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Deautomated Thinking

A site for thinking out loud with.

All that's code melts into air

Marx is famous for saying "all that is solid melts into air". We can dispute that dictum under capitalism and whether it holds. I think its far harder to dispute that this happens with software.

Before the CoVID times, the NHS got hacked. Specifically a large number of NHS computers got crippled by malware called WannaCry because the NHS was running Windows XP. XP was deprecated, no longer supported and thus had security holes.

Of course the NHS should have upgraded their software. You should upgrade if you have something out of date. This answer comes from the expert world of Software Engineering. It makes sense in so much as the more recent software is liable (I stress, liable, not certain) to be more stable. Or at the very least, supported. XP was not supported so the damage done was unsurprising.

But think a little: is upgrading viable for an organisation, that's resource limited?[1] Is it viable for everyone, everywhere, always? Do people even want it, should they want it, if its sufficient for their needs?

I wish to push this a little deeper and into more uncomfortable territory. Firstly, let me stress: some technical forms are so bad that they should be retired (anything abusing the singleton pattern for instance). Some things are poorly designed and crappy and need to die. Imagine a car that's released into the world who's engine occasionally just stalls randomly. A car like that has to go.[2] Moreover we cannot seriously get around the problem that security holes are a danger. Once you start using IT systems, its important to make sure they stay protected.

This raises a genuine question, how much should you rely upon IT systems? This is a very broad question, so let’s focus it a bit. I’ll start with some questions I think a Software Engineer may always ask:

  • Do you need to keep the data you’re storing? If you don’t keep it on an electronic system, it can’t be stolen from it.
  • Does the device/computer/machine need Internet access? Without that access its far harder to break into it. A similar question is how much things need to be part of a network. Isolated machines are also harder to break into (or infect with worms)

Software has its inherent ethical properties, its principles of craft, its points of concern. No one wants to build a system that is bad technically, or leaks a persons private data and its a point of pride to have considered this carefully. Sometimes this means giving someone something with a little less utility for a lot more security. We can, however, ask a question that’s a little more radical and perhaps not allowable from the perspective of sales and business. Do you need the system at all?

How this question is answered, and also of importance, who answers it, is quite critical. Last year there were plans (now cancelled) to enable the sharing of GP records and data from the NHS with research companies. The nature of this program required one to opt out to avoid having ones data being shared. This was widely criticised in the UK, with it being seen at best as an unclear, poorly explained attempt to better enable medical research and at worst a cynical, shortsighted data grab.[3]

The reason I raise this is that this is something enabled by the IT infrastructure. The ease of which data can be transfered allows for these actions to be taken. System rely in part upon the goodwill of its owners to not abuse the capacity inherent in it and is thus vulnerable to a simple political change. Stated like that, people may have been far more sanguine about allowing the digitisation of their records to happen. On the whole I think the benefits of the system which allow for a Doctor anywhere to see through that history and thus be treated more effectively and efficiently is important and outweighs this problem. I do admit that it has this potential to cause issues and that its the cost of any centralised system of this form. I don’t know how to resolve such a tension and am of the opinion there isn’t a viable way to resolve it. To some degree that tension has to be lived with.

However, its not simply my decision to make - it’s everyones. But such things are simply implemented without consultation, or even much forethought.

We're able to do impressive things with technology, but the question of whether that actually amounts to something that is of benefit to people is a harder question to answer. I think at least an honest question from Software Engineers that could be asked is: do you really need software to improve what you do? Is it necessary? Software incurs it's own costs that grow and doesn't necessarily improve things. Perhaps we should be circumspect in our use. It requires willingness to admit the limits of ones expertise, to say you may not need or want my help, please think about that. It would probably mean that stuff is sold less, but I think it is more ethical, more honest and better in the long run for Software Engineering. [4]

So far so good, we at least have a position that we can start from. But there’s something that inherent to code that I think is enabling the worst aspects of Capital. The iterative, rapid adaptability of code, the ease of which it can be shared, the strengths of code in fact. Code, constant upgrades and maintenance, can sometimes be a mask for a disabling predatory dependency, that traps users in a never ending reliance upon that system. As an example, think of Apple who make it incredibly hard to get data off of their products.

The constant upgrading of things, the need to drive "progress" sometimes results in all that is solid melting into air. Code does not necessarily lend itself to a stable existence for people who ultimately use the tools. How often do things get yanked that are useful, or in which someone's learned work flow is completely disrupted? How often is poor design foisted upon a user? Or how often has perfectly legitimate operation been disrupted by the need to 'update', the imperative of the designer overriding the user (I'm looking at you PS3). Code mostly lends itself to continually iteration. This is not quite the same thing as progress.

Here's another way of thinking of this if you're like me and in the world of Software Engineering: today's technical debt is tomorrow's profit. Technical debt is the aspects of a software project that are done cheaply, poorly and hence as a consequence cause problems further down the line in maintenance and updating the software. Its debt - you might need to get something done today, but the person you are tomorrow will pay for it. Good amounts of money are spent continuing to work on something that a prior person did poorly (perhaps that person is yourself).[5] Software is bought, integrated, intermeshed in our lives and then often shown to be inadequate in some way. Then the real cost appears and thus the trap is sprung. If you’ve ever been in a large company which madly embraces a new “thing”, only for that thing to massively detrimental you know what I’m talking about.

What this creates is a kind of dependence and its one that bothers me. One of Winner's principles in Autonomous Technologies is "...that technologies be judged according to the degree of dependency they tend to foster, those creating a greater dependency being held to be inferior." (pg. 327) People and institutions buy into software in the hopes of achieving their aims better. Of course the nature of capitalism is that businesses need people to keep buying their products. A consequence is, you don't necessarily really own software you use, you lease it and it might be changed at the whims of the company you buy from.

