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Thursday, September 6, 2018

AN ORANGE REVIEW OF BULLSHIT JOBS BY DAVID GRAEBER (2018)

AN ORANGE REVIEW OF BULLSHIT JOBS BY DAVID GRAEBER (2018)

Recommended to me by artist and fellow social activist, Zarahn Southon, this book makes for interesting reading. The central theme of people who work in bullshit jobs – and know this being the case – seems to be somewhat facile in the first instance since the much larger problem are people working in bullshit jobs they themselves value very much. Such as soldiers, policemen and all the true believers in what David calls ‘the sadomasochistic dynamic of hierarchical work arrangements’. The managerial feudalism (I have advocated for the term ‘neo-feudalism’ for many years) so rightly decried by David does exist because it affords sadistic pleasure for the managers. David’s allusions to sexual politics in this context are poignant, delving into what might be called Freudian or Reichian domains. His description of Foucault’s supposedly positive transformation after embracing BDSM is hilarious even though the message is supposed to be serious: BDSM as a work place scenario is Ok because we can call ‘orange’ to terminate the game at any time. In the real work place scenario, the worker detecting ‘bullshit’ cannot call ‘orange’ and is instead forced to submit to utter humiliation if not worse. David as the consummate academic/teacher provides the slogan of ‘mutual manipulation of teacher and student (power-good), versus the tyranny of the authoritarian pedant (domination-bad)’. As a teacher/academic myself I certainly agree with the latter but I am not so sure about the former.  Given David’s support for Universal Basic Income as a possible solution to the perverse problem of bullshit jobs, one wonders if David would call ‘orange’ on his current employer (LSE, where bullying seems less pronounced than in his previous position at Yale) as much as I would do so on mine. As we know, much of the teaching/academic profession is populated by sadistic characters so well portrayed in Pink Floyd’s music video for ‘teacher leave us kids alone’ (a more literary example I would recommend is Alfred Andersch’ Der Vater eines Mörders(1980), The father of a murderer, translated by Leila Vennewitz (1994), which fictionalizes the real story of Himmler’s father as a sadistic high school headmaster). 

On a more anthropological (David is after all an anthropologist) and sociological playing field, David provides many a valuable insight on the nature of work itself (he does subtitle his book with ‘a theory’). I like his assertion that real work is service based – caring for others or even for oneself – rather than production based as conceived in many a theoretical treatise on the value or values of labour. The perverse biblical definition of labour as a punishment from god is traced through to the English Puritan and Protestant obsessions with work as a character-building exercise, down to the diminishing factory worker and the subsequent rise of bullshit jobs (especially in the so-called service industries, like banking and insurance). His critique that the both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum are beholden to work as a right (by the Left) and as a commodity (by the Right) may be a bit misleading, especially as he seems to equate the Left with politicians like Clinton, Obama and Blair. We know that these characters are anything but from the Left (it would be interesting to find out what David now thinks of Jeremy Corbyn). Citing Karl Marx on a few occasions, in mainly positive terms, one cannot deny the premise that labour adds value to products. Nurses as a ‘caring’ profession rely on ‘useful’ health products as much as any other caring profession relies on their version of useful products. On the other hand, a much sharper critique might have focused on the mad proliferation of ‘useless’ bullshit consumer products, a sort of double-whammy of having a bullshit job making bullshit products (like the armaments industry – notwithstanding that quite a few workers in this industry might feel they are doing a sterling job). Instead David focuses on bullshit jobs that often involve doing nothing at all, or not very much, so that the worker feels guilty about it, affecting his/her mental health in the process. Some of the many anecdotes (call them case studies if you must) come from the software programming industry where low level programmers have to fix (with ‘duct tape’) the many bugs left behind by higher-ups, a sort of mindless drudgery played out in the Silicon Valleys of our modern times. Embedded in this theme is David’s thesis that AI, robotics and automation have indeed taken over many of the jobs formerly performed by human workers but the real consequence should have been to free the workforce from the 40-hour working week, reducing it to a 15-hour working week. Instead workers now have to work 70 hours a week to make ends meet, working in bullshit jobs that substituted the ones made redundant by automation. An even more schizophrenic situation is built into another type of bullshit job that involves social welfare workers whose job it is to deny the poor their rightful assistance by making it as difficult as possible to get through the red tape associated with it. It is sad but true that in our Western society anybody who does not work and is therefore poor, must be punished, at least as a character-building exercise. In this context David does make a very good point: the liberal Left (such as the Labour party in NZ, my ed.) attacks this ‘unemployment’ problem by promising full employment and a minimum wage (but not even a ‘living wage’ as demanded by some of the more progressive unions) when the solution is in fact a radical reduction of work (and throwing the ‘work ethic’ into the rubbish bin of history) if not total abolition of it. On the political Right, ‘unemployment’ (between 3% - 8%) is of course most desirable as it allows for sadistic competition in the workplace. Human freedom, as David bravely notes, is not at all predicated on regular work (as forever abused by the Nazis' Arbeit macht frei) but on getting a sustainable livelihood. In historical terms, as he reminds us, this meant working for food and shelter during the growing seasons and taking it easy during the fallow seasons. Quoting Orwell, he also reminds us, the ruling classes cannot conceive of the working classes as having time off lest they get up to all sorts of mischief, like hatching plans to usurp the power of the few, or else engage in fun and games for the sake of a bit of enjoyment if not sexual pleasure. Endless work, meaningful or not (as bullshit jobs), keeps us workers imprisoned in a system that David correctly identifies as ‘perverse’. A terrible indictment, really, but also a call in the wilderness to break free (but see where it got Freddie Mercury if we continue with the 1960’s anti-establishment theme which David considers as evidence that young people then could envisage a life outside working nine to five). To break free from neo-feudalism will require a kind of anarchic revolution never seen before. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

CLIMATE CHANGE

CLIMATE CHANGE

One of the most bizarre commentaries by climate change deniers is promoted in the influential German news media Der Spiegel, by one Axel Bojanowski, who entitles his article with ‘Überhitzt’ (over-heated) which is meant to be a pun on the supposed Doomsday Sayers who raise the alarm on the planet overheating. The argument is that rising temperatures are a godsend because they will avoid a new ice age that could wipe out large proportions of the human species!

