Ranganaut

More on the #cancel phenomenon, once again prompted by an essay by Paul Graham. If you don't know who he is, PG is considered a thought leader by the Silicon Valley crowd. He's also one of the founders of Y-Combinator, the startup incubator.

You may also want to know what a thought leader is. The simplest definition I know is: a thought leader is an intellectual with fewer ideas and a lot more money.

A slightly more complex definition: a thought leader is someone with more money than ideas whose job is to convince you how to make money with your ideas.

Intellectuals skew radical. Thought leaders skew conservative. BTW, radical and conservative aren't synonymous with left wing and right wing. A radical is a person whose beliefs lie at one extreme of the currently acceptable spectrum of beliefs. For example, you're a libertarian radical if you belief that governments shouldn't levy taxes, offer public goods or come in the way of any private activity.

While 'extreme' is a subjective term, here's a model that works for me: beliefs are like planets around the social sun. At some point, the planets give way to the interstellar void; in between the planets and the stars is a belt full of cranks and psychopaths. If you believe in no government, you're a planet; if you believe governments (literally) eat children, you're a crank; if you eat children, you're a psychopath.

Back to PG.

He thinks a wealth tax is a bad idea. Which isn't surprising because he's a very rich man whose professional interests lie in convincing people they should invest their time and energy in making themselves very rich and making PG even richer. Why would young men (they are mostly men) flock to San Fransisco to listen to PG's thought leadership if they didn't think he was capable of making them money?

PG is conservative that way, as in, he is at the top of the totem pole and prefers a world that not only keeps him at the top, but also retains the system that keeps him on top. He's also a liberal in the classic sense: he believes in gay rights, racial equality etc, but not at the cost of rocking the boat.

In that he's similar to Steven Pinker and others who are being canceled. The target of #cancel culture isn't the fascist or the white supremacist. It's the liberal conservative. Another term for the target: the neoliberal.

A question arises: why?

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We think dreams are important because of their content, i.e., 'what it was like to be in the dream.' You might have been flying from planet to planet, embarrassing yourself by showing up naked to an interview or meeting your future soul mate: there's no shortage of religious, psychological and astrological interpretation of dreams.

But what about the mood of the dream, the trace it leaves after it exits your mind?

I had this long, vivid dream of visiting Paris yesterday night; landing in the airport and immediately being transported to a terribly boring lecture by a French academic who went on and on about politics and security. I can't remember a word of what he said, but I recall how his pants were too short and yet he had folded them at the bottom.

Why?

And then I went to this amazing black lives matter rally, except that it was a dance and music performance. I can't remember the words there either, but remember the power of one woman's singing in particular.

Soon it was time to go to our final destination. A cafe that was right next to another cafe – a Siamese twin cafe, so to speak. We never got there. I panicked when I couldn't see my daughter on the trip to the bus stop, she wasn't anywhere on the sidewalk. Then I saw her sitting in the front row of the bus we were going to take.

I wanted to climb the bus steps and sit next to my daughter but someone wasn't letting me in. They didn't prevent me from boarding but kept wanting to talk to me right there when all I wanted was to get inside and sit next to my daughter.

And then the dream ended.

I guess I remember more of its content than I thought I would when I started writing, but it's beginning to fade in my head. I still feel it vividly in my spine, where it's left me with a straight backed confidence that I have been drawing upon the whole day.

Dreams tell a story in the foreground, but what's as important is the mood and the posture in the background. I am going to try noticing those as carefully as the content.

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This is a glimpse, a mere snippet of what's likely going to be a long series about the geopolitics of #cancel culture.

Let's start by asking: who are the people complaining loudly about being canceled?

The noises aren't coming from the right wing. It's not as if Rush Limbaugh or some KKK hack is crying that he's being bullied in the Twitter playground. No, it's people who for the most part have impeccable liberal credentials.

Tenured professors at Harvard whose self-image is that of an anti-racist pro-LGBT progressive. People who believe in reason and science and wouldn't be caught denying climate change if their lives depended on it.

