Why Do We Pretend to Clean Up Ocean Oil Spills?

Many scientists describe such efforts as ‘prime-time theatre.’ Yet the farce continues.

Gulf-Oiled-Pelicans-June-3-2010 Heavily oiled Brown Pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on Thursday, June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned of Gulf spill crude at The Fort Jackson Wildlife Care Center in Buras, LA. Photo Credit: IBRRC
Photo Credit: International Bird Rescue Research Center

[Editor’s note: This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at HakaiMagazine.com.]

When the Deepwater Horizon well operated by BP (formerly British Petroleum) exploded and contaminated the Gulf of Mexico with at least 650 million litres of crude oil in 2010, blue-smocked animal rescuers quickly appeared on television screens. Looking like scrub nurses, the responders treated oil-coated birds with charcoal solutions, antibiotics and dish soap. They also forced the birds to swallow Pepto-Bismol, which helps absorb hydrocarbons. The familiar, if not outlandish, images suggested that something was being cleaned up.

But during the chaotic disaster, Silvia Gaus poked a large hole in that myth. The German biologist had worked in the tidal flats of the Wadden Sea, a region of the North Sea and the world’s largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud, and critical bird habitat. A 1998 oil spill of more than 100,000 litres in the North Sea had killed 13,000 birds in Wattenmeer National Park, and the scientist had learned that cleaning oil-soaked birds could be as harmful to their immune systems as the oil accumulating in their livers and kidneys. Kill, don’t clean, she advised responders in the 2010 BP spill. Gaus then referred to scientific studies to support her unsettling declaration. One 1996 California study, for example, followed the fate of brown pelicans fouled by oil. Researchers marked the birds after they had been “cleaned” and released them into the wild. The majority died or failed to mate again. The researchers concluded that cleaning brown pelicans couldn’t restore them to good breeding health or “normal survivability.” Another study from 1997 observed that once birds affected by an oil spill had been cleaned, they fared poorly and suffered higher than expected mortality rates.

And, consider the 2002 sinking of the MV Prestige. The tanker split in half off the coast of Spain, spilling more than 70 million litres of highly toxic bunker fuel that coated more than 600 beaches with oil. The catastrophe killed some 300,000 seabirds. Although response teams diligently cleaned thousands of animals, most of the birds died within a week. Only a few hundred ever made it back to the wild. In fact, said Gaus, studies indicate that, in general, the post-treatment survival rate of oil-soaked birds is less than one per cent.

Not all bird cleaning is futile. Rescuers saved thousands of penguins following the MV Treasure spill off South Africa in 2000, for example. Success stories, however, are rare. In the Gulf of Mexico, the giant BP spill probably killed nearly a million birds. Gaus’s comments highlighted two uncomfortable realities: cleaning oily birds is a risky business, and the marine oil spill cleanup can often do more harm than good.

A theatrical response

In many respects, society’s theatrical response to catastrophic oil spills resembles the way medical professionals respond to aggressive cancer in an elderly patient. Because surgery is available, it is often used. Surgery also creates the impression that the health-care system is doing something even though it can’t change or reverse the patient’s ultimate condition. In an oil-based society, the cleanup delusion is also irresistible. Just as it is difficult for us to acknowledge the limits of medical intervention, society struggles to acknowledge the limits of technologies or the consequences of energy habits. And that’s where the state of marine oil spill response sits today: it creates little more than an illusion of a cleanup. Scientists — outside the oil industry — call it “prime-time theatre” or “response theatre.”

Oiled turtle rescued from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (image: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Flickr CC)

The hard scientific reality is this: a big spill is almost impossible to contain because it is physically impossible to mobilize the labour needed and current cleanup technologies in a timely fashion. When the City of Vancouver released a study in 2015 on the effectiveness of responses to large tanker or pipeline spills along the southern coast of British Columbia, the conclusion was blunt: “collecting and removing oil from the sea surface is a challenging, time-sensitive and often ineffective process,” even in calm water.

Scientists have recognized this reality for a long time. During the 1970s when the oil industry was poised to invade the Beaufort Sea, the Canadian government employed more than 100 researchers to gauge the impacts of an oil spill on Arctic ice. The researchers doused sea ducks and ring seals with oil and set pools of oil on fire under a variety of ice conditions. They also created sizable oil spills (one was almost 60,000 litres, a medium-sized spill) in the Beaufort Sea and tried to contain them with booms and skimmers. They prodded polar bears into a man-made oil slick only to discover that bears, like birds, will lick oil off their matted fur and later die of kidney failure. In the end, the Beaufort Sea Project concluded that “oil spill countermeasures, techniques and equipment” would have “limited effectiveness” on ice-covered waters. The reports, however, failed to stop Arctic drilling.

