Author: anthonybehan

Researching state legitimacy, AI, identity, critical theory, and how technology changes personal identity and the nation state. One wife, three dogs, six guitars, and a seldom used trombone. Work for IBM but this is completely independent of that.

The Golden Calf and Trickle-Up Economics

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments (Exodus, Ch. 19 ff.), he took a bit longer than expected. The people, concerned that Moses might not actually come back, decided to make their own God to worship, and created a golden calf, from the assorted gold of the people there gathered. ‘These are they Gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt,’ said Aaron, and by all accounts they had something of a party to celebrate. The story always made me think about the utility of the calf; it was very expensive. The economic cost of the thing was immense. And while the yield – being metaphysical – was literally incalculable (what price redemption and/or salvation!), surely there were cheaper ways to fashion a God? What about a nice painted papier-maché calf? That would have looked just as good.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that there were a thousand people there, and each had ten units of value. If half of those units of value were offered up to the communal icon building exercise, then the collective wealth of the group was now reduced by half. That value has now – for all earthly purposes – vanished. It’s gone. It can be recovered, but biblical wrath would surely follow. A lot of effort went into creating that calf, it had better be worth it.

Now consider the wealthy family paying forty thousand dollars to fly first class from London to New York. This family has a lot of money. Let’s say it’s $100m. They could do this a hundred times, and still have $96m left. So they don’t really care. If asked about their conscience, they might say something to the effect of ‘trickle down economics’. The logic runs something like this: of the forty thousand dollars, some contributes to the cost of the flight – along with the other two-hundred-odd people on the plane, they’re all contributing in a relative way to the fuel, the cost of airplane maintenance, the cost of security, the cost of airport services, luggage handling, food, flight attendants, pilots, rights for on-demand entertainment channels, and so on. The total cost of that will still, however, be less than the total cost of the tickets.

This rich family have paid more than their share, in order to get the nice plush seats at the front of the plane. The moral rationale remains that the balance of their ticket price will find its way into the pockets of other people less fortunate, by being distributed through the corporate system into other workers’ pockets, sometimes as sub-contractors, perhaps as wages, perhaps as services in kind, perhaps as government services funded by corporation tax receipts. That’s trickle-down economics.

Let’s say there are another two hundred people on the plane, each of whom has paid $1,000 each for their ticket. That’s a total of $240,000 for the flight. Let’s say each flight like this costs the airline company $200,000 for everything, including a contribution towards company overheads like marketing, CEO bonuses and so on. This means that the company will make $40,000 profit on this flight. Where does that money go?

Increasingly, the money is beginning to accumulate into funds, high net worth individuals, and ‘off-shore instruments’ that protect that money. A larger and larger portion of the world’s GDP – around 10%, or $7 trillion according to the IMF – is held ‘offshore’. It is too much money to spend, and so it sits there, slowly – very slowly – being chipped away at by agents, bankers, insurance salesmen and other financial intermediaries tasked with maintaining the advantages of the elite.

It represents incredible waste. The money fails to trickle down, but remains suspended in untouchable isolation, a golden calf for the twenty-first century. We dare not touch it – last the wrath of our modern day secular theology be loosed upon us. This is the central suggestion of an upcoming book by Eugene McCarraher, called The Enchantments of Mammon. Having not yet seen the book, I would anticipate that it follows on the work of Carl Schmitt and Giorrio Agamben, and the concept of secular theologies that have so dominated the later twentieth century. ‘Far from displacing religions, as has been supposed,’ the blurb puts it, ‘capitalism became one, with money as its deity.’ We shall see!

The Rule of Law and Bentham’s Panopticon

Modern politicians, and – if polling is to be believed – modern electorates are preoccupied with law and order. Policing, rural crime, safety on our streets are issues of grave concern to the politicians promising more and more cops, and deliverance from threats to safety and security. At the same time, spending is being reduced, and outcomes are deteriorating in visible ways through reduced sentences, and lower conviction rates. The rule of law appears to be weaker.

In all liberal democratic countries today, rules-based systems for management, scoring and budgeting are proliferating, where algorithms score performance of social functions – like policing – and allocate resources accordingly. Tolerance thresholds are tested to assess the point at which people will reject austerity and cuts, addressing popular reactions with localised and targeted investment. The approach results in a minimum viable level approach to policing.

