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Sometimes, carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.
— Albert Camus, The Fall

(Source: larmoyante, via tarkovskian)

Link: To Zion and Back

Ismail Khalidi interviews Max Blumenthal on the rise of Israeli extremism.

Max Blumenthal’s 2009 book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, was positively reviewed and garnered plenty of media attention, landing on the New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists. Progressives and liberals embraced Blumenthal’s analysis of the extreme right in the US, and championed his prowess as a writer and investigative journalist. His latest book, on the other hand, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books), which he describes as a “compendium of Israeli extremism,” has received far less mainstream coverage since its release in October 2013, and has opened Blumenthal up to a barrage of criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Upon the release of Goliath, The Nation’s Eric Alterman wrote a scathing review, “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook,” which Blumenthal later responded to in the same publication.

Blumenthal is known, in part, for his viral (and later censored) YouTube video reports from West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in which he filmed groups of partying young Israelis (including many of American stock) around the time of President Obama’s first official trip to the region in 2009. In “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem on the Eve of Obama’s Cairo Address” and “Feeling the Hate in Tel Aviv,” Blumenthal and his Israeli-American colleagues captured flashes of casual intolerance and racism in Israeli society rarely seen in the West: young Israelis and American Jews directing racist taunts at President Obama and regurgitating ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab tropes with fervor. Goliath is in part an expansion on this theme, based on about a year’s worth of reporting in Israel/Palestine and five years of research.

While the book focuses on the rightward shift in Israel—from its settler population (well over half a million today) to its political class and its Russian newcomers—Blumenthal also gives us a glimpse into Israel’s marginalized anti-Zionist left and the lives of its liberal Tel Aviv elites, the latter making up the bulk of Israel’s Labor Party. Goliath differs from most mainstream reporting on the conflict in that it is not entirely Israel-centric. In Blumenthal’s Israel—unlike in most of the US media’s reporting or in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land (Shavit was interviewed in Guernica in December)—Palestinians are not simply one-dimensional props in the background of Israel’s soul-searching about the past and decision-making about the future. Instead they are impossible to ignore.

I spoke with Blumenthal in a small sushi bar in the West Village during a break from his book tour. He was overflowing with analysis of the latest developments in Israel/Palestine (where he travels frequently). As in his writing, he does not shy from using words like “racist,” “fascist,” and “extremist” when describing certain Israeli policies and individuals. Blumenthal insists that he does not use them for shock value, but to accurately express what he has seen firsthand. “After a few months [in Israel],” he told me as we discussed the book, “you stop noticing every incarnation of radicalism and violence in Israeli society. It is so saturated into the reality that it practically fades into the scenery.”

Ismail Khalidi for Guernica

Guernica: The last month has seen the killing of three teenage Israeli settlers near Hebron and a massive Israeli sweep into the West Bank in which hundreds of Palestinians were arrested, injured, and killed. Earlier this month a Palestinian teen was abducted and killed by Israelis in Jerusalem (who are said to have burned the boy alive). Now the Israeli military is engaged in an offensive against Gaza while Hamas fires rockets toward Israel. What do the last month’s events tell us about the state of the conflict?

Max Blumenthal: The entire crisis occurred against the backdrop of a peace process that Netanyahu was blamed for destroying and in the wake of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal, which the US recognized and which Netanyahu was determined to destroy as well. The kidnapping of the three Israeli teens by what appears to be a rogue Hamas cell apparently seeking to generate some kind of prisoner exchange was too good of an opportunity for him to waste.

And so, as I’ve documented with on-the-record sources, Israeli investigators, Netanyahu and the honchos of the military-intelligence apparatus knew by the sound of gunshots on a recorded call by the teens to the police that the teens were killed right away. And they chose to lie, not only to the teens’ parents, whom they sought to deploy as props in their global PR campaign, but to the Israeli public. Through a military gag order, the Israeli media was not allowed to report on the investigation or the details of the recorded phone call. With the Israeli public and the world convinced that the teens were alive, Israeli troops ransacked the West Bank under the guise of a rescue mission, and embarked on a global propaganda campaign centering around the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys. The Israeli public was not emotionally prepared for the discovery of the teens’ bodies because they thought they would be returned home as Gilad Shalit was. So Netanyahu and his inner circle set the public up for a truly dangerous reaction.

In Goliath, I detailed the rise of anti-Arab mobs comprised of soccer thugs and of the burgeoning anti-miscegenation movement in Israel. Netanyahu’s manipulation of the kidnapping and his response to the discovery of the dead teens—he said, “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created”—validated these elements and emboldened them as they set out for revenge. Those young men who abducted the Palestinian teen Mohamed Abu Khdeir met at one of the revenge rallies in Jerusalem; they were fans of the soccer club Beitar Jerusalem, which I wrote about in Goliath and whose racist history is absolutely legion. The killers forced Abu Khdeir to drink gasoline and burned him alive. In a place where an eliminationist strain of racism has been so thoroughly mainstreamed, it might actually be a misnomer to call them “extremists.”

Now we come to the bombardment of Gaza. Netanyahu had blamed “all of Hamas” for the three teens’ kidnapping, calling them and the teens’ killers “human animals.” So while he is forced to denounce vigilante violence after helping inspire it, he needs to allow a society seething with resentment and thirsting for vengeance with a release valve. That is the function that Gaza serves in the Israeli psyche. Under Hamas’s governance, it is at once the epicenter of evil and the collective punching bag. There is no evidence that anyone there had any role whatsoever in the kidnapping in the West Bank. But they must pay the price in their own blood.

Once again I find myself saying, “Unfortunately, I was right.” And I say that with a certain level of frustration because I sensed that there were many, particularly in liberal Jewish circles, who did not want to see the Israel that unfolded on the pages of my book and who studiously ignored the warnings I tried to relay to them. Now they are forced to reckon with the reality and don’t really seem to have the words to effectively explain it all away as they used to be able to.

Guernica: Talk about your approach to capturing and writing about experiences in which you essentially go undercover. How do you gain access without arousing suspicion?

Max Blumenthal: My privilege as a white Jewish American in Israel is a major factor in getting me so much access to the key institutions of the Jewish state. I traveled to Israel/Palestine last September and was mostly in Ramallah, the occupied pseudo-capital of the Palestinian Bantustan in the West Bank—the Palestinian “state” that never will be. A lot of Palestinian-Americans have hawiyas, the green Palestinian IDs that limit them to the West Bank. These folks generally have the same education level as I do. Some of them work for NGOs in Ramallah, including outfits that have been raided by Israeli forces, and they have given up fairly comfortable lives in the US to contribute to Palestinian society. But they cannot travel around the land like I can. Some of them have actually asked me to help sneak them into Jerusalem or into Jaffa, places they want to visit or to see, places that they have deep connections to—familial, cultural, professional—but which are off limits to them because they are Palestinians who hold Palestinian IDs. It’s really upsetting as an American to witness their predicament. Here in the US we’d be equals, or at least, we would technically enjoy the same legal rights. There they are inferior to me simply because I have J-positive blood and they don’t.

Guernica: You were able to enter the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and spent time there interviewing people for the book.

Max Blumenthal: I spent a lot of time there and I interviewed over a dozen lawmakers who were behind the parade of anti-democratic laws that were passed between 2009 and 2013. One of these was the “NGO Law,” which attempts to limit foreign funding for NGOs, a law very similar to one authorized by Vladimir Putin in Russia. Another law passed during this time was the “Nakba Law,” which is very similar to the law Turkey has on the books to suppress acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. This law limits the rights of Palestinians to publicly observe the Nakba [the word Palestinians use, which means “catastrophe,” to refer to the dispossession of three-quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948]. It basically slaps penalties on organizations and NGOs that participate in these events. The “Acceptance to Communities Law” allows communities of up to four hundred family units to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and religion, basically bringing Israel’s system of de facto segregation into de jure form. Winning the trust of these lawmakers was not very difficult as Max Blumenthal, the Jewish guy, even if I was posing adversarial questions. If I was a Palestinian reporter or even an African-American, they might have been more suspicious. Knesset members would frequently appeal to my Jewishness in an attempt to win me to their side.

Guernica: What about with more radical right-wing activists? How does that play out?

Max Blumenthal: I attended a party hosted by Im Tirtzu, a right-wing Israeli student group that kind of functions as the grassroots arm of Netanyahu and the Likud party. It aims to attack the NGOs and human rights groups and generally harass Palestinian-Israeli civil society. They stage counter-protests to the very small anti-war protests that happen on Israeli campuses, menace Palestinian students on those campuses, and blacklist “post-Zionist” academics. To get into the party, which was held at a bar in an affluent city called Herzliya, I just told the student activists at the door that I was an American-Jewish tourist and I had heard there was a party—I acted clueless. While I was there one of these Im Tirtzu apparatchiks sat down at the bar and began to hold forth. He reminded me of an American neocon, and even recommended to me the work of David Horowitz to explain why left wingers needed to be purged from the academy. And yet it was an otherwise mundane gathering, almost exclusively young guys wearing polo shirts and designer jeans listening to American music. You wouldn’t know they were extremists from the looks of them.

