The terrifying “smart” city of the future

Cities across the country are implementing smart technologies — with grave implications for our personal freedoms

The terrifying "smart" city of the future
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Imagine a world without waste. A place where the train always comes on time, where streets are plowed before snow even stops falling, and watchful surveillance cameras have sent rates of petty crime plunging. Never again will you worry about remembering your keys because your front door has an iris recognition system that won’t allow strangers to enter. To some people, this kind of uber-efficient urban living sounds like a utopian dream. But to a growing number of critics, the promise of the “smart city” is starting to seem like the stuff of nightmare.

Smart cities are loosely defined as urban centers that rely on digital technology to enhance efficiency and reduce resource consumption. This happens by means of ubiquitous wireless broadband, citywide networks of computerized sensors that measure human activities (from traffic to electricity use), and mass data collection that analyzes these patterns. Many American cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, already make use of smart technologies. But far more radical advances are happening overseas. Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, and Songdo, in South Korea, will be the first fully functioning smart cities, in which everything from security to electricity to parking is monitored by sensors and controlled by a central city “brain.”

The surveillance implications of these sorts of mass data-generating civic projects are unnerving, to say the least. Urban designer and author Adam Greenfield wrote on his blog Speedbird that this centralized governing model is “disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.” To further complicate matters, the vast majority of smart-city technology is designed by IT-systems giants like IBM and Siemens. In places like Songdo, which was the brainchild of Cisco Systems, corporate entities become responsible for designing and maintaining the basic functions of urban life.



Smart cities are predicated on the neoliberal idea that the market can fix anything—that companies can manage cities better than governments can. Their advocates claim that they will enhance democratic participation by relying on crowdsourcing and “civic hacking projects” that allow locals to use newly available data to solve municipal problems. But they ignore the fact that private corporations are the ones measuring and controlling these mountains of data, and that they don’t have the same accountability to the public that government does.

In the Nation last year, urban theorist and author Catherine Tumber expressed some of the principle concerns about smart tech, reviewing Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the review). Tumber asserts that “the economics of ‘smart’” are in keeping with “the ramped-up market rationalization carried out by finance monopoly since the Civil War, culminating in a minimally civic world fit only for…the unencumbered self.”

I caught up with Tumber via telephone at her office at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, where she is a visiting scholar, to talk about what the rise of smart cities means for our understanding of urban life.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Allegra Kirkland: How did you first become acquainted with the concept of smart cities?

Catherine Tumber: I had been aware of them kind of through the ether because I pay attention to cities, and I’m very much aware of what’s going on in the digital world in a broad sense. I think it’s quite dangerous actually, in all kinds of ways….

I thought Townsend did a good job laying out what the fault lines are: the big digital systems corporations like Siemens and Cisco and IBM versus what these hacker “democratic heroes” are trying to do. I found that to be useful but I wasn’t persuaded that they aren’t all part of the same sort of dangerous direction of things.

AK: These digital innovations are supposed to be all about access to information and transparency, but it seems like many people don’t even know these initiatives are going on. Like Chicago, Barcelona, and all of these other urban centers are now considered “smart cities” but I feel like most people don’t think of them that way.

CT: I think people are only vaguely aware.

AK: It seems like these major urban initiatives are being conducted largely out of the public eye, without public oversight or involvement. Maybe there are some smaller initiatives being carried out by civic hackers, but the major ones have to be implemented by corporations or the government because regular people don’t have the ability to build that kind of infrastructure.

CT: Right, these are major infrastructure projects.

AK: And there’s no means of opting out. Once a city integrates smart technology, your information gets caught up with all the rest, whether you want it to be or not.

CT: Exactly. And also what’s often not taken into account, and I guess you have to live long enough to really see it—though it’s happening very quickly in our time—is that when you introduce a whole new paradigm of infrastructure, the old infrastructure dies. So it ends up being coercive. At some point, you really have to participate in it or you are not able to execute that function, whether that function be communications or entertainment or transportation or energy.

For example, if you did not really want to be available on a cell phone at any given moment or own one, and wanted to simply rely on a landline, that was fine as long as you were home. But they stripped out all of the phone booths. That was really completed by around five years ago. So it really forces your hand quite a bit.

AK: You seem skeptical of the idea that smart cities are inherently democratizing—that they are sites of greater sociability and inclusion. Does that seem plausible to you? 

CT: I think that digital technology, aside from providing all kinds of information that is trackable, holds up the false promise of greater democratic participation. It holds out a sort of false sense of moral agency, for one thing. The argument as I understand it is that crowdsourcing provides people with a different, less curated sense of democratic participation. It involves reaching out to individuals, so it’s a version of democratic practice. I think the jury is still very much out on whether that is persuasive.

Part of what I think is important and rich about democratic culture as a living tradition is that it brings people of very different backgrounds and types together in surge spaces. And crowdsourcing tends to be consistent marketing in that it excludes whole groups of people, just because of the way it works. It’s not even intentional.

AK: Because of the kind of people who get surveyed, who are aware that these kinds of civic campaigns are going on and would get involved?

CT: Yeah. I find that to be somewhat dubious…for the long-term health of the civic project.

AK: It seems like there’s a fundamental split between people who think there is something organic and inexplicable about the ways human beings come together in cities, and those who believe that all human behavior is quantifiable—that we can rely on data to understand how humans interact. Which side of the line do you fall on?

CT: Digital technology and its use compresses experience. It tends to lead to niche cultures; it tends to lead to a sense of being untethered, as if that’s the golden pathway to real freedom. There are several traditions of political philosophy that hold that its important to be tethered so that you have a sense of the limits of yourself and of what it is that humans can do in the time that they have on this earth. This sense of endless freedom can lead to a very false sense of utopian promise that is simply unrealistic and unwanted. It’s yet another way that we’ve decided to take a pause from history and what history has long told us.

There are some things that you really don’t play with. People have acquired great wisdom over the ages—across the globe, this isn’t just a Eurocentric thing—about what it means to travel and to leave home and to come back. These are all the great stories and myths and fables. Technology kind of flattens all of that.

AK: This is sort of a related question, but what do you think are the primary things smart cities take away from the people who live there? What do we lose in these sorts of manufactured urban environments?

It makes me think of the complaints about the gentrification of places like New York City. Michael Bloomberg created new green spaces in Times Square and along the waterfront, made city services more efficient, rezoned districts, and now we have this sanitized, business-friendly, soulless city. The neighborhoods look the same; there’s no mixing of social classes, no weird dive bars. So you’d think smart cities, with their emphasis on homogeneity and efficiency, would be equally off-putting to people.

CT: I think it’s a matter of the convenience of it and the novelty of it. But smart technology is relatively new and there are so many unexamined consequences, as I think there are with any major technological change like this.

I think that we’re only beginning as a culture to wince a little and take a second look at this. … There really hasn’t been any sort of consensus about what the right manners are in using these technologies. Across the world for time immemorial, every culture had some understanding of manners, and I don’t mean that in the prim Victorian sense. But just some ways in which you convey unspoken, coded assumptions about respect and caring and common courtesy and stuff like that. We haven’t had that conversation here. …The main point is that there are real unintended consequences of this.

AK: The corporations behind smart cities throw around all these statistics about how smart technology reduces crime, reduces waste. So it makes you feel like a Luddite to say that you’re uncomfortable with these technologies because there is all of this evidence that they’re successful. But I feel like there’s a difference between using technology to fix a specific urban problem, like Rio de Janeiro using weather tracking to forecast flash floods, which are a major problem there, and places like Songdo, where you’re really rebuilding the concept of the city from scratch and dictating how people should live. 

CT: Yes, they’re riddled with totalitarian overtones, and that’s built into it, it’s part of the built structure.

AK: So do you think smart city initiatives are not necessarily problematic, and it’s just when they’re applied on the scale of an entire city that it gets out of control?

CT: I’m mainly concerned with this assumption that this is new, this is shiny, this is innovative, to use everyone’s favorite buzzword, and that we should just do it. A lot of people don’t really understand what’s involved. There’s a tendency to have it sort of inflicted on people, and part of that is the way the business model for digital technology, at least at this point in time, works, which is to make everything cheap. It doesn’t cost the public very much to say, oh, okay, because there’s not much of a pricetag on it yet. Part of the reason why it’s so cheap is that so much of the work is based on volunteer labor.

So many of these civic hackers, all these projects and apps they develop, so much of that is based on free labor. People try to frame that as a sort of revival of Tocqueville—voluntary associations and all that stuff. But instead it’s just downright free labor, like unpaid internships or something. That’s why I’m very skeptical of all of this; this is really just another variation on the sort of neoliberal business model that we’ve been using now for the past 35 years and has grown out of control. This is just another iteration of that with nice shiny technology attached to it. Americans are always suckers for technological determinism.

AK: Sure. I feel like privatization initiatives in cities have multiplied in recent years, with cities selling stakes in public housing to private developers—

CT: And all the stuff Rahm Emanuel is doing in Chicago.

AK: Exactly. It seems like smart cities are sort of the ultimate example of the corporate-designed urban environment. Should that inherently be a cause for concern? It goes without saying that corporations don’t always have the best interests of people in mind. And places like Songdo were designed to have minimal regulatory barriers. They prioritize technological innovation and wealth generation, so it seems like they could really deepen existing economic inequality. If you’re not part of those spheres, you don’t really have a place in these cities.

CT: To really take on wealth inequality and the kind of ravaging done by the spoiling land use policies that we’ve had in place since after World War II, we need to have a body of ideas and practices that have a clearly defined sense of what their political vision is: what the good life is and how to get there. What are our fundamental values, our limitations? All of this smart city design is apolitical. That’s the problem. The longer it seeps into our political culture, the more it will drain the public imagination of the next generation, of what a real political movement looks like and why politics are important.

AK: It also seems like the obligation of government to provide essential public services like housing is reduced. It becomes the responsibility of corporations and developers, so there’s less accountability, less control over pricing and over the data the companies acquire.

CT: Then there’s all this debate about regulations—which industries require more or less. These are all very difficult questions of practicality and philosophy. And I fear that our political discourse and understanding of the world is being degraded and coarsened by the uncritical dissemination of a digital substitute for a real politics.

