Thursday, April 12, 2018

The one regulation that would free us all from Facebook

After Mark Zuckerberg's disappointingly deferential Senate hearing on Tuesday, the more strident and focused hearing in the House yesterday suggests that something like a bipartisan consensus is developing that Facebook should be regulated.

It may not be clear yet on what terms, or by what department, or as what kind of entity; but a definite sense transpired that Facebook and other companies like it (if indeed there are any other companies like it) cannot be trusted to manage its own responsibilities to us, its users.

What kind of regulations does Facebook need?

Yes, we can subject the company to external audits of its management of personal information. We can apply the regulations already in place for media companies and financial institutions and any of the many other pies Facebook has its fingers in. We can impose Zeynep Tufekci's proposed restrictions on data harvesting.

Probably we should do all those things.

But the real root of the issue, the reason why Facebook's business model is a national concern, is power.

Imagine that half the customers of an international enterprise think it's incompetent at the primary thing that company does to make money. It sounds ridiculous. Surely those customers would go find someone else to work with.

What could possibly keep them from doing that?

Why is it that literally half the people who use social media websites don't trust them to protect their data? How can that be? Why don't they "vote with their feet" and delete their accounts?

We know the answer. Ask any two Facebook users why they are on the platform, and one of them will tell you that it is only because it's "the only way they can keep in touch" with others on the platform.

And that's the power Facebook has over you. That's how they can keep you logging in even though you know damn well how reckless and manipulative (dare I say evil) they are.

They've got the family announcements, the party invitations, the baby photos, and the critical health updates on your sick grandmother, and they're not going to show you any of those unless you log in.

The whole issue of how to regulate Facebook would become much simpler if the half of Facebook's users who hate it could leave without losing access to to those updates.

And there's a fairly straightforward way to do that: require Facebook (and other social media services) to support remote following.

Which is what exactly?

What the hell is remote following, you ask? (Assuming it's not Facebook's new drone surveillance program.)

As countless explainers of decentralized social media have done before me, I will describe remote following in terms of an analogy to email.

What do you use for email? Yahoo? Gmail? Your own server?

Do you find it surprising that you can send emails to other people who use email, even though they're on different email platforms? Of course not. An email platform that didn't allow you to reach anyone with an email address on any other platform would be completely unacceptable.

There's no technological reason that social media services can't operate in exactly the same way. When you post on Facebook for all your followers to see, there's no reason why people whom you have allowed to follow you from other platforms shouldn't be able to see it too, whether they're on Twitter or The Wandering Shop or Kitty.Town.

If Facebook supported remote following, then a user on Friendica would be able to send you a follow request at say

Or if Twitter supported it, you as a Facebook user could request to follow

Or as an user, I could connect with your Google+ profile that you forgot you had by following

I Am Not Making This Up

This may all sound completely fanciful, but as a matter of fact, all of the social media sites linked above already do it! Users on any of these sites (as well as hundreds of others) can follow and share with users on the others (or opt not to share with those users).

That's remote following, and it's the only thing I want from Facebook.

Of course they'll never do that voluntarily. They profit immensely from the fact that people who don't in the least bit want to use Facebook nevertheless have to use it.

The only thing that makes Facebook special is that everyone you care about is on it. If you didn't have to be on Zuckerface to see updates from your friends and family, their iron grip on our online social infrastructure would break.

Suddenly the platform would become a commodity instead of a closed and centralized network. Suddenly we would no longer have to choose between protecting our privacy and interacting online with people we care about. Suddenly we would all be free from Facebook.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Make America All Right Again

This is a message to my friends, especially to pro-life Catholics, who voted for Trump.

First of all, we're still friends. I know that you're not ignorant, racist, misogynist fools, even though in my view you voted for one. I know you voted for him despite his faults, not because of them, with tears in your eyes, aghast that the future you've prayed so long for has come at this cost. And I sincerely hope that you get whatever goods you hoped for from this election, and that they are real and lasting goods.

But now is the time for you to own the secondary effects of your choice. You've held your nose at these festering facts, or simply denied them. I beg you to acknowledge now that electing Donald Trump will have many evil effects that you did not intend in voting for him. I beg you to pledge now to do all you can for the next four years to mitigate these effects.

