The Null Device

2016/6/23

Polls have opened in Britain's membership referendum; despite heavy rain (and in some areas, flooding), attendance is reportedly high, which is probably a factor in the rising fortunes of Remain in polls and on the betting markets (though there are rumours that part of the latter is manipulation by hedge funds). Having said that, the result is still very much up in the air; the closest to a confident statement anybody has made about it is that it will be close, though a recent poll has predicted a 51%-49% victory for Remain; a victory in name, but not really a victory.

In my opinion, there are three ways this could turn out:

  • Leave could prevail. In the short term, there would be much uncertainty; the pound would take a hit and there'd be a near-term economic downturn. Perhaps Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his Brexit gamble having served its purpose, would fudge some kind of reconciliation with the EU, or perhaps the UK would still be out. All those Leavers who were looking forward to an end of the effects of globalisation and a return to jobs for life and old-fashioned community values would be in for what Milton Friedman might have called a short sharp shock; the new Britain, afloat on the high seas of international finance, would have to compete on some basis, and being a gateway to the European Union (which, for all its problems, is a huge economy) would no longer be that basis, so it'd come down to low wages, lax regulations and/or tax-haven-style opacity. A permanently low pound (and the absence of any automatic rights for British citizens to look for work abroad) would ensure the first point; the other two could come as political necessity, as governments, needing to attract business, cut everything from human rights to environmental regulations. So, post-Brexit Britain would look not so much as a cozy worker's utopia in vintage bunting as a dirty sweatshop and equally dirty tax haven, whoring out both its historic reputation and its captive population. (As one might expect, Russia's oligarchs expect a bonanza after Britain votes to leave the EU; the depressed pound will let them snap up more prime London property, and the receding threat of transparency rules will make London a very comfortable environment for the wealthy and corrupt; for the rest of us, not so much.)

    (That is only considering what would happen in the UK itself. In Europe proper, Britain leaving would embolden its own anti-EU fringe elements, the Marine Le Pens and Alternativen für Deutschland and the don't-call-us-Nazis sticking their noses into the tents of government all over the Nordic countries. Once, say, France or Germany left, the EU would effectively be finished as a significant entity. So border posts go up, cooperation gives way to competition and mistrust, and soon armies are being built up, just in case the neighbours try something. Meanwhile, on the Eastern fringe, Russia jockeys for control over the Baltic states. Poland decides, for perfectly understandable reasons, that it needs a nuclear arsenal, then Germany (hemmed in between nuclear France and nuclear Poland) decides it needs one too. Finland starts preparing for another bitter winter war. And around Europe, nationalist parties are on the rise, and skinheads are attacking foreigners, liberals, gays, and anybody outside a narrow view of their country's national identity. The old post-WW2 world of Interrail and EasyJet, of Erasmus scholarships and weekenders at Berghain and complaints about drunken English stag parties, will seem like a long-lost golden age, and the future will look like the millennia-old killing field. In this world, even if you did manage to get an EU passport before the door slammed shut, Europe won't be a welcoming place to go.)

  • Remain could, narrowly, win. 51-49, 53-47, or similar. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief for a moment, given that the UK is not crashing out of the EU. The Brexit faction, being reasonable people, realise that the people have spoken and accept their vanquishment graciously, dissolving and going away. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage audition as presenters for the next reboot of Top Gear. Britain's bout of anti-European mania is over, as the nation looks to embrace a progressive, inclusive vision beyond its borders.

    Who are we kidding? Almost half the population will have voted to leave the EU; the right-wing press are still around and still despise the EU and the progressive impositions it makes. There would be calls of fraud, demands for a recount, perhaps even allegations that MI5/Mossad/the Masons tampered with ballots. (It's likely that Russian election observers would obligingly provide “evidence” of electoral fraud, as they did in Scotland.) Even if the conspiracy theories didn't get beyond the jet-fuel/steel-beams credibility threshold, Little England's low-intensity war against the EU would continue for another generation. UKIP would get MEPs elected, who would take up seats in Brussels and behave like carbon monoxide molecules in its bloodstream, taking up space and blocking its operation. Tory politicians (and perhaps Labour ones) would find that pandering to Europhobia is politically profitable. The conflict would flare up from time to time, and might again drag Britain towards the edge of the abyss.

  • Remain could win decisively, with at least 60%. Perhaps Leave's figure would be as low as the Crazification Factor, the 25% or so of the population who either are actual swivel-eyed lunatics or merely willing to unbridle their id and howl at the moon in the privacy of the polling booth and the internet comment forum, though that's not necessary. In any case, Remain would have a clear majority. The opportunists on the Leave side, having exhausted its usefulness, would jump ship and not look back, and however hard the hardcore and their backers in the tabloids bloviated about the evils of Europe, they'd be dismissed as yesterday's cranks. (Today's cranks would, of course, find some other, more topical, issue to latch onto.) This is the only scenario that could be considered an unambiguous victory for Remain.

