Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Ontology of Surveillance; US v China

Who knows if ontology is the right word here? The dictionary is no help to me, branching off as it does to terms like metaphysics, or usage in subspecialties of philosophy. Anybody? Could be epistemology, except Google doesn't keep that in its dictionary. "The investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion" according to Oxford. I can better sink my teeth into that one. I sure don't know. I just want a big-sounding word to make it seem like I'm looking deeply into the matter, which, of course, I am.

We all make easy judgements over here about how Xi Jinping is an autocrat. But what if we do that in the same ways that we form our beliefs about the Donald? Xi Jinping's approval rating is at least as high as an emperor's. His regime is ruthless about messaging. The people like his crackdowns on official corruption. Even despite misgivings for other reasons, he builds trust that way.

When I have been a teacher I did try to remember that a student or the students may know more than I do on a given topic. I headed a school whose curriculum was based on that premise. Sure, maybe a teacher will find an opportunity to correct some confusion, even in a realm in which the student is better schooled than the teacher, but a good teacher must find a balance between didacticism and shared inquiry. 

Some students will push their teachers toward a posture of certainty, and even consider them deficient in their knowledge when they're not, and even call them out for it. Of course, a good teacher will know how to navigate this. That's less likely in China, based on my observations of teaching there. Those teachers are exquisitely prepared in advance, helping each other to get it right.

One such authoritative teacher in my school here taught me what turned out the be the folk etymology for the word sincere, to mean 'without wax.' He'd thought that might refer to the wax used to seal a letter, to insure that what was inside remained private. There are other etymologies of the same meaning, such as 'no wax' filler to disguise the faults of a sculpture. It looks as though the dictionary wisdom roots the word in Latin for "purity." Perhaps there's only a fine distinction between the folk etymology and the vetted one.

Or maybe I was being punked, and maybe his students were in on it. How would I know? He was capable of such pranks, and pulled them often with his students. Pranks require a sort of privacy. So does crime.

Any etymology seems to give you grip on slippery words, though there is a good argument in many cases that the folk etymology has long since displaced the pure one; the one the (sincere) academics might prefer.

Just now lawyers are parsing words in the U.S. Constitution to argue first whether a president who's no longer in office can be impeached, and second, whether his claim about a stolen election could be a credible opinion, covered by "free speech." Hearing lawyers making technical arguments can easily sound like the only thing that matters is to provide cover. When there's enough money involved, it would seem that lawyers can torture the language enough to get someone wealthy enough off on most any offense.

In any case, when one is sincere, one isn't playing out some hidden agenda. One isn't acting a certain way to disguise - in the case of didactic teaching, say - what might be the hidden motive of moral teaching. Taking advantage, by any other name. What priests do, ahem. What capitalists do with propriety information. What lawyers do against the protected truth of their clients' transgressions.

One supposition is that our private thoughts are our pure thoughts, unadulterated by what the public may think of them. The meaning slides over into the usage in "private property" which, like privacy, is thought, in a capitalistic regime, to be inalienable from the person holding title. It is our prerogative to release our innermost private thoughts, or to reveal our private behaviors, only if and when we please. 

One of the ways that China powers its economy now is by encouraging 'meme manufacturing.' In essence, that's when everyone copies everyone else's innovation, and then the magic of geographically focused supply chains and small workshop manufacturing enables the economy to turn out mass quantities of something like a hoverboard in short order. Tooling up is outsourced to pieceworkers, in a way. Perhaps like genes, meme's shouldn't be patentable?

Of course there's the problem of whom to hold accountable when the batteries catch on fire. We like our products to have a known brand name over here. Something trustworthy. If only we could trust the motives behind their propaganda. I weep at the American realities on display in the ads for the superbowl. Would that our actual situationist situation were that good; that full of goods.