The unique aspect of software as we've made it is that rapid iteration and ability to change things allows for a continual churn of products. It unleashes Capitalism in this sense, and I think we're experiencing the consequences of that. Where as solidity and stability of objects wasn't guaranteed under Capitalism before software, it was at least a possibility, a feature that could be found in things created (most likely purchased at a premium to be fair). But I think software, without restraint and thought, will simply undermine that possibility. Ship it and the ubiquitous networks we've made will always allow us to compensate for our mistakes. Ship it and we can always change it so that the terms of "ownership" are more favourable to us. Ship it and become dependent upon us to keep it alive and functional.

It would be too grand to say that software has in fact been overly detrimental to people's lives, that it has continually failed to produce the benefits it's claimed to have. These things need to be examined closely. To do this requires space for discrimination, in the sense of fair evaluation. This must put aside questions around the cost of systems, the investment involved, the degree of ego or legacy in implementing them. Has this or that thing been of use, been an aid? This involves understanding who these questions really need to be answered by.

This entails a political answer to these problems, as much as a change in professional practice outlined above. That political answer has to be challenge to Capital. Despite being a leftist, I don't have a particular straightforward answer to what that should look like. What does strike me though, is that the need for this answer has come from something that we might have thought un-political in nature. To think that it's just software that is "eating the world", is to mask the real nature of what is going on. Capitalism is eating the world.

[1]: In fact the NHS is still using Windows XP. In the UK, the NHS is under continually strain, slowly being hollowed out and privatised. Parts of it are left to degrade, and it's lagging performance are then used to justify this privatisation. Seen in this way, its at least worth considering that the use of Windows XP is a matter of intended neglect and has a political motivation behind it.

[2]: However, how often does this actually get caught and understood? Software engineering and the tech industry is buffeted by living somewhat consequence free (like say for instance, criminal convinctions being handed out due to accounting errors). One can argue that the loss of income is a consequence for certain failures, as consumers become aware of problems; but that fails to really grasp the issue of responsibility. The airline industry is (or at least was) held to a degree of responsibility that is frankly alien to Tech. And the danger there is in the sheer ubiquity. Airplanes are limited to the sky. Software, is quickly getting everywhere, even where it doesn't belong.

Let me put it to you a different way, with an example. Apple a few years ago had a security flaw so bad, that it should have immediately triggered some form of investigation and prompted talks in government as to how to properly legislate and regulate software. The security flaw is the result of simple inadequate QA testing and is unacceptable as the product from a company that produces software used pretty much everywhere. As it was, the story was not well understood, nor the magnitude of the error.

[3]: One issue was the possibility that data would be given to insurance companies.

[4]: A way of thinking about this is whether the good that is of chief concern is actually manifestly aided by the technological development (the Aristotelian in me is now showing). This requires you to have adequately grasped the nature of the good in question, which as an Engineer, its at least worth considering you might not have.

Here’s an example of that. If I wanted to introduce voting online for Government elections, aside from the usual questions of security and fairness (making sure the system is not exploitable), one would also insist that the old methods of voting were retained. This is because the good in question is democracy, which means that any and everyone eligible to vote have equal access to voting. Online voting might in fact be incredibly convenient and easy for most people, but it comes with assumptions such as easy access to a computer, technical proficiency with one, etc. Voting by paper is simple and requires little to no prior knowledge to explain.

[5]: I mentioned the singleton pattern and technical debt. Software Engineering has kinds of established answers of how to do things and not do things, but this was obviously not the case a short while ago (let's say 2 decades at least). People tried approaches and later, much later, we found that those approaches were bad and caused all sorts of problems. In some cases, it's unsettling to think who paid the price for that learning. I don't believe it was the tech companies. I object to ordinary people suffering the cost for technological innovation or establishment of proper practice. I suspect that the same kinds of issue will play out as IoT devices become more prominent.

Things everyone "knows"

I have a friend who, when the Snowden revelations came out said incredulously “Everyone knows that. This isn’t new.” I’ve heard things like this for different revelations, or problems or issues, for most of my life. You put to someone some facts, as it were - they know the facts and shrug.

A few comments come to mind. Firstly there is a world of difference between an abstract generality and a concrete particular. We might well have suspected or “known” that America, Britain and other countries were colluding to make a mass survelliance system. To know this concretely is different (that difference may come down to legality in the end). Its the difference between “knowing” a politician is corrupt and proving it, if you will.

Secondly, given it was put in a major newspaper and given the degree of surprise, its evident a lot of people didn’t know. There is a lot of heavy lifting done by the term “everyone”. What is meant really, is “I know. If you did not, you are an idiot.” This is to put lightly unfair; I would not assume every person has the time to keep themselves perfectly informed. To an uncomfortable degree our lives require a degree of trust that the things underlying them are ordered. Its that they often seem not to that our troubles really start.

Lastly; the things everyone knows, we don’t seem to know what to do about. That is, knowing seems a perfectly good excuse to see through things and thus not really see them. Everyone knows Johnson lies, all the papers know it. Yet its something else to see a list of those lies. We know our government is corrupt but we won’t acquaint ourselves with the details. The planet is in a dire state. But it is something else to read the IPCC report which gives us little time at all to change things. Its quite funny in a way because of course the distancing from details is a measure to avoid commitment. To know a detail is in a way to be morally implicated. “Politicians are untrustworthy” doesn’t seem to motivate action “this politician is corrupt” might well do.

I am not immediately suggesting that these things have a solution. We might say “I do really see this, but I don’t know what to do.” The difference there is we might one day see a way forward, because we’re open to it.

