Hollow point

Today in takes that I never expected would require levying: emotional teenagers are not going to redeem American politics. Surprisingly, I’m not enough of an asshole to criticize school shooting victims, so I’ll start by pointing out that they’re not actually doing anything wrong. They experienced a traumatizing event caused by a failure of policy, so they’re raising the issue to the people who have the ability to do something about it. This is precisely the role that citizenry is supposed to play in a society that’s supposed to be a democracy. The problem is with everyone else.

First of all, the media is completely full of shit here. They’ve had the ability this entire time to emphasize gun violence as a relevant political issue, and they’ve chosen to ignore it. They try to blame politicians for not responding to the fact that large majorities of people want more gun control, but what those numbers actually mean is that the media should already have been on top of this issue, because the numbers demonstrate that people care about it. One of the problems with the gun issue specifically is that the pro-gun forces are myopic zealots about it while the anti-gun forces recognize that there are other more important problems in the world, so the people who vote based on guns are overwhelmingly the former group. One of the jobs that the media is supposed to perform is to balance out coverage such that it accurately represents the distribution of opinions in the populace. Of course, what actually happens is the opposite: the media reliably locates the most psychotic available representatives of any given position and portrays them as the norm. (And this doesn’t even get into framing; for example, any discussion of the Second Amendment here is a complete red herring, because the Second Amendment was not understood to protect an individual right to bear arms until literally 2008. If you take the “well-regulated militia” thing seriously, the Second Amendment is actually compatible with banning individual gun ownership.)

Furthermore, now that they’re being forced to notice the issue, they’re doing it in exactly the wrong way. The overwhelming majority of gun violence takes the form of suicides or accidents – school shootings are its least representative example. So not only should a properly functioning media be making this clear, but because the real causes of gun violence have been ongoing and are not based on dramatic spectacles, they should have been doing that this entire time. The fact that it falls to teenagers to shoulder this burden should be the furthest thing from a point of pride: it’s a source of deep, irredeemable shame. I mean, I’m not actually on an anti-media rant here; there have been plenty of people contextualizing the issue properly and pointing out that a lot of the proposed solutions would be deeply counterproductive. But the fact that the media is indulging in spectacle here, as well as the fact that they required a spectacle in order to get off their asses, illustrates the fundamental failure: the media doesn’t actually “investigate” or “raise issues.” They chase trends.

But the fact that we’re talking policy at all here is also its own problem. There’s nothing condescending about pointing out that most people have no fucking idea what would or wouldn’t be a good gun control policy. It will always necessarily be the case that most people don’t know about most things, because there are only so many hours in the day to spend reading up on shit. It’s natural for people, especially people who have been directly affected by an issue, to come up with objectively asinine solutions like this:

“Why don’t we have Kevlar vests in classrooms for our students? Why don’t we build our walls with Kevlar so that kids aren’t being shot through their own walls because they’re so cheaply built?”

Having people who specifically know stuff about policy and whose job it is to come up with effective solutions is not “elitism,” it’s just, like, people having different jobs. Everyone can’t be an expert on everything. So, again, the role of the general citizenry is to raise the issue, which should then lead the people whose job it is to both understand the issue in its proper context and come up with good solutions. Yet it’s pretty much a constant in political discourse to ask random assholes off the street to start opining about policy details, which is at best a complete waste of time and usually actively counterproductive. It’s not their job. Indeed, the failure in the above quote belongs not to the person who said it, but to the person who framed the issue such that the quote was produced in the first place. Shoving a camera in a grieving person’s face and asking them to elucidate policy prescriptions on the spot is exactly how you don’t do political journalism.

But of course we don’t actually have “elites” in this country, in the substantive sense of the term. We have a ruling class, but it very rarely includes anyone who’s any good at anything. What we actually have is elitism without eliteness. Our op-ed columnists are all anti-intellectual hacks, our philanthropists have all the philosophical sophistication of teenage Randroids, and our think tanks are all either partisan hackeries or nepotist sinecures. The role of think tanks here is especially important. The actual function they perform is to take the existing ideological biases of the ruling class and develop policies that satisfy those biases. The increasing salience of healthcare is making this particularly obvious. Everyone knows that the only real solution here is to take the profit motive out of medicine, but we’ve had to deal with decades of nonsense about “market-based solutions” or fucking whatever for no reason other than the ruling class having already decided that only solutions that preserve the ability to extract profits out of people’s illnesses were acceptable. An actual good-faith effort to develop a better healthcare system would have had single-payer implemented almost immediately, but instead it’s only just now becoming a credible option due to literally everyone in the country clamoring for it. Which is, you know, nice, but there’s no excuse for making us push that boulder all the way up the hill. It is, indeed, the exact opposite of the way that our society is supposed to be organized, and it gives the lie to the entire notion of having “qualified” people in charge. Not only do we have politicians who pick their own voters, but we also have policies that pick their own advocates.

And the thing about politicians really does bear repeating: the American political process fundamentally does not respond to what people actually want. The things that are supposed to function as democratic inputs to the system are almost all distractions. It doesn’t matter if some goober like Marco Rubio goes on TV and “gets his ass handed to him,” because after that he just goes back to Washington and keeps voting for more guns. It’s all just a day at the office for him. And the fact that it’s entertaining for us is a problem, because it focuses our attention in the wrong place, and makes us feel like something’s happening when it isn’t. It seems like a politician being humiliated on an important issue ought to matter somehow, but it just doesn’t. It’s empty catharsis. The reason people want this to be a watershed moment is, ironically, because they want to believe that they live in a functional society. They want to believe that a strong enough emotional appeal is enough to change things. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support this assumption. There’s no necessary connection between what people care about and the actions the ruling class chooses to take.

Worse, our general understanding of how to change things is similarly flawed. It’s beyond cliche to assert that “real change” is made by “ordinary people” going “out in the streets,” but there’s no necessary reason for this to be true. Politicians are just as capable of ignoring protests as they are of ignoring news stories and adversarial interviews. We’re still sort of razzled and dazzled by the mythology of the Civil Rights Movement, which is understandable, since that actually did result in unbelievably sweeping changes and it actually was powered by protests. So that really makes it seem like protesting is the thing to do. But even Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that his commitment to nonviolent protest was as much a tactical choice as it was a moral one: it was the thing that happened to be effective at that time. It’s obvious that this wouldn’t have worked at earlier points in history – nobody would have given a shit if the slaves had “protested” – and it can’t simply be assumed that it’s going to continue working at this point in history.