AK: Another thing I wanted to bring up is the surveillance concern. I read a quote from the mayor of Rio, which is a smart city, saying “The operations center allows us to have people looking into every corner of the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” He meant it as a positive, but that’s a sort of terrifying statement. What are your thoughts about the surveillance implications of smart technology?

CT: All these sensors will and are being used to invade our privacy. There are good and bad things about that. You know, here in Boston we had the marathon bombers and they were very quickly apprehended, partly because that area is so rigged up with security cameras. We have to decide whether it’s worth it.

Another thing I’ve been concerned about is thinking about the difference between Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. You know, George Orwell talked about Big Brother and the authoritarian state, the invasion of privacy. Huxley talked more about the internalization of oppression, and I’m in some ways even more concerned about that. It’s a cultural critique of the way we internalize and accept the terms of our lack of freedom. We accept the deprivation that totalitarian movements end up exacting on us. So we end up being our own worst enemies. It’s almost like we don’t even need Big Brother.

AK: Sure. We voluntarily give up so much information about ourselves.

CT: When I see people walking around in public as though they’re wearing a blindfold because they’re so absorbed in another world on their devices, that has the look to me of self-degradation and degradation of the public realm that is more effective than security cameras. Because people won’t resist. They’re not even aware of their surroundings, just as animals moving through the world. So why would they be able to muster whatever it takes to resist the invasion of privacy by the state or by corporations, for that matter? It just all represents such a contraction of democratic culture to me. It worries the heck out of me.

 

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/28/the_terrifying_smart_city_of_the_future_partner/?source=newsletter

 

Bookchin: living legacy of an American revolutionary

By Federico Venturini On February 28, 2015

Post image for Bookchin: living legacy of an American revolutionaryAn interview with Debbie Bookchin on her father’s contributions to revolutionary theory and the adoption of his ideas by the Kurdish liberation movement. 

Editor’s note: Below you will find an interview with Debbie Bookchin, daughter of the late Murray Bookchin, who passed away in 2006. Bookchin spent his life in revolutionary leftist circles, joining a communist youth organization at the age of nine and becoming a Trotskyist in his late thirties, before switching to anarchist thought and finally ending up identifying himself as a ‘communalist’ after developing the ideas of ‘libertarian municipalism’.

Bookchin was (and remains) as influential as he was controversial. His radical critiques of deep ecology and ‘lifestyle anarchism’ stirred up a number of heated debates that continue to this day. Now that his revolutionary ideas have been picked up by the Kurdish liberation movement, who are using Bookchin’s works to build a democratic, gender-equal and ecologically sustainable society in the heart of the Middle East, we are seeing a renewed interest in the life and thoughts of this great political thinker.

For this reason ROAR is very excited to publish this interview with Debbie Bookchin, which not only provides valuable insights into her father’s political legacy, but also offers a glimpse into the life of the man behind the ideas.

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Federico Venturini: Verso Books has just published The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, a collection of essays by your father Murray Bookchin. Could you tell us something about this book? Why did you decide to embark on this venture?

Debbie Bookchin: The creation of this book was inspired among other things by the ongoing political discussion about which direction the Left should take with respect to the question of organization. Our publisher, Verso, publishes the writings of both Slavoj Žižek and Simon Critchley. Briefly, Žižek advocates revolution with the power given to a centralized state – a rehashing of Marxist theory. Critchley, on the other hand, advocates social change that takes place in the interstices of society.

Murray felt that both of these solutions were inadequate responses to the question of how to develop radical forms of governance that are democratic and can fundamentally change society. We thought this collection of essays on decentralized democracy could offer an important third pole in this political debate. And we wanted to present them, along with some previously unpublished material, to a new generation of activists.

How did Bookchin arrive at the concept of decentralized democracy?

Murray had spent a lifetime studying revolutionary movements and in fact wrote an entire history of those movements in his four-volume work, The Third Revolution. This study reaffirmed his belief that revolutionary change could not be achieved through activities that remained within the margins of a society – for example, building alternative organizations like food co-ops and free schools, as Critichley proposes – or by creating a massive socialist state, an idea which has been completely discredited and could never gain any kind of widespread appeal.

Instead, he felt that we had to employ modes of organization that built on the best traditions of revolutionary movements – such as the Paris commune of 1871 and the collectives formed in 1936 revolutionary Spain – an overlooked tradition that enshrines decision-making at the municipal level in neighborhood assemblies that increasingly challenge the hegemony of the nation-state. And because he was an American, he was also looking for a way to build upon traditions that would appeal to an American public, such as the committees of the American Revolution or the New England town meeting style democracy that is still active in places like Vermont today. These are the ideas he discusses in the essays in this book.

Bookchin is known for his writings on ecology, hierarchy and capitalism — collected under the umbrella of what he called ‘social ecology’. How do the ideas in this book emerge from the concept of social ecology?

One of Murray’s central contributions to Left thought was his insistence, back in the early 1960s, that all ecological problems are social problems. Social ecology starts from this premise: that we will never properly address climate change, the poisoning of the earth with pesticides and the myriad of other ecological problems that are increasingly undermining the ecological stability of the planet, until we address underlying issues of domination and hierarchy. This includes domination based on gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation, as well as class distinctions.

Eradicating those forms of oppression immediately raises the question of how to organize society in a fashion that maximizes freedom. So the ideas about popular assemblies presented in this book grow naturally out of the philosophy of social ecology. They address the question of how to advance revolutionary change that will achieve true freedom for individuals while still allowing for the social organization necessary to live harmoniously with each other and the natural world.

Popular assemblies are part of the renewed importance that Bookchin gives to municipal organization. When and why did Bookchin begin to focus on these issues?

Murray had begun thinking about these issues early on, in the 1960s. He addresses them even in 1968, in his essay, “The Forms of Freedom.” But this question, of political and social organization, especially consumed Murray in the last two decades of his life, when the essays we’ve collected here were written. When Murray saw the predicament of the alter-globalization movement and similar movements, he asserted that simply engaging in “festivals of the oppressed” failed to offer a structural framework within which to address deep-seated social and economic inequities.

He had spent more than three decades working within the anarchist tradition but had come to feel that anarchism didn’t deal adequately with the question of power and political organization. Instead, he advocated a localized, grassroots democratic social philosophy, which he called Communalism. He called the political expression of that idea Libertarian Municipalism. He believed that by developing and institutionalizing general assemblies on the local level we could re-empower ourselves as active citizens, charting the course of our communities and economies and confederating with other local assemblies.

He envisioned this self-government as becoming increasingly strong as it solidified into a “dual power,” that would challenge, and ultimately dismantle, the power of the nation-state. Murray occasionally used the term Communalism interchangeably with Libertarian Municipalism but generally he thought of Communalism as the umbrella political philosophy and Libertarian Municipalism as its political practice, which entails the running of candidates on the municipal level, municipalizing the economy and the like.

It seems that recent movements like Occupy Wall Street and the indignados movement resemble some of these ideas. What would Bookchin have thought of them and of developments like the Podemos phenomenon in Spain?

Murray would have been excited to see the Indignados movement, in part because of his admiration for 1936 revolutionary Spain, which informs his book The Spanish Anarchists. And he would have appreciated the impulses behind Occupy and the citizen revolts across the Mideast. But I think he would have anticipated many of the troubles that preoccupied Occupy. This includes the problems inherent in the use of consensus, and the mistaken belief by many within the Occupy movement that the act of creating protest encampments can be equated with the actual reclaiming of popular power, which Murray believed had to be institutionalized in local assemblies within communities in order to create a true political force.

I think it’s hard not to be excited by political events in Greece and Spain, where new, more democratic parties are coming to power. But Murray would have warned that these kinds of national parties are almost always forced to compromise their ideals to the point where they no longer represent significant change. He warned about that when the German Greens came to power in the early 1980s and he was proven correct. They started out calling themselves a “non-party party” but they ended up in a coalition with the conservative CDU (the Christian Democratic Union) in order to maintain power.

That is why he differentiates between “statecraft,” his name for traditional representative government, which never really invests power with the citizenry, and “politics,” a term that he wants to reclaim to signify directly democratic self-management by popular assemblies that are networked together to make decisions that affect larger regions. So that’s one reason why we’re happy about the publication of this book at this time; it directly speaks to the impulses of millions of people around the world who are demanding direct democracy instead of representative democracy, and helps point a way to achieving that goal.

As direct democracy has become a rallying cry, your father’s work has enjoyed a resurgence. But even before that, he was considered one of the most important anarchist and libertarian thinkers of the last century. What is it like to be his daughter?

I guess there’s more than one answer to that question. One is political—most of my adult life has been spent as an investigative journalist, but since my father died in 2006, I’ve felt increasingly that it’s my job to help project his ideas forward, that we are living in a time when the need for political change has never been greater, and that his work has a major contribution to make to the Left.

The other answer is more personal – I had an unusual childhood because of both of my parents’ activism and deep involvement with so many ideas. Murray was self-educated – he never went to college – so he taught himself everything from physics to philosophy and had an especially remarkable command of history. He had an innate desire to contextualize everything, and that made him very engaging to be around. And my mother, Bea, was a mathematician, and a dialectical thinker in her own right. Her intellect and sensibilities made her an important sounding board for him, which helped him elaborate ideas.

They were extremely close; even though they were only married for 12 years they continued to live together for decades, right up until the early 1990s. So there were endless discussions and strong intellectual and emotional bonds that made it a wonderfully vibrant home to be raised in. And because I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s it was also a very active time politically, so our house was full of interesting people all the time, which was great fun for a kid.

Ultimately, the thing I appreciate about both my parents is their tremendous love of ideas – their lifelong commitment to great ideas that at their root form the possibility for political transformation – and their desire to act on them.

Could you say something about what Murray was like as a person?

While it’s hard to believe when reading some of his polemics, Murray was immensely warm and caring to the people around him. He took a supportive interest in his students at the Institute for Social Ecology and he was a very social creature; he loved good company.

In many of his writings, especially in his earlier wotrk, like the essays in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, and of course The Ecology of Freedom, but also in later pieces like Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, you can feel the intensity of his utopian vision, his belief that human beings deserve to live in societies that maximize creativity and freedom. As a person he was deeply moved by human suffering and very empathetic, even sentimental at times. At the same time, he was profoundly committed to rational thought and felt strongly that human beings had an obligation to create a rational society.