First, there's a reason that the KKK officially endorsed Donald Trump and are celebrating. You're not a racist, but your ballot doesn't know that, the numbers don't show it, and white supremacists everywhere believe that your vote meant one thing: that this nation belongs to white Christians and everyone else can step aside. They will be emboldened, because they know now that in America, you don't have to suppress your hatred anymore. People of color are going to suffer, and though you didn't mean it, you did this to them. Please work actively to improve their lot. It's not enough for you "not to see race." You need to see it now. You need to assess with disciplined honesty the realities of racial injustice, and work in your own spheres of influence and in local elections to amend them. Call your representatives and demand that they make race issues a priority. You don't want this to be David Duke's country. Don't let him have it.

Second, it's not debatable whether Trump objectifies women. It's practically his brand. There is no way that his deep-seated disrespect for women will not manifest in his activities as a public servant. And the very fact of his presidency will not have a regressive impact on our culture. You're not a misogynist, but your ballot doesn't know that, the numbers don't show it, and misogynists everywhere believe that your vote meant one thing: that objectifying women is fine; they can say what they want about women; they can do what they want. Women are going to suffer, and though you didn't mean it, you did this to them. Please speak out against misogyny and rape culture, whether it marches proudly in the light of day or winks and signals and acts polite. Wherever you can, wherever you have an influence, make room for women.

Third, Muslims in America are rightly terrified about their future. America has elected a man who has called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, frequently employed inflammatory rhetoric against Islam (often not even bothering to hedge with the usual "radical" tag), and blamed Muslims for our country's failures in preventing terrorist actions. (To be fair, at the last debate, Clinton subsequently took the mic and did the same.) Even if he never implements any of these policies, his election will likely stoke an increase in violence and harassment against Muslims in America (just as the success of Brexit did in Britain.) You don't think "Islam hates us," but your ballot doesn't know that, the numbers don't show it, and Islamophobes everywhere believe your vote means one thing: Muslims don't belong here. Muslims are going to suffer, and though you didn't mean it, you did this to them. Please, work to spread understanding and quell ungrounded fear about Islam. Watch for and report anti-Muslim discrimination. Develop a sensitivity to Islamophobic language and tropes and call them out in media and in your social life.

(As a side note, here's something you can do if you are witnessing an act of harassment. The case described is Islamophobic harassment but the technique can apply as well to any case.)

Fourth, I'm sure everyone knows how much Trump's newfound enthusiasm for the rights of LGBTQ people is worth. It's a transparent extension of his antipathy to Islam. "I'll protect you from those bad Muslims" is his whole promise to them. He will do nothing for them when there is still so much more that has to be done. And his running mate openly regards homosexuality as a mental disorder. You have nothing but love for the LGBTQ community, but your ballot doesn't know that, the numbers don't show it, and actual homophobes everywhere believe your vote means one thing: queerness is criminal. LGBTQ people are going to suffer, and though you didn't mean it, you did this to them. Please, listen to the fears of your friends, family, and loved ones and fight to defend them.

Finally, there are all the matters of policy on which Donald Trump is inclined to blunder. Contact your representatives and urge them to pressure the president-elect on the many issues on which his policies are so flawed: police reform, stewardship of the environment, and immigration, to name the few that loom largest in my mind. You have less power on these issues than on the cultural concerns, but your voice matters.

If all of this sounds very "PC" to you, remember that the new political correctness in America is to sweep all these concerns under the rug and pretend they don't matter. Be better than the hateful culture you're unlucky enough to be stewing in. Please, you can't be indifferent to the evils that the Trump presidency, the one you chose, will cause. We need your help now to make America all right again.

