An even shorter history of Stupid — with some EM comments

January 7, 2015

A short history of Stupid: The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream, (2014). Bernard Keane & Helen Razer, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99.

Bernard Keane

Bernard Keane

I am a big fan of both Crikey political editor Bernard Keane and the Saturday Paper‘s gardening writer Helen Razer. They are intellectually sharp, write with good humour and come across as eminently rational in their thinking.

Helen Razer

Helen Razer

Therefore, I was delighted to find A short history of Stupid in time to add the book to my Christmas wishlist for 2014. Yes, even über rationalist Marxist scholars have some use for Santa Claus!

Keane and Razer are friends and obviously share a dislike for stupidity in all its forms (and they are many); but they are not cut from the same cloth. Keane comes across as a socially-concerned and progressive individualist, verging on the libertarian, while Razer is more than willing to own up to her own proto-Marxist and critical feminist intellectual development. Razer is also a bit of a potty mouth, so if you are offended by the occasional use of c—t, f—k and s—t in your reading material, perhaps you should only read the chapters by the more (ahem) refined Mr Keane.

But I’m not fazed by Ms Razer’s crudities because I love her razor wit and sharp insights. Her chapter on reason and unreason is one of the best in the book and one paragraph in particular sums up her (and my) take on the psychological pressures of modern working life:

“When we fail at life as it is so broadly and meticulously prescribed, we call it mental illness. We have failed life. We are not permitted to think it is the conventions of life that have failed us.” (p. 164)

It has many good points and I recommend you read it, but A short history of Stupid is a very uneven book. This is partially because chapters are written individually and the writers have very different tones and registers in their prose; but the bigger issue is that the book doesn’t seem to really know whom its enemy is.

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It’s lonely crying “wolf”: Terrorism 101 – lesson for the Herald Sun

January 2, 2015

Ah, so the new year starts as the last one ended with a fact-free front-page EXCLUSIVE, but this time, the culprit is not The Australian, but its sister paper, the Herald Sun published in Melbourne.

According to today’s front-page splash “EXCLUSIVE TERROR SIEGE TWIST”, the Hun makes the bold claim that Sydney siege killer Man Haron Monis is “NO LONE WOLF“.

Don't worry, its bark is worse than its bite

Don’t worry, its bark is worse than its bite

It really is like taking cheese from a mouse to pick on this sad excuse for a birdcage liner, but when it get as silly as this, I must call out the editor because, surely, it is his call to put such garbage on the front page. Take this for a lead (and remember the root word in “news” is new):

Sydney siege terrorist Man Haron Monis delivered a chilling lecture calling for an “Islamic society” to a packed prayer hall in 2009 — the same year he dropped off security watch lists.

Did you catch the date? It was five or six years ago, give or take a New Year holiday. And, wow, a Muslim who believes in an “Islamic society”; I bet there are not more than, Oh, I don’t know, let’s guess 1.6 billion people who might fit that description.

But, hey, Muslims; they’re dangerous, right? Yes, they are; not like the world’s estimated 2.2 billion Christians who go to church every week and listen to crazed men in long frocks calling for a “Christian society”.

A list of the world's scariest religions from worst to least worser

A list of the world’s scariest religions from worst to least worser

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Black and white and Reds all over: My last 2014 post about The Australian

December 29, 2014

It must be some sort of ignorant bliss to be a columnist or leader writer with The Australian and to live in the certain knowledge that Chris Mitchell’shair is always right about everything.

Not having to think abstractly or go outside the rectangular box of its pages to find something as subtle as flux, contradiction and 50 shades of grey must make for an easy life of absolutes without the worrying niggles of nuance and self-doubt.

Mitchell's hair

The superbly talented and all-round whisky-loving cartoonish genius, Mr Onthemoon drew this.

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Don’t panic unless we tell you to

December 27, 2014

It was a difficult couple of months that closed out 2014. In fact, you could say I had a bit of a crisis. I was not entirely sure what I should be panicking about more: the threat from Ebola; being blown up in my sleep by a “death cult”, or the hordes of black-clad anarchists that were allegedly threatening Brisbane during the meeting of the G20 group of rich nations.

Most of us are not prone to panic attacks, but all of us lead our stress-filled lives just one little incident away from the panic threshold. It seems at the moment like a tsunami of panic-inducing threats is rolling towards us.

