Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Fauci, Surveillance and Penetrance

Among other ways, the (English language) world is divided among those who can read James Joyce and feel that he is worth reading, and those who find such writing to be an extended cautionary retelling of the story of the emperor without any clothes. Beautiful language signifying nothing.

There are conspiracy theorists on all sides just simply because trust has been destroyed. The crowd sourcing levelling effect of communications technology seems most to have amplified heartless and soulless grabs for money and power of the sort exemplified by not just spam and robo-calling, but which is written into the business plans of Google, Facebook and many others.

For a short while, we thought the over-eager-to-break-things script kiddies (it was called creative destruction) were a type of genius. Disruption was celebrated, and the unicorn founders seemed to drink their own water, that they were a force for good in the world.

But genius can, after all, be squandered on self-aggrandizement instead of soul. Flamboyant showing off can be wonderful to watch, but at some point it is for the sole amusement of the educated rich and settled, or perhaps the self-indulgent rubes at the other end. The ends meet, where monster trucks become the same as Paganini. There be dragons.

None of what has been happening is unattractive on the surface. We have been living a very good life indeed.

Lived life encapsulates all the forces of evolution is a dance of life and death and transformation. Humanity has wanted to rise above beastly, but has courted instead a deadly cutting off from the rest of the living earth. Dominion is not the same as humanity's place in the evolutionary muddle.

We seem to have mistaken the cognitive part of our brains for the truer locus for soul. The cognitive parts of our brain have been meant to feed choices to our emotive center, which is the seat of consciousness. Our emotive center takes charge of what our cognitive center decides for us. We have energy for only the diminutive slice which is conscious cognition.

Apart from those who read Joyce, the rest of us must be moved with less subtlety. Pardon us. Our education had better get us a job. Our entertainment had better have some soul. We are far too busy to take the time to read Ulysses (I've tried three times, each time getting further, so I guess I'm taking my time).

I seem to be the only one whose ears perked up while I was listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci tout this administration bringing in the private sector, and in particular his highlighting of their value for 'surveillance to determine penetrance.'

I know that he also refers to surveillance as what the old and broken system was set up to do, but the language becomes Joycean, in a way. I find that penetrance refers more to genetic spread than viral. We all make such mistakes in speech. Joyce is allowed to make his in writing and still be thought to be deliberate about it, because his readers have that much confidence in his hold on the language.

I don't wish to split hairs about which of the administration's moves are right or wrong. I don't want to turn an ad hominem argument - which is bad in the first place - on its head to say that everything a bad person does is ipso facto bad. But there is no splitting hairs to say that this administration has long since betrayed any confidence I might have had in their administration of their offices.

My goal, as must be the goal of each of us, is to move away from bulk condemnation of what a person does on the basis of what we think the person is. Even bad guys can be good school bus drivers. But they shouldn't get a pass on the rest of their behavior.

I get antsy when anyone from the right talks about sweeping away all the rules to unleash the private sector as a solution to all our troubles. I disagree with the Chinese claim that democracy puts amateurs in government. Yes, our elected officials are meant to be amateurs of the best sort, and for a very good reason.

Highly effective amateurs will know a great deal about a wide range of matters, and they will appoint the genuine experts to 'manage the complex machinery of the social contract,' to paraphrase a young friend who was once a still more youthful anarchist. This administration has put amateurs in the place of experts far too often, their only qualification being sycophancy. This does not earn my confidence.

Apart from Google's distancing itself from the administration's claims about what they are going to do to help resolve this pandemic, we must look forward to their granting access to the graphs of our behaviors, so that our government can better identify locations and interactions which require special attention toward combating the spread of COVID 19.

I wonder, will there even be notice on Google's input form that our personal information will be gathered for the purpose of surveillance of the disease? Will there be an opt-out? Can we trust it? If not, then how will the surveillance be useful, if people won't trust that their information will be kept confidential and anonymized for the public good?