As with secrets withheld from those who might benefit from them, all propaganda seeks to erase all ambiguity so that we can start to live out our folk etymologies I(n) R(eal) L(ife). Lounging in a long chair is what you do in a chaise longue. It's not what it's called. But you can only buy a chaise lounge on the Internet, since you won't find a chaise longue coming up in any search. Spelling is a bitch - though hardly a problem in China, right? Etymology in China is generally worn on the word's sleeve, as it were.

Before the Internet, our shopping behavior was fairly public. Buying condoms, say, was fraught, and it was frowned on for men to frequent the lady's garment foundation department unless they made clear what the occasion was for the wifey right up front.

So no wonder Google feels OK about having us click away any privacy to our behavior when we're shopping, roughly keeping the same department store rules in place. 

And plenty of folks are fine with having Google, or the credit scoring companies, "know" all about us algorithmically so long as they don't turn that information over to the "authorities," and so long as the people who work with our information don't have direct access to who we are. It's up to the computers to parse behavior, and  for the people to sell it in the aggregate, according to what and how the computers spit us out; again, in the aggregate. 

Trouble is that when our "purchase" on the news gets delivered that way, we end up inhabiting different realities based on what the algorithms send our way. Sometimes those differences are shocking, and sometimes they're meant to be, just simply because that's what the algorithms want. "Want" in this case, generally means to increase the profit margins for the proprietor of the top secret algorithms. Who could resist the urge to dial it up, especially when the public feels that it's getting something for free?

Teachers might also deploy shock to upset student complacency about what they already know. After all, you can't learn physics until you unlearn all the naive theory you'd been going on up until your enlightenment. You know, like cold penetrating walls, and vision being an active game. 

Oh, well vision is active, but we aren't shooting rays from our eyes, though the Chinese usage works that way. There is motive to looking, and our minds construct reality before we can apprehend it. Maybe. We ultimately settle on what we want to see, I guess.

When I was most recently in Shanghai, they were putting up surveillance cameras on every traffic control device. Those Chinese that I was interacting with were fairly blasé about them, tending toward cynical. Perhaps in the way that we here and now might wonder, cynically, if that's what they're doing now with our tax dollars. Don't we have real problems to solve?

Here in Buffalo they put up cameras to catch speeders in school zones. Trouble is that drivers are distracted trying to keep track of lightly-announced speed-trap cameras instead of paying attention to their driving and watching for kids in their way. The News catalogs a ton of complaints, but not a one about what I just said. What matters. No, the critics call it a money grab (which it is), yet another tax on the poor (which it also is), but nobody seems to point out how ineffectual it is toward the stated purpose, and how much it undermines trust in government.

Given that everyone's photo is on file in China along with their national ID, and given that one requires a national ID to access the Internet, and given that China is experimenting with a 'social credit' scoring system (which will likely put our credit scoring system to shame, the way WeChat does almost everything else about our mobile technology) and especially given the state of facial recognition technology, no wonder Americans jump to conclusion. 

Here we have a straight-up contest - a comparative study even - of the power of capitalism in a supposedly democratic environment here in these United States, versus the power of the state in a supposedly authoritarian environment.

I have to admit up front that I'm creeped out by surveillance in either context (not to mention pissed off by unjustified speeding tickets). When a computer quizzes my identity by bringing up pieces of my credit report, I guess I'm about as creeped out as I would be to see my face and ID number on the Big Screen when I jaywalk in China, which is a shaming technique apparently being tried out there now. The national ID number is blacked out just lightly enough so that the individual being shamed knows they've been pegged, but enough so that no one else (apart from the government) can shame them algorithmically by way of ID.

Shoshana Zuboff comes closer than anyone I've read to an ontology of surveillance in terms of property and ownership. But then she goes on to call what surveillance capitalists do an "epistemic coup." As in Google may have no right to arrogate to itself ownership of my behavioral history so that it can sell it to the highest bidder, but the real crime is hijacking any trustworthy meaning in order to get money for clicks.