Part of the illusion has been created by ineffective technologies adopted and billed by industry as “world class.” Ever since the 1970s, the oil and gas industry has trotted out four basic ways to deal with ocean spills: booms to contain the oil; skimmers to remove the oil; fire to burn the oil; sand chemical dispersants, such as Corexit, to break the oil into smaller pieces. For small spills these technologies can sometimes make a difference, but only in sheltered waters. None has ever been effective in containing large spills.

BP oil workers attempt to clean oil covered sand on June 23, 2010 in Pensacola Beach, Florida (image: Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock.com)

Conventional containment booms, for example, don’t work in icy water, or where waves run amok. Burning oil merely transforms one grave problem — water pollution — into sooty greenhouse gases and creates air pollution. Dispersants only hide the oil by scattering small droplets into the water column, yet they often don’t even do that since conditions have to be just right for dispersants to work. Darryl McMahon, a director of RESTCo, a firm pursuing more effective cleanup technologies, has written extensively about the problem, and his

The issue partly boils down to scale, explains Jeffrey Short, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research chemist who studied the aftermath of the 2010 BP disaster as well as the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, which grew at the alarming rate of half a football field per second over two days. “Go try and control something like that,” says Short. Yet almost 30 years after the Exxon Valdez contaminated much of Prince William Sound, the cleanup technology has changed little.

“What I find the most disturbing is the tendency for responsible authorities and industry to adopt technologies mainly because of their optics and with scant regard for their efficacy,” says Short. In addition, chaos rules in the aftermath of a spill. The enormous political pressure to do something routinely sacrifices any duty to properly evaluate what kind of response might actually work over time, says Short. “Industry says ‘we just want to clean it up,’ yet their demonstrative ability to clean it up sucks.”

Consider, for a moment, the industry’s dismal record on oil recovery. Average citizens may think that a successful marine oil spill cleanup actually involves recovering what has been spilled. They may also expect the amount of oil recovered would increase over time as industry learns and adopts better technologies. But there has been little improvement since the 1960s.

During the BP disaster, the majority of the oil evaporated, dropped to the ocean bottom, smothered beaches, dissolved, or remained on or just below the water’s surface as sheen or tar balls. Some oil-chewing bacteria offered assistance by biodegrading the oil after it had been dispersed. Rough estimates indicate that, out of the total amount of oil it spilled, BP recovered three per cent through skimming, 17 per cent from siphoning at the wellhead, and five per cent from burning. Even so, that’s not much better than theExxon Valdez spill in 1989 when industry recovered an estimated 14 per cent of the oil. Transport Canada admits that it expects only 10 to 15 per cent of a marine oil spill to ever be recovered from open water. “Even informed people are taken aback by these numbers,” says Short.

Nor are the numbers any better for small marine spills (smaller than 7,950 litres). This year, York University researchers discovered that offshore oil and gas platforms reported a total of 381 small spills between 1997 and 2010. Only 11 spills mentioned the presence of seabirds, yet it only takes a dime-sized blotch of oil in cold water to kill a bird.

A dead seabird, possibly a great egret, covered in oil from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. (image: Michael Martin/Flickr CC)

The danger of wishful thinking

Self-reporting combined with an appalling spill-recovery record underscores how poorly industry’s preferred technologies perform in the field. Deploying dispersants, for example, is about as effective as cleaning oil-soaked birds and remains another example of response theatre designed to hide the real damage. During BP’s catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the company sprayed over 6.8 million litres of Corexit. It was the largest volume of dispersant ever used for an oil spill and one giant chemical experiment.

Researchers have known for decades that mixing oil with Corexit rarely works. Short compares it to adding detergent when you’re washing dishes: it produces a cloudy suspension that scatters through the water but hovers close to the top. Sweden has banned its use, and the U.K. followed suit, based on the potential danger to workers. That didn’t stop the aerial bombing of Gulf of Mexico waters with Corexit — which actually killed oil-eating bacteria — because it looked as if the authorities were doing something. Their work made little difference. Bottlenose dolphins, already vulnerable, died in record numbers from adrenal and lung diseases linked to oil exposure.