One might employ a perverted medical analogy: cancer is a good disease because it prevents people from dying from heart attacks instead!

On a serious note one cannot avoid the suspicion that maliciously fabricated news are not within the purview of some demented social media outlets but rather are promoted by traditional, mainstream media that in the past had the mantle of relative objectivity. Pushing the boundaries to absolute rubbish has its historical precedents: the German corporate media should be particularly careful as it, like no other, facilitated the rise of fascism before. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

XENOLINGUISTICS

XENOLINGUISTICS

According to David Graeber in his anthropological study Bullshit Jobs(2018) the highest human achievement is the capacity for make-believe. To imagine aliens arriving and wondering what, if any, language they speak or use, must therefore rate as a very worthy project. However in recent times the alien has taken on the form of the beast already being here, made by humans, Frankenstein-like AI robots that evoke fear and loathing lest they turn out to be as stupid as the humans that make them. To discuss the language of the alien is therefore a two-sided affair.

While in the first instance humans and aliens can imagine everything and anything, they are unlikely to be able to escape the laws of nature as we know them, and as such the universe (or multiple universes) and everything and everyone in it, are absolutely constrained by the laws of nature (e.g. E=mc2). Language is no exception, unless we invoke the ‘following the rule paradox’ (via Wittgenstein and Kripke) that states that we cannot apply known rules to unknown phenomena.

So, at the level of present human knowledge we do not know if we know all the laws of nature (e.g. the particle responsible for gravity was only recently confirmed). The ones we do know certainly define and constrain our existence (language included).

Since human language(s) seem/s to have the unique ability to reflect upon itself/themselves, we are tempted to ascribe to language a super-natural aspect simply because we can express such sentiments. Following Chomsky and bio-linguistics we assume that languages and thoughts are generated by biological processes in the brain, hence there is no constraint on output, at least in terms of infinite expressions that can be generated via MERGE and iteration. That many of these expressions may not be reflections of the real world is well attested, both as pathology and as poetic licence (something similar confounded Wittgenstein).

Science fiction (a hybrid between reality and fantasy) exploits the grey areas between what are known laws of nature versus scientific hypotheses and speculations. 

AI in its various forms claims to model human learning (via computer models) and thereby surpass human efficiency and speed of calculation. Popular imagination is fired by ill-informed journalism that tends to sensationalise the scope of AI. More circumspect opinion claims that AI is as good as its human designs, so there cannot be a scenario in which AI robots take over human intelligence. AI may be able to enhance human languages, thoughts and communications, thereby further enhancing human intelligence but AI cannot ever catch up to or surpass human intelligence.

AI as a refined form of technology can be very useful in applications that aid human endeavours (medicine, engineering, transport) and of course communication in as far we now have social media channels that both enhance and stupefy communication.

Assuming that AI is truly intelligent – at least in the sense of human intelligence attributed to great scientists, philosophers and revolutionaries – how would we as humans communicate with AI? Given that AI is far superior to us in terms of efficiency and speed – not having to contend with limits of memory and processing bottlenecks – AI would have to translate their thoughts into human language, slowing down if not dumbing down content. While the language of the AI robot would be constrained in the same way as human language (via the synthetic biology of its computational brain) and use MERGE and iteration as starting blocks, we humans could not keep up with the sheer volume of output, now already known as information overload. 

So what would two AI robots communicate about? Space exploration? Sub-atomic particles? Evolution? Love and procreation? Or something beyond our comprehension? If the latter were the case, say on scientific principles that we have not yet figured out, say time travel or any such science fiction ideas, then we would be simply amazed. Simply amazed as the knights of the realm were when a 20thcentury American (àla Mark Twain) landed in their castle, his time travel having gone haywire. In fact our literary thought experiments may well be on the level of what AI robots talk about – or maybe not.

We could equally imagine that any AI alien would talk to us as we talk to our pet animals, or maybe as human parents talk to their babies, i.e. in a very simplified form that allows the cognitive apparatus to get the message. 

That leaves the question as to what kind of mechanisms AI aliens would use to convey their thoughts. How would their language be designed (to use Hocket’s inquiry)? Direct thought transmission, known by humans as telepathy? A form of sign language? The parable of St. Francis may be useful in this context: as he tried to figure out on how to communicate with the birds in the trees in his monastery, he obviously took the view that he should learn how to sing like the birds, as that seemed to be the way they communicated. However as he mastered their singing no communication took place. It finally occurred to him that the birds communicated by that characteristic hopping on the ground, and as he imitated that hopping (which in the movie version is of course very funny) he could finally communicate with the birds and the bees (with the latter by way of flying in particular formations to indicate where the flowers are). 

As Chomsky famously noted, an alien from Mars would figure out human languages in five minutes, and speak all of them accordingly. Would the alien be equally quick in figuring out why humans seem singularly unable to live in peace and harmony? Or would the alien treat us like a benevolent farmer who talks to his cows? Or simply use his/her/its superior technology to enslave us even though our language and thoughts are on par?