This is important: what's proprietary isn't exactly the information, which they grant you some control over, but the algorithms which only they can generate, since only they have such a massive trove of behavioral information, and such a big pipeline of data and such vast computing power to use on it.

It could be that not only isn't privacy basic to democracy, it may actually be harmful. Getting pornography by way of private peep-holes is one thing, but getting our political information that way has proven extremely dangerous. We don't want a truth police, but we might actually need local newspapers that look the same to everyone who reads them. We might have to bring back now moribund distinctions between justified and unjustified opinion, the way we once did with advertising and news broadcasts. We may have to outlaw vertical media holdings.

When a fraudster hides his history to wed a wealthy woman, we call that a crime. We also call it a crime when a talented painter sells his imitation of a master as though it were the master's painting. I think the tendency in China is still to celebrate the fidelity, and encourage further development. There are other ways to ensure provenance, including the graffitti left on the artifact by its series of owners.

But then again, more bottles of expensive French champagne get sold in China than were ever produced in France. They have whole shopping centers which specialize in fake goods, though they're generally confessed as such. Buyer beware?

It isn't your violated privacy that's important. Even false labels might be attached to goods that are just as good as the original. What marriage is ever really based on full disclosure? 

It's the undermining of the public need to "distinguish between justified belief and opinion" that's important. It was that which led directly to the capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021. The epistemic coup led directly to the political coup of Donald Trump. Republicans as a whole don't seem to understand this dynamic. anymore. They did at the beginning when they were as horrified by Trump as anyone. Of course it's the job of all of us to school them.

Or maybe they do understand it and just simply want to exploit it. Maybe we're all being punked. 

We all believe some pretty nutty things in our private heart of hearts. We may even harbor personal history that's on the border between embarrassing and incriminating. That's true even in China. In general, we keep certain private matters to ourselves unless we feel it safe to utter them. To outer them. To out ourselves. 

Nursing private grievances seems to cause all sorts of mayhem, from personal attacks to insurrection in the capitol. Maybe our background check for firearm purchase should be a grievance check. Trouble is that a feeling of grievance might tend to relate to one's personal distancing of oneself from fault. Projecting fault outward seems a constant for humanity. Projecting on some other. China taking the place of the old Soviet Union seems like a bad idea all around.

In any case, if you have a big enough presence, you can say out loud in public that Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States and some proportion of the public will believe that. If you're not quite big enough, you'll lose your job almost instantly for saying the wrong thing. That feels way too volatile sometimes. Where's the middle? As the Jeep ad asks in Bruce Springsteen's voice, now dropped because he was arrested for drunk driving. And why wasn't Colin Kaepernick mentioned during all the NFL self-congratulation for its massive diversity campaign?

Some will apparently believe that Hillary hides a hideous habit of harm to children. And plenty of people think that Jesus can and will solve all their problems, some because people in authority tell them so (I don't doubt that plenty of people experience Jesus' grace quite otherwise).

I mean that's fine, right? I don't mind people expressing their faith, until they start talking about my America being meant for their religion.

According to Zuboff, the popular shorthand that you're the product which social media sells is wrong. They aren't selling you, and were you to tabulate the actual value of your individual data, it wouldn't exactly provide you real income, no matter what Kim Stanley Robinson speculates. Well, unless property is truly theft, and you divide their market value by the purchasing public population where a trillion dollars may go a long way. Better than a stimulus check, and I'd say we have more claim to that wealth than we do to the wealth of Proctor and Gamble or General Motors. 

Individual data just simply isn't worth very much on the current market. It would be worth about as much as a billboard targeting just you. That might be a lot if your girlfriend wants to ask you to marry her in public. Why anyone would think that romantic sure beats me. It might also be worth a lot if you're wanted for some transgression, or if it provides access to your bank account.

I think that I need something still stronger even than Zuboff's complaint. Something like what Guy deBord was getting at in his Society of the Spectacle. From commodity fetishism which renders labor invisible, to spectacle in place of life. Surveillance capitalism really doesn't want us to be in touch with reality. It wants us glued to the screen.