Knives out for Boris

Boris seems to be on the out. He might last, but a great deal of power is very much arrayed against him now. This will seem to absolve the Tory party of all sins, but its worth remembering that they enabled his behaviour and are very much complicit in the sordid state of the country.

I wrote this midway through the Summer and then promptly forgot about it. On reading it, I still stand by some of it but now it seems less clear cut that riot might happen, that the forces Boris engaged in will rise up. The answer to that question now is dependent on whether what happens in parliament is enough to satisfy the mob. It might well be too late.

I put this article here now, despite its lateness. Call it a pre-emptive political obituary:

Unaccountable Monsters

The Tory party aren’t fascist, aren’t authoritarian, not in the sense of a Hitler or Mussolini. There’s nothing planned about the actions they are taking. The things they are doing are reactionary and at its base rooted in a fear of the general population of the UK, who are incredibly placid lot until they begin rioting. No one “understands” the reasons the country burned in 2011 (sorry, why England burned). This fact should surprise us. While riots often have complex set of reasons for starting, we can normally attribute it to something, some kind of instigating incident. I don’t wish to downplay what happened to Mark Dugan, its more that the precise time line between his funeral protest march and the riots erupting in Tottenham is unsatisfying in its vagueness. It almost feels as if it just emerged, as if an atmosphere for violence suddenly happened.

What I learnt from that riot is the sense that a deeper, ungovernable being lives in the average Englishman, anarchic in its sensibilities. Its buried, beneath a placid, calm politeness, but its there, a vicious ugly kind of beast that resents the calm imposed upon it as a matter of sterilising powerlessness and would happily tear away at the structure of power, any power, when reminded that it exists. The spirit lives in chaos and derives a thrill from it. Democracy is meant to quell this power and manage it, but at all times, our rational rulers must be constantly terrified, exasperated, at this odd beast (Christ, why is the PR not working, why can’t we stage manage the fucks? God forbid you bleed in front of them. They will put the knife in with such glee. There is nothing more satisfying then seeing a man or woman with power topple).

Boris is riding that beast. It will inevitably fuck him. He lives a cowards life, or really one that is simply completely and totally afraid of being held accountable. You can see the real difference in the numerous leaders for their parties, who actually showed up to the election debates, who on some instinct, no matter how milquetoast they might be (I am looking askance at the squirrel killer here), or corrupt they might be (something chilling is happening in Scotland and quietly too. Its possible that the Tories are not what we should really fear. Or only fear.) understood that to not show up to a debate is to simple ditch the last pretence that we live in a democracy. That the basic notion of it is that people should see what they are buying first before they put their money down.

Not Boris, no, the man hid in a fridge. And it defines the direction of the party, influences its character. His cowardice has gotten into the party. He’s a pussyhole. Pussyhole Boris, to use the youth’s parlance. The party want all these police powers, because they are deathly afraid of being held to account, of any sort of imposition of reality. This includes crimes committed in the past. It includes taking any opportunity to fuck over people that are powerless, simply as a constant assertion and reminder that you have it. This is done even when its unwise even when instigation is not in your best interests. I’ll be frank, any sober practitioner of power would have seen what happened with BLM as a result of caging people in their homes for several months and simply let it be. The media aren’t particular capable of holding you to account about it, so why care? Instead the reaction is to draft laws that are far reaching, yet obviously created to stop that kind of behaviour. Which in a sense, simply allows your enemies to see you clearly as an enemy.

There’s a version of this reality, a version with Boris, who sees that CoVID is the perfect opportunity to come out a hero, and settle his legacy, soothe his ego (his main drive): take it all seriously from the start. Boot out anyone who fucks around and abuses the situation, play the deal straight. Everyone forgets about Brexit. Everyone forgets about the lying, the scandals, the obvious racism. After its over, the perfect opportunity to really do what he wants, riding on that goodwill. But that would require something like restraint and discipline and an ability to see beyond the current moment.

We live in a time of unaccountable monsters, men and women who rule us and engage in the worst excesses. Johnson is not an ambitious, visionary creature and it’s possible this is why an attempt to hang an ideology on him doesn’t work. He’s defined by his venality, by the fact that there are no consequences to his actions. Certainly we have neo-liberal, capitalistic politics, but that isn’t what Johnson believes exactly. I’m not even sure that’s what the Tories believe.

Expect more authoritarian choices, but above all expect more fear. More cowardice. I don’t think Johnson was against restrictions simply out of laziness or indifference, but because of the potential to enrage that beast. There is a very simple truth that there are not and were not enough police in this country to really enforce the lockdown restrictions. If the populace decided that they wanted to, they could have ignored them. In France and Italy, they had curfews, heavy handed policing, over the top restrictions. That was not a goer here. With each bit of restraint, you get more and more a population fed up and angry. These restrictions initially succeeded, largely because the population are trusting. But every time a scandal comes out, or every time it becomes apparent that Johnson has no plan, or every blunder that turns out to have killed a lot of people, that trusts disintegrates, people cease doing as you ask and then eventually turn on those in charge.

Johnson has played to the mob in the person, the bit of a man that wants chaos, that simply wants blind assertion of power against whatever is seen as overbearing upon you. He channelled that against the EU. But he knows he’s made his alliance with the demon and its binding is on him. By its nature it will drag him down. Its impossible to say if anything that’s happening in the country will lead to a riot. But he’s forsworn the protections that a normal democracy confers on its leaders. When people believe that there is some chance of accountability, they acknowledge that this thing we call Parliament, this thing called the Westminster bubble, has the right to prop up and dispatch its own. When they cease to believe in it, which in the end comes to ceasing to believe in democracy, they’ll take matters into their own hands. The end result will not be pretty, what ever it comes to.