It’s important to emphasize here that the point is not whether protesting is “good” or “bad,” but simply that it’s not magic. It has specific effects at specific times. For example, the first Women’s March last year actually turned out to have important effects, which I’ll admit I didn’t anticipate. Due to the combination of Trump’s inauguration being underattended and the immediately proceeding marches being overattended, they had the effect of creating the narrative of an embattled presidency from day one. This wasn’t necessarily going to happen. The first time Trump gave a speech off of a teleprompter and exploited a war widow, the media fell right on his dick. All those hacks are thirsty as fuck for legitimizing whoever the big man wearing the suit happens to be, so there was a real danger that Trump was going to become the new normal. Consistent and indeed obnoxious opposition made this not happen. (Worryingly, though, only half of this is actually due to the opposition – the other half is because Trump really is that much of a clueless bumblefuck. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to just “act presidential” while doing all of the exact same things, but he’s just plain too incompetent to hack it. This has been said before, but what we’re really learning here is how deeply vulnerable America is to a competent fascist.) The second march, on the other hand, had no such contextual focus, so it didn’t do anything. It came and went. Even striking only works when you actually have your ducks in a row. The exact same tactic can just as easily be effective or useless depending on when and how it’s deployed.

And there’s still a very real danger that this is going to backfire. I mean, if you’re demanding “action” from the current administration, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory still holds up pretty well here: whenever there’s cause for change, the ruling class uses the opportunity to make the changes they want. The NRA responds to literally every situation by calling for more guns, because that’s what they want, and they’re the people who are capable of getting what they want. It’s not at all surprising that we’re now seeing calls for constant police presence in schools: this is exactly the thing that we should expect to happen, given the current parameters of the society that we live in. This is the real threat that requires our opposition.

So there actually is a problem with what the teens are doing here: they’re making this about “safety.”1 It’s not. You can’t ever fully prevent things like mass shootings. Like, it’s appropriate to say “never again” to something like the Holocaust that has a lot of moving parts. Everything had to go wrong in order for it to happen, so as long as we remember to stay on guard against it, we should always be able to stop things before they get to that level (though that’s obviously a heavy “should”). A mass shooting is the opposite type of event: only one thing has to go wrong in order for it to happen, which means something like that is always going to be a possibility (even if you actually ban guns, there are still cars and homemade explosives and what have you). Obviously, things can be made safer; reducing the raw number of guns present will naturally reduce the number of gun-related accidents, and reduce the probability that the wrong person will have access to a gun at the wrong time. But there’s always going to be a chance that a gun is going to get through somewhere, which means, if you’re fully insistent on safety, that you have to institute a safeguard against that . . . and it has to be more of a threat than the gunner is capable of providing, or else it won’t be a deterrent . . . and it has to be everywhere, since you never know where the breach is going to occur. There’s only one conclusion: the logic of safety leads inexorably to a police state.

Thus, the quietist argument is in fact the best argument to be made against gun control. The rate of school shooting deaths is extremely low, and the rate of other deaths is comparable to other everyday threats, so the problem simply does not merit bothering with. If preventing deaths is what you’re after, you’re better off looking just about anywhere else. But there’s a better argument to be made on the other side: because guns don’t do anything useful, we might as well just go ahead and ban them. More than that, guns themselves already have negative utility, even before anyone gets shot. The whole “guns don’t kill people” thing is really the worst argument ever made, because of course guns kill people. Killing people is the only thing that guns do; it’s the entire reason they exist. Guns are objects, but nothing is “just” an object, because objects aren’t neutral. Without a gun it’s pretty fucking difficult to kill a person on accident, or even on purpose, but with a gun it’s trivially easy. This is a direct result of what type of object a gun is: it’s an object that kills people as effectively as possible.

The police state response at least honestly accounts for this: it acknowledges the fact that guns are extremely dangerous, and therefore advances an equally dangerous countermeasure as the only way to stop them. And this is a pro-safety argument: it is precisely not based on the idea that gun violence is “the price of freedom,” but rather the idea that safety must be preserved at any cost. It’s exactly the logical conclusion you get from following through on statements like “we cannot allow one more child to be shot at school.” The problem with this conclusion isn’t that it’s unsafe, it’s that it sucks. The threat of school shootings is better than a police state – and it’s also better than owning guns in the first place. That is, if it really were that case that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” we should still be opposed to guns, because guns are bad. We should accept the threat of gun violence for the sake of getting rid of guns.

That is: let’s grant the NRA their empirical argument. It may in fact be that case that, in a gun-saturated society, a lot of people who would otherwise do bad things won’t do them, but the reason for this is that they’re afraid of getting shot. And the only way this works is if everyone lives in that state of fear, all the time. A society where everyone constantly carries guns with the intent of using them to stop crimes is just a distributed and untrained police state. So the empirical issue of whether this type of society is “safer” or not is ultimately beside the point, because it’s an undesirable way to live regardless of the specific consequences that ensue from it. The cure is worse than the disease. The other alternative is that we remove as much violence as possible from everyday living, which will necessarily make us more vulnerable on those occasions when violence does end up occurring. Obviously, we’re not going to make ourselves naively vulnerable, reasonable safeguards are still reasonable, but it is within our abilities to focus on living well rather than jumping at every shadow and cowering around every corner. This is the argument that actually disarms the NRA, because it takes away the only real motivation they have, which is fear. What the NRA truly stands for is cowardice, so it’s important for those of us who oppose them to ensure that we do not make the same mistake.

