Monday, November 19, 2012

Digital Killed the Video Candidate

Davide Panagia
Trent University

In no uncertain terms, this month’s American presidential election signals Barack Obama as the first New Media President. I will quickly concede that this is an odd christening. New Media technology was around in 2008, and indeed prior to that. And we have read and heard a lot about the potentials of political mobilization thanks to the influence of social media technology (think here of Tahrir Square). But what the immediate aftermath of the 2012 Presidential elections secured for our cultural-political zeitgeist, and what contributed to our collective schadenfreude, is the conviction that the numbers were always on Obama’s side, despite what Karl Rove’s gut told him. The question that the Republicans are now asking themselves is how they could have been so wrong in their convictions?

The answer lies in the role of “big data” – something that many American voters had never heard of prior to this elections. Big data is the resource that Nate Silver had at his disposal to give such accurate predictions as he did; it is also the basis for recent developments in humanities research collectively called the “digital humanities” (see the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project here); and it is, as best as I can tell, what will make such companies as Facebook even more astronomically rich than they already are, once Wall Street realizes that what Facebook is selling is not advertising space but massive amounts of information on consumer tendencies generated from our aggregated “hits.”

Obama’s re-election campaign ran a Navy-Seal like digital operation: surgical, tactical, precise, and sophisticated beyond what James Bond’s Q can even imagine. It’s almost as if Obama took a page out of Althusser’s handbook: forgo ideology and go straight to science, so to speak.

Here is how Mike Lynch, former founder and CEO of the UK software company Autonomy, describes the scenario: “Obama’s was not an election won with a clever advertising campaign -- that is too 90’s -- and actually, that is what the Republicans did. This campaign was masterminded by data analysts who left nothing to chance. They revived the virtual campaign centre called from the ‘08 election (and thus highlighting the benefits of 'owning' your data), and encouraged supporters to volunteer their personal information, comments, post photos and videos, and donate funds. But this was only the starting point. In a multi-pronged engagement strategy, webmasters used supporters’ content to galvanize others and drive traffic to other campaign sites such as Obama’s Facebook page (33 million “likes”) and YouTube channel (240,000 subscribers and 246 million page views).”

And here is a report from’s Lois Beckett about recent information released on Obama’s big data tactics.

Big data, data mining, and predictive analytics are the tools of network politics – and they are tools we all volunteer willingly, though usually not knowingly, whenever we click a link or like a post. In doing so, we make what amounts to a charitable donation in the form of micro-data points to massive organizations and global conglomerates who hold property rights to these data-hits; in exactly the way, for instance, that Facebook owns property rights to the pictures of my children when I “share” them on my Facebook page. In fact, it’s not the images they own, but the ones and zeroes that compose the data file which software converts into an image.

 All of this to say what we all already know: that we live in another age of “information overload”, to invoke the Harvard historian, Ann Blair’s helpful phrase. There is just “too much to know” and so, as in other epochs of information overload, we devise strategies and structures for handling information, for organizing it, assessing it, and rendering it valid. The Dewey decimal system was one such invention, as was the transistor radio that converted noise into sound. Writing is, of course, another such technology; as are note taking, highlighting, statistics, and practices of compiling. The number of such activities are infinite, and usually end up multiplying the volume of information rather than rendering it manageable. If I were Malthusian I would say that information has a geometric growth; and if I were Kantian, I would say that information is the best picture of the mathematical sublime.

More to the point, networked humans are information generating creatures. Every click on a keyboard or a mouse, for instance, produces new variations on ones and zeroes that, in turn, generate new information data. As I am not a coder, I have no way of knowing how much information my composing, emailing, and posting of this TCC entry has generated. Suffice it to say that the minimum measure for digital information today is the kilobyte (103 bytes) and that most new computers currently store terabytes (1012 bytes) in their hard drives. Such technological developments, I would suggest, marks a revolution in artificial memory storage that has dramatic consequences for our contemporary networked condition. I will only single out a couple of such consequences.