The right choice and the wrong reasons (in Software Engineering)

I think its a generally shared maxim that you shouldn’t do something for bad reasons. In fact this is so wide spread we take it for granted. A bit of reflection as to how prominent this maxim is shared would tell you how often its advice is actually followed. Its actually quite hard to spot a bad reason within oneself. Its quite easy, or so we think, to spot when others are reasoning badly. Because we can see this (or think we do), we become exacerbated at others and believe them insane or idiotic at times for disagreeing. So what we end up thinking is, it’s obvious when someone is acting from bad reasons and they’re simply refusing out of some obstinacy to see what should be clear. Meanwhile for ourselves, we naturally reason well, and perhaps when we fail, those few times when we fail, well its because we’re tired, or distracted or…

If we look at the discrepancy in our experience of others and ourselves, it should be clear that its often more subtle and complex then we want to admit. And this is complicated when it comes to technical matters, in which I think reasoning, which in its particular form becomes highly developed, can still exhibit this kind of distortion.

You can see this in say, a conversation a senior expert and someone more junior, where the senior expert becomes upset at the juniors idea (fill in your reason, it just has to be unrelated to the validity of the idea). The junior suggests an idea from a place of naivety. The senior will destroy the idea. The argument will be quite fierce from the senior and because they know more they can always successfully argue for a position they’ve taken and as the junior is new and unexperienced, the senior will get their way. If you’ve ever suggested something from a junior position, had that idea savaged and come away thinking “What the hell?” you’ve experienced this behaviour.

This is not incidentally, to suggest that the things we block out are necessarily correct. The junior can still be wrong, but they know they've been bullied out of knowing why. This is the most easy way to hide from oneself, when you can use being technically correct to hide a bad motive.

So you can spot this in others, but it doesn’t necessarily help us. There is a temptation to say: well you believe it because ‘X’, where ‘X’ is a bad reason. And the temptation to do this to others has to also be resisted. Because its also another form of hiding from arguments, from not hearing the other person.

“I know you don’t actually believe what you say, you’re just swayed by the money/favouring what you’re used to/playing some strange power game” doesn’t actually demonstrate whether something is technically right or wrong, so responding with it is liable to be frustrating. I would say that friends are people that you can say this to, ones who can take that sort of self-criticism, but in a professional world coming out with this sort of thing isn’t really helpful. You have to express and take in good faith if you're ever to learn whether the good or bad reasons someone has for believing something.

What comes from this, is that its always useful to ask yourself if you have motives that are suspect. Whether you are say, more emotionally invested in a project then is good (either for yourself, the project or those around you). Whether a passion for something is blinding you to the aspects of what is going on in front of your own eyes. And the value of this is simple - you communicate better. People will accept what you say because they know that you do not argue you from a place to do with ego, or greed, or insecurity but from something reasoned and considered. They will see that you respect them. And additionally and crucially, you will hear things that you may not have caught before.

Now these things I suggest are true of day to day life, but far harder to apply. The thing is that technical reasoning at least has the scope and space for something “objectively” reasonable and hence suppressed bad reasoning is in a way, easier to spot in oneself (even if the objective response is that we don’t know what the answer is). That is, being right and wrong has a content to it that is not as easy to find in general arguments with friends or passionate arguments over values. There self-reflection is harder and the very principle I’ve raised doesn’t work as well. What a suspect motive is can be held to question. What to do about this is frankly not something I can answer in a single blog post or in fact, a single life time.

Unparliamentary Language

At this moment a ceasefire has been called between Israel and Palestine. The missiles being fired between the two countries has at least stopped - whether one can say that normal has been restored given some of what was occurring before and has been occurring for the last few years (or decades even), is a point I wish to leave aside. What I want to get into is something else, something that this most recent conflict has provided a prime example. What I have to say isn’t, I think, particularly revelatory, yet, I feel that when I think through the consequences of it, I cannot help but find the conclusions maddening.

I should state my position about Israel and Palestine so that there is no ambiguity - what is happening is abhorrent. While the conflict needs to stop, trying to draw a precise equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians seems deluded. There is a power differential, in terms of arms, as Israel has a sophisticated defence system and Palestine does not. It seems very trivial (as will be seen by what follows), to dismiss Hamas as a terrorist group and thus fail to see why it is that a conflict has been spawned. Moreover the UK, is far too complicit and involved and at the very least needs to withdraw its influence. I say all this, but it is irrelevant to my point. What I am about to do is almost mechanical. I think you can apply it to all political speech.

On the 19th of May, the UK Parliament hosted its talks about organising a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine. You can read the entire transcript of it here. I will be quoting from it extensively to prove my point, but I encourage you to go read through it. Because what it demonstrates to me, perhaps more clearly then anything, is the sheer emptiness of political speech.

This deficit is most apparent when a disagreement occurs:

CHRIS LAW (SNP)

We are witnessing the second week of horrific violence in Israel and Palestine. It has been reported that 10 have been killed by Hamas, and more than 200 have been killed by Israeli airstrikes, including 65 children. The SNP abhors all indiscriminate violence against civilians so, first, what further steps can the UK Government take in demanding an immediate ceasefire? I am incredibly proud that last month my city of Dundee voted to recognise Palestine as a nation state so, secondly, will the UK Government commit today to recognising Palestine as an equal and independent nation state?

The UN Secretary-General has accused the Israeli Government of acting contrary to their obligations under human rights law. Indeed, Amnesty International has highlighted potential war crime by both Israel and Hamas, so, thirdly, what pressures are the UK Government bringing to bear to investigate these shocking breaches? Lastly, UK arms export licences to Israel have increased by over 1,000% in the past two years. This is not neutrality, so, finally, will the UK Government immediately suspend those exports until they have been thoroughly examined?


