for 1. 1. 2020

 

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It was such places as this, such moments that he loved above all else in life; she knew that, and she also knew that he loved them more if she could be there to experience them with him. And although he was aware that the very silences and emptinesses that touched his soul terrified her, he could not bear to be reminded of that. It was as if always he held the fresh hope that she, too, would be touched in the same way as he by solitude and the proximity to infinite things. He had often told her: ‘It is your only hope,’ and she was never sure what he meant. Sometimes she thought he meant that it was his only hope, that only if she were able to become as he was, could he find his way back to love.

— Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

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H A P P Y    N E W    Y E A R 

 

for 25. 12. 2019 

 

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Was Charles Dickens turning vegetarian or fruitarian, if not vegan, when he wrote A Christmas Carol — in 1843? 

That thought is unlikely to have occurred to anyone before this year beginning to drift into the past, in which Tom Parker Bowles — the stepson of Britain’s apparent heir to the throne — has actually published a review of vegan alternatives to the traditional Christmas meats. ‘Ban this sick filth,’ his verdict on one offering, includes the word furky for reasons that anyone curious enough will want to read about independently. About a seemingly inoffensive butternut, almond and pecan nut roast, he thunders in deepest gloom: ‘If this looked at me in the street, I’d cross the road to avoid it.’ 

A quick trawl through Dickens’s Christmas story, in the hope of rereading a luscious tribute to a crisp-skinned, succulent, (de-)feathered beast — surely one appeared on the Cratchit family’s table to a chorus of oohs and aahs? —  proved pointless. It contains nothing of the kind. What Dickens says about ‘the Turkey’ that the newly reformed Scrooge buys at the novella’s end makes it merely a tragicomic victim of gigantism, or morbid obesity: ‘He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ‘em, short off, in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax.’ In the scene that Scrooge is served by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Queen Victoria’s favourite writer states simply — about the goose that the Cratchits feast on — that its ‘tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.’ 

No — hard as it is to believe — the foods for which Dickens reserved his peerless powers of evocation are virtually all fruits: 

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples clustered high in blooming pyramids, there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water, gratis, as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown: recalling in their fragrance ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shuffling, ankle deep, through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. 

Now, compare those enchanting flights of imagination with Dickens’s repetitive sizeism, whenever his Turkey is mentioned:

[ Scrooge ] was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell: bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! 

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head.

… ’What’s to day?’ cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

‘EH?’ returned the boy, with all his might of wonder. 

‘What’s to day, my fine fellow!’ said Scrooge.

‘Today!’ replied the boy. ‘Why, CHRISTMAS DAY!’

… ‘Do you know the Poulterer’s in the next street but one, at the corner?’ Scrooge inquired.

‘I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.

‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there; not the little prize turkey, the big one?’

‘What, the one as big as me!’ returned the boy.

‘What a delightful boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!’ 

H A P P Y     C H R I S T M A S

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How a well-meaning Angela Merkel choosing the wrong tactic for protecting Europe from Big (U.S.) Tech’s incursions could make Orwell’s dystopia our reality

 

What is the one essential step required for George Orwell’s nightmare of totalitarian centralisation — Nineteen Eighty-Four — to become even more plausible than it is already, in freedom-loving western countries? 

That is, the step that would determine exactly how we get to One power to rule them all: a single, giant database or store of personal information about us, created by merging all the facts the government has with all the data that the social media and other technology giants have been gathering — to give a Big Brother-for-real absolute control? 

A scoop by The Financial Times last week — Google lists no other source, and FT.com was offering free access to the piece when pG last checked — suggested, for an answer, a superficially innocent and at first glance, desirable proposal by a European leader. Proceeding with that proposal would create a  route to deadly centralisation far easier and more straightforward than the possibility sketched in the last pG entry: 

Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately?

In its report titled ‘Angela Merkel urges EU to seize control of data from US tech titans,’ The Financial Times said:

Angela Merkel has urged Europe to seize control of its data from Silicon Valley tech giants, in an intervention that highlights the EU’s growing willingness to challenge the US dominance of the digital economy.

The German chancellor said the EU should claim “digital sovereignty” by developing its own platform to manage data and reduce its reliance on the US-based cloud services run by Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

[…]

Ms Merkel was speaking just two weeks after Berlin unveiled plans for a European cloud computing initiative, dubbed Gaia-X, which it has described as a “competitive, safe and trustworthy data infrastructure for Europe”.

Peter Altmaier, economy minister, said the data of companies such as Volkswagen, and that of the German interior ministry and social security system, were increasingly stored on the servers of Microsoft and Amazon. “And in this we are losing part of our sovereignty,” he added.

He said 40 companies had signed up for Gaia-X, including Deutsche Telekom, SAP and Bosch, and the new platform would be ready by the end of the year. “We want to be able to offer companies . . . ministries and governments the chance to store their data in Europe, according to transparent, clearly recognisable standards.” 

[ continues here … ]

Yes, her remarks were about corporations, not private citizens, but the identical argument — digital sovereignty — could be used by the EU or some other government to justify commandeering the intimate personal facts that the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter are hoovering up about us all day long. With or without our permission, and whether or not we are paying for their services.