An excessive focus on safety will always eventually resolve itself into illusion. There isn’t really anything that’s perfectly safe, but there are things that look that way, so doing something that looks safe is your actual practical option. If you’re scared of violent immigrants, there isn’t any real approach you can take to ensure that you’re never victimized. But you could, hypothetically, build some kind of big symbol that represents safety, such that looking at it and knowing that it’s there makes you feel safe, even though it doesn’t really do anything. I mean, living in denial really is a real choice you can make, and it’s the choice that most Americans make most of the time. So this isn’t a trivial dilemma. We really do have to decide what our values are. A magical Care Bear society where nothing bad ever happens is not one of the options, because there’s no such thing. The actual options are a society of constant violence where all problems are solved through further repression, or a society of civility where we accept the threat of tragedy for the sake of preserving human dignity. This is a real choice that has honest advocates on both sides. It’s clear to me what the right choice is, and if it’s clear to you, too, you shouldn’t hide behind facile invocations of “safety” and “responsibility.” You should say what you really believe.

And the extent to which the teens aren’t doing this is simply the extent to which they’re acting the way they’ve been taught to. They watch the news and they know that you’re supposed to say things like “this is not a political issue” and ask “tough questions” and make histrionic statements about “living in terror,” so that’s what they’ve been doing. But their initial emotional response was the right one. If the same number of kids had died as the result of a bus crash or something, it wouldn’t have had the same galvanizing effect, because there wouldn’t have been anything obviously “wrong” with it. But a society swimming in guns is, to these kids, obviously wrong, which is why they’re not standing for it. They actually do have a strong grasp on the relevant value claim here. The only problem is that the rest of us are doing our damnedest to pry it away from them. The potential negative consequences of their actions are simply a result of their being filtered through a society that gets literally everything wrong.

Violence is always a political issue, and there are more than two sides to every story. Getting your own story straight – making the right argument instead of the easy one – is the only thing that gives an ordinary person any real power. Doing the opposite, saying the easiest thing, or the thing that attracts the most attention, is how you ensure that society will be able to resolve your passion into support for the status quo. Most importantly, any issue of substance is not merely a “mistake” or an “inefficiency,” but a real value contest, with someone on the other side who is genuinely opposed to what you believe in and is pushing against you as hard as they can. They’ll act like they aren’t, like they “want what’s best for everyone” and are “just trying to find a reasonable solution,” but the fact that there was a problem in the first place – that you felt that scream in your heart insisting that this is wrong – is what proves them to be liars. The task of creating a real society is precisely the task of identifying your enemies and figuring out how to kill them. None of the easy targets here matter. Indeed, the reason they’re easy targets is because they don’t matter – they’re decoys. The thing we need to call BS on here is America.

We’re never going to be able to return to innocence, because innocence was an illusion in the first place. There never was a Garden of Eden, there’s just the regular kind of garden, where sometimes things grow and sometimes they don’t – which, of course, makes it all the more important to apply our full efforts to the task. But the real threat we have to watch out for isn’t that young lives might be cut short. It’s that they’re going to grow up shaped by the confines of the same system that killed their peers, and, in so doing, become just like the rest of us.

 


  1. Yeah, I know, I’m an asshole. Surprise! 

Face down

We all had a good laugh when Apple decided that the future of technology was making you unlock your phone by wiggling it in front of your face, every time you need to use it, in public. But the thing about extremely stupid ideas is that they have real underlying causes, which is why the funniest things are often simultaneously the most serious. This is no exception, and the real issue here is particularly not pretty.

We should start by admitting an oft-ignored truth, which is that passwords are good. They’re the correct form of security at the level of the individual user, and the reason for this is that they are a proper technical implementation of consent. The problem is that, when a system gets a request to provide access to an account, it has no idea why or from where the request is coming in; it just has the request itself. So the requirement is that access is provided if and only if the person associated with the account wants it to be provided. The way you implement this is by establishing an unambiguous communication signal. This works just like a safe word in a BDSM scene: you take a signal that would normally never occur and assign a fixed meaning to it, so that when it does occur, you know exactly what it means. That’s what a password is, and that’s why it works. “Security questions,” on the other hand, are precisely how passwords don’t work, because anything personally associated with you is not a low frequency signal. Anyone who knows that information can just send it in, so it doesn’t accord with user consent. All those celebrities who got hacked were actually compromised through their security questions, because of course they were, because personal information about celebrities is publicly available. They would have been perfectly fine had their email systems simply relied on generic passwords.

Furthermore, none of the alleged problems with passwords are real problems. The reason for all the stupid alternate-character requirements on passwords is supposedly that they increase complexity, but this doesn’t actually matter. The only thing that matters is that the signal is low frequency, and the problem with a password like “password123” isn’t that it lacks some particular combination of magic characters,1 but is simply that it’s high frequency. But anything that wouldn’t be within a random person’s top 100 guesses is, for practical purposes, zero frequency, so a password like “kittensarecute” or “theboysarebackintown” is essentially 100% secure. There’s no actual reason to complicate it any further, and in fact several reasons not to, because forgetting your password or having to write it down are real security threats.

Literally the only problem with simple passwords like this is that they can be hacked; that is, a computer program can derive them from a fixed pattern. If your password is a combination of dictionary words, then a “dictionary attack” can derive it from all the possible combinations of all the words in the dictionary in a relatively short amount of time, because that’s actually not all that much data. The frequency isn’t low enough. But the thing about this is that it’s portrayed as an end-user problem when it isn’t one at all; it’s a server problem. A user can’t actually guess how their password is going to be hacked; the attacker might use a dictionary attack, or they might pick a different pattern that happens to match the one you used in an attempt to evade a dictionary attack. The real way to prevent this is for the server to disallow it – the server shouldn’t allow a frequency of attempts high enough to convert a low-frequency signal into a high-frequency one. Preventing this isn’t the user’s job, because they can’t actually do anything about it. The server can.

And of course no one is ever actually going to hack your password. You don’t matter enough for anyone to care. What actually happens, as one hears about constantly in the news, is that a company’s server gets breached and all the passwords on it are compromised from the back end. When this happens, the strength and secrecy of your password are completely irrelevant, because the attacker already has your credentials, no matter what form they’re in. Again, this is not a problem with passwords. The passwords are doing their job; it’s the server that’s failing.