Edited 2016-11-09 @ 8:04PM: the original version of this article neglected to address the effects of Trump/Pence on the LGBTQ community.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Footholds and Reconfigurations

This post is part of a series I started on tumblr. I plan to
continue here. I'm just summarizing and commenting on
parts of Lonergan's Insight as I read them.
Insight does not necessarily lay an absolute, permanent foundation for science. Sometimes it just creates a pedagogical foothold for reaching a more adequate or developed insight. Lonergan uses the example of gaining insight into a system of algebra starting from the position of elementary arithmetic, to show that an insight may be provisional.
  1. An insight makes possible the infinite extension of a set or series, such as a table symbolically indicating the definition of integers or a series of "plus ones."
  2. Adding the postulate that "when equals are added to equals, the results are equal" grounds the deduction of the whole infinite set of addition tables.
  3. A "homogeneous expansion" is an insight into a nominal definition, treating that definition as a primitive term, without requiring any further development of that term. Thus, subtraction and other operations can be defined in terms of addition tables grounded in the definition of positive integers.
  4. The inverse operations (subtraction, division, and roots) discovered in the homogeneous expansion for a reinterpretation of number and arithmetic operations when the series is extended back beyond its origin.
  5. Numbers are reinterpreted as the results of any operation, according to a new, more comprehensive set of rules. The new rules, operations, and numbers "tumble out together" in response to the pressure placed on the definition of positive integers.
  6. Although the arithmetic with integer addition at its center proves inadequate, in the order of learning it remains primary, because it is indispensable to the insight into the more comprehensive mathematics. It serves as a "virtual image" with the same role as the wheel plays in the definition of a circle.
  7. A well-developed symbolism is not only convenient for practical purposes, but also serves as an image, providing the clues for the next stage of development.
My metaphor of footholds is wrong, because it implies that the previous insight is simply left behind, when really it's more reconfigured and reincorporated into a better framework of understanding.

The idea of a "virtual image" might help a bit with the question I had, or thought I might have. Is it any different from an analogy, though? And if so, is analogy really an adequate interpretation of image? I don't think it is.

Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight (New York: Harper & Row: 1978), 13-19

Image: "Reconfiguration" by flickr user Ash Kyd, used under CC BY 2.0

Monday, October 27, 2014

Alt Lit is Dead but I Still Have to Read It

Well, it took me three years even to find out that "Alt Lit" was a thing. Now it is not a thing anymore, and it sounds like I saved myself a lot of time and trouble by not knowing about it sooner. Two major figures in the movement have recently been outed as psychologically and sexually abusers, manifesting a misogyny and moral irresponsibility that was expressed already in the social structure and content of alt lit.

I've read zero alt lit (unless you count Twitter). But if its principles are myopic and juvenile, I'd be justified in rejecting it outright. And Miles Klee is right in saying that alt lit "prides itself on a deadpan hyper-transparency, a blurring of fiction and bracing fact meant to signal a self-awareness that’s typically in frightfully short supply," then I do reject the movement. Unfortunately, this very rejection probably means that I need to read this movement closely, as a case study in the fallacy of post-irony (in brief, the delusion and social nihilism inherent in any attempt to "live without irony").

From Miles Klee's report:
Even before E.R. “lashed out” at Lin, readers had flagged paternally sexist trends in his and affiliated writers’ work—which might not be so disturbing were it not for their tendency to present it as entirely sincere and unfiltered. Just last month, in Luna Luna Magazine, Diana Dragonetti took Lin to task for “male projection” in Richard Yates and the way he fetishizes the power that his protagonist has over his young companion, “both in [the] sense of his adulthood and in his control of the narrative.” He also notes that the novel “acknowledges the impossibility of consent” in the relationship, with Kennedy’s character remarking, “You raped me like ten times,” and Lin’s researching the age of consent in New York: 17.

Dragonetti criticizes Roggenbuck, too, for his “‘sad girl’ misogyny,” and laments the sentimentalization of rape culture undertaken—in fiction and conceptual HTMLGiant blog posts alike—by Steven Trull, alias Janey Smith. What complicates these readings further is that the straight males of the alt lit community are educated and theoretically liberal, well-versed in the language of gender equality but able to throw semantic smoke bombs or cry “artistic license” when confronted for their objectifying language—this despite their reputation as the post-irony set. Yet, as Emily Swanson writes on HTMLGiant, Gawker is off the mark to blame Dierks’ behavior on alt lit’s supposed “boys’ club” mentality: Women—including Mira Gonzalez, Gabby Bess, and Melissa Broder—have done more than their share to define and carry the movement. Meanwhile, Dierks can’t truly be said to have occupied a place of special importance or influence within it; many of his prolific and chronically underpaid peers enjoy equal stature.
More at The Daily Dot

Friday, October 17, 2014

Whose Deadline is it Anyway?

