The Null Device

2018/8/10

It recently emerged that one of the obligations Australia's parliamentarians have is to provide their constitutents with portraits of the Queen, for free, on request. The portraits (which also include those of her consort, Prince Phillip, though not of any of the more fashionable young royals), along with flags and recordings of the National Anthem, are classified as “nationhood material”, vital for instilling a sense of national consciousness, and are thus included in the budget and obligations of the people's federal representatives for this very purpose. Which, one could imagine, may have made sense historically: in a far-flung outpost of the Empire, awash with rum and the threat of convict rebellion still in living memory, communal loyalty to the distant Crown would have needed all the reinforcement it could get, damn the expense. Either that or this was a piece of Howard/Abbott-era culture-war red meat, to stick it to the inner-city trendy-lefties who'd rather fritter money away on saving wildlife or helping the poor or something. But no: the rule in question dates back to 1990, the height of the Hawke/Keating era, possibly the least likely period in Australian history to produce such a rule.

The rule in question is unique to Australia, at least in the former British Empire. Constituents in the UK may request portraits of Her Royal Highness, but they have to pay for them. In Canada, meanwhile, the government makes the portraits available for download, allowing monarchistically-inclined Canadians to have them printed by the provider of their choice. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, you're on your own.

The revelation of this peculiar rule, in an article in VICE, leading to a flurry of requests to MPs for the monarchic merch. Of course, not everybody is happy with this: some point out that the time and money the MPs and their staffers spend servicing these requests is taken away from more serious duties they would otherwise be performing. Other MPs have been putting a pamphlet from the Australian Republican Movement with each portrait sent.

This rule does raise many questions; among them:

  1. Is there a limit to the number of portraits of the Queen a constituent may request?
  2. Once they are sent, do they become the constituent's property, or do they remain property of the Crown, the Commonwealth of Australia, or some other agency?
  3. Does Australia have any laws restricting what one can do with portraits of the monarch that one owns? Would it be legal, for example, to paint a L.H.O.O.Q.-style moustache on one, or to use it in a mixed-media art piece, mutilating it in the process, or to use it as cavity insulation or a budgie cage liner, or to hang it insalubriously in the backyard dunny, rather than giving it a honoured spot above one's hearth?

(My best guess for the last one, given the chaotic strange attractor that is Australia's larrikin/authoritarian dynamic—in lieu of any kind of bill of rights there is essentially an unspoken gentleman's agreement, while national icons include Ned Kelly and Chopper Read, and a ballad about a livestock thief almost became the national anthem—would be “it's probably technically illegal, but you won't be prosecuted unless the authorities conclude that the average bloke would consider you to be a “ratbag”.”)

australia larrikinism law monarchy queen elizabeth ii 0

2018/7/8

So yesterday, England beat Sweden in the world cup, securing their first place in a final in decades, and setting off riotous celebrations. Some football fans, filled with the euphoria of the moment, trashed an IKEA in London, terrorising staff and customers. Others just blocked off streets and jumped on trapped cars.

It’s tempting to see this match, and its aftermath, as the latest flare-up of the Second English Civil War, this time not between the Cavaliers and Roundheads but the Gammons and Snowflakes, and on a broader scale, a Right-vs.-Left grudge match of two fundamentally different world-views of our time. On one hand, England: the bad-boy buccaneers of Brexitland. On the other hand, Sweden, the very symbolic epitome of European liberalism as most unacceptable to the Gammon majority who see themselves as custodians of England’s values, not to mention their fellow travellers in red-state, red-cap America. England may hate the Germans the most, and have hated the French for the longest, but the Swedes are the most egregiously antithetical to the harsh, robust values of the contemporary middle-England whose voice is the Daily Mail. Everything that paper rails against—gender-neutral parenting, multiculturalism, human rights, high taxes spent on the unworthy—is supposedly rampant in Sweden, and if you listen to right-wing older relatives, you will learn that the country is a bankrupt wasteland (due to the inevitable consequences of socialism) and/or an ISIS rape camp.