JAMES CLAVERLY (CON)

I urge the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, not to equate the legitimate Government of Israel with a terrorist organisation —the military wing of Hamas. As I have said at the Dispatch Box a number of times, Israel has a right to self-defence, but we have made it clear that we expect at all times for it to exercise that in accordance with international humanitarian law, and make every effort to minimise casualties. Ultimately, the best way of minimising civilian casualties is to bring this conflict to a conclusion. That is why we are working with both the Palestinian leadership and the Government of Israel, and with our international partners, both in the region and further afield, to bring this conflict to a timely end, and work towards a more permanent ceasefire and, ultimately, a peaceful two-state solution.

So there’s a lot there right? Do you see it? Let’s break this down:

I urge the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, not to equate the legitimate Government of Israel with a terrorist organisation —the military wing of Hamas.

Note that no point did Chris Law actually do this. At worst you can say this was “implied” by Law explaining the degrees of civilian losses.

And then what proceeds is what can only be described as inability to answer the question. Or questions rather. Let me list out what Law actually asks:

  • What steps are being taken to secure a ceasefire?
  • Will the UK recognise the state of Palestine?
  • Are the human rights abuses supposedly committed by Israel being investigated?
  • Will the UK suspend arms trading with Israel until the above allegations are investigated?

I think you can say that the first has somewhat been answered: They are working with both governments and people internationally, to draw this to a close. Its sort of an answer. There’s no explanation as to what that actually looks like or what tangible material steps are being taken, but it is at least an attempt at an answer. The rest however, are side stepped.

Isn’t this weird? Or perhaps it isn’t? Let’s keep going. Here’s another example:

DR RUPA HUQ (LAB)

The sad aftermath of a tragedy in which children who are pulled from the rubble are considered lucky among a three-figure death toll is—the Minister said it himself—people newly displaced from their homes, double refugees and destroyed schools, hospitals and cultural centres, all at a time when we are cutting our aid contribution internationally. Does he agree with his two recent predecessors, Alistair Burt and Alan Duncan, that although UK Government policy is against illegal settlements and for a two-state solution, our long-standing lack of proactivity sometimes makes it look as if we do not really mean that? The only real victor in all this is Netanyahu. Until recently he was a caretaker leader after an inconclusive election; he has now well cemented himself.


JAMES CLEVERLY

The outcome of democratic elections in the state of Israel is for the Israeli people. We will continue to work with the Governments elected by the Israeli people. It strikes me, however, that that is an important but fundamentally different issue to the subject of the urgent question. We will work with international partners, the Israelis and the Palestinians to bring peace to the region, both in terms of this specific conflict, which we seek to resolve as quickly as possible, and, ultimately, for a sustainable prosperous two-state solution. That remains the UK Government’s policy.

Note how Cleverly focuses on Huq’s point about Netanyahu, in order to avoid the actual query in her statement: by doing nothing we seem to not believe in our own policies about the two state solution. There is admittedly a fair amount of rhetoric around that question. Huq is trying to score points about the foreign aid budget and pointing out that Netanyahu is the only real winner of this (irrespective of whether you agree with her, scoring points is what she’s doing here). These are also points of contention that Cleverly can exploit. That muddying allows Cleverly to evade quite easily. Huq in a sense, deserves this answer or lack there of.

Let’s see someone do this with a bit more skill:

JEREMY CORBYN (IND)

The images of death, destruction and loss of life all over the region are horrific. The targeted bombing of buildings in Gaza, the tanks on the west bank, and the destruction of education and health facilities is absolutely appalling. Will the Minister explain exactly what is the nature of Britain’s military relationship with Israel? What is the nature of that co-operation with Israel? Can he tell the House whether any munitions sold by Britain to Israel have been used to bomb places in Gaza, and whether any drone equipment supplied by Britain or bought by Britain has been used as a surveillance method on either the west bank or Gaza and followed up by the destruction of civilian life and the death of many people, including the tragedy of the deaths of whole families and children? Our public need to know exactly the nature of that military relationship with Israel. Of course, the Minister rightly says that the occupied territories, which are occupied by Israel, are the places that suffer as a result of this bombardment.


JAMES CLEVERLY (CON)

The UK has a robust arms export licensing regime, and all export licences are assessed in accordance with it. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously. I would also remind him that Israel is responding to rockets fired at it from an organisation closely associated with Iran. We would urge all nations to take their arms export responsibilities as seriously as the UK does.

This statements starts with two rhetorical statements (the images of death… the targeted bombing…), both of which are hard to disagree with and then a litany of direct questions. Corbyn ends with a precise moral argument for why such information is necessary (Our public needs to know…). There is little room to manoeuvre. Note that the question’s asked still haven’t been answered! This is possibly the best you’re going to get. An assurance that the responsibilities in arms trading licenses are taken seriously is meaningless when that is in fact the problem in question. No actual information is offered. A rather strange statement (in terms of relevance to Corbyn’s statement) is offered that Israel is dealing with an organisation tied to Iran.

CAROLINE LUCAS (GREEN)

There are many underlying reasons for this most intractable of conflicts, most notably 54 years of occupation of Palestine and 14 years of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, but the most recent violence and devastating damage and loss of life has been inflamed by Israeli violations of the fourth Geneva convention in occupied east Jerusalem and the rest of the west bank. While I welcome the Government’s long-term focus on peace and the two-state solution, can the Minister tell us specifically what consequences the UK is advocating to the international community to deal with Israel’s illegal actions? What steps is he taking, beyond raising it in bilateral talks with Israeli Ministers, to ensure the end of all settlement building and the cancellation of all forcible evictions and demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere? He has been asked this before but has not given any concrete details in his response. I would be grateful if he did so now.