What do we want to communicate to aliens? The content of the gold plated data disc placed in the Voyager spacecraft is based on the assumption that the human species’ greatest achievements in science, music and art – and language itself – are what defines us and is worthy of communicating to aliens who may then consider us as worthy neighbours in space. But what about the real human condition? Why not communicate our worst moments in history? 

Maybe the point is not to communicate anything at all but try to explain our means of communication the best we can – an endeavour that seems paradoxical because an explanation (even in the form of a law of nature) can be considered a type of communication. Nevertheless there is a well-established dichotomy in terms of language, i.e. the Saussurean langueversus parole, or in Chomsky’s terms competence versus performance. Analogies are pure versus applied science and theoretical versus applied linguistics. The former categories are generally considered value-neutral while the latter subdivide again into good versus bad applications. 

So how can we best explain human language to the alien?

Since there is no agreed procedure amongst linguists, philosophers and others who have an interest in the subject, we might have to select representatives from at least the currently dominant schools of thought – which itself should be of interest to the alien in that we have no common understanding of how we communicate, let alone of what we communicate.

In the first instance the representative of generative syntax/minimalism/Chomskyism/etc. will assert that communication in itself has nothing to do with what language is all about, i.e. it is not the functional use that determines its design. A radical stance might be that language equals thought – a process that occurs in the brain and predates the externalisation of thoughts via speech. A less radical approach might be that cognitive processes include language together with other modules. Interdisciplinary research comprising neurolinguistics and neuroscience in general has produced various insights like mirror neurons and quantum alignments that can explain some fairly basic cognitive feats like navigation in birds and memorization of conceptual words in humans but as Chomsky has observed, we are still at the stage of Galilean mechanics or Cartesian philosophy when it comes to understanding human language.

Maybe the alien will be much surprised at this level of humility given our technological and scientific advances that allow us to land a small explorer craft on a meteorite, suspended from a satellite that travelled some three years through space to get there. On the other hand our relative lack of understanding of linguistic and cognitive processes might explain our dreadful history of human degradation, assuming of course that the alien society has achieved a much higher state of development, perhaps something akin to what humans can imagine only in terms of a paradise. 

Even so a binary design of language in terms of MERGE and iteration may well impress the alien as many of the laws of universal nature appear to be manifested in such a way. Take the computational power achieved by humans: the very idea of an artificial intelligence is predicated on such a design, so why not imply that language is artificial intelligence squared (L=AI2). 

Maybe the alien will have perfected the attempt that Wittgenstein made in investigation the construction of human language as a purely logical system that cannot but speak the factual truth at all times. Of course Wittgenstein famously failed and suggested that language is better explained via game theory, i.e. a functional approach whereby the rules of the game are finite but the output is infinite and mainly predicated on winning the game. 

At this stage of the game then we hand over to the representative of the functionalists, pragmatists, behaviourists, generative semanticists and others who hold that the use of language (mainly as a communicative tool) determines its design. Our alien will carefully listen to this argument, as it sounds quite interesting, especially in evolutionary terms. What was it that turned a bunch of primates into our human ancestors? Many animals have communicative abilities but never on par with the human ability, hence is it this very extension that made us human? Did the brains accommodate this evolution by growing neural networks that allows us to communicate in a fairly efficient manner? Darwinian theories of selective adaptation sound probable, as much for language as for finches’ beaks. Then again the study of evolutionary processes has not yielded a straight progression of adaptive advantages but rather a punctuated process in which random mutation is as important as steady adaptation. Here Chomsky and Co. might interrupt the proceedings and tell the alien that MERGE is one of these random mutations that happened some 80,000 years ago, and voilà, human evolution took off in a hyperbolic curve that might yet lead us to the promised land (current setbacks are only due to adaptive behaviours that favour short-term individual gain).

As this is a hypothesis lacking empirical evidence we can dismiss Chomsky for the time being. The alien is nevertheless surprised at the way the debate develops, given that most if not all linguists seem agreed that languages have syntax, be it determined by communication, cognition or specific genetic endowment. So what is syntax? That’s all the alien needs to know so as to appreciate how languages (or language in general) generate sentences, based on syntactic rules. In fact the formulation and description of grammatical rules has been around for thousands of years what with Pāṇini’s grammatical rules of ancient Sanskrit, followed by many a descriptive treatise, covering many of the world’s languages. From dead languages to languages that nowadays have fewer than a 1,000 speakers, there is a rich tapestry of grammars, admittedly mainly from a Eurocentric perspective. Amongst the 6,000 or so languages still extant, there are still many to be described but the descriptive enterprise has lost its mainstream appeal because it appeared that when comparing the grammars of the world’s languages, there is an underlying typology if not universal system of syntax. Even those who reject this approach out of hand will admit to at least a continuum of languages that have very little syntax to those that are ruled by syntax alone. 

To formulate, if not to discover, syntactic rules one must at least agree to some building blocks that make up a grammatical sentence. To that end just about everyone agrees that there are lexical items that fill categorical slots, generally known as word categories. How words have evolved is another matter but again it is generally agreed that we have categories like verbs, nouns and various grammatical markers that all interact to make up a sentence. One may again take up polarised positions in this context: generative grammarians may claim that the lexicon arises from syntax while communicative functionalists may claim that the lexicon determines syntax. Be that as it may, syntax is the systematic, rule-based matrix of a sentence. The next polarization is around the fundamental question as to whether syntax has top-down rules or bottom-up. For a long time the top down approach prevailed, i.e. a sentence is made up of a subject and a predicate while the predicate is in turn made up of a verb and an object, drilling down to the word categories and their morphology (if any). The latter received a lot of attention in traditional grammar schools, mixing grammar with learning Latin and Greek (which Hegel thought to be the ultimate education experience), having to rote-learn declension and conjugation tables without much understanding what case and TMA actually mean. As such grammar became a dirty word in modern language learning pedagogies, preferring instead communicative and experiential models that matched the new linguistics of functionalism.