It follows almost tautologically from the preeminence of a two-party system that practically everyone in the country will feel that everything worthy and good is constantly being threatened by a large, evil political group with a scary amount of power (or by two of them if you happen to be independent).

What can you do? You study power, trying to understand how people who are so obviously wrong can have so much influence. You learn how their power works, so you can get inside it and take it apart. Not surprisingly, it turns out to have nothing to do with rational, disciplined inquiry and debate. So to fight back, you've got to play their game. You can't reason away a massive political faction. So what can you do?

Dan Przygoda's new short film Deadline takes on this overwhelming political dynamic in the cinematic language of suspense thrillers. Quick cuts and nervous zooming and panning (a la 24) charge the everyday scenario of a political talk show with an air of suspense. We discover that a power struggle deeper than the conventional guest vs. host dynamic is playing out under the surface.

Caveat: if you tend to favor conservative positions (even if you don't identify yourself as a Republican), the first half of this film may come across as rather tendentious. It did to me. I think it's a weakness of the film that Przygoda has given his own politics a more earnest voice without giving them better arguments. (I would think that, wouldn't I?) But one has to admit that the conservative talk show host is barely even a caricature of O'Reilly or Hannity, and it's worth seeing how the development of the character of the guest casts his political remarks in an ironic light.

I'm discussing details of the plot below, so if you want to watch the movie before you read on, you can do so for free at (I don't normally do "spoiler warnings," but part of the fun of this film is the way it exploits the toolbox of suspense dramas, so I'll keep it suspenseful!)

The obvious reason for the title Deadline is that it's about an ultimatum, a decision that talk show host Ted Warner (Robert Newman) has to make by the end of the program: renounce his career, or let his wife and son die. But he's not the only one making a decision under pressure. Despite the expression of firm resolve that James McCartney (James Arden) wears from the opening scene, he seems at times not to have made up his mind that his cold, desperate scheme is the only way. He seems to think that he can actually reason with Warner. Maybe he will not need to follow through on his plan. Maybe he really can just talk, vote, and hope. He speaks as though he isn't just talking to a character on a TV program, not a person who can listen and be persuaded.

At the same time, his reference to bombing abortion clinics exposes the moral incoherence of his own strategy: he's considering crossing the same kind of line between politics and war (even if he pretends that his hands are clean because he is terrorizing without shedding any blood). So Ted Warner isn't listening to James, and he is not even listening to himself. And the segment is ending, and of course nothing is really happening, and James senses that it's time to play his hand or lose the game.

Maybe Deadline is an analogy for the way our public ethical and social conversations are vexed by the demands of the election cycle. If the most important thing is winning the next battle against the other side, we'll start to act like it's a war: if not by setting off bombs and issuing death threats, then by shutting down the pathways of good faith that make actual conversation and even conversion possible.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Refrain

I am in general in favor of repeating myself, and it seems to me that as a blogger I have a special license to do so. So although I have said it before, this will not prevent me from remarking again here that echo says the impossible. But let me also go a little further and say that the marvelous phenomenon of refrain depends on that same impossible saying. Take the lyrics of this Mountain Goats song:

And I sang "Oh, what do I do? What do I do? What do I do? What do I do without you?"
Needless to say, this refrain is already calculated to make a repetition-lover like me smile. But is it also needless to say that this is not yet a refrain? It is "only" repetition. Only the empty rhetorical words of a broken man for whom nothing is possible, wandering in speech through his own indifferent thoughts just as he "wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall." And please don't let the force of that image go to waste! For a little boy with his mother the mall may be a place of wonder (even there, perhaps, the gods are present!), with something new to astonish him at every turn--but with his mother's disappearance, there disappear also all the various and surprising invitations of the place and all that is left is the space between him and his mother, which threatens to be infinite--nothing appears to this child but that his mother is not there, nor there, nor there again, as with each step she--all he could hope to find--does not appear.