Doctors and scientists will tell you that a feeling of panic occurs when our normal “fight or flight” reaction to danger is over-stimulated and triggers in response to “false alarms”. In other words, we tend to panic when there is actually no real danger present. Of course, panicking in the face of a real and present danger is a psychological response to a “true alarm”. Under such circumstances fighting back or running away might seem like totally logical reaction to threats.

According to researchers, the “fight or flight” response to imminent danger (real or imagined) is based on three possible scenarios:

  • some of us have a biological vulnerability to anxiety, which can lead to a nervous over-reaction to events in everyday life;
  • some have a generalized psychological vulnerability, which the experts say can be a reaction to being over-parented and can lead us to think that the world is a dangerous place, best avoided;
  • then, there’s a more specific type of psychological vulnerability which leads to a learned fear of certain objects or situations that are, in fact, not dangerous at all.

It seems to be that, being human, all of us are perhaps subject to each of these vulnerabilities at some point in our lives, or in response to a persistent external stimulus. We can also learn to overcome our anxieties and to lessen our fear of external events or situations that might lead us to panic. But what can we do when all the information coming into our cerebral cortex from the media points at panic being the only rational response to a world careening out of control?

You see, it’s rational to think that beyond the chemical processes in our brains there are probably social causes to the psychological distress that can lead us to panic. And, to my mind, three of them relate to fear of epidemic (Ebola); fear of imminent attack (“death cults”) and fear of social breakdown (the nightmare of anarchists running loose in a major city).

But how do we know that these are things we should fear? Well, if you read certain newspapers; listen to or watch enough broadcast news, or get sucked into the vortex of unreliable rumours in social media channels, it seems like the reasons to panic are multiplying on a daily basis.

I have a friend in Brisbane and in the build up to the G20 he’s described it me as the “City of Fear”. My friend has become so alarmed by life in the “City of Fear” that he asked me not to use his name: so I’ll call him Melcure.

Melcure was watching closely as Brisbane went into “lockdown” ahead of the November G20 meeting of world leaders. He sent me daily email missives relating stories of low-flying helicopters and widening prohibitions on residents moving around the CBD as the police and armed forces practiced their counter-terrorism moves.

However, the real target of the police action appeared not to be “death cult” terrorists, but a shadowy international anarchist group known as “Black Bloc”. Luckily, the ever-vigilant news media was all over this story. The danger was talked up to such an extent that it seemed as if every anarchist on the planet was going to descend on Brisbane.

keep calm1

A year of worry, but the anarchists stayed away

But, think about it for a minute. What single prominent feature might define the world’s most dedicated anarchists? In my mind it’s the fact that they probably haven’t got a lot of money. Travelling to Australia from Europe or North America, just to throw rocks at dignitaries, seems like it would be low on their list of priorities. And also consider this; anarchists are notoriously lackadaisical about organizing. The idea that they might coordinate themselves to land in Brisbane in large enough numbers to be effective against 20,000 trained and armed riot police is laughable.

I’ve been in the political left for 40 years and to my knowledge the number of identifiable anarchists in Australia is measured in the low hundreds, not the 10s of thousands. My rational mind tells me not to panic about anarchist hordes burning down Brisbane.

If the anarchists were not going to be a threat then perhaps the “death cult” terrorists of D’aesh (ISIS) might target Brisbane. Should we have been worried about a secret operation by an Ebola-infected “death cult” adherent to infiltrate the G20 to spread even more panic and destruction?

I wasn’t sure until I heard and saw the news that PUP senator Jacquie Lambie was worried about just such an eventuality.

Let Senator Lambie do the worrying for you. That's what she was elected to do.

Let Senator Lambie do the worrying for you. That’s what she was elected to do.

This suggestion cleverly combines two panic-inducing thoughts: epidemic and terrorism. Surely here is something that we can sensibly worry about. You know it makes sense: Ebola is out there and it’s killing people; so to are the “death cult” lunatics in northern Iraq and in the eastern parts of Syria. Surely they’ve got the resources to fly one Ebola-infected suicide bomber into Australia – specifically Brisbane during the G20 gabfest – so as to cause mass casualties and mayhem.