Early functionalism found its guru in Skinner who declared language to be verbal behaviour, which in its crudest form was taken over by the emergent advertising industry, betting on Pavlovian responses. Along came Chomsky who restored grammar (as syntax) to its former glory. Building on phonological feature and rule systems from the Prague school he singlehandedly elevated sentence syntax to the top of language science. Using a dynamic model of generation rules, sentences could now be derived bottom-up. This fitted with the binary design of the new computational sciences, building up complex structures via cyclical rules, evoking mathematical bracketing formulae and eventually changing over to the now ubiquitous tree-structures. 

Surely this must impress our alien who in all likelihood has a highly evolved mathematical science at his disposal. Cautionary tales from the remaining descriptivists and newly discovered pragmatists that such a hypothetical language design does not always match the actual language data (especially from newly described languages) is thrown to the wind. Building on Greenberg’s language universals, the Chomsky school of generative syntax declares UG as the ultimate matrix of all human languages. Chomsky himself makes the alien comparison: if and when a Martian alien comes to earth, he will figure out all human languages in five minutes and arrive at an underlying design very similar to UG. Chomsky’s Principles and Parameters set up a flurry of ever more complex rules for language features that otherwise defy traditional, static rules of grammar. Island constraints, local binding (especially for anaphors), move a, trace and a plethora of logical rules turn generative linguistics into a highly sophisticated science of language that can only be understood by experts in the field. 

Analogies to psychology and later to biology appear. Humans breathe instinctively but few know how it actually works. So for human language, everyone is a perfect user of language but few understand how it works. Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language eventually convinced Chomsky that this is the way to go by reducing syntax to a system of minimal design, declaring that language is an organ in the brain. 

Our alien at this stage may become alarmed at the turn of events: he knows all about biology and the primary building blocks of life but then again even he does not really understand life to the degree proclaimed by Feynman’s adage that if he cannot make it he cannot understand it. While our alien has advanced AI and the most sophisticated robotics at his disposal, he is still light years away from creating life in the test tube.

Maybe the alien is struck by the apparent language paradox: language cannot explain itself. So what is Chomsky and Co. up to? Are his binary mechanisms of MERGE and MOVE and ITERATION really equivalent to neurological processes in the brain? Is neurolinguistics a branch of bio-linguistics? What about quantum physics in the brain? What about neutrinos from far-away galaxies? 

The alien looks around and sees the human condition and is confused. What on earth (literally) is going on? What is language and what is it good for? Scientific discovery of the highest order? To conduct primitive warfare amongst tribes of robotic humans? Where he, the alien, comes from life has evolved in different ways, where ‘freedom’ is not a concept, where ‘love’ is not an emotion, where … but hold on we are now talking language performance not competence! 

Let’s get back to syntax. Maybe that’s where the alien will question the absolute distinction between competence and performance. He will know that highly complex organisms, such as his, are subject to Murphy’s Law, as much as humans demonstrate by way of their dismal history. Maybe the human language design is not optimal as it is based on biological laws of nature that can and will go wrong. Going back to Wittgenstein, his failed attempt to design a language that is purely logical, maybe the problem is not in performance but in competence as well. 

Investigating the chess analogy a bit closer – will the alien be unbeatable? – it is beyond doubt that the rules of chess are unambiguous, logical and few in numbers, and yet, to win a game means that the clever application of the rules led to an advantage. That many chess games end in a draw is equally informative. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that language rules are equally unambiguous, logical and few in numbers, despite Chomsky’s best efforts to have a minimalist design. Going back to his earlier Principles and Parameters – or even to his Aspects – where highly complex rule systems were designed, it would seem that the possibility of messing up the rules is a real possibility, ending up in at least partially ungrammatical utterances which the listener/reader can recover via pragmatic strategies, i.e. applying the rules correctly. We see this quite often when native speakers recover ungrammatical utterances from L2 speakers. Testing for pragmatic interpretation of anaphora may involve similar conundrums: 

The king commissioned his architect to design a palace for himself.

Given that the syntactic interpretation yields an unlikely scenario, the native speaker may infer that the sentence has an error *himself and that ‘him’ was the intention of the speaker, i.e. the sentence will be reinterpreted accordingly. Of course there is the slight possibility that the king did indeed ask his architect to build a palace for himself. Wider context may or may not disambiguate. Since nobody denies that there is an interface between form and meaning – including Chomsky’s former LF – there must be countless ways to end up with utterances that deviate from the initial thought processes (‘think before you speak’) through to intentional obfuscation (infamously attributed to politicians and corporate money men).

Our alien will have to take all of this into consideration in his communications with earthlings whilst the earthlings have to take into consideration that they know very little about the alien’s language design other than it must be based on the universal laws of nature. Perhaps the earthlings will have to bring to bear their pragmatic skills much more than their knowledge of syntax, at least for the initial contact period. Later on an in-depth understanding of the alien’s communicative language design can be arrived at after studying the subject – as is done via the scientific method with all other subjects.

Then again the scientific method is just another way of telling a story, as Nietzsche observed, where nothing is certain except uncertainty. A recent (2018) paper by Sanders, Drexler and Ord re-evaluates the probability of alien life, with the conclusion that ‘our distribution model shows that there is a large probability of little-to-no alien life, even if we use the optimistic estimates of the existing literature’. 