The first is that code is king. More specifically, source code is king – and code ‘sourcerers’ will inherit the earth. Our world is a world of software: a world of commands and orders relaying signals to go here and there, to execute this task and fulfill that algorithm. As the new media scholar Wendy Chun argues in her book, Programmed Visions, “Code is executable because it embodies the power of the executive, the power to enforce that has traditionally – even within neoliberal logic – been the provenance of government.” (27) This means that in the very logic of network, code is both sovereign and disciplinary master through the algorithmic production of self-regulating rules. (For those with interest in reading more on these issues and developments, I highly recommend Tiziana Terranova’s Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (PDF) and Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory (PDF).)

Two: Code is indifferent to content. Nate Silver’s algorithmic acumen, that took the accuracy of electoral prediction to alchemical heights, was initially developed as a forecasting system for Major League Baseball called PECOTA (an acronym for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm). It can just as easily still be called PECOTA, an acronym for Presidential Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm.

What this means is that traditional content-based politics – and our content-based habits of analysis – are being put under substantial pressure by our networked condition. It’s precisely the largesse of big data that makes content almost impossible to handle. Hence the switch, as the new media scholar Lev Manovich notes, from the old new media language of “documents” and “works” and “recordings” (signifying static, content-specific objects) to the big data language of “dynamic software performances,” referring to the interface with real-time dynamic outputs as in the case of video-games or mobile apps. When we do engage these virtual entities, we are not engaging static documents but interactive programs generating infinitely new instances of data. Manovich describes this shift best when he says that “in contrast to paintings, literary works, music scores, films, industrial designs, or buildings, a critic can’t simply consult a single ‘file’ containing all of work’s content.”

This is how digital killed the video candidate. Mitt Romney lost apparently against all Republican odds because Romney was the video candidate: everyone, including myself, was distraught and surprised by Obama’s lackluster performance at the first debate. He just didn’t come out looking good; he didn’t project “good content” ... and Romney did. But Obama’s big data pundits must have persuaded him that he didn’t need to look that good: that the content of his appearance didn’t matter as much as everyone thought it ought to. What did matter was the mosaic generated by big data that offers much more than any singular exit poll, or intuitive hunch, can.

And it’s not that this mosaic is devoid of content. It is filled with content. But that content is mobile, interactive, terabyte content that the video candidate’s more traditional, kilobyte content analysis finds impossible to process.

No doubt, there will be much to celebrate and bemoan in this cultural-political shift. At the very least, I think this election should put pressure on political critics to rethink the criteria of political judgment and assessment with which they (we) have leaned on for so long because one thing is certain: the networked body politic is a much different beast than our conventional understandings of the Leviathan. But then again, rethinking the famous mosaic frontispiece of that equally famous book, maybe not.

Monday, November 12, 2012

On the Coming Challenges

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

President Obama may soon face a three-headed monster. Though a tepid recovery is underway in the United States, unemployment remains high and some of the tools used to promote recovery carry significant risks of their own. Worse still, the specter of a Eurozone bankruptcy haunts the world economy. Finally a Eurozone collapse itself may trigger the worst political crises since the height of the Cold War. On both sides of the Atlantic, political leaders are beholden to investment bankers, who in turn are operating in a predatory fashion.
Matt Taibbi on Goldman Sachs

Here in the US any fiscal policy, even the modest jobs initiative proposed by President Obama in 2011, remains on hold. Worse still, Congress and the President are set to begin negotiations further to trim the deficit in an effort to avert a self-imposed "fiscal cliff."

With fiscal policy paralyzed, all eyes are on the Federal Reserve. Its controversial Quantitative Easing 3 (QE3) includes two elements. First is the promise to keep interest rates low well into any recovery. Secondly, the Fed has committed to buy long term assets, including the infamous collateralized debt obligations, from its member banks. These steps have the endorsement of New York Times and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman. Krugman has longand quite properlyadvocated expansionary fiscal policy. But absent that approach, he argues that a credible promise of inflation, which erodes the value of savings, will encourage savers to consume and invest.

