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Trialectic

Trialectic – Can Technology be Moral?

Trialectic

A Wonk Bridge debate format between three champions designed to test their ability to develop their knowledge through exposure to each other and the audience, as well as maximise the audience’s learning opportunities on a given motion.

For more information, please read our introduction to the format here, The Trialectic.

Motioning for a Trialectic Caucus

Behind every Trialectic is a motion and a first swing at the motion, which is designed to kick-start the conversation. Please find my motion for a Trialectic on the question “Can Technology be Moral?” below.

I would like to premise this with a formative belief: Humans have, among many motivations, sought to seek “a better life” or “the good life” through the invention and use of technology and tools.

From this perspective, technology and human agency have served as variables in a so-called “equation of happiness” (hedonism) or in the pursuit of another goal: power, glory, respect, access to the kingdom of Heaven.

At the risk of begging the question, I would like to premise this motion with a preambulatory statement of context. I would like to focus our contextual awareness around three societal problems.

First, the incredible transformation of the human experience through technology mediation has changed the way we see and experience the world. Making most of our existing epistemological frameworks inadequate as well as turning our political, cultural systems unstable if not obsolete.

Another interpretation of this change is that parts of our world are becoming “hyper-historic”, where information-communication technologies are becoming the focal point, not a background feature of human civilisations (Floridi, 2012).

Next, the driving force behind “the game” and the rules of “the game”, which can be generally referred to as Late Capitalism, are being put under question with Postmodern thought exposing it’s weaknesses and unfairness, and a growing body of Climate Change thinkers documenting its unsustainability and nefarious effect on long term human survival. More practically, since the 2008 financial crash, Capitalism has taken a turn towards excluding human agents from the creation of wealth and commodifying distraction/attention. In short, the exclusion of the Human from human activity.

Third, the gradual irrelevance of a growing share of humans in economic and political activity, as well as the lack of tools for both experts and regular citizens to understand the new world(s) being crafted (this “Networked Society” which is a Hybrid of Digital Civilization and of Technologically Mediated Analog world) (Castells, 2009), has created an identity crisis a both the collective and individual levels. We know what is out there, have lost sight of the How and can’t even contemplate the Why anymore.

  • A better understanding of the forces shaping our world
  • An intentional debate on defining what this collective “Why” must be

Can help us find a new “True North” and begin acting morally by designing intentional technologies based around helping us act more morally.

Introductory Thesis

I based my initial stance on this topic atop the shoulders of a modern giant in Digital Ethics – Peter-Paul Verbeek, based on his 2011 work Moralising Technology.

Verbeek, who wants us to believe that the role of “things”, which includes “technologies”, inherently holds moral value. That we need to examine ethics through not an exclusively human-centric lens but also from a materialistic-angle. That we cannot ignore any longer the deep interlink between humans and their tools.

There is first the question of technological mediation. Humans depend on their senses to develop an appreciation of the world around them. Their senses are, however, limited. Our sense of sight can be limited by myopia or other delibitating conditions. We can use eyeglasses to “correct” our vision, and develop an appreciation of our surroundings in higher-definition.

This is a case of using technology that helps us reach a similar level of sensing as our peers, perhaps because living in a society comes with its own “system requirements”? We correct our vision with eyeglasses because we want to participate in society, be in the world, and place ourselves in the best position to abide by the ethics and laws. Technology is necessary to see the world like others, because when we see a common image of the world, we are able to draw conclusions as to how to behave within it.

When a new technology helps us develop our sense-perception even further, we can intuitively affirm that technological mediation occurs in the “definition” of ethics and values. Technologies help us see more of the world. Before the invention of the electric street-lamp system, as part of a wider system of urban reorganisation in the 19th century, western cultures looked-down on the practice of activities at night. An honest man (or woman) would not lurk on in the streets of Paris or London at night.

The darkness of dimly-lit streets made it easy for criminals and malfeasants to hide from the police and to harass the vulnerable. Though still seen as relatively more dangerous than moving in the light of day, it is now socially accepted (even romanticized) to ambulate under the city street-lamps and pursue a full-night’s entertainment.

A technology, the street-lamp system, helped people see more of the world (literally) and our ethics grew out of the previous equilibrium and into a new one. By affecting the way we perceive reality, technology also helps shape our constructed reality, and therefore also directly interferes in the moral thought-process of both individual and collective thought-processes.

From the pre-operative level, my thesis doesn’t diverge too far from Verbeek or Latour’s initial propositions. It will in terms of operative or practical applications seek to put a greater emphasis.

It seems clear that Technology has a role to play in defining what can be a moral practice. The question examined in this thesis therefore seeks to go a step further in exploring whether the creation (technology) can be considered independently from its creator (inventor/designer).

Are human agents responsible for the direct and indirect effects of the tools they build?

Of course, it is clear that adopting an perspective on the morality of technology that is solely anchored in the concept of technology mediation is problematic. As Verbeek mentioned in his book, the isolation of human subjects from material objects is deeply entrenched in our Modernist metaphysical schemes (cf. Latour 1993), contextualises ethics as a solely human affair and keeps us from approaching ethics as a hybrid.

This out-dated metaphysical scheme, sees human beings as active and intentional while material objects as passive and instrumental (Verbeek, 2011). Human behaviour can be assessed in moral terms good or bad but a technological artifact can be assessed only in terms of its functionality (functioning well or poorly) (Verbeek, 2011). Indeed, technologies have a tendency to reveal their true utility after having been used or applied, not before as they were being created or designed.

It is also key to my argument that technologies resembling intentionality are not in themselves intentional. Science fiction relating to artificial general intelligence aside, the context within which technology is being discussed today (2021), is a context of where technologies operate with a semblance of autonomy, situated in a complex web of interelated human and machine agents.

Just because the behaviour of some technologies today (i.e. Google search algorithms) are not decipherable, does not mean that they are autonomous nor intentional. What is intentional is the decision to create a system that contains no checks nor balances. To build a car without breaks or a network without an off-switch.

Technology does have the power to change our ethics.

An example Verbeek uses frequently is the pre-natal ultrasound scan that parents use to see and check whether their unborn child or fetus has any birth defects. This technology gives parents the chance or transfer the responsibility of making a potentially life-threatening or life-defining decision. It also gives them the first glimpse of what their unborn baby looks like through the monitor.

While the birth of a child before the scan was seen ethically as the work of a higher power, outside of human responsibility and agency, the scanner has given parents the tools and the responsibility to make a decision. As Verbeek documents at several occasions in the book, it changes dramatically the way parents’ (especially the fathers) label what they see through the monitor: from a fetus to an unborn child.

The whole ceremony around the scan visit, with the doctor’s briefing and the evaluation of results, creates a new moral dilemma for parents and a new moral responsibility to give life or not to a child with birth defects, rather than accepting whatever outcome is given to you at birth.

But let’s take this a step further and ask the age-old question: Who benefits?

The pre-natal ultrasound scan and the many other tests offered by hospitals today will service the patients. It will give them the chance to see their specimen and make choices about its future. But the clients of these machines are in fact hospitals and doctors, they are also, indirectly, policy-makers and healthcare institutions. The clients seek to begin shifting responsibility away from hospitals and doctors, and onto the parents who will have gained newfound commitment to the unborn babies that they have had the chance to see for the first time. The reasons driving this are manifold, but hospitals and governments are financially/economically interested in baby-births and also in having parents be committed to seeing through the stages of a natality.

When considering the morality of technologies, of systems and objects that are part of those systems, it’s worth paying close attention to what Bruno Latour calls systems of morality indicators; moral messages exist everywhere in society and inform each other, from the speed bump dissuading the driver from driving fast because “the area is unsafe, and driving fast would damage the car” to the suburban house fence informing bystanders “this is my private property”.

But also on who benefits from the widespread usage of said technological-products. The discussions around the morality of technology tend to focus on the effects deriving from the usage or application of said technologies rather than the financial or other benefits deriving from the adoption of said technologies at a large-scale.

Social Media as an example

The bundle of technologies that we call social media is a clear example of why this way of thinking matters. The nefarious consequences of mass-scale social media usage in a society and for an individual are clear and well-documented. We have documented its effects on warping and changing our conception of reality (technological mediation), in political sphere with our astroturfing piece and on our social relationships in our syndication of the friend piece.

In our discussions responding to the acclaimed Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, we spotted an interesting pattern in the accounts. That one man or woman was powerless in stopping a system that was so lodged in the interweaving interests of Big Tech’s shareholders. The economic-logic of social media makes it so that acting on the nefarious consequences like fake news or information echo-chambers, would be null impossible due to the fact that it would require altering social media’s ad-based business model.

The technology of social media works and keeps being used because it is not concerned with the side-effects, but with the desired effect which is to provide companies or interested parties (usually with large digital marketing budgets) with panopticon-esque insights into its users (who happen to be over 80% of people living in the US, according to Pew Research Center 2019).

Technologies are tools. I mean, this is pretty obvious and doesn’t really need further explanation in writing, but they are not always tools like hammers or pencils that would prove useful to most human beings. They are sometimes network-spanning systems of surveillance that are used by billions, only to provide actual benefit to a chosen few.

The intention of the designer is thus primordial when considering technology and morality because the application of said technology will inevitably have an effect on agents that encounter the technology, but it will also have an effect on the designer themself. There will be a financial benefit and, more than this, ‘the financial benefit will inform future action’ (reflected Oliver Cox, uponing editing this piece).

So yes, the reverse situation is also true, some technologies may be designed with a particular social mission in mind, and then used for a whole suite of unforeseen nefarious applications.

In this case, should the designer be blamed or made responsible for the new applications of their technology, should the technology itself be the subject of moral inquisition and the designer be absolved from their ignorance, or should each application of such technology be considered “a derivative” and thus conceptually separate from the original creation?

Another titan in digital ethics, Luciano Floridi of the Oxford Internet Institute, thinks that intentions are tied to the concept of responsibility; “If you turn on a light in your house and the neighbour’s house goes BANG! It isn’t your responsibility, you did not intend for it to happen.” Yes, the BANG may have had something to do with the turning on of the light, but as he goes on to mention, “accountability is different, it is the process of cause and effect relationships that connects the action to the reaction.”

Accountability as the missing link

With this in mind, we can assume that the missing link between designing a technology and placing the responsibility over to designers is accountability. To hold someone accountable for their actions, one must have access to knowledge or to data that would provide some sort of a paper trail for the observer to trace the effects of said design on the environment and the interactions of the environment with said design.

While it is indeed possible to measure the effects of a technology like social-media from an external perspective, it is far easier and more informative to do so from the source. Yes, what would hold designers of technologies most accountable is for them to hold themselves accountable.

There is therefore a problem of competing priorities when it comes to accountability, derived from the problem of the access to knowledge (or data).

In the three examples given: of the pre-natal ultrasound scanner, social media and the light-switch-that-turns-out-to-be-a-bomb. The intentions of the designer varied across a spectrum, from zero intention to blow up your neighbour’s house, to the pre-natal ultrasound scan where the intention to provide parents with a choice regarding the future of their child was deliberate.

In all three cases, an element beyond intentionality plays an role; the designer is either unaware of (with the light-switch) or unwilling to investigate (with social media) the consequences of applying technology. Behind the veil of claims of technological sophistication, designers reneage from their moral duties to “control their creations”.

If the attribution of responsibility in technologies lies in both intentionality and accountability, then, deontologically, shouldn’t the designers of such technologies provide the necessary information and build the structures to allow for accountability?

The designers should be held accountable for their creations, however autonomous they may initially seem. If so how, feasibly, can they be held accountable?

Many of these questions have been approached and tackled to some extent in the legal world, with intellectual property and copyright laws on the question of ownership of an original work. And this has also been examined to some length by the insurance industry which uses risk management frameworks to determine burden sharing of new initiatives between a principal and agent.