Human language as such is the highest point of our evolution, however flawed the language design may be. Perhaps language design can be compared to a highly advanced technology, vulnerable to breakdown, neutral in value with the potential for good and bad when used. As far as AI and language is concerned, one can argue that in fact nothing humans say and do results in anything ‘artificial’ in the sense that nothing in AI goes beyond the bounds of language. AI is a highly developed sub-set of language, designed to parse and compute with speeds unavailable to human brains. Sophisticated algorithms that engender so-called deep learning, based on statistical matching of big data, are equally subsets of subsets of mathematics. Again as a technological tool, AI is already known to be used for both positive and negative1endeavours.






Tuesday, June 5, 2018

RAGE AGAINST THE DARK

RAGE AGAINST THE DARK

The man dressed in black is on the horizon
He comes closer walking across the roofs of the city
My heart is pumping
I open my eyes
I look for light
He is gone

Thursday, April 5, 2018

THE WEAPONIZATION OF AI

THE WEAPONIZATION OF AI

From Cambridge Analytica to Google and Co., there is increasing evidence that people who fund, support or work in AI, lack even basic intelligence, or worse. The cake must surely go to the president of KAIST who responded to criticism as follows:

“As an academic institution, we value human rights and ethical standards to a very high degree,” he added. “I reaffirm once again that KAIST will not conduct any research activities counter to human dignity including autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control.”


So, autonomous weapons that do have meaningful human control are OK? Since all AI is concocted by humans, KAIST is off the hook and can happily proceed in perfecting on how to control AI weaponry, like drones that fire missiles on wedding parties and afterwards on funeral parties, killing only certified (via face recognition), adult, male terrorists and enemy combatants that hide between them. 

Killing without being killed is the Holy Grail for AI if not for any moron who thinks and acts this way. Just imagine I could kill all the people who don’t vote for me with their likes on Facebook or wherever, by pressing a button that says ‘kill all the people who don’t vote for me’, setting off an autonomous army, pre-programmed by AI just to do that. But … the feeble critic tries to intervene … but what if ‘they’ have a perfectly pre-programmed AI button that says ‘kill anyone before they kill us’? Ha! I have a bigger button! 

With nuclear weapons we have at least MAD (mutually assured destruction) but with AI we have only the primitive notion that my AI is better than your AI – and not that nuclear and chemical weapons are outside the gambit of AI.

Intellectual commissars like Pinker and Harris (ably supported by Gates and Co.) tell us that the good guys are winning, that the future is peace on earth, that good, human intelligence is ultimately progressive, altruistic even, and that good AI (made in the good old USA) will lead the way. We just have to get rid of a few bad guys first, like Kim Jong-un, Putin, Xi Jinping, Assad, Mexican rapists, African dictators, warlords, jihadists, even the odd bad Christian fundamentalist who belongs to the Ku Klux Klan, not to forget anyone who doesn’t like me … the list is getting longer by the minute.

The army of good AI programmers – as opposed to the bad trolls and hackers on the other side – is on a modern crusade, determined, as KAIST’s president, Sung-Chul Shin, says: to uphold ‘human rights and ethical standards, and human dignity to a very high degree’. How high is ‘very high’? Are there degrees? Just as the feudal lords of old funded the crusades to uphold human dignity (as defined by the Holy Roman Empire), the modern billionaires à la Mercer and Co., fund Western AI crusaders to defeat Eastern oligarchs and nominal communists. 

As I have noted before: the danger is not that AI robots become cleverer than humans but that many more humans become as stupid as AI robots. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Distribution of wealth: neo-feudalism confirmed again

Distribution of wealth: neo-feudalism confirmed again

An extreme version of feudalism might mean that the sovereign owns everything in his or her domain, particularly all the land. This is still exemplified in the British system of land ownership, i.e. freehold land is actually defined as a 999 year lease from the Crown. While in modern Western economies land is still a key aspect of ownership, there is of course an overlay of other instruments of wealth, e.g. control over production, banking, media and natural resources.

However the reality of traditional feudalism always meant that a small class of so-called aristocrats owned and controlled much of the wealth generated by them and all the classes below them. Classes of slaves and serfs were eventually replaced by the working classes, giving rise to the modern wage economies.

Inequalities in wages are a popular topic of discussion amongst the working classes: compare the minimum wage in Britain with a $300,000 weekly wage for a top footballer and jaws drop. Obviously, if the footballer is clever enough he will use his income to create personal wealth but even in doing so he will fall far short of those who either inherit vast wealth or create it from scratch by entrepreneurial endeavour, rising to corporate elites, and in turn accumulate vast amounts of assets.

Data (2014) from the German Institute for Economic Research (as quoted by Der Spiegel) confirms the status quo:

0,0001% of the German population in 2014 (which makes for about 45 of the richest families in Germany) own almost double the wealth of the 50% of the poorest population.

That Germany is leading the race to the top is further exemplified by comparisons to France and Spain, which have very similar trends but not as pronounced as in Germany.

How can this happen?

The strange theory that some 90% of the populations (owning only some 35% of the total wealth) are complicit in this state of affairs is invariably supported by confused liberals who, while they condemn this type of vulture capitalism, they blame the victims. This is sadly illustrated by an article in the liberal Guardian about a Turkish liberal author, Elif Shafak, who lists her favourite books, such as Naomi Kleins’ This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, but also Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which she believes explains crazy fundamentalists (like Jihadists or people who voted for Trump) in these terms:

“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation or his religion or his race or his holy cause.”


