On Fridays, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking during the week.
On the first world cyberwar
“We’re living through the first world cyberwar — but just haven’t called it that,” says Martin Belam in an article for The Guardian.
According to Belam, contemporaries seldom see the sharp lines that the future will draw. “It wouldn’t have seemed obvious with the capture of Calais in 1347 that this decisive siege was just one early development in a dynastic struggle that would come to be known as the hundred years war.”
This makes him wonder what broader patterns we might be missing in our own lives. Belam has come round to thinking that we might already be living through the first world cyberwar. It’s just that we haven’t named, let alone acknowledged it yet.
“What might a timeline of that war look like to a future historian? Well, 2007 seems like a good bet as a starting point — with a concerted series of cyber-attacks on Estonia. These were particularly effective, because the Baltic state has pushed so much of its public life online. […] It’s important to remember that the internet originally came from defence research, designed to provide communications capabilities in the event of a nuclear attack. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a hundred years it is the military purpose that historians mainly remember it for, and that we are living through the first time it is being used in anger.”
In an intriguing longread, Putin’s Real Long Game, Molly K. McKew argues that the world order we know is already over, and Russia is moving fast to grab the advantage. Can Trump figure out the new war in time to win it?
“Information warfare,” she writes, “is not about creating an alternate truth, but eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all. It is not ‘propaganda’ as we’ve come to think of it, but the less obvious techniques known in Russia as ‘active measures’ and ‘reflexive control’. Both are designed to make us, the targets, act against our own best interests.”
According to McKew, the West must accept that Putin has transformed what we see as tremendous weakness into considerable strength. If Russia were a strong and globally connected economy, “it would have vulnerabilities to more traditional diplomacy. But in the emerging world order, Russia is a significant actor — and in the current Russian political landscape, no new sanctions can overcome the defensive, insular war-economy mentality that the Kremlin has built.”
As the definitions of war and peace have blurred, creating impossibly vast front lines and impossibly vague boundaries of conflict, Putin has launched a kind of global imperialist insurgency.
According to Michael McFaul, Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, the Russian president has both the capability and the intent to cause harm. That threat won’t vanish once Donald Trump takes office, says Uri Friedman in The Key to Putin’s Cyber Power, an edited and condensed transcript of Friedman’s conversation with McFaul.
When Friedman asks McFaul if he thinks Russia is the world’s number one cyber power, he says:
“Well, we’re number one. But in terms of capability, they most certainly are extremely capable. And the thing that Putin has that other countries don’t have is he’s got the intention, too. He’s not afraid to use this stuff in the ways that he has. It would be unthinkable, from my perspective at least, for the Obama administration to steal Russian data and then use it in a way to manipulate an electoral process in Russia. [Obama] just would never do that. [Putin] has proven that he has both the capability and the will to do things like that. And not just against the United States, but against lots of countries.”
McFaul doesn’t believe we’re in a Cold War with Russia because we’re not fighting an ideology that seeks to conquer the world. “We’re not fighting proxy wars against each other around the world, although some may say we’re fighting a proxy war in Syria right now. So that’s how things are different.
President Putin definitely sees the United States as an enemy. He sees us as propagating values that he thinks undermine Russia and Russian national interests. [That’s] a parallel to an earlier period in the Cold War. It always felt to me, when I was in government, that it was one side fighting. [The United States] had fought real wars after the Cold War: Afghanistan and Iraq. So we weren’t trapped in fighting the old Cold War. But [the Russians] always were.
But there are things that are more sinister. The Soviet Union did not annex territory [as Russia did in 2014 with Crimea]. That’s something new. The Soviet Union did not meddle in [America’s] electoral affairs, at least to the extent and as successfully as they did this time. That’s something new. The Obama administration’s response to that also goes beyond anything we saw in the Cold War. The sanctions put in place after Russia annexed Crimea and supported the separatists in Ukraine go way beyond any [sanctions] you ever saw in the Cold War. It’s a uniquely challenging moment. Maybe it will all change [to] a different dynamic in a few weeks.”
On disappearing jobs
According to a study by Oxford University, 47% of jobs will disappear in the next 25 years. “No government is prepared,” The Economist reports. These include blue and white collar jobs. So far, the loss has been restricted to the blue collar variety, particularly in manufacturing.
“To be clear, mechanization has always cost us jobs. The mechanical loom for instance put weavers out of business. But it’s also created jobs. […] Not so with this new trend. Unemployment today is significant in most developed nations and it’s only going to get worse. By 2034, just a few decades, mid-level jobs will be by and large obsolete. So far the benefits have only gone to the ultra-wealthy, the top 1%. This coming technological revolution is set to wipe out what looks to be the entire middle class. Not only will computers be able to perform tasks more cheaply than people, they’ll be more efficient too.”
Accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, bureaucrats, and financial analysts beware: your jobs are not safe, as Japanese insurance firm Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance, which is making 34 employees redundant and replacing them with IBM’s Watson Explorer AI, clearly shows.
