Something to Ponder …

In this day where everyone seems to have to wear a label – democrat, republican, moderate, liberal, conservative, neo-conservative, snowflake – David Brooks is hard to pin down.  He has been dubbed a moderate, a centrist, a conservative, and a moderate conservative.  He has even been called “one of those Republicans who want to ‘engage with’ the liberal agenda” {gasp!!!}, “not a real conservative” or “squishy”.  To me, labels can mean whatever one wants them to mean at the moment, or nothing at all.

David Brooks is a Canadian-born American who is currently a columnist for the New York Times and commentator on PBS NewsHour.  Along with The Washington Post’s George Will and a couple of others, he is among the conservative writers who gets my attention, commands my respect, whether I agree with him or not.

Mr. Brooks’ column of March 11th  is, I think, worth reading and giving some serious thought to.  This particular piece is neither right nor left, conservative nor liberal, but it is, rather, a statement of our ‘techno-society’, for lack of a better term.  Give it a glance, then give it some thought.  Are we walking straight into the mouth of the giant alligator?  Your thoughts?

If Stalin Had a Smartphone

Suddenly technology has a centralizing effect.

David-BrooksBy David Brooks

Opinion Columnist

I feel bad for Joseph Stalin. He dreamed of creating a totalitarian society where every individual’s behavior could be predicted and controlled. But he was born a century too early. He lived before the technology that would have made being a dictator so much easier!

In the first place, he’d have much better surveillance equipment. These days most interactions are through a computer, so there is always an electronic record of what went on.

The internet of things means that our refrigerators, watches, glasses, phones and security cameras will soon be recording every move we make. In 2017, Levi Strauss made an interactive denim jacket, with sensors to detect and transmit each gesture, even as minimal as the lifting of a finger. Soon prosecutors will be able to subpoena our driverless cars and retrieve a record of every place they took us.

And this is not even to mention the facial recognition technology the Chinese are using to keep track of their own citizens. In Beijing, facial recognition is used in apartment buildings to prevent renters from subletting their apartments.

One Chinese firm, Yitu, installed a system that keeps a record of employees’ movements as they walk to the break room or rest room. It records them with blue dotted lines on a monitor. That would be so helpful for your thoroughly modern dictator.

In the second place, thanks to artificial intelligence, Uncle Joe would have much better tools for predicting how his subjects are about to behave. As Shoshana Zuboff wrote in her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” when you are using Google, you are not Google’s customer. You are Google’s raw material. Google records everything you do; then it develops models that predict your behavior and then it sells those models to advertisers, which are its actual customers.

Thanks to this business model, some of the best minds in the world have spent tens of billions of dollars improving tools that predict personal consumption. This technology, too, has got to come in handy for any modern-day Stalin.

Third, thanks to big data, today’s Stalin would be able to build a massive Social Credit System to score and rank citizens, like the systems the Chinese are now using. Governments, banks and online dating sites gather data on, well, everybody. Do you pay your debts? How many hours do you spend playing video games? Do you jaywalk?

If your score is too low, you can get put on a blacklist. You may not be able to visit a museum. You may not be able to fly on a plane, check into a hotel, visit the mall or graduate from high school. Your daughter gets rejected by her favorite university.

Back in Stalin’s day, social discipline was so drastic. You had to stage a show trial (so expensive!), send somebody to the gulag or organize a purge. Now your tyranny can be small, subtle and omnipresent. It’s like the broken windows theory of despotism. By punishing the small deviations, you prevent the big ones from ever happening.

Fourth, you don’t have to go through all the trouble of staging a revolution. You just seduce people into a Faustian bargain. You offer to distract them for eight hours a day with animal videos and relatable memes, and they surrender their privacy to you and give you access to their brains.

As online life expands, neighborhood life and social trust decline. As the social fabric decays, social isolation rises and online viciousness and swindling accumulate, you tell people that the state has to step in to restore trust. By a series of small ratcheted steps, you’ve been given permission to completely regulate their online life.

This, too, is essentially what is happening in China.

As George Orwell and Aldous Huxley understood, if you want to be a good totalitarian, it isn’t enough to control behavior. To have total power you have to be able to control people’s minds. With modern information technology, the state can shape the intimate information pond in which we swim.

I don’t want to pretend that everything will be easy for the Stalin of the 21st century. Modern technology makes it easier to control people, but it also creates a mind-set in which people get much angrier about being controlled.

When people have a smartphone in their hand, they feel that they should have a voice, that they should be broadcasting, that they should have agency and dignity. When they discover they are caught in an information web that is subtly dominating them, they react. When they realize that ersatz information webs can’t really create the closeness and community they crave, they react.

Angry movements and mobs arise spontaneously. What you get is a system of elite domination interrupted by populist riots.

Human history is a series of struggles for power. Every few generations, just for fun, the gods give us a new set of equipment that radically alters the game. We thought the new tools would democratize power, but they seem to have centralized it. It’s springtime for dictators.