“We’ve put the wrong people in charge of the job,” says McMahon, who has charted industry’s oil spill myths for years. Corexit, industry’s favorite dispersant, is widely believed to contain hydrocarbon, which gives it an ominous undertone. The product was first developed by Standard Oil, and its ingredient list remains a trade secret. Although the oil industry boasts a “safety culture,” everyone really knows that it operates with a greed culture, adds McMahon. Over the years, industry has become adept at selling an illusion by telling regulators and stakeholders whatever they want to hear about oil spills (in the past, executives claimed that their companies recovered 95 per cent of spilled oil).

In Canada, multinational oil companies also own the corporations licensed to respond to catastrophic spills. The Western Canadian Marine Response Corp., for example, is owned by Kinder Morgan, Imperial Oil, Shell, Chevron and Suncor while the Eastern Canada Response Corp. is owned by Ultramar, Shell, Imperial Oil and Suncor. In a recent analysis on this cozy relationship, Robyn Allan, an economist and former CEO of the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia, concluded that letting international oil companies determine the goals and objectives of marine spill preparedness and response was a flagrant conflict of interest.

Large spills, which can destroy fisheries and entire communities, can impose billion dollar cleanup bills and still not restore what has been lost. The cleanup costs for the Exxon Valdez disaster reached US$2 billion (paid by various parties), and Exxon fought the federal government’s claim for an extra $92 million for restoration, until the government dropped their claim in 2015. To date, BP has spent more than US$42 billion on response, compensation and fines in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, the evidence shows that nearshore and in-port spills are four to five times more expensive to clean up than offshore spills and that heavy oil, such as bitumen, costs nearly 10 times more than light oils because it persists longer in water. And yet, no more than C$1.3 billion has been set aside in Canada for a major oil spill — a sum experts find woefully inadequate. According to a University of British Columbia study, a release of 16,000 cubic metres of diluted bitumen in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet would inflict at least $1.2 billion worth of damage on the local economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism and promoting its “natural” beauty. That figure doesn’t include the cost of a “cleanup.”

Based on the science, expecting to adequately remedy large spills with current technologies seems like wishful thinking. And there will be no change unless responsible authorities do three things: give communities most affected by a catastrophic spill the democratic right to say no to high-risk projects, such as tankers or pipelines; publicly recognize that responding to a large oil spill is as haphazard as responding to a large earthquake and that there is no real techno-fix; and recognize that industry won’t adopt more effective technologies that actually recover oil from the ocean until governments and communities properly price the risk of catastrophic spills and demand upfront multibillion-dollar bonds for compensation. “If they spill, they must lose a bloody fortune,” says Short.

Until those reforms take place, expect more dramatic prime-time theatre on oiled ocean waters. But we shouldn’t for a moment believe we’re watching a cleanup. The only things being wiped clean are guilty consciences.

[Editor’s note: The bird in the image by Michael Martin was incorrectly identified as a pelican. According to Kris Wiese, an environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish & Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention & Response, it appears to be a great egret. The caption has been corrected. Thanks to Kris Wiese for the close read and the correction.]

Do You Have A Living Doppelgänger?


Folk wisdom has it that everyone has a doppelganger; somewhere out there there’s a perfect duplicate of you, with your mother’s eyes, your father’s nose and that annoying mole you’ve always meant to have removed. Now BBC reports that last year Teghan Lucas set out to test the hypothesis that everyone has a living double. Armed with a public collection of photographs of U.S. military personnel and the help of colleagues from the University of Adelaide, Lucas painstakingly analyzed the faces of nearly four thousand individuals, measuring the distances between key features such as the eyes and ears. Next she calculated the probability that two peoples’ faces would match. What she found was good news for the criminal justice system, but likely to disappoint anyone pining for their long-lost double: the chances of sharing just eight dimensions with someone else are less than one in a trillion. Even with 7.4 billion people on the planet, that’s only a one in 135 chance that there’s a single pair of doppelgangers.

Lucas says this study has provided much-needed evidence that facial anthropometric measurements are as accurate as fingerprints and DNA when it comes to identifying a criminal. “The use of video surveillance systems for security purposes is increasing and as a result, there are more and more instances of criminals leaving their ‘faces’ at a scene of a crime,” says Ms Lucas. “At the same time, criminals are getting smarter and are avoiding leaving DNA or fingerprint traces at a crime scene.” But that’s not the whole story. The study relied on exact measurements; if your doppelganger’s ears are 59mm but yours are 60mm, your likeness wouldn’t count. “It depends whether we mean ‘lookalike to a human’ or ‘lookalike to facial recognition software,'” says David Aldous. If fine details aren’t important, suddenly the possibility of having a lookalike looks a lot more realistic. It depends on the way faces are stored in the brain: more like a map than an image. To ensure that friends and acquaintances can be recognized in any context, the brain employs an area known as the fusiform gyrus to tie all the pieces together.