Yeah, I know, your rational mind (mine too) says this is a bit far-fetched and Jacquie Lambie is not the sharpest chisel in the toolbox. So, perhaps we can put this one aside. However, that doesn’t mean we can relax when it comes to Ebola.

The deadly virus may not get to Australia incubating inside a “death cult” terrorist, but it could still be on its way. So that’s why I’m grateful that my government has once again demonstrated its commitment to Fortress Australia and locked the arrivals gate to people from Ebola-affected parts of Africa.

It is the logical humanitarian response; after all we are more important and our lives more precious than theirs.

Scott Morrison is keeping Ebola under lock and key

Scott Morrison is keeping Ebola under lock and key

Never mind that this could be construed as racist; never mind that the world’s leading epidemiologists have condemned Australia’s poor response to the Ebola crisis and never mind that brave individual Australian medical workers have volunteered to help contain the outbreak at source as recommended by the World Health Organisation. WHO are they to tell us how and why and over what we should panic?

Really, the global busybodies should leave that to our government and our media. After all, it is they who know best what is in our national interest and therefore it is them who should direct our nervous energy into the right sorts of panic.

Don’t panic unless we tell you to

The lesson of the modern media is that we should only panic when they tell us to.

That is, the appropriate form of hysteria-inducing “moral panic”; the fear of the irrational that can be stirred by rousing speeches, three word slogans and a news media hungry for sensationalist headlines. A good moral panic does wonders for an unpopular leader’s approval rating and it leads to improved ratings for the news media too. That is why we see such sterling collaboration between politicians and journalists and why we see such wonderful leadership on issues like fighting “death cults”, stopping anarchist hordes, tackling a deadly virus and ending world poverty (that last one’s a joke).

The clear message is that there’s no need to panic, unless the government and the media tell you to.

That’s the only rational explanation for this recent headline on the ‘newspaper of the year’, The Courier-Mail. On Monday October 27, the Brisbane tabloid carried a fantastic, calming front-page story about the Ebola crisis. The message comes across loud and clear.

What, me worry?

What, me worry?

This is a clever front-page and one designed to make us not panic even more. Just look at that horrible virus, it’s the size of a large double-headed tapeworm and it’s heading our way. The take-out from this is that we need to learn to panic only in response to the right stimulus, such as scary and misleading front-page stories about epidemics, “death cults” and anarchist hordes.

Well, so far these panic-inducing problems have only affected Brisbane, so no need for me, living in Melbourne, to panic; But for the sake of Melcure in the “City of Fear”, who’s made more anxious by what he reads in the always restrained and accurate Courier-Mail, I’ll just keep calm and pass him the worry beads.

First published as “Keep calm and pass the worry beads”,  in The Australian Rationalist, December 2014


The Internet of Nudes — is this what we wished for?

December 14, 2014

The widespread release of nude photographs across the internet is not confined to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence – sexy “selfies” are going “viral” among teenagers too.

In just a couple months between August and October 2014, thousands of hacked digital photographs – many of them of naked or semi-dressed young people and celebrities – found their way into the public domain.

sexy selfie meme

The typical chain of events involved some geeky hackers announcing that they’d accessed some kind of online storage space that was supposed to be under secure digital lock and key, and were going to upload racy and compromising photographs to somewhere on the web where anyone with an internet browser would be able to see them.

Images of nude celebrities form a kind of sick digital currency in some murky corners of the internet. On sites like 4chan and Reddit there are (or at least were) publicly accessible threads with names like “The Fappening” where such images were posted. The people who posted them – usually anonymously – were considered the coolest hackers because of their ability to forage around and steal the images from mobile phones or other sources.

Both Reddit and 4chan had “rules” that supposedly prevented illegally obtained or copyright-breaching images being uploaded, but the rules were pretty much ignored by everyone involved until a big public scandal drew attention to them.

For the people who break into smartphones or cloud storage servers to steal the private images there is kudos and ego-satisfying status in the hacker community; for the (largely) pubescent male viewers there is the prospect of sexual titillation and the excitement of sharing in something a little bit dirty and a whole lot of illegal.

However, for the celebrities whose images are stolen there is only anger and potentially embarrassment.