So the thing about biometrics is that they’re worse than passwords, because they don’t implement consent. At best, they implement identity, but that’s not what you want. If the police arrest you and want to snoop through your phone without a warrant, they have your identity, so if your phone is secured through biometrics, they have access to it without your consent. But they don’t have your password unless you give it to them. Similarly, the ability of passwords to be changed when needed is a strength. It’s part of the implementation of consent: if the situation changes such that the previously agreed-upon term no longer communicates the thing its supposed to communicate, you have to be able to change it. In BDSM terms, if your safe word is “lizard,” but then you want to do a scene about, y’know, lizard people or something, then the word isn’t going to convey the right thing anymore, so you have to come up with a new one. This is the same thing that happens in a data breach: because someone else knows your password, it no longer communicates consent – but precisely because you can change it, it can continue to perform its proper function. Whereas if someone steals your biometric data, you’re fucked forever. So when Apple touts the success rate or whatever of their face-scanning thing, they’ve completely missed the point. It doesn’t matter how accurate it is, because it implements the wrong thing.2

So, given all of this, why would a major company expend the amount of resources required to implement biometrics? We’ve already seen the answers. First, passwords look bad from the end-user perspective, because they feel insecure – unless you’re forced to use a random jumble of characters, in which case they feel obnoxious. And in either case you have to manage multiple passwords, which can be genuinely difficult. Biometrics, by contrast, feel secure, even though they’re not, and they’re very easy to use. They also feel “future-y,” allowing companies to sell them like some big new fancy innovation, when they’re actually a step backwards. In short, they’re pretty on the outside. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, Apple is invested in the conceptualization of technology as magic.

More than that, though, biometrics demonstrate a focus on the appearance of security at the expense of its actuality – that is, they’re security theater. What all those data breaches in the news indicate is that, for all the ridiculous security paraphernalia that gets foisted on us, companies don’t actually bother much with security on their end. They don’t want to spend the money, so they make you do it, and because you can’t do it, because you don’t actually have the necessary means, the result is actual insecurity. Thus, the appearance of security, mediated by opaque technology that most people don’t understand, provides these companies with cover for their own incompetence. The only function being performed here by “technology” is distraction.3

What this means, then, is that technology isn’t technology. That is, the things that we talk about when we talk about “tech” aren’t actually about tech. Indeed, “tech companies” aren’t even tech companies4. Google and Facebook make their money through advertising; they’re ad companies. The fact that they use new types of software to sell their ads is only relevant to their business model in that provides a shimmery sci-fi veneer to disguise their true, hideous forms. Amazon is not actually a website; it’s a big-box retailer in exactly the same vein as Target and Wal-Mart. A lot of people thought it was “ironic” when Amazon stated opening physical stores, but that’s only the case if you assume that Amazon has some kind of ideological commitment to online ordering. What Amazon has an ideological commitment to is capturing market share, and they’re going to keep doing that using whatever technological means are available to them. Driving physical retailers out of business and then filling the vacuum with their own physical stores is precisely in line with how Amazon operates – it’s what you should expect them to do, if you actually understand what type of thing they are. Uber is only an “app” in the sense that that mediates their actual business model, which is increasing the profits of taxi services by evading regulations and passing costs on the the drivers (Uber’s business model doesn’t account for the significant maintenance costs incurred by constantly operating a vehicle, because those costs are borne by the drivers, who aren’t Uber’s employees. But Uber still takes the same cut of the profits regardless.) Apple is the closest, since they actually develop new technology, but even then they mostly make money by selling hardware (after having it manufactured as cheaply as possible), meaning they’re really just in the old-fashioned business of commodity production.

So if you try to understand these companies in terms of “tech,” you’re going to get everything wrong. There isn’t a design reason why Apple makes the choices it does; there’s a business reason. Nobody actually wanted an iPhone without a headphone port, but Apple relies on their sleek, minimalist imagery to move products, so they had to make the phone slimmer, even if it meant removing useful functionality. And of course no one is ever going to be interested in a solid-glass phone that shatters into a million pieces when you sneeze at it, but Apple had to come up with something that looked impressive to appease the investors and the media drones, so that’s what we got.

But this isn’t even limited to just these “new” companies; it’s the general dynamic by which technology relates to economics. There’s been a recent countertrend of elites pointing out that, actually, modern society is pretty great from a historical perspective, but they’re missing the point that this is despite our system of social organization, not because of it. That is, barring extreme disasters along the lines of the bubonic plague or the thing that we’re currently running headlong into, it would be incomprehensibly bizarre for the general standard of living not to increase over time. As long as humans are engaged in any productive activity at all, things are going to continuously get better, because things are being produced. The fact that we’re not seeing this – that real wages have been stagnant for decades and people are more stressed and have less leisure time then ever – indicates that we are in the midst of precisely such a disaster. Our current economic system is a world-historical catastrophe on par with the Black Death.

Do I even need to explicitly point out that this is why global warming is happening? It isn’t because of technology, it’s because rich fucks have decided they’d rather destroy the world for a short-term profit than be slightly less rich. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the physics are such that everyone is going to die, but the decision itself was made a long time ago. If it wasn’t greenhouse gasses, it would be something else. There’s always nuclear war or mass starvation or what have you. The fact of the matter is that we’ve chosen a social configuration that doesn’t support human life. That’s the whole story.

To address this technically, it’s certainly true that the age of capitalism has seen a vast increase in worldwide standards of living, but it’s not capitalism that caused that. It’s actually the opposite: trade and industrialization created the conditions for capitalism to become possible in the first place. Capitalism is not the cause of industrialization or globalization, it’s the response to these things. It is the determination of how the results of these things will be applied, and what actually happens it that it ensures that the gains will always be pointed in the wrong direction. The fact of globalization has nothing to do with any of the problems attributed to it; the problems reside entirely in how globalization is happening: who’s managing it, what their priorities are, and where the results are going. Like, it’s really amazing to consider how much potential productivity is being wasted right now. All the people employed in advertising, or in building yachts, or in think tanks, or on corporate advisory boards, or in failed attempts at “regime change,” or designing new gadgets that are less functional then the old ones, or all those dumbass “internet-connected” kitchen appliances, all of that, all of the time and energy and resources being spent on all of that stuff and far more, is all pure waste. Imagine the kind of society we could have if all of that potential were actually being put to productive use.

