberalism, a quasi-messianic belief in markets as the prime source of a concept of value (and deliverance from totalitarianism), and the idea of spontaneous order, that things – all things – are not controlled, but ordered, spontaneously. His Nobel prize in 1974 was awarded in part for his ‘penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.’ In other words, he was no mere ‘financial’ economist, whatever that might mean. His was a big project, one that encompassed the ultimate political objective of protecting individual liberty, in a career that spanned over sixty years, and major works including The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty.

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