Many of the young stars were outraged, and the public backlash against the hackers was severe. Star of the Hunger Games movie franchise, Jennifer Lawrence, was particularly outspoken. She called the hacking a sexual assault and several other victims of the hack – who were mainly young, attractive women – joined her condemnation of everyone who posted and reposted the images.

In a long interview published in the October 2014 edition of Vanity Fair, Lawrence spoke of her anger and embarrassment, but she also stood up for her right to participate in the taking of the images and to share them with her partner:

The 24-year-old actress had not previously commented on the incident, but she spoke to [Vanity Fair journalist, Sam] Kashner at length about the anger she felt. “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” she says. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world.

Lawrence also lashed the celebrity gossip blogger, Perez Hilton, who had been one of the first to repost the stolen images of Lawrence and others. Lawrence told Vanity Fair:

He took it down because people got pissed, and that’s the only reason why. And then I had to watch his apology. And what he basically said was, ‘I just didn’t think about it.’ ‘I just didn’t think about it’ is not an excuse. That is the exact issue itself.

It was a scathing attack on Hilton who has made himself as famous and rich as the celebrities he targets on his website. Hilton had already apologised for putting up the hacked nude photographs, and he went further in an interview saying that he would not do it again and that he realised he’d made a terrible ethical mistake in originally republishing the photos. Perhaps Hilton was feeling so contrite because the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World newspaper in the UK was still so fresh in the public’s memory .

When asked what prompted his change of stance about publishing intimate celebrity photos, Hilton told website Digital Spy: “I look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn. I made a mistake and instead of not doing anything I decided not to post any photos of anybody like that going forward, which I haven’t.”

Perez also told Digital Spy that having a child of his own made him more conscious of how his behaviour might affect other people: “I’ve been trying to do better and be better for four years now. I’m not perfect, I’m not trying to be, but it’s a constant journey and a process.”

The dump of nude celebrity images, reportedly stolen from their iCloud accounts, was not the first incident of its kind, but the outcry seems to have been more effective this time in shutting it down. But it won’t perhaps prevent it from happening again.

In the age of television shows like Big Brother, The Bachelor and Dating Naked encouraging all of us to be voyeurs on the private moments of people subject to constant surveillance for our pleasure, it his not hard to believe that more hacks and more photo-dumps will occur.

At the end of the day the commercial success of “pervy” television means that while there’s a buck to be made from voyeuristic surveillance, others will try to cash in. Not only that, many of us consider celebrities fair game; they make their money from exposure and from selling themselves – via television, movies, music videos or their own self-promotion of “branded” material – so they shouldn’t be surprised when our interest in their private lives goes beyond what they might be contractually obliged to share with us.

This doesn’t make it ethically “OK” for us to download their hacked images for our own viewing pleasure, nor does it justify sleazy ex-partners or former friends from selling their “sex tape” escapades to pornographers – but it does explain why it still happens. Sex sells, and illicit sex sells for an even higher price. There will always be unscrupulous people willing to exploit weaknesses in human nature, or digital exploits on secure servers.

I find it hard not to agree with Jennifer Lawrence: hacking is like breaking into someone’s house to steal from them. When the images that are stolen are personal and private then it does become a sex crime, as Lawrence told Vanity Fair:

It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside.

Everybody’s doing it: What could go wrong?

It’s not only celebrities whose private images are stolen; it can happen to anyone. In early October 2014 it was widely reported that users of the mobile social app Snapchat had also been caught in a targeted hacking operation that meant potentially tens of thousands of people were going to see their private photos made public.

selfy screen grabThis event, in which perhaps close to 100,000 images were uploaded to a public server, has been dubbed the “Snappening”, a semantic cross-reference to the celebrity hack the “Fappening”. The issue here is that many of the stolen images were of young teenagers, many of them under 18 years old. This created the added danger that anyone sharing or accessing the images could be accused of transmitting or downloading child pornography – a very, very serious offence.

This is a curious story because the popular Snapchat app allows users to send images and short videos to each other, but the program deletes them after a short period of time. However, there are third-party apps that work with Snapchat to allow users to save files forwarded to them without the sender’s knowledge. According to news reports it was one of these apps, Snapsaved, that was actually hacked and where the images were leaked from.

It’s not entirely clear if the leaked images did or did not make it onto a public website but, if they were, they were quickly taken down. What we do know is that the notorious 4chan community was again involved, although some users claim that it, too, was hoaxed by the original scammers.