And it’s deeply hilarious how committed everyone is to misunderstanding this as thoroughly as possible. Like, the actual word we have for someone who negatively fetishizes technology is “Luddite,” but the Luddites were precisely people who cared about the practical results of technology – they cared about the fact that their livelihoods were being destroyed. They attacked machines because those machines were killing them. Every clueless takemonger inveighing about how globalization is leaving people behind or social media is dividing us or smartphones are alienating us is completely failing to grasp the basic point that the Luddites instinctively understood. The results of technological developments are not properties of the technology itself; they arise from political choices. The technology is simply the means by which those choices are implemented. In just the same way, attacking technology is not merely a symptom of incomprehension or phobia or lifestyle. It is also a political choice.

An engine doesn’t tell you where to go or how to travel. It just generates kinetic energy. It can take you past the horizon, but if you instead point it into a ditch, it will be equally happy to drive you straight into the dirt. There’s nothing counterintuitive about that; the function of technology is no great mystery. It just obeys the rules – not only the physical ones, but the social ones as well. All of the problems that people attribute to technology (excepting things like software glitches that are actual implementation failures) are actually problems with the rules. The great lesson of the age of technology is that technology doesn’t matter; as long as society continues on in its present configuration, everything will continue to get worse.

 


  1. The way you can tell that complexity requirements are bullshit is that they’re all different. There are plenty of nerds available to run the numbers on this, so if there really were a particular combination of requirements that resulted in “high security,” it would have been figured out by now and the same solution would have been implemented everywhere. But because the actual solution is contextual – that is, it’s the thing that no one else is guessing, which also means it’s unstable – you can’t implement it as a fixed list of requirements. The reason it feels like each website’s requirements are just some random ideas that some intern thought sounded “secure” enough is because that’s actually what they are. 
  2. I mean, face-scanning can’t actually work the way they say it does, because of identical twins. If the scan can distinguish between identical twins, that means it’s using contextual cues such as hair and expression, which means there are cases when these things would cause it to fail for an individual user, and if it can’t distinguish between identical twins (or doppelgangers), then that’s also a failure. I’d also be curious to know how much work the engineers put into controlling for makeup, because that’s a pretty common and major issue, and I’m guessing the answer is not much. 
  3. The real situation is significantly more dire than this. It isn’t just that Equifax, for example, sucks at security, it’s that Equifax should not exist in the first place. Taking the John Oliver Strategy and making fun of Equifax for being a bunch of dummies completely misses what’s really going on here. 
  4. I’m not giving up my “tech assholes” tag though, it’s too perfect. 

A glass darkly

bffs

Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump are the same person. If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand anything.

First of all, they’re both rich fucks. This isn’t, like, a coincidence. People don’t “just happen” to get rich. Your relationship to the material conditions of your existence is one of the primary determinants of who you are as a person. Before we even get into any other considerations, the actual act of being rich is itself immoral. When you or I imagine being “rich,” we imagine things like having a big house in a quiet neighborhood and a fancy car and an extensive record collection, but this isn’t what being actually rich is like. Being actually rich means literally having more money than it is physically possible to spend – even after resorting to ridiculous luxuries like owning three summer vacation mansions filled with rare art collections that you only visit one week a year or buying a Hawaiian island. It’s difficult to really imagine what things like this are like, which is why a lot of people resist this argument: they can’t imagine a situation where losing money results in no material deprivation whatsoever. But this is the real situation that our society has decided to create for some people, and it’s the situation that Winfrey and Trump both inhabit every waking moment. Every dollar they hoard is a dollar’s worth of food taken out of the mouth of a starving person. There is no word for this other than “evil.”

People like to talk about whether rich fucks “deserve” their money or not, but this is completely irrelevant to the argument. Remember, we’re talking about money in excess of the amount that you can actually spend on all the luxuries and projects during the amount of time you’re awake each day. Since you would lose absolutely nothing by giving it away, since your life would remain exactly the same with or without it, whereas lots of other people’s lives would improve immeasurably upon receiving even the tiniest fraction of it, there can be no possible justification for keeping it, regardless of its source. It doesn’t matter whether the money came from a big sack you found in the street or whether it was a boon bestowed upon you by god herself in recognition of your exceptional personal character. Philanthropy, which we’ll discuss further in just a moment, has no effect on this, because the issue is not how much money is being given away, but how much is being kept. A person living paycheck to paycheck does not lose virtue points for not giving to charity, because all the money they have is already being put to valuable use. A rich fuck does lose virtue points for every dollar they keep in the bank, because that money is being kept from people whom it could be helping. It is the actual holding of the money, in a situation where billions of others need money to survive, that constitutes the immorality. And considering the scale of the situation, this pretty much overrides any other possible concerns regarding what kind of person someone is. Like, if you knew someone whose construction company built concentration camps, you wouldn’t really give a shit if they seemed nice and empathetic in person. This is almost exactly the same thing.

But even if we do feel the need to interrogate the source of money as an indication of its recipient’s character, Winfrey and Trump are still in the same situation. Just as being rich is not a coincidence, getting rich is also a matter of a particular type of interfacing with present social conditions. Again, when you or I imagine getting rich, we imagine things like getting a big promotion or writing a bestselling novel or something – something that reflects our own abilities and doesn’t hurt anyone else. This isn’t how getting actually rich works. In a capitalist society, they way you make money is through exploitation. People who work for a living can only ever make enough to cover their own expenses, maybe with some extra left over for luxuries and savings if their skills happen to be in demand at the time. The way you make walking-around money is by extracting the value of other people’s labor, and the way you make a lot of money is by extracting a lot of value from the labor of a lot of people. The way you get actually rich is by building an empire. I mean, that’s exactly the term we use, we call things “media empires” or “construction empires,” and that’s exactly what they are. They’re giant exploitation engines in which the lives of millions of people are ground up into lubricant for the lifestyles of the rulers. It’s really not even a metaphor; they literally consume people’s flesh and blood. The fact that Winfrey is a self-made man and Trump is a trust fund baby doesn’t really impinge on any of this. If anything, it reflects worse on Winfrey; Trump inherited his father’s immorality, while Winfrey built her towering edifice of bullshit with her own two hands. Because we live in a society that allocates resources immorally, the people who succeed in it are the people who are the most immoral. Making money is a bad thing that makes you a bad person.