So what are they being canceled?

To understand the answer, we have to go back to the 'End of History.' No, not the day of judgment but Francis Fukuyama's famous book of that name, which claimed at the end of the Cold War that liberal democracy combined with market capitalism have solved the basic problems of humankind for ever. The west had won. First Sauron (Hitler) was defeated and then Saruman (Stalin) was taken down.

In that EOH world, liberal exemplars at Harvard and Princeton were creatures who commanded worldwide respect. Others might disagree with them, but they were good people and expected to be treated as such by everyone. Even the radicals like Chomsky lived at the margins of liberalism and were protected because they were frenemies.

Not so anymore.

Cancel culture doesn't respect liberal champions as moral exemplars, people to be respected or even accommodated. They are no longer history's winners. Brexit and Trump have shown liberalism to be weak at home and the rise of China is showing liberalism to be weak abroad. The disastrous handling of the COVID crisis is only adding to that failure.

A new world is being born, a world in which liberalism as an idea is being challenged from both sides. Equally importantly, the center of moral gravity is also shifting.

Where to?

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Introduction

I am right in the middle of #cancel culture. I don't like the term, for it's almost always used in the way 'political correctness' was used and continues to be used. Which is to say, as a way of justifying oppressive regimes of race, gender, caste etc.

It's a strange world in which those complaining about police violence, about structural injustice and fear for life and limb are being labeled illiberal while those who want to perpetuate their position at the top of the ladder clothe themselves in the flag of free speech.

Social media, especially Twitter, can be a mean place and both right and left wing partisans have gone after their opponents. I would think that anyone who looks at the world objectively will see that right-wing authoritarian regimes have gained power over much of the planet, and so the right-wing hate brigade has had much more success than their left-wing counterparts.

Then again, there's nothing to celebrate when people are fired or ostracized for remarks taken out of context or said when they were too young to know better. Forgiveness is generally a good thing and it's not a prized virtue among the partisans on either side. I am frequently guilty of harshness myself.

Right or wrong, something yuuuge is afoot. It's one thing to go after fascists but when there's genuine anger against people who represent the good side of the 'European Enlightenment,' we might be at the brink of a sea change in attitudes. People who were used to being seen as moral and intellectual leaders are now suspect.

The Answer My Friend....

I will give you an example: Chomsky is no longer a darling of the young left. That's a tragedy at one level, for he's a man I admire greatly. Then again, he's very much embedded in the 'natural superiority' of Euro-American culture. In none of his books does he engage in any depth with any non-Western thinker. Which has to be a conscious omission in a scholar who will unearth minor memos written by some state department hack as evidence for US imperialism.

All of which is to say that while the current debate focuses on the 'cancel' in cancel culture the real struggle is over the #culture in cancel culture.

That's the question I am going to explore, for I believe we are at the beginning of a millennial shift in ideas about culture and knowledge. For now: frequent short posts rather than chapter length essays.

Whose culture and why?

The Culture in Cancel Culture

The 'traditional' left was steeped in materialist history and in its mythology, the main struggle was over control over the means of production, i.e., who gets to own the factories and who gets the fruits of manufacture.

The contemporary left's struggles are over race, gender, sexuality and other markers of identity. Many of my traditionalist leftie friends are troubled by identity politics. They think identity politics are used by the capitalist class to divide the lower classes.

Which is likely true. Why else would a white blue collar worker vote for Trump?

But at the same time, the importance of identity reflects a major shift in the history of production itself. Industrial manufacturing produces stuff using physical mechanical devices – wealth and power accrue to those who control these devices.

In contrast, it's the manufacture of information – in the form of software, data and finance – that's at the heart of the cybernetic system we inhabit today and the manufacture of identity is central to this cybernetic system: just as industrial manufacturing produces widgets, cybernetic manufacturing produces people.

Another way of putting it: culture is not something incidental to the contemporary world, like going to church on Sundays to listen to sermons about humility while crushing your competition the rest of the week. Culture is actively being produced and reproduced; most obviously on social media, but also in other parts of the information economy.