55 thoughts on “Something to Ponder …

    • And I fully concur. “New” is often not necessarily an improvement. I see much of this technological progress as a mixed bag … a lot of benefit, but it’s been used for many things that are not of benefit to anyone. Just look at New Zealand yesterday. 😥

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I remember reading what I thought was a rubbish book a few years back arguing the online revolution should be seized by Big business to increasingly foster instability and rest control away from democratic governments and put it in the hands of the money makers. The argument went that the necessary middle step was a period of making governments look ineffective, breaking democratic systems and fostering social unrest, Scarily this is starting to happen.

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  2. A salutary warning.
    But as you witness several times a day. People willingly buy into this, literally, politically, socially and so forth.
    The dictators are not just the rulers of states. They come in many forms.
    They will tell you what films you should be (or not be) watching, what music to listen to, whether you should believe a politician or not, who are the Good Guys, who are The Bad Guys, which nations are ‘bad’, which peoples are ‘good’; which bit of history is all a lie and so on.
    I once read a Facebook post which said in all dam’ innocence this person would not support UNICEF, because they had read of mis-use of funds, the information being supplied in an anonymous e-mail…an anonymous e-mail!?!
    Not just spring time for dictators, every mean-spirited hack and their credulous followers.

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    • Sounds like another day in the screwy world of ‘www. com’. 2 days ago FaceBook gave my wife the run-around and let me amble through its pages.
      We rely on these systems so much because we are given no option and then every once in a while it’s a case of.
      ‘Captain. The engines cannae it!’

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      • Trillions of wires, it’s only natural some are going to get crossed. Yesterday it was the wires inside some Australian man’s head, and now the world is in shock! What wires will get crossed tomorrow? Hopefully the ones in Trump’s head, and things will improve–it can’t guess much worse…

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        • Be on watch. It can.
          Trump is not even in the same league as the potential of the hate & doom-bringers, he’s just their current piece of poster paper to hide behind.

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          • Yes, I am very aware of that. I live in a little racist town. The whites hate First Nations people, whose reserves surround the town. First Nations people resent the way they are treated, and I do not blame them. I slip through the fences, because I look white to whites, and aboriginal to aboriginal people. I get to hear both sides: guess which side makes me sickest?
            But the thing is, people at least used to pretend they weren’t racist, until el dumpo gave them permission to be vocal, and Trump has nothing directly to do with Canada. Still, people feel emboldened now to speak their piece, every day. And it is only getting worse.
            I’ve given up trying to fight it. I now stay home unless I have to go out. I’d move, but I cannot afford it. And I like my home. I shouldn’t have to give it up.

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            • We have a similar problem over here in the UK since this wretched Brexit business.
              And too many people on mainland Europe seemed to have forgotten just what caused WWII

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              • After us baby-boomers, people grew up without a real sense of what wars can do. Mind you, I hope that continues, they are lucky if there is no major war in their time. But that doesn’t seem a real possibility right now. Let’s cross our fingers for them.

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                • There are parts of the world where that would only be a dream.
                  These fools who gabble their neo-Nazi or supremacist filth have no sense of what happened to the last two nations who had folk who spouted that stuff.
                  Extremists of this nature tend to forget they are in a minority and once there is a certain tipping point reached the majority snap back and the results are not pretty.
                  Ask inhabitants of Georgia in the Winter of 1864; the folk of Germany 1944-45 ( particularly Berlin and to the east) and the Japanese who lived in cities during the same era, all of whom were unfortunate to have been swept up in the twisted ideas of others.

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                    • A cursory check of the fossil record down the tens of millions of years would be a warning to intelligent people that a planet’s systems are bigger than those who live on it. The creatures might well have an impact but there will always be consequences.
                      We might end up as barely a smear on the fossil record.

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                    • That’s the way of this world.
                      As a Christian of what I would call the moderate wing; when the Old Testament is view correctly as a collection of commentaries, poems, allegorical stories (and a bit of selective history to warn/extol..who doesn’t?) explaining the relationship of a Creator with The Created, the Garden of Eden reads like this:
                      Act 1
                      ‘OK you guys I have given you this nice world to live in. It took a lot of hard work to get the balance just right for you….Don’t screw it up!’
                      Act 2
                      ‘What did I tell you?!’
                      and my own…heretical Act 3….(post apocalypse)
                      God to the assembled masses of Humanity.
                      ‘OK. I warned you. Did you listen? Yeh you folk who tried, this way you deserve a rest…. You who thought it was someone else’s problem…You got a lot of work to do to say sorry….You guys you said it was your right to mess with the world….Down there, ‘he’s’ got a whole lot of plans for you’
                      Oh well, that’s Humanity….Let’s try butterflies next as the superior species….

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                    • Here you are going in a place I cannot go. But as I said to Jill at some point, the bible credits god as having given humanity dominion over the fishes, the birds… and the whole world. This is why humans never took blame for ignoring the bigger world systems that are presently crashing. God said they could do whatever they pleased. I do not mean to insult your beliefs, but the god of the old testament was not a very loving god, nor did he think through many of his supposed moves. He did a lot of things on impulse, which to me was not very god-like. Now he is presented with a situation he must clean up. Bye bye humans. Whoever he chooses to replace us, I hope he gives them better directions.

