C.S. Lewis on Suffering and What It Means to Have Free Will in a Universe of Fixed Laws

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“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise gleam in an essay titled “Divine Omnipotence” from his altogether fascinating 1940 book The Problem of Pain (public library) — a scintillating examination of the concept of free will in a material universe and why suffering is not only a natural but an essential part of the human experience. Though explored through the lens of the contradictions and impossibilities of belief, the questions Lewis raises touch on elements of philosophy, politics, psychology, cosmology, and ethics — areas that have profound, direct impact on how we live our lives, day to day.

He begins by framing “the problem of pain, in its simplest form” — the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that “God” wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we’d have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in “either goodness, or power, or both.”

To be sure, Lewis’s own journey of spirituality was a convoluted one — he was raised in a religious family, became an atheist at fifteen, then slowly returned to Christianity under the influence of his friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. But whatever his religious bent, Lewis possessed the rare gift of being able to examine his own beliefs critically and, in the process, to offer layered, timeless insight on eternal inquiries into spirituality and the material universe that resonate even with those of us who fall on the nonreligious end of the spectrum and side with Carl Sagan on matters of spirituality.

Lewis writes:

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a “self,” can exist except in contrast with an “other,” a something which is not the self. . . . The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing), again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.

What makes Lewis’s reflections so enduring and widely resonant is that, for all his concern with divinity, he cracks open the innermost kernel of our basic humanity, in relation to ourselves and to one another:

People often talk as if nothing were easier than for two naked minds to “meet” or become aware of each other. But I see no possibility of their doing so except in a common medium which forms their “external world” or environment. Even our vague attempt to imagine such a meeting between disembodied spirits usually slips in surreptitiously the idea of, at least, a common space and common time, to give the co- in co-existence a meaning: and space and time are already an environment. But more than this is required. If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine? And what thoughts or passions could we begin to have without objects to think and feel about? Nay, could I even begin to have the conception of “external” and “other” unless I had experience of an “external world”?

In a sentiment that calls to mind novelist Iris Murdoch’s beautiful definition of love (“Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.”), Lewis adds:

The result is that most people remain ignorant of the existence of both. We may therefore suppose that if human souls affected one another directly and immaterially, it would be a rare triumph of faith and insight for any one of them to believe in the existence of the others.

Lewis considers what it would take for us to fully acknowledge and contact each other’s otherness, to bridge the divide between the internal and the external:

What we need for human society is exactly what we have — a neutral something, neither you nor I, which we can both manipulate so as to make signs to each other. I can talk to you because we can both set up sound-waves in the common air between us. Matter, which keeps souls apart, also brings them together. It enables each of us to have an “outside” as well as an “inside,” so that what are acts of will and thought for you are noises and glances for me; you are enabled not only to be, but to appear: and hence I have the pleasure of making your acquaintance.

Society, then, implies a common field or “world” in which its members meet.

‘Tree of virtues’ by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250, from ‘The Book of Trees.’ Click image for details.

That “neutral something” might sound a lot like faith, but Lewis is careful to point out the limitations of such traditional interpretations and to examine how this relates to the question of suffering:

If matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own. If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes — “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me — all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you.

Again, if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul, nor all equally beneficial for that particular aggregate of matter which he calls his body. If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. Does this mean an inevitable element of evil (in the form of pain) in any possible world? I think not: for while it may be true that the least sin is an incalculable evil, the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain intensity are not feared or resented at all. No one minds the process “warm — beautifully hot — too hot — it stings” which warns him to withdraw his hand from exposure to the fire: and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable.

Yet again, if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society. If a man traveling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humor and modesty express themselves. But it certainly leaves the way open to a great evil, that of competition and hostility. And if souls are free, they cannot be prevented from dealing with the problem by competition instead of courtesy. And once they have advanced to actual hostility, they can then exploit the fixed nature of matter to hurt one another. The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbor on the head. The permanent nature of matter in general means that when human beings fight, the victory ordinarily goes to those who have superior weapons, skill, and numbers, even if their cause is unjust.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from ‘Waterloo & Trafalgar.’ Click image for details.

But looking closer at the possible “abuses of free will,” Lewis considers how the fixed nature of physical laws presents a problem for the religious notion of miracles — something he’d come to examine in depth several years later in the book Miracles, and something MIT’s Alan Lightman would come to echo several decades later in his spectacular meditation on science and spirituality. Lewis writes:

Such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them. All matter in the neighborhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behavior of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

He offers an illustrative example:

In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

He closes by bringing us full-circle to the concept of free will:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.

The Problem of Pain is a pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement it with Lewis on duty, the secret of happiness, and writing “for children” and the key to authenticity in all writing, then revisit Jane Goodall on science and spirituality.

 

 

My adventures in Hemingway

How I lived out a novel at odds with the modern world

As a young man in Europe, I immersed myself in the work of a master. What I learned changed me forever

My adventures in Hemingway: How I lived out a novel at odds with the modern world
Ernest Hemingway attends a bullfight in Madrid, Spain, November 1960. (Credit: AP)

At first, they died in the bullring, but the book that made them famous had swelled the crowds. By mid-century, the lack of space made it harder to outrun the bulls, so they began to die much earlier in the route, beyond Hotel La Perla, and most just before the bulls made their 90-degree turn onto Calle Estafeta.

I was there in Pamplona, standing on the balcony of the piso near this precarious juncture. It was 8 a.m.; the stone streets were shiny with rain. There was a wood barricade, like an outfield wall, that unnaturally ended Calle Mercaderes and forced the route right onto Estafeta. This is where I saw the first bulls slip, losing their footing at the turn, their bulk hitting the stones, their tonnage pounding into the barricade, the runners fleeing to the sidewalks, some, in fetal curls, waiting for death.

This was how the last American was killed in Pamplona, along this narrow corridor that offers no escape from the charging bulls. That morning, his killer, “Castellano,” had begun to run the 826 meters from the Cuesta de Santo Domingo to the Plaza de Toros at an unusually torrid pace, which frightened the runners and sent them scurrying. One of them fell.

Castellano plunged his horns into the limp American on the ground, goring his stomach and piercing through to his aortic vein. He began to crawl. But there were still more bulls in the stampede, and by the time the Red Cross unit got to Matthew Tassio, most of the blood had already drained from his body. He was dead just eight minutes after he finally reached the hospital.

Tassio’s was the 14th death in the recorded history of San Fermín — the festival most famous for hosting the annual “Running of the Bulls” — and the last American to die there. One other has perished since, in 2003, and many others have been badly damaged by the bulls, but perhaps none have died as gruesomely as the American did in 1995. I wasn’t in attendance for that run, thankfully.

In a year in which there would be no deaths, I came to Pamplona for the second time by bus from Madrid, passing through the sunflowers of Basque country. I had been invited by the correspondents of the Associated Press, with whom Dow Jones Newswire, my former employer, shared its local outpost to witness the Running of the Bulls from their prized perch.

That morning’s encierra would be the first of the new millennium. It was very wet and, even from the balcony, you could see the unevenness in the cobblestones. The only place to witness the run was from the balconies of the apartments along the route. When the bulls began to stampede, the runners, many still drunk and wearing all white save for a red pañuelico around their necks, filled all of the space in the corridors. It was a jogging gait until they saw the bulls. Most of them ran well ahead of the danger, but some were eventually chased down by the bulls.



I remember an American student who slipped nearly died on the curb by the cigarette shop on Estafeta, trampled, blood maroon in the grooves of the cobblestones, a small crowd coagulating around him to watch for death.

I remember the dense crowds, the public drunkenness, the street drink that kept you drunk and alert made from equal parts Coca-Cola and red wine. And, of course, I remember the monumental visage of Ernest Hemingway that hung down the side of the Hotel La Perla, where he set the novel that first recorded this mad dash from mortality.

* * *

It is not an overstatement to claim that Ernest Hemingway introduced Pamplona to the world. Until he first wrote about it in 1923 in an article for The Toronto Star Weekly, the San Fermín festival had been a regional affair: “As far as I know we were the only English speaking people in Pamplona during the Feria of last year,” writes Hemingway. “We landed at Pamplona at night. The streets were solid with people dancing. Music was pounding and throbbing. Fireworks were being set off from the big public square. All the carnivals I had ever seen paled down in comparison.”

This Toronto Star sketch of Pamplona comes from the appendix of new edition of “The Sun Also Rises,” released last week by Scribner’s to commemorate the 90th anniversary of its publication. The “updated” version will titillate Hemingway aficionados: unpublished early drafts, excised scenes and two deleted opening chapters. This “new” material provides a rare glimpse into the evolution and creative process of one of the great masters of American literature.