As with all thinkers that produce work that spans over decades, your father’s thinking modified with the passing of time. How do you explain this?

Murray was constantly studying, evaluating, and reassessing. He allowed his theories to evolve organically and dialectically and didn’t hold on to set theoretical doctrines, be they Marxist or anarchist. On the other hand, Murray wasn’t immune from making mistakes. So, for example, while I agreed with his critique of “lifestyle” anarchism (in his book Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasmpublished in 1995), I think there were stylistic errors that made his tone more polarizing than it needed to be and that may have made it harder for some undecided anarchists to adopt his point of view.

But I think that now, twenty years later, his critique has stood the test of time not only with respect to “lifestyle” anarchism but anarchism per se and that Communalism can be seen, in a sense, as a logical progression that addresses organizational lacunae in anarchism. I hope that anarchists who read this new collection of essays will see Communalism as a natural outgrowth of anarchism and view Murray’s critique of the failures of anarchism in the context of his search for a potent instrument for revolutionary change.

Why do you think Murray adopted what some people viewed as a harsh tone in his book ‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism’?

Murray had spent a lifetime explaining why the irrationalities of capitalism could only be countered by an organized social movement and here was a vocal group of anarchists dismissing that goal in favor of an individualist, anti-technology, primitivist politics, which Murray found as irrational as capitalism itself.

So, if his tone was unforgiving, it’s because he was desperately trying to rescue the social dimension of anarchism. Murray was also unsparing in his critique of deep ecology—for example in his adamant assertion, long before others dared to say so, that deep ecology was a fundamentally misanthropic, anti-rational political philosophy. There were many in the anarchist and the deep ecology movements who were unable to answer his criticisms of those ideologies. So some of these adversaries resorted to personal attacks.

In his book Recovering Bookchin: Social Ecology and the Crises of Our Times, Andy Price of Sheffield Hallam University in England does an excellent job of analyzing Murray’s critiques with respect to anarchism and deep ecology and unmasks the efforts to caricaturize him by some members of those movements. Price’s book is a very fine treatment of those issues, and also happens to serve as a great introduction to Murray’s ideas.

What do you view as Murray’s most important teaching?

The necessity of dialectical thinking – that to really know a thing you have to see it in its full development, not statically, not as it “is” but rather as it has the potential to “become.” That hierarchy and capitalism weren’t inevitable developments and that a legacy of freedom has always existed alongside the legacy of domination. That it’s our job as human beings capable of rational thought to try to develop an ethics and social structure that maximizes freedom.

What about his most relevant achievement?

On a very basic level, his introduction of ecology as a political category was extraordinary. He was fifty years ahead of his time in saying unequivocally that capitalism was incompatible with living in harmony with the natural world, a concept that key activists today such as Naomi Klein have taken up and popularized. He also was ahead of his time in critiquing the Left from a Leftist perspective, insisting that traditional Marxism, with it’s focus on the proletariat as a hegemonic class and its economic reductionism, had to be abandoned in favor of a more sweeping framework for social change.

But even more important, I think, was his desire to develop a unified social theory grounded in philosophy. In other words, he was searching for an objective foundation for an ethical society. That led him to immerse himself in history, anthropology, and even in biology and the sciences, all in the service of advancing the idea that mutual aid, complementarity, and other concepts that predominate in natural evolution point to the notion that human beings are capable of using their rationality to live in harmony with each other and the natural world—that we are capable of creating what he called “free nature.” And in this sense I would agree with you that he was one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century.

Recently Bookchin’s name has come up in connection with the Kurdish autonomy movement. Can you tell us a bit about his role in influencing Kurdish resistance and their social forms of organization?

Right now the Kurds in parts of Turkey and northern Syria are engaged in one of the most daring and innovative efforts in the world to employ directly democratic decision-making in their politics. Two years before Murray died in 2006, he was contacted by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish resistance. While they never had a chance to engage in a direct dialogue, Öcalan did undertake a serious study of Murray’s work, reading seminal books like The Ecology of Freedom and From Urbanization to Cities.

As a result, Öcalan abandoned his Marxist-Leninist approach to social revolution in favor of Murray’s non-statist, libertarian municipalist approach, adapting Murray’s ideas and developing his own into what he called Democratic Confederalism. We see these ideas at work now in many Kurdish communities in Turkey and in the Rojava region in northern Syria, including in Kobani, where Kurdish forces battled and ultimately drove out the Islamic State from the city after 134 days of fighting.

These towns are remarkable for instituting the kind of directly democratic councils that empower every member of the community regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion. They have embraced the principals of democratic decision-making, ecological stewardship, and equality and representation for ethnic minorities and for women, who now constitute 40 percent of every decision-making body. They’ve instituted freedom of speech and in many cases municipalized their economies. Importantly they view Kurdish autonomy as inseparable from creating a liberatory, non-capitalist society for all and have created their own autonomous zones which stand as a true challenge to the nation-state.

This kind of self-government is a model not just for the region but for the world. I wish Murray, who not only believed so strongly in the libertarian municipalist model, but also in the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, had lived long enough to see it.

In your introduction to the book, you point out that Murray’s influence has also been felt within the practices and politics of new social movements. What do you think is his legacy for social movements and what is your aim with respect to this new publication?

I think that features of Murray’s thought are evident in a wide range of current political and social theorizing, for example in the insightful work of theorists like David Harveyand Marina Sitrin. My co-editor Blair Taylor, a PhD candidate at the New School for Social Research in the Politics Department, specializes in the history of new social movements and has observed that these movements have already embraced many of Murray’s ideas, even if this was sometimes unknowingly. You see this in the use of affinity groups, spokes-councils, and other forms of directly democratic organizing; in the sensitivity to matters of domination and hierarchy; in the understanding of pre-figurative politics—that is that we must live the values in our movement that we want to achieve in a new society.

These are all concepts that Murray introduced in the 1970s. You see these ideas at work also in the transition towns movement and on the streets when protesters are asked by reporters: “What do you want?” and they respond, “Direct democracy.” I think that it’s exciting that his work is being discussed by people like David Harvey and David Graeber and rediscovered by a new generation. What I hope is that the social movements taking shape across the globe will consider using the ideas in this book as a way of reclaiming popular power on the municipal level, so that we can institutionalize the political change necessary to move us from the realm of protest to that of social transformation—to a self-managed society and a liberated future.

Federico Venturini is an activist-researcher, working with social ecology and urban social movement. He is currently PhD candidate at the School of Geography, University of Leeds and member of Transnational Institute of Social Ecology

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/02/bookchin-interview-social-ecology/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Google has captured your mind

Searches reveal who we are and how we think. True intellectual privacy requires safeguarding these records

Google has captured your mind
(Credit: Kuzma via iStock/Salon)

The Justice Department’s subpoena was straightforward enough. It directed Google to disclose to the U.S. government every search query that had been entered into its search engine for a two-month period, and to disclose every Internet address that could be accessed from the search engine. Google refused to comply. And so on Wednesday January 18, 2006, the Department of Justice filed a court motion in California, seeking an order that would force Google to comply with a similar request—a random sample of a million URLs from its search engine database, along with the text of every “search string entered onto Google’s search engine over a one-week period.” The Justice Department was interested in how many Internet users were looking for pornography, and it thought that analyzing the search queries of ordinary Internet users was the best way to figure this out. Google, which had a 45-percent market share at the time, was not the only search engine to receive the subpoena. The Justice Department also requested search records from AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Only Google declined the initial request and opposed it, which is the only reason we are aware that the secret request was ever made in the first place.

The government’s request for massive amounts of search history from ordinary users requires some explanation. It has to do with the federal government’s interest in online pornography, which has a long history, at least in Internet time. In 1995 Time Magazine ran its famous “Cyberporn” cover, depicting a shocked young boy staring into a computer monitor, his eyes wide, his mouth agape, and his skin illuminated by the eerie glow of the screen. The cover was part of a national panic about online pornography, to which Congress responded by passing the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) the following year. This infamous law prevented all websites from publishing “patently offensive” content without first verifying the age and identity of its readers, and the sending of indecent communications to anyone under eighteen. It tried to transform the Internet into a public space that was always fit for children by default.


The CDA prompted massive protests (and litigation) charging the government with censorship. The Supreme Court agreed in the landmark case of Reno v. ACLU (1997), which struck down the CDA’s decency provisions. In his opinion for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens explained that regulating the content of Internet expression is no different from regulating the content of newspapers.The case is arguably the most significant free speech decision over the past half century since it expanded the full protection of the First Amendment to Internet expression, rather than treating the Internet like television or radio, whose content may be regulated more extensively. In language that might sound dated, Justice Stevens announced a principle that has endured: “Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer.” The Internet, in other words, was now an essential forum for free speech.

In the aftermath of Reno, Congress gave up on policing Internet indecency, but continued to focus on child protection. In 1998 it passed the Children’s Online Protection Act, also known as COPA. COPA punished those who engaged in web communications made “for commercial purposes” that were accessible and “harmful to minors” with a $50,000 fine and prison terms of up to six months. After extensive litigation, the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. ACLU (2004) upheld a preliminary injunction preventing the government from enforcing the law. The Court reasoned that the government hadn’t proved that an outright ban of “harmful to minors” material was necessary. It suggested that Congress could have instead required the use of blocking or filtering software, which would have had less of an impact on free speech than a ban, and it remanded the case for further proceedings. Back in the lower court, the government wanted to create a study showing that filtering would be ineffective, which is why it wanted the search queries from Google and the other search engine companies in 2006.

Judge James Ware ruled on the subpoena on March 17, 2006, and denied most of the government’s demands. He granted the release of only 5 percent of the requested randomly selected anonymous search results and none of the actual search queries. Much of the reason for approving only a tiny sample of the de-identified search requests had to do with privacy. Google had not made a direct privacy argument, on the grounds that de-identified search queries were not “personal information,” but it argued that disclosure of the records would expose its trade secrets and harm its goodwill from users who believed that their searches were confidential. Judge Ware accepted this oddly phrased privacy claim, and added one of his own that Google had missed. The judge explained that Google users have a privacy interest in the confidentiality of their searches because a user’s identity could be reconstructed from their queries and because disclosure of such queries could lead to embarrassment (searches for, e.g., pornography or abortions) or criminal liability (searches for, e.g., “bomb placement white house”). He also placed the list of disclosed website addresses under a protective order to safeguard Google’s trade secrets.