But in the realm of ethics and the impact of technologies on the social good, the focus that may best suit the issue we have here is the Tragedy of the Commons. It is the case where technologies that are widely available (as accessible as water or breathable air) have become commodities and are being used as building blocks for other purposes by a number of different actors.

The argument that technologies have inherent moral value is besides the point. The argument is that moral value should be ascribed to the ways in which technologies are used (whether those be called derivatives or original new technologies); the designers need to be inherently tied to their designs.

  1. In the GDPR example: where processing of personal data represents a genus of technologies where the moral value is ascribed to the processors and controllers of the personal data. The natural resource behind the technology, personal data, remains under control of the owner of that resource.
  2. Ethics by design: The process by which technologies are designed needs to be more inclusive and considerate. Its impact on stakeholders (suppliers, consumers, investors, employees, broader society, and the environment) need to be assessed and factored in during development. It cannot be something that can be wholly predicted but it can also be understood and managed if taken with particular due care. Example: regulated industries such as Life Sciences and Aerospace have lengthy trialling processes involving many stakeholders which makes the introduction of new products more rigorous.

Accountability as the other-side of the equation

As mentioned, the emergence of new technologies such as blockchain governance systems (e.g. Ethereum smart contracts) provide clear examples of how new technologies have created new ways of holding agents accountable for their actions. Those actions that without such enabling technologies, would have been considered outside-of-their-control.

It seems that technology can work on both sides of a theoretical ethical-accountability equation. If some technologies make it easier to act outside of pre-existing ethical parameters and unseen by the panoply of accountability tools in-use, then others can provide stakeholders with more tools to hold each other into account.

Can Technology Be Moral? Yes, it can given its ability to provide more tools to tighten the gap between agents actions and the responsibility they have for those actions. But some technology can be immoral, and stay immoral, without an effective counterweight in place. Technology is therefore an amoral subject, but very much moral in its role as both a medium and as an object for moral actors.

Closing

It will be my honour and pleasure to debate with our two other Trialectic champions, Alice Thwaite and Jamie Woodcock. I am looking forward to what promises to be a learning experience and to update this piece accordingly after their expert takes.

Please send us a message or comment on this article if you would like to join the audience (our audience is also expected to jump-in!).

Categories
Interview

Portraits of Young Founders: Speaking from Malawi to London

This is the story of how two young entrepreneurs, Muhammad Altalib and Robert Smith, attempting to start a social enterprise in Malawi, leapt into the challenging task of founding a trans-continental business. They faced unexpected difficulties and obstacles from day one, and ultimately learned valuable lessons about starting a business in two very different countries.

It is also the story of two co-Founders: how they first met, how they grew to work together despite having naturally different perspectives; how they grew and matured together through one hardship after the next. It is a story of ultimately why they decided to close this chapter of their lives in search for something new. It is a story of success; or, in other ways, success derived from the acceptance of the failures, possibilities and limitations of their company.

In this Portrait, we explore the idea of starting a company with a co-Founder in an unfamiliar market, and map the relatively unexplored vicissitudes of how business can be run between these types of contexts: London and East Africa. In this first episode of Muhammad and Robbie’s journey, we’ll observe the process of the two co-Founders’ crystallising inspirations, and the frustrating disconnect between the Euro-American start-up theatre and the unfamiliar markets of East Africa our entrepreneurs were trying to work in.

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Muhammad Altalib

I grew up in a number of developing countries. My parents ran an NGO and we moved around a lot. My path ran across Malawi, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. Although I did grow up with relatively privileged surroundings, I was never shielded away from the everyday lives of those around me.

I then came to the UK to study. Having always been into entrepreneurship, I focused a lot of my time cultivating this interest, especially given the fact that I was in London, one of the world’s start-up hubs. Because I was studying finance at the time, I was naturally led into FinTech. The latest technology at the time was blockchain, and I started interning at a blockchain startup trying to increase transparency within trade. Part of my role included looking at flows of goods between Africa and Europe. There I had my first spark of inspiration where I realised there could be a big business opportunity here: “Hey, I come from that part of the world; I never knew there was  so much trade flowing between these two continents Maybe I can combine my regional know-how with this latest technology [blockchain]?”

It’s a very vague origin-point for my entrepreneurial beginnings, but in a sense that’s where a lot of startup ideas come from.

From auras of inspiration to a clear idea

Muhammad: Months down the line, as I continued trying to find a potential opportunity, diving into different academic papers, and looking through online articles, I finally started coming towards a tangible idea: cocoa farmers in Ghana where struggling to make ends meet. There needed to be a better way to finance those farmers. What I wanted to do…[Muhammad visibly bashful] which I realise is quite a bad idea now, but at the time felt revolutionary, was to create something called Cocoa Coin. There’s huge demand for cocoa and chocolate-demand is always increasing. I was going to commoditise cocoa silos in Ghana by listing them onto a blockchain exchange that they can be traded. The idea was that you could finance farmers using the cocoa silos as an underlying physical asset, with blockchain allowing for increased transparency….

Yuji Develle: Why cocoa? From what you’re telling me, it seems like there was a jump from applying blockchain tech in Africa to focusing on cocoa. How much did you know about cocoa farming before embarking into entrepreneurial ideation?

Muhammad: That’s the other disadvantage of being so far from the actual problem, Yuji

I was sitting here in London, looking at commercial-figures; you know, commercial reports and papers. So what you have to expect is I was seeing information solely pertaining to what trade mattered to Europe. Naturally, those two things are cocoa and coffee, cocoa and coffee. So I chose cocoa, just as naturally as having never been to Ghana before. But I thought hey, Malawi, Ghana, what’s the difference?

I pitched this several times [In London] to tech developers in my effort to start bringing together a team. I focused on the problem of financing cocoa farmers, and heavily suggested the use of blockchain-exchange listed silos as a solution to that problem Naturally [the tech developers] were super passionate about it, as the project sounds exciting on paper.

These discussions gradually led me to start considering other solutions to our problem, because we were saying, okay, how can you actually predict what the future productivity of a farm is going to be? Well, hey, there’s a number of things we can do, we can look at weather patterns, extrapolate farm productivity from there l and then finance against that predicted productivity.

At this stage of building a start-up, you’re running, you’re running everywhere. You’re going to all the conferences, you’re going to get every paper, you’re following every other person on LinkedIn… and of course you don’t understand much of it.

I cobbled together diverse ideas from wildly different domains in order to make something work for me. King’s [College London], where I studied, has a really strong Geography department and they were kind enough to share some data I could work with, so I started there..

Yuji: So you had an idea to “coin” the cocoa industry, but realised you didn’t have enough live-data. So you then had the idea to design a data-collection device (IoT) that would be… distributed to the silos?

Muhammad: Exactly, as is often the case, we replaced a problem with another problem, without really solving the original problem! The problem was farmers are not getting financed. I needed to create that link between the farmer and the cocoa silos, in order for Cocoa Coin to work.

How could I create this link? Okay, you go to the farm and then you use a sensor.

So I joined the Robotics Society [at King’s College London] and we ordered a bunch of parts! When trying to build our own IoT device, my first co-Founder Marius entered the picture.

From an idea to a ‘pretotype’

Marius was an undergraduate Computer Science student at King’s. We met as rivals in a pitch competition, but came out seeing common ground around IoT. Together, we managed to build a mini prototype of a weather station.

 

Marius and Muhammad in front of their weather station prototype

Looks great doesn’t it? Well we were going to build this weather station and we were going to solve some really big problems. We were testing these devices “in the field” on some farms in the UK. On paper, they passed the tests and were cheap by UK standards, like £20 a-piece. But the actual on the ground solution was quite a way away…

Yuji: Why was that? When did you first realise that?

Muhammad: When I went to Malawi for the first time. There was the business model issues and the logistics behind installing the devices in-country:

  • How you can just stick a bunch of devices into thousands of farms across Ghana?
  • How do you maintain these devices?
  • How do you make sure the guys respond to pings at this or that farm, and then chuck the device out when it’s no longer of the day?
  • How do you ensure accuracy of the data and in sync with both season (macro) and daily (micro) patterns?
  • How do you make sure the devices are valuable to farmers, while also preventing them from stealing the device, and you know, using the scrap metal?

All these thoughts would go through my head and they just didn’t match? It finally came down when we actually went to Malawi like wow, we were really in our own world, weren’t we?

But regardless, for all that happened, this seemed like the first viable solution. I could actually pitch something tangible and we won a few startup competitions.

Pitching the pretotype

I pitched that idea to the first important character of our story, Stefan.

Yuji: I just want to note Robert’s face of disapproval here for the tape!

Robert Smith: Sorry, Stefan is a pompous white guy. It’s okay, you can take it on the record; it’s fine, and true.

Muhammad: Anyway, we pitched our idea through to the final pitch stage, and I managed to get to Stefan, who is known as a Professor of Practice at the King’s Entrepreurship Institute: this is his official title.

Stefan was known to be somebody who was very direct, and at six-foot-five, very imposing. I think he’s a great guy, and obviously a fantastic business man, but his demeanor can come across as intimidating.

So I went in with this

mindset

and within a few minutes…we got into a shouting match!

Yuji: Why?

Muhammad: It was just my dumb luck that Stefan has a huge charity in Malawi and just so happens that I was pitching my idea for Malawi! And so he sort-of grinded me a lot harder than he was grinding everybody else.

Robert: Look, to my knowledge, he’s been on the board of a charity there. But it’s never been beyond listening to reports from people that work in the charity there, nor has he really been involved in the direct management of the day-to-day, but he knows a lot about Malawi, I’m sure.

Yuji: I ‘think’ I can get the profile here. You know, in London, we have a lot of people who are Africa experts, who have not yet settled there. What was this shouting match about?

Muhammad: Basically, you’re pitching. He asks you a very direct question, and he says, you’re wrong. I argue with him. No, I’m right, No you’re wrong. Everybody else in the room just sort of kept quiet while we were both pouring our angry passionate defences out. Very fun experience.

I think here I learned a first important lesson. I came out of there my blood boiling and a bit disheartened because I thought that I might have blown the pitch by being so combative with Stefan. But then to my surprise, I actually did win the Changemaker Award at Idea Factory!

Muhammad (middle) at the House of Lords at Westminster Parliment for the King’s College London Idea Factory

When you’re in the weeds fighting for your start-up idea, it can seem like your making no progress or that no one believes in you. The moment you realise someone actually believes in your idea, it can come as a sudden realisation.

This provided such a boost in me that it encouraged me to dive into this project full-time and begin putting a team together. I started bringing-in a bunch of other people, we became a team of five very quickly; all university students, working for free

This was also a period of us actively participating in the startup competition circuit: UCL had a competition, Cambridge had one, and many, many different competitions I tried to sneak into.

And it’s generally a very exciting time, because you’re not actually doing anything, you’re just pitching this grand vision, which nobody actually knows much about besides that what you’re doing is something fantastic and amazing and great!

As naive as it is, and as oblivious as I was, it’s actually a good thing for entrepreneurs to be involved in this circuit because it means that you’re motivated enough to actually push yourself. It’s a necessary step on the path to actually carry-on with your company and your startup.

Robert: So there is this education that people in the UK startup scene receive, you know when you’re launching a startup:

  • You have to start-off by coming up with a good idea
  • You have to solve a problem that you’ve defined, you know, find a problem to solve online and find a way to solve it.
  • You have to pitch for investment, based on “valid assumptions” and market research.

But no moment of actually trying to sell your product in the region where it’s supposed to operate in.

Muhammad: It’s true. I think it’s slightly different depending on who you are:

  • If you are an industry veteran, those are the general steps you take, because you know your department well enough.
  • If you are not an industry veteran, which a lot of young entrepreneurs are not, which I was not, I mean, I lived in Malawi, I didn’t actually know much about the industry and know much about farming or about any of those things, then it’s a little bit different. Because then you have to actually figure it out for yourself, using third parties as research-aides of sorts.