Drafted over six weeks across Spain (mostly in Valencia and Madrid) in the summer of 1925, set in Jazz Age Paris amid the psychic ruins of the Great War, “The Sun Also Rises” endures as one of the finest first novels ever written. Its itinerant narrative of Spain and France (they were largely unknowns to the American traveling public in 1925, but more on that later), depictions of café life and drinking, bullfighting and affairs with matadors, were all new to novels of the time. “No amount of analysis can convey the quality of ‘The Sun Also Rises,’” went the original review of the book in The New York Times in 1926. “It is a truly gripping story, told in lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.”

Hemingway chose to evoke disillusionment through Jack Barnes, an expatriated American foreign correspondent living in Paris, and his married paramour, Lady Brett Ashley. Their romance is complicated, to say the least: Jake’s manhood was marred in the war and he cannot procreate (in his famous interview with The Paris Review in the 1950s, Hemingway was adamant that Jake was not a eunuch). The war injury was a crucial detail in the text, and an emblematic signature of the Hemingway code that ran through his subsequent work. His male characters bore physical or psychic wounds (sometimes both). Jake’s injury was an outward symptom of an interior crisis suffered in the wake of WWI.

Hemingway’s genius was present in Jake and Lady Brett as protagonists and antagonists. We inflict our own wounds, Hemingway seems to say, an insight that bears out even today: Contemporary disillusionment is concerned with the surprising, man-made ironies of modernity — a dwindling sense of freedom, both existential and civil; the West’s waning hegemony even amid unparalleled wealth and technology; a diminished middle class and shrinking American dream; and an ever present sense of looming doom (an attack of some kind, perhaps) by forces beyond our control. The Lost Generation time of “The Sun” was infected with its own disillusionment, owing to man-made origins from the tragic period of 1914–1918. This disillusion plays out in “The Sun” almost nihilistically; by the novel’s end, both characters are badly damaged by the preceding events, degraded, alienated.

* * *

The two opening chapters, cut by Hemingway but offered to readers in the new edition, were fortunate omissions. The original opening lines of “The Sun” sound an awkward, conversational, and Victorian tone, inconsistent with the remainder of the novel:

This is a story about a lady. Her name is Lady Ashley and when the story begins she is living in Paris and it is Spring. That should be a good setting for a romantic but highly moral story.

Yet, in the rest of the deleted chapter, and elsewhere in the early passages, the Hemingway voice is undeniably present. That voice has drawn veneration and ridicule. The essayist E.B. White, hardly the type for big-game hunting and encierros, penned a famous parody of Hemingway in The New Yorker in 1950, deriding his so-called declarative prose style. Yet much of Hemingway’s best writing strains this easy stereotype. He is far less aphoristic and quotable than, say, Don DeLillo (a veritable one-man factory of sound bites), and you would find it difficult to locate a pithy tweet among the prose of “The Sun Also Rises.”

By the 1930s, Hemingway’s writing style had grown more intricate. “Green Hills of Africa” contains a  buffalo of a sentence, 497 words spanning five pages, reminiscent of Faulkner or Gabriel García Márquez. That magical realist, in fact, had lionized Hemingway. Writing for the New York Times about a fleeting, chance encounter with Hemingway on Paris’s Boulevard St. Michel, Márquez declares that “[Hemingway's] instantaneously inspired short stories are unassailable” and calls him “one of the most brilliant goldsmiths in the history of letters.”

For better or for worse, that unmistakably declarative, taut, gritty Hemingway music can overpower the substance of his stories, somewhat ironically drawing the attention back onto himself. Over the decades since his death in 1961, the Hemingway legend has bloomed and rebloomed many times over, until now there is a preoccupation with the Hemingway lifestyle, the man himself, in a way, morphing posthumously into a tourist destination, a literary Jimmy Buffet.

Those places in “The Sun” – Pamplona, Madrid, Paris – remain open for tourists, poet manqués, backpackers and the traveling gentility. But the tourism and concomitant commercialism have rendered quite a few of their landmarks ersatz. At the Closerie des Lilas in Paris’ Montparnasse district, where Hemingway set many scenes from his books (including my favorite, “A Moveable Feast”), practically the entire bar menu is a monument to Hemingway: daiquiris and mojitos, all made from Cuban rum, all named after Papa. After its much celebrated renovation, the Hotel Ritz saw fit to refurbish itself with a Hemingway-themed restaurant, L’Espadon (“The Swordfish”), in homage to Papa’s love of fishing, along with a Hemingway-inspired bar, which, no doubt, mixes up fanciful permutations of mojitos and daiquiris named after… you guessed it. The Spanish may have even more flagrantly exceeded the French in their quest to annex the Hemingway legend into their geography. Calle de Hemingway in Pamplona leads directly into the bullring. Placards outside restaurants on the Calle Cuchilleros in Madrid proclaim, rather declaratively, that “Hemingway ate here.” The website of Madrid staple Botin’s, the world’s oldest restaurant and where Hemingway set the final scene of “The Sun,” devotes cyber text to Papa, even directly quoting the final chapter.

A question worth considering: Were he alive today, could Hemingway have written a novel as great as “The Sun”? So much of its wonder derives from his keen eye for the undiscovered, heretofore unknown traditions. Ours, though, is a world of uber-awareness, search-engine omniscience. Those with wanderlust possess all manner of means to beam into a faraway place, efficiently and affordably, even instantaneously. One afternoon, in writing this essay, I called up Google Earth to view the squares and streets where I had been 14 years ago, astounded by the clarity of the street-level views. For the next few minutes, I flitted to and fro around the globe, a Peter Pan visiting Anthony Bourdain places.

* * *

I had first read “The Sun” in high school and was unaffected by it. Not until I had decided to move abroad after college and take up residence in Spain did I take up the text again. This time I clung to it, savoring every word about where to travel and where to eat and how to live like a good, knowledgeable expatriate.

Barcelona in July was a late-summer swamp. Soon, I missed the cool weather and took an overnight train north to the Basque country. In San Sebastian, I walked at dusk along the promenade that curled around the bay past the stalls that sold tiny, rare mollusks you picked like popcorn out of a cone of rolled newspaper. I saw some school kids perform the ancient Basque Riau-Riau dances and walked around the complicatedly arranged streets, names clotted with diphthongs, that smelled of the Atlantic, looking for Hemingway experiences.

That did not come until Pamplona.

It was late afternoon in August and very hot when I arrived. In my bag was a journal from my mother, some unremarkable reading, dirty clothes, a few measly legs left of a Eurorail pass I had purchased in Harvard Square the month before.

I had not thought the city would be so different after San Fermín, but I had come too late: the city was half-full. I roved for much of that afternoon, dodging in and out of curio shops and whatever else was open out of season. When it was dinnertime, I studied the menus of the restaurants off the Plaza Castillo until I found somewhere with a menu written only in Basque. I befriended a fellow traveler, Ryan, who was also from Massachusetts, and we made up plans to go drinking at a café in the Plaza Castillo afterwards.

By our third bottle of Estrella, an American couple approached to ask if they could join our table.

“We live in Paris and I am so tired of Paris that we have to leave. All I want to do is go back to Chicago but he won’t go,” she said.

“But Paris is so special,” I said. “Don’t you enjoy any part of it?”

“I despise it. They hate all Americans and you can smell the cheese in the cheese shops even from the street.”

She was menacingly beautiful and skeletal in that model way. Mark was a photographer, a little stout and balding, his shirt unbuttoned a touch salaciously. They had eloped some years ago and were living in an attic flat on the Île de St. Louis. When she began to flirt openly with Ryan, he would not look at her. When the couple began to quarrel, she kept saying she wished to return to America.

It was nearly midnight now and we were the only ones left in café in the colonnade of the plaza. Across the way, the lights were all out at the Hotel La Perla. There was only moonlight in the great square. When she finally began to kiss him, her husband placed his bottle on the table, stood, and shook his head at me. She was giggling the entire time.

 

 

The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting

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“The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen (b. September 21, 1934) is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century. Recipient of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and countless other accolades, and an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk, his music has extended popular song into the realm of poetry, even philosophy. By the time Bob Dylan rose to fame, Cohen already had several volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Beautiful Losers, which famously led Allen Ginsberg to remark that “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.” Once he turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, the world of music was forever changed.

From Paul Zollo’s impressive interview compendium Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and Carole King on perspiration vs. inspiration — comes a spectacular and wide-ranging 1992 conversation with Cohen, who begins by considering the purpose of music in human life:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”). Cohen tells Zollo:

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.

[...]

To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

[...]

My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.

He later adds:

Freedom and restriction are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just … ideas. I don’t have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.

When asked whether he ever finds that “hard labor” enjoyable, Cohen echoes Lewis Hyde’s distinction between work and creative labor and considers what fulfilling work actually means:

It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.

Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don’t simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen’s mind “is unpolluted by a single idea,” which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of “just versions.” When Zollo asks whether each song begins with a lyrical idea, Cohen answers with lyrical defiance:

[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

Cohen addresses the question of where good ideas come from with charming irreverence, producing the now-legendary line that Paul Holdengräber quoted in his conversation with David Lynch on creativity. Cohen echoes T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the mystical quality of creativity and tells Zollo:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.

But Cohen’s most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life. Addressing Zollo’s astonishment at the fact that Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process — this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:

I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.

Considering his ongoing interest in the process itself rather than the outcome, Cohen makes a beautiful case for the art of self-renewal by exploring the deeper rewards and gratifications that have kept him going for half a century:

It [has] to do with two things. One is economic urgency. I just never made enough money to say, “Oh, man, I think I’m gonna get a yacht now and scuba-dive.” I never had those kinds of funds available to me to make radical decisions about what I might do in life. Besides that, I was trained in what later became known as the Montreal School of Poetry. Before there were prizes, before there were grants, before there were even girls who cared about what I did. We would meet, a loosely defined group of people. There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself. We would read each other poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…

We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently…

So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.

What a beautiful testament to the creative spirit and its true motives, to creative contribution coming from a place of purpose rather than a hunger for profit.

Songwriters on Songwriting is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring Zollo’s conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/07/15/leonard-cohen-paul-zollo-creativity/

THE BULLSHIT MACHINE

Here’s a tiny confession. I’m bored.

Yes; I know. I’m a sinner. Go ahead. Burn me at the stake of your puritanical Calvinism; the righteously, thoroughly, well, boring idea that boredom itself is a moral defect; that a restless mind is the Devil’s sweatshop.

There’s nothing more boring than that; and I’ll return to that very idea at the end of this essay; which I hope is the beginning.

What am I bored of? Everything. Blogs books music art business ideas politics tweets movies science math technology…but more than that: the spirit of the age; the atmosphere of the time; the tendency of the now; the disposition of the here.

Sorry; but it’s true. It’s boring me numb and dumb.

A culture that prizes narcissism above individualism. A politics that places “tolerance” above acceptance. A spirit that encourages cynicism over reverence. A public sphere that places irony over sincerity. A technosophy that elevates “data” over understanding. A society that puts “opportunity” before decency. An economy that…you know. Works us harder to make us poorer at “jobs” we hate where we make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from our souls to sell to everyone else who’s working harder to get poorer at “jobs” they hate where they make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from their souls.

To be bored isn’t to be indifferent. It is to be fatigued. Because one is exhausted. And that is precisely where—and only where—the values above lead us. To exhaustion; with the ceaseless, endless, meaningless work of maintaining the fiction. Of pretending that who we truly want to be is what everyone believes everyone else wants to be. Liked, not loved; “attractive”, not beautiful; clever, not wise; snarky, not happy; advantaged, not prosperous.

It exhausts us; literally; this game of parasitically craving everyone’s cravings. It makes us adversaries not of one another; but of ourselves. Until there is nothing left. Not of us as we are; but of the people we might have been. The values above shrink and reduce and diminish our potential; as individuals, as people, societies. And so I have grown fatigued by them.

Ah, you say. But when hasn’t humanity always suffered all the above? Please. Let’s not mince ideas. Unless you think the middle class didn’t actually thrive once; unless you think that the gentleman that’s made forty seven Saw flicks (so far) is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock; unless you believe that this era has a John Lennon; unless you think that Jeff Koons is Picasso…perhaps you see my point.

I’m bored, in short, of what I’d call a cycle of perpetual bullshit. A bullshit machine. The bullshit machine turns life into waste.

The bullshit machine looks something like this. Narcissism about who you are leads to cynicism about who you could be leads to mediocrity in what you do…leads to narcissism about who you are. Narcissism leads to cynicism leads to mediocrity…leads to narcissism.

Let me simplify that tiny model of the stalemate the human heart can reach with life.

The bullshit machine is the work we do only to live lives we don’t want, need, love, or deserve.

Everything’s work now. Relationships; hobbies; exercise. Even love. Gruelling; tedious; unrelenting; formulaic; passionless; calculated; repetitive; predictable; analysed; mined; timed; performed.

Work is bullshit. You know it, I know it; mankind has always known it. Sure; you have to work at what you want to accomplish. But that’s not the point. It is the flash of genius; the glimmer of intuition; the afterglow of achievement; the savoring of experience; the incandescence of meaning; all these make life worthwhile, pregnant, impossible, aching with purpose. These are the ends. Work is merely the means.

Our lives are confused like that. They are means without ends; model homes; acts which we perform, but do not fully experience.

Remember when I mentioned puritanical Calvinism? The idea that being bored is itself a sign of a lack of virtue—and that is, itself, the most boring idea in the world?

That’s the battery that powers the bullshit machine. We’re not allowed to admit it: that we’re bored. We’ve always got to be doing something. Always always always. Tapping, clicking, meeting, partying, exercising, networking, “friending”. Work hard, play hard, live hard. Improve. Gain. Benefit. Realize.

Hold on. Let me turn on crotchety Grandpa mode. Click.

Remember when cafes used to be full of people…thinking? Now I defy you to find one not full of people Tinder—Twitter—Facebook—App-of-the-nanosecond-ing; furiously. Like true believers hunched over the glow of a spiritualized Eden they can never truly enter; which is precisely why they’re mesmerized by it. The chance at a perfect life; full of pleasure; the perfect partner, relationship, audience, job, secret, home, career; it’s a tap away. It’s something like a slot-machine of the human soul, this culture we’re building. The jackpot’s just another coin away…forever. Who wouldn’t be seduced by that?

Winners of a million followers, fans, friends, lovers, dollars…after all, a billion people tweeting, updating, flicking, swiping, tapping into the void a thousand times a minute can’t be wrong. Can they?

And therein is the paradox of the bullshit machine. We do more than humans have ever done before. But we are not accomplishing much; and we are, it seems to me, becoming even less than that.

The more we do, the more passive we seem to become. Compliant. Complaisant. As if we are merely going through the motions.

Why? We are something like apparitions today; juggling a multiplicity of selves through the noise; the “you” you are on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Tinder…wherever…at your day job, your night job, your hobby, your primary relationship, your friend-with-benefits, your incredibly astonishing range of extracurricular activities. But this hyperfragmentation of self gives rise to a kind of schizophrenia; conflicts, dissocations, tensions, dislocations, anxieties, paranoias, delusions. Our social wombs do not give birth to our true selves; the selves explosive with capability, possibility, wonder.

Tap tap tap. And yet. We are barely there, at all; in our own lives; in the moments which we will one day look back on and ask ourselves…what were we thinking wasting our lives on things that didn’t matter at all?

The answer, of course, is that we weren’t thinking. Or feeling. We don’t have time to think anymore. Thinking is a superluxury. Feeling is an even bigger superluxury. In an era where decent food, water, education, and healthcare are luxuries; thinking and feeling are activities to costly for society to allow. They are a drag on “growth”; a burden on “productivity”; they slow down the furious acceleration of the bullshit machine.

And so. Here we are. Going through the motions. The bullshit machine says the small is the great; the absence is the presence; the vicious is the noble; the lie is the truth. We believe it; and, greedily, it feeds on our belief. The more we feed it, the more insatiable it becomes. Until, at last, we are exhausted. By pretending to want the lives we think we should; instead of daring to live the lives we know we could.

Fuck it. Just admit it. You’re probably just as bored as I am.

Good for you.

Welcome to the world beyond the Bullshit Machine.

The Best Illustrations from 150 Years of Alice in Wonderland

by

Down the rabbit hole in enchanting reimaginings.

On July 4, 1862, English mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson boarded a small boat with a few friends. Among them was a little girl named Alice Liddell. To entertain her and her sisters as they floated down the river between Oxford and Godstow, Dodgson fancied a whimsical story, which he’d come to publish three years later under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland went on to become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, and my all-time favorite.

In the century and a half since Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Carroll classic has sprouted everything from a pop-up book adaptation to a witty cookbook to a quantum physics allegory, and hundreds of artists around the world have reimagined it with remarkable creative vision. After my recent highlights of the best illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit, here come the loveliest visual interpretations of the timeless book.

LISBETH ZWERGER (1999)

As an enormous admirer of Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger’s creative vision — her illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant are absolutely enchanting — I was thrilled to track down a used copy of a sublime out-of-print edition of Alice in Wonderland (public library) featuring Zwerger’s inventive, irreverent, and tenderly tantalizing drawings, published in 1999.

What makes Zwerger’s aesthetic particularly bewitching is her ability render even the wildest feats of fancy in a soft and subdued style that tickles the imagination into animating the characters and scenes with life.

The book begins with Carroll’s prefatory poem from the book, which recounts the afternoon boat trip on which he first told the Alice in Wonderland story to the three little Liddell sisters — Lorina (“Prima”), Alice (“Secunda”), the real-life girl who inspired the tale, and Edith (“Tertia”):

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict to “begin it”:
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it!”
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast —
And half believe it true.

