Dec
17

The Silk Roads

In a random bookshop in Kathmandu I came across "The Silk Roads: A New History of the World" (2015) by Peter Frankopan. Having taught Global Political Economy in the past and gone through a number of textbooks (which are largely centered on the Euro-West and its perspectives on global matters) I was hoping this book might be a new look at history. For several chapters, the book takes a thematic approach (flow of theological ideas, flow of commodities) and others are issue based (revolution, war, colonization). While there might be relatively more focus on Central Asia and Asia compared to other renderings of world history, it is not immediately clear what is new per se. The Americas and Africa largely remain without a history, unless in the context of conquest or colonization, following the tradition of Hobbes. This is a mass market book (Bloomsbury), but includes 100 pages of notes (book is 636 pages). For a specialist of a region or issue or commodity, the book contains some errors or over simplifications and could be frustrating; for a generalist interested in an introduction to world history, this could be a useful book. A few notes:

"The willingness to adopt new ideas and practices was an important factor in enabling the Persians to build an administrative system that allowed the smooth running of an empire which incorporated many different peoples. A highly educated bureaucracy oversaw the efficient administration of the day-to-day life of the empire, recording everything from payments made to workers serving the royal household, to validating the quality and quantity of goods bought and sold in market places; they also took charge of the maintenance and repair of a road system criss-crossing the empire..." (p. 1-2)

"The Islamic conquests created a new world order, an economic giant, bolstered by self-confidence, broad-mindedness and a passionate zeal for progress. Immensely wealthy and with few natural political or even religious rivals, it was a place where order prevailed, where merchants could become rich, where intellectuals were respected and where disparate views could be discussed and debated." (p. 101)

"By the early fourteenth century, Timbuktu in particular was not just an important commercial centre but a hub for scholars, musicians, artists and students who gathered around the Sankoré, Djinguereber and Sīdī Yahyā mosques, beacons of intellectual discourse and home to countless manuscripts collected from all over Africa. Not surprisingly, the region attracted attention from thousands of miles away. There had been gasps in Cairo when Mansa Musa - or Musa, King of Kings of the Malian Empire - 'a devout and just man' whose like had not been seen before, passed through the city in the fourteenth century on his way to Mecca on pilgrimage, accompanied by an enormous retinue and carrying huge amounts of gold to give as presents. So much was spent in the markets during his visit to the city that a mini-depression is supposed to have been triggered across the Mediterranean basin and in the Middle East as the price of bullion apparently plummeted under the pressure of the huge inflow of new capital." (p. 203-204)

"The native populations in the Caribbean and the Americas were devastated. Within a few short decades of Columbus' first voyage, the numbers of the indigenous Taíno people fell from half a million to little more than 2,000. This was in part due to ferocious treatment at the hands of those who began to style themselves as 'conquistadors' - or conquerors - such as Hernán Cortés, whose bloodthirsty expedition to explore and secure Central America resulted in the death of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, and the collapse of the Aztec Empire. Cortés stopped at nothing to enrich himself. 'I and my companions', he told the Aztecs, 'suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold.'" (p. 213)

"The underlying secret to Dutch success in the seventeenth century was common sense and hard work. The Dutch reckoned that the way to work was not to follow the example of England, where the chartered companies used sharp practices to limit beneficiaries to a small circle of intimates, all looking after each other's interests and using monopoly positions to protect their positions. Instead, capital was pooled and risks shared among as wide a body of investors as possible. In due course, the conclusion was reached that despite competing ambitions and rivalries between provinces, cities and indeed individual merchants, the most efficient and powerful way to build up trade was by combining resources." (p. 255)

"Aware that their hold over the Gulf region was tenuous, the British made overtures to leading figures in the Arab world, including Husayn, Sharīf of Mecca, who was offered a tempting deal: if Husayn 'and the Arabs in general' were to provide support against the Turks, then Britain 'will guarantee the independence, rights and privileges of the Sharifate against all external foreign aggression, in particular that of the Ottomans'. That was not all, for another, even juicier incentive was offered up too. Perhaps the time had come when 'an Arab of true race will assume the Caliphate at Mecca or Medina'. Husayn, guardian of the holy city of Mecca and a member of the Quraysh, and descendant of Hāshim, the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muammad himself, was being offered an empire in return for his support. The British did not really mean this, and nor could they really deliver it. However, from the start of 1915, as things took a turn for the worse, they were prepared to string Husayn along..." (p. 335)

"Three possible triggers were envisaged - all of which could justify military action. Perhaps Saddam "moves against the Kurds in [the] north?', wondered Donald Rumsfeld in November 2001 ; maybe a "connection to Sept 11 attack or to anthrax attacks" (following mailings to several media outlets and to two US senators in September 2001); or what if there were a "dispute over WMD inspections?" This seemed a promising line – as revealed by the comment that follows: "Start now thinking about inspection demands." ... Particular emphasis was given to building up the case that Iraq was not just determined to make weapons of mass destruction but was doing so covertly and obstructing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the same time. In some cases, this created problems with the monitors themselves, who found their positions overstated, compromised or even at risk altogether. In the spring of 2002, for example, Jose Bustani, the Brazilian director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was ousted following a special closed session - this was the first time the head of a major international organization had been forced from their position. Information gathered from one-off and often unreliable sources was given primnance, and speculation was presented as fact, the result of a single-minded determination to make the case against Iraq and Saddam appear watertight. 'Every statement I make today', Colin Powell told the UN on 5 February 2003, 'is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.'" (p. 502) 