It is easy to blame those who vote for their insane masters or blame the women who get sexually assaulted by men or blame the poor for being so useless. Eric Hoffer’s idea that personal ‘excellence’ defines an individual human being, and lacking it will turn him or her into a mad fundamentalist, is of course a mad idea in itself.

It is much more useful to investigate how the 10% or the 1% of the population can manipulate the 90 or 99% of the population into submission. As I keep pointing out there are two seminal books that Elif Shafak should read:

1.     Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism
2.     Chomsky & Herman’s Manufacturing Consent

Both volumes explain succinctly how it is done.

Modern media, voter and market manipulation is predicated on highly accurate statistical matching algorithms, allowing for unprecedented forecasting and thereby resting assured that the outcomes will favour the proprietors. All the while the 90 or 99% are living the dream that is preprogrammed for them: you too can be an excellent person by worshipping those few who are truly excellent.

Who would have thought that Germany is again leading the race? That the current German elites (the 0.0001%) can claim the high moral ground as capitalists with a human face - in view of various kleptocracies that run most of the rest of the world - is very alarming indeed. If the German model is the new ‘normal’ then we are truly lost in the quagmire of neo-feudalism.











Friday, July 21, 2017

A meditation on Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMoUH)


 

A meditation on Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMoUH)

 
The first time I travelled to India, I came via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That was in 1970. Arundhati Roy was then 9 years old, living in the Kerala of her The God of Small Things (TGoST). My wife and I holidayed in Kerala in 2012, and part of the motivation was to see the literary landscape depicted in TGoST. I had contacted Noam Chomsky and Anthony Arnove (the latter listed in the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS of TMoUH as ‘comrade, agent, publisher, rock’ while the former is not … in my book about Noam Chomsky I included a photograph of Noam and Arundhati together) but neither of them obliged in giving me Arundhati’s private contact details, citing the promise they had made to Arundhati never to divulge them. I suppose if they had done so I would have asked Arundhati if we could meet her if she happened to be in Kerala at the time. I also tried to contact her mother at the famous school she runs in Kottayam but to no avail either. In the event our driver just took us to the ‘house’ in Kottayam where the Roys used to live along a river bank and where much of the action of TGoST took place. It was kind of disappointing as the area had been developed as a sort of up-market residential area. We also saw the Baker’s House in Kumarakom which featured as the haunted house in TGoST. By now it was converted into a Taj Hotel – I told the hotel manager that a plaque of literary interest might attract more tourists. He said that Arundhati Roy did not merit such honours as she advocated ‘extremist’ views.

Anyway, having come to India the first time via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1970, arriving in Amritsar, I was thoroughly immersed in what in broad terms can be called Islamic culture. Being 21 years old and having been brought up in West-Germany and having been educated to university level (Munich University, studying psychology) I had relatively little knowledge about the history of the Indian subcontinent, merely following the overland hippy-trail all the way to Australia.

When my German travel companion and I came to the Golden Temple and were accommodated there as honorary guests, we immediately adopted Sikh culture, at least as far as getting a bracelet, kara (which still adorns my wrist some 47 years later), and sporting shorts and a dagger (and of course very long hair and a beard). Personally I was even more fascinated by the many chillum-smoking sadhus who loitered along the highways and byways. After a few weeks at the Golden Temple we decided to hitchhike to Srinagar. Given our Sikh-garb it was a piece of cake getting lifts with the long procession of gaudy trucks that weaved up the Kashmir valley. I was given the honorary title of ‘commander’ by the Sikh drivers, sleeping under their trucks at night. In Srinagar we of course rented a HB (as noted in TMoUH and where tragic events happen subsequently) and paddled around in a small shikara exploring Dal Lake. In those days Srinagar and surroundings seemed to be a peaceful and very pleasant place. Having obtained a generous amount of Kashmiri opium we did not exactly have sharp political eyes – we were radical anarchist student activists in Munich in 1969 – and as such we were not aware of any frictions between the Kashmiri Moslems and Sikh Punjabis (not to mention the Hindu sadhus), nor were we actually aware that Kashmir was a divided region, torn apart between India and Pakistan. The local youth that hung around our HB were mainly interested in our music tapes that played the Rolling Stones and of course Leonard Cohen – and as Musa in TMoUH says:

              “Even he doesn’t know that he’s really a Kashmiri. Or that his real name is Las Kone …”

In those days the ‘trav’ling lady’ was more likely a hippy lady but certainly of the mould of Tilo (aka Arundhati?) and the occasional fellow hippy visitors to our HB would include some outrageous Norwegian femme fatale that even then outraged the local customs. While all and sundry were used to scantily clothed (if at all) sadhus only us HB dwellers were used to such foreign female sadhus.

In TMoUH Tilo (aka Arundhati?) on quite a few occasions gives voice to such crass gender bias which goes against her grain even in her admiration of moderate Islam:

              “Women are not allowed. Women are not allowed. Women are not allowed.” (p.387)

Not that women are treated any better in Hindu/Sikh/Western or what have you culture. One of the main points of TMoUH is of course that access to the Ministry of Utmost Happiness is only granted to the hijra of this world, and possibly to people like Tilo.