This holistic ‘sum of the parts’ perception is thought to make recognizing friends a lot more accurate than it would be if their features were assessed in isolation. Using this type of analysis, and judging by the number of celebrity look-alikes out there, unless you have particularly rare features, you may have literally thousands of doppelgangers. “I think most people have somebody who is a facial lookalike unless they have a truly exceptional and unusual face,” says Francois Brunelle has photographed more than 200 pairs of doppelgangers for his I’m Not a Look-Alike project. “I think in the digital age which we are entering, at some point we will know because there will be pictures of almost everyone online.




Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship.Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship. (Photo by Dan Addison)

Recent changes announced by social media giant Facebook have roiled the media community and raised questions about privacy. The company’s updates include a higher level of news feed priority for posts made by friends and family and testing for new end-to-end encryption software inside its messenger service.

As Facebook now boasts more than a billion users worldwide, both of these updates are likely to impact the way the world communicates. Prior to the company’s news-feed algorithm change, a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that approximately 44 percent of American adults regularly read news content through Facebook.

UVA Today sat down with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship and Robertson Professor of Media Studies, to discuss the impact of these changes and the evolving role of Facebook in the world. Naturally, the conversation first aired on Facebook Live.

Excerpts from the conversation and the full video are available below.

Q. What is the change to Facebook’s News Feed?

A. Facebook has announced a different emphasis within its news feed. Now of course, your news feed is much more than news. It’s all of those links and photos and videos that your friends are posting and all of the sites that you’re following. So that could be an interesting combination of your cousin, your coworker, the New York Times and Fox News all streaming through.

A couple of years ago, the folks that run Facebook recognized that Facebook was quickly becoming the leading news source for many millions of Americans, and considering that they have 1.6 billion users around the world, and it’s growing fast, there was a real concern that Facebook should take that responsibility seriously. So one of the things that Facebook did was cut a deal with a number of publishers to be able to load up their content directly from Facebook servers, rather than just link to an original content server. That provided more dependable loading, especially of video, but also faster loading, especially through mobile.

But in recent weeks, Facebook has sort of rolled back on that. They haven’t removed the partnership program that serves up all that content in a quick form, but they’ve made it very clear that their algorithms that generate your news feed will be weighted much more heavily to what your friends are linking to, liking and commenting on, and what you’ve told Facebook over the years you’re interested in.

This has a couple of ramifications. One, it sort of downgrades the project of bringing legitimate news into the forefront by default, but it also makes sure that we are more likely to be rewarded with materials that we’ve already expressed an interest in. We’re much more likely to see material from publications and our friends we reward with links and likes. We’re much more likely to see material linked by friends with whom we have had comment conversations.

This can generate something that we call a “filter bubble.” A gentlemen named Eli Pariser wrote a book called “The Filter Bubble.” It came out in 2011, and the problem he identified has only gotten worse since it came out. Facebook is a prime example of that because Facebook is in the business of giving you reasons to feel good about being on Facebook. Facebook’s incentives are designed to keep you engaged.

Q. How will this change the experience for publishers?

A. The change or the announcement of the change came about because a number of former Facebook employees told stories about how Facebook had guided their decisions to privilege certain things in news feeds that seemed to diminish the content and arguments of conservative media.

Well, Facebook didn’t want that reputation, obviously. Facebook would rather not be mixed up or labeled as a champion of liberal causes over conservative causes in the U.S. That means that Facebook is still going to privilege certain producers of media – those producers of media that have signed contracts with Facebook. The Guardian is one, the New York Times is another. There are dozens of others. Those are still going to be privileged in Facebook’s algorithm, and among the news sources you encounter, you’re more likely to see those news sources than those that have not engaged in a explicit contract with Facebook. So Facebook is making editorial decisions based on their self-interest more than anything, and not necessarily on any sort of political ideology.

Q. You wrote “The Googlization of Everything” in 2011. Since then, have we progressed to the “Facebookization” of everything?

A. I wouldn’t say that it’s the Facebookization of everything – and that’s pretty clumsy anyway. I would make an argument that if you look at five companies that don’t even seem to do the same thing – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – they’re actually competing in a long game, and it has nothing to do with social media. It has nothing to do with your phone, nothing to do with your computer and nothing to do with the Internet as we know it.