The trouble now is that on the receiving end, we're always getting virtual billboards directed pretty much only at us, or our micro-target market segment. Our reality is so utterly mediated that we don't know what we really want or like, since we're that distant from it. And that seems to have the power to infect our thinking such that we believe the crazy conspiracies of the fictional Q-Anon. Especially if we're nursing some grievance or other.

We just simply can't make meaning by ourselves alone. So, what? We let money make our meanings for us? Yep!

There's a really important lesson in epistemology right there. If the one-time organs of authority say something is true against a backdrop of the highly motivated language of propaganda (we call it advertising here, and propaganda there), the human mind apparently tends toward nuts. You should hear the things they used to believe about us in China! They're almost as nuts as what we still believe about them from here.

Our trouble with China now is that we pretty much live out what their propaganda has always said about what is wrong with American democracy. Who's telling the truth? We still have a chance to make it right!

According to Kai Strittmatter, China's leadership is aware that trust is compromised in any authoritarian state, and their social credit score is an attempt to solve that problem. He writes that propaganda works, as does the internalization of policing (we police ourselves) when people believe that someone's watching, even when they're not. He believes, or perhaps he knows, that if China wants to locate an individual, the authorities need only "ask" their massive system of surveillance cameras and facial recognition protocols to alert local authorities when the perp shows his face in public. Almost anywhere.

Are we so different? We seem to allow private bounty hunters to invade people's houses. Our police cruisers scan our license plates as they go by, and our digital payment history can pretty much reveal everywhere we go and everything we do. Click to agree, my ass! We have no clue what we agree to.

Strittmatter correctly distinguishes the self-policing of Americans stopped at red lights even though there's no-one around to catch them, from the self-policing of expressed thought, which is far more likely in China than in the US (I have it on first-hand authority that Americans are the outliers when it comes to stoplights).

For folks like me, it truly is the liberty I feel about expressing political thought which makes me love this country. It's still more comfortable for me in my circles to say out loud in public that I'm a socialist, or even an anarchist, than it is to praise Jesus. I voice such things as harmless conjecture, not urging a soul to follow my lead. I always do wonder what I truly do believe. Sucks for me.

In China, when I stupidly asked a lunch table of young colleagues what they thought about President Xi, they instantly scattered. One nice fellow stayed back and offered as how Li Keqiang is a really great guy. But I might as well have asked them if they masturbate. I was that out of place. I was being thoughtless. 

Sure, part of me is more afraid - or at least as afraid, of capitalism as of Chinese authoritarian government. We're the ones who napalmed Vietnam, undermined democracy in our various banana republic dependencies, not to mention how we have treated blacks, native americans and mexican border-crossers here at home. Nevermind Agent Orange! 

Our government has often been the stooge of private capital expropriating land from farmers in other countries in destruction of local subsistence. That might be fine if there were some international regime to enforce a living wage. But clearly capitalists wouldn't stand for that. It's what exporting factory production to China (and now Vietnam) means, fer Chrissakes!

By comparison, China feels almost  benevolent. After all, it still calls itself socialist, sometimes even communist, and I tend to believe China when its leadership claims no interest in imperialistic conquest. They would only invade another country in approximately the same way that we have, perhaps. Building up their arsenals for the same benevolent reasons we do. And exporting their particular brand of market expertise. They seem to be getting better welcomes around the world than we do now. Go figure. I guess Money talks.

Here we have the military industrial complex calling the shots, where there the Peoples' Army owns the means of production (not wanting to burden the citizenry, by doctrine). Is it a toss-up? Well, they do jail people who reveal state secrets (just like we do) even when those state secrets should be obvious to anyone.

Anyhow, it is really nice to stroll in China, even to get lost in strange and impoverished places and never to feel afraid. I'm just not sure how benign that safety is. But does the presence of actual danger make us feel more alive here?