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Oct
03

The Powers of Mourning and Justice

Judith Butler's "Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Justice" (2004) was published in the "Radical Thinkers" series of Verso Books. The book is a series of essays written after Sept 11, 2001, collected in this short publication of ~150 pages (of writing, excluding Notes). In the Preface, the author suggests in the years following Sept 11 intellectuals and journalists did not uphold their duty to justice, wherein an injustice muted critical discourse and public debate. The specifics of the essays are less timely today, but raise general questions about power – power over media and what can be spoken in the public sphere, power over what can and cannot be asked or discussed, power over life and death, the power to decide whose life should be mourned and whose ignored. The creation of binaries of the with-us-or-against-us type, stifled the ability to engage, Butler for example suggest that opposing war was equated with sympathizing or justifying terrorism.  While the details have changed, the processes persist and the arguments in this book remain relevant. Worth a read.

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Jun
03

Power in the Age of AI

With all the talk of AI of recent, I picked up "Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence" (2023) by Paul Scharre to see where the new changes might fit into courses I have covered of recent (political economy, ethics, evaluation). A complaint to start: many figures in my copy of this book were blank, grey useless boxes. Clearly a printing error on the part of the publisher, but frustrating nonetheless. The book has eight parts. Part 1 is a good summary of the key issues (data, computational power, talent, institutions), which is probably the most useful high-level part of this book. Part 2 begins to cover ethics, introduces a number of stories, and the role of corporate engagement. Parts 3 and 5 are largely anti-China (that is not to defend China; that is only to point out that the negative examples this ex-US army ranger chooses are Chinese ones; when discussing consent, privacy, and monitoring we learn all about Chinese evils, but no mention of the NSA or Snowden, or others – this consistent inclusion/exclusion bias makes the book largely pro-American and anti-Chinese). Part 4 covers the unhealthy information environment we all live within, but is largely outdated (expectedly, books are slow to publish). Part 6 returns to US military projects (a common theme of the book, not surprisingly given the author's background). Part 7 outlines some of the problems with AI: bias, risks, limitations, vulnerabilities. Part 8 concludes with perspectives on the future of war. A few notes:

"AI has many constructive applications. AI will save lives and increase efficiency and productivity. It is also being used as a weapon of repression and to gain military advantage. This book is about the darker side of AI." (p. 4)

"In fact, machine learning systems are often so narrowly constrained by the datasets on which they've been trained that their performance can often drop if they are used for tasks that are not well-represented in the training data. For example, a facial recognition system may perform poorly on people of races or ethnicities that are not adequately represented in its training data. A machine learning algorithm used for predictive maintenance on one aircraft won't work on another aircraft—it would need to be retrained on data for the new aircraft. It may not even be effective at predicting maintenance needs on the same aircraft in a new environment, since maintenance needs may differ based on environmental conditions, such as in a desert where sand can clog parts or in a maritime environment where there is saltwater corrosion." (p. 21)

"Facial recognition systems are being merged with other tools for big data analysis in the Ministry of Public Security's "Police Cloud" system. Police cloud computing data centers, which are being implemented in numerous cities and provinces across China, include not only criminal records, facial recognition, and other biometric data, but also addresses, religious affiliations, medical records, birth control records, travel bookings, online purchases, package deliveries, and social media comments. These databases are not merely repositories of information but are intended to automatically fuse and analyze data for police. They could be used to monitor and track individuals of interest and also connect them to associates." (p. 89) 

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Dec
29

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

We are increasingly surrounded by technology, the data collection it employs is not only pervasive but also seemingly unescapable. In 2019 Shoshana Zuboff wrote "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power", which has gone viral (for a social sciences academic-ish book), being cited nearly 10,000 times so far. The book is 691 pages and well beyond possible to summarize in a few lines. And, an amazing amount has changed since 2019 alone. The book may be longer than it needed to be, as the author weaves in personal and historical stories (which add layers of interesting nuance), however these also may attract a broader readership for a book than is more engaging and storytelling than a typical academic one. A few quotes to spark interest for anyone who has not yet read it.

The book begins with a definition: "Sur-veil-lance Cap-i-tal-ism, n. 1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; 2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modifications; 3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history; 4. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy; 5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth; 6. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy; 7. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty; 8. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above; an overthrow of the people's sovereignty."

"Surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others' gain, not ours." (p. 11)

"Google's stores of behavioral surplus now embrace everything in the online milieu: searches, e-mails, texts, photos, songs, messages, videos, locations, communication patterns, attitudes, preferences, interests, faces, emotions, illnesses, social networks, purchases, and so on. A new continent of behavioral surplus is spun each moment from the many virtual threads of our everyday lives as they collide with Google, Facebook, and, more generally, every aspect of the internet's computer-mediated architecture. Indeed, under the direction of surveillance capitalism the global reach of computer mediation is repurposed as an extraction architecture." (p. 128-129)

"Surveillance capitalism's antidemocratic and antiegalitarian juggernaut is best described as a market-driven coup from above. It is not a coup d'etat in the classic sense but rather a coup de gens: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse that is Big Other. On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society: the privatization of the central principle of social ordering in the twenty-first century. Like the adelantados and their silent incantations of the Requirimiento, surveillance capitalism operates in the declarative form and imposes the social relations of a premodern absolutist authority. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. In a surreal paradox, this coup is celebrated as "personalization," although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal." (p. 513) 

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