Why didn’t it occur to Frau Merkel (or her policy advisors) to throw all her weight behind decentralising the net as the solution — proposed by none other than the inventor of the World Wide Web, (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee — ? 

For an outline of his ideas on that subject, scroll down this post:

‘Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook’

Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook

 

peony, darkening of the light -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

The picture is darkening for those like the world wide web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, who ‘remain committed to making sure the web is a free, open, creative space — for everyone.’

[ Significant sections of this post-Gutenberg.com entry were edited for clarity on 2 November 2019 ]

The question of why so many famous newspapers railing against Big Tech failed to alert their readers to the Social Media Strike of 2019 — or report on it — has been answered partially, since the last post on this site.  That answer could hardly be more depressing for anyone to whom free speech and objective, independent, media matter.  Worse, it brings us closer to a real life equivalent of a dictator or other centralised authoritarian power running amok — that is, to the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

On Friday 25 October, Facebook announced that it will be paying millions of dollars to selected U.S. newspapers — the likes of The New York Times and Washington Post among them — for posting their stories (content) on its site.

According to an early August report in The Guardian that came up in search results for the query, ‘Facebook paying newspapers’ — following the accidental discovery of this news on the Wired site  — the company started hawking its offer of million-dollar-plus subsidies experimentally, in April. Could publishing organisations trying to decide whether they should accept one have failed to cover the Social Media Strike set for  4-5 July for that reason?

It certainly looks like a strong possibility, even if different considerations were at work for each publication. The Guardian, for instance, might not have been approached by Facebook, even though it has a U.S. website. The explanation for its dissing of the strike could have been that the call to action was led by Larry Sanger, one of the Wikipedia’s two long-estranged co-founders. The other, Jimmy Wales, has been a member of the newspaper’s parent company, Guardian Media Group, since at least 2018.

Wired has already demonstrated that taking Facebook’s cash does not necessarily — or immediately — deprive a publication of the ability to balance its reporting about that platform. Its article on the subject quoted an activist working on behalf of traditional newspapers who described the Facebook move as ‘a “conveniently timed announcement that’s clearly meant to distract from Zuckerberg getting eviscerated on the Hill this week”’ — a reference to the founder-CEO’s grilling by members of the U.S. House of Representatives financial services committee in Washington DC.

Yet, because the magazine did not spurn Facebook, Wired’s overall characterisation of the corporation’s new sugar daddy role in the lives of newspapers must be interpreted as favourable — in keeping with one quotation in its report, about the cash infusions ‘having the potential to shift parts of the news industry from “pessimism to optimism”’. [ pG’s emphasis ]

Facebook is only giving some newspapers money, in a scheme it is still unfurling, effectively playing king-maker. Is it naïve to expect that in the future, the newspapers that have until now been exposing the social media colossus’s worst business practices — and demanding that it be made accountable to the public for those actions — will start competing to win favour from it? 

How can these papers possibly cover it objectively when they are vying for larger cash handouts from it? It is hard not to imagine past leaders of newspapers proud of a tradition of reporting ‘without fear or favour’ turning in their graves.

In the U.K. and U.S., newspaper campaigns against Facebook’s data-stealing and privacy violations, among other offences, have been vital prods for MPs and legislators now investigating the need for closer government oversight, if not regulation, of Big Tech. 

If traditional media’s interests become less and less distinguishable from the social media giant’s and they can no longer act as a check on its actions and powers, what happens next? Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately? And how could that fail to turn some of George Orwell’s nightmare visions into everyday reality? 

The progressive centralisation of media financing and power, and of data collection about ordinary citizens, raises the risk of an authoritarian central force seizing control. It could make that a cakewalk. (The newly created Big Brother would not necessarily be domestic: it could easily be a hostile foreign government.)

Newspapers that have consented to taking Facebook’s coin should reverse their decision immediately — but are unlikely to do anything of the kind. By far the most thoughtful and intelligent reaction to the novel scheme came from a writer or writers on the Techdirt website in Redwood City, in the northern half of Silicon Valley. Crisply written, and with a critical historical perspective missing from every other commentary on that subject, Techdirt‘s take on the topic is essential reading. Its conclusion is in perfect harmony with pG’s (see ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders ( updated )’:

If we want to “fix” journalism, it will require a new path forward (i.e., innovative business models).

Accepting Facebook’s Trojan horse handouts would not be the right sort of innovation or improvement on the defective business model most widely used today. Here is (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, lamenting the effects of that model on his brainchild’s evolution, after its open and liberating early years:

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors.

[…]

Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.

A year ago, Facebook acquired a key to opening doors to high government offices everywhere when it hired Nick (Sir Nicholas) Clegg — Britain’s deputy prime minister from 2010-15 —  to serve as its head of global policy and communications. As the company’s capacious pockets are used to favour some venerable, still dominant old media powers not just with gifts of cash but — presumably — special treatment on its platform, old and new media seem well on their way to creating an even more unassailable Establishment.  This could make a U-turn towards decentralising power ever more difficult and probably, impossible. 

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