And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
To put the subject by,
“The rest next time—” “It is next time!”
The happy voices cry.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out—
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers
Pluck’d in far-off land.

Though this enchanting edition is currently out of print, you can still find used copies online and at the library. Some of Zwerger’s prints, including one of the Alice cover illustration, are available on ArtKandy.

See more here.

RALPH STEADMAN (1973)

Among the most singular and weirdly wonderful interpretations of the beloved story is the 1973 gem Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman (public library; Abe Books), more than twenty years before Steadman’s spectacular illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm. Barely in his mid-thirties at the time, the acclaimed British cartoonist — best-known today for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson and his unmistakable inkblot dog drawings — brings to the Carroll classic his singular semi-sensical visual genius, blending the irreverent with the sublime.

(Because, you know, it’s not a tea party until somebody flips the bird.)

Should you find a surviving copy, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman is an absolute treat in its entirety. See more of it here.

 

TOVE JANSSON (1966)

 

In 1959, three years before the publication of her gorgeous illustrations for The Hobbit and nearly two decades after her iconic Moomin characters were born, celebrated Swedish-speaking Finnish artist Tove Jansson was commissioned to illustrate a now-rare Swedish edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library), crafting a sublime fantasy experience that fuses Carroll’s Wonderland with Jansson’s Moomin Valley. The publisher, Åke Runnquist, thought Jansson would be a perfect fit for the project, as she had previously illustrated a Swedish translation of Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark — the 1874 book in which the word “snark” actually originated — at Runnquist’s own request.

When Runnquist received her finished illustrations in the fall of 1966, he immediately fired off an excited telegram to Jansson: “Congratulations for Alice — you have produced a masterpiece.”

What an understatement.

In 2011, London’s Tate Museum published an English edition of Janssen’s Alice, but copies of that are also scarce outside the U.K. Luckily, this gem can still be found in some public libraries and, occasionally, online.

See more here.

LEONARD WEISGARD (1949)

One of the most beautiful editions of the Carroll classic is also one of the earliest color ones — a glorious 1949 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (public library), illustrated by artist Leonard Weisgard. The vibrant, textured artwork exudes a certain mid-century boldness that makes it as much a timeless celebration of the iconic children’s book as it is a time-capsule of bygone aesthetic from the golden age of illustration and graphic design.

JOHN VERNON LORD (2011)

“Words mean more than we mean to express when we use them,” Lewis Carroll once wrote in a letter to a friend, “so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means.”

That’s what British artist John Vernon Lord — one of the most imaginative literary illustrators working today, who also gave us those spectacular recent illustrations for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake — sought to embody in his special ultra-limited-edition Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (public library), published in 2011 in a run of only 420 signed and numbered copies, of which 98 came with a special set of prints.

Lord writes in the afterword to his glorious edition:

There is hardly anything new to be said about Lewis Carroll’s two ‘Alice’ books. So much has been written about them. Their contents have been probed by the scalpels of psychoanalysts, literary theorists, annotators, enthusiasts and the journalists. Perhaps I should include illustrators among this group, for it is the illustrator’s duty to get to grips with the text and thus make a visual commentary upon it.

Readers of the text and viewers of the illustrations also make a book their own. Each one of us interprets stories and pictures in our own way and each one of us is unique. . . . [But] I think we have to be careful not to look for too many possible meanings that we might think may be lurking within the text of Carroll’s Alice books. It is very tempting to do so and many writers have done just that, sometimes disturbingly, often without evidence, and sometimes in a most delightfully illuminating way.

And yet Lord’s own illustrations invite a wealth of meaning — the most “delightfully illuminating” kind possible. He argues that illustrators of classics like Carroll’s have the special duty of “confounding people’s expectations,” as readers are already well familiar with the stories and long “to be given a different slant to a familiar narrative.” I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of these rare editions — here’s a taste of Lord’s unparalleled genius:

If you’re able to track one down, do treat yourself to a copy of Lord’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There — it’s absolutely gorgeous. See more of it here.

SALVADOR DALÍ (1969)

In 1969, Salvador Dalí was commissioned by New York’s Maecenas Press-Random House to illustrate a special edition of the Carroll classic, consisting of 12 heliogravures — one for each chapter of the book and an original signed etching in four colors as the frontispiece. Distributed as the publisher’s book of the month, the volume went on to become one of the most sought-after Dalí suites of all time — even rarer than Dalí’s erotic vintage cookbook and his illustrations for Don Quixote, the essays of Montaigne, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy.

Frontispiece

 

Down the Rabbit Hole

 

The Pool of Tears

 

A Caucus Race and a Long Tale

 

The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill

 

Advice From a Caterpillar

 

Pig and Pepper

 

Mad Tea Party

 

The Queen’s Croquet Ground

 

The Mock Turtle’s Story

 

The Lobster’s Quadrille

 

Who Stole the Tarts?

 

Alice’s Evidence

 

See more, including a hands-on video tour of the folio case, here.

YAYOI KUSAMA (2012)

In 2012, Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, unleashed her signature dotted magic onto a gorgeous edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library) from Penguin UK and book-designer-by-day, analog-data-visualization-artist-by-night Stefanie Posavec.

Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant Alice artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.

Kusama’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a breathtaking piece of visual philosophy to complement Carroll’s timeless vision. See more of it, including a short trailer, here.

BONUS: ALICE IN WONDERLAND POP-UP BOOK (2003)

Those of us enchanted by imaginative pop-up books — from an adaptation of The Little Prince to the life of Leonardo da Vinci to a naughty Victoriana — are bound to fall in love with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Pop-up Adaptation (public library) by pop-up book artist and paper engineer Robert Sabuda. Originally published in 2003 — three years after Sabuda’s equally enchanting adaptation of The Wizard of Oz and five years before his take on Peter Pan — the book is a kind of “Victorian peep show” version of the Lewis Carroll classic.

Then the Queen, quite out of breath, said to Alice, ‘Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’

‘No,’ said Alice. ‘I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’

‘It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,’ said the Queen.

 

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/07/07/best-illustrations-alice-in-wonderland/

Let’s nationalize Amazon and Google

Publicly funded technology built Big Tech

They’re huge and ruthless and define our lives. They’re close to monopolies. Let’s make them public utilities

Let's nationalize Amazon and Google: Publicly funded technology built Big Tech
Jeff Bezos (Credit: AP/Reed Saxon/Pakhnyushcha via Shutterstock/Salon)

They’re huge, they’re ruthless, and they touch every aspect of our daily lives. Corporations like Amazon and Google keep expanding their reach and their power. Despite a history of abuses, so far the Justice Department has declined to take antitrust actions against them. But there’s another solution.

Is it time to manage and regulate these companies as public utilities?

That argument’s already been made about broadband access. In her book “Captive Justice,” law professor Susan Crawford argues that “high-speed wired Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago.”

Broadband as a public utility? If not for corporate corruption of our political process, that would seem like an obvious solution. Instead, our nation’s wireless access is the slowest and costliest in the world.

But why stop there? Policymakers have traditionally considered three elements when evaluating the need for a public utility: production, transmission, and distribution. Broadband is transmission. What about production and distribution?

The Big Tech mega-corporations have developed what Al Gore calls the “Stalker Economy,” manipulating and monitoring as they go. But consider: They were created with publicly funded technologies, and prospered as the result of indulgent policies and lax oversight. They’ve achieved monopoly or near-monopoly status, are spying on us to an extent that’s unprecedented in human history, and have the potential to alter each and every one of our economic, political, social and cultural transactions.

In fact, they’re already doing it.

Public utilities? It’s a thought experiment worth conducting.

Big Tech was created with publicly developed technology.

No matter how they spin it, these corporations were not created in garages or by inventive entrepreneurs. The core technology behind them is the Internet, a publicly funded platform for which they pay no users’ fee. In fact, they do everything they can to avoid paying their taxes.



Big Tech’s use of public technology means that it operates in a technological “commons,” which they are using solely for its own gain, without regard for the public interest. Meanwhile the United States government devotes considerable taxpayer resource to protecting them – from patent infringement, cyberterrorism and other external threats.

Big Tech’s services have become a necessity in modern society.

Businesses would be unable to participate in modern society without access to the services companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook provide. These services have become public marketplaces.

For individuals, these entities have become the public square where social interactions take place, as well as the marketplace where they purchase goods.

They’re at or near monopoly status – and moving fast.

Google has 80 percent of the search market in the United States, and an even larger share of key overseas markets. Google’s browsers have now surpassed Microsoft’s in usage across all devices. It has monopoly-like influence over online news, as William Baker noted in the Nation. Its YouTube subsidiary dominates the U.S. online-video market, with nearly double the views of its closest competitor. (Roughly 83 percent of the Americans who watched a video online in April went to YouTube.)