I'm hoping for the third scenario. It could still happen, though, if polls are to be believed, is unlikely. If the polls are to be believed, the second scenario is the most likely, which means that things will fester on, albeit in a less acute state. Though recent history has shown that polls aren't what they used to be; perhaps we're entering a chaotic period of history, where assumptions no longer hold. In any case, we'll probably know between 2am and 7am.

brexit eu politics uk 1

2016/6/20

Britain's tantrum about whether to remain a member of the EU has been burbling on malevolently, like some kind of grotesque pantomime. The Leave side has been advancing spectacularly, given largely a free ride by the right-leaning tabloids, and has emerged from the depths of absurdity to within grasp of victory. Leave has been fronted mainly by a disingenuous Boris Johnson, using all his Oxford debating society skills, Telegraph editorial experience and classically-educated raconteurial eloquence to posit an argument he is on record as not believing in, buttressed by a Gish Gallop of trivially debunkable urban legends and outright untruths about overbearing EU regulations. it is clear that for him, the prize is not the UK, free at last of the tethers of Brussels and sailing the high seas like a mighty Elizabethan galleon, once again regaining its world-spanning empire due to the innate British genius for free trade, but Boris Johnson moving into 10 Downing St., perhaps even before the next general election. To his right is Nigel Farage, the affable (if you're an older white Englishman, at least) reactionary, pint in hand, telling it like it is and pouring scorn on left-wing metropolitan-elite bullshit, from global warming and finite natural resources to ladies in the workplace and smoking being harmful.

The past week started as a victory lap for the Leave campaign, buoyed by polls giving them a commanding 6-10% lead over Remain (also likely to be inflated by the asymmetry of engagement between the two sides; it is hard to imagine someone who loves the EU with the passion with which the hardcore Europhobes despise it). Remain seemed to be flailing desperately, the chancellor even resorting to threatening voters with punitive tax hikes if Leave won. Leave, meanwhile, stopped pretending that their argument is about bloodless economic calculation and got to the real (red) meat of the argument: the Bloody Foreigners. A poster was produced, showing vast queues of brown-skinned, scarily Islamic-looking refugees befouling England's green and pleasant land with their presence, its framing (wittingly or otherwise) lifted from a Nazi propaganda film from the 1940s. Then there was the flotilla: Farage (the champion of the British fisherman, who sat on the EU Fisheries Committee but declined to attend most of the meetings) leading a group of fishing boats up the Thames in protest, with a counterprotest led by Bob Geldof.

And then there was the murder.

Jo Cox, a Labour MP and human rights campaigner, had been on the Remain flotilla. The following day, she was back in her seat in northern England, holding an electoral surgery, when a man stabbed and shot her, shouting “Britain first”. She did not survive, and became the first sitting British politician murdered since Spencer Perceval in 1812. The right-wing pro-Leave press moved swiftly to disavow any suggestion that the murder was in any way political, let alone connected to an interpretation of their side's arguments, trying to spin the killer as a random lunatic, as likely to have been motivated by, say, the ghost of Freddie Mercury talking to him through his toaster as anything else. That interpretation was not helped when he was found to have had connections with neo-Nazi groups (including Britain First, if a photograph of him at one of their events is authentic), nor when, in court, he gave his name as “Death To Traitors Freedom For Britain” (though Louise Mensch, that reliably south-pointing compass of the British Torysphere, did make a heroic attempt to claim his words as semantically meaningless gibberish, or in her words, “wibble wibble I'm a hatstand”).

By now, pretty much everyone has conceded that the murder was politically motivated, which leaves Leave with the bind of trying to dissociate themselves from extremists further up the continuum of xenophobic opinion from them; meanwhile, polls show that some voters have started deserting Leave (though not in droves; the two sides are now polling neck and neck). Perhaps they're asking themselves about some of the people they've discovered themselves sharing a side in the debate with.

It's three days until the referendum itself, and the result is still very much up in the air. Polling suggests that Leave still have the edge, while the betting markets predict a Remain victory. If Britain votes to leave the EU, it will, in my opinion, be a catastrophically bad decision for reasons too numerous to go into here. If Remain ekes out a narrow victory, though, the sense of relief will be tinged by the awareness that, were it not for the brutal murder of a fundamentally decent human being, our ancestral hatred of the Frogs and Krauts and fear of a brown-skinned Other would almost certainly have shifted it to Leave. And it does make one wonder what proportion of the 40%+ of the population expected to vote Leave would agree with Mr. Death To Traitors Freedom For Britain that Jo Cox, MP was, if not a traitor to Britain, part of an enemy elite hostile to the “silent majority”.

