The unbearable lightness of being… Snowden

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Sep 302014
 

I read the news today (well, on the weekend, actually), oh boy. It seems that the Internet is coming under attack in the East. It made me wonder about the poster child for Internet utopianism: Mr. Snowden, in his lavish or maybe squalid Moscow apartment.

China has, of course, been a strong “administrator” of Chinese Internet for a long time now. Everyone there and here expects the regime to nose in on and strong arm service providers, search engines, portals, and users in their age-old quest to control everything about that society. But we all had such high hopes for Russia after the fall of the Wall in ’89. Democracy and capitalism would roll through the former Soviet Union like Siberia-bound train. It seemed to start pretty well, and then members of the billionaire oligarchy ended up in jail, their assets nationalized. Punk rock girls went to jail. People disappeared. The president, despite following constitutional rules slowly and steadily became an imperial government of one. Flash forward and the old bear is annexing Ukrainian sovereign territory and fomenting insurrection with some soldiers that they lent to (or “allowed” to go fight with) rebels in eastern Ukraine.

During this period, as everyone knows, Edward Velcro-hands absconded with classified secrets of the US and other governments, secured while he was a trusted contractor to the National Security Agency. Instantaneously, in the heady days of Wikileaks and Julian Assange’s 15-minutes of fame, Snowden became a hero to patriotic freedom lovers the world over, not least within the civil rights and other such communities in the US. So roundly loved and lauded was he, that he immediately fled the country first for Hong Kong and then for the loving embrace of Mother Russia. This, of course, so that he would not be tried as a thief and traitor.

The secrets about “Five Eyes” and US/other government surveillance of its own citizens showed clearly that the Western governments about whom he had discomforting information to reveal were not doing very good things–to their own citizens. To make a long story short, the whole episode and Snowden himself always speaking from Russia via video catalyzed and crystalized popular awareness of the dangers of the Internet. That is, it revealed that the Internet is not a utopian garden where there is peace, love, and understanding (except for the Nigerian scammers…), somehow removed from the rest of the world. It also showed that governments were bringing the rest of the world–all that bad stuff–to this electronic Eden.

What was revealed but did not obviously trouble those who were troubled by the trouble that Snowden found himself in was, in fact, that the world is a nasty place. The kind of ugliness that we see on television drama and in movies actually happens someplace in the murkiness of the shadows and behind closed doors. Moreover, it happens because while civil rights and protection from government encroachment on one’s privacy, to pick a popular theme in this situation, is important, national security might trump it. That is, its a judgment call: your privacy or your safety? It is arguable that we elect our governments to fall on the side of our safety when things get rough. But that is not the point here.

What Western governments were exposed as doing was in and of itself bad. But what Snowden exposed was tactical information that eliminated any kind of advantage in a bigger forum–like international affairs. In any case, the point is that although he is a wanted man, he is alive. He propagated navel gazing and pontificating about these subjects to the point that one has to wonder whether the safety issue has been sufficiently, artificially, and probably disastrously poisoned. But that’s enough back story and evangelizing.

Why I thought about Snowden this weekend is because of the laws that Tsar Putin is intending to have enacted. Specifically, Putin intends to extend the state’s right to control the Internet in Russia. The details can be found elsewhere, but the broad strokes are that any individual with a blog read by more than 2000 people will be considered a media outlet and subject to the laws governing media organizations. Portals, search engines, and other service providers online must operate specifically off of servers located in Russia which would be firewalled at the Russian border AND fully subject to the state having unfettered access to all logs and records. There’s more.

About Edward Zhivago, I wonder if he’s at all disheartened by this turn of events? It’s not like he can complain much about it. Perhaps he’s morally OK with the situation because the Russian snooping and surveillance would follow the rule of law, such as it is? Let’s admire the fact that Putin has no intent of spying on his people from the shadows: he’s fully up front about it. In any case, I prophesy that if he is as smart as alleged, he won’t be making any video appearances at SXSW castigating this unfortunately imposition on the privacy, rights, and freedoms of Russian Internet users. Or, if we do, it will only happen once.

I use “F-Words”

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Sep 122014
 

I use “f-words” in mixed company. Well-bred professional, management, and executive types recoil in disgust. One might think that they would be inured to f-words. But they seem to hold themselves above all that.

Of course, the most troubling f-word is not the one on the tip of your tongue now. This one sounds “eff” but starts “ph.” Try saying philosophy in the company of busy career people; just be prepared for rolled eyes and that piteous expression that says you just don’t get it.

