Friday, September 22, 2017

Trumping transparency.

King's College London

The words “Trump” and “transparency” don’t often appear together. Administrative transparency isn’t something Trump promised during his campaign, and it hasn’t been on the agenda in the last eight months. Yet the term has turned up in communications from the Trump camp.

In July, referring to the Commission on Election Integrity, Trump claimed that the “voter fraud panel,” as he called it, would be a “very transparent process . . . very open for everybody to see.” The American Civil Liberties Union begs to differ. It has lodged a legal complaint stating that the commission has violated “the non-discretionary transparency and public access requirements” of the Federal Advisory Committee Act by holding “its first meeting without public notice; without making that meeting open to the public; and without timely notice in the Federal Register.” Trump also used the word “transparent” to describe his eldest son’s response to accusations that he had failed to disclose meetings with Russians during the presidential campaign.

These examples suggest that Trump hasn’t fully understood—or has wilfully misunderstood—the meaning of transparency and what it would take, in practice, to achieve it. However, Trump’s attitude toward “transparency” is, as with other elements of his post-truth presidential style, better understood as a particularly brazen and exaggerated version of rhetorics and techniques deployed by his predecessors rather than as a complete aberration.

Barack Obama, for example, campaigned on the issue of transparency, extolling the virtues of open government. And while it is true that the Obama administration implemented a number of government transparency initiatives such as the provision of open government data and White House visitor logs, its triumphal talk of transparency sat uneasily alongside its overzealous invocation of the State Secret Privilege and punitive approach to whistleblowing.

It’s easy to forget now that the Obama administration was often called out for its attachment to secrecy. According to the findings of the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) in 2013, reporters from many major media outlets felt that “the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press,” and that the “aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.” According to Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times, the Obama administration was “turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”

As a transparency skeptic (that is, as a scholar who looks closely at the less-than-transparent practices supposedly intended to promote “transparency,” not as someone opposed to openness as an ideal), I spent a lot of time during Obama’s term in office pointing out the limitations, and sometimes the hypocrisy, of his administration’s evangelism about transparency. In the face of Trump’s continual tactical use of misdirection, obfuscation, and opacity, I can understand the temptation to feel nostalgic for Obama’s (compromised, circumscribed, tarnished) version of transparency. I wonder if the journalists cited in the CPJ report feel nostalgia themselves now that their role has been so suddenly and thoroughly undermined. A tainted transparency is surely better than no transparency at all.

In a sense, that’s obviously right. Trump’s disdain for facts and expertise, and for the role of administrative transparency and the fourth estate in the democratic process, leaves us feeling disorientated and disempowered. But Trump’s contempt for administrative transparency could offer an opportunity to those who seek a relationship between citizens and the state that isn’t determined and delimited by covert data surveillance on the one hand, and open government data initiatives on the other.

At a time when government seems unseen and unchecked, is it possible that if we can hold our nerve, we too could operate in the shadows to conceive a form of data transparency that is fit for purpose: that elicits political subjectivity rather than disavows or curtails it? Such a version of open government data, for example, would have to not only acknowledge that data is never raw by making clear the circumstances of its collection, but also ensure that citizens are equipped to analyze data without reliance on third party mediators. Even more ambitious, could we use this moment to re-imagine both secrecy and openness in ways that might allow for a more progressive, redistributive political settlement? If the current regime teaches us anything, it is surely that securitizing systems like data surveillance seem even more troubling with an unstable, authoritarian leader walking the viewing station at the panopticon; and that open government data needs to be empowering and meaningful.


Clare Birchall is author of Shareveillance: The Dangers of Openly Sharing and Covertly Collecting Data (Minnesota 2017); Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip; and coeditor of New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory. She is senior lecturer at King's College London.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What's the deal with Elon Musk? A transhumanist's perspective.

Assistant professor of English, Texas A&M University

In my timeline on Twitter, I get a lot of updates about Elon Musk. Maybe you do too, especially if you follow as many data scientists, technologist, and futurists as I do. Seemingly every week, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, Solar City, and Tesla is making headlines with a new technology that promises to revolutionize the way humans live (such as the Hyperloop project, a high speed public transit project, or Neuralink, a company developing technologies to connect the human mind to a computer) or with predictions that these same technological changes will lead to our extinction as a species, such his recent prediction that artificial intelligence will likely cause World War III.

At any given moment, Musk appears in the media as either a Tom-Swift-esque boy inventor of miracles or the closest thing we will ever see to a real-life Bond villain. There is a subgenre of tweets that riff on this tension using the "me, also me" meme form. The basic version of the tweet goes something like this:

Elon Musk: weaponized AI will kill us all
Also Elon Musk: the new AI I made is smart enough to beat humans at war games

These tweets capture one of the key aspects of Musk's public persona: he appears both fascinated by the potential of radical technological change and well aware that these changes will probably lead to our extinction.

Musk's work on radical technology—including human-computer neural links, high-speed travel, and space exploration—aligns him with the group of technologists and philosophers who call themselves "transhumanists," though he is not officially associated with this movement. Transhumanism is a broad and loose coalition that includes Oxford university philosopher Nick Bostrom, life-extension researcher Aubrey De Grey, and inventor and popular author Raymond Kurzweil. In a 1990 essay, philosopher Max More offers this definition:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life rather than in some supernatural "afterlife". Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies such as neuroscience and neuropharmacology, life extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultraintelligence, and space habitation, combined with a rational philosophy and value system.