Reasonable as this suggestion is, it disregards another possibility suggested by several left economists (see for instance comments on the blog Naked Capitalism). These economists include post-Keynesians like Steve Keen, Philip Pilkington, Michael Hudson, and modern monetary theorists Randall Wray and Stephanie Kelton. They argue that investment decisions are not determined merely by interest rates and that unpredictable and volatile expectations play an enormous role in a crisis. Low interest rates and the fear of inflation may stimulate investment. But it may also encourage commodity or foreign currency speculation.

More broadly, Krugman denies the role that investment banks play in creating money and thereby fostering booms and busts. In this regard the signal Fed purchases of junk securities sends to the banks is especially dangerous. It constitutes one further message to banks that their speculative excesses will be backed up by the central bank. In a worst case scenario banks will take the extended low interest environment as an occasion to engage in new commodity speculation and securitization in the confidence that they can get out before any collapse and/or be bailed out in the wake of that collapse.

In Europe, the situation is even more dire. I recently had the pleasure of attending a conference on the Eurozone at Columbia University Law School. Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis was one of the featured speakers. He highlighted the damage that the continent-wide embrace of fiscal austerity is doing to citizens across the Eurozone and Great Britain. Spain and Greece are now experiencing conditions fully comparable to 1929. Even formerly prosperous and well- run businesses cannot find the short- term credit on which most business depends.

In Europe's case a false diagnosis leads to a counterproductive cure. The US media routinely characterize Spain, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Portugal, the so-called PIGS, as just that, governments that have overspent their means. Such accusations are totally wrong in the case of Spain and Ireland, which were both models of fiscal rectitude before their banks blew up. Other than Greece, the remaining states had fiscal problems, but these were manageable. Rather than a matter of public sector profligacy, the Eurozone crisis is anchored in its faulty architecture. Its nations share a common currency but no common fiscal (centralized tax and spending) mechanism.

Some brief background is useful here. From the early fifties the core European states had a common market but no common currency. The Lira, the Deutschmark, the Frank, etc. floated against each other, changing daily in relative value. In practice these floating arrangements provided some protection against "asymmetric shocks," such as a sudden decline in world appetite for Italian wine. In such an event, nations could allow their currencies to devalue and thus become more competitive. Such devaluations were not without pain, especially inflation, and could lead to competitive devaluations by other nations. Nonetheless, devaluations did give damaged economies the prospect of return to prosperity.

In Europe, with the creation of a common currency zone, where a Euro in a Spanish bank was worth just as much as a Euro in German banks, it became easy and attractive for German bankers to invest in houses and commercial real estate in Greece, Ireland, and Spain. Banks made billions. Then a real estate bubble that would make Nevada look like the epitome of prudence burst. Banks became insolvent, lending and economic growth collapsed. Ireland and Spain's government debt burdens were a consequence of government decisions to bail out their profligate private sector banks rather than of spending on ordinary citizens. Nonetheless, these nations had no way to devalue except to wait for a long slow process of unemployment leading to wage declineseven as the core European states strove to control their own "labor costs," thus depressing their demand for foreign goods.

Thus far Spain and Italy have not defaulted on their bonds, but each rescue package has involved one step forward and two back. Europe has enacted a pure fiscal orthodoxy more burdensome than even current US policy. Using a US analogy, Varoufakis imagined what would happen if following the housing bubble collapse, Nevada had been asked to recapitalize its own banks and had been unable to avail itself of unemployment compensation from Washington.

The levels of austerity imposed in Europe have not been seen in any advanced economy since the thirties. The self-inflicted crisis has been used as an occasion for a full- fledged attack on the welfare state. Struggling states are told they receive no assistance unless they meet the demands of the German- run ECB. Austerity is promoted as a means of saving the people from its own excesses, but in fact is intended to save German banks from theirs. And it will fail. As economies shrink, tax receipts do also. Debt grows.