The night ended with a call for Ben Gurion University to fire twelve professors who Im Tirtzu deemed “post-Zionist” or insufficiently Zionist. So the Likud party, through its policies and its various wings and allies, is not only boycotting the Gaza Strip and Palestinian society in general, it is involved in organizing boycotts of Israel’s own national universities. This is completely consistent with the push to strip human rights NGOs of funding, punish Israeli citizens who boycott settlement products, gut Israeli high school textbooks of any reference to Palestinian dispossession, and generally realize Joseph McCarthy’s wildest fever dreams.

Guernica: In terms of the State of Israel, what are some trends not being reported in the mainstream media?

Max Blumenthal: The state is an ethnocracy, which means its institutions exist to provide privilege to one ethnic group over another and physically and legally exclude the “other.” This is the definition of extremism, or at least the basis for its promulgation and promotion.

I came into direct contact with the atmosphere of extremism immediately upon arrival. On the first night of an extended trip into ’48 Israel, I was staying in Jaffa, a once-vibrant Palestinian city, which is now a Palestinian ghetto of Tel Aviv that is being aggressively Judaized. Not too far from there is Bnei Brak, which is an ultra-Orthodox community. The people there were staging protests around the country at that point because the Supreme Court had passed a ruling forbidding an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school from segregating Mizrahi students and Ashkenazi students. While rampaging through the neighborhood, they set a huge fire in our dumpster. That was my first night in Jaffa! After a few months you stop noticing every incarnation of radicalism and violence. It is so saturated into your reality that it practically fades into the scenery.

Guernica: One does not typically get that impression reading mainstream US coverage.

Max Blumenthal: No. But it is right there if you choose to report it. Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner and the rest of the reporters at the New York Times Jerusalem bureau actually have to devote endless stores of energy to avoid reporting on all of the outrages unfolding all around them. Instead of reporting on the Prawer Plan to ethnically cleanse Bedouin citizens of Israel, for example, or the anti-African race riots in Tel Aviv—pivotal events in the history of the state of Israel—Rudoren covers a beauty contest for Holocaust survivors or takes to Facebook to complain about how she missed her spinning class but made up for it by scaling the steps of a building in Gaza destroyed by Israeli bombing. And when Kershner covers the national campaign to expel non-Jewish Africans, she focuses the story on the liberal Israelis and their anguished souls, rather than on the Africans who are being rounded up and placed in camps for the crime of not being Jewish. Just imagine if they went out and covered what was actually happening on the ground and clinically detailed the logic and planning behind it.

When I stayed in Jaffa, just five minutes south of Tel Aviv, I witnessed racist extremism all around me through the state-orchestrated process of Judaization. In Jaffa, this process takes the form of a very politicized kind of gentrification, with wealthy Tel Aviv tech entrepreneurs and wealthy American Jews being planted into the heart of this poor, deliberately neglected community—where, by the way, there are/were five hundred standing eviction orders, almost all for Palestinian residents. Judaization in Jaffa also has relied on the increasing presence of religious nationalists not so different from the fanatical settlers in the West Bank. My favorite fish restaurant, a Palestinian-owned place where I would sometimes hang out with friends and colleagues from Tel Aviv, was attacked and firebombed by right-wing extremists. A house down the street was attacked and just weeks before one of the oldest Muslim graveyards in Palestine was vandalized in a “price-tag” attack by settlers. This is inside the heart of “Israel proper.” Soon after that a group of settlers won an auction to build a religious nationalist yeshiva in the middle of Jaffa.

Guernica: How does the Israeli left regard the country’s rightward trend?

Max Blumenthal: It was not the right-wing Russians or the gun-toting settlers who carried out the Nakba. The Nakba is the legacy of Zionism’s putatively socialist wing. It was the grandfathers and mothers of the “enlightened public” of today’s Israel who literally drove tens of thousands of indigenous Palestinians into the sea in 1947-48 all along the Mediterranean coast, or who marched them at gunpoint to Ramallah. In the years leading up to the Nakba, during the 1920s and ’30s, Socialist Zionists implemented the project of Kibush Ha’avodah or the “Conquest of Labor,” establishing Jewish-only businesses and residential communities while organizing boycotts of Jewish businesses that hired Arabs. That meant attacking fellow Jews who didn’t uphold the same concept of separation and maintained business and community ties with Palestinian Arabs. So the legacy of the Zionist left of Tel Aviv is the Nakba, and the perpetuation of the Nakba is required to preserve Tel Aviv as one of the most homogenous cities on earth. There are fewer Arabs in Tel Aviv, one of the largest cities in the Middle East, than there are in Chicago, the largest city in the American Midwest. Just think about that for a second. How do you accomplish such a remarkable feat of social engineering without massive violence?

When the popular committee and some of the Arab civic activists in Jaffa asked for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality to include some Arabic writing on the city log to acknowledge the Arab presence and tradition and history there, Ron Huldai, the mayor, rejected the idea out of hand. He argued that there were so few Arabs living in the municipality that he had no reason to officially acknowledge their presence. This instance perfectly symbolized the form and function of Tel Aviv, the city that stands as the economic and political bulwark of settler-colonial apartheid, but also as its liberal mask. Without the Iron Wall, there would be no Tel Aviv bubble.

Guernica: The term “demographic threat” is bandied about and repeated here in the US, by journalists and liberal Zionists and politicians. Secretary of State John Kerry used this kind of language this past December, in fact, to refer to a “demographic time-bomb.” What does it mean, in effect?

Max Blumenthal: The term “demographic threat” is the language that justifies ethnic cleansing, transfer, ghettoization, siege, exclusion, refugee camps, and displacement and separation. As such, it is the term that distills the logic of Zionism’s approach to non-Jews.

This language has pretty dark connotations in the US, echoing Southern antebellum fears of slave revolts in areas where blacks outnumbered the white agrarian class. In today’s America, if figures as extreme as Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck were to say outright that we must stop the Mexicans or Muslims or what have you from staying in the US because they’re having too many babies and we’ll lose the character of white Christian America by 2050, they’d face serious consequences. You can be a bigot in the US, but you can’t come out and openly declare your support for racial nationalism. Only Zionists get to proclaim their fear of a brown planet while simultaneously maintaining a patina of liberal respectability.

Guernica: How does what’s taking place in Israel compare to the rightward anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim trends in Europe?

Max Blumenthal: I think we need to draw a contextual distinction between what the neo-fascists of Europe would like to do and what the state of Israel has done, and is currently doing. While rightists in Europe advocate the exclusion of immigrants, especially Muslims, and seek to prevent all forms of immigration, to conduct mass deportations and make immigrants’ lives horrible in order to preserve the white, Christian character of their countries, they are still not advocating anything as extreme as mainstream Zionists are. None of these figures—at least none that I’m aware of—are hatching plans at the government level for mass population transfer, or actually ejecting hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from their homes and driving them over the border by force. Over 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967, mainly for demographic reasons, and today many mainstream liberal Zionists advocate “land swaps.” This is code for stripping hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel living near the Green Line of their citizenship in order to preserve Israel’s ethnic purity. This actually puts liberal Zionists to the right of European neo-fascists.

Guernica: How does 1967 figure into the equation for liberal Zionists?

Max Blumenthal: The Zionist left talks about 1967 as the greatest disaster in the history of Israel, but they are not necessarily beating their chests over the suffering of Palestinians under the occupation. It certainly pains them to have to recognize that Israel has not proven to be a benevolent colonial overlord, that it has not lifted up the Palestinian standard of living as many left-wing Zionists believed they could when they captured the West Bank and Gaza. What really destroys the Zionist left about the legacy of 1967 is that it led to the rise of the religious nationalist right, which has gradually supplanted them as the captains of the Jewish state by vowing to complete the unfinished process that began in 1948. Another reason the Zionist left gets so upset about 1967 is that the whole project of Greater Israel threatens the ethnocracy they founded—that the possibility of annexing more Palestinian territory means the possible absorption of hundreds of thousands of demographic threats, of human contaminants to the ethnically pure Jewish state. And so they campaign endlessly for a two-state solution, or better yet, a one-and-a-half state solution, to correct the error they committed in 1967.

What I have tried to do in my journalism is to document the state of the Zionist left and Israel’s “enlightened public” in its current phase. And what I have found is a largely detached sector of society that has little ability to influence the facts on the ground and which has turned inward, into their Tel Aviv bubble. Thanks to the momentary success of Netanyahu’s strategy of “peace without peace” and the disappearance of Palestinians after the Second Intifada, the “enlightened public” is able to experience a sense of European-style normality. They don’t need to worry about the occupation when there is no resistance to it, when Ehud Barak’s vision of Zionism as “a villa in the jungle” has been seemingly realized.

This is why the last leader of the Labor Party, Shelly Yachimovich, basically conceded there was no hope of ending the occupation and turned her party’s attention to lowering cottage cheese prices and making improvements in the national insurance system. She filled her party with the leaders of the 2011 tent protests, this incredibly peculiar national protest movement that consisted of thousands of young Israelis filling the streets to call for “social justice” while completely ignoring and refusing to acknowledge the occupation. The current state of the Labor Party reflects the normalization of settler-colonialism to the point that it seems invisible. This is why the BDS (boycott, divest, and sanctions) movement upsets liberal Zionists so greatly: it threatens to remind the “good” Israel that it is an active participant in an anachronistic project of settler-colonialism and that it can’t experience real normalization until Palestinians are granted rights.