According to the Guardian, Fukoku believes it will increase productivity by 30% and see a return on its investment in less than two years. Fukoku will save about 140m yen (£1m) a year after the 200m yen (£1.4m) AI system is installed this month. Maintaining it will cost about 15m yen (£100k) a year.
Japan’s shrinking, ageing population, coupled with its prowess in robot technology, makes it a prime testing ground for AI. According to a 2015 report by the Nomura Research Institute, nearly half of all jobs in Japan could be performed by robots by 2035.
According to Ross Mayfield, the CEO and Co-founder of Pingpad, the Tech industry has played an influential role in the outcome of the US election.
“The root cause,” he writes in The Coming Tech Backlash, “is job destruction by Automation — that drove a base of dissatisfied rust-belt voters to support Trump.” Job destruction is accelerating, and if Tech doesn’t get ahead of this problem, Mayfield believes there will be a populist politician pointing the finger at the Tech Industry as enemy number one. “In a way, Trump already has,” he says. “This person will yield a backlash against Tech that will stunt progress and make it an instrument of her or his control far worse. This is more than stones hurled at Google Busses. When people start to feel their unhappiness is because of Tech, the post-truth era of Trump and post-ethics of the GOP elite will pale in comparison to the real movements someone could control.”
A bit more …
On 2 January 2017, art critic, novelist, painter and poet John Berger died at his home in Antony, France, aged 90.
Berger saw art history not as something that happened, rather as something that continues to happen. Following this realization, he decided to firmly root himself in the present and instead focus on why a particular artwork — be it from 30,000 BC, or 2010 — appeals to us today, under present historical conditions.
“It is commonplace that the significance of a work of art changes as it survives. Usually however, this knowledge is used to distinguish between ‘them’ (in the past) and ‘us’ (now). There is a tendency to picture them and their reactions to art as being embedded in history, and at the same time to credit ourselves with an over-view, looking across from what we treat as the summit of history. This is illusion. There is no exemption from history.” — John Berger in Between Two Colmars, first published in About Looking in 1980.
In an article for New Republic, The Many Faces of John Berger, Ratik Asokan wrote:
“When Ways of Seeing premiered on the BBC in 1972, it was radical both in style and content. At a time when arts programming generally featured suited men pontificating before fireplaces in their vacation villas, Ways of Seeing was filmed at an electric goods warehouse, and was anchored by the longhaired, Aztec-print-wearing, leftist intellectual John Berger, who addressed the camera in an equal and non-elitist tone. At a time when critics only concerned themselves with ‘aesthetics,’ Berger set about revealing the capitalist and colonial ideologies behind much western art, as well as putting forth a major feminist critique of it. Ways of Seeing was pioneering for the ease with which it moved between analyzing the highbrow (e.g. the great masters) and the lowbrow (e.g. advertisements), more importantly, for how it kicked down the supposed distinction between the two.”
In one memorable scene, Berger compared Ingres’s Grande Odalisque to a photograph in a porno. They were both arranged, in his opinion, to depict “a woman’s body to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality.”
Ways of Seeing has no doubt changed the way people respond to art. Just as his writing since then — especially about migration — has changed the way many of us see the world.
Take, for example, his views on Caravaggio, who he, like many traditional art critics, saw as “one of the great innovating masters of chiaroscuro, and a forerunner of the light and shade later used by Rembrandt.” But he wasn’t interested in simply entering an art-historical dialogue. Instead, he opened a metaphysical and political discussion. Berger considered Caravaggio to be “first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio [the urban poor]” and the only painter who did not depict the poor for others, but actually shared the popolaccio’s vision.
Following this intuition, he concluded that Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro wasn’t simply a technical innovation. For Caravaggio, “light and shade, as he imagined and saw them, had a deeply personal meaning, inextricably entwined with his desires and his instinct for survival. And it is by this, not by any art-historical logic, that his art is linked with the underworld. His chiaroscuro allowed him to banish daylight. Shadows, he felt, offered shelter as can four walls and a roof.”
“The argument that follows,” ,” Asokan write, “blends social history, close aesthetic analysis, and psychologizing. Berger who spent much time with the urban poor — his nonfiction book A Seventh Man (1975) was a sustained exploration of the plight of migrant laborers in metropolises across Europe — has noticed that those ‘who live precariously and are habitually crowded together develop a phobia about open spaces which transforms their frustrating lack of space and privacy into something reassuring.’ He thinks Caravaggio shares this fear. He thus convincingly argues that Caravaggio’s deployment of light, the contrasting ways in which he paints outdoor and indoor scenes, the particular drama of his paintings, all astutely reflect the urban poor’s experience of the world.”
The enduring mystery and relevance of art; the lived experience, both of the free and the oppressed; by combining these interests, Berger’s art criticism transcends its genre to become a very rare thing — literature.
In 1983, John Berger met Susan Sontag for a fascinating 60 minute talk during which they exchanged ideas on the ‘lost art’ of story telling.