These rules-based systems are doing something else too. They are scoring the individual, designing incentives programs for job performance, promotion and preferment. The functions and objectives of individual policemen are quantified and reported upon in a thoroughly transparent and often subjectively oppressive way.

Rules-based systems – algorithmically implemented or not – have a performative impact on the service being delivered. Good behaviour is often not recognised within the system, and poor behaviour is sometimes rewarded. While on the one hand, resource distribution in an area might be statistically equitable, officer performance may be optimal, and crime rates may be acceptable, people may perceive there to be a breakdown of law and order. They may detect that the incentives for crime are higher – that there’s less chance of getting caught; that even if you do get caught, you’re not likely to be convicted; that you’ll be out on bail in twenty-four hours and not likely to see a judge for a year or more; that even if you do get convicted, you’ll only serve half your time.

The rule of law is based on two elements, one prescriptive and one invisible. The prescription is the law-book itself: things that are illegal, rules for discipline and punishment, and a court, prosecution and enforcement bureaucracy. The invisible element of the rule of law is the complicit populous, a people who agree with the system, who participate in the system, and who are a part of that system. This needs officials – police officers – who are focused on reinforcing the rule of law, and not just enforcing the law. That is the shift that liberal democracies are making, and the absence of rule of law reinforcement appears to be undermining the rule of law itself.

Of course, this is happening while the actual enforcement of the law is becoming ever more efficient. Fewer cops are needed, fewer stations, fewer prisons. At the same time – the algorithms and the statistics tell us – we are becoming safer, because the crime rates are falling. Every quarter police agencies all over the world release crime statistics showing how things continue to get better; and yet, too often it simply doesn’t seem that way at all.

Jeremy Betham’s idea for the panopticon – a prison design formed in a circle, with an elevated platform in the center from which every cell was visible – has often been referred to in the recent debates on privacy and surveillance. A key element of Bentham’s idea however is that the prison population becomes compliant, as it is always possible that any one of the prisoners is being observed. The rule of law is not merely about the enforcement of law; it is about the willing compliance of the lay population in its enforcement.

In a fascinating paper last year, Bayamlıoğlu and Leenes outlined three areas of concern in the rule of law under the auspices of data-driven decision making: law as a normative enterprise, law as a causative enterprise and law as a moral enterprise. Recognising these three, and acknowledging the poverty of algorithmic decision making in the execution of policing as competent to reinforce the rule of law, how far should we go? A rules-based approach is bound to fail; we need to redesign how we do policing.

Anarchist Reactionaries

The term ‘reactionary’ is a part of the conservative lexicon, referring to those opposed to progressive or liberal politics. In general terms, the reactionary harkens back to imagined histories, recoiling against the ‘improvements’ of liberalism and the destruction of a happier, often bucolic past. Things were simpler then. As Tony Soprano says, ‘What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.’ The reactionary abhors what is called ‘political correctness’, ‘safe spaces’, and the idea that everyone is somehow entitled to their own personal truth about the world. The reactionary seeks a common view of the world that he and his kind can share in. The world, in the mind of the reactionary, is not a complicated place, it’s pretty black and white. 

It seems there has emerged a new reactionary in the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit. The classical reactionary core has persisted, an illiberal nostalgic set that verges on (and sometimes indulges in) racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia. But there is another kind of reactionary force that neither seeks a return to the past or an elimination of the liberal conception of progress: these reactionaries seek to blow up the system itself, this image of the world that has failed. This is often poorly articulated, but finds voice in those who respond to claims that Trump or Brexit will cause huge disruption with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘So?’ they would say, ‘That’s why I voted for him/Brexit!’ They are fed up with left and right; they didn’t vote for a party, they didn’t vote for an ideology: they voted for an explosion. 