When you’re in this period of excitement, the honeymoon period, you will be naive and people like to shoot you down and be cynical with you. But it’s very positive, because it means you’re still in a motivated state. I was very excited. This state of mind allowed me to do things that I probably would not have done in other circumstances; such as jumping on a plane as a broke student to Malawi.

Resulting from our onslaught of competition applications, we were accepted to the King’s Accelerator (a 12 month incubator program) and to the Cambridge (University) incubator (a 3 month incubator program). Things were looking good on paper, but I kept-on thinking that I can’t just be sitting here in London. I mean, they’ve given me all these educational seminars and it means nothing. Reading research papers means nothing, you have to get out and into the field!

That said, joining an accelerator is a big milestone. I already talked to my parents and got their full backing, and decided to pursue Seedlink as a full time business after my university. I’m going to use my savings [to live off of].

Yuji: Was that difficult? I mean, pitching a largely unprofitable venture such as entrepreneurship to your parents can be difficult.

Muhammad: No it wasn’t actually. I suppose it depends on what mindset you are in; I had a positive mindset focused on the big potential of my work. And it wasn’t just because I was and am privileged, although my parents were willing to give me enough funding to allow me to survive the year at least.

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So I kick-off the King’s Accelerator program, one of twenty start-ups in a very fancy evening set-up to put you at the centre of attention, introduced to all the companies. It was a big cocktail party on the top floor of Bush House in Central London, which is the fanciest building at King’s. They had invited speakers and successful entrepreneurs, and they come to ask you: “oh, what’s your idea? What are you doing?”. You have a little stand, with your pamphlets and demos. It’s followed by drinks at the student bar. Of course, at this point I already knew I was leaving for Malawi.

So I’m there thinking: How will I be part of two accelerators (in Cambridge, at King’s) and also in Malawi?

At the Cambridge Accelerator, they needed you to be there in-person for the first few sessions. I had been accepted **to this exclusive program and they obviously rejected a bunch of other people and startups.

So on this night at Bush House, the stars somehow aligned. I find the three people who I thought could represent me in Cambridge while I’m in  Malawi.

  • Person A was Robbie. I didn’t know him too well but I did know that he was doing something really cool and exciting with his previous startup, Development United, which was based in Haiti. So he was definitely a potential candidate.
  • Person B was Ryan. A close friend who I had start-up discussions with in the past.
  • Person C was Ellis. I met him on the day-of and he was building his own startup to be based in Ghana.

So I’m here on this November night and leaving for Malawi in two weeks, I have nobody to take over in Cambridge, and I’m desperately looking to find someone and the three people I think would be best suited are all in one place tonight.

I drag all three of them out of the bar and we go to some Indian restaurant next-door after convincing them to have  dinner together.

I don’t know what I should have expected but, initially, Robbie was completely disinterested. He’s like, “Why is this guy wasting my time?” I think he was smoking a cigarette, much like he is now.

Ellis is very interested, but also I’ve just met him on the night.

Robert: Yeah, I stood behind the bar and I was like “Maybe you’ll see me a little later? Who knows?”

Yuji: Little did he know that he was gonna follow Muhammad all the way to Malawi.

Robert: Mistake one was going to the dinner.

Muhammad: Yeah, exactly. Anyway, so we have dinner, and I try to pitch them the idea.

Again, Robbie is not very interested, Ellis is trying to learn more and Ryan wants to go home soon. When I finished weaving the threads of my Seedlink idea and my proposal to have someone I trust go to Cambridge on my behalf, Robbie switches on and comes out of his drunken stupor; suddenly he’s very serious.

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Robert Smith

Robert: Substance does that.

So Muhammad’s original idea that this is Development, and that in itself is really interesting, because my initial hesitation almost was exactly that it was Development…which in my opinion, is not really what business should be doing. Not in the sense that business is not a practical solution but in the sense that development means so many things to so many people.

Then if you want to actually apply development to a business context, nobody really knows what the hell you’re talking about. So it also often comes with just huge, you know, basically white-supremacist notions that Euro-America is responsible for fixing the world, which reifies colonialism…it’s great. That’s its contemporary form, as well.

It points to a larger context of the startup industry in London that we were finding a place within to make a relevant project. Where if you want to do social enterprise, particularly not within Euro-America, particularly within a place that does not have white people, then this is framed as like a development type project, right. You’re performing the grandeur of ‘social’ entrepreneurship in ‘Africa’ — wherever that is anyways, which is very problematic in itself.

And this leads to a problem of translation, every time that we would do something in Malawi, no one knows what the fuck we’re talking about. Because, you know, the business of Malawi is not going to be the same as what you would expect on Canary Wharf. It just doesn’t work that way.

There’s that frame. This is the context, we’re kind of negotiating with and kind of finding our place within it. I think the majority of the time, especially at the undergraduate level in universities, it’s for predominantly privileged people to try out ideas that are not fully fleshed out.

That is the essence of privilege. You cannot do that in Malawi. A lot of them don’t have the funds, but we get that in Euro-America and that is pretty different.

So when Mohammed uses the word industry veteran, which is really interesting because by industry veteran that basically means that you have had the opportunity to float your ideas around a million different ways with the funds. At which point now you can actually even understand what a business model is. Right?

So yeah, my initial skepticism when I was talking to him, and it was, most of what he was telling me up into that point was just hype hype, hype, hype hype, right; fair enough.

Then Muhammad actually made a tangible business proposal, with a use-case and value with the business proposal, a product and the customer, which was very far from the initial kind of material technology device that he was proposing. It was now a [B-2-B-2-C] type service in itself. It was a logistic operation, right? At least we got there.

So yeah, I heard that and I was intrigued.

Joining a start-up accelerator

Muhammad: Cambridge in itself was interesting, because this connects exactly to the context that I was trying to lay out before on an obsession with using material technology to “solve” Africa’s problems.

Robert: Muhammad was accepted to Cambridge on this material technology device, this irrigation management system, whatever. So I showed up the Cambridge with this new business proposition, this logistics operation, you know, we want to do in Malawi, and they kind of looked at me like, “What the hell are you talking about? This is not what we accepted here. What are you doing?”

This is not the business that Mohammed gave us, you are a double imposter.

They were very close minded and weren’t that helpful. They did not appreciate the fact that we regressed, took a step back and rebuilt the business proposition according to what we thought would be useful in Malawi.

 

 

The crew at Cambridge
Robbie (left) showing off his Cambridge access card
Muhammad (right) sharing his insights with the rest of his, focused, crew

On the actual functioning of Cambridge: It was almost inappropriate for us in a way. The way it works is you have sessions and you have training sessions specific to whatever module (marketing etc.). You also have one-to-ones with specific mentors and are supposed to be making progress each week.

We were developing ideas and at this point Muhammad is really doing the basic ground-research. And also, the problem of translation came up on the daily given that most mentors had close to exclusively-UK startup experience.

Muhammad: Yeah. Cambridge was like the epitome of that kind of mindset. So how we actually got invited to Cambridge, was when I went to a weekend hackathon in Cambridge on food security.

**Robert: …**and they liked you ‘cos you were in Tech.

Muhammad: At a hackathon, you basically spend the weekend coming up with potential solutions to a set problem.  Our team came up with the  problem of quality control in the cocoa supply chain.. Our solution was a  swab, you could use to quickly test the level of pesticide in a bag of cocoa and determine whether it passed quality control checks. And that’s the idea we pitched at the hackathon and won.

The thing is, at a hackathon, you tell them what the problem is and what your solution is. Both are constructed by yourself. So when I started exploring the solution we came up with further, it didn’t turn out to be a very practical solution.When we came up with the farmer financing and logistics model, that proved a lot more logical.

So after winning the hackathon and being invited to Cambridge, Robbie goes up there instead of me with this new idea of Seedlink, not the idea I originally pitched to get in.

And you know the reactions all around were… since when did Muhammad become a white guy? There was one person, who was our main mentor and who got us into the programme, I think he very much liked the idea that I (originally) pitched him, despite it being completely constructed by myself, and not very realistic.

He was just a little bit salty about it. I think.

Yuji: So is that the result of a certain ideological orientation, around prizing engineering tools?

Muhammad: I’m not sure exactly, I think everybody would say they basically live in ivory towers. I mean, that’s a little bit of exaggeration, obviously, they don’t actually do that, but there is a bit of a disconnect. And they could not appreciate that you have to pivot if you’re on the ground. I think people in Cambridge are very traditional. They’re very much engineering-focused. After all, Cambridge is a hardware engineering hub.

I still remember this. Didn’t they tell you (Robbie) once: “Why are you doing this in Malawi? I just read this thing on Malawi saying that it was second most dangerous country in the world.”

Robert: It was so ridiculous. [The traditional institutions] want to support this idea with technology, but not when it’s actually like a tangible logistics business, which will do a hell of a lot more to the economy in general. Now you’re going to pull the Corruption Index, like a pretty irrelevant statistic, which you never actually used before, to tell me it’s not ‘safe’ to work there. There was no fetishised ‘Corruption Index’ when we were into tech.

Yuji: I guess what they’re trying to say is, you know, they’ve got economic models they’ve developed and those don’t work in countries with an environment different from what they are used to testing.

Max Gorynski: Metrics like the Corruption Index tend to be very enthusiastically used by large American consultancy firms. From what I understand their appraisals of these kinds of situations are, “Well, if we invest in this small venture, what is the subsequent likelihood that we’ll be able to entice stakeholders from the States to come and invest in this place?”

Robert: So ROI is not with respect to Malawi but in respect to global capital markets?

Max: Precisely.

Robert: You know, these mentoring sessions for Cambridge were held on a Thursday. Yuji, you went to King’s (King’s College London) right?

Yuji: I went to Kings, yeah.

Robert: Okay great, so you know that sports night on Wednesday usually goes quite late (note: this is an understatement).

Yuji: Walkabout Wednesdays

Robert: I would then have to get a train the next morning. So I mean, the interest really just went down rapidly as I saw intellectual ROI diminishing and sports night ROI increasing.

Muhammad: Basically, yeah.

How did you run a team across two continents?

Muhammad: Keeping a team motivated and engaged is one of the hardest parts of running a startup. It’s a skill you have to pick up, and one I wasn’t super good at when I first started building out our team. Add to this the fact that I was trying to manage two teams with very different work cultures across two continents. To give credit to the accelerators, this is a skill they try to build up in you.

Yuji: It’s also what people should do to get the job done, and then also getting them hooked on actually getting the job done…like managing and engaging, right?

Muhammad: My solution in the early days was to bring on people who were intrinsically motivated and give them the freedom to select roles they thought they were best suited for. This did mean we initially had a turnstile of people joining and leaving, but eventually the right people settled.

I will say that even then we had people floating around who were not too engaged. It takes a very specific kind of person with ’founder’ qualities which very few people have. I think that’s the biggest reason why Robbie and I clicked.

Finding and managing a team in Malawi was a whole other story. It was a big culture shock to me. The mindset I had come with was one of workplace equality, where there is no ‘boss’ and where each team member is given the freedom to select their role. The people in Malawi did not like that, and this quickly became apparent when they very directly told me that I need to start telling them what to do. To them, giving them the ‘freedom’ to choose their tasks was extra responsibility, and instead they wanted to be given a well defined task that they could complete and get paid for. It felt very transactional to me at first, but I quickly got the hang of it as whenever I would slip and not provide a task, they would take advantage of that and slack on the job.

So it was interesting seeing the dichotomy of work cultures between the UK and Malawi and having to switch to very different managerial roles whenever I was addressing a specific team.