Snapchat is incredibly popular with young users – about 50% of its estimated 30 million users are aged 13–17. To protect its reputation, the company is aggressively attempting to have apps like Snapsave shut down.

A Snapchat spokeswoman told The Huffington Post: “We can confirm that Snapchat’s servers were never breached and were not the source of these leaks.

“Snapchatters were victimised by their use of third-party apps to send and receive Snaps, a practice that we expressly prohibit in our Terms of Use precisely because they compromise our users’ security,” the spokeswoman said.

However, it’s not always anonymous geeky hackers who breach our trust. A Sydney University student was recently disciplined for sharing images of a semi-naked female colleague with his friends. He had taken the picture during a consensual sexual encounter with the woman, but without her consent. The picture was then circulated among the man’s friends.

In the United States, 31 teenagers at a high school near Detroit are being investigated in a widespread “sexting” scandal. According to police investigating the case, the practice of teenagers sending and receiving nude or semi-nude images of each other is “widespread”.

Attorney Shannon Smith told the Detroit News: “This is happening everywhere, it’s over the top. I have been contacted by schools and parents elsewhere in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties who have found similar photos on their children’s cellphones and want to know what to do about it.”

Well, perhaps there’s a difference between consensual sexting and hacking someone’s phone or private server, but if images are being shared then they are probably circulating to a wider group than the original sender intended. Officials are also worried about people being put under pressure, even bullied, into participating.

Surely there’s got to be a lesson in this somewhere, but what is it? Well, it’s easy for me – a middle-aged academic who doesn’t use Snapchat or post nude selfies on iCloud – to say: “Don’t post nude selfies!” However, I realise that such advice sounds trite and that thousands, if not millions, of people ignore it every day. However, there is some point in being careful about your privacy in online and social media environments.

If someone does feel pressured into sexting then they should certainly be telling someone about it. Under any circumstances, “No!” must mean exactly that. Nobody should be bullied into doing anything they don’t want to do.

The famous whistleblower (of, if you’re the American government, the infamous traitor) Edward Snowden recently gave his version of my advice at a conference he was asked to speak at. According to Snowden, everyone who cares about their digital privacy should stay away from popular consumer internet services like Dropbox, Facebook and Google.

“Facebook and Google! OMG! That’s a disaster, right?” Yes, I know that’s what you’re all thinking, because I’m thinking it too. How can anyone live today without being on Facebook or using Dr Google to answer all our difficult questions?

Well, Snowden thinks we should all be using encryption tools and finding online and social media services that support encryption. You can also use anonymous routers to disguise your location from prying eyes on the web too. And don’t forget to delete your browser history whenever you’ve finished surfing the web.

Of course, encrypting phone messages, emails or Skype chats only works if the person you’re communicating with is also using the encryption service. Once a message is encrypted (i.e. scrambled so that nobody can read it) it has to be unscrambled at the other end. This is not yet an easy and everyday thing for us to do. It is complicated and can be expensive, but maybe it is what we all have to consider.

Maybe if Jennifer Lawrence and the other hacked celebrities had been using an encrypted cloud server nobody would have been able to access their files, or at least not been able to unscramble them to share with anyone else.

But if you’re sending sexy selfies to your beau, then encrypting them is going to take the “sexy” out for sure. The problem is perhaps that we have to trust other people in order to keep our secrets safe – and that isn’t always possible.

The best thing is to be careful, remember that privacy is your right and only you can consent to it being breached.

First published in Issues magazine, December 2014

Issues109


Big Data is the DNA of Big Brother

December 14, 2014

Big Data” has become a popular term in information technology and business circles, but what is it and what should we think about it?

“Big Data” is often talked about reverently and passionately by its exponents and its supporters. According to them, “big data” can solve a myriad of economic and social problems; it will mean a faster and more efficient digital economy that is responsive to the needs of both consumers and producers.

Industry will love “big data”, we are assured, because it will mean less waste, more targeted advertising, and a better “fit” between knowing what consumers want and the ability to stock retail shelves with the right goods. For service providers, “big data” means easier connections with those seeking their help and expertise.

In short, “big data” is wonderful, it will benefit all of us and there’s nothing to worry about.