Even Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer argued that Google is a “monopoly” whose activities were “worthy of discussion with competition authority.” He should know.

As a social platform, Facebook has no real competitors. Amazon’s book business dominates the market. E-books are now 30 percent of the total book market, and its Kindle e-books account for 65 percent of e-book sales.  Nearly one book in five is an Amazon product – and that’s not counting Amazon’s sales of physical books. It has become such a behemoth that it is able to command discounts of more than 50 percent from major publishers like Random House.

They abuse their power.

The bluntness with which Big Tech firms abuse their monopoly power is striking. Google has said that it will soon begin blocking YouTube videos from popular artists like Radiohead and Adele unless independent record labels sign deals with its upcoming music streaming service (at what are presumably disadvantageous rates).   Amazon’s war on publishers like Hachette is another sign of Big Tech arrogance.

But what is equally striking about these moves is the corporations’ disregard for basic customer service. Because YouTube’s dominance of the video market is so large, Google is confident that even frustrated music fans have nowhere to go. Amazon is so confident of its dominance that it retaliated against Hachette by removing order buttons when a Hachette book came up (which users must find maddening) and lied about the availability of Hachette books when a customer attempts to order one. It also altered its search process for recommendations to freeze out Hachette books and direct users to non-Hachette authors.

Amazon even suggested its customers use other vendors if they’re unhappy, a move that my Salon colleague Andrew Leonard described as “nothing short of amazing – and troubling.”

David Stratfield of the New York Times asked, “When does discouragement become misrepresentation?” One logical answer: When you tell customers a product isn’t available, even though it is, or rig your sales mechanism to prevent customers from choosing the item they want.

And now Amazon’s using some of the same tactics against Warner Home Video.

They got there with our help.

As we’ve already noted, Internet companies are using taxpayer-funded technology to make billions of dollars from the taxpayers – without paying a licensing fee. As we reported earlier, Amazon was the beneficiary of tax exemptions that allowed it to reach its current monopolistic size.

Google and the other technology companies have also benefited from tax policies and other forms of government indulgence. Contrary to popular misconception, Big Tech corporations aren’t solely the products of ingenuity and grit. Each has received, and continues to receive, a lot of government largess.

The real “commodity” is us.

Most of Big Tech’s revenues come from the use of our personal information in its advertising business. Social media entries, Web-surfing patterns, purchases, even our private and personal communications add value to these corporations. They don’t make money by selling us a product. We are the product, and we are sold to third parties for profit.

Public utilities are often created when the resource being consumed isn’t a “commodity” in the traditional sense. “We” aren’t an ordinary resource. Like air and water, the value of our information is something that should be publicly shared – or, at a minimum, publicly managed.

Our privacy is dying … or already dead.

“We know where you are,” says Google CEO Eric Schmidt. “We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Facebook tracks your visits to the website of any corporate Facebook “partner,” stores that information, and uses it to track and manipulate the ads you see. Its mobile app also has a new, “creepy” feature that turns on your phone’s microphone, analyzes what you’re listening to or watching, and is capable of posting updates to your status like “Listening to Albert King” or “Watching ‘Orphan Black.’

Google tracks your search activity, an activity with a number of disturbing implications. (A competing browser that does not track searches called DuckDuckGo offers an illustrated guide to its competitors’ practices.)  If you use its Chrome browser, Google tracks your website visits too (unless you’re in “private” mode.)

Yasha Levine, who is tracking corporate data spying in his “Surveillance Valley” series, notes that “True end-to-end encryption would make our data inaccessible to Google, and grind its intel extraction apparatus to a screeching halt.” As the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian points out: “It’s very, very difficult to deploy privacy protective policies with the current business model of ad supported services.”

As Levine notes, the widely publicized revelation that Big Data companies track rape victims was just the tip of the iceberg. They also track “anorexia, substance abuse, AIDS and HIV … Bedwetting (Enuresis), Binge Eating Disorder, Depression, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Genital Herpes, Genital Warts, Gonorrhea, Homelessness, Infertility, Syphilis … the list goes on and on and on and on.”

Given its recent hardball tactics, here’s a little-known development that should concern more people: Amazon also hosts 37 percent of the nation’s cloud computing services, which means it has access to the inner workings of the software that runs all sorts of businesses – including ones that handle your personal data.

For all its protestations, Microsoft is no different when it comes to privacy. The camera and microphone on its Xbox One devices were initially designed to be left on at all times, and it refused to change that policy until purchasers protested.

Privacy, like water or energy, is a public resource. As the Snowden revelations have taught us, all such resources are at constant risk of government abuse.  The Supreme Court just banned warrantless searches of smartphones – by law enforcement. Will we be granted similar protections from Big Tech corporations?

Freedom of information is at risk.

Google tracks your activity and customizes search results, a process that can filter or distort your perception of the world around you.  What’s more, this “personalized search results” feature leads you back to information sources you’ve used before, which potentially narrows our ability to discover new perspectives or resources.  Over time this creates an increasingly narrow view of the world.

What’s more, Google’s shopping tools have begun using “paid inclusion,” a pay-for-play search feature it once condemned as “evil.” Its response is to say it prefers not to call this practice “paid inclusion,” even though its practices appear to meet the Federal Trade Commission’s definition of the term.

As for Amazon, it has even manipulated its recommendation searches in order to retaliate against other businesses, as we’ll see in the next section.

The free market could become even less free.

Could Big Tech and its data be used to set user-specific pricing, based on what is known about an individual’s willingness to pay more for the same product? Benjamin Schiller of Brandeis University wrote a working paper last year that showed how Netflix could do exactly that. Grocery stores and other retailers are already implementing technology that offers different pricing to different shoppers based on their data profile.

For its part, Amazon is introducing a phone that will also tag the items around you, as well as the music and programs you hear, for you to purchase – from Amazon, of course. Who will be purchasing the data those phones collect about you?

They could hijack the future.

The power and knowledge they have accumulated is frightening. But the Big Tech corporations are just getting started. Google has photographically mapped the entire world. It intends to put the world’s books into a privately owned online library. It’s launching balloons around the globe that will bring Internet access to remote areas – on its terms. It’s attempting to create artificial intelligence and extend the human lifespan.

Amazon hopes to deliver its products by drone within the next few years, an idea that would seem preposterous if not for its undeniable lobbying clout. Each of these Big Tech corporations has the ability to filter – and alter – our very perceptions of the world around us. And each of them has already shown a willingness to abuse it for their own ends.

These aren’t just the portraits of futuristic corporations that have become drunk on unchecked power. It’s a sign that things are likely to get worse – perhaps a lot worse – unless something is done. The solution may lie with an old concept. It may be time to declare Big Tech a public utility.

 

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a writer and policy analyst. He is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and is host and managing editor of The Zero Hour on We Act Radio.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/08/lets_nationalize_amazon_and_google_publicly_funded_technology_built_big_tech/?source=newsletter

“The Most Dangerous Book”: When “Ulysses” was obscene

A stirring new book describes how publishers defied censors to bring James Joyce’s masterpiece to the world

"The Most Dangerous Book": When "Ulysses" was obscene
James Joyce (Credit: AP/Salon)

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” changed literature and the world, not necessarily in the ways its author intended and certainly in ways we still don’t entirely understand. One of the unexpected effects of the novel, which was first published in its entirety in Paris in 1922, was the most famous obscenity trial in U.S. history, conducted in 1933. That trial serves as the culmination of Kevin Birmingham’s astute and gorgeously written “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’” an account of the tortuous path Joyce’s masterpiece took to print. Publishing is not the world’s most fast-paced and high-stakes business, but when it came to introducing the English-speaking world to a novel that one critic deplored as “full of the filthiest blasphemies” and “afflicted with a truly diabolical lack of talent,” the ride was a wild one.

Countless reams of paper have been consumed by writings on Joyce and “Ulysses,” but Birmingham has two particular, little-discussed themes to bring to the table. First, and most peripheral to his narrative, is Birmingham’s discovery of strong evidence that the eye problems that tormented and eventually blinded Joyce were caused by syphilis. (Birmingham concludes that a medication given to Joyce by his Parisian doctor in the late 1920s was probably “an obscure French drug called galyl,” used only to treat symptoms of syphilis.) Birmingham expands on this a bit by arguing that the effects of pain and disability on the writer and his work have been underestimated. It’s a credible argument, especially once you’ve read this book’s squirm-inducing description of a typical eye surgery Joyce endured and learn that he went through the equivalent a dozen times over. But Birmingham never quite gets around to showing how Joyce’s suffering shaped his work.