Muhammad (right) with Paul (Middle) and Mkandawire (Left) part of the Seedlink Malawi team.

Yuji: So if I hear this correctly, despite the obvious difficulties associated with running a multi-continental operation and being away from your core team, as well as all of the downsides of staying in the Cambridge incubator, you still saw the value of having Robbie in Cambridge and not in Malawi?

Muhammad: I mean the whole reason why I spent all this effort to get Robbie to go to the mentor sessions, which I knew were kind of useless, was to keep Cambridge happy.

We had our reputations in London, along with the financial and investment might that the City holds with its banks and institutions, at stake. We needed to keep stakeholders in Cambridge and KCL (King’s College London) happy.

The importance of the London accelerator scene

How were these stakeholders benefitting your business?

Muhammad: It was several factors. Ideally, you want the best of both worlds (London and Malawi). London has a lot of resources.

Firstly, they have technical talent. Your mindset there is also very much an innovative mindset. You keep your mind open, you always see new ideas and new technologies, and you’re always very broad. London also has the capital that we would need if we wanted to scale the business.

In Malawi, you get very engrained with the day-to-day running of the business. So even though London [has] its technology, it has no context to apply that technology to. When I combine the two that’s kind of my unique selling proposition (USP). This is why it was always important for me to keep this bridge between London and Malawi. That was the biggest reasoning behind keeping both stakeholders happy.

Robert: You need to make a distinction between the institutions and the individuals.

As institutions, both Cambridge and King’s are nearly useless, as evidenced in people’s responses of us trying to go to Malawi. That said, we learned some skills relevant for London, but these were not relevant for Malawi. No one would listen to what happened there.

“No, why would you go into the place you’re trying to do business?” Well, why do you think?

The only thing an institution will give you are a few formal settings where you can pitch and potentially receive funds. That’s what you get from these accelerators.

Now, individuals are important. So within each of these places, like London, there were a few individuals. I think calling up Mark Corbett was very important because he was a huge development for us in many ways. Individuals that can actually sit down with you and be open-minded to what you’re saying. They are extremely important. It’s having the willingness and faith to give time. Mark had that.

And listen. I mean, Mark, on his computer had posted, always this sticky note, “ABC”: always be closing. It’s very just at the core of what the business needs to do, you need to sell, you need to get your ROI and you have your sustainability.

Other people bound by their dogmatic accelerator-approach thought that if you went to enough marketing sessions you’d somehow find the path to a sustainable business. In Malawi? It’s not how it works.

Mark would actually sit down, listen to what’s going on, and really tried to analyse the structure of the business to understand where sustainability comes, what’s the plan to get there, and how to maximise it at its fullest potential. Mark did not bind himself to how London said it should work but listened to how it actually worked from our experiences. This is one of the most essential skills to run a successful and ethical business.

It’s not being dogmatic, arrogant, or pompous. It’s not requiring us to translate. It’s not requiring us to sanitise the business realities of Malawi for this normalised vision of what business should be in London. That’s why he we had such good conversations with Mark, he didn’t require that.

If you go down the same path as we did, you will see that there are these people like Mark who provided some sense of community. But they were few and far between.

Is there something from this period of incubation in London that you took with you to Malawi and actually worked?

Muhammad: I would say, less so for Malawi because that was a very different context and more so for startups in general.

I mean, this was the kick-start of my career within startups, because it gave you the startup ecosystem. It gave you access to the community, it gave you office space in central London, it gave you pitch events to go, you were entrenched in the startup community.

I pitched loads of times! If I look at the first time I pitched compared to last time… I could probably pitch anything to you right now.

A lot of times a pitch veils what’s actually going on in your business because you create the context of the problem, and then the context of the ideal solution…but it convinces people and it’s a sales strategy that works.

After the community and pitching practice, the best part about Cambridge, King’s and all these other places: they were absolutely free. They charged me nothing and I did not need to sacrifice equity for their support of my business.

So there really is little I can be complaining about if you’re looking at this as a function of money or return on investment.

Robert: London taught you theatre, right?

Robbie and Muhammad at a pitch event

This is what this was: pitching is a performance.

It’s the most disconnected thing from the reality of business the majority of the time. But that performance creates hype, hope, aspiration, and it creates affect, right?

You have this affectual resonance, you feel inspired, you feel competent.

Muhammad in pitch-mode

This is what London teaches you.

Muhammad puts it in a positive way, but he’s a bit more pragmatic in the sense that realistically you do need to know these things to accrue funds in Euro-America, right?

But I’m also in the position that if you’re accruing funds from people that want you to dance on stage, rather than actually have a genuine conversation about your business, then these are not the people that you should be accruing funds from.

You could also imagine a different type of startup environment where you can be honest about your business, and then even the people that we have worked with, I mean, these people like the opposite of those in your big regal Bush House (literally the most expensive building in London).

I hate it (Bush House). I tried not to go there unless I had a meeting with someone. We’re talking about getting other people motivated, you kind of have to like feed them this potion (the potion of ‘regality’ and elitism).

So imagine a world where you don’t have to do that. Imagine a world where you don’t have to dance. You don’t have to motivate people by lollipops.

What if it’s really just about the business and what you’re doing?

It’s a bloody shame. This is why the majority of young people are going to start-up something, steal, and get on this hype-train to get the fame of running a startup. “I’m 21. I’m a CEO.” Oh ouhlala!

Yuji: Well, it’s a sort of fantasy right? The millennial fantasy of leapfrogging your career by becoming a Founder of something. An illusion for yourself, telling yourself that you’re better… than the little fish at big companies.

Muhammad: Yeah, I totally agree. Actually, I think there are two problems. When you think  of the people that are running accelerators ,they are marketeers, not business people. Many have not even run a startup before.

That means that on the whole, they’re looking for status.

So they don’t want you to tell them that “my business is not doing well” they will ask you questions like  “how many users do you have?”. So they can put that nice little statistic in their marketing brochures about how “our startups have raised this amount of money.” “Our startups have this many users” and everything is going great.

If you don’t report the right statistics to them, no matter how relevant to your business, they’ll see you as a failure.

Robert: We obviously don’t have the same metrics of success.

Muhammad: I mean, they’re not thinking very long term. I find investors are sometimes digging their own grave, because they always talk about the principal agent problem. Startups are not showing the right information, but at the same time, they create the context that startups are pushed towards doing that, and as Robbie said, dancing on the stage.

Robert: Theatre, startup is theatre, everything’s a performance.

Yuji: Yeah. So basically, you ask, ‘How do I get the girl?’ And then they told you how to dance. But then you find out she doesn’t really like dancing.

Muhammad: Yeah.

Max: The whole theatrical experience of startup culture, there’s a kind of maniacal optimism around everything. Quite often, even in terms of how even the really difficult parts of it are contextualised, there tends to be this kind of mania for for every single aspect of the process, and very little of it is ever appraised in any way other than in the most positive possible terms. That you should be so frank with us about it is highly valuable.

Robert It’s important to say this is not a critique of innovation, because that’s the response to this: people will say that innovation is actually a solution to all social problems.

But what do you want out of innovation? In reality, we have most of the solutions, right? If you really want to fix this food logistics problem in Malawi, you don’t need innovation, you need political, economic analysis. Famine does not have to exist in the world. There are enough resources, and we should not be fooled for a second that this is anything other than a political choice.

You need funding from the government. National and international commitment to goals that are defined by common people, not global governance. That’s not on the table within the private sector. You can have government collaborations, but that’s very different than actually having governments commit to funding and prioritising things. Innovation, whatever that actually means, only really goes so far.

Look at the number of startups that actually sustain themselves in East Africa, outside of Nairobi, it’s small! So, you know, innovation is not a solution.

It’s a theatrical performance for which we enjoy. We enjoy it! And that is the colonialist aspect of the present, just like colonialists enjoyed resource extraction we are enjoying the hype of innovation, you know, only accomplishing so much. So Muhammad and I did enjoy it. But we learned that we, and especially London, needed to think farther.


Thanks for reading Part 1 of a multi-part Portrait of Young Founders Muhammad Altalib and Robert Smith. In Part 2, we will jump into Mo and Robbie’s time on the ground in Malawi and how they faced the realities of being an entrepreneur in East Africa.

Categories
Editorial

It is time to talk about Technology differently

While manifestly found in many animal species, humanity’s ability to devise and wield intricate tools is unique in its breadth and impact. Be it part of our genetic code, a proportionally massive cranium or an elegant pair of opposable-thumbs, some set of perfect conditions has allowed for the presence of a magnificent talent; our obsession with finding easier ways to achieve our diverse ends. We would do well to remember this. Technology is not an end in itself, nor is it a single ubiquitously recognised set of means. It is a talent found in all of us, an urge to create and innovate and move past obstacles set before us.

Statistically, most of you will be readers from Europe or North America. Recently, we have been exposed to a certain idea of what “Technology” is supposed to mean. If we go by published output from mainstream Technology- or Business press outlets, we could be easily led into thinking that Technology is euphemism for the “Information Technology industry”. Some of us might associate the word to a mosaic of gadgets that together form part of this vaguely coined “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – a Global economy driven by automation. Why is our definition of Technology so limited?

As initially said by Robert Smith, Co-Founder of Seedlink and anthropology researcher, this is a “Euro-American Centric consensus”. A handful of financiers and technologists from London and San Francisco are setting the tone for how start-ups should be born and companies should be run. It is built around an obsession with the economic domination of four or five Big Tech corporations and the opinions of investors in Silicon Valley or Silicon Circle. This obsession is blinding us from the exciting developments in technology, like the midday sun outshining the moon and stars.

It is in fact a double blind. First you are being misled into thinking IT may be the most important technology, simply by merit of investment volumes and value (see CB-Insights’ 2019 List of Unicorns by Industry). Next that Big Tech may be an appropriate poster-child for contemporary technological development.

Let us decide to take a step-back, or rather, to remove our headsets and examine the question of technology as the fruit of an anthropologically-encoded set of creative or innovative behaviours based on improving the human condition.

Now a gospel to be repeated on San Franciscan dinner-tables, Moore & Grove’s balanced corporate-innovative environment at Intel in the 1970s, created the foundation on which several breakthrough technologies like the MOS transistor and integrated-circuit were developed. This foundation and the success that came with it enabled Intel and several other early digital companies to create a financially-supportive environment for start-ups to pursue ambitious high-risk projects.

It is in fact quite revealing how much directional influence Moore and Grove have had on the ideological tapestry of Silicon Valley. Moore’s law dictates the technical keystone: “The number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years.” Elsewhere, one of Grove’s laws (the exact law is subject to a great-many disputes) dictates the cultural keystone: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” (Attributed to Andy Grove in: Ciarán Parker (2006) The Thinkers 50: The World’s Most Influential Business. p. 70). Another Grovian law is that “A fundamental rule in technology says that whatever can be done will be done.” (Attributed to Andrew S. Grove in: William J. Baumol et al (2007) Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth. p. 228). Built on these two keystones was the ideological evolution of Silicon Valley, built into a highly self-confident arena for microchip-based solutions to an apparently infinite plethora of identifiable problems. It explains the emergence and dominance of disruptive innovation and unique value proposition as pillar concepts. It gives prelude to the impact left by Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which we have already covered here.

The recounting of the early days seems to be missing key ingredients. In addition to the leaders of the Intel corporation, were Gordon French and another Moore, Fred Moore. French and Moore were co-Founders of the Homebrew Computer Club, a club for DIY personal computer building enthusiasts founded in Menlo Park. This informal group of computer geeks was in all intents and purposes a digital humanist entreprise, openly inviting anyone who seeks to know more about electronics and computers to join the conversation and build with like-minded peers. Its great influence on Steve Wozniak and the many Stanford University engineers to that have built the Valley cannot be overstated.