If this sounds too good to be true, it’s probably because it’s more than likely we haven’t yet found the hidden fish hooks – the problems and worrying unanswered questions – that might cause us to think twice before jumping into the “cloud” with the “big data” enthusiasts.

So let’s start with a simple definition, an answer to what should be your first question: “What is ‘big data’?”

“Big Data” refers to the vastly expanding mountains of information that can today be gathered and stored on fast-running servers (supercomputers) and in the “cloud”. The “cloud” is another term that needs some discussion in this context because it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Cloud computing and “big data” go hand-in-hand. The “cloud” is a fancy name for off-site storage of data using a network of supercomputers. Several companies are now offering retail cloud services, including Google and Apple’s iCloud.

Big Data is the type of material that can be stored in the cloud and retrieved via the public Internet or over a secured point-to-point private system. Big Data is often associated with the “three Vs” of information architecture – volume, velocity and variety.

Volume is just that – the exponentially growing amount of information that we generate each day through online transactions, social media interactions, emails and files that we send and receive. This represents a business opportunity for some and, to others, a vast trove of secrets to be uncovered.

ibm-big-dataVelocity is about speed – the pace at which new data is created and exchanged in both structured and unstructured ways. Harnessing this speed is also a business opportunity. On the global money-trading market, for example, an advantage of just seconds can mean the difference between a profit and a loss on any one transaction.

Variety is also about complexity as data comes in many forms – some are innately useful (e.g. documents, plans, financial records) while others are less structured (e.g. our tweets and Facebook status updates, our online “likes” and Instagram snaps). However, being able to marry these things together is what “big data” is really all about.

If it is possible to know where I am, who I am connected to via social media, what I like to spend my money on and, more importantly, how much disposable income I have, then my data becomes a marketing goldmine. When all of this is connected to my GPS-enabled smartphone, and my every move can be monitored, I cannot escape the siren call of seductive advertising that is all about “me”. It’s personalised to my tastes and it is designed to empty my virtual wallet quicker than I can refill it at the end of a working week.

So at the heart of “big data” is another important definitional “V” word – “value”. No amount of data is worth more than the bytes it’s assembled from unless you can do something with it. And in terms understood implicitly in a capitalist economy, “doing” something with the mountains of data now stored in the “cloud” means monetising it.

Data is monetised when value can be added and subtracted. By turning data into a commodity it can be priced, bought and sold. In other words, somebody, somewhere will be making money from the data – mine, yours and everyone else’s.

At this point we lose control over our own data; we become the objective of big data and cloud computing, not its subjects. Our data belongs to someone else and what they do with it is entirely up to them.

Did you read the fine print before signing up to Facebook or that new cool app for your phone that allows you to locate the nearest new cool bar? No? I didn’t either, and most of us don’t.

In fact, those who control “big data” would prefer we didn’t read the T&Cs. That’s why they are usually a gazillion pages long in 6-point type, and all the nasty bits are buried so deep in that you’d need a team of lawyers and a million dollars to read and understand them. In short, what you are doing when you lazily click “Agree” is giving away all and any rights now and in perpetuity to the data that you are about to hand over to Faceless Corporation.com. What they then do with your data is none of your business, even though it is all about your business.

Everything that Faceless Corporation.com knows about you and every new bit of information that you share when you use their apps and visit their website is suddenly part of “big data” and it now has value.

When the insignificant tidbits you share on social media are all aggregated, sorted, mashed, crunched and scrunched, the analysts at Faceless Corporation.com know more about you than your grandmother, and perhaps even more than your GP.

This information can then be sliced, diced, interpreted and amplified by new incoming data. It is then packaged up by Faceless Corporation.com to be commodified and on-sold to someone else – let’s say Buy This Junk.com – who will then bombard your inbox or your Facebook or your Twitter feed with advertising for their own products and services. If you, for example, use Buy This Junk.com to order a new widget then within days, if not hours, if not minutes, you will see in your social media feeds advertisements for widget-holders, widget-cleaners, widget reseaters and all kinds of widget-related paraphernalia that you didn’t even know you needed.

But now, at least you know why this is happening: Faceless Corporation.com sold your data to Buy This Junk.com and they, in turn sold your data to the companies that service the wide world of widgets and widget fanciers. Of course this is an endless chain. If you were to buy some widget-cleaning goop from Widgets R’Us.com they will, in due course, also be packaging up data about you and your widget-keeping habits. The next thing you know… well, you get the picture.