Sweden is lagom, everything in moderation, with a residual Jante Law stigma against putting oneself above others giving rise to an innate egalitarian tendency. In English, however, it is said that equality is the opposite of quality. We revel in excess. We’re a meritocracy of luxury flats, kept empty as investment units, towering over streets full of hungry, undeserving tramps; a land of teachers and nurses share-housing well into their 40s, and buy-to-let landlords building their well-earned empires, unmolested by redistributive taxation. We’re a nation of hard-working taxpayers who’ve had a gutful of uppity minorities asking to be treated with unearned respect. We're Terry Gilliam jealous of the privileges of imaginary black lesbians, and Morrissey spouting off about Those People. In England, a hedge-fund manager is literally worth thousands of paramedics. And where Sweden believes in universal human rights, inalienable dignity every person is, by definition, entitled to, England, however, divides humans into two camps: “deserving” and “scum”, with the latter to be treated punitively lest they get ideas above their station.

All over the streets outside pubs, mobs of men with St. George flags celebrate jubilantly, blocking traffic and chicken-dancing on the roofs of trapped cars; it's a big boffo day out, like everyone's best mate's stag do. The police come some twenty minutes later and move them on, in their own good time; they’re good lads, just a little overexcited. Hours later, and packs of blokes walk the streets, bellowing out ugly chants about German bombers. We are England, they seem to chant: the English, the English-speaking world, riding the ascending surge of the age. Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief of the English-speaking peoples, is ultimately our leader. Boris Johnson is our shit Churchill for this shit age. Human rights, social justice, Political Correctness, Cultural Marxism, the Frogs and Krauts and all their vino-drinking, garlic-eating chums, all lie vanquished under our boots. And we’re just getting started.

The word on the street here is that the Cup is coming home: home being, of course, England. This is, of course, wishful thinking, but at this stage, it is more plausible than at any recent time. Meanwhile, outside of football, Britain struggles with the consequences of a decision to leave the EU, that has been doubled down upon repeatedly even as it began to look increasingly dubious: Parliament was whipped to irreversibly tear the brakes out of the moving car and throw them out the window. Now, as funding irregularities and connections with Russian government officials emerge, some are talking about the inevitability of a second referendum. If Britain does look like winning the World Cup, perhaps we can expect to see Westminster do a rapid volte-face, approving a second referendum and rushing it through to happen within 24 hours of the victory celebration, in the hope that a groundswell of triumphalism will translate to an increased Leave majority. And in his room deep underneath the Kremlin, the chaos-magus Aleksandr Dugin watches with a smile, knowing that everything is falling into place exactly to plan.

Brexit, Trump and one world cup, all under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin.

brexit culture england football football hooliganism nationalism rightwingers sweden 1

2018/5/26

Yesterday, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on repealing its near-total ban on abortion. The referendum had been many years in planning: other similar referenda had failed in the past, and most infamously, one in 1983 had enshrined, in the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, the rights of a fertilised embryo as being equal to its mother. There was, of course, a lot of discontentment with such an illiberal state of affairs, but the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanava, a 31-year-old woman who died in agony after being denied an abortion even when her pregnancy was no longer viable, was probably what gave this push its momentum. A referendum was announced, and the campaigns started in earnest. Ireland does not allow absentee voting (otherwise its huge diaspora might sway domestic affairs from abroad), so Irish citizens from as far as Australia and Argentina made their ways back to vote. Religious-Right groups in the US sent shiny-faced volunteers with 100-watt smiles to push the No vote. Google and Facebook clamped down on Cambridge Analytica-style targeted ads, with varying reports of effectiveness.

In the run-up to the vote, all the signs pointed to a victory for the Yes campaign, to end the abortion ban. Though, as the vote loomed, the polls tightened, with some suggesting a narrow victory for Yes, with a large number of undecided voters holding sway. There was talk of large numbers of “shy Nos”, people who believed the abortion of fertilised embryos to be murder but not wishing to state this out loud and be seen as reactionary barbarians. Some said that a surprise No triumph would be Ireland's equivalent of Brexit or Trump, a chance for a silent majority of conservative left-behinds to flip the table and savour the tears of the metropolitan-liberal-elites who, until then, had believed themselves to be presiding over inevitable progress. And, of course, the possibility of the vote being swayed by the reactionary international's dark arts: ghost funding making a mockery of electoral laws, psychographically targeted ads, supposedly autonomous campaigns coördinated with military precision. Would change come, or would it be deferred for another generation? And even if Yes scraped through a narrow victory, that would give conservative legislators the cover to nobble the resulting legislation to the point of ineffectuality.