Those are the general principles, but this particular comparison is especially interesting, because Winfrey and Trump are not merely representatives of the same class, but representatives of the same belief system, with exactly the same M.O. Like, Bill Gates got rich by being a monopolist, but his company actually did produce products that people use. He added something to the world. Winfrey and Trump do not merit even this basic distinction; they are pure self-advertisers whose only product is their own image. The way Trump operated was not by actually building things, but by buying other people’s products and inflating their value through hype campaigns. Since the hype always far exceeds any actual value (especially since Trump has negative taste and can therefore be counted on to always select the worst products), there’s inevitably a collapse, at which point Trump sends out his lawyers and accountants to pocket the proceeds and leave other people holding the losses. In almost exactly the same way, Winfrey attaches herself to other people’s books and ideas and uses them to inflate her own image. Since the marketing of these things always far exceeds their actual content (especially since Winfrey is a credulous hack and can therefore be counted on to always select the most diluted variety of snake-oil on display), the fad inevitably dies out, at which point Winfrey shields herself from any fallout by simply moving on to the next trend (or occasionally issuing a Serious Apology if there’s a real scandal). People like this are worse even than rentiers, since they don’t even own the things they put their names on. They are pure value extractors; perfect parasites.

Even more than that, though, the similarities in Winfrey’s and Trump’s approaches point to something deeper than circumstantial convergence; they point to the same underlying ideology. Focusing solely on image and advertising necessarily requires complete adherence to existing values and standards. This is because symbols have to have referents; people have to know what you’re talking about, and if there’s no actual underlying product with its own value, the only way this is possible is if you’re saying something that people already believe.

When personal computers first came out, they were a new type of thing, so people didn’t already understand what they could do. This meant they couldn’t be marketed with pure bullshit, but had to actually function such that people who used them got something out of it. The same thing happened with smartphones; Apple’s insufferable advertising notwithstanding, it was only once people started using smartphones and experiencing the various things they could do (not all of it good, but still) that they became popular. A less compromised example is the Sriracha hot sauce guy. Sriracha has become a cultural buzzword in the complete absence of any marketing or promotion of it whatsoever. I had no idea where the stuff even came from until I saw that article. Because it’s a quality product, you don’t have to conjure up fantasies of fun-loving bikini girls or rugged manliness in order to sell it. It’s actually good; it has its own value, and is therefore able to speak for itself.

So here’s the important part: if you don’t have something with its own value, then you do have to rely on all that other stuff; you have to piggyback off of preexisting sources of value. You obviously have to have some sort of value claim in order to make a pitch to people. If you have a valuable product, this claim can potentially be something new. The concept of “personal productivity” didn’t used to be a thing, but once various types of machines became popularly accessible, it became something that could actually exist and was therefore possible to value. New values like this may or may not end up being good things, of course, but at least they’re new, and they’re based on real things that people can do. If you don’t have a source of value, you have no basis from which to make a new claim, so you have to make an old one. You have to play to a preestablished fantasy.

The fantasy that Trump plays to is the fantasy of opulence. It’s the idea that money determines everything in the world, and therefore aligning yourself with money gets you the best possible experience. Buying Trump-branded products ensures that you’re getting the most expensive and therefore highest-quality goods, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. The fantasy that Winfrey plays to is the fantasy of self-help. This is almost exactly the same idea: that choosing the right products and thinking the right way amounts to a secret formula for living a perfect life. Buying the products and following the trends chosen by Winfrey’s magical insight ensures that you’re getting real true meaning, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. (Also, do people really not notice that Winfrey specifically plays to the Magical Negro stereotype? Her whole thing is being “spiritual” and “authentic” and using that to serve as a lifestyle guide for rich white women. I don’t understand why people who would raise hell about this sort of thing in any other context give a pass to the one person who deserves it the least.)

The only actual difference between Winfrey and Trump is aesthetic. Specifically, Trump caters to the masculine side of the consumerist fantasy, selling suits and steaks and golf club memberships to promote the ideal of being a big important businessman, while Winfrey caters to the feminine side, selling diets and empathy and mindfulness to promote the ideal of being a magical unicorn princess. The reason this makes Winfrey look better on the TV is that femininity is significantly closer to a real standard of what being a decent person is like than masculinity is. (As just a few examples, femininity includes care, attention to detail, a focus on practical reality, and a basic level of concern for other people.) But a) aesthetics, while nontrivial, do not override morality, and b) Winfrey’s aesthetics are still overwhelmingly the aesthetics of rich fucks, which is to say their similarities with Trump’s are greater than their differences. Trump’s business books actually are self-help books, just marketed to a different audience. Trump University is exactly the same thing as The Secret, sold with exactly the same language.

Thus, Winfrey, no less than Trump, is a complete prisoner of the existing social order. Under ordinary circumstances this would merely be pitiable, but because these people have actual power, they do not only suffer from but also actively advance these harmful values. Their ideological commitments go so deep that they are unable to escape them even when they’re trying to help. Trump’s idea of charity is giving way free rounds of golf, and his idea of helping people is Trump University, an actual shakedown factory so blunt mafiosi would consider it beneath their honor. Winfrey, while less of an explicit con artist and more of an actual philanthropist, still favors spectacle over substance, as most famously illustrated by her stupid car giveaway stunt. Like, first of all, this was a stunt. I fucking cannot stand people who treat stunts like they’re real things. They’re fake. That’s the whole thing that a stunt is. Anyway, the point is that this is also bad charity. Cars are a modern necessity, so people generally have the number of cars they need, and people attending Oprah tapings are not exactly those in the most dire need of financial assistance. The reason she did this was not out of any consideration of how much it would help people, but because it would reflect well on her: because the recipients are sympathetic and the narrative plays into the “American Dream” – and of course because it gives her a big televised platform to grandstand on. Indeed, this is the exact definition of “philanthropy”: even “good” philanthropy isn’t actually good, because philanthropy is bad charity that promotes the giver more than it helps anyone.