Which is why cancel culture is so important: it's not a fight over a peripheral part of the world system while we neglect what's really real. Culture is what's really real.

#Thoughts

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Wherever you go, there you are. Sounds like the title of a new age book and it probably is the title of one, but there's a core truth to the statement. The world envelops us, making its fruits available when we need them and sending tigers our way when we aren't looking. It's always there. Switched on 24/7.

There's transparency to the world's presence. Whether fighting or fleeing, there's an ease to our being – we are never at a loss. As I scream my mother's name while being swallowed alive by the tiger, I am under no illusion as to what's happening. True illusion is rare and incomprehension is conspicuous by its absence. We might be lost on the way home but there's never a sense that life itself is a loss. The world – or what we often emphasize as the real world is the best user experience we will ever have.

Of course, some might argue that the transparency is a consequence of natural selection, that those who stood mystified as the tiger leapt towards them are gone forever. While it's a compelling argument, I am not convinced. I believe that there's a genuine sense in which the world is transparent to us, within the constraints binding us as a species – and that freedom is not unique to humans; it's in the nature of being alive.

Unfortunately, its intense familiarity makes it extremely hard to study. There's no science of the world as such; in fact, we are at a loss to explain why there's a world in the first place. Where in this vast universe of galaxies and quarks is the world into which we awake in the morning and from which we slip away at night? With all our sciences, we can only study the world through surrogates – consider something as vivid as the redness of a summer rose: where in our measurements of reflection and wavelength is the color red? For that matter, where's the rose?

The physical universe is without character or meaning, while the world is filled with both. We can't study the world indirectly. Ah, you must be thinking: he's talking about the mystery of consciousness, the strange presence of seeing colors and smelling perfumes in a universe of colorless and odorless photons and molecules.

You would be wrong. The world has as little to with consciousness as it has to do with matter. They are both correlates, not the real thing.

Tomorrow: From Consciousness to Experience

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There are many injustices caused by the COVID crisis – treatment of migrant laborers and daily wage earners, increasing racism etc. But one comically cruel injustice that's almost never mentioned is the treatment of animals, who are treated cruelly at best and the crisis is bringing out the absolute worst in humanity.

We know that pandemics are often caused by close contact between humans and domesticated and wild animals bound for slaughter. While we are going on in a racist vein about bat eating Chinese, let's also take a look at some gratuitous cruelty elsewhere too.

Everyone knows broiler chickens are housed in abysmal conditions and are bred to add weight so quickly that their bones break and they're unable to walk. After a relatively short lifetime of extreme misery, they are slaughtered in industrial operations.

What happens when the virus prevents slaughterhouse workers from coming to work? You now have millions of birds that are

  • still growing and breaking their wings and legs.
  • need to fed with no recouping of costs when they are turned into meat.

Which is to say they are at the bottom of the capitalist hierarchy: a commodity that costs money but doesn't make money. Which is why they are now sold off as trash that can be disposed like trash – the American Veterinary Medical Association has approved of methods that will supposedly be for the bird's benefit, but actually includes methods such as:

” accepted methods incld: drowning in foam (63 secs to death), suffocating w/ CO2 (6-7 mins), & baking alive via “ventilation shutdown” (30 mins – 3 hours)”

Two million sentient beings are going to be treated even more horribly than they normally are because why? If you eat chicken you need to stop now. I hope the COVID crisis spurs a massive shift away from animal agriculture.

Especially factory farming.

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We have seen what social media did in the US election and then in Brazil. The upcoming election in India might be the biggest challenge yet for the future of electronically mediated democratic discourse. I am skeptical of Facebook's capacity to deal with this problem while satisfying four constraints:

  1. Its business needs. After all, so many of FB's advertisers benefit from the hatred that's floating around (See those Muslims eating beef; bad Muslims; let me offer you some nice vegetarian pakodas instead – I am vegan myself but the identification of meat eating with one community is outright criminal).