Technologists from across the globe have inspired themselves off of this origin story, and innovative ecosystems have cropped-up in mimickry. New uses of IT, democratised and cheaper-to-access, have led to fascinating developments in parts of the developing world that do not enjoy California’s access to investment funds. And there is also the fact that Silicon Valley was not the only Tech story of the last 50 years (think vaccines, cancer research and environmental technologies). More colours come to light and the grey-bland world of Euro-American financialised IT will fade back into a world of people finding new ways of solving problems, finding new problems to solve, finding new problems from ways of solving, finding new solutions to problems yet unseen.

We dove into the mission of Supriya Rai — who seeks to bring beauty and colour into hundreds of identical-looking London office buildings with Switcheroo. She is now also Wonk Bridge’s CTO!

Portraits of Young Founders: Supriya Rai

We followed Muhammad and Robbie, who broke away from the London incubator scene after an initially successful Agri-tech IoT prototype, to radically changing their business plan to launch a logistics service company in East Africa, against the wishes of their Euro-American investment mentors. Rather than launch Seedlink to improve the lives of Malawians and East Africans at large, which entirely satisfy the white saviour narrative and follow a set of Euro-American prescribed ROIs, they sought to build a proposition that would fit in this unique business climate. How can a company that connects rural farmers to urban centres ignore common practices like tipping that are branded as bribery in the Euro-American world. What explained the gap between the London investors’ expectations and the emerging strategy needed to succeed in East Africa?

Thanks to a double-feature from our China-correspondent Edward Zhang, we analysed how different countries used the power of their societal and political technology as well as how they leveraged their national cultures to combat Covid-19. Sometimes, technologies are a set of cultural values and political innovations developed over the course of generations.

The Chinese Tech behind the War on Coronavirus

The Technologies that will help China recover from COVID-19

We also saw how a different application of a mature information technology such as the MMO video-game has helped fight autism where many other methods have failed.

Building a Haven for the Autistic on Minecraft

The real world

 

Photo by Namnso Ukpanah on unsplash / Edited by Yuji Develle

I am writing this article on the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, in the shade of a hotel found not far from a bustling Tanzanian town. Here, I can observe a much healthier use of technology, less dictated by the tyranny of notifications and more driven by connection between individuals found in the analog. People here use social media and telephones regularly, but they spend the majority of their time outside and depend on cooperation between townsfolk to survive (in the absence of public utilities or private sector).

 

My own photo of a Tanzanian suburb town near Arusha (Yuji Develle / December, 2020)

The Internet is available but limited to particular areas of towns and villages; WIFI hotspots at restaurants, bars or the ubiquitous mobile-phone stands (Tigo, M-PESA, Vodacom).

 

Left: A closed Tigo kiosk, Right: A Tigo pesa customer service shop (Yuji Develle / December, 2020)

The portals to the Digital Civilization have been kept open but also restricted by the lack of internet-access in peoples’ homes (missing infrastructure and the relatively high cost of IT being primary reasons why). It has kept IT from frenetically expanding into what it has become in the North-Atlantic and East Asia.

Like an ever-expanding cloud, the Technology-Finance Nexus has taken over our Global economy and replaced many institutions that served as pillars to the shape and life of analog world.

  • Social Networks have come to replace the pub, the newspaper kiosk, the café
  • Remote-working applications, the office
  • Amazon, the brick-and-mortar store, the pharmacy, the supermarket
  • Netflix, the cinema
  • Steam or Epic Games, the playground

These analog mainstays have been taken apart, ported and reassembled into the digital world. While the size of our Digital civilization continues to grow in volume and richness, the analog is shrinking and emptying with visible haste. The degradations that the disappearances provoke and that the exclusive-use of these Digital alternatives generate are unfortunately well documented at Wonk Bridge.

Astroturfing — the sharp-end of Fake News and how it cuts through a House-Divided

Social Media and the Syndication of the ‘Friend’

A new way of covering Tech

With our most recent initiative, Wonk World, we seek to avoid falling into the trap of overdiscussing and overusing the same Tech stories, told through and about the same territories, as representations of Tech as a whole. We aim to shed light into the creative and exciting rest-of-the-world.

We will be reaching out to technologists and digital humanists located far beyond Tech journalism’s traditional hunting grounds: Israel, China, Costa Rica. We will be following young Founders’ progress through the gruelling process of entrepreneurship in our Portraits of Young Founders newseries. Finally, we are looking for ways to break out of our collective echo-chambers and bring new perspectives into the Wonk Bridge community, so diversity of region as well as vision will constitue one of Wonk Bridge’s credos.

So join us, wherever you are and however you are, beyond the four walls of your devices and into the unexplored regions of the world and dimensions of the mind to see technology as Wonk Bridge sees it: the greatest story of humankind.

Categories
Five Minuter

Astroturfing — the sharp-end of Fake News and how it cuts through a House-Divided

 

A 5-minute introduction to Political Astroturfing.

Dear Reader,

At Wonk Bridge, among our broader ambitions is a fuller understanding of our “Network Society”[1]. In today’s article, we’re aiming to connect several important nodes in that broader ambition. Our more seasoned readers will already see how Political Astroturfing simultaneously plays on both the online and offline to ultimately damage the individual’s ability to mindfully navigate in-between dimensions.

Definition

Political Astroturfing is a form of manufactured and deceptive activity initiated by political actors who seek to mimic bottom-up (or grassroots) activity by autonomous individuals.(slightly modified from Kovic et al. 2018’s definition which we found most accurate and concise)

While we will focus on astroturfing conducting exclusive by digital means, do keep in mind that this mischievous political practice remains as old as Human civilisation. People have always sought to “Manufacture Consent” through technologically-facilitated mimickry, and have good reason to continue resorting to the prevalent communications technologies of the Early Digital age to do so. And without belabouring the obvious, mimickry has always been a popular tactic in politics because people continue to distrust subjectivity from parties who are not friends/family/ “of the same tribe”.

Our America Correspondent and Policy-columnist Jackson Oliver Webster wrote a piece about how astroturfing was used to stir and then organise the real-life anti-COVID lockdown protests across the United States last April. Several actors began the astroturfing campaign by opening a series of “Re-open” website URLs and then connecting said URLs to “Operation Gridlock” type Groups on Facebook. Some of these Groups then organised real-life events calling for civil unrest in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, and Iowa.

The #Re-Open protests are a great example of the unique place astroturfing has in our societal make-up. They work best when taking advantage of already volatile or divisive real-world situations (such as the Covid-19 lockdowns, which were controversial amongst a slice of the American population), but are initiated and sped-up by mischievous actors with intentions unaligned with those of the protesters themselves. In Re-open’s case, one family of conspirators — the Dorr Brothers — had used the websites to harvest data from and push anti-lockdown and pro-gun apparel to website visitors. The intentions of the astroturfers can thus be manifold, from a desire to stir-up action to fuelling political passions for financial gain.

The sharp-end of Fake news

Astroturfing will often find itself in the same conversational lexicon as Fake News. Both astroturfing and fake news are seen as ways to artificially shape peoples’ appreciation of “reality” via primarily digital means.

21st century citizenship, concerning medium/large scale political activity and discourse in North America and Europe, is supported by infrastructure on social networking sites. The beerhalls and market-squares have emptied, in favour of Facebook Groups, Twitter Feeds and interest-based fora where citizens can spread awareness of political issues and organise demonstrations. At the risk of igniting a philosophical debate in the comments, I would suggest that the controversy surrounding Fake news at the moment is deeply connected with the underlying belief that citizens today are unprepared/unable to critically appraise or reason with the information circulated on digital political infrastructure, as well as they might have been able to offline. Indeed the particularity of astroturfing lies in its manipulation of our in-built information filtration mechanism, or what Wait But Why refers to as a “Reason Bouncer”.

For a more complete essay on how we developed said mechanism, please refer to their “The Story of Us” series.

Our information filtration mechanism is a way of deciding which information from both virtual and real dimensions is worth considering as “fact” or “truth” and which should be discarded/invalidated. As described in “The Story of Us”, information that appeals to an individuals primal motivations, values or morals tend to be accepted more easily by the “Reason Bouncer”, just as information coming from “trustworthy sources” such as friends, family or other “in-group individuals”. Of course, just like how teenagers try to use fake-IDs to sneak into nightclubs, astroturfing seeks to get past your “Reason Bouncers” by mimicking the behaviour and appealing to the motivations of your “group”.

The effectiveness of this information filtration “exploit” can be seen in the 2016 Russian astroturfing attack in Houston, Texas. Russian actors, operating from thousands of kilometers away, created two conflicting communities on Facebook, one called “Heart of Texas” (right-wing, conservative, anti-Muslim) and the other called the “United Muslims of America” (Islamic). They then organised concurrent protests on the question of Islam in the same city: one called “Save Islamic Knowledge” and another called “Stop the Islamification of Texas” right in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston. The key point here is that the astroturfing campaign was conducted in two stages: infiltration and activation. Infiltration was key to get past the two Texan communities’ “Reason Bouncer”, by establishing credibility over several months with the creation, population and curation of the Facebook communities. and all that was required to “activate” both communities was the appropriate time, place and occasion.

The “Estonian Solution”

Several examinations of the astroturfing issue have pointed out that, rather than the government or military, ordinary citizens are often the targets of disinformation and disruption campaigns using the astroturfing technique. Steven L. Hall and Stephanie Hartell rightfully point out the Estonian experience with Russian disinformation campaigns as a possible starting point for improving society resilience to astroturfing campaigns.

As one of the first Western countries to have experience a coordinated disinformation campaign in 2007, the people of Estonia rallyed around the need for a coordinated Clausewitzian response (Government, Army, and People) to Russian aggression: “Not only government or military, but also citizens must be prepared”. Hall and Hartell note the amazing (by American standards) civilian response to Russian disinformation, including the creation of a popular volunteer-run fact-checking blog/website called PropaStop.org.

Since 2016, the anti-fake news and fact-checking industry in the United States is booming — with more than 200 fact-checking organisations active as of December 2019. The fight against disinformation and the methods that make astroturfing possible is indeed well and alive in the United States.

Where I disagree with Hall and Hartell, who recommend initiatives similar to those by Estonia in the USA, is that disinformation and astroturfing cannot meaningfully be reduced in the USA without addressing the internal political and social divisions which make the job all too easy and effective. The United States is a divided country, along both Governmental and popular lines. How can the united action of Estonia be replicated when two out of the three axes (Government, Military and People) are compromised?

This — possibly familiar — Pew Research data visualisation (click here for the research) shows just how much this division has exacerbated over time. Astroturfing campaigns like the ones in Houston in 2016 comfortably operate in tribal environments, where suspicion of the internal “Other” (along racial religious, political lines) trumps that of the true “Other” — found at the opposite end of the globe. In divided environments, fact-checking entreprises also suffer from weakened credibility and the suspicion of the very people they seek to protect.

In such environments, short of addressing the issues that divide a country, the best technologists can perhaps do is create new tools transparently and openly. So as to avoid suspicion and invite inspection. But to also seek as many opportunities to work in partnership with Government, the Military and all citizens, with the objective of arming the latter with the ability to critically evaluate information online and understand what digital tools and platforms actually do.

[1] A society where an individual interacts with a complex interplay of online and offline stimuli, to formulate his/her more holistic experience of the world we live in. The term was coined by Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells.

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Repost

Why We Cannot Trust Big Tech to be Apolitical

What Google’s whistleblowers and walk-outs have revealed about working in a politicised information duopoly. How we cannot expect neutrality even in tackling COVID-19.

7:30am in the lobby of an independent news agency, a man of scruffy bearing and sweaty palms keeps looking anxiously at his wristwatch. He wasn’t typically so prone to stress, but the last few weeks have given him good reason to look over his shoulder.