The more concise way to put all of this is that Winfrey and Trump have both killed people through active negligence. Trump hires undocumented workers on the cheap and skimps on safety, resulting in injury and death. Obeying the capitalist imperative to generate profit, he stiffs contractors for his own gain, forcing them to forgo medical care and other necessities. Winfrey promotes quack science, fad diets, and fraudulent psychology, covering up their reality with her own aura of glamour. These are things which people, trusting her, take into their bodies, physically harming them. It’s hard to trace causality here, but given her reach, it’s a statistical certainty that this has harmed people’s health and resulted in deaths. There’s no room for sentimentality here. (Also, people with sentimental feelings toward Winfrey should consider that Trump’s fans have exactly the same sentimental feelings towards him, for exactly the same reasons.) People like this have no place in any decent society. I mean, come on. Both of them sell magazines named after themselves with pictures of themselves on the cover, every month. Come on. I’m embarrassed to even be talking about this.

Maybe this line of argument strikes you as a particularly unfair variety of false equivalence, because Winfrey is clearly a much better person than Trump. Of course she is. Trump is the worst possible person; you get exactly zero virtue points for being better than him, because literally every human is a better person than Donald Trump (as are most dogs and cats and probably a fair number of moles and squirrels). Like, the fact that Winfrey is against sexual assault rather than being a confessed sexual assailant is, y’know, better, but it’s not impressive. Back in the day, we used to call things like that “meeting basic standards of human decency.” More to the point, though, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a good person or not. It matters what you do; it matters what effect your existence has on the rest of the world. It matters whether you’re doing something useful for people or whether you’re paving the road to hell.

I genuinely cannot believe that it has come to this, but I’m actually going to throw the fucking bible at you:

13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Our only access to reality is through perception, and perception is always partial. Sometimes what we’re seeing is obscured by the glass we’re looking through, and sometimes what we’re seeing is actually just a smudge on the glass itself rather than something on the other side. Because of this, no piece of evidence is ever a slam dunk. Anything that looks good from one angle might turn out to be hideously ugly from another. What this means is that you need to have an organizing principle with which to make sense of your observations. Without that, each individual observation can only stand briefly on its own before the changing wind sweeps it away into insignificance; “whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” If you don’t have the truth, you don’t have anything.

The tricky part, of course, is to determine what kind of thing we’re really talking about here; that is, what exactly is meant by “charity.” It’s originally a translation of the Greek word agape, which means something along the lines of selfless loyalty. It’s not something that you like or that makes you feel good, but something that you choose to be for, regardless of circumstance. Thus, the fact that someone says something that sounds good or does something that appeals to you can never be taken as independent evidence. It must always be evaluated for its accordance with the truth. As Nietzsche puts it, “the knight of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends.” (You’re reading claws of love dot com, the internet’s #1 source for Nietzschean bible study.)

The part of this that’s wrong is the part where the truth is magic. It is incorrect to say, as people often do, that perception is “flawed” or “misleading,” as this implies that there exists a source of “correct” information that reveals things “as they really are.” In fact, there is no reality outside perception, but rather only reality through perception. This does not license us to engage in knee-jerk subjectivity. It does exactly the opposite. It requires us to go beyond each individual impression and to formulate a broad understanding composed of the data from multiple lines of perception. “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” It’s not just that “that which is perfect” will never actually come, but that there is no such thing, which means that “that which is in part” constitutes everything that there is. We can never get out of the wicked game; no one is ever a saint or a hero, no indicator is ever universally reliable and no narrative is ever complete. We always have to do the work of figuring out how things fit together, how multiple perceptions accord, and how to create understanding out of disparate parts. You can’t do this using “just the facts,” because the facts themselves can’t tell you how to organize those facts. You need something outside of the facts. Christians call this thing “charity,” Nietzsche calls it “will,” but I just think of it as the truth. And in a society that insists on smooth, clean, one-line narratives, the truth will always cut hard against the grain. It is the responsibility of anyone who claims to be a person to make those cuts. This is the only way to make anything make sense. As Hamlet learned, there’s nothing contradictory about smiling, and smiling, and being a villain.

Good albums of 2017, part 5

Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

Out in the Storm

I originally felt that what was good about Waxahatchee was the arrangements – that is, the basic hyper-raw stuff was, like, fine, but it wasn’t all that compelling until it was formed into interesting songs. Then I saw her do a solo set that was totally amazing, and it completely reversed my viewpoint – the most basic aspects of her songs are what really weave the magic. So hearing this album after that was kind of A Thing, on account of a) it’s a polished and professional rock album, so it’s both highly stylized and completely straightforward, b) the demos were all released alongside the album, so you also have all the songs in their elemental forms, and c) it’s actually about changing perspectives.

The thing about the demos is that they make it very clear that the whole of each song is already there at that point. With rock in particular you’d think that you don’t have it unless you have the big sound, but the demos clearly have it. The two notes and the vocals on “Recite Remorse” actually are the whole thing. Of course, the importance of the vocals is far from trivial – they don’t have any particular gimmick or even complexity to them, but Katie Crutchfield’s plain-sounding voice is deceptively powerful. But it’s also the majesty of structure, the way that, when you have things organized in just the right way, you barely need anything at all. So this is almost like a white paper on songwriting; you can see the whole thing being built from the ground up.

And yet, as much as it all sounds like everything coming together, it’s actually about things falling apart. It’s a calm and dignified act of coughing up blood. With the extreme amount of polish and professionalism, as well as rock being particularly suited to expressing confidence, the heavy self-abnegation and even shame in the lyrics comes across very strangely. The singer here is someone committed to her own smallness and vulnerability, while the foil she sets up for herself consists of overbearing self-assurance. The album opens with “Never Been Wrong” as a criticism of the kind of person who promotes “narcissistic injury disguised as masterpiece,” and the singer’s complete admission of her failure here (“I got lost in your rendition of reality”) ends up being her active defense. Recognizing that “I could have fought with you forever and never break through,” she chooses to quit the war for order and let go of comfort. The album’s straightforward and even placid nature ultimately forms a commitment to chaos: “I went out in the storm, and I’m never returning.” This decision isn’t made in resignation, as grim acceptance of an unalterable reality, but as a positive choice, as the actual right thing.