It turned out one need not have worried: the Yes case has been carried by roughly a ⅔ majority. The first exit poll gave Yes 68% of the vote; the count, with 29 of 40 constituencies declared is within a narrow margin of this. No has conceded the referendum (though of course not the divinely-mandated principle behind their position), and it looks like the 8th amendment will be repealed and laws governing the provision of abortion services, along similar criteria to elsewhere in Europe, will be passed.

(Someone I know once jested, “I'm Irish. I can do anything—except have an abortion.” It looks like she will now have to retire that line.)

This is a major shift, or rather, a sign of a major shift that had been happening for some time now. Ireland having emphatically legalised same-sex marriage a few years ago was another sign of this. The Irish republic that arose after independence, when Catholic nationalists consolidated their power—a dour, authoritarian, priest-ridden backwater, a country that condemned its unmarried mothers to penal institutions, and in which the all-powerful church vetoed the formation of a British-style national health service because secular institutions alleviating the people's misery sounded like Communism—has not existed for some time, replaced by a modern, secular nation, and only now is the extent of the transformation becoming undeniably apparent. And if there were any shy voters, it was not the mythical Silent Majority of reactionary conservatives hankering for the certainties of the good old days, but those remembering all the suffering and misery imposed by laws that have stripped women of autonomy over their bodies, many only realising after the vote that they were in the majority, not just in the entirety of Ireland but even in their own, supposedly conservative, rural province. (And the disappearance of the expected strong rural No vote, counterbalancing liberal Dublin and Cork and pushing the result to a cliffhanger, is one of the stories of the day; while final results are not in yet, exit polls have No with a majority—and a slender one—in only one of the 40 constituencies.) One big take-away may be that the myth we have been conditioned to accept, of the silent majority of public opinion inevitably being viciously reactionary, is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.

The immediate consequences—Ireland's infamously restrictive abortion laws being brought into line with the liberal secular world—are fairly straightforward. What remains to be seen are the secondary effects. The most obvious one will be pressure on Northern Ireland's own draconian abortion laws. Northern Ireland, whilst a province of the UK, is run as a hard-line Protestant sectarian state, established out of fear of the hard-line Catholic sectarian state across the border. Now that that state visibly no longer exists, it will be harder to maintain it as a special case increasingly divergent from both the Republic and the rest of the UK. The evaporating power of Catholic sectarianism in the Republic may also make the formerly unthinkable—reunification—less so (especially when the alternative, reconciling Hard Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement, appears to be logically impossible). Whether the result carries beyond Ireland is another question: they're talking about legalising abortion in New South Wales now. And while a No victory would have emboldened anti-abortion activists in other countries, it's not clear whether Ireland having voted Yes will have much impact in, say, Poland or Hungary, where proudly illiberal Catholic hypernationalism is on the march.

Beyond reproductive rights, the result may be another milestone on a trading of places, culturally and economically, between Ireland and England. As Britain (though, in reality, largely England-minus-London), led by its xenophobic tabloids, voted to cut itself off from Europe, to expel foreigners and become less liberal, both individuals and businesses have been scoping out locations abroad. (You can't find office space for love or money in Frankfurt these days, and Berlin's gentrification has been accelerated by a flood of Brefugees with MacBooks.) Ireland has been cited by many as a more open alternative to the UK, though there has been a perception that it is both smaller and more parochial. The Irish electorate's recent decisions are likely to put paid to the second objection: the first may last a little longer, but if one remembers what low esteem, say, dining in Britain was held in a few decades ago, or the sleepy, bureaucracy-ridden nature of doing business there, it may not take long for Dublin to displace London altogether.