Worse still, the demands on the peripheral European states are sold to the Germans on nationalistic grounds. The Greek and Spanish grasshoppers have lived lives of excess while industrious German ants labor away and sacrifice for a rainy day. Such fairy tales can only feed even more extreme forms of xenophobia. Varoufakis reminds us that the politics of hate and xenophobia thrive amidst pain. In Greece, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is currently registering 22% in the polls, but even more ominous is the way mainstream parties are embracing some of its demands.

A fractured Eurozone with banks and states defaulting on obligations to each other and surely to US banks, a second banking crisis here just waiting to happen, rising nationalism and authoritarian or even fascist governments in Europe. All this awaits the next administration. 

In this regard, Varoufakis's advice to his European counterparts would apply equally to US elites, especially in light of a fourth great crisis, Sandy, and what it represents: "While designing the Recovery, we better beware: The return to growth should not come at any price. What grows matters. We want growth in sectors that generate good things that humanity needs more of and a deep deflation of the toxic sectors that make life nasty, brutish and shortfrom physical pollutants to real estate bubbles and toxic derivatives. We must aim at the mobilisation of idle savings into medium to long-term investments that serve genuine human needsrather than producing new bubbles for the purpose of dealing with the ill effects of previous bubbles that burst disastrously. None of this will be accomplished by markets caught up in an equilibrium of fear that is reinforced daily by universal austerity."

Monday, November 5, 2012

After Sandy, The Politics of Public Things

Bonnie Honig
  Northwestern University

In response to the contemporary neoliberal impulse to privatize everything and the difficulty, in such a context, of preserving public things and of articulating the importance of public things to democratic life, it is important to think about public things.
A few weeks ago, Sesame Street’s Big Bird became a symbol of this struggle though it was not named as such. We witnessed, after the first US Presidential debate, some discussions and disagreements regarding how much money could be saved by Mitt Romney’s promise, at the start of the debate, to cut government funding to PBS. 
The amount of money involved is relatively small, and most of the budget of PBS is raised already through private fundraising, so commentators see this as one more meaningless cut, or as red meat for the right which wants cuts regardless of their size. The former dismiss the gesture, the latter appreciate it, but both see it as a gesture. But what (else) is in that gesture? Surely something other than money is at issue here for both critics and defenders of Big Bird.
  If there is so much brouhaha over Big Bird, if the attachment to it seems fetishistic or infantile, this may be symptomatic of the fact that it is one of the few public things left in the US.

What is not said, or certainly not enough, is that it is not about the money. It is about completing the privatization and destruction of the public things of American democracy, a project that has been ongoing for over 30 years. To most American conservatives, government itself is only a necessary evil (except on the point where they split: the legislation of virtue or family values) and, these days, even those of its functions that have been historically conceded by conservatives to belong properly to government, like imprisonment, border policing, and military defense or adventurism, are increasingly sold off or subcontracted to private industry. All that is left to government to do is to make the policies whose discretionary implementation these subsidiaries execute. The claim is sometimes that these private companies can do the job better or more efficiently, or that they are better job-creators than the government. (Either way, note, it is about getting the “job done," a phrasing that should strike readers of Hannah Arendt as particularly problematic in a political context.) 
But the real issue here, surely, is a political orientation rooted in a fundamental antipathy to public things and their sometimes magical properties which, not to put too flat a point on it, Big Bird represents. Everybody loves Big Bird! was the refrain after the first Presidential debate. Exactly. And democracy is rooted in common love for such shared objects, or even in contestation of them (which betrays a common love, more than sentimental claims of devotion do). Is it the object that we love (and contest)? Or is it the seemingly a-political but really deeply political publicness it instantiates? 
This is different from the mass consumerist need to all be in love with the same private object – the newest iPhone, say -- and to have one, of which there are millions. That said, this consumer need may well be the ruin, the remnant, of the democratic desire to constellate affectively around shared objects.
The ruin speaks out sometimes, though. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, pay phones, normally treated as part of the city’s ruined landscape, emerged suddenly to become communications life-savers; relics with an afterlife. As Ben Cohen noted, “Natural disasters tend to vindicate the pay phone” which is “mounted high and sometimes behind glass stalls [and so] generally remain serviceable during power outages, even amid flooding.” Focusing on the only problem would-be users now face, coin-overload, however, this journalist misses the real importance of so-called pay phones. They are, as indeed they were once called, public phones, situated on the streets and available to everyone. 
Though not publicly owned (they are now serviced by 13 different local pay phone franchises) they are regulated by New York’s Dept of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Said one new user of the old technology “it’s funny what’s hiding in plain sight…it’s invisible, but when you need it, it’s there.” Surely, that quaint trait of the public telephone stands synechdochally for the quaintness, in our neo-liberal context, of publicness itself. That is, it is not just the technology of the phones that is like a relic from a past time. What is funny, invisible, but hiding in plain sight is the idea of public goods, goods that conjoin people, and are to be shared among various users from all kinds of backgrounds, classes, and social locations. 
At the moment, in the aftermath of Sandy, there is talk about demanding better cell phone towers to secure coverage in emergencies, but this response is rather like the decision to build more roads for cars a century ago, in place of public transportation. There should really be more talk of securing more pay phones and more appreciation of the fact that the ones they have in NYC, that most palimpsest-like of all cities, in fact seem to work. 
The longing for public things may in fact have found expression in this week's return to discussions of climate change. It could just be one more round of emergency politics. But it could be also, or somehow, a subtle promise of collective goods, demanding our attention, offering a site of constellation to those hungry for public things.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sexism and Racism from the View on Bullshit Mountain