I just simply don't feel that the sort of trust that artificial intelligence can realize - here or there - is the same sort of trust that is needed for a healthy polity. Trust in process is also trust in safety for disagreement. Fake trust, enforced by reliable and near instant sanction is hardly trust at all. It's more like fear. Heck, they have enough friendly cops in China to deal with jaywalking. And I've witnessed more citizens in China who feel comfortable arguing with and even yelling at the cops than I've ever seen here. Their uniforms are modest, and only top cops carry guns.

So maybe I also believe that China hopes to use its brave new cybernetic infrastructure to dial itself toward the democracy which Chairman Mao had always claimed was his end game. Maybe they are playing the long game, as they set the stage for debate and disagreement in a context where the bounds and the rules are both known and utterly reliable in advance. 

Maybe the Chinese government is right in its claim that it is we in the West who are provoking the disobedience' in Hong Kong. That they only want to give the Uighurs a hand in becoming a productive part of society. Maybe it's smart of them to ban the Falun Gong, which we would protect under the doctrine of religious freedom, the same way we do Scientology, which as far as I can tell is a cult which teaches you how to do method acting so that you even believe your act yourself. Wow!

(Honest, I've watched dramatic productions in Shanghai which are as edgy as anything we produce here)

The Chinese surveillance state is surely no more cynical than the Google or Facebook surveillance regimes. It is likely no more harmful, in any of the obvious ways. Both attempt to manipulate behavior. Both undermine trust in the guise of building it (as if you could game the system better than the system games you when you trust the algorithms for lowest price against your stupider peers). 

But for the most part our system of surveillance capitalism is the one which carries out an epistemic coup. I'd take the public propagandized fiat truth in China any day over whatever the kool aid drinking Republicans seem to believe over here. They throw the word socialism around as though it were some sort of white supremacy regime.

What is surely common among all surveillance regimes is the alienation of agency regarding what you choose to make public. Our unvarnished self is not really very presentable, as Richard Sennett might attest. It's just not nice to out it in public. But privacy as a right maybe should not be our highest value. Especially when private secrets are inaccessible even to the proprietor of the algorithms which compose them. That's Facebook right there.

What Marjorie Taylor Greene claims as free speech should be prosecuted precisely because of her position. In just the way that ignorance of the law is no defence, ignorant people shouldn't be allowed to elect criminals to office. At least some mild form of truth in advertising should and must protect "them" from that. We're all ignorant about something. And no, I don't mean felons who've done their time. I mean those who commit larceny against the truth out loud and in public. 

I can say whatever I want until and unless I want the public trust. And trust requires some reciprocal belief in the autonomy of the one being trusted. Sure, a robot may be entirely trustworthy, but a public person putting on an act and not being who he really is not trustworthy. Or maybe such a person is acting like a robot, based on a calculus that to act otherwise would be risky.

China is less preoccupied with life as a 'stage upon which we are all actors' than we are. Less concerned with our more precious distinction between the private and the public self. Acting never pretends to be other than acting, even or especially when in office.

When Chinese literati earned their way to public office on the basis of their mastery of poetry and of the classics, the judgement was made not about whether they were faking it or cheating by way of plagiarism (which is what happens now in the gaokao college entrance exam over there, and in Ivy-scale admissions over here), but rather on the more solid ground of the quality of their writing as judged by those who'd read reliably more. 

Of course the realm of the written word was much smaller before the printing press, and especially pre-digital. It could, perhaps, even be comprehended, especially as the canonical realm was well-defined in China. Your best self in China is your curated self, when it's not fakery.

What if China plays the same game now that they always have? Many many China hands have observed how continuous modern China is with its Confucian roots. Folk etymology for Chairman would have it mean emperor (writing that would be somewhat dangerous, and the etymologies wouldn't match).

How about we stop hating each other?