Of course we also all know that Google (and Verizon, and AT&T and especially Facebook, along with many others on the coattails) has the goods, when it comes to tracking our movements and our interactions. We have tended to trust them more than we trust our government, since the consequence to them for breaching that trust would be so severe and so nearly instant.

Hmmmm, how many have signed off Facebook . . . ? Why wasn't Facebook up on stage? Too blatant? Too much in our face? Would that have meant instant death for Facebook to sign on so literally and blatantly with that administration? Did Sandburg lean-in on Zuck to make him do the right thing (or wrong, depending on point of view)?

Surveillance feels like a sensible thing to do. A benign government would use the data to pinpoint deployments of scarce personnel and resources, perhaps even to the extent of contact with specific individuals.

But we must be cognizant of the ways in which we are now to relate to one another. The infected will become the guilty and social distancing will turn to shunning and perhaps even hatred very quickly. This has already happened toward people who look (and act, by way of wearing face-masks) Chinese, as it certainly did happen to Muslims after 9 /11.

The extraordinary powers granted after 9/11 have never quite been rescinded, have they? Chelsea Manning only just got sprung from her dangerous stint in prison for refusing to testify in secret to a grand jury. Bill Gates resigns from corporate boards, and a member of the SCOTUS bar resigns in protest for how political the Court has become.

The above are, of course, meaningless coincidence, as is the timing for the declaration of emergency on Friday the 13th.

But it was not meaningless when Google refused to operate in China if that meant granting that government access to private information about its users, when that information might be used to suppress free speech. What will they do now? Will they even have a choice? How different have they become?

Perhaps we should do as the UK seems poised to do. Let the young become awash with the virus and sample for herd immunity among the apparently often asymptomatic youth. Then let us oldsters come out of our social isolation once the prevalence of the virus has been abated. Or in other words, does surveillance even matter absent an effective vaccine.

Boris seems nuttier than the Donald at the moment.

Can any vaccine remain effective as the virus mutates? Can herd immunity remain effective? The flu never seems to go away, and so we have to chase it with imperfect vaccines based on imperfect predictions.

How long will we have to stay away from social gatherings? Perhaps this will be less meaningful for those youth who are never away from their screens and seldom seem to want to be outside.

Of course, as few of us have read James Joyce as have read Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism.  I rather tend in the direction of thinking Joyce a naked emperor for what he might have to say of substance, apart from the beauty of his saying it. Ditto Tarantino, much though I admire most Miramax films. I might find Zuboff too mainstream.

These are tendencies only, and far from any conviction on my part. I tend to trust my betters and keep trying.

Zuboff does not directly warn against the expropriation by government of those parts of our behavioral commons on which Google and others have squatted for their (astounding) profit. She may even be suggesting that only the government should and must have say over whether and how anyone may profit.

I am waiting for our government to come back from the wilds of extreme support for transnational corporate socialism, so that we may decide as a people how we wish to deal with surveillance; with the true fake news of the likes of Fox, Inc.; and with the relative places of science and religion in our deliberations as those involve the public trust.

It would seem that there are proper ways that our private intersections and peregrinations might be shared with "the authorities." We may personally wish to have access to a "graph" which helps us to know our individual danger of having been infected, based on our social interactions. We cannot expect our friends and neighbors to know enough about their own risk factors, but we surely don't want to be suspicious that they are behaving unsafely, selfishly and without telling anyone.

Some among us have never had and never even hope to have the privilege to jet around the globe at will (I am not including myself among that group, but I do identify with that "us" more than with the elite). I fear that those who pay for this virus's spread will be the ones blamed for being unclean and ignorant in their behaviors, while those actually carrying the virus will be exempted, and even declared "clean" by virtue of access to endless resources for painless quarantine and treatment.

The earth has been granted a surprising reprieve from the spew of carbon into the atmosphere from driving and flying and going out. We may all be pushed back in time to when we really couldn't easily or often travel beyond our neighborhoods. Was that so horrible? We wrote letters then, instead of texts. We connected in ways more personally curated. We made more sense.