Two facets of Judge Ware’s short opinion in the “Search Subpoena Case” are noteworthy. First, the judge was quite correct that even search requests that have had their user’s identities removed are not anonymous, as it is surprisingly easy to re-identify this kind of data. The queries we enter into search engines like Google often unwittingly reveal our identities. Most commonly, we search our own names, out of vanity, curiosity, or to discover if there are false or embarrassing facts or images of us online. But other parts of our searches can reveal our identities as well. A few months after the Search Subpoena Case, AOL made public twenty million search queries from 650,000 users of its search engine users. AOL was hoping this disclosure would help researchers and had replaced its users’ names with numerical IDs to protect their privacy. But two New York Times reporters showed just how easy it could be to re-identify them. They tracked down AOL user number 4417749 and identified her as Thelma Arnold, a sixty-two-year old widow in Lilburn, Georgia. Thelma had made hundreds of searches including “numb fingers,” “60 single men,” and “dog that urinates on everything.” The New York Times reporters used old-fashioned investigative techniques, but modern sophisticated computer science tools make re-identification of such information even easier. One such technique allowed computer scientists to re-identify users in the Netflix movie-watching database, which that company made public to researchers in 2006.

The second interesting facet of the Search Subpoena Case is its theory of privacy. Google won because the disclosure threatened its trade secrets (a commercial privacy, of sorts) and its business goodwill (which relied on its users believing that their searches were private). Judge Ware suggested that a more direct kind of user privacy was at stake, but was not specific beyond some generalized fear of embarrassment (echoing the old theory of tort privacy) or criminal prosecution (evoking the “reasonable expectation of privacy” theme from criminal law). Most people no doubt have an intuitive sense that their Internet searches are “private,” but neither our intuitions nor the Search Subpoena Case tell us why. This is a common problem in discussions of privacy. We often use the word “privacy” without being clear about what we mean or why it matters. We can do better.

Internet searches implicate our intellectual privacy. We use tools like Google Search to make sense of the world, and intellectual privacy is needed when we are making sense of the world. Our curiosity is essential, and it should be unfettered. As I’ll show in this chapter, search queries implicate a special kind of intellectual privacy, which is the freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought and belief is the core of our intellectual privacy. This freedom is the defining characteristic of a free society and our most cherished civil liberty. This right encompasses the range of thoughts and beliefs that a person might hold or develop, dealing with matters that are trivial and important, secular and profane. And it protects the individual’s thoughts from scrutiny or coercion by anyone, whether a government official or a private actor such as an employer, a friend, or a spouse. At the level of law, if there is any constitutional right that is absolute, it is this one, which is the precondition for other political and religious rights guaranteed by the Western tradition. Yet curiously, although freedom of thought is widely regarded as our most important civil liberty, it has not been protected in our law as much as other rights, in part because it has been very difficult for the state or others to monitor thoughts and beliefs even if they wanted to.

Freedom of Thought and Intellectual Privacy

In 1913 the eminent Anglo-Irish historian J. B. Bury published A History of Freedom of Thought, in which he surveyed the importance of freedom of thought in the Western tradition, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century. According to Bury, the conclusion that individuals should have an absolute right to their beliefs free of state or other forms of coercion “is the most important ever reached by men.” Bury was not the only scholar to have observed that freedom of thought (or belief, or conscience) is at the core of Western civil liberties. Recognitions of this sort are commonplace and have been made by many of our greatest minds. René Descartes’s maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” identifies the power of individual thought at the core of our existence. John Milton praised in Areopagitica “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all [other] liberties.”

In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill developed a broad notion of freedom of thought as an essential element of his theory of human liberty, which comprised “the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.” In Mill’s view, free thought was inextricably linked to and mutually dependent upon free speech, with the two concepts being a part of a broader idea of political liberty. Moreover, Mill recognized that private parties as well as the state could chill free expression and thought.

Law in Britain and America has embraced the central importance of free thought as the civil liberty on which all others depend. But it was not always so. People who cannot think for themselves, after all, are incapable of self-government. In the Middle Ages, the crime of “constructive treason” outlawed “imagining the death of the king” as a crime that was punishable by death. Thomas Jefferson later reflected that this crime “had drawn the Blood of the best and honestest Men in the Kingdom.” The impulse for political uniformity was related to the impulse for religious uniformity, whose story is one of martyrdom and burnings of the stake. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put it in 1963:

While kings were fearful of treason, theologians were bent on stamping out heresy. . . . The Reformation is associated with Martin Luther. But prior to him it broke out many times only to be crushed. When in time the Protestants gained control, they tried to crush the Catholics; and when the Catholics gained the upper hand, they ferreted out the Protestants. Many devices were used. Heretical books were destroyed and heretics were burned at the stake or banished. The rack, the thumbscrew, the wheel on which men were stretched, these were part of the paraphernalia.

Thankfully, the excesses of such a dangerous government power were recognized over the centuries, and thought crimes were abolished. Thus, William Blackstone’s influential Commentaries stressed the importance of the common law protection for the freedom of thought and inquiry, even under a system that allowed subsequent punishment for seditious and other kinds of dangerous speech. Blackstone explained that:

Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry: liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive of the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects. A man (says a fine writer on this subject) may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not publicly to vend them as cordials.

Even during a time when English law allowed civil and criminal punishment for many kinds of speech that would be protected today, including blasphemy, obscenity, seditious libel, and vocal criticism of the government, jurists recognized the importance of free thought and gave it special, separate protection in both the legal and cultural traditions.

The poisons metaphor Blackstone used, for example, was adapted from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, from a line that the King of Brobdingnag delivers to Gulliver. Blackstone’s treatment of freedom of thought was itself adopted by Joseph Story in his own Commentaries, the leading American treatise on constitutional law in the early Republic. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison also embraced freedom of thought. Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom enshrined religious liberty around the declaration that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and James Madison forcefully called for freedom of thought and conscience in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.

Freedom of thought thus came to be protected directly as a prohibition on state coercion of truth or belief. It was one of a handful of rights protected by the original Constitution even before the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Article VI provides that “state and federal legislators, as well as officers of the United States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This provision, known as the “religious test clause,” ensured that religious orthodoxy could not be imposed as a requirement for governance, a further protection of the freedom of thought (or, in this case, its closely related cousin, the freedom of conscience). The Constitution also gives special protection against the crime of treason, by defining it to exclude thought crimes and providing special evidentiary protections:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

By eliminating religious tests and by defining the crime of treason as one of guilty actions rather than merely guilty minds, the Constitution was thus steadfastly part of the tradition giving exceptional protection to the freedom of thought.

Nevertheless, even when governments could not directly coerce the uniformity of beliefs, a person’s thoughts remained relevant to both law and social control. A person’s thoughts could reveal political or religious disloyalty, or they could be relevant to a defendant’s mental state in committing a crime or other legal wrong. And while thoughts could not be revealed directly, they could be discovered by indirect means. For example, thoughts could be inferred either from a person’s testimony or confessions, or by access to their papers and diaries. But both the English common law and the American Bill of Rights came to protect against these intrusions into the freedom of the mind as well.

The most direct way to obtain knowledge about a person’s thoughts would be to haul him before a magistrate as a witness and ask him under penalty of law. The English ecclesiastical courts used the “oath ex officio” for precisely this purpose. But as historian Leonard Levy has explained, this practice came under assault in Britain as invading the freedom of thought and belief. As the eminent jurist Lord Coke later declared, “no free man should be compelled to answer for his secret thoughts and opinions.” The practice of the oath was ultimately abolished in England in the cases of John Lilburne and John Entick, men who were political dissidents rather than religious heretics.

In the new United States, the Fifth Amendment guarantee that “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself ” can also be seen as a resounding rejection of this sort of practice in favor of the freedom of thought. Law of course evolves, and current Fifth Amendment doctrine focuses on the consequences of a confession rather than on mental privacy, but the origins of the Fifth Amendment are part of a broad commitment to freedom of thought that runs through our law. The late criminal law scholar William Stuntz has shown that this tradition was not merely a procedural protection for all, but a substantive limitation on the power of the state to force its enemies to reveal their unpopular or heretical thoughts. As he put the point colorfully, “[i]t is no coincidence that the privilege’s origins read like a catalogue of religious and political persecution.”

Another way to obtain a person’s thoughts would be by reading their diaries or other papers. Consider the Fourth Amendment, which protects a person from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Today we think about the Fourth Amendment as providing protection for the home and the person chiefly against unreasonable searches for contraband like guns or drugs. But the Fourth Amendment’s origins come not from drug cases but as a bulwark against intellectual surveillance by the state. In the eighteenth century, the English Crown had sought to quash political and religious dissent through the use of “general warrants,” legal documents that gave agents of the Crown the authority to search the homes of suspected dissidents for incriminating papers.

Perhaps the most infamous dissident of the time was John Wilkes. Wilkes was a progressive critic of Crown policy and a political rogue whose public tribulations, wit, and famed personal ugliness made him a celebrity throughout the English-speaking world. Wilkes was the editor of a progressive newspaper, the North Briton, a member of Parliament, and an outspoken critic of government policy. He was deeply critical of the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years War with France, a conflict known in North America as the French and Indian War. Wilkes’s damning articles angered King George, who ordered the arrest of Wilkes and his co-publishers of the North Briton, authorizing general warrants to search their papers for evidence of treason and sedition. The government ransacked numerous private homes and printers’ shops, scrutinizing personal papers for any signs of incriminating evidence. In all, forty-nine people were arrested, and Wilkes himself was charged with seditious libel, prompting a long and inconclusive legal battle of suits and countersuits.

By taking a stand against the king and intrusive searches, Wilkes became a cause célèbre among Britons at home and in the colonies. This was particularly true for many American colonists, whose own objections to British tax policy following the Treaty of Paris culminated in the American Revolution. The rebellious colonists drew from the Wilkes case the importance of political dissent as well as the need to protect dissenting citizens from unreasonable (and politically motivated) searches and seizures.