The thing is that if we think - if we believe - that meaning is a function of (human) comprehension alone, then we might have to ascribe meaning to the nutty Q-Anon understanding. We know we're wrong about ultimate matters even at the ivory tower pinnacles of learning, else scientific understanding would be complete and we'd know everything already. 

We assume, those of us not on the nutty side, that scientific understanding will just keep going and going and going, like the Energizer Bunny. Nobody really expects some kind of final understanding, and if we did have it, we'd be already dead, just like the perfected Chinese society where nobody ever does anything antisocial or wrong. If we weren't dead already, we'd kill ourselves, 'cause why live?

Of course, I'm the guy who says "why live?" regarding immortality, or being able to suck your personality up into some digital cloud duplicate of your brain (which isn't where your mind is, stupid!). We're enamored of the wrong things, I'd say. 

I know, here is where I get a little weird.

Whatever meaning is, part of it is trust. Trust engenders integrity, of the sort that the cosmos might have without us. We're the wildcard here. Conscious cognition messes with amoral nature, each and every time. But we've become irresponsible in our stewardship. We can't be stewards of nature, but we sure ought to be stewards of ourselves.

We have yet to make real contact with any conscious cognition in the rest of the cosmos. Heck, we don't even know how to try, apart from exploratory moon and Mars shots, and speculation directed by SETI. Well, we do pray to our various Gods, but really, that seems rather petty, given that we've made God in our very own parochial image. I don't think God talks exactly in our language.

Shouldn't the vast reaches of empty "outer" space give us a clue at least about how special earth is? We pray for an end to the virus, but shouldn't we also pray for the moderation of global warming? Both are now within our collective agency.

Would you trust "science" to guide every aspect of your life? Science can only deal with artifactual reality when it comes to humans - the tangible output that can be measured - and deals with trust only obliquely when two subjects trust the same description of objective reality. Trust is grounded in subject/object/subject interconnections and unity.

So, just as we are all in the same boat with the pandemic - if any country thinks it can save itself without saving the whole world, that country is delusional about how viruses mutate. The immunized nations will be reinfected by the mutated viruses which surge in the places which don't have immunization - so are we now all in the same boat regarding how we treat reality.

Having only naturally acquired immunity among those who survive infection, the virus will morph according to how to subvert such immunity in the poorer regions. Eventually swamping even the immunized nations, and round and round the merry-go-round goes. Except it's not so very merry. 

Just as we are in the same boat regarding the virus, we are in the same boat regarding meaning. Our basics are no different than China's. Craziness here can create craziness there, which is why their Internet is monitored and censored. They also beat the virus rather quickly.

Back to surveillance. To decide top-down what the behaviors are that are to be approved, and what those are which are to be disapproved is very much like imposing human meaning on a cosmos which is plenty meaningful without us. It's a doomsday scenario all around. 

The only thing worse than doing that is to undermine all trust by using money-tweaking algorithms to determine meaning. 

At least China's algorithms don't only run on automatic. Those algorithms are made for conscious human consumption at the end of the line, no matter how malevolent or beneficent the tweakers are. But at least the distinction between what's good and bad is not left up to mindless money, the way it is in the West. Facebook considers any connection to be a "good," in the market sense of the term.

Even that war criminal Henry Kissinger understands that when each of us gets a curated news feed which is opaque to the rest of us, and when the boundaries of nation-states are less meaningful than other more internalized boundaries, all bets are off for the future of the "world order." There's very little chance for trust when some people prefer their own reality to the reality as curated by Ph.D.'s, for instance.

Algorithmic judgements seem to amplify our prejudices. They can't take a joke. They don't do irony.

Chairman Xi is as vacant as a soul could be. I don't know if anyone else watched their 70th anniversary national day anniversary parade in 2019 where Chairman Xi was on an endless loop, seeming to review the same troops over and over again. While Xi is never off script, some of us ascribe authenticity to Trump for being always off script.

You have to act properly in office! There oughta be a law!

As Michel Foucault might have said, we all inhabit the very same global episteme. Time for a shift, not a coup.

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