Some to my left have sounded the alarm about where things are going. They ask the question about what power wants and needs to do with this emergency. The answer was on full view in Friday's presser: Cancel the regulations and bring in the giant corporations to inject new vigor to the stock market.

It's hard for me to see why that is all bad. It's easy to see why it's not all good. It depends on whether and how we get our government back. I don't doubt that Dr. Fauci knows the term "surveillance capitalism," and was sticking it to us lefties. But I may be giving him too much credit. My internal jury is out about whether Fauci is a "truth teller" or someone just too excited about deregulation of everything when he talks about the failures of "the system."

This is a matter of where and how we place "authority." I would, personally, like to know how far I should go in my social distancing. I might hope that the federal government would do like the Catholic Church and work on what the Church called "subsidiarity." Subsidiarity was a structural commitment rehabilitated for the Church by lawyers to ensure that the central authority wasn't liable for the misbehaviors of the parishes. It hasn't quite worked.

The same principle has been applied, with mixed results, in terms of "least restrictive environment," to deinstitutionalize sufferers of mental illness.

This is a tipping point for us all.

Gas and plane tickets are now cheap, but we shouldn't travel. Same with restaurants we shouldn't be sitting in. Trump is going to buy up gas at bargain basement prices to top off the national reserve at the same time that he will prop up the price of gas. I shouldn't call out Trump by name, since I know that he's only smart enough to take credit, but it is an act in perfect keeping with his M.O. He will be sure to keep the airlines and the cruise ship operators solvent. We will pay. They will travel.

One can almost feel the glee around the podium that money is winning and will win and has to win. We all know about the revolving doors now in full operation between government and private industry. You and I have no access to those low roads to the good life. So we have no reason to trust that our government will engage in actual subsidiarity. But it should.

Let action be taken at the smallest effective jurisdiction. Start with the individual. Then the township. Then the county. Then the state. The feds need only concern themselves with the national boundaries.

Everything has turned so inside out!

Remember, it was the federal government which had to intervene to stop racism. In China it's always overzealous local officials who do the dirty. When has big business ever taken the lead for the public good? Isn't that like asking the lion to lay down with the lamb? Their DNA is about making money, expending as little as possible on the externalities born by the rest of us.

By tomorrow, if it wanted to, Facebook could guarantee the privacy (privacy from their true clients, the advertisers) of health disclosures to friends. Hell, it owns WhatsApp, now the target of government spooks all over for its encrypted messaging. Google tried and failed to become our repository for medical information, even as we trust them with all our passwords.

The government could gain our trust by abolishing "click to agree" contracts which enrich so very few surveillance capitalists. Those companies could regain our trust by true transparency about their internal dealings with our behaviors. We, the people, need to find a way to test these legalities in court. Can I really agree to anything when my use of monopoly services would be withheld?

Sounds trivial, doesn't it?

There is a huge difference between declaring our interests by the purchase of a magazine in which ads are placed according to those declared interests, and having ourselves characterized as though we were some unitary indelible soul. As Richard Sennett once tried to convince us, putting on a social face is good for society. Celebrate those who are open about who they are. Outing our private behaviors is good for nothing.

Our way forward is not to ignore the advice of government based on something tending toward conspiracy theory about what they will do to grab more power and take power away from us. The way forward is to grab the power for ourselves.

We should find ways to agree about our collective behavior locally instead of watching for what happens to Harvey Weinstein. He did something on the global stage which none of us on any side of anything would ever condone if it were to happen here. Let's not get caught up in who's the worst Whore of Babylon and who the anti-Christ based on gender designation. We know good from bad when we see and feel it. We can't know it from any screen.

We have the tools. We should use them locally. And we must find some way to get out and vote to get these people now there out of government.

We cannot abide an administration which takes no responsibility for anything at all. I have no confidence in this administration, and I vote.

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