The Fourth Amendment was intended to address this problem by inscribing legal protection for “persons, houses, papers, and effects” into the Bill of Rights. A government that could not search the homes and read the papers of its citizens would be less able to engage in intellectual tyranny and enforce intellectual orthodoxy. In a pre-electronic world, the Fourth Amendment kept out the state, while trespass and other property laws kept private parties out of our homes, paper, and effects.

The Fourth and Fifth Amendments thus protect the freedom of thought at their core. As Stuntz explains, the early English cases estab- lishing these principles were “classic First Amendment cases in a system with no First Amendment.” Even in a legal regime without protection for dissidents who expressed unpopular political or religious opinions, the English system protected those dissidents in their private beliefs, as well as the papers and other documents that might reveal those beliefs.

In American law, an even stronger protection for freedom of thought can be found in the First Amendment. Although the First Amendment text speaks of free speech, press, and assembly, the freedom of thought is unquestionably at the core of these guarantees, and courts and scholars have consistently recognized this fact. In fact, the freedom of thought and belief is the closest thing to an absolute right guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court first recognized it in the 1878 Mormon polygamy case of Reynolds v. United States, which ruled that although law could regulate religiously inspired actions such as polygamy, it was powerless to control “mere religious belief and opinions.” Freedom of thought in secular matters was identified by Justices Holmes and Brandeis as part of their dissenting tradition in free speech cases in the 1910s and 1920s. Holmes declared crisply in United States v. Schwimmer that “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” And in his dissent in the Fourth Amendment wiretapping case of Olmstead v. United States, Brandeis argued that the framers of the Constitution “sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations.” Brandeis’s dissent in Olmstead adapted his theory of tort privacy into federal constitutional law around the principle of freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought became permanently enshrined in constitutional law during a series of mid-twentieth century cases that charted the contours of the modern First Amendment. In Palko v. Connecticut, Justice Cardozo characterized freedom of thought as “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” And in a series of cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Court developed a theory of the First Amendment under which the rights of free thought, speech, press, and exercise of religion were placed in a “preferred position.” Freedom of thought was central to this new theory of the First Amendment, exemplified by Justice Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which invalidated a state regulation requiring that public school children salute the flag each morning. Jackson declared that:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. . . .

[The flag-salute statute] transcends constitutional limitations on [legislative] power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.

Modern cases continue to reflect this legacy. The Court has repeatedly declared that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of thought is at the foundation of what it means to have a free society. In particular, freedom of thought has been invoked as a principal justification for preventing punishment based upon possessing or reading dangerous media. Thus, the government cannot punish a person for merely possessing unpopular or dangerous books or images based upon their content. As Alexander Meiklejohn put it succinctly, the First Amendment protects, first and foremost, “the thinking process of the community.”

Freedom of thought thus remains, as it has for centuries, the foundation of the Anglo-American tradition of civil liberties. It is also the core of intellectual privacy.

“The New Home of Mind”

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” So began “A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” a 1996 manifesto responding to the Communications Decency Act and other attempts by government to regulate the online world and stamp out indecency. The Declaration’s author was John Perry Barlow, a founder of the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Barlow argued that “[c]yberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” This definition of the Internet as a realm of pure thought was quickly followed by an affirmation of the importance of the freedom of thought. Barlow insisted that in Cyberspace “anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” The Declaration concluded on the same theme: “We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts. We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”

In his Declaration, Barlow joined a tradition of many (including many of the most important thinkers and creators of the digital world) who have expressed the idea that networked computing can be a place of “thought itself.” As early as 1960, the great computing visionary J. C. R. Licklider imagined that “in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought.” Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the World Wide Web, envisioned his creation as one that would bring “the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds.”

Barlow’s utopian demand that governments leave the electronic realm alone was only partially successful. The Communications Decency Act was, as we have seen, struck down by the Supreme Court, but today many laws regulate the Internet, such as the U.S. Digital Millenium Copyright Act6and the EU Data Retention Directive. The Internet has become more (and less) than Barlow’s utopian vision—a place of business as well as of thinking. But Barlow’s description of the Internet as a world of the mind remains resonant today.

It is undeniable that today millions of people use computers as aids to their thinking. In the digital age, computers are an essential and intertwined supplement to our thoughts and our memories. Discussing Licklider’s prophesy from half a century ago, legal scholar Tim Wu notes that virtually every computer “program we use is a type of thinking aid—whether the task is to remember things (an address book), to organize prose (a word processor), or to keep track of friends (social network software).” These technologies have become not just aids to thought but also part of the thinking process itself. In the past, we invented paper and books, and then sound and video recordings to preserve knowledge and make it easier for us as individuals and societies to remember information. Digital technologies have made remembering even easier, by providing cheap storage, inexpensive retrieval, and global reach. Consider the Kindle, a cheap electronic reader that can hold 1,100 books, or even cheaper external hard drives that can hold hundreds of hours of high-definition video in a box the size of a paperback novel.

Even the words we use to describe our digital products and experiences reflect our understanding that computers and cyberspace are devices and places of the mind. IBM has famously called its laptops “ThinkPads,” and many of us use “smartphones.” Other technologies have been named in ways that affirm their status as tools of the mind—notebooks, ultrabooks, tablets, and browsers. Apple Computer produces iPads and MacBooks and has long sold its products under the slogan, “Think Different.” Google historian John Battelle has famously termed Google’s search records to be a “database of intentions.” Google’s own slogan for its web browser Chrome is “browse the web as fast as you think,” revealing how web browsing itself is not just a form of reading, but a kind of thinking itself. My point here is not just that common usage or marketing slogans connect Internet use to thinking, but a more important one: Our use of these words reflects a reality. We are increasingly using digital technologies not just as aids to our memories but also as an essential part of the ways we think.

Search engines in particular bear a special connection to the processes of thought. How many of us have asked a factual question among friends, only for smartphones to appear as our friends race to see who can look up the answer the fastest? In private, we use search engines to learn about the world. If you have a moment, pull up your own search history on your phone, tablet, or computer, and recall your past queries. It usually makes for interesting reading—a history of your thoughts and wonderings.

But the ease with which we can pull up such a transcript reveals another fundamental feature of digital technologies—they are designed to create records of their use. Think again about the profile a search engine like Google has for you. A transcript of search queries and links followed is a close approximation to a transcript of the operation of your mind. In the logs of search engine companies are vast repositories of intellectual wonderings, questions asked, and mental whims followed. Similar logs exist for Internet service providers and other new technology companies. And the data contained in such logs is eagerly sought by government and private entities interested in monitoring intellectual activity, whether for behavioral advertising, crime and terrorism prevention, and possibly other, more sinister purposes.

Searching Is Thinking

With these two points in mind—the importance of freedom of thought and the idea of the Internet as a place where thought occurs—we can now return to the Google Search Subpoena with which this chapter opened. Judge Ware’s opinion revealed an intuitive understanding that the disclosure of search records was threatening to privacy, but was not clear about what kind of privacy was involved or why it matters.

Intellectual privacy, in particular the freedom of thought, supplies the answer to this problem. We use search engines to learn about and make sense of the world, to answer our questions, and as aids to our thinking. Searching, then, in a very real sense is a kind of thinking. And we have a long tradition of protecting the privacy and confidentiality of our thoughts from the scrutiny of others. It is precisely because of the importance of search records to human thought that the Justice Department wanted to access the records. But if our search records were more public, we wouldn’t merely be exposed to embarrassment like Thelma Arnold of Lilburn, Georgia. We would be less likely to search for unpopular or deviant or dangerous topics. Yet in a free society, we need to be able to think freely about any ideas, no matter how dangerous or unpopular. If we care about freedom of thought—and our political institutions are built on the assumption that we do—we should care about the privacy of electronic records that reveal our thoughts. Search records illustrate the point well, but this idea is not just limited to that one important technology. My argument about freedom of thought in the digital age is this: Any technology that we use in our thinking implicates our intellectual privacy, and if we want to preserve our ability to think fearlessly, free of monitoring, interference, or repercussion, we should embody these technologies with a meaningful measure of intellectual privacy.

Excerpted from “Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age” by Neil Richards. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Neil Richards. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Neil Richards is a Professor of Law at Washington University, where he teaches and writes about privacy, free speech, and the digital revolution.

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Global Decision: New Music Will Be

Released On Fridays, Starting This Summer

 

     After months of discussions and negotiation it appears every country will now adopt a standardized music launch day in an attempt to create “a sense of occasion around the release of new music.” That’s the word from IFPI, the worldwide body representing the recording industry, which this week said that sometime this summer  all new music will be released globally on Fridays.

“As well as helping music fans, the move will benefit artists who want to harness social media to promote their new music,” the IFPI said in a statement. “It also creates the opportunity to reignite excitement and a sense of occasion around the release of new music.” Currently, new music is released in the U.K. on Monday, with U.S. releases coming out on Tuesday. This new arrangement will see new albums and singles released at 00:01 am (local time) on Fridays. IFPI says the decision to standardize the release day came after thorough consultation with all parties who have an interest in recoded music.

“We’ve had a long consultation involving retailers, artists, and record labels, and we have looked at a large amount of insight and research,” IFPI CEO Frances Moore told Music Week. “The good news has been the widespread support we’ve seen around the world for global release day – no one has seriously questioned the concept. The only debate has been about the day. The artist organizations and many retailers and record companies internationally support Friday, and this is backed by consumer research in many countries.”

Still, many independent labels and artists appear to be dissatisfied with the idea of designating Friday – or any day – as “new music day.” And since there’s no law that forces companies to comply with this new agreement, look for some rogue players to defy the standard and release their singles and albums on any day they choose. 

Apple Reportedly Buys Camel Audio;

Plans For Tech Firm Remain Unclear

 

Apple      Apple Inc. reportedly has acquired U.K. music technology company Camel Audio – a company that, among other things, built the Alchemy software suite that allowed musicians to produce their own tracks digitally. While Apple has not officially acknowledged the acquisition, digital music blog MusicRadar says the deal closed in early January, around the time Apple attorney Heather Joy Morrison was named as the company’s sole director. Camel reportedly has shut down its operations, leaving behind a website containing only a user login page for contacting customer support, and miscellaneous legal information.