abortion catholic culture europe ireland politics 0

2018/5/13

Well, that's Eurovision for another year. Israel ended up winning, with a studiedly kooky yet impeccably produced electro-pop number, involving dollops of Björkisms, kawaii and chicken impressions. Which was probably more interesting than the two runners-up: Cyprus with a track that was a certain variety of Eurovision by numbers, and Sweden with a handsome young man doing a mildly funky, highly polished though otherwise unexceptional number. (Sweden finished 2nd in the jury choice and 7th in the overall; a result good enough to preserve the reputation of its Eurovision-song industry and keep the hit factories of Stockholm busy on half of Eurasia's contenders for 2019.) Australia's entry, a competent club-pop ballad by Jessica Mauboy, finished in the middle of the bottom half of the final result, though made it into the top half of the jury results; for some reason, getting 1/10 of the votes from the public that they got from the jury. (Presumably there aren't enough Aussie backpackers around EBU countries these days, and the antipodean nation doesn't fit into any European voting blocs.) The UK entered what appeared to be an early, not entirely successful, experiment at cloning Annie Lennox. They did, well, typically, ending up third from last. (I was half hoping, very much against hope, that they'd win, the population of Europe deciding, with exquisite irony, to saddle Brexitland with having to host a celebration of pan-European unity. It seems that Europe has better things to worry about than the quasi-tourettic tantrums of some objectionable self-exiled strangers on an island in the Atlantic. Toodle-pip, Britain, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.)

The UK's entry was, once again, cited as a return to form, as Britain flexing its formidable pop muscles and fielding an entry so strong that they may just be in with a chance of (whisper it) winning. And while the entry, SuRie, was indeed qualitatively better than some of the cringeworthy contenders it fielded over the preceding decade or two (the middle-aged white gangsta rapper, the singing flight attendants, Jemini and so on), it looked half-baked next to Australia's entry, which predictably left the UK in the dust. Perhaps it's the contrast in attitudes: while generations of Australians have grown up having the annual Eurovision party (always a good excuse for a drink with mates), the UK still is hamstrung by the sniffy disdain it has for those silly foreigners on the other side of the channel, and a sense of reluctance to lower itself to their level; it was always there, though went septic around the time of Tony Blair's bromance with George W. Bush, and has never entirely receded.

(The UK's entry was made slightly more exciting when some bloke with writing on his T-shirt ran onto the stage and grabbed the microphone for a moment. It is not entirely clear what his issue was: was he het up about chemtrails or Cultural Marxism or something? Did he have strong opinions about something like the Irish abortion referendum? Or was he perhaps a fanatical Bitcoiner striking a blow against fiat currency, or possibly one of those “incels”? I guess we may never know the truth.)

Other entries of note: Finland named its song “Monsters”, which given that, unlike its 2006 entry, it was not a heavy-metal number performed in monster costumes but rather respectably ordinary Eurovision electropop, was writing a cheque it had little hope of cashing. Hungary did have a heavy-metal band, with pyrotechnics and all, who looked about 14. Denmark's entry was Viking-themed, though was more a minor-key AOR ballad than hard rock. Moldova's entry was a cheeky sex-farce mimed around a set of doors and windows; think Benny Hill with Balkan beats. The Czech Republic did a sort of new-jack funk-rap thing, only stylised as nerdy/quirky, and thus less bland than Sweden's entry; the phrase “Czechia self before you wrechia self” did come to mind. And Ukraine fulfilled the Eurovision Goth quota, with a disco Dracula waking from inside a grand piano, and playing as the flames rose around him.

So Eurovision will be in Israel next year; presumably in Tel Aviv. Which means, among other things, that it's quite likely that Dana International will be one of the hosts. Presumably Britain will still be competing, the BBC paying enough into the EBU to retain its guaranteed contender slot regardless of the quality of its entry.

eurovision 0

2018/3/22

So, the Cambridge Analytica revelations: The broader outline (shadowy company, owned by right-wing billionaires and possibly connected to Russian intelligence interests, uses big data, psychological algorithms and targeted ads to fix elections, including the 2016 US Presidential one and the Brexit referendum) had started trickling out since late 2016. They would have remained an ominous undercurrent, known of by the vanquished liberal minority and embellished with layers of speculation, conspiracy theory and fatalistic gallows humour, were it not for a former operative spilling the beans, revealing further details. Details such as that that the data went beyond the usual broad-brush correlations between brand likes one thinks of when considering ad targeting and went into alarmingly intimate data aggregated from sources including Facebook private messages and credit profiles; and that, while the data was taken from Facebook by deception (under the claim that it was to be used for academic purposes; naming one’s company “Cambridge Analytica” can yield dividends, it seems), Facebook did not try particularly hard to enforce the terms of use ostensibly protecting its users (and, it seems, democracy and civil society themselves).