A few weeks ago, he was a nondescript employee in one of the world’s most prominent and influential tech organisations. He had begun to find himself bothered by a series of decisions and practices that sharply clashed with his moral compass. So he quietly collected evidence in preparation for his big day. When that day came however, he became a condemned man; condemned to forever roam under the all-pervasive threat of vengeance from the most powerful technology company in the world. He received an anonymous letter making demands and, demanding cease-and-desist action by a specific date. Then, the police showed up to his door on the specious grounds of concern about his “mental health”. Knowing his life may have been on the line, he created a kill-switch: “kill me and everything I have on you will be released to the public”.

Did you enjoy my screenplay for this summer’s next action-thriller hit? Well I have a confession to make; it’s based on a true story. This is actually the beginning of the tale of Zachary Vorhies — the latest in a long line of Google Whistleblowers.

If you want to skip to the conclusion and its link to COVID-19, please click here. If you want to hear the whole sorry saga then, please, read on.

Google as puppet-master?

For those of you well-acquainted with Big Tech’s ethical mishaps, you may have already heard of the Google Data Dump. It was, in short, a substantial leak of internal Google documents, policies and guidance designed to demonstrate Google’s willingness to deliberately shape the information landscape in favour for a certain conception of reality. Said conception of reality seems to exclude right-wing media outlets, and seeks to promote a socially-liberal agenda. As the old Stalinist adage goes: “It’s not the people who vote that count, but the people who count that vote” — put another way, it’s not the facts that matter so much as how you interpret and arrange those facts (and does Google ever interpret and arrange facts, with their 90% search engine market share!).However shocking the suggestions here may be, we need to read through the coverage of this data dump with a critical eye. As a journalist, whenever I approach such a leak, I like to go through the thought-process of the actors involved. Why did Zachary leak the documents? What drove the decision to leak those documents at a specific date? How did he hear about Project Veritas, why did he provide them with a scoop, and what does the recipient of such data gain?

The leaked documents were shared to Project Veritas, an independent whistleblowing outlet which pledges exuberantly on its front page to “Help Expose Corruption!”. Most of its brand content seems to derive from shocking whistleblower revelations that come with the site’s own flavour of sensationalist titling and conspiratorial imagery.

On the site, Zachary’s story plays comfortably into Project Veritas’ audience-expectations. The audience in question is ambiguous and unknown to the writer, and the reflections made are largely based on the platform’s content-reel. The implications are first allowed to fester, and then spread as part of a bigger conspiracy of liberal Google executives forcing coders to prevent the spread of right-wing populism (as encapsulated by Donald Trump). The data dump itself isn’t intrinsically shocking as much as it is when used to support a particular vision of reality. I discussed this topic with several Google insiders working at the company’s Colorado and Ireland offices. They tell me that most of the information in the data dump is easily accessible and circulated frequently amongst Google employees. They tell me that, while it is frowned-upon to discuss such matters openly, the data dump only began having significant traction whence it landed on the doorsteps of Project Veritas, who knew how to use the data to reinforce a fiery conspiratory narrative.

Google as game designer?

Google’s convenient counter-narrative to these revelations runs along the lines that it’s all because, as Genmai says, “Google got screwed over in 2016”. It is clear that, during the 2016 presidential race, a series of right-wing media outlets managed to navigate through the ludicrously arcane Google and Facebook traffic algorithm, and successfully gamed it to the point at which both publishers had to change the rules of their game. There is a strong sense of enmity at Google about how a handful of Albanian or Macedonian fake news artists managed to “out-hack” Google. Designers at heart, Googlers are uncomfortable with the idea that certain content pieces are able to “outperform” (without directly benefitting Google/Facebook financially). Indeed, the only content that is meant to over-perform is paid/sponsored content.

What these whistleblower scandals and recent walk-outs have proven is that we cannot see Big Tech as monolithic, as a set of corporations acting solely to further the interest of shareholders or of ad revenues. Google is a group of individuals, made up of a plethora of political ideologies and socio-ethnic representations. It is a company full of engineers and designers who are aware of their impact on politics and society through their quasi-duopoly on the information space. With this awareness is a confidence and agency inherited from the “Googler” mindset; a perpetual journey to solve problems, even when alone against all odds. Add these ingredients together and what you have is an unstable cocktail of ideas that sometimes leads to breakthrough innovation, sometimes to conflicts over how best to wield technology to change the world (for the better).

Google as a microcosm of society

Perhaps the tech commentariat should have seen it all coming. Big Tech has accumulated a staggering amount of political power, through information-market dominance and financial success. Cries to regulate Big Tech “monopolies” have reached fever pitch. In the meantime, governments the world-over have urged Big Tech to build solutions to deal with some of the societal and political ramifications of their tools.

Who builds these solutions? Googlers do. The very same Googlers endowed with ideological responsibility, voicing their political and social views so that they may have a say in the way society is ultimately run.

So the more interesting question(s) lies a level below the accusations of the Whistleblowers or of the walkouts:

  • Can we trust people to build/design apolitical/non-ideological tools?
  • Should we, as subjective and emotive people, be always neutral/objective?
  • When did we choose to become subjective, when we become actors in the socio-political world, what accountability and responsibilities come with this decision?

The charge for Big Tech is two-fold, therefore:

  1. We cannot trust Google to be apolitical or non-ideological. Despite claims to impartiality, there is little evidence suggesting a system in place to restrict partiality and individual agency from the tools designed. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be the desire to remain impartial, as demonstrated by the contents of the data dumps and history of industrial actions (walkouts and whistleblowers).
  2. We cannot know Google’s editorial line. We all know that MSNBC leans to the Left. We all know Fox News tends to the Right. Publishers on paper, radio, television and magazine have all remained informative and respected news-outlets, while also recognising their own biases. This is called adopting an editorial line. Masquerading behind their label as a “technology company”, Google and other Big Tech have all relinquished their responsibility to identify inherent bias and to communicate this bias (or take deliberate steps to repeal bias) to its readers/users.

Our next piece on the topic will look at how useful the comparison between editorial lines and product design-bias at Google and other Big Tech companies can be.

Feel free to read through the detailed insights of Wonk Bridge’s read through Project Veritas data leak below. A bientôt!

Project Veritas Case Study

Core claims:

  • Senior executives made claims that they wanted to “Scope the information landscape” to redefine what was “objectively true” ahead of the elections
  • Google found out what he did and sent him an unsolicited letter making a threat and several demands including a “request” to cease & desist, comply by a certain date, and scrape the data (but by then Vorhies already sent the data to a legal entity)
  • “Dead Man’s Switch” launched in case “I was killed”, which would release all the documents. The next day, the Police were called on grounds of “mental health” (something Google does apparently frequently with its whistleblowers)

From the data dump, an oft-cited passage:

“If a representation is factually accurate, can it still be algorithmic unfairness?”. This screenshot from a “Humane tech” (a Google initiative) document was used by Vorhies to say facts were being twisted to manipulate reality into “promoting the far-left wing’s social justice agenda”.

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From the Data dump

Whether or not it does so deliberately, the leaked blacklists point to a preference for slamming the ban-hammer on right-wing conservative or populist content, if our scope is limited to US content.

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Screenshot but you can find the rest of the leaked list here

As a publisher, there is no clear reason why it should be objective here, just like how MSNBC and Fox News are pretty clear in their ideological stances too. The issue is that Google presents itself as a neutral tool.

What is the solution to an overly ideological publishing monopoly? Generally, this translated to the creation of competitors, which has not occurred. Perhaps it’s early days, but there are enough Conservative coders and programmers out there and enough right-wing capital in circulation to create a rival to Google. Just speculation here.

https://spectator.org/what-should-conservatives-do-about-google/

Google’s response to the Project Veritas leak is much more damning, however. The case here being that Freedom of Speech and social activism should be permitted in both cases (Google’s and Project Veritas’). a) The removal of the video from YouTube b) threatening of the whistleblower… Does it qualify as abuse of power?

The crackdown on whistleblowers (evidence: organisers of the Google Walkout), organisers of industrial action in the Google Walkout decried similar discrimination in reverse to that of the right-wing conservative Googlers. ““I identify as a LatinX female and I experienced blatant racist and sexist things from my coworker. I reported it up to where my manager knew, my director knew, the coworker’s manager knew and our HR representative knew. Nothing happened. I was warned that things will get very serious if continued,” one Googler wrote. “I definitely felt the theme of ‘protect the man’ as we so often hear about. No one protected me, the victim. I thought Google was different.”” The claim there was that Google wasn’t doing enough to protect social justice at work (and also in the products they make). The claim here being that Google doesn’t respond convincingly to these allegations.

In a message posted to many internal Google mailing lists Monday, Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research, said that after the company disbanded its external AI ethics council on April 4, she was told that her role would be “changed dramatically.” Whittaker said she was told that, in order to stay at the company, she would have to “abandon” her work on AI ethics and her role at AI Now Institute, a research center she cofounded at New York University.

Now, it is easy to fit these events into a broader narrative of the whistleblower crackdown, but it is clear that perspective plays a huge role in how you view these events. The disbanding of the External AI Ethics Council (which Wonk Bridge has discussed in a previous podcast) was also largely influenced by the Council’s misalignment with the values of a majority of Googlers. Meredith Whittaker may have tried to be balanced in her running of the Council, but that didn’t sit too well with the rest of the company body.

Claire Stapleton, another walkout organizer and a 12-year veteran of the company, said in the email that two months after the protest she was told she would be demoted from her role as marketing manager at YouTube and lose half her reports. After escalating the issue to human resources, she said she faced further retaliation. “My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote. After she hired a lawyer, the company conducted an investigation and seemed to reverse her demotion. “While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day,” she wrote.

Google as a Public Service Provider

The fates of Claire Stapleton, Meredith Whittaker and Zachary Vorhies all demonstrate a common moral dilemma posed by large and influential corporations; the balance between the corporate interest, the sum-total interest of employees, and of the “public interest”. These interests are often in conflict with each other, as is the case around the question of: “How should we manage access to controversial and/or potentially fake content”.

The reason why corporations like Google are not well-placed to answer such questions, is because they are unable to align their interests with the public interest in any accountable way. Well-functioning democracies are better placed to provide answers as their interests align directly to the public interest (in theory). Elected officials are mandated by “the People” to represent “the People” and fulfil the “Public Interest” in a representative capacity. As long as trust in elected officials and their capacity to fulfil the public interest is strong, the social contract continues to align the institutional and public interest.

As we look to our most influential actors (governments, large corporations, influential people) to show us the way through the COVID-19 crisis, the Public’s reaction will largely depend on the key question of whether they see their interests as aligned with the institutions in question. When Google and like corporations involve themselves in seemingly gratuitous philanthropy, they should not be surprised by negative push-back. It is an objectively good thing for Google to use its vast wealth of data to help curb the growth of Coronavirus. But the Public will still doubt whether it is a good thing for Google to actually do this.

 

Useful sources
Google Document (Data) Dumphttps://citizentruth.org/google-whistleblower-reveals-database-of-censored-blacklisted-websites/https://www.realclearpolitics.com/2019/06/25/google_whistleblower_reveals_plot_for_us_elections_478526.htmlVorhies Whistleblower story

https://www.projectveritas.com/news/google-machine-learning-fairness-whistleblower-goes-public-says-burden-lifted-off-of-my-soul/

Project Maven

https://venturebeat.com/2019/04/24/how-google-treats-meredith-whittaker-is-important-to-potential-ai-whistleblowers/

Retaliation against employees who whistleblow

https://www.vice.com/en/article/vb53wy/45-google-employees-explain-how-they-were-retaliated-against-for-reporting-abuse

An academic paper explaining the impact of search-engine manipulation on election outcomes.

https://www.pnas.org/content/112/33/E4512

 

Categories
Editorial

The Coronavirus Power Games

It’s the End of the World As We Blog It, and we feel fine.