Guernica: You lived for a time in Jerusalem. Talk about the scene there.

Max Blumenthal: I dedicate about a third of the book to my experiences in central Jerusalem, where I lived on a top floor walkup with a bunch of leftist Hebrew University students who had draped a banner out the window that read “Free Gaza.” And below us was a pedestrian shopping mall frequented by settlers and American-Jewish fanatics. The flat was a kind of sanctuary from virtually everything that existed outside our front door and it served as a sort of smoke-filled situation room for local leftists. I was there at a really unique time, when the movement to protest the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah just fifteen minutes away from us was at its height and the Palestinian popular struggle in the West Bank was still gathering momentum. These were doomed movements, of course, but they at least offered us a way to stave off the sense of dread at creeping fascism.

To give you an idea of the environment, just up the street from the flat was a bookstore called Pomerantz with a big picture on the window of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who spied for Israel and is in jail for life, and who right wingers are determined to see released. I walked into that bookstore to look for a book [Torat Hamelech, published in 2009] that been described in the Israeli paper Maariv as a “guide to killing non-Jews.” It was written by two settler rabbis from a yeshiva in Yitzhar, near Nablus, whose salaries were tendered by the state of Israel. The purpose of the book was basically to provide religious sanction for genocide; it was like a guide for when it is permissible to slaughter gentiles framed within a really demented vision of Jewish law. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, it has sold more copies than Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. So I went to Pomerantz to order the book because I wanted to get a comprehensive translation of it online, and I encountered the owner, a former firefighter from the US who had a religious awakening and moved to Israel. He says to me, “Look at that camera behind you. It goes straight to the Shabak.” It became clear that the store was under surveillance because it was a gathering place of religious nationalist settlers, the kind who carry out “price tag” attacks and sop up texts like Torat Hamelech.

A few days later there was a convention at the Jerusalem Ramada dedicated to defending the publication of this guide to killing non-Jews. I went with my roommate, a really remarkable guy named Yossi David, who was raised ultra-Orthodox and has turned into a full-fledged secular leftist. When we entered the hotel we found a veritable who’s who of state-funded rabbis, rabbis from yeshivas in major Israeli cities, gathered on a panel to defend this book before several hundred right-wing activists. When we entered, prayers were underway, and Yossi immediately joined them to avoid having us stand out—this goes back to your first question about how I was able to get so much access. So I reluctantly started davening with these settlers and I distinctly remember how gut-wrenching it was to chant the Kaddish with them, to say the mourner’s prayer alongside a bunch of people I consider to be racists. But here I was praying in the same hotel ballroom as Dov Lior, the rabbi who called for live human experimentation on Palestinian prisoners, and Baruch Marzel, the settler thug who runs anti-miscegenation vigilante squads, and Michael Ben-Ari, then a Knesset member who told me that Jordan was actually a part of Israel.

When the conference began in earnest, one major state rabbi after another rose up and defended this genocidal book, not necessarily on its merits, but because they feared that if it was censored, their own speech would be limited. And all of this is taking place in a Ramada banquet hall with chandeliers overhead and fake houseplants everywhere—a perfectly appropriate setting to illustrate the normalization of racist extremism in Israeli life.

Guernica: Is this kind of ideology widespread?

Max Blumenthal: Just consider a poll conducted by Ynet, the online version of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most influential paper, which showed that 46 percent of Israelis support “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, and that a vast majority of religious Israelis favor them. You can see how far the most extreme settlers have gotten in terms of influencing the national consciousness.

Guernica: And these settlers are funded by the state?

Max Blumenthal: The most extreme religious nationalist rabbis, yeshivas, and settlements—those I described earlier—are state-funded and also funded heavily by American NGOS with 501(c)(3) tax-deductible donations. While the US government sends the directors of Muslim-American charities to jail for life for sending charity to the Gaza Strip, the Central Fund of Israel, which is based right here in New York City on 6th Avenue at Marcus Brothers Textiles, sends millions to some of the most extreme settlers who are directly involved in terrorist attacks on defenseless Palestinians. The yeshiva at Yitzhar is a prime example. Though the State Department has actually classified settler attacks on Palestinians as terror attacks, the US Treasury Department does nothing to regulate the American nonprofits that fund the attackers.

Guernica: While your book has aroused a lot of controversy, commentators appear to have embraced Ari Shavit’s recent book, My Promised Land.

Max Blumenthal: It is depressing but not shocking to witness the liberal intelligentsia embrace Ari Shavit so enthusiastically. Shavit is someone who is as consistently wrong as Thomas Friedman on major issues, and at least as much a courtier of power. Shavit has done the bidding of Ehud Barak under the cover of legitimate journalism. I suppose it was fairly predictable that Friedman offered him a rave review, or that Leon Wieseltier and David Brooks threw themselves behind My Promised Land. I have to admit, though, that I was a little surprised that David Remnick, someone who has demonstrated sophistication on Israel-Palestine issues, hosted a lavish book party for Shavit and served as his interlocutor at his major event in New York City after running Shavit’s apologia for ethnic cleansing in the pages of The New Yorker. We need to recognize the significance of Shavit’s support from so many major liberal intellectuals and pundits in the light of his book and its arguments.

In his book, Shavit approaches 1948 as I do, but from an opposite perspective. He argues that as soon as the Zionist movement endeavored to establish a Jewish state in historic Palestine, the campaign of mass ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1948 was inevitable. I agree with that. And I agree with him that 1948, not 1967, is the source of Palestinian grievances. But while I regard the Nakba as an ongoing crime that needs to be prosecuted and reversed, just as anyone should regard any act of ethnic cleansing, Shavit defends its necessity and lectures Palestinians trapped in squalid refugee camps to just get over it. In this very magazine, Shavit declared that the Palestinians need to “grow up” and claimed that they are “addicted to victimhood” as though Holocaust-obsessed Israelis are not. He goes on to assert that “the Jews are the ultimate victims of the twentieth century,” meaning that Jewish suffering legitimizes the suffering they visited on Palestinians—the ends justify the means—and that that suffering should insulate Israel from any political consequences simply because it asserts its identity as a state of the Jews.

This is obviously an intellectually untenable argument and as a case for national legitimacy it is absolutely laughable. But it is also pretty morally repugnant. So we need to reflect on what this says about Shavit’s liberal Zionist-American promoters; what does it say that they are throwing their intellectual weight behind a prominent defender of ethnic cleansing? And we need to ask how Shavit is able to define himself as a man of the left, as a voice of morality, without anything resembling a challenge from his interviewers.

Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.
— Eckhart Tolle (via occult101)

(via tectusregis)

Vitalic - Poney Part 1 (from OK Cowboy)

Link: What I've Learned as an Internet Drug Dealer

Many fans of Bitcoin would like to distance the technology from the reputation it has gained as the currency of choice for drug dealers and criminals on the internet. But to ignore the cryptocurrency’s use in illicit markets is to miss a vital part of what has made it successful. Food trucks and floundering satellite television companies accepting digital cash is nice, but if you want to see where the real action is in this new economy, you need to enter the deep web.

So one afternoon, I downloaded the Tor Browser, checked out /r/darknetmarkets for site recommendations, found one I liked, and took the dive.

Of course, I had heard about these sites for a long time, but it was still shocking to see what was on offer on my computer screen: row after row of listings for heroin, meth, MDMA, weed, coke, and any other drug you could want. It was Amazon for drugs, all priced in Bitcoin, all available for convenient vacuum sealed delivery to the mailing address of your choice.

Much like other e-commerce sites, every vendor on the site had a username and rating to help customers know which of these strangers selling potent narcotics over the internet had a track record of trustworthiness. One name in particular stood out, a vendor who had hundreds of completed sales with a nearly flawless feedback rating.

I sent a simple message identifying myself as a journalist and asking if he or she would be interested in an interview. To my surprise, a quick response appeared in my inbox: he or she would be happy to chat. The only stipulations were that we use PGP encrypted messaging and that I did not include his or her actual username in my article. The dealer chose the handle “RainDuck” for our interview.

Over the next week we exchanged messages about being a vendor on the dark web site Evolution, integrity on the black market, what it’s like to run a business that’s dependent on the Bitcoin network, and the war on drugs—at a time when that war is shifting to the web.

It’s not easy to estimate the amount of drugs sold online, but estimates by the United Nations and others say the market is multiplying in size. To stop the internet trade, the UN says that postal inspectors, customs agents, and “other agencies” are “vital to ensure that points in the supply chain could be more effectively cut off and make it more difficult for buyers to obtain products.”

A number of questions to RainDuck went nowhere: when I asked for RainDuck’s age, he apologized.I’m sorry but I can’t give even an approximate answer to that question. I’m old enough that I can do this safely, but not old enough to die of natural causes. That’s the best answer I can give, somewhere between 25 and 90.”