My example might seem trivial, but the point I’m making is not. Big Data is about recording, storing, surveilling, quantifying and monetising every aspect of our lives beyond anything we might have imagined even a decade ago. There is literally no place to hide anymore, unless you go completely off the grid.

There is a carrot-and-stick effect associated with “big data” that makes going “off-grid” unattractive, if not almost impossible. If you don’t agree to the T&Cs you don’t get the benefit, the goods or the services. Now it is getting worse because we are moving in the direction of a “cashless society”; everything will be done from smart cards, smartphones or even (if the scientists are right) from implanted biometric chips that store our credit and our identities and that are always on and always scannable. If there is GPS tracking as well then, short of digging out the chip with a scalpel, we can never disappear.

This is the beginning of what I have described as the “surveillance economy” – a capitalist system in which the drive to encapsulate everything within “big data” is the engine driving economic growth and profitability. In a system prone to crisis – as global capitalism inevitably is – “big data” looks to some like a panacea, the golden goose and the fountain of economic youth. Unfortunately, I do not share this utopian view of the surveillance economy and if you can read Robert O’Harrow’s 2005 book No Place to Hide you will begin to understand why.

Control of “big data” is in the hands of global transnational corporations that operate to increase shareholder value, not for the benefit of the public interest. Big Data is being harnessed by these corporations in order to control economic activity now and into the future, and it is being done with the full knowledge, support and encouragement of governments around the world.

logentries-big-data

Perhaps I don’t need to spend much time on this aspect of “big data”. Here in Australia we are now familiar with the Federal government’s recent moves to increase the data surveillance powers of ASIO, ostensibly to keep us safe in a dangerous world filled with terrorist threats. However, perhaps we should be alert to, and alarmed about, new laws that appear to give security agents the ability to monitor the entire internet on the basis of one warrant and to keep information about their spying activities out of the public domain.

Critics of “big data” – in both its commercial and its government guises – argue that we will no longer have any real hope of personal privacy at the same time that secrecy surrounding the actions of corporations and government agencies is increasing. I agree with them.

It’s clear from the documents provided by the brave and vilified whistleblowers, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, that Australia is heavily involved in the so-called “Five Eyes” syndicate of Western powers who are also the leading nations prosecuting yet another war in the Middle East on the pretext of fighting global terrorism. This alliance is led by the US National Security Agency (NSA), which is the world’s leading financier of research into making the collection and storage of “big data” even more efficient.

In fact, there’s another book that you should read that can explain all of this in much more detail than I can in the space left to me here. The book is also called No Place to Hide by American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Edward Snowden on the release of the NSA’s files last year. What he discovered is quite shocking. The NSA works to the principle of “collect everything” and is in the process of making this slogan a reality. I worry about this and I think you should too.

The alternative to dropping off the grid is to stand up and take back control over your own data. It’s not going to be easy, but we have no choice.

There is no place to hide.

First published in Issues magazine, December 2014

Issues109


Back to the future? Red scare alarmism shakes the Murdoch empire over G20 shirtfront

November 13, 2014

What a strange bunch of headlines today on Murdoch’s Australian tabloid newspapers.

It’s almost as if the last 25 years never happened. In the week that the world is celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall — the most potent symbol of the end of the Cold War — Murdoch’s crazy liquid modern tabloid editors have raised the spectre of a ‘Red Scare’.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, but Murdoch’s minions apparently can and will.

The Russian boats are not even close to Australia’s territorial waters (see below), but the editors — juiced up on Rupert’s kool-aid — cannot resist a good old RED SCARE front page.

Without a moment’s hesitation the claxon sounds and it’s all hands on deck as the plucky crew of HMAS NutsandBolts rally ’round the flag to repel all boarders and STOP THE BOATS.

Yes, even that classic, elastic, all-purpose, sea-going three-word slogan gets another run and is put to good secondary dog-whistle use.

As if thing aren’t already bad enough in the #CityofFear as it locks down in anticipation of the visigoth horde of visiting G20 dignitaries, the good burghers of Brisbane will have to contend with most of the city’s CBD being closed to ordinary folk, lest they wander into the view of the snout-in-trough great and good.