Yet as we join millions of observers from our monitors at home, our concern grows for the billions who will suffer the consequences unleashed by COVID-19’s rattling of the international system. This article may be about geopolitics, but it could very well serve as a warning to the powers that be; humanitarian efforts first, power games second.

In 430BC at the height of the Peloponnesian War, an invisible enemy sneaked into the port-city of Piraes — lifeblood of Athens. The great Aegean hegemon was closely linked and dependent to Piraes for its food and supplies. Though both Athens and Sparta worshipped Athena, the goddess of wisdom was going to teach Athens a costly lesson. Her wrath took the form of an epidemic which wiped out nearly 100,000 Athenians (25% of the population); the single-most deadly event in Ancient Greek history.

Just as the tide of war seemed to swing in its favour, The Plague of Athens led to the breakdown of Athenian society, wiping out much of the wealthiest citizens and strongest Hoplites. Adherence to laws and religious belief waned, violent punishments and anti-Athenian xenophobia soared. Hopeless attempts to reinstate control over the city’s 80% of non-citizens translated to a new pernicious form of institutionalised discrimination. As some of the affected came from neighbouring city-states, news of this reached Athens’ allies, contributing to the breakdown of said diplomatic relationships, previously instrumental to Athenian hegemony.

The epidemic did affect the entire region, but nowhere was struck as hard as in Athens, where overpopulation and crowding was already a real problem. A density of 100 people per square mile of land lead to the deforestation and land erosion of the forest and land around Attica (Athens).

Sparta left their siege of Athens to regroup in uninfected lands. Athens gradually lost its diplomatic influence and the trust of its allies, partially from its newer attitudes towards non-citizens but also due to the lack of sustained diplomatic contact. Athens’ trade power destroyed with a breakdown of trust in merchant vessels (thought of as carriers). Its army severely depleted by the deaths of Athenian citizens, key to highly organised Hoplite formations.

In the geopolitical academic cannon, the Peloponnesian War holds a strong place as the forefather of Great Power rivalries: from Rome vs. Carthage (200s BC) to France vs. Germany (1870s). It is thus compelling that behind this war is a landmark event which can also serve as a forewarning for future Great Power rivalries. Today’s rivalry of the United States and China is in a radically different world, between cultures and societies completely alien to Ancient Greece. However, the geopolitical effects of disease and the actions states can take to channel the impacts of said disease are comparable.

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Google trends showing a gradual decline in popular usage of the term “Pax Americana”

If the tragic events of September 11th 2001 marked the beginning of the end of Pax Americana, the events unfolding during this pandemic are a clear sign that we are well into the next geopolitical chapter.

Learning from strategic blunders in the 00s, American foreign policy in the 2010s found itself on awkward footing, and with accordingly awkward decisions to make as to its forward identity. To ditch Interventionism for strategic realism and restraint. To seek “long-termist” policy by engaging regional allies, while also dictating American national interests. To be the “first among equals”. The Obama doctrine was a brilliant assembly of the world’s greatest power’s hawkish and dove-ish leanings. It was a brilliant foreign-policy device so long as it stayed within a familiar Post-Cold War consensus. This framework depended on the United States’ dominance of the financial system (the financial aid and monetary support accompanying it), its military credibility (damaged by twenty years of military stalemates in Afghanistan and the Middle East), and institutional influence (ability to effect change at a global level).

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By the time Donald Trump entered the picture, the United States had lost ground on all three fronts. It may have achieved energy independence thanks to the discovery of huge Shale gas and oil reserves, but this only helped reduce its enthusiasm for investing abroad (this includes reducing America’s budget for multinational institutions such as the United Nations). Years of strategic counter-measures from rival powers like China, Russia and even Iran have pushed the US to retreat into its historical role: a Superpower in Isolation.

After a delayed response by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United States played a major role in containing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa back in 2014–5. It coordinated the international response and even sent 10,000 American personnel to the affected region. Today, as Yuval Noel Harari puts it, America is isolated and in-denial: “concerned by its own greatness”.

Perhaps a testament to the United States’ decentralised governance structure, its current approach to responding to the virus has been principally State and Municipality-driven. Donald Trump has been repeatedly lambasted across the USA for his denial of COVID-19 and now for his blaming of China and the World Health Organisation’s supposed “collusion”. Whereas New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has now been dubbed “America’s Governor”. Cuomo’s media presence, narrative clarity and personal links to COVID-19 (his brother caught the virus) are all great conditions for him to become an homme providentiel (man-of-the-moment). Ahead of an unpredictable 2020 presidential election, Trump may be missing his chance to take advantage of a much needed crisis. His inability to marshal both sides of the aisle and assert Federal leadership on COVID-19 present America’s biggest weakness on the global stage.

American disunity is a handicap to its ability to influence other nations and institutions. The current administration’s complicated relationship with the world-leading American scientific community, indicates an inability to reap the soft power benefits that this community attracts on the world-stage. The characteristically cool relationship between Washington DC and multinational institutions in past years have already ushered a passing of the torch to other world powers. Macron’s France has inherited the mantle of coordinating the Global Climate Emergency response, since his predecessor’s masterful COP-21 conference. Xi Jinping’s China is in the middle of a 25-year strategy of replacing Western-led international institutions with comparable Sino-led organisations: AIIB or NDB. Today, the World Health Organisation willingly chose China as its primary partner in delivering and communicating the global response against COVID-19.

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Despite a rocky start, China has found a way to assume global leadership on the question of Coronavirus. Thanks to the brave actions of a few Wuhan residents, who decried the state of local Chinese hospitals and the lack of face-masks in early February, Xi Jinping rapidly coordinated a “typically-authoritarian” response to the growing number of infected patients. China imposed a total lockdown of the Wuhan region and then confined all non-essential citizens to their homes for two months. A feat still unequaled by any country in the world, China built two field hospitals holding 2600 beds in a matter of 12 days. As the number of Wuhan cases began to slow-down, China was able to use its spare capacity to send “generous face-mask and ventilator donations” to the countries of Europe that were, in late February, becoming the new epicentre of the virus. As supplies were unloaded from a Chinese plane in Italy, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio noted that the aid demonstrated that “we are not alone, there are people in the world who want the help Italy.” This contrasted very strongly with the US-EU travel bans (minus the UK) initially called-for by Donald Trump and the lack of EU-driven solidarity at that stage of the crisis.

China not only impressed the world with its “show of generosity” but also with its ability to impose social distancing and lockdowns across a country of 1.4 billion people. I put parentheses around the word “generosity” because one cannot forget that China is in most cases the primary manufacturer of face-masks, ventilators and other essential supplies. Xi Jinping managed to nevertheless brand the export of supplies by investing in their value as diplomatic gifts for countries-in-need. This is by no means downplaying the value of such support for the countries lacking the supplies, who are only awaiting another generous donation by a global power like China or the United States to help keep people alive.

After a rocky-start and a close-to-perfect diplomatic response, the crisis is entering a new phase. Embellished, China’s credibility as a leader in the global pandemic response and as a credible source for scientific data depends on persistent exemplary behaviour. In early April, China is particularly vulnerable for two reasons:

Taiwan’s investigation into possible collusion between the WHO and China. Technically-speaking the WHO chose China because this virus most likely originated in the Chinese province of Wuhan. It chose China because of its unfortunate position on the frontline, responsible for gathering data and developing solutions aimed at stemming and then slowing the growth of the infected. This said, some outlets have described the WHO’s attitude to China as “largely deferential”, and others even pointed to potential political collusion due to a recent Zoom recording released by Hong Kong English-language outlet RTHK where a WHO official declined to recognise the existence of Taiwan.

It is crucial nonetheless to understand that if a partnership between the WHO and China should be fruitful, it is indeed an understandable move to avoid controversial questions such as Taiwan’s political status foregoing the risk of soiling the relationship. It comes to no one’s surprise therefore that Taiwan has and will continue to look for ways to discredit China and the WHO, and perhaps find new information to come to light about the beginnings of the pandemic. Taiwan found a new track yesterday evening, which if proven valid could indicate that China initially denied the existence of a virus in mid December and decided to cover-up the evidence of an outbreak until several weeks later. If this story reaches a critical mass in Western media outlets, particularly European outlets, many of Chinese recent gains could vanish and trust broken down.

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Image for postSource: Worldmeters (accessed April 11th 2020)

A second-wave of infected patients. Since mid-February, China managed to contain the spread of the virus and restrict its logarithmic growth to barely above zero. After several weeks of stagnation at around 50 new cases per day, China has begun to progressively lift its lockdown on Wuhan. There are fears however that a second-wave of infections, like the one Japan is currently experiencing will restart the exponential growth of January and February. If China gets a second wave, it will damage its example to the world: that lockdown and “social distancing” aren’t sustainable models to follow. In a world where waves of infections are almost impossible to avoid, Wuhan-style lockdowns every few months are a tough ask for decentralised individualistic countries such as those in Europe or North America. Three schools of thought have emerged in Coronavirus disaster response:

  • 1. A Wuhan-style lockdown & social distancing approach, based on centralised government action restricting the movement of people through regulation and law enforcement (China, Italy, France)
  • 2. Massive testing campaigns and intensive citizen awareness efforts, based on informing citizens of updates in their neighbourhoods and workplaces and letting them take necessary steps themselves. (Taiwan, South Korea for the testing, UK)
  • 3. “Herd Immunity” — Which relies on the idea that a person/city/country having caught the virus can develop the antibodies necessary to prevent catching the virus again. Therefore some are pushing for relaxed social distancing policies to build their country’s immunity. (Sweden, UK in Feb)

While the Wuhan-style lockdowns are the current dominant approach to fighting the virus, a second wave could change this and make Testing-first and Herd Immunity approaches more appealing. Always struggling to shrug off the “Big but cheap” stereotype, such a public humiliation could significantly damage China’s regime image abroad in more sectors than just healthcare.

The Plague of Athens saw the transformation of the Aegean geopolitical system with Athens losing its position as hegemon to Sparta’s power and its growing diplomatic influence. Athens bore the brunt of the plague and Sparta had the fortunate sense of retreating its forces from the besieged city of Athens in time to avoid significant infection.

The war on Coronavirus is far from over, with many developments ahead. Who will, for example, win the battle for a treatment method (or even a potential vaccine)? Will second waves come, what will the reaction be if the world discovers a Chinese cover-up of second-wave cases?

Today, it is unclear who will be Athens and who will inherit the new COVID-19 world. China seems to have made inroads with countries beyond its traditional sphere of influence, filling a void left by the slowly reacting EU and the disunited United States. However, China has vulnerabilities regarding its actions early in the crisis and the soundness of its pandemic response. Those vulnerabilities can damage the key ingredient of trust that it desperately needs to overcome the United States on the global stage.

The rivalry between the United States and China, just like that between Athens and Sparta, isn’t only based on economic rivalry or military competition, but on the incompatibility of two governmental models. China is currently showing to the world what a centralised authoritarian model can do. The United States (perhaps due to its model) has not had the chance to show yet.

Whoever can make a more convincing case will be the Power able to define the future international standard for dealing with global emergencies. The geopolitical arena will place pandemic preparedness and response at the top of the international agenda for decades to come. Just as 9/11 defined international action from 2001, the COVID-19 virus will provide a mandate to change the international system.

Categories
Editorial

Art gone bananas? — Meme culture’s entrance into high culture

 

An altered Frans Snyders (1579–1657), Fruit Stall (1618–1621)

Art about bananas. Art is going bananas. Art has gone bananas. Oh what a familiar refrain — “art is no longer valued for its aesthetic value, it makes no sense” says the outsider. “You philistine, art is valuable for it represents a concept, an idea, a commentary, of which you are too infantile or uninitiated to realise” the commodore of pretension claps back.

“Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan

Comedian at the Art Basel gallery in Miami (2019) is the latest episode in the pantheon of expensive art-pieces that are designed to boldly comment on established conventions in the art-world and provoke shock-and-terror amongst the uninitiated. The Basel Banana, along with it’s £100K+ price-tag has a dual objective as an art-piece and as a viral news-story. It can be placed squarely within meme culture — an artistic statement which grows in value through its evolving interaction and usage by a specific community and the public.

The art-world has its say

The first non-controversial point, is that Comedian is a meme within the art-world. Since the emergence of the contemporary art market (watch Oscar Boyson’s explainer here), art has always acted as a type of memetic device conveying trends and stories that were judged importance from within the hermetic artist community (often in as small-a-circle as that of Warhol’s entourage in Brooklyn, NY).

The banana itself holds historical weight. Earliest representations in modern art depict the exotic fruit as a symbol of international trade and commerce, of consumerist culture and unsustainable demand for products sourced in another hemisphere. Then enters art legend Andy Warhol’s cover-art for the Velvet Underground & Nico, VU being a band that knew little commercial success but were once described by Rolling Stone as “the most prophetic band ever”.

Cover-art for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Andy Warhol (1967)

The Velvet Underground went-on to becoming a symbol for anti-communist resistance to oppression — particularly with Václav Havel and the Prague Spring (1969). This association between the fruit and resistance took a new form when the feminist artists The Guerrilla Girls re-appropriated this meme to fight male oppression. Famous examples of this are the photos of the woman seductively eating a banana and politicised pop-posters (seen below).

As memes evolve through time, they will lose their original meaning along with authorial intention. While many will say that Andy Warhol’s banana holds the inspiration for this work, others will say that it is a direct allusion to another story: Yoko Ono’s apple exhibit.

It is said that John Lennon first met his long-love at one of Yoko Ono’s exhibits, biting into an apple placed on a centre-piece pedestal. Exactly in the same way as how David Datuna bit into the banana at last week’s Art Basel:

 

Artist David Datuna reappropriates the origin of a meme

Like jazz, contemporary art has become a co-created art-form in flux, every-changing and mutable. A meme changes its meaning depending on how people interact with it. The original motive of the Basel Banana no longer matters, because it’s meaning has changed dramatically as we interact with it.

Enter the wider public

The second more significant point, is thus how the Comedian became a “popular” or folk meme.

No matter how hard artists from within the “inner circle” try to influence (or force-through) interpretations of their work to the public, Comedian demonstrates how artistic intent matters little in a world where everyone could become an artist. Death of the author is real and quite unstoppable.

The broader public, in aggregate, has the ability to change and reappropriate artwork just as it can do so for memes. In fact, it sometimes do so even better than the Basel or Frieze insiders, by simple nature of the amazing creativity and truth-to-zeitgeist of crowd-sourced content.

Although I am not proficiently versed in the art market, I can observe at least that a major quality of the more successful artists today is the ability to keep an ear on the ground for the latest social movements and political issues. On this, the algorithmic panopticon that is social media can (provided echo-chambers are brought down) do a better job.

The public had its first swing at the meme when it made fun of the artwork in various ways (sticking a banana to the NYC subway or on the hairy chest of a middle-aged man). It then had its second more-devastating swing, when an artist removed the banana entirely and replaced it popular folk meme “Epstein didn’t kill himself” (written in fake blood). This, along with throngs of smartphone wielding onlookers, “forced” Emmanuel Perrotin to remove the piece entirely from his exhibit.

Unfortunately for Perrotin (the curator), the damage is already done. In his own words:

“[Datuna] did not destroy the artwork. The banana is the idea”

Maybe he should have said: ‘I did not destroy the artwork. The wall is now the idea’. For by vandalising the wall after the removal of the banana, the vandaliser — this people’s vigilante for memetic justice — made the artwork more about the blank canvas that the walls of an art gallery represent.

These walls now belong to the audience. The much wider audience that contemporary art is blessed/cursed to have.

Categories
Editorial

Seeing Is Not Believing

We still have trouble understanding 21st century communication. Taking a page out of Mirzoeff’s book, let’s see how the digital age has changed the way we understand visual media differently.

Eric Garner’s death by NYPD chokehold, went viral and spawned some of the largest #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe protests in the past years. However, along with several other high-profile police-linked murders in the USA, the same videos were fueling white-supremacist and NRA membership.

How can a video spawn such contrasting views?

The answer lies in the way people interpret information in the digital age.

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s How to See the World sheds a crucial light on the physiological and sociological reasons that drive today’s communication paradigm.

Seeing is not only about the eyes

Before the momentous coming of the Information Age, images held a special and rare place in political culture. They were valued as important sources of evidence, even proof. The effect of IMINT (Images Intelligence) during the Cold War was crucial.

A bird's eye view of Cuba.
IMINT used during the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

Our growing visual conscience

IMINT was central to the USA exposing the Soviet Union for its activity during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). On the flipside, the 1960 Gary Powers incident, when a U-2 surveillance fighter was shot down by the USSR, marked one of America’s low points.

Forty years later, in 2003, Colin Powell used IMINT to (intentionally or unintentionally) mislead the UN Security Council into invading Iraq.

A military diagram.
IMINT used in Colin Powell’s UN testimony 2003 (source)

The images were labelled and commented on, professionally and under-oath. At this point, we can already notice that it was slightly more difficult for Powell than it was for Kennedy’s team. Not because the IMINT was fake, but because society’s relationship to visual data was beginning to change. Check out his historical speech here.

Contrary to 1962, Powell’s use of visual data was received with scorn and skepticism abroad. Dominique de Villepin’s speech in response de Powell and against the invasion of Iraq is still hailed as a high-point of French diplomacy. As Mirzoeff puts it, in the first possible political use of Microsoft PowerPoint, the highly annotated slide shows how annotation can actually can actually raise more eyebrows.

As we’ve exposed ourselves to more visual data, we’ve come to expect so much more from images; heavily annotated black/white IMINT just doesn’t cut it.

Source

In fact, in the years following, the satirical use of political images and the development of text-image combinations (memes) became one of the most impactful displays of socio-political protest. My favorite is when Iran, to mask a technical failure, doctored an extra missile into their strategic missile-test images.

The Internet Revolts

We See With More Than Just Our Eyes

In 2009, Nassi and Callaway discovered that among primates visual processing occurs on two ‘streams’ of brain activity. As Mirzoeff alludes, vision is a plural noun: perception and action. ‘One aspect identifies a friend, and the other reaches for his/her hand to shake it.’

Felleman & van Essen, “Hierachy of Visual Areas”

In fact, there are over 80 (and counting) different areas of the brain associated with processing vision. Felleman & Van Essen’s “Hierarchy of Visual Areas” effectively map out this neurological complexity.

On a sensory level, vision is already a collaborative effort. While looks can be deceiving, your five other senses + a plethora of other visual sensors associated to the brain can aid you in identifying and associating what you see with your lived experience.

Yet, seeing is as much based on mindset as it is on sensory experience. Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow explains how we “think”. Kahneman points at how judgement can be determined by an interaction between one’s System 1 (intuitive/emotional) and System 2 (analytical/rational) cognitions.

‘During the talk Kahneman offered his take on how the mind processes information in two distinct ways. “System 1,” he explained, is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach. “System 2,” he said, refers to the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates. But the first often dictates the second.’ — Koleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer

Simply put. People “see” what they are used to seeing. Our tendancy towards associating what we perceive visually with predetermined ideas, is a way of creating an understanding of the world around us. This understanding is what provides us with the cognitive stability to feel safe in the world. It is thus difficult to shake off.

Simon & Chabris’ “Can You See the Gorilla?” is a selective attention test from 1999 that exposes how our two systems can lead to cognitive dissonance. The experiment was uploaded on YouTube in 2010 and immediately went viral; society is fascinated with these amusing occurrences.

While the experiment is rather simple and amusing, these neurological traits have grave consequences socially and politically. Over the years, we all develop cognitive biases or pre-supposed judgements that are filed into our System 1 brains. They lead us to living in a prison of the mind, a cortexual isolation. Many Americans can develop a hostile attitude towards Muslims due to a cognitive association of terrorism with the Muslim demographic. It is no coincidence that xenophobia towards Muslims is found most often in communities with the lowest amount of Muslims or minority populations.

Along with a swathe of other factors (of course), the media’s constant discussion of Muslims in the context of war and/or terrorism has cemented this perception among those who can’t counter-balance this view with other experiences. In this lens, Donald Trump’s hate speech towards Hispanics, Muslims and pretty much every other minority (+ women), can’t be defeated with raw logic and clear explanation. Instead, it may be more useful to help the American public shift its mindset in a way so that it can “see” the gorilla.

Should you have an idea on this, do shoot us a message.

We are being told how to think

Today, our constant connection to the Internet and social media has put our critical thinking at risk. My favourite YouTuber, Evan Puschak, made a video about “The Treachery of Images”. Watch it now, and then I guarantee that you will spend the rest of your day watching all of his other videos.

C’est en meme temps une pipe, et pas une pipe.

You knew it was coming. It’s the artpiece everyone starts piping about (the pun is always intended) as soon as the conversation on communication goes cognitive.

René Magritte’s “La Trahison des Images” (or “The Treachery of Images”) is a simplistic painting of a pipe with “this is not a pipe” transcribed underneath it. It comments on how we often take images for granted. René reminds us that just because we think we know what the drawing (or data) is about, does not mean we are right.

Source: http://imgur.com/a60AHPr

That the mental association we make (this drawing looks like a pipe and therefore is a pipe), is fundamentally incorrect.

Yet, at the same time, it is a commentary on commentary itself. Why should anyone trust the text underneath (this is not a pipe)? What authority does the painting have in dictating the way I think/feel about it?

The text traps you into a certain interpretation. It reduces your options. As is often the case for the most important events covered by the media, primary sources are rare and shallow at best. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings and images from the Middle East are rare to come by and heavily annotated.

Of course, it is important to analyse and explain events to audiences. But being unable to provide recourse to critical thinking and/or to opposing schools of thought can lead to ignorance.

For instance, Vox has become a one-stop resource on YouTube for visual explanations on current events (particularly for American liberals). This video seeks to use data representations to highlight certain topics of the Gun Debate in America.

YouTube is a great medium when it comes to annotating data as it ensures artists get a monopoly on the creative process. Nevertheless, the comments section still allows for conversation/cynicism:

The Washington Post’s use of the Federal Bank of St.Louis’ gun violence infographic leads to a more “balanced” annotation of the data.

Source: http://knoema.fr/infographics/ltziteg/police-shootings-in-the-united-states

It can be interpreted in two different ways. There are six key pieces of data on this infographic:

  • Total Number of Casualties in 2015–2016 for Whites
  • Total Number of Casualties in 2015–2016 for Blacks
  • Number of casualties per 100,000 people for Whites
  • Number of casualties per 100,000 people for Blacks
  • Oklahoma figures
  • Washington D.C. figures

A person interested in linking the gun violence issue with race inequality and police brutality would more likely use the per 100,000 people casualty figure and discuss the Oklahoma figures. A person who thinks that gun violence has little to do with race and/or the police would likely look at total casualties and D.C. figures.

Concluding part one.

I am dividing this thought-piece into two parts. This piece treated how our obsession with cognitive association leads us to losing our ability to think critically. The next section will look at how we can change the way we communicate to better fit this new reality.

Let us not forget René Magritte’s lessons. Humans are especially vulnerable to generalisation. 21st century media is particularly guilty of simplifying events and experiences to mere intuition and/or ‘feelings’. In the context of rising extremism and radicalisation, we should be mindful of who’s in charge: the subject or the object?