Motherboard: Why did you become a vendor?
RainDuck: I became a vendor after quite a bit of experience starting as a buyer. When I discovered the darknet markets, I saw an opportunity to avoid the shadyness that comes with buying drugs from a friend of a friend of that one guy that I met at a bar. I could buy drugs from someone after reading dozens of reviews on their service and product, and feel confident that I was getting what I was paying for.

Unfortunately vendors online can rip people off just as drug dealers in person can. There is a degree of safety, but some vendors follow a pattern of providing legitimate service for a short period of time before ripping a bunch of people off and running away with the money.

I saw an opportunity to provide a legitimate service to my customers. I became a vendor and made it a point to prove that I am honest and trustworthy. I made a name for myself and became known as the type of person who you could trust. I’ve had many opportunities to rip people off without repercussions, but I’ve never once scammed someone. Reputation is everything on the darknet markets, and establishing myself as a trustworthy individual has been far more profitable for me than being a con artist. To summarize, I saw an opportunity to provide a degree of service that is uncommon in the world of drugs, and decided to fill that void.

Were you involved in this industry before your current account? And if so, how long have you been in the business?
I have indeed been involved prior to my current account. Unfortunately I can’t go into specifics. Staying anonymous is the most important factor to any vendor who values his/her freedom, and being in the spotlight is not always a good thing. When someone has too much attention drawn to them it’s sometimes best to step back and lay low for awhile, and that applies to the internet just as much as to drug dealers in real life.

You are currently using a centralized marketplace. What are your thoughts on decentralized marketplaces (i.e. the Dark Market project) and what they mean for the future of online commerce?
Good question. To those who don’t know, centralized marketplaces hold all of the money for you. Tens of thousands of buyers and vendors will trust the marketplace to hold their money in escrow, and they release the funds from the buyer to the seller when both users confirm that the transaction has been complete.

The downside to this model is that the amount of money the marketplaces hold at a time can reach hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s held by someone who has the opportunity to run away with the money at any time. In the last year there have been several marketplaces that have run away with a total of well over a billion dollars. Many people’s lives have been ruined by money loss, and the community as a whole is very distrustful of this business model after several recent scams.

Decentralized marketplaces limit their own power, and rather than keeping the money in their own account, they essentially hold “keys” to the accounts that the money is held in. Two people must use their keys in order to unlock the funds from escrow, whether those two people are the buyer and vendor, or the buyer and the marketplace, or the vendor and the marketplace. This allows the marketplace the ability to resolve issues without giving them the freedom to run off with large sums of money.

The downside to this model is that from a technical side it can be very hard to use. So far most of the decentralized marketplaces require some degree of programming knowledge, or external software, or otherwise are too complicated for the average user. For that reason most of the decentralized marketplaces attract less traffic. In the long run, I believe that we will move almost entirely to using decentralized markets, but it may be another year or two before the sites are streamlined to allow both the buyers and the vendors to use this kind of marketplace easily.

What is your average revenue and profit in a month?
Unfortunately that’s not a question I feel comfortable answering. I can say that there is a very large amount of money that can be made in this industry,and I make more than enough.

Did you have prior business experience before coming to this industry?
I did. Most people don’t consider selling drugs to be a business, but the successful vendors treat it just like any other business. It’s important to have good time management skills, accounting skills, as well as customer service skills. Being a vendor online is just like owning or managing a business—the only difference being that the government decided that what we do is illegal.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about dark net markets?
I think there are two equally large but opposing misconceptions. Some people believe that using darknet markets as a buyer is extremely dangerous and they don’t feel comfortable doing so because they think if a few grams of weed is sent to them that they will undoubtedly go to jail. Others are too confident in the safety of the markets, and they will openly talk about sensitive information that could easily lead to their arrest.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. For security reasons most marketplaces require buyers to encrypt their addresses using special software that only allows a specific person to read it. However there are a shocking number of people who don’t encrypt sensitive info and openly admit online to crimes that could easily lead to their arrest if the information were in the wrong hands.

At the same time, law enforcement for the most part is after the large-scale buyers and vendors who are moving large amounts of product. Although if given the opportunity they may try to arrest someone buying a small amount of weed, the truth is that the level of caution needed for someone interested in buying a quarter ounce of weed is completely different than the amount of paranoia and protection needed for someone buying thousands of dollars of product on a regular basis.

Use common sense and protect yourself, but realize that there are a plethora of people who use these sites on a regular basis, and 99.99% of the people who do so will never encounter any problems doing so. The system is designed to be relatively safe for the buyers, and in most cases you’re more likely to go to jail for buying drugs in real life than online.

Do you have any qualms about the fact that you may be supporting the problems of drug addicts?
Initially yes, though after becoming more involved in this community I look at things differently. Even among the “hard drugs” such as meth and heroin, many of the people who do it are not bad people, and not all of them are addicted. Most people only see the stereotypes. The truth is that while there are people who have used drugs and became addicted to them and had their lives ruined, a surprising number of the people who use drugs regularly you would never know. I regularly get messages from people who confide in me that although they are a successful businessperson, there’s not a single person who knows about their drug use because it’s not socially acceptable.

Prohibition has never worked. It didn’t work with alcohol and it doesn’t work with drugs. People should make their own choices. I’m not here to judge people for what they do, I just want to make sure that if they make that choice, they get it safely, at a fair price, and that they know what’s in it rather than buying cocaine from some random guy that turns out to be laundry detergent. There’s no doubt that drugs can be dangerous, but sometimes the lengths that people are forced to go through to get their drugs are more dangerous than the drugs themselves.

Do you use your own products?
I do occasionally, though I don’t use all of the drugs that I sell. I don’t mix business with pleasure, and I don’t have the time to do so often even if I wanted to. My use of my products is mainly limited to testing them and making sure they are safe before sending them off to my customers.

Drug legalization is slowly gaining traction among policy experts. Do you think, twenty years from now, this industry won’t be relegated to the lesser traveled corners of the internet?
Yes and no. There is increasing pressure to legalize drugs, but unfortunately most of that focus is strictly on marijuana, and that’s at the state level more than the federal level. It’s impossible to say what will happen 20 years from now, but there are too many people who profit off of the fact that drugs are illegal. Prisons, police officers, tobacco companies, and alcohol companies all would lose an unbelievable amount of funding if drugs were legalized.

It’s sad to think that the majority of people in jail right now are there for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, but unfortunately it’s a cat and mouse game that take an insane amount of money from taxpayers and puts it in the pockets of the corporations that stand to benefit from the way the laws are structured now.

Only time will tell what will happen, but I doubt that 5, or 10, or even 20 years from now people will be openly doing cocaine, meth, shrooms, heroin, or acid, though I do think that weed has a much larger chance of being completely legalized due to the fact that it’s more socially acceptable.

You say that there are “too many people who profit off of the fact that drugs are illegal” for anyone to expect widespread legalization anytime soon. Do you think that’s the central motivation for the “War on Drugs”? Or is it more about protecting the public?
I think that point of view is very accurate. A lot of people seem to look at it as a conspiracy, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Rather, it’s the people who profit off prohibition who spend very large sums of money to lobby politicians in Washington. It would be naive to think that’s not the case. Polls shows that the public is largely in favor of legalization (of certain drugs at least) and yet no one at the political level seems to be in any rush to make things happen.

At the very least, drug use should be legalized. If they want to keep throwing us dealers in jail that’s one thing, but the fact that 98% of drug related arrests involve simple possession is ridiculous, and it’s not okay that millions of people’s lives are being ruined when most of them simply were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for doing something that would be completely okay if they lived in certain states (Such as California and Colorado).

This answer refers mainly to marijuana of course, but again the point remains. There are almost as many people who smoke marijuana as there are who drink alcohol, and weed kills significantly less people. If we are still putting people in jail for possession of a much safer substance than alcohol, I wouldn’t count on heroin being legalized anytime soon.

You have to worry about law enforcement in your business. Have there been any close calls?
I can say that if I had what I would consider to be a close call I would get out of the business completely, but that doesn’t mean I feel completely safe either. In this business it’s always better to be too paranoid than not paranoid enough.

How do you deal with, what I would imagine to be, the constant stress from this paranoia?
Unfortunately I haven’t figured that part out yet. My business keeps me busy most of the time, and unlike traditional jobs I don’t get vacation days or time off. I’m too busy to focus on the constant stress I endure, and although that may sound pessimistic to some degree, I’m overall very happy with my life. I love what I do and knowing I’m providing a service that not many people can offer.

Mainly it’s the people who purchase drugs not recreationally but for medicinal purposes that makes it all worth it. I regularly have people confide in me that my products are the only thing that has relieved their pain, and many of my customers are old enough that they don’t have the ability to buy from a friend of a friend. Knowing that I’m helping to safely provide medication for someone who otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to get it is more rewarding than anything else. That said, the money isn’t bad either.

Would you consider vending online to be a safer option than vending in person?
For the vendors, dealing in person would be safer. For the buyers, the reverse is true. Law enforcement mainly targets the vendors, and most buyers have nothing to worry about unless they are ordering very large amounts of product. There have been reports of buyers being questioned after failing to take the proper steps to protect themselves, but buying online is generally much safer than buying in person for most circumstances.