And, as the CuriouS Mell has been reminding THE ENTIRE NATION for months, marauding anarchists are also sneaking into the country to wreak havoc on unsuspecting civilians and to wage jihad on 20,000 heavily armed police mobilised to instil THE RULE OF LAW into anyone stupid enough to think about protesting injustice, criminal tax fraud, the fleecing of the world’s poor to fund extravagant global orgies of greed (like the G20) or demanding serious action on climate change not the weak DIRECT ACTION proposed by TWO PUNCH TONY.

For months the CuriouS Mell has been warning of anarcho-terror threats to the #CityofFear

For months the CuriouS Mell has been warning of anarcho-terror threats to the #CityofFear

Today the CuriouS Mell has been reinforced by the other titles in Murdoch’s stable — THE HUN, THE AGONISER & THE DAILY TERROR — to remind us JUST HOW VULNERABLE Australia is to maritime attack by a ‘fleet’ of Russian naval vessels which is somewhere well away from us, but possibly heading into international waters ‘somewhere off Queensland’.

Even the NORMALLY RELIABLE Australian got in on the act. With a news story, an opinion piece by Abbott’s court jester and food-taster Greg Sheridan and an editorial. Talk about OPERATION OVERKILL, if that doesn’t have the Russian admirals quaking into their seaboots, nothing will.

OPERATION OVERKILL: meaningless graphics, Greg Sheridan and a tub-thumping editorial.

OPERATION OVERKILL: meaningless graphics, Greg Sheridan and a tub-thumping editorial.

 So is there a ‘sovereignty’ issue here?

Well the Russian ships are still over 200 nautical miles outside Australia’s extensive Exclusive Economic Zone — so at least 400 nautical miles away; it’s unlikely they’ll come much closer. If you were Bougainville, you might have reason to worry, but not us.

CALM THE FUCK DOWN! The fleet is not even close.

CALM THE FUCK DOWN! The fleet is not even close.

Territorial Seas

Territorial waters, or a territorial sea, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,[1] is a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state. The territorial sea is regarded as the sovereign territory of the state, although foreign ships (both military and civilian) are allowed innocent passage through it; this sovereignty also extends to the airspace over and seabed below. Adjustment of these boundaries is called, in international law, maritime delimitation.

The term “territorial waters” is also sometimes used informally to describe any area of water over which a state has jurisdiction, including internal waters, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and potentially the continental shelf.

(Yes, this is from Wikipedia)

So really, what’s the problem?

Well, if Russia wants to sail its ships into our region it is free to do so. It has full rights in all international waters and also the right of ‘innocent passage’ all the way into Australia’s territorial seas. This means they can come within 12 nautical miles of the mean low water mark.

That’s pretty close! But it is unlikely that the Russians will want to do that.

However, it would be very funny if they did. The Murdoch papers would go apeshit and they’d probably want to mount a DUNKIRK style flotilla. Maybe Rupert could lead them out in one of his superyachts. He could ram the Russian flagship and go down all guns blazing.

No doubt, Abbott would give him a state funeral and he might even get that knighthood that’s eluded him for sixty years.

Shirtfront! This is a shirtfront!

When our Prime Minister threatens to “shirtfront” the leader of another nation it should not be a surprise if that nation then decides to use its far superior naval power to return the gesture.

The alarmist headlines and Cold War rhetoric of the Murdoch papers is just stupid under the circumstances.

It is propaganda aimed at the readers of the Terrorgraph, the Hun, the CuriouS Mell and the Agonizer to keep them worried and alarmed.

It is the generation of what philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid fear’. Whipping up irrational scare tactics in order to hide the true purpose — social and political control of the population.

Given the MURDOCH EMPIRE’s great love of our own DEAR LEADER, it is natural that they would generate a moral panic involving imaginary SOVIET MILITARY HARDWARE and that they would use a ‘hammer and sickle’ motif to illustrate their RED SCARE stories, even though the old Soviet regime has been dead and buried for more than a quarter of a century.

The RED FLAG is way more frightening than the RED, WHITE & BLUE of the Russian Federation and it has the added advantage of associating the approaching Russian fleet with communism and THE LEFT, which is, as we know so well, the real enemy of the NEWSCORPSE mercenaries.

There really is only one response…ridicule


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