More central to the story is Birmingham’s interest in the role women played in midwifing “Ulysses.” There’s the novel’s muse — Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle, who could never be bothered to read the thing — and his longtime patron, a genteel Englishwoman named Harriet Weaver, who published excerpts from the novel in her literary magazine as well as funneling the impecunious author cash amounting to $1 million in today’s money. In the U.S., the two editors who first risked prison and fines to publish portions of “Ulysses” in their journal, the Little Review, were Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. Then there was the bookseller Sylvia Beach, who, as her inaugural venture in publishing, produced the first full edition of the notorious novel despite the seemingly endless (and expensive) revisions Joyce insisted on making to the text, even after it had gone to proofs. When the Little Review was brought up on obscenity charges for publishing Joyce, female supporters filled the courthouse, and when a New York City bookstore needed middlemen to receive copies of “Ulysses” smuggled in from Paris, the volunteers were all women.

Birmingham underlines the irony in this: The obscenity laws that banned the novel in America and England were supposedly meant to “protect the delicate sensibilities of female readers.” The first major push against the Little Review in the early 1920s was initiated by a businessman who discovered a copy of the magazine among his teenage daughter’s possessions and freaked out after reading the section of “Ulysses” Joyce called “Nausicca.” (It features a young girl named Gertie MacDowell displaying her legs to protagonist Leopold Bloom at the beach. The businessman’s daughter claimed she never bought the magazine and that it had simply appeared in the mail one day. Sure.) This protective outrage represented a holdover from 19th-century notions of novels (especially French novels) as dangerous reading for young girls. How easily their impressionable minds could be filled with dreams of passionate love and their moral fiber loosened! It was not men like Bloom the censors feared would be inflamed by books like “Ulysses,” but girls like Gertie MacDowell.

When “Ulysses” finally got a serious hearing a decade later — thanks to the efforts of Bennett Cerf and his upstart publishing company, Random House, along with civil liberties attorney Morris Ernst — one of the issues at hand was the definition of obscenity. It had long been viewed as consisting of any material that might “corrupt” a pure and impressionable mind. Many of the people trying to maintain the ban on “Ulysses,” such as the assistant U.S. district attorney assigned to the case, Sam Coleman, acknowledged that it was not pornography; Coleman called the novel a “literary masterpiece.” But under earlier understandings of obscenity, this hardly mattered. Justices were not even expected to take the whole work into consideration. If innocent women and children could be tainted by exposure to its raciest passages, then the work was illegal in the U.S.

United States v. One Book Called Ulysses overturned that conception of obscenity forever. Judge John M. Woolsey found that while the novel contained “many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake.” Furthermore, he told Ernst, “Ulysses” included “passages of moving literary beauty, passages of worth and power.” The two elements are inextricable. As Birmingham puts it, Woolsey asserted that “the novel was transcendent, that it turned filth into art.” That is, in fact, the point of it.

“The renovation of ‘Ulysses’ from literary dynamite to a ‘modern classic’ is a microhistory of the way modernism was Americanized,” Birmingham writes. He’s particularly adept at briskly and vividly sketching the way Joyce’s literary project epitomized the modernist ethos. The novel “demanded unfettered freedom of artistic form, style and content — literary freedoms that were as deeply political as any speech protected by the First Amendment.” But what Joyce wanted to do with that freedom was not to preach political revolution but to speak with complete and comprehensive honesty about everyday and intimate experience. In “Ulysses,” relatively straightforward accounts of the events in a single day in the lives of two Dubliners, Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, run counterpoint to their fragmented and cascading thoughts and fantasies — the stream of consciousness. Birmingham writes, wonderfully, that “Ulysses” “split the ego” presented in Joyce’s early novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” into two characters “and that split is the fission through which the world pours out.”

Because of the truth Joyce wanted to tell, “Ulysses” contains some of the most ravishing and profound passages in the English language and it is also pretty dirty. That made it not only one of the greatest novels ever written but the perfect book to overthrow the existing definitions of obscenity. “Ulysses,” with the power of its language and vision, defied collective decorum to crack open the allowable and permit a new literature to emerge. Birmingham conveys the excitement of this insurrection with great skill, knitting together the story of Joyce’s vexed personal life with those of the various characters who recognized and championed his genius even as they were often at each other’s throats. (A smashing movie could be made about the interactions among Anderson, Heap, Ezra Pound and John Quinn, a finance attorney and art collector who funded the Little Review and seemed equally attracted and disgusted by the lesbian bohemianism of its two editors.)

One lasting legacy of “Ulysses” can be observed in the ubiquity of another Random House title, freely available in bookstores everywhere today although it would most definitely have been deemed obscene in 1933: E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It turned out that the American public’s resistance to “dirt for dirt’s sake” was a lot less robust than its resistance to stream-of-consciousness narratives. “After ‘Ulysses,’ modernist experimentation was no longer marginal. It was essential,” Birmingham writes. That’s debatable, as is Birmingham’s belief that there’s a necessary link between the desire for sexually explicit art and “the larger struggle between state power and individual freedom.” Nevertheless, the two have coincided at certain pivotal historical moments, and never more gloriously than in the battle for “Ulysses.” It’s a story that, as Birmingham puts it, forced the world to “recognize that beauty is deeper than pleasure and that art is larger than beauty.” He has done it justice.

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/15/the_most_dangerous_book_when_ulysses_was_obscene/?source=newsletter

A century ago this month, the world was plunged into war by one man’s murder.

Anatomy of an assassination: Two fateful days that sparked decades of horror

Anatomy of an assassination: Two fateful days that sparked decades of horror

Franz Ferdinand (Credit: AP)

Saturday, 27 June 1914

The next day was to be a brilliant one, a splendid occasion that would glorify the achievements of Austrian rule in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Habsburg heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had been eagerly anticipating it for months. He envisioned making a triumphal entry into the city of Sarajevo, attired in his uniform as inspector-general of the Austro-Hungarian army, and accompanied by his wife, the duchess. Sophie would be resplendent in a full-length white dress with red sash tied at the waist, she would hold a parasol to shelter from the sun and a fan to cool her; gloves, furs and a magnificent hat would complete the outfit.

The date of Sunday, 28 June had been chosen carefully: it was the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo in 1389, at which the medieval Serbian kingdom had been extinguished by the victorious Turks.  Afterwards, Bosnia and Herzegovina  remained provinces of the Ottoman empire for almost 500 years, until occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces in 1878 and then annexed in 1908. Thus, on the occasion of the archduke’s visit, the Serbs of Bosnia were asked to pay homage to a member of the royal family that blocked the way to uniting all Serbs in a Greater Serbia. The location was also provocative: the archducal visit to Sarajevo was preceded by military maneuvers in the mountains south of the city – not far from the frontier with Serbia.

The Austrians disregarded warnings of trouble. The Serbian minister in Vienna had suggested to the minister responsible for Bosnian affairs that some Serbs might regard the time and place of the visit as a deliberate affront. Perhaps, he warned, some young Serb participating in the Austrian manoeuvres might substitute live ammunition for blanks – and seize the opportunity to fire at the archduke. Politicians and officials on the spot in Sarajevo had advised that the visit be cancelled; the police warned that they could not guarantee the archduke’s safety, particularly given the lengthy route that that the royal couple were scheduled to take along the Miljačka river from the railway station to the city hall.



Franz Ferdinand was not to be dissuaded by any warnings. More than high politics was involved in the choice of date for the visit. 28 June was the 14th anniversary of the humiliating ‘oath of renunciation’ that Franz Ferdinand had been forced to swear in order to receive the approval of his uncle – the emperor — of his marriage to Sophie. According to Franz Joseph and Habsburg ‘house rules’, she was unsuitable: her family was merely aristocratic, and  neither from the Habsburg family itself nor from one of the ruling dynasties of Europe. When the emperor, after a long and acrimonious battle with his nephew, reluctantly agreed to the marriage he had imposed the humiliating conditions of a ‘morganatic’ marriage: neither Sophie nor her offspring would possess the titles and rights that would normally have come with marriage; neither she nor their children could succeed to the throne. Franz Ferdinand, surrounded by archdukes, archduchesses and court officials, had sworn on a bible to uphold the oath in the Secret Council Chamber at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The ritual humiliation of Sophie had begun: although she was elevated to the status of ‘princess’ (and later to duchess) she would never become royalty. Her place, literally and figuratively, was lower than that of the youngest archduchess: in royal processions her husband would come first, she last, walking alone, without an escort. She was not permitted to sit at the head table at state dinners, could not share the royal box when attending the theatre or the opera. These insults aggrieved the volatile and temperamental archduke who was devoted to his wife.