For More and other transhumanists, the radical technologies promised by genetic engineering, robotics, and computation in general demand that we rethink what it means to be human.

Though Elon Musk does not specifically identify as a transhumanist, a TED Talk he gave outlines his belief that the sustainable, futuristic technologies his companies build can fundamentally alter what it means to be human. Transhumanists often argue that new technologies are radically changing human nature, even causing us to evolve into different beings, the kind of cyborgs that Musk says we must become if we are to survive the future. This specific position was first articulated in computer scientist Hans Moravec's 1990 book Mind Children and the idea of human-computer co-evolution continues to be a core belief amongst many transhumanists.

Perhaps most clearly marking the similarity in his thinking with transhumanism is Musk's association with The Simulation Hypothesis. First proposed by Nick Bostrom in a 2003 issue of Philosophical Quarterly, Bostrom analytically proves that it is likely that our reality is a computer simulation created by future cyborg ultraintelligences as a means of experimenting on different possible outcomes to human evolution. Speaking at a 2016 conference, Musk declared "There's a billion to one chance we're living in base reality," an argument taken from Bostrom. An October 2016 New Yorker profile of Sam Altman, the billionaire founder of Y Combinator, generated another round of headlines for Musk when Altman claimed that "two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation," generating speculation that Musk (or PayPal founder and noted transhumanist Peter Thiel) was likely one of the two Altman mentioned.

While Musk's technological innovations and possible funding of research into the simulation hypothesis align him with transhumanism, his pessimism about these same technologies̢۪ abilities to deliver a just, sustainable, and even survivable future places him at odds with the movement. FM-2030, the futurist whose work was key in inaugurating modern transhumanism, called his philosophy of a future of material plenty "optimism one." Max More claims that transhumanism is a philosophy of "dynamic optimism." Raymond Kurzweil exhorts his readers to "live long enough to live forever." Musk's gloomy concerns that AI will kill us all or that the first of SpaceX's Martian colonists must be prepared to die is not in-line with this spirit of optimism. Musk, though considering science-fictional technological undertakings with the same seriousness as transhumanists, appears more pessimistic about their outcome.

So, given all of this, what's the deal with Elon Musk? For me, Musk's interest in making fabulous technology a reality while simultaneously being extremely pessimistic about the outcomes of these technological advances signals that transhuman topoi—the commonplace arguments of life extension, superintelligence, genetic engineering, and space travel that make up transhumanism's rhetorical tool chest—are becoming ubiquitous. Though not himself a transhumanist, Musk's identity, work, and claims about the future of humanity all suggest that transhumanism is increasingly the rhetorical terrain in which arguments about the future have to be made and against which technological change will be judged. While we may remain suspicious of transhumanism—its creepy optimism, its blindness to racial and gender-based inequality, its indifference to the body—and are probably right to do so, the kinds of radical technological changes that transhumanism has been promising for the last half century are increasingly here and it is up to us to figure out how to live in this new future we are discovering for ourselves.


Andrew Pilsch, author of Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia, is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University.

"I know of no other work that provides such a detailed and penetrating analysis of a cultural trend—transhumanism—that promises, like it or not, to be of increasing importance in the near future."
—Jeff Pruchnic, author of Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age: The Transhuman Condition

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Coming Storm

BY CEDRIC JOHNSON (The Neoliberal Deluge and Revolutionaries to Race Leaders) AND THOMAS JESSEN ADAMS

Excerpt from article published in Jacobin:

The rains over Corpus Christi and Houston have finally stopped, and floodwaters are beginning to recede. Some residents are still stranded, while others — tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands — won’t be able to return to their homes for weeks and months.

Meanwhile, the race to capitalize on the disaster, to redistribute wealth upward, and to transform the region has already begun.

While rain was still falling over much of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, Patrick Gleason took to the editorial section of Forbes to propose the now-expected Republican (and increasingly Democratic) response to natural disasters: suspend the Davis-Bacon Act and cut wages in order to spur reconstruction efforts.

For many who survived the Katrina crisis twelve years ago, Gleason’s words will sound disturbingly familiar. He advances the same flawed recovery approach that the Bush White House and local politicians took in Louisiana. They rolled back labor and environmental protections, guaranteeing wide profit margins for corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel while creating a deeply uneven and unjust recovery process.

New Orleans has seen an entrepreneurship boon since Katrina, with individual start-ups outpacing the national average by 68 percent in 2013. And yet the city’s child poverty rate still sits higher than the dismal numbers for the state of Louisiana overall, not to mention the nation. Three out of five renters spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing.

American liberals find themselves in uncharted waters with a social disaster on the scale and complexity of the south Texas floods. As the popular outrage over Charlottesville showed, liberal antiracism retains powerful currency in many corners, but, when confronted with ruling-class power and less social-media friendly subjects — like wages, collective bargaining, workplace safety, and other issues that have direct material effects on the lives of millions of working people— many of those same voices fall silent.

Read the full article at Jacobin.

Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is editor of The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans. See more on the blog by Cedric: Hurricane Katrine, ten years later: When the investor class goes marching in.