The elephant in the room, of course, is Facebook and its business model, which has been described, aptly, as “surveillance capitalism”. Facebook does not charge for its services, and funds itself through a modest amount of ads. What it does, however, is build up elaborate profiles of its users, sucking up their every online interaction it can to extend them. Where likes, posts, messages and location data don't suffice, it supplements with data from data brokers, gathered from credit ratings, things such as loyalty card programmes, and public-domain data. This yields a vast amount of data, which, when processed with sufficient computing power, can reveal a lot about users: in their less circumspect moments, Facebook's data scientists have revealed that they can tell a lot of things on an individual from their data trail, from political leanings to sexual orientation, to how likely their current relationship is to end; what other things they can determine about an individual given that data is an open question. What is not disputed, though, is that Facebook's very business model depends on using this data to target advertising, and their acuity in doing so to make revenue. In short, everything Cambridge Analytica allegedly did with their haul of illicitly obtained data, Facebook can do, continuously and at far greater scale.

This has not escaped notice, and the backlash has hit Facebook, not helped by Mark Zuckerberg's protracted silence on the matter. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook is trending on Twitter, urging users to nuke their Facebook accounts, and giving instructions on how to actually force Facebook to delete their data permanently, rather than just flagging it as temporarily inactive; the latest to add their name to the chorus is one of the founders of WhatsApp, a messaging system now owned by Facebook. Of course, that is easier said than done.

In some ways, it is easy: the instructions are easy to follow, and involve clicking through a few screens, entering the text in a CAPTCHA and watching one's digital life and/or surveillance dossier go up in virtual flames. What comes after is the hard part. Facebook have worked hard to own the social graph, and to make it difficult to take your friends with you when you leave. (The timeline you see on Facebook is, famously, not a chronological firehose of all your Facebook friends' posts, but a selection of a small proportion of those, chosen by the same all-knowing algorithms that know which ads to show you. It is said—though is, of course, difficult to verify—that those algorithms specifically score posts giving or requesting means of contact outside of Facebook down.) Or course, downloading a list of one's friends' names and email addresses/phone numbers is a nonstarter from the outset, ostensibly for reasons of privacy, so one's only bet is to individually contact the friends one wants to keep, one by one, to exchange details, resigning oneself to losing contact with the rest.

Other than owning the social graph, Facebook have managed to become the hub of socialisation in the 2010s by reducing friction. It is a lot easier to create a Facebook event for, say, a birthday party or an excursion to see a film, than to individually invite people to add the event to their calendars, and conversely socialising without Facebook has been consigned to the realm of Victorian-era calling cards. It is possible to socialise deliberately, with a few close friends one has in one's address book, but this does not scale. Social software such as Facebook has genuinely reduced friction and saved time, allowing people to keep in minimal touch with people they are peripherally connected to, and also reducing the time required to keep in touch with other, less peripheral, friends; the hectic pace of modern life has filled the time thus freed up. Thus, most people have no more time for phoning/texting/emailing non-core friends, who all are on Fscebook anyway, than they do for composing a multi-paragraph blog post which nobody will probably read. The sad reality of the 21st-century human condition is that Mark Zuckerberg owns the space between us, and leaving Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp) is, in many ways, to retreat from modern society; a radical, deliberate act, equal parts Ted Kaczynski and Into The Wild.

Perhaps this will change; perhaps Facebook will end up going the way of former unassailable titans such as MySpace, and be replaced by something else. If that something else is run by another venture-capital-funded surveillance-marketing organisation, the situation will not improve. (Facebook itself, at the start, seemed like a much cleaner and less spammy/scammy operation than MySpace.) There are glimmers of hope in the decentralised sphere, where developers are creating open, decentralised alternatives to corporate-owned monolithic silos. One example is Mastodon, a Twitter-like microblogging system. One thing those services don't currently have, though, outside of mass adoption, is granular privacy settings: it is not possible yet to make non-public posts to one, or to filter posts by group. Once this is implemented, in a way that works robustly across instances, and presumably uses cryptography, there might be a system ready to step into the gap when Facebook stumbles that is not inherently predatory on a structural level.

For now, however, those who are not willing to brave the wilderness are more or less stuck with Facebook; however, it is possible to reduce your profile, by reducing the amount of personal data one posts to it, and removing it from one's mobile devices (or, if not possible, revoking the app's permissions to access things like location information). I would add to this list: not logging into Facebook from one's main web browser, keeping a separate browser with separate cookies for using it, ideally running in a separate virtual machine.

cambridge analytica facebook postdemocracy privacy surveillance 0

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