If dealing in person is safer, then why do you choose to vend online?
Overall dealing in person is safer, but it depends what you are selling, who you are selling to, and how much. If you know what you’re doing, vending online has the potential to be safer than dealing in person, but the risk lies not in what you are doing, but the mistakes you make. For a vendor, all it takes is one message that is accidently left unencrypted, one fingerprint left on the inside of a package, or one strand of hair that could potentially lead to their arrest if in the wrong hands.

A vendor that knows what they are doing can be perfectly safe, but unfortunately there’s no college course for being an internet drug dealer. The only way to learn is to try it, but unfortunately this is one industry where making mistakes while learning is not okay. Essentially I choose to vend online because I feel I have the knowledge and ability to do so safely. For the majority of people who take the same path however, they are playing Russian roulette and they will either make very little money, quit shortly after, or law enforcement will just wait for them to make a mistake.

Do you run a solo operation or are there employees?
Sorry but I can’t answer that.

How does Bitcoin’s volatility affect your business?
When business is good bitcoin volatility isn’t an issue, but when business is slow, a drop in the value of bitcoin can be the difference between making a profit and breaking even or even losing money.

Bitcoin can definitely play a huge role in the amount of income vendors make, especially for newer vendors. Vendors that have not earned trust in the community are almost always required by the marketplaces to use their escrow system. On average it can take about a week between the time the package is sent and the time the money is released from escrow, but in some cases if there are problems with an order it can take 3 weeks or more.

In addition, the vendors have to find a way to safely and anonymously convert bitcoin into actual currency, which can take even longer. Considering that bitcoin can stay around the same rate for weeks and then suddenly increase or decrease by hundreds of dollars in a matter of days, newer vendors may find themselves gambling with their profits.

Many vendors who are more established can get away with requiring the funds to be released from escrow before sending packages. Even then it can be several days from the point the order is placed to where the vendor has the money physically in their possession, but it tends to average out over time. If a vendor does a lot of business consistently over time, they can accept short term losses from drops in bitcoin, knowing that at some point they will make more money if bitcoin goes up in the future.

How do you cash out your bitcoins?
Again, answering that question would be a security violation. I take very great lengths to make sure that I cash out my bitcoins safely, but elaborating on exactly what I do is not something I’m willing to share.

Among people in the “real world” of drug dealing, is Bitcoin gaining a name for itself?
Not at all. The majority of “real world” drug dealers have no idea what Bitcoin is or even that this community exists. Of those who do, they certainly won’t share that information with others. There is a huge opportunity for drug dealers to make a very large amount of money reselling the right products, but no one wants anyone else to know that. There are plenty of people who purchase from the darknet markets and resell the product wholesale, taking advantage of the cheap prices of Chinese-made drugs specifically, but it’s a very small percentage of dealers who do so.

Darkmarket sellers were some of the first in the world to rely heavily on the Bitcoin network for their trade. Considering this wealth of experience, do you think Bitcoin has a legitimate chance at becoming a widely used method of payment for transactions beyond the black market? Or do you think of it as mainly useful for what you do today and nothing else?
I think Bitcoin has the potential to become a widely used method of payment in general. Unfortunately until recently it’s been very unstable, and few legitimate businesses want to take the chance of accepting a payment method that may be worth 20 percent less a few days from now. Most businesses that accept bitcoin are owned by people who believe in the long-term potential of bitcoin, but currently the number of businesses who do so are few and far between. That said, there are a small number of very large businesses who have recently stated their intentions to accept bitcoin, and I believe that will encourage other smaller businesses to do the same.

Right now the bitcoin community is divided mainly among those who use it as an investment and those who use it for illicit purposes. Fortunately it seems that recently there are efforts by bitcoin investors to use it for more legitimate purposes, and we are seeing an exponential number of businesses offering services such as hotel rooms and flight, as well as retailers offering electronics, furniture, and other commodities. It’s too early to tell exactly how this will play out, but there are enough people who believe strongly in the long term future of bitcoin that I truly believe we will see much more widespread use of it for legitimate purposes. Bitcoin certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.

Do you plan on being in this business for a long time?
I do. I’ve done quite a bit in my life, but nothing has been as satisfying as being a vendor. It’s stressful, dangerous, and time consuming, but the rewards are great.

Link: Hope in the Age of Collapse

An exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project.

Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
“State of the Planet Declaration,” London, March 29, 2012

That’s the warning issued last week by a high-level group of scientists, business leaders and government officials at the Planet Under Pressure conference  in London.  As The New York Times Green blog reported, “The conference brought together nearly 3,000 people to discuss the prospects for better management of the earth and to build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.” (The Times’ Andy Revkin offers a good wrapup at his Dot Earth blog.)

Earlier last week, at the start of the conference, visitors to the website were greeted with this short video, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” charting “the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes” (the idea that the planet has passed from the Holocene into an “Age of Man” has, of course, gained wide acceptance):

It’s certainly an arresting video. And many might see in those images a call to action, however belated.

Not Paul Kingsnorth.  An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. He’s moved beyond it. If anything, his message today is too radical for modern environmentalism. He’s had it with “sustainability.” He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and — unlike, say, imprisoned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who might be seen as Kingsnorth’s radical American opposite — he seems to welcome what he sees there.

Not everyone is quite ready to hear, or accept, what Paul Kingsnorth has to say. In 2009 he co-founded, together with collaborator Dougald Hine, something called the Dark Mountain Project, a literary and cultural response to our global environmental, economic, and political crises. “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” appeared that summer, and got some attention in the UK.  He and Hine have summed up the Dark Mountain message this way:

These are precarious and unprecedented times. Our economies crumble, while beyond the chaos of markets, the ecological foundations of our way of living near collapse. Little that we have taken for granted is likely to come through this century intact.

We don’t believe that anyone – not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers – is really facing up to the scale of this. As a society, we are all still hooked on a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilisation from self-destruction.

Well, we don’t buy it. This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.

Some would call Kingsnorth — indeed have called him, in The New Statesman and The Guardian — a catastrophist, or fatalist, with something like a deathwish for civilization. Others would call him a realist, a truthteller. If nothing else, I’d call him a pretty good provocateur.

Not well known here in the U.S., Kingsnorth tossed a bomb in the January/February issue of Orion magazine, in the form of an essay entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” (The magazine’s current issue features “America the the Possible: A Manifesto,” by James Gustave Speth — the first of two parts! But the editors must know that Kingsnorth’s piece is the real manifesto. I have a thing about manifestos.)

In that essay, Kingsnorth gets to the heart of the matter:

We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.

Provocative stuff, indeed. Down with sustainability! But then Kingsnorth goes on to say this:

If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of “sustainability” is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten to unacceptably erode our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things.

Safe to say that stopped me cold. Carbon and climate may not be the only things in the world worth talking about — I can think of one or two others — but this much is certain : if we don’t keep talking about them, and start acting in a serious way to address them, the consequences will be a whole lot more “unthinkable” than darning socks and growing carrots, and for a whole lot more people (especially those who have done nothing to cause the problem) than Kingsnorth acknowledges here.

But it was Kingsnorth’s conclusion that really threw me. His answer to the whole situation comes down to one word: withdrawal.

It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.

Withdraw? Are you kidding? That Kingsnorth’s piece appeared in the same issue as Terry Tempest Williams’ long, morally bracing interview with Tim DeChristopher, “What Love Looks Like,” only made it harder to take. This, I felt, is what giving up looks like.

But this story doesn’t end in bitterness. After I read the essay, Kingsnorth and I engaged in a spirited exchange (on Twitter, where else?), and it has led to some sort of mutual understanding. It also led me to the Dark Mountain Project and its publications. So when I launched this blog,  I invited Kingsnorth to engage in an email exchange, an invitation he graciously (even enthusiastically) accepted.  Below is my opening missive to him. I’ll include his response in a post to follow.

It may be that what Paul and I have in common is more important than our differences. I see us each striving to define what hope looks like.

Wen Stephenson

+++

From: Wen Stephenson
To: Paul Kingsnorth

Dear Paul,

Thanks so much for engaging in this exchange.

I confess that I’ve only recently come to know your work. You caught my attention with the essay in Orion. It’s a beautiful piece — I honestly think so, despite my reaction to it. The thing that initially hooked me is the way your trajectory is almost precisely the inverse of my own. Whereas you’ve grown deeply disillusioned with modern environmentalism, and what’s universally known as “sustainability” — including urgent and necessary efforts to cut carbon emissions — I’ve never been an “environmentalist” in the first place (if anything, I’m a recovering journalist!). And yet here I’ve gone and become an advocate for climate action. Strange times we live in.

But while there are many things about the essay that I genuinely admire — especially the way it nails the state of anxiety in which environmentalism seems to find itself today, the internal tensions and contradictions — I found your dismissiveness toward the climate movement, and especially your conclusion, profoundly frustrating and discouraging. That conclusion appears, essentially, to be a resigned withdrawal: “I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching…. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”

Look, I’m all for walking — especially if it means clearing one’s head and reconnecting with the reality outside our windows. But not as withdrawal, not as running away. The idea that in the face of climate change — humanity’s greatest crisis (and I mean all of humanity, especially those who have done little or nothing to cause it, including future generations) — someone with your experience, and your conscience, could simply choose to “withdraw” … well, it was incomprehensible to me.  And it was especially ironic given that the same issue contained the interview with Tim DeChristopher.