A notice on the website reads, in part: “We would like to thank you for the support we’ve received over the years in our efforts to create instruments, effects plug-ins, and sound libraries. Camel Audio’s plug-ins, Alchemy Mobile IAPs, and sound libraries are no longer available for purchase. We will continue to provide downloads of your previous purchases and email support until July 7, 2015. We recommend you download all of your purchases and back them up so that you can continue to use them.”

Thus far it’s unclear how the Camel Audio acquisition fits within Apple’s apparent plans to lead the digital music space. Apple already offers products for digital music production, including Garageband and Logic Pro X, and some sources believe Camel’s products will be folded into those existing products or perhaps into iTunes. The Silicon Valley giant has issued a vague statement noting that, “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” The statement is typically offered when an acquisition rumor is legitimate, suggesting Apple did in fact purchase Camel Audio last month. [Read more: Apple Insider

Google Play Music Increases Its Music

Storage Capacity To 50,000 Songs

 

     In an attempt to thwart any attempt by Apple to grow its dominance in the digital music space, Google Play Music this week announced it has upgraded the storage space for registered users from 20,000 songs to 50,000 songs. The extra space is a free upgrade for users, and the expanded capacity is applied automatically for those who already host their music collection in Google’s cloud. Google Play Music is a music streaming and storage service that lets users listen on the web, smartphones, or tablets.

While many consumers are shifting to streaming services and away from downloaded digital files, many users have invested in building – and listening to – massive music libraries. Google’s offer to host even bigger collections is an attempt to lure those customers who are unwilling to give up their previous musical life in favor of streaming platforms.

Because of this single change many analysts say Google Play Music significantly has strengthened its competitive position against Spotify; a lack of storage for music and other media is considered one of the core issues still plaguing smartphones and tablets. Example: Apple sells the iPhone 6 with 16GB of storage, not nearly enough room for all the functions a modern smartphone is expected to provide. Even the base Moto X, which some people consider the best Android smartphone available, has only 16GB of storage. Google’s expansion to 50,000 songs – approximately 200 GB of cloud space – goes will beyond this limit and provides the convenience of streaming their own library. [Read more: Forbes Tech Crunch  Engadget

Starbucks Will Stop Selling CDs

In Stores At The End Of March

 

     As CD sales continue to slip both in the U.S. and globally, Starbucks has decided to stop offering them at its 21,000 retail shops by the end of next month. Starbucks representative Maggie Jantzen told Billboard the company “continually seeks to redefine the experience in our retail stores to meet the evolving needs of our customers. Music will remain a key component of our coffeehouse and retail experience, [and] we will continue to evolve the format of our music offerings to ensure we’re offering relevant options for our customers. As a leader in music curation, we will continue to strive to select unique and compelling artists from a broad range of genres we think will resonate with our customers.”

Starbucks supposedly will continue to provide digital music to its customers, although Jantzen did not reveal what offerings will be available in the future. “Music has always been a key component at Starbucks,” she said. “We are looking for new ways to offer customers music options.”

Starbucks began investing in music in the late 1990s with its purchase of music retailer Hear Music, which created collections that would inspire people to discover new music. That effort resulted in significant in-store sales, and the company expanded its music push with a partnership with William Morris. A subsequent deal with Concord Music Group led to original music releases from such major artists as Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, and Alanis Morissette.

 

Grace Digital’s WiFi Devices Log

More Than 1 Billion Listener Hours

 

Music Business      Grace Digital, a manufacturer of Wi-Fi-based wireless music systems, announced this week its North American customer base has exceeded 1 billion total internet radio listening hours. According to the Edison Research report titled “The Infinite Dial,” internet radio has seen steady listening increases in the U.S. over the last six years, as 21% of Americans listened to it in 2008, while 47% do so today. Listening hours also have increased: the average listening time in one week in 2008 was 6 hours and 13 minutes, a figure that today has more than doubled to 13 hours 19 minutes.

“The growth we’ve seen year over year… mixed with the projections within the industry, show us clearly that wireless streaming of digital content will continue to grow and has become the standard,” Grace Digital Audio’s CEO Greg Fadul said in a statement. “We are committed to our customers and will continue to provide products that will aid in this digital revolution.”

While numerous devices can be used to listen to online radio from a fixed or mobile location, Grace Digital’s Wi-Fi music players serve more as a traditional stereo unit designed for in-home use. 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2015

Celebrating a decade of Zapatismo in East Harlem

By Jessica Davis On February 24, 2015

Post image for Celebrating a decade of Zapatismo in the CitySince ten years the local people of El Barrio have been organizing horizontally to create non-authoritarian spaces of urban resistance and solidarity.

Photo via the Americas Program

We fight so that:
The oceans and mountains will belong to those who live in and take care of them;
The rivers and deserts will belong to those who live in and take care of them;
The valleys and ravines will belong to those who live in and take care of them;
Homes and cities will belong to those who live in and take care of them;
No one will own more land than they can cultivate;
No one will own more homes than they can live in.

Ten years ago, in an area of East Harlem known as El Barrio, women from fifteen Mexican immigrant families came together to see how they could achieve decent housing in their community. They were fighting against gentrification and displacement, as their landlord was trying to force them out of their homes to attract wealthier tenants and transform their neighborhood. Since they had no previous organising experience, they knew there was much to learn. They listened to and supported each other, and in December 2004 they founded theMovement for Justice in El Barrio (The Movement).

The Movement is made up of low-income tenants, the majority of whom are immigrants. Many are also indigenous. Forced by poverty to leave their beloved Mexico, they built a strong community in El Barrio, and were determined not to allow themselves to be displaced yet again. They understood that their struggle was against a neoliberal system made up of abusive landlords, property speculators, multinational corporations, corrupt politicians and government institutions seeking to push them away from their much-loved community.

Autonomy and self-determination

We believe that those who suffer injustice first-hand must design and lead their own struggles for justice.

The movement is built around the principles of autonomy, self-determination, and participatory democracy, and it is based on horizontal, leaderless forms of organization. Their goal is to create spaces where people can come together as a community to share their problems. In this way they can collectively come up with solutions, and it is the community itself that has the power. The Movement believes that not being dependent on anyone to tell them what to do creates a strong foundation that can never be destroyed.

Consulting the community is the basis of The Movement’s organizing activity. Its members go door to door, building by building and block by block, getting to know people and forging strong relationships. Committees are formed in each building, and once a whole building is organized, they become members. Each building agrees on its own actions and forms of struggle. The Movement is also deeply committed to fighting all forms of discrimination and respecting differences. Above all, this means listening to one another.

The group operates on many levels. In addition to door-knocking, it holds town hall meetings, community dialogues, street outreach, house meetings, and community-wide votes. It organises protests, marches and direct action. It makes clever use of the media, gives interviews and talks, and organizes gatherings. It uses tactics such as court actions and public condemnation, and once community consultations have been carried out, it campaigns on specific issues.


Movement for Justice in El Barrio: A Decade of Dignified Struggle

We all share a common enemy and it is called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism wishes to divide us and keep us from joining forces. We will defeat this by continuing to unite our entire community, until we achieve true liberation for all.

The organization faces many challenges. Most of its members speak no English and have had few opportunities for education. They have little access to media and information; very few of them have computers. In addition to all of the responsibilities that come with family life, they are forced to work ten- to fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week. This makes it difficult for them to also attend four- or five-hour meetings to make decisions, and it is difficult for everyone to come together at the same time. Because everyone must be consulted, and all decisions are made collectively, it can take a long time to reach an agreement. Yet in spite of all these difficulties, the commitment and achievements of its members have been remarkable.

In keeping with its principles, The Movement accepts no government funding and has no involvement with politicians or political parties. Its members know that it is essential to build bridges with other ignored, forgotten and marginalized communities including women, migrants, people of color, and the LGBT community, and to build relationships with members of these organizations, who are also fighting against multiple forms of oppression.

Building community

Together, we resist with dignity and fight back against the actions of capitalist landlords and multinational corporations who are displacing poor families from our neighborhood. We fight back locally and across borders. We fight back against local politicians who refuse to obey the will of the people. We fight back against the government institutions that enforce a global economic, social and political system that seeks to destroy humanity.

Human beings were born to live in community — we cannot survive without each other. A society and culture that promotes individualism, everyone for themselves, also promotes loneliness, isolation and despair. Ten years ago, The Movement’s current members did not even know each other, and they had no fellowship with the other inhabitants of their building. Now they resist, organize and celebrate victories together. They have built a community of friendship, love, trust and solidarity, and transformed their lives.

Many of the members of this remarkable organization believe that their greatest achievement over the last ten years has been to build a culture of resistance. This has led to a sense of identity and self-worth, of being a part of something that gives purpose and meaning to their lives. A new generation of children are growing up in an amazing environment of organizing, marching and of collective decision-making, and it makes a lasting impact on their lives, shining through in their vibrant community spirit.

The strength of the community The Movement has created is reflected in the astonishing fact that not one of its members has been displaced over the last ten years. In fact, so far, they have won every battle with which they have been confronted. It is no wonder that Village Voice chose The Movement as the “Best Power to the People Movement in New York City.”

Learning from other struggles

We have found ways to make our voices heard and to let our voices echo with the voices of other marginalized people resisting across the world.

When The Movement was founded in December 2004, its members had no previous organizing experience. They began to look for other dignified struggles to learn from. When they read the Zapatista’s Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, released in June 2005, members saw a mirror of themselves reflected in it. Since then, they have developed their own form of urban Zapatismo, and continue to look to their Zapatista compañeras and compañeros for inspiration in their daily struggle for justice and collective liberation.

With the women, as always, at the forefront, The Movement has applied tools and ways of organizing they learned from the Zapatistas in their own local struggle. The Consultas de Barrio are fundamental to their work. These are neighborhood consultations that enable all local residents to identify the issues which most concern them. These consultations build and strengthen the community at the local level, helping them bring more people into the struggle, and ensure that all of their campaigns are driven by the entire El Barrio community.

Encuentros is a well-known Zapatista tradition that The Movement has made its own in both New York and in Mexico. It serves as a way to link struggles and to build networks of solidarity. They say:

An Encuentro is a space for people to come together; it is a gathering. AnEncuentro is not a meeting, a panel or a conference. It is a way of sharing developed by the Zapatistas as another form of doing politics: from below and to the left. It is a place where we can all speak, listen and learn. It is a place where we can share the many different struggles that make us one.