brexit crime eu neo-nazis politics rightwingers uk 0

2016/6/10

Being a tenant in the free-market Anglosphere is likely to get a lot worse soon; a new British start-up has created a system offering landlords' continuous deep surveillance of their tenants' online lives to determine whether they are likely to be asset risks. The system, named Tenant Assured, involves requiring tenants, as a condition of tenancy, to link all their social media accounts to a system that data-mines their posts and messages, looking for keywords and metadata and feeding them into an algorithmic model for determining the tenant's personality type and the risk of them defaulting on rent or otherwise adversely affecting the landlord's assets. Tenant Assured appears to greedily harvest a lot of data for its model; when the landlord looks at the report on one of their tenants, status updates or messages mentioning loans, lack of money or phrases suggestive of penury like “staying in” show up under “financial stress”, and words like “prison”, “steal” or “justice” show up under “crime”, while histograms of the tenants' activity times on weekdays and weekends are shown (do they throw parties/lead a chaotic lifestyle, or are they responsible hard-working serfs who get up at six and are in bed by 11, and thus a good financial risk?)

Among the behaviors that count against your Tenant Assured “credit” percentage — i.e., how confident the company is that you’ll pay rent — are “online retail social logins and frequency of social logins used for leisure activities.” In other words, Tenant Assured draws conclusions about your credit-worthiness based on things such as whether you post about shopping or going out on the weekends.
Tenant Assured is in operation in the UK, and is being launched in the US soon; it is likely to be welcomed with equally open arms in free-market anglocapitalist strongholds like Australia, where tenants are not deemed to need any rights beyond those naturally trickling down from the invisible hand of the market. The system is said to be opt-in, which means that one always has the choice of telling the landlord who insists on using it where to stick it and find another one who does not insist on it (which may involve anything from paying a human-dignity premium to the Sartrean radical freedom of starving to death under a bridge, emaciated but unbowed).

Of course, there is a chance that such an intrusive system would be found to be in violation of human-rights laws (like the ones Britain's Tory government wants to pull Britain out of); if it isn't, the chances of parliament, which is dominated by buy-to-let landlords (who comprise 40% of MPs, compared to 4% of the general population) passing any laws to restrict it are vanishingly slim at best. After all, we're a free-market society, something something light-touch dynamic self-regulation something, and heavy-handed regulation would destroy the wealth that (mumble mumble) trickles down to the very tenants it's meant to protect; also, personal responsibility. In Australia, there is no bill of rights and nothing like the European Convention of Human Rights, so there'd be fewer impediments to such a system being imposed. In the United States, the Constitution would offer little protection, as it only restricts the government from oppressive measures, making room for a vibrant market in free-enterprise oppression.

The system currently requires tenants to provide access to their social media profiles (presumably the tenancy contract would be drafted as to make withholding accounts grounds for eviction and/or forfeiture of the deposit, if not further legal sanctions); what happens to the data is opaque and could be updated. If, for example, the operators train a neural network to determine probability of drug use from selfies, or emotional stress from changes in music consumption, such capabilities could be added later. But why stop there? It's almost certain that the tenant would own a smartphone, running either iOS or Android. And legally there is no reason why a rental contract could not require them to install and run an app on their phone which tracks their location, flagging up whether they're spending time in dive bars, visiting pawn shops or have started sleeping in until noon on weekdays rather than travelling to an office by 9:30am. (The app could be styled with a nice-looking interface allowing the tenant to contact the landlord and flag fixtures in need of repair; if it looks like it's meant to help the tenant, they may not recognise that it's there to control them.) And so, the relationship between landlord and tenant starts looking like the ancient feudal relationship between a lord and one of his peasants passed through Jeremy Bentham's panopticon; the subtext is: those who don't own property or significant wealth are, at best, on parole.

If this takes off, and becomes the norm for non-wealthy tenants, the social implications could be interesting. For one, it will make all the services, like Facebook, which it touches useless for casually socialising. (In a Free Market, where all tenants are competing against each other to get and keep desirable flats—or, indeed, to win desirable tenancies from the sucker who let their game slip and got logged showing poor impulse control one time too many—maintaining a profile optimised to avoid whatever the algorithm's looking for will become paramount, and there'll be no slack for posting anything off-message.) In such a system, posting to Facebook (or Instagram, or Twitter, or whatever) will be a bureaucratic chore, an act of reporting to one's unseen overseers framed as casually socialising with one's semi-fictitious clean-living friends. (Not posting anything may also get one flagged, so shrugging it off may work against one's interests.) Perhaps an underground industry of social profile doctors will show up; they'll keep up on the latest news and gossip about the surveillance capabilities and profiling algorithms, and for a monthly fee, will provide you with enough traffic to keep your tenant-credit score up. Meanwhile, actual socialising, hedonism, self-indulgence and discussion of worries will take place on encrypted channels and pseudonymous underground social networks, or other profiles, and people will start to carry two phones: the one the landlord knows about, and one which doesn't snitch. (At some point, a tenant will be evicted without deposit for failing to declare such an account or phone, as required in the tenancy contract; if they're lucky, it may form the basis of a court case.)

anglocapitalism big data housing privacy surveillance surveillance capitalism tenants' rights uk 0

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