JAMES CLEVERLY (CON)

The hon. Lady implies that bilateral conversations with partners are somehow invalid, but that is how diplomacy is done. Speaking with our friends and partners around the world and in the region is how we bring about positive change. The UK’s position on settlements, evictions and annexation is well known, and we have been vocal at the Dispatch Box and indeed in our conversations directly with our Israeli interlocutors. That is what we will continue to do. We will continue to work with friends in the international community to seek peace in the region.

Actually Lucas did no such thing as dismiss “bilateral conversations”. Again, a valid question is dismissed by taking an interpretation of what was said that allows for easy dismissal of it. This looks like a pointed question, but its very easy for some Cleverly to waltz through this.

Why am I doing this? You’re not really surprised that Politician’s are very good at obfuscation and dodging being held responsible for their words. I’m attempting a few things. One is that I think, that analysis of this, of what people actually say, and trying to parse out whether or not someone provided a fair response to a question or criticism, is lacking [1]. We’re often told that politician’s lie, or use weasel words, or are ambiguous in how they talk, but given that’s true, its really crucial to have receipts, examples, etc. Challenging skilled manipulators of language means showing throughly where it is they manipulate language and how.

Moreover, the actual nature of this kind of analysis is fairly objective, as demonstrated above. You may very well disagree with my position on things and you might well sympathise with Israel over Palestine. But be honest, read back what I wrote, read the transcripts of what was actually said - you cannot honestly assert that Cleverly is actually answering questions in anyway that is satisfactory. Let’s go back to Law’s questions. I’ll be charitable and grant that he answered the first question. Imagine now if Cleverly answered as such:

  • Will the UK recognise the state of Palestine? No, because of X.
  • Are the human rights abuses supposedly committed by Israel being investigated? No, because we have Y reason to believe that these aren’t a problem.
  • Will the UK suspend arms trading with Israel until the above allegations are investigated? No, because Z.

I can imagine a world where Cleverly’s responses have actual reasons behind them and X,Y and Z are filled in. They could in fact be sympathetic reasons. Accountability means having to supply reasons for why you are engaged in a thing. Perhaps you have good reason to not answer a question. Accountability means explaining what that is. [2]

My second reason for doing this is to return to the question: Why is this like this? Is this not a little strange? Clearly the people in this building know that they will not receive a straight answer. That’s almost a given in politics. So why are people trading statements like this? One can suppose that by asking these things one is being represented. This is what representation comes to, the inability to get a straight answer. There’s something mechanical in it. One shows up, asks the questions that you need to ask, but the answer’s are irrelevant. [3]

That’s perhaps a bit harsh. It’s clear that at times, what people are trying to do is trap each other, to get them to commit to a false hood, or to to appear weak and evasive. And there’s clear value in that, in so much as possibly the only way to expose when someone is doing something illegal or morally wrong is to push them. But I don’t think its what we think of as essential to democracy. I think and I think others agree, that its in part deliberation, actual discussion and argument between equals. And its that last part that’s essential. There is a difference in power going on here, in so much as the Tory government has a large scale majority and (if this is true or not) believes itself to be unaccountable.

It feels to me largely like the presentation of a democracy is here, rather then its actual reality. The power invested in people is justified by such presentations, but these are hollow actions. As a day to day reality, its depressing to see. The stakes are serious, but the treatment isn’t. I don’t doubt that a lot of MP’s truly believe in what they are doing, but to my mind that makes it all the sadder. A very weird, largely empty ritual is taking place in Westminster regularly, and it’s what passes for democracy in these parts.


[1] Imagine if in newspaper’s, on top of reporting responses to questions, politician’s statements were tagged with the qualifiers: vague, deceptive, ambigious, etc. Or that simply the failure to answer a question was highlighted.

[2] I harp on reasons, but that’s because it often feels as if is there a complete lack of them in politics. I don’t mean this in the technical, scientific sense, but in the day to day moral sense. A basic element of reasoning is the ability to apply one standard in the same way equally to everyone. This is by and large how moral reason functions. I don’t contend that its the only way it functions, nor the only thing that it’s essential to it. When we try and teach a child to be a good person, one of the essential things is to ensure that people are treated rightly by the same standard, with exceptions made only in good reason.

Does Cleverly believe his position or not? I actually cannot tell. It could be that it’s not simply a weakness, a desire to not apply a standard in a way that it very clearly should be. Sometimes there’s simple pure, clear, inability to reason. One has to wonder whether being in an environment that seems to encourage abandoning all principle isn’t in itself destructive of ones ability to think clearly about them at all. A life built on sophistry is one trapped in it perhaps.

Because of this lack, these discussion are farcical and ironic and the lack of capacity to apply standards vigorously is almost comical. Observe this exchange:

DR ANDREW MURRISON (CON)

The Minister’s point on the two-state solution does him great credit and it should be clear for anybody to understand. Long-range rockets at scale are not possible without the involvement of a sophisticated, malign state actor that will never be content until the state of Israel is driven into the sea. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will never be peace in the Levant, never be a two-state solution and never be a solution of any sort until Iran ceases to be a feral bandit state, uncouples itself from its regime and rediscovers the dignity, poise and leadership appropriate to its history and its culture?


JAMES CLEVERLY

I thank my predecessor and good friend for the point that he raised. I have already said that the UK encourages Iran to be a more thoughtful and less disruptive regional player and to stop arming and supporting terrorist militia groups in the region. We will continue to work towards a two-state solution with the framework that has been explained from this Dispatch Box many times, and I pay tribute to the work that he did in this role to try to make that a reality.