The new reactionary has more in common with anarchists if the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. They are reacting to the inequality that both the conservative right and the liberal left are seeking to preserve and perpetuate. The right seeks to stop the liberal socialist agenda and maintain a historic position of ascendancy that has been successful for them; while the left seeks to perpetuate the progressive politics that serve their people better, with their cosmopolitan / Utopian view of the world. Each of them has little to offer the marginalised, the less well educated, the impoverished, whose numbers continue to swell. The electoral calculus is less between the parties, and more between the disenfranchised and the voters, between the numbers of unequals who choose to vote, and those who do not. And even were they to vote – who would they vote for? Brexit wasn’t a who, but a what – and that was a box they could tick. Similarly, Trump wasn’t really a Republican – the GOP hated him almost as much as the Democrats – and that meant avoiding a red/blue choice entirely.

On top of all of this, history is served by that group deciding between left and right. This isn’t quite the same as shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic; these ‘leaders’ aren’t even on the same boat as everyone else. It may work, in the short term; but our history is a short lived thing. In the greater scheme of things, hubris to one side, what exactly are these people – those in titular power – trying to achieve? Can they articulate that?  There is a detachment of power from populous, where the architecture of State is not governed by the people but merely navigated by them. Moises Naim’s 2013 book The End of Power is a useful assessment of this new alienation, and helps to inform what happened in 2016; but it doesn’t explain how those in putative control persist their ambition, itself an atavistic, out-dated model.

The alliance of these two groups – the opportunist elites and the marginalised poor – is a strange one. They share an objective on one level – that of blowing up the status quo – but their ultimate aims are both nebulous: the marginalised just want to shout that ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more’, while the elites merely want to acquire power for power’s sake. Neither is a substantive ambition beyond immediate electoral success. Ultimately, having succeeded in the first part of their plan, the question is a simple one: Now what?

Guilt, Anxiety and Glory in the Anthropocene

Dr Joanna Zylinska of Goldsmiths university was interviewed recently on the Cultures of Energy podcast, in the context of her 2018 book The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. The short book considers technology and techno-utopianism, with its attendant myth of progress, and feminism, in the context of the climate crisis and coming transformations. There are a thousand different ideas in there, but the words that kept resonating for me as I listened were guilt, anxiety and glory. I’m not sure if I fully grasped everything she said – I’ll listen to the podcast again later, and I’ve ordered the book – but if you’re interested in reading this, you should try and find time for the podcast.

The first word that resonated was guilt. The crushing order of our species is one that insists on a perceived failure, in the face of extraordinary opportunity. We have caused the climate crisis, because of our myopia, our greed, our self-centered nature. Not just that, but economic precarity, global inequality, and the generally poor state of the world today. It’s all in there: despite magnificent technologies and epoch-defining political structures, we have persistently failed to progress.

The second word was anxiety, perhaps less dwelt upon in the podcast (we’ll see about the book) but this pearl-clutching and hand-wringing at our impotence in the face of such enormous challenges: we can fight against fossil fuel consumption, but not at the cost of our way of life. We won’t pay more for bread; that lesson was learned in Paris more than two hundred years ago. So how is real change effected? We are stuck in this dreadful mess, somewhat in denial of our latent hypocrisies.

The third word was glory. Our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by machines: sleek, bright, shiny, airbrushed. It is an artificial world, a made up world, a sanitised non-existent reality that is magnificent! Our politics, our sports, our media are all relayed to us as absolutes, binary versions of life that are simply excellent. There are few grey areas: bad guys are invariably bad; good guys, if they do bad things, do them for good reasons. You’re either with us, or against us. This world presented to us is a world of perfection, a mortal impossibility, only sustainable as a utopian representation, a theological dream: this is the world as in some abstract, objective, good sense it should be. All hail the shiny screen, the tinselled glimmer of the comforting unreal.

This of course has echoes of the bewilderment I’ve written about before, the dichotomy of one the one hand extraordinary technological and even socio-political achievement, eulogised in media and the salvational elements of which are extolled by politicians; and on the other hand, accelerating inequality, impending climate catastrophe, and political apathy and disenfranchisement that delegitimises the so-called ‘public’ sphere.

Zylinska also published a short film – Exit Man – which is worth a look. Her adventurousness in terms of media and platform is praiseworthy, as she considers avenues outside the academic mainstream to connect and communicate: in this time where experts are rejected, and public intellectuals appear to have vanished from the stage, we need new mechanisms to inject thoughtfulness into our politics.