Sanford F. Schram
Bryn Mawr College

Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, has a phrase to characterize how Foxnews looks at the world: It is the view from Bullshit Mountain. It is most appropriate, especially when trying to distinguish what people on that television station have to say from ordinary lying. Lying is intentionally not telling the truth; bullshit is intentionally muddling the truth for purposes of making it seem like you know what you are talking about, when in fact you are just making a mess of it, so other people will be confused and will succumb to your point of view (especially if you are sufficiently aggressive in your bullshitting). This may explain why Stewart spends so much time on his show confusing clips of people on Fox with animals defecating (just in case you do not get the point)!
Mitt Romney has been accused of many things as a presidential candidate: serial liar, flip-flopper, man who will believe anything to get elected, man without core values, etc. Yet, he really is best described as a bullshitter (which is exactly what President Barack Obama recently called him). He does not quite lie as much as continually parse words so that his positions can migrate to where they need to be to get the votes he seeks, whether in a primary where he is appealing to the severely conservative base of the current Republican Party or in a general election where he must moderate those positions to appeal to people other than the extremists who populate his party today. 
It should be no surprise that Romney himself is a bullshitter since he has spent so long this election cycle trying to regurgitate the talking points the talking heads on Fox have been instructed to repeat in mantra fashion so as to indoctrinate their audience. Once you start talking like the bullshitters on Bullshit Mountain, everything starts to look just as you would see it if you too were sitting atop of Bullshit Mountain.
In fact, the Republican Party today is knee deep in bullshit and Romney is the just lead bullshitter. Romney is the lead bullshitter because his core is in fact obfuscation. He keeps twisting his positions and muddling what he stands for to the point that after a while he ends up with no core. This makes him a true believer of a particular ironic sort—someone who probably genuinely believes that his deflections and diversions in and of themselves reflect a solid position. His positions are nuanced. Yet, many others in the Party are more traditional true believers, extreme social and economic conservatives who end up bullshitters as they twist their un-varnished positions to make them more palatable to voters beyond the Party’s rabid base. We do not have to look too far from Romney to find examples. Paul Ryan (Romney’s Vice Presidential candidate) is a true believer-bullshitter of the first order whether he is talking about abortion or tax cuts, Medicare or defense spending. Ryan and others like him also do not really lie so much as they just make shit up in ways that confuse issues to the point they can convince people they are actually telling the truth (according to the facts, science. etc.). That way they can make it seem that their strongly-held but questionable positions have a basis in truth and facts that they actually don’t. 
These days, at the end of the 2012 general election campaign, the bullshit is being slung far and wide, most especially about issues of sex and race.
Listen to the bullshit on sex. Women who endure a “legitimate rape” secrete hormones that prevent them from getting pregnant so that any woman who gets pregnant and wants an abortion because she claims she was raped must be lying (not bullshitting). Welfare recipients who want additional benefits for having another child should be prevented from accessing those benefits unless they can prove they were raped (which evidently cannot happen due to those hormones). And Mitt Romney actually supports abortion rights (even if it turns out only in cases to save the life of the mother, incest or rape which, it goes without saying, supposedly should never occur because of those powerful hormones again).