That interview’s title is drawn from DeChristopher’s now-famous words to the judge: “This is what love looks like.”

And so, of course, I turned to Twitter and responded to you and your essay: “This is what giving up looks like.”

Whereupon you accused me of naivete for joining in a worldwide rally for climate action (and organizing a walk to Walden Pond) last September.  Touché!

So, yes, you might say our correspondence got off to a rocky start.

But we’ve patched things up! And your essay and our Twitter exchange has led me, I’m glad to report, to the Dark Mountain Project. I think I now have a much better understanding of where you’re coming from, and where you’re trying to go, and I have to say, once again, that we’re largely in agreement — up to a point. I think it’s quite likely that you’re right about the situation in which civilization now finds itself, given what science is telling us and the state of our political and economic systems. As you encapsulate it in Dark Mountain Issue 1:

“[The manifesto’s] message — that it’s time to stop pretending our current way of living can be made ‘sustainable’; that ‘saving the planet’ has become a bad joke; that we are entering an age of massive disruption, and our task is to live through it as best we can…”

Indeed. But it’s the “live through it as best we can” part, and how we’re going to do that, where our viewpoints begin to diverge — because you seem to reject the possibility that any combination of mass political engagement and human technological (and yes, industrial-economic) ingenuity might help us do just that: live through it as best we can. For a literary project, that seems like an odd failure of imagination.

So I’d like to pose a series of questions for you, in reaction to specific passages in the manifesto.

You write in part one that the “the myth of progress” is “the engine driving our civilisation.” Then, in part two, you suggest that our response to climate change and environmental crisis has yet to give up this myth:

We hear daily about the impacts of our activities on ‘the environment’ (like ‘nature’, this is an expression which distances us from the reality of our situation). Daily we hear, too, of the many ’solutions’ to these problems: solutions which usually involve the necessity of urgent political agreement and a judicious application of human technological genius. Things may be changing, runs the narrative, but there is nothing we cannot deal with here, folks…. There will still be growth, there will still be progress… There is nothing to see here. Everything will be fine.

We do not believe that everything will be fine.

Nor do I. But to dismiss the search for “solutions” — which I assume must include efforts to stabilize the climate in the coming century — seems a bit too cynical, or fatalistic. As if to say that nothing can be done. The task, we agree, is no longer to “prevent” or “avoid” the “perfect storm,” but to live through it, and still maintain our humanity. At the very least, we can still work urgently to minimize the human (and non-human) suffering that is coming.  Unless you believe that compassion is also a myth.

You write that “time has not been kind to the greens.” And then,

Today’s environmentalists are more likely to be found at corporate conferences hymning the virtues of ’sustainability’ and ‘ethical consumption’ than doing anything as naive as questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation. Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy. A radical challenge to the human machine has been transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.

This is followed shortly after by one of the manifesto’s central (and most memorable) passages:

And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down….

Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?

We believe it is time to look down.

This is a striking passage. But wait — “Would it be as bad as we imagine?… Could it even be good for us?” Do you mean that the future could in fact be better than the present? That it might be (gasp) sustainable? Does that imply your own myth of progress?   Before you answer that, here’s another question.

Your project is fundamentally a literary and cultural one. It’s based on the idea that our stories — the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — are what make us who we are. And so you want to change the story, the myth, of civilization. You write:

Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? … What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?

These are excellent questions. But art and storytelling won’t stabilize the climate. The only way to do that is to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transfomation of our energy systems. Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?

You say that Uncivilised writing “is not environmental writing… It is not nature writing… And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.”  You then conclude that the project of Uncivilisation “will be a thing of beauty for the eye and for the heart and for the mind, for we are unfashionable enough to believe that beauty — like truth — not only exists, but still matters.”

There’s something almost hopeful about that last page of the manifesto, and the last lines: “Climbing Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise…. Come. Join us. We leave at dawn.”

But it occurs to me that “beauty” and “truth” (like politics) are human “confections” — anthropocentric categories. And this seems to imply a belief that something like civilization, which gave birth to art and philosophy, will not only survive, but is worth fighting to preserve. And yet, how does one propose to preserve beauty and truth, these human constructs, unless the climate is stabilized? And how does one propose to do that without engaging in politics? Are you suggesting that a new art and philosophy will give rise to a new politics? Maybe it will. But do we really have time to wait for that?

All the new storytelling in the world will change nothing without politics. In fact, it seems to me that the ultimate cynicism is to give up on politics — because it means giving up on the possibility of change. Not necessarily “progress” (i.e., material progress). I mean the preservation of what makes us human.

You write: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.”

But unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.

All best,

Wen

+++

From: Paul Kingsnorth
To: Wen Stephenson

Dear Wen,

Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.

But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals – because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.

This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.

I’d like to start this response with your very last line. Here it is:

‘Unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.’

This is an interesting statement for this reason: that it elides modern human civilisation and the living planet. They are not the same thing. They are very far from being the same thing; in fact, one of them is allergic to the other. If we don’t start to realise this — really get it, at a deep level — there will be no change worth having for anyone.

I have spent twenty years and more as an environmental campaigner. My feeling, my philosophy, if you like, across that whole period has been rather different to yours, and rather different also to that of Tim DeChristopher, who you mention in your e-mail, remarkable though his current stand is. My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position – it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends. That is a moral position, for me, not a pragmatic one. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.

You might find that an odd position, or even a dangerous one, but I see it as quite cogent and rational. The fact is that ‘pumping carbon into the atmosphere’ will not cause ‘the end of the world’. The world has endured worse. It has endured five mass extinctions and half a dozen major climate change events. I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to. Perhaps it’s the Holocene: the period of the planet’s history in which homo sapiens sapiens (cough) was able to build a civilisation so extensive and powerful that it energetically wiped out much non-human life in order to feed its ever-advancing appetites.

‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat. I have two problems with this. Firstly, I am not convinced it is a good idea! To put it mildly. The modern human economy is an engine of mass destruction. Its ravaging of all non-human life is not incidental; it seems to be a requirement of the program. Economic growth of the kind worshipped by our leaders could be described as a process of turning life into death for money. With nine billion humans demanding access to the spoils, there is not going to be much life left to go around. Of course, I am conflicted about this. I live at the heart of this machine; like you, I am a beneficiary of it. If it falls apart, I will probably suffer, and I don’t want to.

But I do feel the need to be honest with myself, which is where the ‘walking away’ comes in. I am trying to walk away from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going. The journey I am on is intellectual and, perhaps, spiritual too. I’m not sure I will find any answers. Certainly I won’t come up with any better ways to ‘save the world.’ But what world are you saving, Wen, and why? Do you imagine that Thoreau would have looked out of that window at this Machine and determined to put all his efforts into marching about trying to keep it afloat? I think he would have kept on growing beans. His retreat from activism, after all, produced the words which now inspire yours.

I sense in your response a lot of the confusion, and the passion, that drove me for many years (I am still both passionate and confused, of course, though perhaps for different reasons.) There is a plaintive quality to your questions. ‘Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems?’ you ask. ‘Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?’ The answer to the first question is, of course, no, and the Dark Mountain Project has no such end in mind. Art and storytelling are worthy in their own right, and we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it ‘development’.

But as for the ‘transformation of our energy systems’: the minute you ask this question in this way, you are trapped in a paradigm, with no hope of escape. What are ‘our energy systems’ for? Who is us? Us, I’d guess, is the bourgeois consumer class of the ‘developed’ world, and ‘our energy systems’ are needed to provide us with our cars, planes, central heating, Twitter feeds, ambulances, schools, asphalt roads and shopping malls. How are we going to transform these systems, in short order, globally, busting through economic vested interests and political stalemate and cultural patterns, in less than 100 months, to prevent more than a 2 degree climate change? How, in other words, are we going to change the operating system of the entire global economy in a decade or so?

Answer: we’re not, though we’ll do a lot of damage trying, not least to much of the natural world we want to protect. I notice that a US-government backed plan to cover much of the Mojave desert in solar panels is currently running up against resistance from both conservationists and Native Americans; and let’s not even get started on the battles over carpeting vast areas of mountain, rangeland and countryside with giant wind power stations. This new world of yours is beginning to look a lot like the old one: business-as-usual without the carbon. The beast must be fed; the only question is what it will eat.

As for the climate movement which you believe is necessary to prevent this: well … I know I am beginning to sound cynical, but it’s not exactly cynicism, it’s a raw realism born of 20 years of wanting to believe in such movements and not seeing them. There is no ‘climate movement’. Sure, there are a few thousand people who may take to the streets in the wealthy West, or on the odd threatened atoll, and there are many more people who, when asked in opinion polls, will say they want to stop climate change. But how many of these people will be taking to the streets to demand personal carbon budgets? How many of them will be taking to the streets to demand much higher gas prices, limits on their holiday aeroplane flights and their daily electricity use, and radical reductions in their ability and right to consume at will? And how many of the two thirds of the planet not living in the rich world will be taking to their streets to demand that they do not have access to the consumer cornucopia that we have, and which we are using so effectively to destroy non-human life without even really noticing?