Those blank faces better “get it” soon themselves. Our privacy and maybe even democracy could depend on it. After all, not every tectonic shift is as blatant as the revelations of Edward Snowdon or as arrogantly, publicly contemptuous as the Fair Elections Act. Pay attention to the every day stuff!

Today’s transactional immediacy of business and government work is not an historical novelty. There was no time when these practical people were more inclined to think deeply about what they were doing. What may be different now is the measure of disdain for anyone who challenges business or government plans and actions more deeply than what the pervasive “value proposition” pap answers.

If we refrain from contemplations of epistemology and such, and stick to ethics and the sunnier(!) side of existential questions, philosophy is about purpose. That has to be clarifying for professionals, and is about as close as most organizations get to schwerpunkt (a typically consonant-ridden German word that means concentration point or main effort).

When I say philosophy in this company, I often mean, “What do you believe?” Not as in, “We believe the world wants a device that will allow them to…” That’s actually, “We think…” Rather, as in, “We believe that people need to remain connected to other people; we believe our purpose is to provide devices that…” Despite reading and abiding by directives such as Start With Why (Sinek, 2011), this kind of descent to expose the core assumptions of “Why” is one nobody really wants to take.

So why is that kind of philosophical pondering held in such disregard?

First, it’s hard. It requires rigorous thought, due consideration, and alternative points of view. None of which is acceptable in an environment of HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) rules or unconsidered braying of partisan vitriol.

Second, it’s still hard. It demands a sense of right and wrong. That then presumes you might stand for something, ideally something that can be argued rationally from some principles. Rampant specialization and narrow awareness does not lend itself to this capacity.

Third, it’s unnecessary. After all, whether its Mill, Burke, Rousseau, or Jefferson, there are philosophies a plenty to choose from and no need to waste time on such things now.

Fourth, well… it’s hard. Given the preference for action—any action!—to indicate ability, quality, and value, taking time to muse over that action gets indicted as regressive to say the least.

It’s true that some fundamental underpinnings of philosophy are timeless—give or take a millennium, otherwise we wouldn’t still look to Plato. But other philosophy is more set in a time and place—give or take a millennium or continent, so it needs to be refreshed from time to time.

Given the rate society is evolving in technology’s wake, we need to take a little time to continually consider whether our core values remain operative in practice. At the very least, we should give a modicum of respect and an ear to those who do it professionally, casually, or within the confines of their daily toil.

The problem with not thinking about these things and, worse, discouraging those who will, is that these things are affected by rapid innovation and change anyway.

The seemingly outrageous privacy invasions by governments is not the product of a sea change in method. It was a steady dripping of unconsidered change that allowed the method to metastasize into what it’s become: something odious. And, it all took root in so many innocuous “consumer benefits.”

The outrageous bill that is to be the Unfair Elections Act (2014) is only possible because over time we have largely become so blasé about hyper-partisan drivel and the corruption of governance by politics that many people see nothing especially egregious about the bill’s content. And so it now threatens a foundation of our society. That represents six years’ effort on the part of Canada’s New Government.

So let’s all throw around the f-word until it’s so common that everyone does it. We’ll all be better for it.

Nutbars and Islamism

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Aug 272014
 

Telos is a Greek word that means “end,” as in the goal or finish. Telos is a fundamental element of practically everything. Think about what you do. There is a good chance that everything you put your energy toward: your art, your business, your studies, your… has a goal toward which you direct intent. Organizations exist with a typically explicit though sometime implicit Telos as well. Religion is the very best example of organizations that have multiple Telos–at different levels.

This little essay is an exposition of how Telos drives religions. It may also be seen as a vehicle for me to call out and question the abundant craziness existing under the flag of Islam. It would be a shame for anyone to view it and me this way because, to be perfectly clear, all Religions tend toward sociopathic war footing from time to time–except maybe Buddism. It’s just the nature of the beast. Still, one has to wonder what combination of theology, Religious life-cycle state, sociology, and economic realities lends itself to the sinister genocidal themes and thrusts of so many jihadis at this time.

Here I insert the obligatory acknowledgement that I do not for a minute believe that all Muslims–or even the generality of Muslims–are disturbed or homocidal. But I have to wonder why Islam seems to claim so many of that type of demagogue? Does it provide convenient cover? Does it provide succor? Is it accidental?  Is it, in fact, only a statistical anomaly (i.e., it’s not happening any more within that cluster than any other; we’re just noticing it for some reason)?In any case, back to Telos.