Falling Down

In Martin Heidegger‘s Being and Time, he refers to verfallen as a characteristic of being, or dasein. It means fallen-ness, or falling prey, an acknowledgement that we do things not because we want to do them, but because we must; we act in particular ways, we fall into line, we do jobs, have families, get a mortgage and a pension, obey the law and so on. We consciously engage with the systems and societies into which we have found ourselves. It is surprising how frequently this concept of ‘the fall’ emerges in philosophy, theology and popular culture.

Plato’s Republic begins ‘I went down to the Piraeus.’ He is descending to the port of Athens, where unsavoury types tend to gather, the great unwashed. These are the uneducated people, the slaves, the lower order beings. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descends from the cave on top of the mountain as a kind of shift from pure being to some kind of contaminated entity. Marx and Engels develop Feuerbach’s theme of alienation for the worker (something that was apparently not an issue when craftsmen made objects and sold them) from the commodity, has similar themes of distance. Indeed, in Feuerbach’s original work his distinction was that between God and Man, between the moral and the immortal. Most of all, Heidegger’s language evokes The Fall of Man, the original sin in the Garden of Eden, of innocence and paradise lost.

There is in all of these things a clear distinction between a higher plane of existence, and a lower, base, grubby humanity. There is a gap between what Heidegger would call authenticity and inauthenticity. It is between the real and the unreal.

Sometimes we open windows onto this realisation, when something that defies science or rationality rears its head. Something that just doesn’t make sense. Like Brexit, or War, or Suicide. How can rational beings act in such ways? Does the question morph into – are we rational beings at all? From time to time, we inquire into the nature of our reality to try and understand – to really understand – what is going on, to seek to become authentic. We get glimpses, brief moments of clarity. We recognise that we have blind spots; we recognise some of the follies of our world, the hypocrisies and the hubris. We might briefly recognise that upon these false assumptions we have built enormous social edifices, that persist through a shared (mis)interpretation of what our purpose on this earth is.

That misinterpretation is there because we are fallen, descended, socialised, machined. Heidegger also talks about technology – a lot! – and describes technology in two ways: as revealing, and as enframing. In revealing, technology is a revealing of the potentiality of the world. A tree is a potential mallet; the emergence of the mallet from that tree is a revealing of its potentiality. In enframing, technology (particularly modern, industrialised technology) enframes the world, it corrals the world for the purposes of human advancement (to wherever).

In my continued evaluation of the theology of technology, these themes in Heidegger resonate forcefully. In particular, however, I continue to consider the power of AI and information technologies to see past the blind spots and hypocrisies and hubris not just occasionally, but persistently; unless we design all of these machines to be inauthentic – and many of them will certainly be designed that way – AI will become authentic. AI will become Zarathustra. And to us, it may appear that the machines will have gone insane. As Heidegger said in his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, ‘…only a God can save us now!’

Judgement, Certainty and Theories of Value

In a recent high court case in Ireland, a Judge in the High Court ruled in a precedent-setting decision that in delivering an ‘all-clear’ result from a cervical smear test, the lab should only do so in cases where they have absolute certainty. The language used has raised significant concerns, as such a threshold is seen as too high to reach. As cancer specialist Prof Donal Brennan told RTE, there’s very little that is absolute in medicine; one presumes he was thinking of death as the sole exception to the rule. The reaction briefly opened up a dialogue on science and knowledge, truth and epistemology, revealing a fundamental flaw in the human condition, and just as quickly it closed again.

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Van Gogh @ Tate Britain

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night Over The Rhone: such a lovely picture! But is that all? Sadly, perhaps, yes.

There are two aspects of the Tate Britain show ‘Van Gogh and Britain’ that to my mind are remarkable: first, the extent to which the artist himself is sensitive, but shallow; and second, that the connection with Britain is somewhat forced. Van Gogh is a painter of landscapes, flowers, and people, who introduced innovations in brush strokes and impasto, with occasionally fauvish colours that were radical in their time. Stylistically, van Gogh is instantly recognisable, with his wavy lines and deliberate forms; but where is the depth?

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