I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ’1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. Here I am writing to you on a laptop computer made of aluminium and plastic and rare earth metals, about to send you this e-mail via undersea cables using as electricity created by the burning of long-dead deposits of fossilised carbon. I am climate change. You are climate change. Our culture is climate change. And climate change itself is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, if you’ll pardon the terrible but appropriate pun. If we were to wake up tomorrow to the news that climate change were a hoax or a huge mistake, we would still be living in a world in which extinction rates were between 100 and 1000 times natural levels and in which we have managed to destroy 25% of the world’s wildlife in the last four decades alone.

I’m afraid my current beliefs are going to seem to you rather bleak. I believe that our civilisation is hitting a wall, as all civilisations eventually do. I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it. I think we have created an industrial techno-bubble which has cut us off from the rest of nature so effectively that we cannot see, and do not much care about, its ongoing death. I think that until that death starts to impact us personally we will take very little interest. I think we are committed to much more of it over the next century. I fear for what my children will experience and sometimes I wish I was not here to experience it either. I am not yet 40 but I have seen things that my children will never see, because they are already gone. This is my fault, and yours, and there is nothing that we have been able to work out that will stop it.

How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it, Wen, because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. What do we do? I don’t know. The reality is that we have used the short-term boost of fossil fuels to give us a 200 year party, which is now coming to an end in a haze of broken bottles, hangovers and recrimination. We have built a hugely complex society which now can’t be fuelled and is, in any case, responsible for a global ecocide. Living with this reality — living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle — seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realise that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking.

Sometimes people say to me: ‘But you have children! How can you say all this? Don’t you want a better world for them?’ Other people say other things to me, things like: ‘We know this might not work, we know it’s a long shot — but it’s better than doing nothing! It’s better than giving up!’ I find this kind of thing very telling, because what is actually being said is: ‘doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the something being done is ineffective and powered by wishful thinking!’ I don’t agree. Sometimes, I think stepping back to evaluate is a lot more useful than keeping on for the sake of keeping on.

I don’t want to sound like a nihilist. There are a lot of useful things that we can do at this stage in history. Protecting biodiversity seems the crucial one. Protecting non-human nature from more destruction by the Machine, for example. Some of the best projects I know of creating islands and corridors of wild nature and trying to keep them free from our exploitation. Standing up in whatever small way we can to protect beauty and wildness from our appetites is a worthy cause if ever there was one: probably the most vital cause right now, I’d say. I’m all for fighting winnable battles. But we need to do so in the context of a wider, bigger picture: the end of the Holocene, the end of the world we were taught to believe was eternal; and, perhaps, the slow end of our belief that humans are in control of nature, can be or should be. You asked me about hope for the future: the thought that the disaster we have created may help us see ourselves for what we are — animals — and not what we believe we are — gods — gives me a kind of hope.

There is much that is noble about being human, but we have a big debt to pay back, and debts, in the end, always have to be paid.

All the best,

Paul

ContinuedRead the conclusion of this exchange.

In the evening they came out upon a mesa that overlooked all the country to the north. The sun to the west lay in a holocaust where there rose a steady column of small desert bats and to the north along the trembling perimeter of the world dust was blowing down the void like the smoke of distant armies. The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.

Glanton sat his horse and looked long out upon this scene. Sparse on the mesa the dry weeds lashed in the wind like the earth’s long echo of lance and spear in old encounters forever unrecorded. All the sky seemed troubled and night came quickly over the evening land and small gray birds flew crying softly after the fled sun. He chucked up the horse. He passed and so passed all into the problematical destruction of darkness.

— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Link: Letter from Gaza by a Norwegian Doctor

Dearest friends,

The last night was extreme. The “ground invasion” of Gaza resulted in scores and carloads with maimed, torn apart, bleeding, shivering, dying - all sorts of injured Palestinians, all ages, all civilians, all innocent.

The heroes in the ambulances and in all of Gaza’s hospitals are working 12-24 hour shifts, grey from fatigue and inhuman workloads (without payment all in Shifa for the last 4 months), they care, triage, try to understand the incomprehensible chaos of bodies, sizes, limbs, walking, not walking, breathing, not breathing, bleeding, not bleeding humans. HUMANS!

Now, once more treated like animals by “the most moral army in the world” (sic!).

My respect for the wounded is endless, in their contained determination in the midst of pain, agony and shock; my admiration for the staff and volunteers is endless, my closeness to the Palestinian “sumud” gives me strength, although in glimpses I just want to scream, hold someone tight, cry, smell the skin and hair of the warm child, covered in blood, protect ourselves in an endless embrace - but we cannot afford that, nor can they.

Ashy grey faces - Oh NO! Not one more load of tens of maimed and bleeding, we still have lakes of blood on the floor in the ER, piles of dripping, blood-soaked bandages to clear out - oh - the cleaners, everywhere, swiftly shovelling the blood and discarded tissues, hair, clothes,cannulas - the leftovers from death - all taken away … to be prepared again, to be repeated all over. More then 100 cases came to Shifa in the last 24 hrs. Enough for a large well trained hospital with everything, but here - almost nothing: no electricity, water, disposables, drugs, OR-tables, instruments, monitors - all rusted and as if taken from museums of yesterday’s hospitals. But they do not complain, these heroes. They get on with it, like warriors, head on, enormously resolute.

And as I write these words to you, alone, on a bed, my tears flow, the warm but useless tears of pain and grief, of anger and fear. This is not happening!

An then, just now, the orchestra of the Israeli war-machine starts its gruesome symphony again, just now: salvos of artillery from the navy boats just down on the shores, the roaring F16, the sickening drones (Arabic ‘Zennanis’, the hummers), and the cluttering Apaches. So much made in and paid by the US.

Mr. Obama - do you have a heart?

I invite you - spend one night - just one night - with us in Shifa. Disguised as a cleaner, maybe.

I am convinced, 100%, it would change history.

Nobody with a heart AND power could ever walk away from a night in Shifa without being determined to end the slaughter of the Palestinian people.

But the heartless and merciless have done their calculations and planned another “dahyia” onslaught on Gaza.

The rivers of blood will keep running the coming night. I can hear they have tuned their instruments of death.

Please. Do what you can. This, THIS cannot continue.

Mads Gilbert MD PhD
Professor and Clinical Head
Clinic of Emergency Medicine
University Hospital of North Norway

Gesaffelstein - Piece of Future (from Aleph)

Link: The Lights Are On but Nobody’s Home

Who needs the Internet of Things? Not you, but corporations who want to imprison you in their technological ecosystem

Prepare yourself. The Internet of Things is coming, whether we like it or not apparently. Though if the news coverage — the press releases repurposed as service journalism, the breathless tech-blog posts — is to be believed, it’s what we’ve always wanted, even if we didn’t know it. Smart devices, sensors, cameras, and Internet connectivity will be everywhere, seamlessly and invisibly integrated into our lives, and it will make society more harmonious through the gain of a million small efficiencies. In this vision, the smart city isn’t plagued by deteriorating infrastructure and underfunded social services but is instead augmented with a dizzying collection of systems that ensure that nothing goes wrong. Resources will be apportioned automatically, mechanics and repair people summoned by the system’s own command. We will return to what Lewis Mumford described as a central feature of the Industrial Revolution: “the transfer of order from God to the Machine.” Now, however, the machines will be thinking for themselves, setting society’s order based on the false objectivity of computation.

According to one industry survey, 73 percent of Americans have not heard of the Internet of Things. Another consultancy forecasts $7.1 trillion in annual sales by the end of the decade. Both might be true, yet the reality is that this surveillance-rich environment will continue to be built up around us. Enterprise and government contracts have floated the industry to this point: To encourage us to buy in, sensor-laden devices will be subsidized, just as smartphones have been for years, since companies can make up the cost difference in data collection.

With the Internet of Things, promises of savings and technological empowerment are being implemented as forces of social control. In Chicago, this year’s host city for Cisco’s Internet of Things World Forum, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has used Department of Homeland Security grants to expand Chicago’s surveillance-camera system into the largest in the country, while the city’s police department, drawing on an extensive database of personal information about residents, has created a “heat list” of 400 people to be tracked for potential involvement in violent crime. In Las Vegas, new streetlights can alert surrounding people to disasters; they also have the ability to record video and audio of the surrounding area and track movements. Sometime this year, Raytheon plans to launch two aerostats — tethered surveillance blimps — over Washington, D.C. In typical fashion, this technology, pioneered in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, is being introduced to address a non-problem: the threat of enemy missiles launched at our capital. When they are not on the lookout for incoming munitions, the aerostats and their military handlers will be able to enjoy video coverage of the entire metropolitan area.

The ideological premise of the Internet of Things is that surveillance and data production equal a kind of preparedness. Any problem might be solved or pre-empted with the proper calculations, so it is prudent to digitize and monitor everything.