Religions have Telos in their stories. The stories that form the theology of any given religion are imbued with direction and objective that the religion stands behind. As a (wayward) Christian, I can assure you that the Telos of the Old and New Testaments is Divine Providence. The whole point of the books is to arrive at God’s will. But that is merely the theological Telos; the current and end beneath the theology. It binds the religion as a belief system.

But religion is also Religion: the very human organization that delivers the theos to the masses. Religion has a Telos as well, and it is not always the same–nay it is almost never the same–as the Telos of the religion. The organization has different intents than its stories purport.

Let’s get something out of the way here: Religions go through a life-cycle and they are all acquisitive. A religion/Religion always starts out as an idea of some individual who is at the time outcast, unusual, definitely profane, and probably nuts. This has to be so by virtue of the fact that unless the indivdual was breaking from the prevailing religion, a new religion is not going to be created. Thus profane in term of the status quo. Unusual because (s)he is not doing what everyone else is doing viz. religion and that often happens because (s)he has been outcast (ostracised) from the group in some way or another. People who are nuts regularly end up in this situation.

This individual’s idea takes hold with some acolytes that take the idea and run with it. At this stage the nascent religion is a cult. Cults that do not die in their youth, become mainstream religions to greater or lesser degree. Consider Christianity. It was a Nazerine cult that blossomed following several events not the least of which was a crucifixion, ascention, and the deathbed conversion of the Emperor Constantine about 240 years later. The last event was the prime trigger to turn Christianity into the mainstream religion. Sects branched off the main trunk of this idea over time including Orthodoxy v. Catholicism, Protestantism, and a host of various fundamentalist formulations.

Religions can effectively die too, as have so many in the past. You don’t find many that follow the polytheims of Ancient Greek or Rome. I have met a Zoroastrian recently, but it’s hard to find Toltecs practicing their religions and so forth. But Religions moreso than religions want to live. And to live, their lifeblood is followers. So Religions are acquisitive.

Ideally people are won over by the inherent perfection of the theology. More typically they are swayed by an evangelist of some sort and peer pressure to join. Then, of course, every religion has at one time or another used more than moral suasion to recruit: forced conversion under pain of death, extorted conversion under pain of death, elimination of the heathen… under pain of death. All of these tactics are used under the auspices and in concert with some, occasionally perverse reading of the religion’s stories.

The read of the stories has to be perverted because rare is the religion that is not both aggressive and gentle. These religions are guides to social structure and how to live; often, as I’ve heard, expansions and elaborations on the Golden Rule. So turn any religion into a basis of war or pretext for mass murder is obviously perverse. By no stretch of the imagination can I come up with a scenario that squares, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” with “Kill the infidel.”

This brings me around to Islam and, more especially, its various perversions most recently in the form of Islamic State. But this co-opting of the religion for the purpose of demagoguery is neither new nor, it’s safe to say, unusual. So it begs the question: why? Christianity, another of the three major world religions, is not that much older, by which I mean to say, it’s not as though Islam is going to a phase or growing pains.

Yet there is something in Islam that seems to lend itself to being perverted in a particular fashion. A warlike, world-dominating fashion. Although I’ve read an English translation of Al Qu’aran (because you can’t really read It except in Arabic), I don’t really recall the prophetic calls to action that spur on the 20th and 21st-century Saladins.

So I get quickly led to the perversion of the religion in the service of… power. This is not a big leap because the perversion of religion for power is as common as ants. The Borgias made a family dynasty of it. Or, consider The Church of England.

Is that really all there is to it? The PLO, Taliban, Hamas, Islamic State, you name it: it’s all about power. But that power aspiration doesn’t end like the Ayatollahs’ conquest of Iran, within national borders. These others are far more ambitious. (I didn’t invoke the Caliph Saladin’s name for no reason, you know.) And they have the tools to make good on their desires. Or, if not then at the very least to cause plenty of disruption and grief for everyone else.

The sooner we ALL realize that these nutbars are not religious; they don’t care a whit about their religion except to the extent that it can advance their aims by rallying the dull-witted to their cause, the sooner we’ll change our tack on dealing with the problem. They are not legitimate, their aims are illegitimate, their Telos is death; and this must be shone upon by the cold light of day.