Given that we’re arming Israel a statement like this:

“Long-range rockets at scale are not possible without the involvement of a sophisticated, malign state actor that will never be content until the state of Israel is driven into the sea.” can equally hold by replacing Israel with Palestine. I leave it to the reader to decide if the sentences that follow: “never be a solution of any sort until Iran ceases to be a feral bandit state”, “Iran to be a more thoughtful and less disruptive regional player and to stop arming and supporting terrorist militia groups in the region” - continues to be true if ‘Iran’ is replaced by the UK.

[3] A surprising conclusion from this is that while Free speech is an important foundation of a democracy, following the norms of speech on its own is more important. I will say, not every debate in Parliament looks like this, go read the vaccine passport debate to see that. The possible difference there is that was an idea, not one that had gained prominence or involved a lot of power being thrown around. The stakes matter less (not for the general population, for politicians).

Why I don't use Facebook (or thinking about Social Media)

I don’t use Facebook but did a long time ago. My reasons for ditching at the time were not particularly concrete. I was studying philosophy and doing a small dissertation on technology. I examined what Facebook gave me and came to a conclusion that it wasn’t an aid to my life and that I might try disabling it for a while to see what happened[1]. I never returned. My reasons have since become more coherent to me and I'd like to articulate what keeps me out.

Some of it is pretty uncontroversial at least as much as I think there’s general agreement on things that are wrong: Facebook is very intrusive into a persons life, its very obvious they are in the business of mass data collection and they’ve began to accumulate power over politics that should worry everyone. Where I think there’s disagreement is what, if anything can be done about these things.[2]

The most obvious reason to leave is to protect ones privacy. If you’re not comfortable with what Facebook asks for, don’t use the service (this is protection only be degrees, given Facebook's shadow profile system).

You could also leave as a form of boycott. At the very least as a solution it is simple, because it no longer contributes to Facebook’s data collection program, doesn’t add to their business and removes a (small) reason for others to use the network. The problem with this, at least as a matter of action in inducing change, is that it’s often small scale and Facebooks numbers are so large that the loss of users is probably not something they experience as a difficulty. Even so, its hard to see how the action would make the situation worse and at least as an individual action, serves to protect ones privacy.

I think these are good reasons to stay out of it. Yet these aren’t only my reasons for not using Facebook and in fact were the bad things mentioned so far to change (say via strong regulation or reform) I don’t believe I would go back. In fact I’m not sure I’d join any social network now, not at least a system like Facebook. My rejection comes down to the fact I see social networks as things that tend naturally towards monopolisation, both in a business sense, but also in terms of human attention, membership and society. The first is pernicious and bad, but the second to me is terrifying.

Is this what a social network must be like, by necessity? I’m not sure, so I’m going to draw a distinction here: between ‘totalising’ social networks and ‘limited’ ones. Totalising ones are designed, or motivated to draw in as many users as possible. A limited one does not. Social networks draw their utility from the fact they contain users. We might class a ‘limited’ one as one that has some members and isn’t actively trying to draw more in.

We could say of a limited network that by nature they are going to need users to be of use, but they may not need all possible users. One can imagine that particular social networks could form around a group, or a hobby, or a community and will not need to expand beyond that. That has particular utility to that set of people, but probably doesn’t need more members then those that declare themselves part of it.

This definition is a little pernicious (I struggle to think of a network that we can call limited as I’ve described it. And its possible that under Capitalism, a network is forced to become totalising. They may well exist though).

Facebook is a totalising network. What Facebook wants is connectivity for everyone, always and everywhere and that is, to put it lightly, not a neutral proposition. Whatever you may think of it, its not a simple matter of a technical benefit, but a way of structuring the world, of enforcing a set of values upon it. This I contend effects behaviour in ways that are damaging. I’m not sure the narcissism that seems prevalent isn’t simply enabled by the sheer degree of access involved in such connectivity (although Facebook seem to encourage narcissism by design too).

I also think, that routing everything through one particular provider of a service can be dangerous in ways that we don’t expect.

Imagine, as I think it’s easy to imagine, that everything was ran through Facebook or something like it. We insisted that it was the only method of communication (or the principle one). We insisted that people conducted business through it, that they found love through it, that we managed social security through it - that as much as of life as we could run digitally was run through this network.

I imagine such a world would be supremely convenient and easy. I also imagine that, if say for instance someone had a difficult with the way the networks was ran, or plain disagreed with the degree of interaction involved, or objected on ecology grounds to the immense use of power to run it - or some other reason to simply reject the use of such a system, that such centralising inherent to it would be a problem for them. To some degree they’d be compelled to use the system. And a bit of me thinks, that without really thinking its easy to set up life to be like this, to create groups that only use Facebook or Twitter as its sole medium, or to have friends be limited by what is available through this network, to assume by default that all life should be managed in this manner.

To draw an example from life, when I left Facebook, people would tell me of things that I missed out on, events that were going on locally that I was simply not aware of. I was missing out. I've never complained about this and still don't, its simply an obvious consequence to my choice. But again, this is a sort of simple thoughtlessness, going for the simplest method. In a way its letting Facebook shape what is accessible to you.

I've also criticised a group for using Facebook solely to communicate and actually had this said to me in response: that if you dislike the sole way in which a group or organisation communicates, well, that’s your problem. You don’t have a choice when the majority choose a method to communicate. It was akin to complaining that so much of life is mediated through email.

I think the response revealed a lot about how we think about technology. One is the equivalence with email, which doesn’t stand. I have a choice of email provider, which I don’t have with Facebook and I can pick an email provider that doesn’t steal my data. But also, there's the insistence that I - we - should structure our lives by what is convenient, for myself and for others. And I believe this is a horrible criteria for making choices by.