"What do I do?" An expression of the impossibility of doing anything. If a man reaches out to speak, or rather to sing, in the midst of the impossibility of doing anything at all, this expression threatens to become all he has and to repeat itself infinitely in all his song. Song itself, the wondrously various and surprising highway of the soul, becomes an exercise in futility.

But if this man sings these words so often that they lose their meaning, he might recognize that they had all along the peculiarity of not meaning what they mean: "What do I do?" A question. How am I to proceed? But the words meant precisely that this question could not be asked, because no answer could be expected, and there is no such thing as a question which expects no answer. A question, to be a question, has to "[get] ready for the future to arrive." If it does not have this readiness it asks for nothing and is only bitter rhetoric. And in our song this readiness which the singer has is why his repetition of the refrain is emphatically not only a repetition, but a discovery. Suddenly the very words of hopelessness have joined the world in coming alive.

And let me say also this: in order for all of this to be true, the refrain must have already had this life in the first place in order to come alive. If in its first entrance the same saying which concludes the song on an expectant note does not bear itself toward the future with expectancy, it must for that very reason be said that it does bear itself in this way toward its transformation in the end. Waiting: holding back. If the song is a composition, something to be performed more or less according to prescription, then the sense of expectancy is withheld deliberately and knowingly from the first entrance of the refrain, in expectation of the second. The first waits for the second. And only because it does so, because it refrains and holds something back can the second come as a surprise.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dante's Restrained Ambition (Purgatorio, Canto XIX)

In the hour before dawn when dreams are most prophetic, as he departs from the realm in which a deficiency of love is corrected, on the threshold of those higher realms that correct an excess of love, Dante dreams of the siren, a deceptive creature who would turn him aside from his journey:
  A stammering woman came to me in dream:
her eyes askew, and crooked on her feet,
her hands were crippled, her complexion sallow.
  I looked at her; and just as sun revives
cold limbs that night made numb, so did my gaze
loosen her tongue and then, in little time,
  set her contorted limbs in perfect order;
and, with the coloring that love prefers,
my eyes transformed the wanness of her features.
  And when her speech had been set free, then she
began to sing so, that it would have been
most difficult for me to turn aside.
  "I am," she sang, "I am the pleasing siren,
who in midsea leads mariners astray—
there is so much delight in hearing me.
  I turned aside Ulysses, although he
had longed to journey; who grows used to me
seldom departs--I satisfy him so."
  Her lips were not yet done when, there beside me,
a woman showed herself, alert and saintly,
to cast the siren into much confusion.
  "O Virgil, Virgil, tell me: who is this?"
she asked most scornfully; and he came forward,
his eyes intent upon that honest one.
  He seized the other, baring her in front,
tearing her clothes, and showing me her belly;
the stench that came from there awakened me.
  --Purgatorio, IX.7-33 (tr. Allen Mandelbaum)
The siren may seem to represent sexual temptation, perhaps as a synecdoche for the whole class of sins of excessive love. However, Dante's characteristic sin is pride, and his error in the dream is one of pride, not desire at all: he fondly imagines that his gaze corrects the defects of her body. His imaginative eye has the power to "loosen her tongue… set her contorted limbs in perfect order… and [transform] the wanness of her features." Like all great poets, Dante seems to himself to be the source of redemption, his inspiration a saving vision of a deformed world.

Disabused of this unspoken self-interpretation, he is stricken to the heart; he now trudges on "bearing my brow like one whose thoughts have weighed him down, who bends as if he were the semiarch that forms a bridge." A bridge may seem rather a grand structure, but is invoked here to describe the posture of shame. A semiarch aims upward, but trains its ambition to reach across, making itself serviceable rather than aspiring higher. This self-humbling form is essential to its function, and in the same way Dante's castigations of his own pride are essential to the poem.

Herein lies the central thematic paradox of the whole Divine Comedy: Dante must learn and practice humility, even as he takes on a grand mission that places him analogically in the position of creator, judge, and redeemer. Only by living this paradox can Dante appreciate the mystery of his final vision, the incommensurable achievement of the Incarnation:

  so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it—
  --Paradiso, XXXIII.136-138