This goes especially for ourselves. The IoT promises users an unending capability to parse personal information, making each of us a statistician of the self, taking pleasure and finding reassurance in constant data triage. As with the quantified self movement, the technical ability for devices to collect and transmit data — what makes them “smart” — is its own achievement, the accumulation of data is represented as its own reward. “In a decade, every piece of apparel you buy will have some sort of biofeedback sensors built in it,” the co-founder of OMsignal told Nick Bilton, a New York Times technology columnist. Bilton notes that “many challenges must be overcome first, not the least of which is price.” But convincing people they need a shirt that can record their heart rate is apparently not one of these challenges.

Vessyl, a $199 drinking cup Valleywag’s Sam Biddle mockingly (and accurately) calls “a 13-ounce, Bluetooth-enabled, smartphone-syncing, battery-powered supercup,” analyzes the contents of whatever you put in it and tracks your hydration, calories, and the like in an app. There is not much reason to use Vessyl, beyond a fetish of the act of measurement. Few people see such a knowledge deficit about what they are drinking that they feel they should carry an expensive cup with them at all times. But that has not stopped Vessyl from being written up repeatedly in the press. Wired called Vessyl “a fascinating milestone … a peek into some sort of future.”

But what kind of future? And do we want it? The Internet of Things may require more than the usual dose of high-tech consumerist salesmanship, because so many of these devices are patently unnecessary. The improvements they offer to consumers — where they exist — are incremental, not revolutionary and always come at some cost to autonomy, privacy, or security. Between stories of baby monitors being hacked, unchecked backdoors, and search engines like Shodan, which allows one to crawl through unsecured, Internet-connected devices, from traffic lights to crematoria, it’s bizarre, if not disingenuous, to treat the ascension of the Internet of Things as foreordained progress.

As if anticipating this gap between what we need and what we might be taught to need, industry executives have taken to the IoT with the kind of grandiosity usually reserved for the Singularity. Their rhetoric is similarly eschatological. “Only one percent of things that could have an IP address do have an IP address today,” said Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology and strategy officer, “so we like to say that 99 percent of the world is still asleep.” Maintaining the revivalist tone, she proposed, “It’s up to our imaginations to figure out what will happen when the 99 percent wakes up.”

Warrior’s remarks highlight how consequential marketing, advertising, and the swaggering keynotes of executives will be in creating the IoT’s consumer economy. The world will not just be exposed to new technologies; it will be woken up, given the gift of sight, with every conceivable object connected to the network. In the same way, Nest CEO Tony Fadell, commenting on his company’s acquisition by Google, wrote that his goal has always been to create a “conscious home” — “a home that is more thoughtful, intuitive.”

On a more prosaic level, “smart” has been cast as the logical, prudent alternative to dumb. Sure, we don’t need toothbrushes to monitor our precise brushstrokes and offer real-time reports, as the Bluetooth-enabled, Kickstarter-funded toothbrush described in a recent article in The Guardian can. There is no epidemic of tooth decay that could not be helped by wider access to dental care, better diet and hygiene, and regular flossing. But these solutions are so obvious, so low-tech and quotidian, as to be practically banal. They don’t allow for the advent of an entirely new product class or industry. They don’t shimmer with the dubious promise of better living through data. They don’t allow one to “transform otherwise boring dental hygiene activities into a competitive family game.” The presumption that 90 seconds of hygiene needs competition to become interesting and worth doing is among the more pure distillations of contemporary capitalism. Internet of Things devices, and the software associated with them, are frequently gamified, which is to say that they draw us into performances of productivity that enrich someone else.

In advertising from AT&T and others, the new image of the responsible homeowner is an informationally aware one. His house is always accessible and transparent to him (and to the corporations, backed by law enforcement, providing these services). The smart home, in turn, has its own particular hierarchy, in which the manager of the home’s smart surveillance system exercises dominance over children, spouses, domestic workers, and others who don’t have control of these tools and don’t know when they are being watched. This is being pushed despite the fact that violent crime has been declining in the United States for years, and those who do suffer most from crime — the poor — aren’t offered many options in the Internet of Things marketplace, except to submit to networked CCTV and police data-mining to determine their risk level.

But for gun-averse liberals, ensconced in low-crime neighborhoods, smart-home and digitized home-security platforms allow them to act out their own kind of security theater. Each home becomes a techno-castle, secured by the surveillance net.

The surveillance-laden house may rob children of essential opportunities for privacy and personal development. One AT&T video, for instance, shows a middle-aged father woken up in bed by an alert from his security system. He grabs his tablet computer and, sotto voce, tells his wife that someone’s outside. But it’s not an intruder, he says wryly. The camera cuts to shows a teenage girl, on the tail end of a date, talking to a boy outside the home. Will they or won’t they kiss? Suddenly, a garish bloom of light: the father has activated the home’s outdoor lights. The teens realize they are being monitored. Back in the master bedroom, the parents cackle. To be unmonitored is to be free — free to be oneself and to make mistakes. A home ringed with motion-activated lights, sensors, and cameras, all overseen by imperious parents, would allow for little of that.

In the conventional libertarian style, the Internet of Things offloads responsibilities to individuals, claiming to empower them with data, while neglecting to address collective, social issues. And meanwhile, corporations benefit from the increased knowledge of consumers’ habits, proclivities, and needs, even learning information that device owners don’t know themselves.

Tech industry doyen Tim O’Reilly has predicted that “insurance is going to be the native business model for the Internet of Things.” To enact this business model, companies will use networked devices to pull more data on customers and employees and reward behavior accordingly, as some large corporations, like BP, have already done in partnership with health-care companies. As the number of data sources proliferate, opportunities increase for behavioral management as well as on-the-fly price discrimination.

Through the dispersed system of mass monitoring and feedback, behaviors and cultures become standardized, directed at the algorithmic level. A British insurer called Drive Like a Girl uses in-car telemetry to track drivers’ habits. The company says that its data shows that women drive better and are cheaper to insure, so they deserve to pay lower rates. So far, perhaps, so good. Except that the European Union has instituted regulations stating that insurers can’t offer different rates based on gender, so Drive Like a Girl is using tracking systems to get around that rule, reflecting the fear of many IoT critics that vast data collection may help banks, realtors, stores, and other entities dodge the protections put in place by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, HIPPA, and other regulatory measures.

This insurer also exemplifies how algorithmic biases can become regressive social forces. From its name to its site design to how its telematics technology is implemented, Drive Like a Girl is essentializing what “driving like a girl” means — it’s safe, it’s pink, it’s happy, it’s gendered. It is also, according to this actuarial morality, a form of good citizenship. But what if a bank promised to offer loan terms to help someone “borrow like a white person,” premised on the notion that white people were associated with better loan repayments? We would call it discriminatory and question the underlying data and methodologies and cite histories of oppression and lack of access to banking services. With automated, IoT-driven marketplaces there is no room for taking into account these complex sensitivities.

As the Internet of Things expands, we may witness an uncomfortable feature creep. When the iPhone was introduced, few thought its gyroscopes would be used to track a user’s steps, sleep patterns, or heartbeat. Software upgrades or novel apps can be used to exploit hardware’s hidden capacities, not unlike the way hackers have used vending machines and HVAC systems to gain access to corporate computer networks. To that end, many smart thermostats use “geofencing” or motion sensors to detect when people are at home, which allows the device to adjust the temperature accordingly. A company, particularly a conglomerate like Google with its fingers in many networked pies, could use that information to serve up ads on other screens or nudge users towards desired behaviors. As Jathan Sadowski has pointed out here, the relatively trivial benefit of a fridge alerting you when you’ve run out of a product could be used to encourage you to buy specially advertised items. Will you buy the ice cream for which your freezer is offering a coupon? Or will you consult your health-insurance app and decide that it’s not worth the temporary spike in your premiums?

This combination of interconnectivity and feature creep makes Apple’s decision to introduce platforms for home automation and health-monitoring seem rather cunning. Cupertino is delegating much of the work to third-party device makers and programmers — just as it did with its music and app stores — while retaining control of the infrastructure and the data passing through it. (Transit fees will be assessed accordingly.) The writer and editor Matt Buchanan, lately of The Awl, has pointed out that, in shopping for devices, we are increasingly choosing among competing digital ecosystems in which we want to live. Apple seems to have apprehended this trend, but so have two other large industry groups — the Open Interconnect Consortium and the AllSeen alliance — with each offering its own open standard for connecting many disparate devices. Market competition, then, may be one of the main barriers to fulfilling the prophetic promise of the Internet of Things: to make this ecosystem seamless, intelligent, self-directed, and mostly invisible to those within it. For this vision to come true, you would have to give one company full dominion over the infrastructure of your life.

Whoever prevails in this competition to connect, well, everything, it’s worth remembering that while the smartphone or computer screen serves as an access point, the real work — the constant processing, assessment, and feedback mechanisms allowing insurance rates to be adjusted in real-time — is done in the corporate cloud. That is also where the control lies. To wrest it back, we will need to learn to appreciate the virtues of products that are dumb and disconnected once again.


Cover design by Erik Nitsche, c1960

Cover design by Erik Nitsche, c1960

(Source: jellobiafrasays, via gravity-rainbow)