Franz Ferdinand’s triumphal visit to Sarajevo the next day – on the 14th anniversary of the humiliating oath of renunciation – offered him the opportunity of seeing that Sophie would finally be treated with the respect that she was due.  As wife of the inspector-general she was to sit next to him in an open carriage during the journey through the city and take the place of honor next to him when he addressed the dignitaries at city hall.  Informally, late Saturday afternoon – the day before the official, ceremonial visit – he and Sophie took a leisurely journey into Sarajevo, where they were warmly welcomed by those who recognized them. The royal couple remained blissfully unaware that they had almost come face-to-face with the young Serb who was planning to kill the archduke the next day.

When the archduke and duchess attended the military ball on Saturday evening that marked the end of manoeuvres, Sophie was able to assure everyone how pleased she was with their reception in town that afternoon. At the same time the 19-year-old Danilo Ilić was meeting with six would-be assassins at a Sarajevo café. While handing out guns and grenades, he warned the others that the police may have discovered their plot. But there was no question of calling it off such an opportunity as this was unlikely to occur again.

Ilić outlined the plan: the assassins were to be placed at each of the three bridges crossing the river. Their best chance of success would come at these junctions, where a grenade could easily be lobbed into the car carrying the royal couple. After discussing their plan, several of the conspirators visited the grave of Bogdan Žerajić, a young Serb who had been martyred years earlier when he had attempted (unsuccessfully) to assassinate the emperor. Legend had it that his dying words were ‘I leave it to Serbdom to avenge me’.

It proved enormously helpful to the conspirators that the plans for the procession on Sunday had been published in the local newspaper, the Bosnische Post – in order to encourage as many spectators as possible to turn out. Earlier that week the Muslim mayor had issued a proclamation calling on the people of the city to demonstrate their affection for the Habsburg heir to the throne: people should decorate their homes, fly the imperial flag and display pictures of the emperor and his nephew. The day was to be a triumph for Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia.

Sunday, 28 June 1914

At 10 a.m. that morning the royal party arrived at the railway station. A motorcade consisting of six automobiles was to proceed from there along the Appel Quay to the city hall. The first automobile was to be manned by four special security detectives assigned to guard the archduke, but only one of them managed to take his place; local policemen substituted for the others. The next car was to carry the mayor, Fehim Effendi Čurćić, wearing his red fez, and the chief of police, Dr Edmund Gerde – who had warned the military authorities about the dangerous atmosphere in Sarajevo and had advised against proceeding with the visit.

The archduke and the duchess were seated next to one another in the third car, facing General Potiorek (the military governor of Bosnia) and the owner of the limousine, Count Harrach. The archduke and duchess conducted a brief inspection of the military barracks before setting out for the city hall, where they were to be formally welcomed before proceeding to open the new state museum, designed to display the benefits of Austrian rule.

Seven would-be assassins mingled with the gathering crowds for over an hour before the motorcade arrived. Ilić had assigned one of them, Nedeljko Čabrinović, a place across the street from two others stationed in front of the garden at the Mostar Café, situated near the first bridge on the route, the Čumurja. Ilić and another assassin took their places on the other side of the street; Gavrilo Princip was placed 200 yards further along the route, at the Lateiner bridge. All seven were in place when the royal party arrived at the station that morning.

Ten minutes before the motorcade reached the Čumurja bridge a policeman approached Čabrinović, demanding that he identify himself. He produced a permit that purported to have been issued by the Viennese police and asked the policeman which car was carrying the archduke. ‘The third’ he was told. A few minutes later he took out his grenade, knocked off the detonator cap and threw it at the limousine carrying the archduke and the duchess. Because there was a twelve-second delay between knocking off the cap and the explosion, the grenade hit the limousine, bounced off, rolled under the next car, and exploded. General Potiorek’s aide-de-camp was injured, along with several spectators. The duchess suffered a slight wound to her cheek, where she had been grazed by the grenade’s detonator.

Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide capsule and jumped over the embankment into the river. But the cyanide failed and the river had been reduced to a mere trickle in mid-summer. He was captured immediately by a policeman who asked him if he was a Serb. ‘Yes, I am a Serb hero’, he replied.

The procession continued on its way to the splendid new city hall, the neo-Moorish Vijećnica, meant to evoke the Alhambra as part of Austria’s ‘neo-Orientalist’ policy designed to cultivate the support of Bosnia’s Muslims. When the royal party arrived, the mayor began to read the effusive speech he had prepared in their honour – apparently unaware of the near calamity that had just occurred. The archduke interrupted, angrily demanding to know how the mayor could speak of ‘loyalty’ to the crown when a bomb had just been thrown at him. The duchess, playing her accustomed role, managed to calm him down while they waited for a staff officer to arrive with a copy of the archduke’s speech – which was now splattered in blood.

After the speeches and a reception General Potiorek proposed that they either drive back along the Appel Quay at full speed to the station or go straight to his residence, only a few hundred metres away, and where lunch awaited them. But the archduke insisted on first visiting the wounded officer at the military hospital. The duchess insisted on accompanying him: ‘It is in time of danger that you need me.’

The royal couple, along with Potiorek, climbed into a new car, with Count Harrach standing on the footboard to shield the archduke from any other would-be assassins. A first car, with the chief of police and others, was to precede them. In order to reach the hospital the motorcade was forced to retrace its route along the Appel Quay. Princip, who had almost abandoned hope after Čabrinović’s arrest, was still waiting near the Lateiner bridge when the two cars unexpectedly appeared in front of him.

The driver of the first car had turned right off the Appel Quay, following the original route to take them to the museum; the driver of the second car followed him. General Potiorek, immediately recognizing the mistake, ordered his driver to stop. The car then began to reverse slowly in order to get back onto the Appel Quay – with Count Harrach now on the opposite side of the car to Princip, who was standing at the corner of Appel Quay and Franz Joseph Street, in front of Schiller’s delicatessen. Seizing the opportunity, Princip stepped out of the crowd. His moment had arrived.

Because it was too difficult to take the grenade out of his coat and knock off the detonator cap, Princip decided to use his revolver instead. A policeman spotted him and tried to intervene, but a friend of Princip’s kicked the policeman in the knee and knocked him off balance. The first shot hit the archduke near the jugular vein; the second hit the duchess in the stomach. ‘Soferl, Soferl!’ Franz Ferdinand cried, ‘Don’t die. Live for our children.’ The duchess was already dead by the time they reached the governor’s residence. The archduke, unconscious when he was carried inside, was also dead within minutes – before either a doctor or a priest could be summoned.

Spectators were attempting to lynch Princip when the police rescued him. He tried to swallow the cyanide capsule, but vomited it up. An Austrian judge, interviewing him almost immediately afterwards, wrote: ‘The young assassin, exhausted by his beating, was unable to utter a word. He was undersized, emaciated, sallow, sharp featured. It was difficult to imagine that so frail looking an individual could have committed so serious a deed.’

Excerpted from “The Month that Changed the World: July 1914” by Gordon Martel. Copyright © 2014 by Gordon Martel. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

The diary of Lena Mukhina: An important document on the Leningrad blockade

Lenas Tagebuch, translated by Lena Gorelik and Gero Fedtke, Munich, 2013

By Clara Weiss
11 June 2014

A year ago, the Munich-based Graf company published the diary of Lena Mukhina in German. Mukhina had witnessed as a student the first year of the German Wehrmacht’s blockade of Leningrad. Her diary was discovered in archives by Russian historians only a few years ago and was first published in Russian in 2011.

The diary is an important historical document relating to one of the greatest, although often forgotten, war crimes of German imperialism. About 1.1 million people lost their lives during the Nazis’ blockade of Leningrad between late summer 1941 and early 1944. It was one of the longest sieges of a city in world history.

Lena Muchina [Photo: Ullstein Buchverlage]

More than a million Red Army soldiers died in the defence of Leningrad and another 2.4 million were wounded. Some 130,000 soldiers died on the German side, while 480,000 were wounded and 220,000 disappeared or were captured.

Lena’s diary begins in May 1941 and ends in late May 1942, when she was evacuated from Leningrad. At the beginning of the diary, the reader is introduced to an introverted, 16-year-old girl. Lena lives with her aunt Lena and Aka, a family friend, in a communal apartment in Leningrad. The family is poor and survives mainly by borrowing money. Lena has few friends at school and is unhappily in love with Vova, a boy in her class. Despite her efforts to be a “good Soviet schoolgirl,” her grades are not very good.

The tone of the diary changes abruptly on June 22, 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Like millions of other Soviet citizens, she hears the speech of Foreign Minister Molotov on the radio. Stalin, shocked by the Nazi invasion he had failed to anticipate despite numerous warnings, would not make a statement until two weeks after the outbreak of war.