Then there is the bullshit on race. Voter ID laws and other related restrictions are necessary because voter fraud is real, if invisible and undocumented, and we are asked to please keep in mind that these laws are not designed to prevent African Americans and Latinos from voting, even though they are much less likely to end up voting because of these additional restrictions. The push to put restrictions on voting is, we are told, not about cutting into nonwhite support for Obama (even if Republican elected officials have publicly indicated that is exactly what these bullshit-based laws are all about).
The idea additional welfare benefits should be denied unless rape is proven is supposedly based on the claim that women on welfare have children just to get more benefits. This is…how should we say it…bullshit. There is no factual basis for this claim. Just like there is no factual basis for the claim that there are people who are trying to vote illegally (especially undocumented and illegal immigrants who would be risking deportation if they got caught). It is all bullshit regardless of whether the bullshitters believe in the sanctity of their positions or not. They desperately bend facts and logic to make their unreasonable stands seem reasonable. And being a true believer may actually serve to operate as some kind of self-legitimation in practicing the bullshitting for a supposedly good cause. Religious conservatives want to curtail access to welfare to prevent the additional pregnancies (that welfare does not cause) and other Republicans concerned about the sanctity of the ballot want to “True the Vote” even if all it does is end up disenfranchising mostly nonwhite Obama supporters. 
Whether offered piously or cynically, bullshit ends up playing fast and loose with facts and logic. Sure, some women on welfare are not planning enough to improve their desperate situation, but reducing benefits when they have another child is not going to provide them with a path for a life beyond destitution.  Sure, sometimes, some people’s registration forms are improperly completed. Some people might vote twice but that is even rarer. If our elections are at risk of fraud, it is from the people tallying the votes, not the people casting them. But even that is only occurring in isolated instances up until this election (and we can hope it stays that way).  
Bullshit also unnecessarily complicates things. Allowing additional benefits in cases of rape would actually be an improvement in some states where aid for all additional children is denied to families on welfare regardless of whether rape was involved or not. Voter IDs are not quite as bad as the old poll tax that was intentionally set so high that basically almost all blacks in the south could not qualify to vote. So these laws are less bad, and more focused, as if they were attending to specific problems that actually exist. Not as bad and not quite lies, these horrible laws are based in bullshit and end up just hurting people whether they are welfare recipients or voters. The result then is bullshit laws made by bullshit politicians, bullshitting about sex and race, making up stories about women on welfare and nonwhites trying to vote, just to legitimate their repugnant beliefs.
Yet it does not stop there. There is the bullshit called climate change denial, various creationism contortions, and the idea that the rich who are not investing in business growth are the real job-creators waiting to be incentivized.
  The head bullshitter Romney continues to twist facts to make himself seem to be everything to everyone. My favorite is the bankruptcy that is not a bankruptcy. Romney claims he was not for letting the auto industry in Detroit go bankrupt but was instead for a structured bankruptcy where private equity firms like his Bain Capital could swoop in and buy up GM and Chrysler. But at the time, the economy was in the tank and there was no private equity firm prepared to do that in any way that people would say was fair or would lead to recovery of the auto industry. So his structured bankruptcy would have been just another bad bankruptcy and his insistence on the difference is bullshit. The same could be said about his plans for Medicare or Medicaid, tax cuts, education reform, etc. 
Let’s face facts: all politicians are prone to bullshitting—it comes with the pandering for votes. Yet things on Bullshit Mountain are very different and go well beyond the usual bullshit. On Bullshit Mountain, things stink to high heaven.