On my second visit to India in 1974 (before the Emergency), in the company of a wild New Zealand femme fatale who would not bow to any religious of secular customs, Kashmir was not included in the otherwise extensive travels (coming from Myanmar, Kolkata, Varanasi, Agra, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa (again), Kerala … on to Sri Lanka). Goa was then still a haven for ‘trav’ling ladies’ and me having acquired a sitar in Kolkata and having learned to play it a bit from Mr. Khan in Kathmandu, there was no end to more of Leonard Cohen and of course Ravi Shankar (the latter who cultivated a reverse Indian guru meets Western ladies of wealth and taste …). There was a certain male Hindu menace that not only googled the ‘trav’ling ladies’ but felt free to grope and assault. Luckily my female companion in the mould of Tilo was adept in muscular self-defence and swatted them like flies. Of course we know that the rise of right-wing (neo-fascist) Hindu nationalism, so eloquently and passionately decried in TMoUH (is Modi nick-named Gujarat ka Lalla to forestall libel?) has given rise to previously unheard of levels of sexual violence against women (no woman adept at self-defence can defend against gang rape, and anyway why should a woman have to practice self-defence against men).

Back to Kashmir, surely the centrepiece of TMoUH. Tilo’s (aka Arundhati!) unflinching support for azadi is accentuated by her non-English language feature, namely Urdu. Hardly any review I have read mentions this but I as a linguist take note, and as one of the misguided protagonists (The Landlord) in TMoUH states somewhat sarcastically:

Because nothing warms the subcontinental Muslim’s heart more than a few well-chosen lines of Urdu verse (p.158).

Reading up on the history of Urdu, one is somewhat surprised that Arundhati Roy is an adept as an offspring of a Kerala Syrian-Christian family. However when considering her long life in Delhi, especially in Old Delhi, one can understand her choice of language. Not that I fully understand the ins and outs of language choices in India (or in Kashmir for that matter) but on quizzing some Indian and Pakistani colleagues at my work, one comes to the conclusion that modern Urdu is inextricably linked to Muslim culture although liberal Indians of all denominations (atheists included) appreciate Urdu as a Hindustani mutually intelligible variant of Hindi, especially as a linguistic vehicle of fine poetry.

I suppose only readers who can read and understand Urdu and Hindi in Roman alphabet transliteration – it is not clear what system the author uses – can also figure out what is what. For example the first such instance comes about when Anjum (who only speaks Urdu) says “You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?” one could safely assume that is an Urdu word. When subjected to Google Translate it yields HUG (as in ‘to hug, hugged’) which doesn’t seem to make much sense in the sentence quoted. While Arundhati does provide English translations for most of her Urdu and Hindi texts, there are quite a few – as above – where the uninitiated is at a loss, i.e. no translation is provided. I suppose as well that such language questions are a can of worms, what with an Indian author writing about India in English, an India (and Kashmir) where ordinary folks (as the main protagonists) speak no or only little English. Comrade Revathy’s (CPI (Maoist)) long letter in halting English may or may not be a genuine article in this regard. The grim content of the letter played out in Southern India mirrors that of Kashmir. When we were in Kerala in 2012 the Revolutionary Marxist Party leader T. P. Chandrasekharan was murdered and the local newspapers reported the story as internecine fighting, blaming the local CPM faction. The English language daily the Decan Chronicle (8 May 2012) reported that a suspect was ‘nabbed in a secret operation’ and that ‘the interrogation is on in a secret place’. Sounds very much like the secret interrogations in the Shiraz in TMoUH. A political commentator cum academic historian in a previous edition of the Decan Chronicle had put down the whole saga to primitive Dravidians who were prone to believe Marxist and Muslim (sic) propaganda, resulting in the ‘Talibanisation of Kerala’. I wrote a letter to the editor which to my surprise was published in large print, pointing out that a complicit corporate media is to blame instead and that ordinary Keralites know as much as anybody that the ‘Talibanisation of Kerala’ is a common tactic used by the elites to scare the populace into accepting extreme measures of arrest and detention (and murder by the secret state police).

That the educated elites in India (see Kerala above), Pakistan and Kashmir read all this stuff in English as a matter of course is of course a mixed blessing but of course (excuse the endless pun) we (who read English only, and maybe German and French) are ever so grateful to a myriad of Indian authors whose English prose surpasses that of the English English writers. Arundhati Roy certainly is in a league of her own in this respect (but what if she were to write in Urdu?). The main point, however, seems to be that Roy’s choice of Urdu as local language flavour is destined to be an eye-opener for all of her Indian readers, inasmuch as her book is really compulsory reading for all Indians. Readers like me will miss many of the allusions, Urdu or otherwise. Readers like me will however receive an English education as to what the political, social and individual issues are. Of course it is grim reading. Roy subverts Stalin’s saying that one death is a tragedy but a thousand are a statistic. By describing the tragic deaths of individuals like children that get mowed down by indiscriminate machinegun fire, the reader has to contemplate the many more deaths, twenty at a time. For anyone who has never ever been even close to such massacres, the scenarios are beyond comprehension. Those in the midst of it all, be it in Kashmir, Syria, Yemen or whatever place you care to name, the reality of such incomprehensible suffering on an almost daily basis must amount to barbarity on a scale not seen before on this earth. How a literary voice like that of Arundhati Roy gets inside the heads of both victim and perpetrator is also short of miraculous. Sure there are other harrowing accounts of the brutality of warfare, be it All Quiet on the Western Front or the seminal The Wretched of the Earth, but written by male protagonists who experienced many of the atrocities themselves. As such there can be only few women authors who lay bare both the facts and emotions, none more cutting to the bone than Arundhati Roy. As I write this review, Guardian news from Kashmir is that seven Hindu pilgrims got shot during an ambush, inserting Modi’s tweet that ‘India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks & the evil designs of hate’. Maybe it is not too surprising that so-called liberal news media as the Guardian see the need to side with Modi. Has the Guardian forgotten that much of the Northern Ireland bloody conflict resulted from the Ulster Regiment provocations, marching through Catholic neighbourhoods under heavy military protection? A reported 115,000 Hindu pilgrims marched through Moslem Kashmir neighbourhoods last year, all under heavy military protection. Obviously violent death cannot be condoned in any circumstances but those who provoke sectarian conflict for political gain must be answerable for the gravest of human rights violations. The Modis of this world are of course beyond the law that may yet silence the likes of Roy (that she fled to London to complete her book is testament to that). The Landlord in TMoUH  is given a voice that seems to be intended to showcase how certain Indian liberal reactionaries think about Kashmir:

… I have never understood how that storm of dull, misguided vanity – the absurd notion that Kashmir should have ‘freedom’ – swept him up as it did a whole generation of Kashmiri men (p.160). 