“Sparks Fly” is the center from which the rest of the album grows out. The fact that the song doesn’t sound at all live-wire-y physicalizes the conclusion that things aren’t just how they feel to one individual. Electricity is a potential difference; it doesn’t arise by itself from one particular type of material, it happens when wires cross, or when things strike together. It’s by changing her perspective, by “seeing myself through my sister’s eyes,” that the singer is finally able to make the choice to stay unreconciled – which includes the irreconcilability of other perspectives, the absolute inability to get through to some people, and the necessity of dropping dead weight. “I know you don’t recognize me, but I’m a live wire, finally.”

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Good albums of 2017, part 4

Austra – Future Politics

Future Politics

I’m putting this on here because I’m completely conflicted about it. I’ve tried, but I can’t bring myself to like it. The vocals are still killer, but the music here is chill in the worst sense to the term: neither energetic enough to be exciting nor unpleasant enough to be interesting. It’s dull and unevocative, and all the more so for the blatant provocativeness of the titles. It completely goes to sleep halfway through and never really wakes up. None of the lyrics add enough context to compel attention (again despite the titles; for the record, this was written before the bottom fell out of the world, so it’s not explicitly about that, but as you know, everything happening now has a cause and was foreseeable and is understandable, so addressing anything in this vicinity bears on that endeavor. Not that that matters right now).

But despite all this, I don’t actually think it’s bad. I mean, it’s clearly not a “mistake”; it’s clearly exactly the album it’s supposed to be. But I don’t feel like any of the available options here really add up. One is that it’s a good album in the service of evil – obviously not, like, in the Leni Riefenstahl sense, but nonetheless a bad idea that happens to be expertly executed. This is putting the line in entirely the wrong place, though; if you actually accepted this proposition the amount of aesthetic culling you would have to do would be totally untenable. So the alternative (the one that most people accept implicitly and that you’re probably rolling your eyes at me for not just assuming) is that this is a perfectly salutary work that just happens not to be to my taste. That’s certainly the easy answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s too easy. I’m pretty sure my objections here are substantive. I’m not personally against chillness; I’m actually low-energy to the point of immorality. Rather, chillness is rationally harmful in ways that can be elucidated in technical philosophical terms. So I’m intellectually obligated not to close this case. I feel a very strong gap here, and I don’t know where it is, and I’ll admit that right now that’s all I have, and that my only claim on your time here is that I think this issue is worth highlighting. I guess this is the sense in which this album really did make an impact on me. It’s something I can’t understand yet, but which I’m forced to acknowledge right now.

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Good albums of 2017, part 3

The Dollyrots – Whiplash Splash

Whiplash Splash

One time when I saw these guys somebody called out one of their super old songs, and Kelly was like “Hmm, I don’t think our drummer knows that one. She could probably do it though, it’s just like the dumbest possible punk song,” and Luis goes “Well, yeah, that’s all our songs.” It’s certainly true that, from a modern perspective, where every random asshole is a classically-trained historically-informed avant-garde revolutionary, The Dollyrots are an extraordinarily dumb-sounding band. The naive fervor of their devotion to the most mundane and trivial aspects of their genre make it difficult to understand them as anything other than a joke. Which is exactly what they said about the Ramones.

The truth is that looking dumb and being dumb are not the same thing, and “Just Because I’m Blonde” directly addresses this very topic. The song is indeed a broadside against “dumb blonde” stereotypes, which initially seems ridiculous. No one actually thinks that blonde people are dumb; the entire thing about blonde jokes is that they’re a parody of stereotype-based humor. Except that isn’t really the case; the reason tropes like this endure is precisely because people really do adhere to them on a deep ideological level, despite how ludicrous they appear on the surface. The fact that people say they’re “joking” about things like this belies the fact that they care enough to bother in the first place. More importantly, I lied when I said “blonde people“; what these jokes actually are is sexism dressed up as triviality. The presumption of good faith is based on the assumption that no one is “really” sexist, that everyone “means well” in spite of their actual behavior. Superficiality – pointing out that “it’s just hair, don’t be dumb” – is not a retreat, but an accurate defense against this. (Also, I’m not overinterpreting this; if you require corroboration, there’s a non-album B-side called “Get Radical” that proves it.)

So the fact that the song also sounds dumb, that its rambly lyrics and singsong chorus make the singer come across as an actual ditz, reveals the true nature of the opposition: looking like a moron while making an incontrovertibly true point is preferable to play-acting depth while being, on the merits, a dumbfuck. This resolved contradiction defines the band’s entire body of work (their previous album has a hardcore song about being pregnant, which sounds completely silly, until you realize that pregnancy really is the most hardcore thing), and it’s on its fullest display here. There’s actually a fair diversity of emotional states, anchored in sentiments as simple as “I Do” and “Squeeze Me” (and of course “Dance Like a Maniac”), rendered all the more faithfully for being cartoonishly blown up and garishly colored. It’s pretty fast, but it’s actually propelled forward by complex and thoughtful production, layered with precisely applied backing vocals and stabbed through with shouts and breaks. It sticks to its guns, but also fully explores its possibility space – in other contexts this is called “minimalism,” which reminds us that complexity and nuance, while assumed to be indicators of underlying intelligence, can just as easily be used to disguise the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Hence why the album ends with a joke song and a joke cover, neither of which is a joke: because joking is the most serious thing you can do. The mermaid, which would appear to be an arbitrary reference, is in fact central to the point. It’s a creature of two worlds that registers as a single entity, a living reconciled contradiction. Mermaid mythology continues to resonate because it’s immediately comprehensible even in the face of making no sense. Just so, this album is a mess of goofiness and also exactly what it says on the label: a message in a bottle that is also a molotov.

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