In his dark farewell, The Economist’s Schumpeter columnist writes:
“In “Plato’s great worry about representative government was that citizens would ‘live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment.’ He was right: most democracies overspend to give citizens what they want in the short run (whether tax cuts or enhanced entitlements) and neglect long-term investments. On top of that, lobbyists and other vested interests have by now made a science of gaming the system to produce private benefits.
The result of this toxic brew is a wave of populism that is rapidly destroying the foundations of the post-war international order and producing a far more unstable world. One of its many dangers is that it is self-reinforcing. It contains just enough truth to be plausible. It may be nonsense that ‘the people’ are infallible repositories of common sense, but there is no doubt that liberal elites have been smug and self-serving. And populism feeds on its own failures. The more that business copes with uncertainty by delaying investment or moving money abroad, the more politicians will bully or bribe them into doing ‘the right thing’. As economic stagnation breeds populism, so excessive regard for the popular will reinforces stagnation.”
“The strategy ends up being focused on the shareholders versus other stakeholders. If ultimately the purpose of a company is maximizing shareholder return, we risk ending up with many decisions that are not in the interest of society.” — Paul Polman, the CEO of the British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, in How to Stop Short-Term Thinking at America’s Companies.
“But sharing-economy companies exist in the same economy that McDonald’s and Starbucks do. Uber, Airbnb, and the like ultimately depend on profit, not generosity. Ownership is still private; everything is rented, not truly shared. The sharing economy might be a significant step toward more efficiently tapping into the wealth of physical things owned by individuals — as opposed to corporations — but it’s still vastly different from the kind of sharing that defined humanity for tens of thousands of years.” — Elana E. Strauss in The Original Sharing Economy.
“Now we’re hearing a cry for a fifth metric of searching,” David Weinberger writes in With every answer, search reshapes our worldview. “Serendipitous results are meant to do the opposite of what traditional searches have done, for they show you what you were not asking to see. But mere surprise isn’t enough. […] To be usefully serendipitous, there should be a subtle but meaningful relationship. […] Serendipity requires an extended sense of relevancy that hits the mark between too literal and too far afield.”
Serendipity turns noise into signal: Results that had been filtered out now get filtered in. Serendipity signals that we rejoice in living in a world that we cannot fully know.
“More recently, especially because of the prominence of fake news, there’s been an increasing demand for two additional ways of searching. The first is for serendipitous results to counteract the effect of echo chambers and filter bubbles that only show us what we already believe. If this is to be effective, it will require yet another type of search result: not just serendipity but results that are ‘just different enough’ from what we believe that we’ll read them, understand them, and perhaps be nudged by them.
That has led is to a sort criterion that has been surprisingly lacking: truth, or what Google quite reasonably referred to as quality when it lowered the ranking of Holocaust-denial sites. Sorting by truth-quality has shown up late because when full-text indexing began, the information space had been manually curated. When the Web began to scale up, search engines like Google optimistically assumed that analyzing the Web community’s use of pages — particularly, the network of links — would be a sufficient guide to quality. But, thanks to expert gamers of the system and the possibility that the Crowd isn’t as Wise as we’d hoped, filtering by truth-quality yields more reliable results than ranking by usage.
And so our information space is being revealed not as a jumble of words and phrases sorted by algorithms but as an instrument of power that reflects our biases, assumptions, ambitions, and blindnesses. Like the Internet itself, bit by bit, search technology is revealing us in our fullness.”
British architecture critic Charles Jencks celebrated Late Modernism in a 1980 book called, appropriately, Late-Modern Architecture, emphasizing the era’s architects’ pragmatism (willingness to work on large-scale corporate projects), their commitment to order (grids), their dramatic interior sections (balcony upon balcony). The designers of the day were committed to the “covering of this space with flat membranes of an homogenous material whether glass, nylon or brick: the tendency for polished surfaces whether these are brown, blue or, most appropriately silver.”
Late Modernism, born of capital, speaks to the way we build now, literally mirroring the ambition of today’s shape makers.
“Late Modernism is a style without theory, practiced by architects who were trying to build their way out of the diminishing returns of Miesian copies,” Alexandra Lange writes in What is Late Modernism. “Where a Mies [van der Rohe] tower (and its numerous knockoffs) seems to suck in its cheeks, the Late Modern tower fills itself edge-to-edge, visually pressing its mirrors out while staying within the lines. Those lines include triangles, chamfers, stair-steps and the occasional curve, but rarely bilateral symmetry.”
“One of Late Modernism’s problems, preservation-wise, may be its large scale and oft corporate clientele. […] does anyone want to hug — or propose in the public atrium of — the IBM Building? […] And yet, some of today’s most celebrated architects ought to be the style’s chief proponents, because we would not have some of the city’s most anticipated buildings of 2016, 2017, and beyond without Late Modernism.”
“Looking backward, Jean Nouvel’s spangles on 100 Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and OMA’s angles at the Seattle Public Library, are also sons of Late Modernism. […] The city skyline is a lesson in architectural history, and too lively a finger on the delete button robs the present of meaning and the past of presence. Rafael Vinoly’s 432 Park Avenue still looks wildly out of place to me, but I know it will feel familiar in time.”
“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.” — John Steinbeck