Of course the Landlord in the end realizes his incorrect thinking when deprived of the ‘infrastructure of impunity’ (p.434) – unlike the one enjoyed by Modi. It is of course interesting to note in our era of political revenge politics that occasionally the high and mighty get caught up in the net and end up in jail – rightly or wrongly (the latter include Brazil’s former popular president da Silva and the Taiwanese Chen Shui-bian, what with the former lot including South-Korea’s impeached Park Geun Hye, and who knows if Tony Blair will for ever escape a court hearing and if Trump escapes impeachment). In TMoUH the other semi-reactionary character, Naga, the TV journalist semi-celebrity who is handled by the Landlord’s Indian Secret Service outfit gets married to Tilo after Musa is killed. One does wonder about this a lot. Would a real Tilo (aka Arundhati?) contemplate such a marriage? Arundhati’s own marriage adventure, as much as it is revealed in her various biographies, begs the question. One’s obsession to equate Tilo (from Kerala) and Arundhati also stems from the mother’s story, the Syrian-Christian who has a school – biographical coincidences? One hopes so, as Tilo’s mother dies a sad death while Arundhati’s mother is alive and kicking as far as I know. In any case if I were Arundhati’s mother I would be a bit worried. Of course there was a lot of speculation as to who is who in real life compared to the characters in TGoST, what with mother and various uncles protesting that it wasn’t them. It is common literary speculation that many a great novel has autobiographical traits – and why not? One’s real life experiences provide many facts that are stranger than fiction, and weave stories from them is an art form that Arundhati Roy surely masters like no one else.

As such it also perhaps no surprise that a lot of the story in TMoUH plays out in Delhi, Roy’s long-term place of residence. Her intimate knowledge of all the nooks and crannies of this vast metropolis shines like nothing else in TMoUH. Not being much acquainted with Old or New Delhi other than on my first visit to India when my new travel companion, a guy from Switzerland and I applied for an Australian resident visa at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi – of course as hippies were domiciled in Old Delhi. It was quite a lengthy process that required us to be there for a couple weeks. In those days the Australians welcomed any white-skinned Europeans, hence with my personal lack – as a German passport holder – of any qualifications other than an unfinished psychology degree but with a good head of very long hair, all I needed to do was to fill out lots of forms, get passport photos with hair out of the way and get a medical clearance by going to a flash hospital for rich expatriates and even richer Indians. Being short on money we walked for miles and only used rickshaws in emergencies. One day we ended up in a dusty park (minus the graves as in TMoUH) where squatters welcomed us like newfound brothers. We also hung around the Red Fort – minus the light shows mentioned in TMoUH – ‘shooting the breeze’ (which seems to be a favourite idiom in TMoUH). Not that we ever came across any Hijra there or anywhere in India (I did come across some in Sri Lanka though). That the Red Fort should be a special attraction for the band of Hijra in TMoUH is of course further testimony to the fact that Old Delhi and the Red Fort still are part of the essential Urdu-Moslem fabric of India (the ‘Urdu’ language itself is said to be named after the Urdu Bazaar that existed there), what with Roy also acknowledging her supporters in Shahjahanabad (the ancient capital of the Moghul Empire and what later became Delhi). The Hijras’ excursions into New Delhi, with its monstrous highways and byways, shopping malls and high-rise residences growing like tropical mushrooms by night, are both hilarious and somewhat tragic, giving voice to Roy’s anti-capitalist (anti-corporate) stance that has seen her operate as a major activist in the many environmental battles that rage across India. Delhi, now one of the most polluted super cities of the world, is destined to be submerged in the sludge of ever faster development. Roy’s dire warnings in TMoUH are falling on deaf ears. Kashmir due to its lack of rapid industrial development may well come out best in the end, if only by default. Indeed when in TMoUH  in the last (short) chapter, Tilo shows off ‘her prowess in Urdu’ to her Kashmiri tragic hero Musa , there is also Guih Kyom, the dung beetle, announcing that ‘things would turn out alright in the end’. This by the way is not an allusion to Bertrand Russell’s dystopian famous lines on how the world, trilobites and all, will return to peace when man makes himself extinct but rather a celebration of the human species ‘because Miss Jabeen, Miss Udaya Jabeen, was come’ (note the clever braking of a rule of English grammar).

The last chapter also contains that statement stretching across the page – noted by almost every review I have come across – namely ‘How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By becoming everything.’ I suppose reviewers prefer such mystical statements to the grim political narratives spanning most other pages. Actually I think this line is very much in keeping with ancient Zen practice: didn’t the Zen painter of bamboo say that in order to paint the perfect bamboo he (or possibly she) had to become a bamboo? Or is it the Kafkaesque ‘metamorphosis’ that necessitates one to become a beetle in order to understand what it is like to be a beetle? Or what does Arundhati really mean when in the first chapter Anjum ‘lived in the graveyard like a tree’? Yes, surely we have to agree with Arundhati that we have ‘to become everything’ in order to make this world a better place.

In the first place, reading her book TMoUH will make you a better person.