Nurses assisting the wounded during the first bombardment

On June 23, Lena notes that the population is unprepared for war. She writes: “To tell the truth, neither we nor any of the people in our block of flats are ready to deal with an attack: We don’t know where to find a medical aid centre, a decontamination site, an air-raid shelter; we don’t know where there are any air defence units or how we are supposed to react to bombing raids and firebombing.” [p. 53]

Only a few weeks before the war began, Lena had recorded her thoughts about Soviet military exercises in her diary: “Day after day, soldiers are training with their commanders, and when the enemy attacks us—and that’s bound to happen, sooner or later there’ll be war—we can be absolutely sure of victory. We know what we’ll be defending, how we’ll be defending it and who we’ll be defending.” [p. 42]

The Leningrad front from May 1942 to January 1943

In fact, the Soviet Union was far from being militarily prepared for the attack. Much of the leadership of the Red Army had been exterminated in the Great Terror of 1937. Most of the victims had been trained and educated under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, who led the Red Army from 1919 to 1924. Stalin decimated the country’s military leadership–much to Hitler’s delight.

Hitler’s assumption of power in January 1933 was a result of the false policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The ultra-left course it imposed on the German Communist Party prevented a united struggle of the German working class against the Nazis and made Hitler’s victory possible.

In the months that followed, the Stalinist bureaucracy swung to the right and adopted the disastrous strategy of the “Popular Front.” A struggle for socialism via the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class was explicitly rejected. Instead, workers in Spain and France were to limit themselves to supporting bourgeois democracy against fascism.

The result was further devastating defeats. At the same time, tens of thousands of Trotskyists and hundreds of thousands of other socialist workers and intellectuals were murdered in the Soviet Union.

In 1939, Stalin entered upon a pact with Hitler, believing it would prevent a German attack on the Soviet Union. In reality, the pact paved the way for the German invasion of Poland a week later.

While Leon Trotsky laboured incessantly in exile to warn of a Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the Stalinist bureaucracy was set on lulling the population into a false sense of security.

For Lena, as for millions of workers, intellectuals and peasants, the attack on the Soviet Union came as a shock. The Red Army was forced into retreat in the first months of the war. By the end of the year, the Wehrmacht had reached the outskirts of Moscow. The Soviet army and people were deeply demoralised. Confidence in the Soviet government, as far as it still existed after the bloody terror of the 1930s, was shattered.

After the Red Army was forced to surrender the Ukrainian capital of Kiev—some 500,000 Red Army soldiers had lost their lives defending the city—Mukhina wrote on September 22: “I am still alive and able to write in my diary. I’m no longer convinced at all that Leningrad won’t be abandoned. So much has been said, we’ve heard so many fine words and speeches: Kiev and Leningrad are impregnable fortresses!!!… Never will a fascist set foot in the flourishing capital of the Ukraine, never will he be able to enter our country’s northern pearl, Leningrad. But today it was reported on the radio … after several days of bitter fighting our army … withdrew from Kiev! What does this mean? No one can understand it.” [pp. 115-16]

The Volkovo cemetery

Already by the autumn of 1941 Leningrad was virtually encircled. Only Lake Ladoga had not been cut off by the Nazis and continued to provide a connection to the outside world. In September, air attacks began with both conventional and incendiary bombs, which led to approximately 50,000 casualties by the end of the war—16,474 dead and 33,782 injured. [1]

Several of Mukhina’s entries give vent to her hatred of the fascists, who perpetrated massacres and rapes in their advance, while reducing entire regions to rubble.

From November, the Nazis began the targeted bombing of bread factories, stockyards, large communal kitchens and electricity plants. Thus, by the winter one of the coldest of the 20th century the city’s food and energy supply networks had almost completely collapsed. Water emerged only occasionally from the pipes. Mukhina’s diary entries, which until then usually dealt with her political and personal worries and thoughts, increasingly focus on only two things: the cold and hunger. On November 21, her birthday, she has almost nothing to eat. The bread ration for pupils at this time is restricted to 125g—the equivalent of one extremely thin slice of bread. Apart from this, Lena, her aunt and Aka survive mainly on hot gruel and a few sweets.

On November 22, Mukhina writes: “The gas supply has stopped, you can’t buy any kerosene, people cook their daily meal on the ovens fuelled with firewood and wood shavings. But most people are relying on the various canteens. Nowadays, hardly anyone goes down into the air raid shelters any more; they no longer have the energy to climb up and down the stairs due to systematic malnutrition.” [p. 146]

Like hundreds of thousands of others, hunger forces Mukhina’s family to kill their house pet, a tomcat, in December. By the end of the year, all dogs, cats and even rats and mice have disappeared from Leningrad.

Most of the blocks of flats are unheated. The extreme cold and malnutrition lead to widespread deaths. In December, nearly 40,000 people die; in January and February 1943, the figure reaches almost 100,000 each month. By the summer of 1942, a further 150,000 people die. There are outbreaks of cannibalism.

Aka and Lena’s aunt also waste away in the winter. Aka, who is already 76 and completely worn out by hunger, dies on January 1, 1942.

Mukhina’s diary entries become more and more despairing.

On January 3, she angrily writes: “We are dying like flies here because of the hunger, but yesterday Stalin gave another dinner in Moscow in honour of Eden [British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden]. This is outrageous. They fill their bellies there, while we don’t even get a piece of bread. They play host at all sorts of brilliant receptions, while we live like cavemen, like blind moles.” [pp. 187-88]

Mukhina’s aunt dies in early February. She is desperate and on the point of dying from starvation. Only her aunt’s food cards, which she is able to continue using, enable her to survive.

Almost entirely on her own, Mukhina now makes plans to escape from Leningrad over the “road of life,” Lake Ladoga. She intends to go and live with relatives in Moscow.

By April, more than half a million people are evacuated over Lake Ladoga. Mukhina manages the escape probably around the end of May. Her diary suddenly ends on May 25.

From 1943, following the victory at Stalingrad, the Red Army was able to strike back at the Wehrmacht with several offensives, including one at Leningrad. However, the city was not completely liberated until January 27, 1944. By then, every third citizen of Leningrad had been killed and over a million Red Army soldiers had fallen in defence of the city.

After the war, Mukhina was unable—as she had once wished—to continue her education. She underwent training and worked at different factories. Like many survivors of the blockade, she suffered from serious medical problems for the rest of her life. She died in 1991, a few months before the Stalinist bureaucracy’s dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The high casualty figures of the blockade were anything but an unintended byproduct of the war. Rather, the extermination of the population in and around Leningrad was an integral part of the Nazis’ so-called “Master Plan East” [Generalplan Ost], on which the war of annihilation against the Soviet Union was based.

The planners of the Economic Staff East wrote: “Many tens of millions of people will be superfluous in this area [northern and central Russia] and will have to either die or emigrate to Siberia.” A total of 30 million Soviet citizens were to be abandoned to starvation.

The aim of the plan was to create “Living space [Lebensraum] in the East.” Germans were to be resettled in western Russia and eastern Europe in place of the “Slavs.”

The war of extermination in the East was also intended to ensure that the Wehrmacht and German population were adequately supplied with food, in order for Germany to win the war against Britain. This food was to come from Russia and Ukraine.

The “Master Plan East” was based on the military strategy and experiences of German imperialism in the First World War. Even then, Ukraine was to be brought under German control as the “breadbasket of Europe.” Like the military strategy against France, however, the one in the East failed. Enormous supply shortages led to mass starvation in the German Empire: approximately 800,000 people starved to death in Germany between 1914 and 1918. The widespread poverty and hunger were among the main driving forces of the German November Revolution of 1918/19, which was thwarted only by the betrayal of social democracy.

The Nazis wanted to avoid such a situation at all costs. Hermann Göring, commander of the German Air Force in World War II, played a major role in the decision of autumn 1941 not to conquer Leningrad, but to besiege it and starve it out. “If someone is to starve, it won’t be a German,” he declared.

The sieges of Leningrad and Moscow, as well as other major cities like Kiev, Kharkov and Sevastopol in Ukraine, were an integral part of this strategy. But nowhere was the blockade enforced so mercilessly as at Leningrad. Hitler himself said that the city was to be razed to the ground. There was no place for Leningrad, with its three-million-strong population, in the plans for “Germanised Russia.”

The city was significant in several respects. It was there that the first workers’ revolution in world history had taken place in October 1917. Leningrad was therefore of great symbolic importance to both the Soviet population and the Nazis. The latter wanted to destroy the Soviet Union and the achievements of the working class.

Moreover, Leningrad was the second largest industrial centre in the Soviet Union. The Nazis’ “strategy of annihilation” in western Russia and the major cities was primarily aimed at the working class. The port city of Leningrad was also important for strategic reasons. The Nazis wanted to conquer it in order to gain control over the Baltic region.

Notes

[1] Jörg Ganzenmüller: Das belagerte Leningrad 1941-1944: Die Stadt in den Strategien von Angreifern und Verteidigern [ Leningrad under siege 1941-1944: The City in the Strategy of its Attackers and Defenders ], Paderborn 2007, p. 66

[2] Quoted in ibid, p. 47

[3] Quoted in ibid, p. 63