The next ten years

As they celebrate their tenth anniversary, The Movement now has 900 members, 80% of whom are women, spread out over 85 building committees. Its dignified resistance continues to grow. The Movement and its members have won numerous victories against the brutal landlords and multinational corporations who try to take away their homes and destroy their community. They have held politicians and city institutions to account and constructed a culture of resistance and a community of solidarity. They have formed strong bonds with groups in many countries, and their word has been heard around the world. As the Zapatistas say, the struggle continues.

We are struggling for housing, for education, for health, for freedom, for justice, for love, for a voice, for a space to exist, for peace, for respect, for ourselves, for our community, for dignity…for humanity. We stand in resistance, here, in our corner of the world. Together we will build a world where many worlds fit — un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos.

Jessica Davies is an activist and member of the UK Zapatista Solidarity Network. This article was originally published on Dorset Chiapas Solidarity.

The 21st century belongs to China

Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America’s economic dominance

Beijing is building a trans-Siberian railway system that rivals the Marshall Plan in its ambition and global reach

The 21st century belongs to China: Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America's economic dominance
Performers show the dragon dance during a night parade to celebrate Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. (Credit: AP/Vincent Yu)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

BEIJING — Seen from the Chinese capital as the Year of the Sheep starts, the malaise affecting the West seems like a mirage in a galaxy far, far away. On the other hand, the China that surrounds you looks all too solid and nothing like the embattled nation you hear about in the Western media, with its falling industrial figures, its real estate bubble, and its looming environmental disasters. Prophecies of doom notwithstanding, as the dogs of austerity and war bark madly in the distance, the Chinese caravan passes by in what President Xi Jinping calls “new normal” mode.

“Slower” economic activity still means a staggeringly impressive annual growth rate of 7% in what is now the globe’s leading economy. Internally, an immensely complex economic restructuring is underway as consumption overtakes investment as the main driver of economic development. At 46.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the service economy has pulled ahead of manufacturing, which stands at 44%.

Geopolitically, Russia, India, and China have just sent a powerful message westward: they are busy fine-tuning a complex trilateral strategy for setting up a network of economic corridors the Chinese call “new silk roads” across Eurasia. Beijing is also organizing a maritime version of the same, modeled on the feats of Admiral Zheng He who, in the Ming dynasty, sailed the “western seas” seven times, commanding fleets of more than 200 vessels.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are at work planning a new high-speed rail remix of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad. And Beijing is committed to translating its growing strategic partnership with Russia into crucial financial and economic help, if a sanctions-besieged Moscow, facing a disastrous oil price war, asks for it.



To China’s south, Afghanistan, despite the 13-year American war still being fought there, is fast moving into its economic orbit, while a planned China-Myanmar oil pipeline is seen as a game-changing reconfiguration of the flow of Eurasian energy across what I’ve long called Pipelineistan.

And this is just part of the frenetic action shaping what the Beijing leadership defines as the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a vision of creating a potentially mind-boggling infrastructure, much of it from scratch, that will connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Such a development will include projects that range from upgrading the ancient silk road via Central Asia to developing a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor; a China-Pakistan corridor through Kashmir; and a new maritime silk road that will extend from southern China all the way, in reverse Marco Polo fashion, to Venice.

Don’t think of this as the twenty-first-century Chinese equivalent of America’s post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe, but as something far more ambitious and potentially with a far vaster reach.

China as a Mega-City

If you are following this frenzy of economic planning from Beijing, you end up with a perspective not available in Europe or the U.S. Here, red-and-gold billboards promote President Xi Jinping’s much ballyhooed new tagline for the country and the century, “the Chinese Dream” (which brings to mind “the American Dream” of another era). No subway station is without them. They are a reminder of why 40,000 miles of brand new high-speed rail is considered so essential to the country’s future. After all, no less than 300 million Chinese have, in the last three decades, made a paradigm-breaking migration from the countryside to exploding urban areas in search of that dream.

Another 350 million are expected to be on the way, according to a McKinsey Global Institute study. From 1980 to 2010, China’s urban population grew by 400 million, leaving the country with at least 700 million urban dwellers. This figure is expected to hit one billion by 2030, which means tremendous stress on cities, infrastructure, resources, and the economy as a whole, as well as near-apocalyptic air pollution levels in some major cities.

Already 160 Chinese cities boast populations of more than one million. (Europe has only 35.) No less than 250 Chinese cities have tripled their GDP per capita since 1990, while disposable income per capita is up by 300%.

These days, China should be thought of not in terms of individual cities but urban clusters — groupings of cities with more than 60 million people. The Beijing-Tianjin area, for example, is actually a cluster of 28 cities. Shenzhen, the ultimate migrant megacity in the southern province of Guangdong, is now a key hub in a cluster as well. China, in fact, has more than 20 such clusters, each the size of a European country. Pretty soon, the main clusters will account for 80% of China’s GDP and 60% of its population. So the country’s high-speed rail frenzy and its head-spinning infrastructure projects – part of a $1.1 trillion investment in 300 public works — are all about managing those clusters.

Not surprisingly, this process is intimately linked to what in the West is considered a notorious “housing bubble,” which in 1998 couldn’t have even existed. Until then all housing was still owned by the state. Once liberalized, that housing market sent a surging Chinese middle class into paroxysms of investment. Yet with rare exceptions, middle-class Chinese can still afford their mortgages because both rural and urban incomes have also surged.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is, in fact, paying careful attention to this process, allowing farmers to lease or mortgage their land, among other things, and so finance their urban migration and new housing. Since we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people, however, there are bound to be distortions in the housing market, even the creation of whole disastrous ghost towns with associated eerie, empty malls.

The Chinese infrastructure frenzy is being financed by a pool of investments from central and local government sources, state-owned enterprises, and the private sector. The construction business, one of the country’s biggest employers, involves more than 100 million people, directly or indirectly. Real estate accounts for as much as 22% of total national investment in fixed assets and all of this is tied to the sale of consumer appliances, furnishings, and an annual turnover of 25% of China’s steel production, 70% of its cement, 70% of its plate glass, and 25% of its plastics.

So no wonder, on my recent stay in Beijing, businessmen kept assuring me that the ever-impending “popping” of the “housing bubble” is, in fact, a myth in a country where, for the average citizen, the ultimate investment is property. In addition, the vast urbanization drive ensures, as Premier Li Keqiang stressed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, a “long-term demand for housing.”

Markets, Markets, Markets

China is also modifying its manufacturing base, which increased by a multiple of 18 in the last three decades. The country still produces 80% of the world’s air conditioners, 90% of its personal computers, 75% of its solar panels, 70% of its cell phones, and 63% of its shoes. Manufacturing accounts for 44% of Chinese GDP, directly employing more than 130 million people. In addition, the country already accounts for 12.8% of global research and development, well ahead of England and most of Western Europe.

Yet the emphasis is now switching to a fast-growing domestic market, which will mean yet more major infrastructural investment, the need for an influx of further engineering talent, and a fast-developing supplier base. Globally, as China starts to face new challenges — rising labor costs, an increasingly complicated global supply chain, and market volatility — it is also making an aggressive push to move low-tech assembly to high-tech manufacturing. Already, the majority of Chinese exports are smartphones, engine systems, and cars (with planes on their way). In the process, a geographic shift in manufacturing is underway from the southern seaboard to Central and Western China. The city of Chengdu in the southwestern province of Sichuan, for instance, is now becoming a high-tech urban cluster as it expands around firms like Intel and HP.

So China is boldly attempting to upgrade in manufacturing terms, both internally and globally at the same time. In the past, Chinese companies have excelled in delivering the basics of life at cheap prices and acceptable quality levels. Now, many companies are fast upgrading their technology and moving up into second- and first-tier cities, while foreign firms, trying to lessen costs, are moving down to second- and third-tier cities. Meanwhile, globally, Chinese CEOs want their companies to become true multinationals in the next decade. The country already has 73 companies in the Fortune Global 500, leaving it in the number two spot behind the U.S.

In terms of Chinese advantages, keep in mind that the future of the global economy clearly lies in Asia with its record rise in middle-class incomes. In 2009, the Asia-Pacific region had just 18% of the world’s middle class; by 2030, according to the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that figure will rise to an astounding 66%. North America and Europe had 54% of the global middle class in 2009; in 2030, it will only be 21%.

Follow the money, and the value you get for that money, too. For instance, no less than 200,000 Chinese workers were involved in the production of the first iPhone, overseen by 8,700 Chinese industrial engineers. They were recruited in only two weeks. In the U.S., that process might have taken more than nine months. The Chinese manufacturing ecosystem is indeed fast, flexible, and smart — and it’s backed by an ever more impressive education system. Since 1998, the percentage of GDP dedicated to education has almost tripled; the number of colleges has doubled; and in only a decade, China has built the largest higher education system in the world.

Strengths and Weaknesses

China holds more than $15 trillion in bank deposits, which are growing by a whopping $2 trillion a year. Foreign exchange reserves are nearing $4 trillion. A definitive study of how this torrent of funds circulates within China among projects, companies, financial institutions, and the state still does not exist. No one really knows, for instance, how many loans the Agricultural Bank of China actually makes. High finance, state capitalism, and one-party rule all mix and meld in the realm of Chinese financial services where realpolitik meets real big money.

The big four state-owned banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China — have all evolved from government organizations into semi-corporate state-owned entities. They benefit handsomely both from legacy assets and government connections, or guanxi, and operate with a mix of commercial and government objectives in mind. They are the drivers to watch when it comes to the formidable process of reshaping the Chinese economic model.

As for China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, it’s not yet a big deal. In a list of 17 countries, it lies well below those of Japan and the U.S., according to Standard Chartered Bank, and unlike in the West, consumer credit is only a small fraction of total debt. True, the West exhibits a particular fascination with China’s shadow banking industry: wealth management products, underground finance, off-the-balance-sheet lending. But such operations only add up to around 28% of GDP, whereas, according to the International Monetary Fund, it’s a much higher percentage in the U.S.