Social Network’s are manifestations of Network effects. The convenience of access to others is the draw. So its no surprise that a lot of the innovation in Facebook is in addictive effects or user capture. If we put those aside though, the point is, the utility comes from the fact that everyone is on it. So a supposed, public service/cooperative/ethically ran version of this still has to gain its utility by getting everyone on it, and as I’m trying to detail above, this can be compulsive even without the Skinner Boxes. Society tends to force its technology onto people, but the way in which it forces it is not always obvious (not always the result of something from above, if you like). To some degree its churlish to have no means of being communicable and then complain that no one tells you anything, to some degree society makes these choices for you, but we really should see where this is done without thought. In this thoughtlessness we tie ourselves into things that aren’t great for us and more dangerously admit only one “choice”, which isn’t good for anyone[3]. Thinking that email displaced mail (or should) is wrong. Thinking that credit/debit cards displace cash (or should) is wrong[4]. A multitude of means is healthy, frankly.

What I’m trying to tease out is the differences, which come back to that ‘totalising’ definition between these forms of technology. Email serves to connect people in society and admits alternatives. Facebook, in a sense, seeks to be the society (could you have more then one network like this? Probably not, in so much as they’d compete for the same space. You’d have to put things in two places and no one wants to do that). And so my problem, is that this has a lot of buy in and marginalises alternatives and dissenters. And is by and large a concentration of power. Even in a well run network, done on different principles, this problem of power remains. And I think, possibly the wisest response to this is to not allow the problem to come up in the first place rather then pretend that any kind of mediation or mechanism can possible account for it.

In so much as we are embracing certain ways of doing things, its a mindfulness that they can come with a requisite way of restructuring our own lives, or the lives of others. And so it is, that if we want a totalising network, even ran as a public good by moral people with a system of accountability, I cannot see that from its very nature it wouldn’t become problematic.


[1]: I read Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology at the time and I can’t help but wonder if I was influenced by a suggestion he makes near the end of the book:

“One step that might be taken, for example is that groups and individuals would for a time, self-consciously and through advanced agreement, extricate themselves from selected techniques and apparatus… The emerging “needs”, habits or discomforts should be noticed and thoroughly examined. Upon this basis it should be possible to examine the structure of the human relationships to the device in question. One may then ask if those relationships should be restored and what if any, new form those relationships should take.” (pg.332)

[2]: When Trump came to power, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke out, there was a lot of conversation about how to challenge Facebook’s power. A lot of discussion was had as to whether people should stay on the platform. The general tenor was that one should, that there was value in staying and fighting fake news, that there was a need for visibility and that if one left this was to simply abandon a platform to its worst elements and allow them flourish. Its an argument that makes sense, although I don’t feel the morals are clear cut (clearly if I agreed I’d be using the platform). The self-damage that these platforms cause and the difficult moral quandary this can leave people in is pretty well argued for by L.M. Sacasas.

But I also think that any movement that considers itself above being damaged by use (and this now extends beyond Facebook to its foul cousin Twitter) are fooling themselves. To use a tool is to be shaped by it. In a way that is perhaps not predicted, politics has shaped itself to use these things more effectively. This leaves unchallenged the claims these systems make about what is good for a person and for people in general. Use simply props them up. Even complaining about them within their own system is to simply acknowledge the power they have.

I am not saying that one should not use the tool: its too big a world to do that. I cannot make judgements about every person using Facebook. But I will say that they should be used discriminatingly, with an eye to the disorientations, to the way they exploit people and return back what one is concerned with changed. This seems a good first step. To be aware and conscious of the dangers involved.

The arguments about the impotence of boycotts came about because they focus on the individual users and politics as a manifestation of individuality (this in itself a partial product of Social Media). Where as in fact, acting as a group could quite easily damage them. A mass of users agreeing to withdraw would cause problems, even if the numbers aren’t particularly large. This is where I predict the next forms of resistance to these things are going to come from. This already to some degree happened in India, but I suspect that communities and groups are going to have reason to revolt and withdraw. If you like, Facebook may end up like the Sun newspaper in Liverpool: offending the sensibilities of an entire place or people so badly that they refuse your product. And the reason for that might even be beyond challenging their power (I can’t say that the Liverpool boycott threatened the Sun beyond readers, but its been self-sustaining now for a while and has no sign of dying out).

[3]: At least on a utility level, on a matter of technical innovation for the user, I don’t actually think Social Networks like Facebook are that advanced. Email existed and exists as a matter of connecting others across vast distances. Online Messengers existed for a long time for the purposes of real time communication and still do. Platforms existed: covering many different needs and wants, philosophies, political ideologies, hobbies and these weren’t even necessarily things constructed in a manner that was insanely hard to find. Livejournal was one, MySpace in fact another (consider what you could do with your own page on MySpace and what you can do with Facebook profiles - the degradation of choice and expression that occurs between the two should make you pause, even if the majority of MySpace profiles were ugly).

Now to circumvent misunderstanding, I am not saying that a lot of technical innovation did not go into Facebook, because that is blatantly nonsense. Facebook created a lot of things, really technically impressive things in order to manage the scale of what they were doing. At least in my own realm, React is fantastic, attempted nonsense with licensing aside.

[4]: I mean this point about money vs cards with some seriousness. Cash as a technology is anonymous and requires far less infrastructure and centralisation to deploy then credit cards and the banking system. The security and certainty of it comes from the methods used in blocking forgery (the only centralised aspect of it) and once made is flexible, easy to use and importantly, allows no observation and surveillance by state or by corporation. A cashless society, aside from the horrible effects it would have on the homeless, would allow immediate capture of this information. Cashless alternatives I think are great, and frankly should exist as viable alternatives, but I reject the notion it should be the only option. This is perhaps the only time you’ll hear me praise cash.