  2. Its user needs. In India as in many other parts of the world, people are genuinely partisan. They want to share hateful messages because that's what they believe. Elections bring out that latent hatred even in those who are usually uncommitted.

  3. It's concern for privacy. Whatsapp is encrypted from end to end. How is FB even going to know what's being shared on Whatsapp? It can limit the number of shares but all that will do is to make the hate spewers hire more people to share their hatred.

  4. The sheer volume in so many languages. Algorithmic curation can only go so far. How will FB's AI figure out complex family dynamics where I can share a progressive message and get a negative response from an otherwise beloved uncle?

I am convinced that this is how chaotic capitalism works but I am less interested in pointing fingers than in figuring out the underlying dynamics. We have almost reached a point of no return.

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Brief comments on this article by George Monbiot.

Even those who are aware of the emergency imposed by climate change underestimate the urgency.

Let's take the most extreme responses that have been discussed so far. In the US there's talk of a green new deal or a world war II style mobilization against fascism.

Will these be enough?

I don't think so. For one, such proposals are immediately followed by the mention of market forces and carbon taxes and how solar power is getting cheaper than coal and gas.

I think those are false, even harmful framings of the challenge before us.

Do we really think the complete overhaul of our way of life, the way we live and work, the way we move, the way we eat, the way we pray, the way we do everything is going to solved by a tax or limited state action?

I doubt it.

It's also not going to be solved by a “war effort.” Wars are limited mobilizations, both in space and in time. It took six years to defeat Hitler after which we went back to guzzling gas and minting widgets.

In contrast, what we need is a permanent change from an extractive to a regenerative society. We can't just invest $30 Trillion in carbon sucking devices and pretend as if the rest of our way of being is adequate. Geoengineering is too small an ask, WW II style mobilization is too small an ask. Neither is asking us to change the underlying system that has brought us to this pass.

What we need is a complete and total re-imagination of human life on this planet.

#ClimateChange

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Brief comment on this NYT article by Tim Wu.

This article reminds me of Peter Thiel's infamous claim that monopolies are preferable to competition. No wonder he supported Trump. We need to wean ourselves off their seductive gadgets and networks but I am not so sure where we are going to find the political will to do so.

Part of the problem is that modern monopolies work – they are well designed, they are more efficient than the companies they supplant and they are more customer oriented than a grizzly mom and pop store. Who doesn't like their Amazon prime and who can live without Google? A monopoly such as Amazon is able to use its central role to bargain for lower prices for the customer – who cares if their employees faint from the heat in the warehouse?

Another reason monopolies work is because it's easier for them to lobby for favorable policies; they don't need to worry about competitors with different priorities. Every acquisition by Amazon or Google or Bayer makes it easier for them to get laws passed in their favor and also easier for them to lobby against Verizon or Comcast for net neutrality. It's easier going against a heavyweight if you're one yourself.

I am not convinced that antitrust action will work – they are national solutions to companies that are global by nature. Monopolistic capital weakens the nation state itself and the tragedies of Brexit, Trump and Bolsonaro are signs of the powerlessness of nation states to respond to our networked era.

#Monopolies #Corporations

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NYT Cover about Amazon's H2 Strategy

Brief comment about this article on Amazon's Machiavellian second headquarter strategy.

Let's see. Cities fell all over themselves to get Amazon to their doorstep. Which means, not only sharing of data about household incomes, housing stock, complementary businesses, storage spaces and what not, but also any number of public officials and business leaders who added themselves willingly to Amazon's network. Perhaps a couple of drone flights to the moon thrown into the bargain.

In other words, not only did the country hand over data and political & business relationships to Amazon, they paid to do so. Amazon gets to drive past go and collect $$$ without having to work for it – it's like they were handed a bagful of dice with sixes on every face.

And then they communicate this decision on the one day of the year when no one is paying attention to Bezos. Pretty brilliant in a Machiavellian kind of way.

#Corporations

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