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                    • Yeh I get your point rawgod.
                      The problem with the a first view of the OT is this. It is a collection from an earlier time, which has undergone several translations into English and has lost some of the poetry, allegory and perspectives of those ages.
                      For instance ‘Dominion’ can also mean responsibility which in turn means ‘don’t screw up’.
                      There are more than enough lectures, warnings and passages deep within for those of belief to meditate and ponder on and learn from. (on a personal level I think after a long battle and my own mediating than the Bible suggest to me my ‘O’Brian shtick as in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a lousy mindset to have as a means to dealing with extremists).
                      Anyone who professes to be Christian should have a problem with the initial, literal English reading of OT and needs to ponder and dwell on the deeper meanings…not go galloping off waving a screen print-out of their selected passage.
                      In the meantime Humanity, yep, clock is ticking…..


                    • Hey, Roger,
                      I don’t want to insult you or your beliefs in any way, but it is a hard line to toe. (First, when I write about religious matters, I find it impossible to capitalize any words that I use in my discussions unless they start a sentence. This is not meant to injure, it is merely my non-belief showing through. I have no problem with you writing such words your way.)
                      Yes, the bible has been translated many times over into many languages, usually from earlier translations, not from the original texts. That causes a lot of problems in itself. Then there is also the motive of the translator to be taken into account; from my point of view, seldom were those translations done out of pure desire to maintain the original meanings, but rather attempts to sway the reader in certain directions. The version of the bible I am most familiar with is the KJV, as used by the United Church of Canada circa the 1950s.. When I read the translations being used today I can sometimes barely recognize the KJV in them, they sound completely revamped. What version can be trusted?
                      I do not have the desire to spend my time learning to read the original texts, because I doubt the original texts exist. There was no written language when most of the events in the bible happened, and word of mouth is even less trustworthy than entire translations. In other words, if ever a god did direct the writing of a bible, those words are long lost to pre-history. They are now words that are completely humanized.
                      Yet, if these words were first pronounced by a god, a being who was perfect and all-knowing, why weren’t they written on indestructible material, and in the languages they would eventually be needed in. Or vice versa, why wasn’t the Hebrew language used all over the world, a true “lingua franca”?
                      And, before I stop asking these ridiculous questions, why was it that god’s world in the bible was just a tiny corner of the world that exists and has always existed? Even if the tribes of Abraham could not have known about places like Russia, England, the Americas, Australia and Antarctica, why do none of these places show up in the texts of the being who created the world, or did he just create the Levant?

                      I hope it is obvious I am not really looking for anyone to answer these questions, they are unanswerable. But they are the types of questions that, combined with my life experiences, drove me away, first from christianity, then from all religion, and then from the concept of gods itself. And it hurts me to listen to, and watch, religious believers fighting over which version of religion is “the one true faith,” when it is so obvious none of them are, when if there was a god there would only be one religion, and everyone would know it. Belief would not be necessary.

                      Meanwhile, “dominion” should mean responsibility, but instead it means domination, and that is why humanity does not deserve to survive.

                      In my humble opinion…

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                    • Hey there rawgod, this is such a cool discussion.
                      I started to reply, but realised my long response would hijack Jill’s original post
                      So it’s being turned into a post of my own alter-ego blog Raging from the Lectern.
                      It’ll be there in the next couple of days (so busy, who said you put your feet up during Retirement?)
                      Keep on keeping on.

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                    • Thanks Jill.
                      This discussion is morphing into ‘something else’ for me……sssssoooo
                      Watch “Raging From The Lectern”……

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                    • She says send a message back saying ‘No thanks. It’s on its way. Sorry she can’t be here in person, but right now she’s down a dirty great big ‘ole fighting big slug like creatures’

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                    • Hi Jill, Arketre here. 🙋🏼
                      How y’all doing sweetling?
                      Naw don’ y’ go worryin’ none. Jus’ another day in a fantasy novel hereabouts. S’ what we signed up fer. Yea, s’ wild (chuckle).
                      Y’all take care naw.👧🏼

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                    • Hey there Arketre! I’m fine, except for the news every day! Okay … I won’t worry … I’m glad all is well with you girls! Say ‘hey’ to the others for me! 🙋 And have fun in your adventures!

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                    • Hi back there Jill,
                      Yeh, there some serious backside kickin’ needed in your world.
                      We’re all finally done and restin’ up, just waiting for the cover.
                      Y’all wanna see a draft copy of our adventures?

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    • I’m using WP on the iPad and it’s been a joke recently. Crashing, lagging, content and likes disappearing. Managed to get through to Support. They seem to be blaming my iPad, funny as it’s working great with every other app, Advice seems to be buy a new iPad. That can’t be a socialist piece of advice so guessing Ive upset the right….

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