China’s problems may turn out to come from non-economic areas where the Beijing leadership has proven far more prone to false moves. It is, for instance, on the offensive on three fronts, each of which may prove to have its own form of blowback: tightening ideological control over the country under the rubric of sidelining “Western values”; tightening control overonline information and social media networks, including reinforcing “the Great Firewall of China” to police the Internet; and tightening further its control over restive ethnic minorities, especially over the Uighurs in the key western province of Xinjiang.

On two of these fronts — the “Western values” controversy and Internet control — the leadership in Beijing might reap far more benefits, especially among the vast numbers of younger, well educated, globally connected citizens, by promoting debate, but that’s not how the hyper-centralized Chinese Communist Party machinery works.

When it comes to those minorities in Xinjiang, the essential problem may not be with the new guiding principles of President Xi’s ethnic policy. According to Beijing-based analyst Gabriele Battaglia, Xi wants to manage ethnic conflict there by applying the “three Js”: jiaowang, jiaoliu, jiaorong (“inter-ethnic contact,” “exchange,” and “mixage”). Yet what adds up to a push from Beijing for Han/Uighur assimilation may mean little in practice when day-to-day policy in Xinjiang is conducted by unprepared Han cadres who tend to view most Uighurs as “terrorists.”

If Beijing botches the handling of its Far West, Xinjiang won’t, as expected, become the peaceful, stable, new hub of a crucial part of the silk-road strategy. Yet it is already considered an essential communication link in Xi’s vision of Eurasian integration, as well as a crucial conduit for the massive flow of energy supplies from Central Asia and Russia. The Central Asia-China pipeline, for instance, which brings natural gas from the Turkmen-Uzbek border through Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, is already adding a fourth line to Xinjiang. And one of the two newly agreed upon Russia-China pipelines will also arrive in Xinjiang.

The Book of Xi

The extent and complexity of China’s myriad transformations barely filter into the American media. Stories in the U.S. tend to emphasize the country’s “shrinking” economy and nervousness about its future global role, the way it has “duped” the U.S. about its designs, and its nature as a military “threat” to Washington and the world.

The U.S. media has a China fever, which results in typically feverish reports that don’t take the pulse of the country or its leader. In the process, so much is missed. One prescription might be for them to read The Governance of China, a compilation of President Xi’s major speeches, talks, interviews, and correspondence. It’s already a three-million-copy bestseller in its Mandarin edition and offers a remarkably digestible vision of what Xi’s highly proclaimed “China Dream” will mean in the new Chinese century.

Xi Dada (“Xi Big Bang” as he’s nicknamed here) is no post-Mao deity. He’s more like a pop phenomenon and that’s hardly surprising. In this “to get rich is glorious” remix, you couldn’t launch the superhuman task of reshaping the Chinese model by being a cold-as-a-cucumber bureaucrat. Xi has instead struck a collective nerve by stressing that the country’s governance must be based on competence, not insider trading and Party corruption, and he’s cleverly packaged the transformation he has in mind as an American-style “dream.”

Behind the pop star clearly lies a man of substance that the Western media should come to grips with. You don’t, after all, manage such an economic success story by accident. It may be particularly important to take his measure since he’s taken the measure of Washington and the West and decided that China’s fate and fortune lie elsewhere.

As a result, last November he made official an earthshaking geopolitical shift. From now on, Beijing would stop treating the U.S. or the European Union as its main strategic priority and refocus instead on China’s Asian neighbors and fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, with a special focus on Russia), also known here as the “major developing powers” (kuoda fazhanzhong de guojia). And just for the record, China does not consider itself a “developing country” anymore.

No wonder there’s been such a blitz of Chinese mega-deals and mega-dealings across Pipelineistan recently. Under Xi, Beijing is fast closing the gap on Washington in terms of intellectual and economic firepower and yet its global investment offensive has barely begun, new silk roads included.

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo sees the newly emerging world order as a solar system with two suns, the United States and China. The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy affirms that “the United States has been and will remain a Pacific power” and states that “while there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation” with Beijing. The “major developing powers,” intrigued as they are by China’s extraordinary infrastructural push, both internally and across those New Silk Roads, wonder whether a solar system with two suns might not be a non-starter. The question then is: Which “sun” will shine on Planet Earth?  Might this, in fact, be the century of the dragon?

Curing the fear of death

How “tripping out” could change everything

A chemical called “psilocybin” shows remarkable therapeutic promise. Only problem? It comes from magic mushrooms

 

 Curing the fear of death: How "tripping out" could change everything

(Credit: stilikone, Objowl via Shutterstock/Salon)

The second time I ate psychedelic mushrooms I was at a log cabin on a lake in northern Maine, and afterwards I sat in a grove of spruce trees for three and a half hours, saying over and over, “There’s so much to see!”

The mushrooms converted my worldview from an uninspired blur to childlike wonderment at everything I glimpsed. And now, according to recent news, certain cancer patients are having the same experience. The active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, psilocybin, is being administered on a trial basis to certain participating cancer patients to help them cope with their terminal diagnosis and enjoy the final months of their lives. The provisional results show remarkable success, with implications that may be much, much bigger.

As Michael Pollan notes in a recent New Yorker piece, this research is still in its early stages. Psychedelic mushrooms are presently classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning, from the perspective of our federal government, they have no medical use and are prohibited. But the scientific community is taking some steps that – over time, and after much deliberation – could eventually change that.

Here’s how it works: In a controlled setting, cancer patients receive psilocybin plus coaching to help them make the most of the experience. Then they trip, an experience that puts ordinary life, including their cancer, in a new perspective. And that changed outlook stays with them over time. This last part might seem surprising, but at my desk I keep a picture of the spot where I had my own transcendental experience several years ago; it reminds me that my daily tribulations are not all there is to existence, nor are they what actually matter.

The preliminary research findings are convincing. You could even call them awe-inspiring. In one experiment, an astounding two-thirds of participants said the trip was “among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.” Pollan describes one cancer patient in detail, a man whose psilocybin session was followed by months that were “the happiest in his life” — even though they were also his last. Said the man’s wife: “[After his trip] it was about being with people, enjoying his sandwich and the walk on the promenade. It was as if we lived a lifetime in a year.”



Which made me do a fist pump for science: Great work, folks. Keep this up! Researchers point out that these studies are small and there’s plenty they don’t know. They also stress the difference between taking psilocybin in a clinical setting — one that’s structured and facilitated by experts — and taking the drug recreationally. (By a lake in Maine, say.) Pollan suggests that the only commonality between the two is the molecules being ingested. My (admittedly anecdotal) experience suggests matters aren’t quite that clear-cut. But even that distinction misses a larger point, which is the potential for this research to help a great many people, with cancer or without, to access a deeper sense of joy in their lives. The awe I felt by that lake in Maine — and the satisfaction and peacefulness that Pollan’s cancer patient felt while eating his sandwich and walking on the promenade — is typically absent from regular life. But that doesn’t mean it has to be.

The growing popularity of mindfulness and meditation suggests that many of us would like to inject a bit more wonder into our lives. As well we should. Not to be a damp towel or anything, but we’re all going to die. “We’re all terminal,” as one researcher said to Pollan. While it’s possible that you’ll live to be 100, and hit every item on your bucket list, life is and always will be uncertain. On any given day, disaster could strike. You could go out for some vigorous exercise and suffer a fatal heart attack, like my dad did. There’s just no way to know.

In the meantime, most of us are caught in the drudgery of to-do lists and unread emails. Responsibility makes us focus on the practical side of things — the rent isn’t going to pay itself, after all — while the force of routine makes it seem like there isn’t anything dazzling to experience anyhow. Even if we’d like to call carpe diem our motto, what we actually do is more along the lines of the quotidian: Work, commute, eat, and nod off to sleep.

With that for a backdrop, it’s not surprising that many of us experience angst about our life’s purpose, not to mention a deep-seated dread over the unavoidable fact of our mortality. It can be a wrenching experience, one that sometimes results in panic attacks or depression. We seek out remedies to ease the discomfort: Some people meditate, others drink. If you seek formal treatment, though, you’ll find that the medical establishment doesn’t necessarily consider existential dread to be a disorder. That’s because it’s normal for us to question our existence and fear our demise. In the case of debilitating angst, though, a doctor is likely to recommend the regimen for generalized anxiety — some combo of therapy and meds.

Both of these can be essential in certain cases, of course; meds tend to facilitate acceptance of the way things are, while therapy can help us, over a long stretch of time, change the things that we can to some degree control. But psychedelics are different from either of these. They seem to open a door to a different way of experiencing life. Pollan quotes one source, a longtime advocate for the therapeutic use of psilocybin, who identifies the drug’s potential for “the betterment of well people.” Psychedelics may help ordinary people, who are wrestling with ordinary angst about death and the meaning of life, to really key into, and treasure, the various experiences of their finite existence.

In other words, psychedelics could possibly help us to be more like kids.

Small children often view the world around them with mystic wonder — pushing aside blades of grass to inspect a tiny bug that’s hidden underneath, or perhaps looking wide-eyed at a bright yellow flower poking through a crack in the sidewalk. (Nothing but a common dandelion, says the adult.) Maybe the best description of psilocybin’s effect is a reversion to that childlike awe at the complexity of the world around us, to the point that we can actually relish our lives.

What’s just as remarkable is that we’re not talking about a drug that needs to be administered on a daily or weekly or even monthly basis in order to be effective. These studies gave psilocybin to cancer patients a single time. Then, for months afterward, or longer, the patients reaped enormous benefit.

(The fact that psychedelics only need to be administered once could actually make it less likely that the research will receive ample funding, because pharmaceutical companies don’t see dollar signs in a drug that’s dispensed so sparingly. But that’s another matter )

Of course, some skepticism may be warranted. Recreational use of psychedelics has been associated with psychotic episodes. That’s a good reason for caution. And a potential criticism here is that psilocybin is doing nothing more than playing a hoax on the brain — a hoax that conjures up a mystical experience and converts us into spellbound kids. You might reasonably ask, “do I even want to wander around awe-struck at a dandelion the same way a 3-year-old might?”

So caution is reasonably advised. But what the research demonstrates is nonetheless remarkable: the way the experience seems to shake something loose in participants’ consciousness, something that lets them see beyond the dull gray of routine, or the grimness of cancer, to the joy in being with loved ones, the sensory pleasure of a good meal, or the astounding pink visuals of the sunset.