They’re all competing to earn our trust and manage the data flows that they think will soon run through every aspect of our lives – through our watches, through our eyeglasses, through our cars, through our refrigerators, our toasters and our thermostats. So you see companies – all five of these companies from Amazon to Google to Microsoft to Facebook to Apple – are all putting out products and services meant to establish ubiquitous data connections, whether it’s the Apple Watch or the Google self-driving car or whether it’s that weird obelisk that Amazon’s selling us [the Echo] that you can talk to or use to play music and things. These are all part of what I call the “operating system of our lives.”

Facebook is interesting because it’s part of that race. Facebook, like those other companies, is trying to be the company that ultimately manages our lives, in every possible way.

We often hear a phrase called the “Internet of things.” I think that’s a misnomer because what we’re talking about, first of all, is not like the Internet at all. It’s going to be a closed system, not an open system. Secondly, it’s not about things. It’s actually about our bodies. The reason that watches and glasses and cars are important is that they lie on and carry human bodies. What we’re really seeing is the full embeddedness of human bodies and human motion in these data streams and the full connectivity of these data streams to the human body.

So the fact that Facebook is constantly tracking your location, is constantly encouraging you to be in conversation with your friends through it – at every bus stop and subway stop, at every traffic light, even though you’re not supposed to – is a sign that they are doing their best to plug you in constantly. That phenomenon, and it’s not just about Facebook alone, is something that’s really interesting.

Q. What are the implications of that for society?

A. The implications of the emergence of an operating system of our lives are pretty severe. First of all, consider that we will consistently be outsourcing decision-making like “Turn left or turn right?,” “What kind of orange juice to buy?” and “What kind of washing detergent to buy?” All of these decisions will be guided by, if not determined by, contracts that these data companies will be signing with consumer companies.

… We’re accepting short-term convenience, a rather trivial reward, and deferring long-term harms. Those harms include a loss of autonomy, a loss of privacy and perhaps even a loss of dignity at some point. … Right now, what I am concerned about is the notion that we’re all plugging into these data streams and deciding to allow other companies to manage our decisions. We’re letting Facebook manage what we get to see and which friends we get to interact with.


The old game of labor surveillance is finding new forms

Happy All the Time

As biometric tracking takes over the modern workplace, the old game of labor surveillance is finding new forms.

By Lynn Stuart Parramore

Call them soldiers, call them monks, call them machines: so they were but happy ones, I should not care.
Jeremy Bentham, 1787

Housed in a triumph of architectural transparency in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the Media Lab complex at MIT, a global hub of human-machine research. From the outside of its newest construction, you can see clear through the building. Inside are open workspaces, glittering glass walls, and screens, all encouragement for researchers to peek in on one another. Everybody always gets to observe everybody else.

Here, computational social scientist Alex Pentland, known in the tech world as the godfather of wearables, directs a team that has created technology applied in Google Glass, smart watches, and other electronic or computerized devices you can wear or strap to your person. In Pentland’s quest to reshape society by tracking human behavior with software algorithms, he has discovered you don’t need to look through a glass window to find out what a person is up to. A wearable device can trace subliminal signals in a person’s tone of voice, body language, and interactions. From a distance, you can monitor not only movements and habits; you can begin to surmise thoughts and motivations.

In the mid-2000s Pentland invented the sociometric badge, which looks like an ID card and tracks and analyzes the wearer’s interactions, behavior patterns, and productivity. It became immediately clear that the technology would appeal to those interested in a more hierarchical kind of oversight than that enjoyed by the gurus of MIT’s high-tech playgrounds. In 2010 Pentland cofounded Humanyze, a company that offers employers the chance to find out how employee behavior affects their business. It works like this: A badge hanging from your neck embedded with microphones, accelerometers, infrared sensors, and a Bluetooth connection collects data every sixteen milliseconds, tracking such matters as how far you lean back in your chair, how often you participate in meetings, and what kind of conversationalist you are. Each day, four gigabytes’ worth of information about your office behavior is compiled and analyzed by Humanyze. This data, which then is delivered to your supervisor, reveals patterns that supposedly correlate with employee productivity.

IMAGE:Discovery of Achilles on Skyros, by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1649. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection / Bridgeman Images. 

Humanyze CEO Ben Waber, a former student of Pentland’s, has claimed to take his cues from the world of sports, where “smart clothes” are used to measure the mechanics of a pitcher’s throw or the launch of a skater’s leap. He is determined to usher in a new era of “Moneyball for business,” a nod to baseball executive Billy Beane, whose data-driven approach gave his team, the Oakland Athletics, a competitive edge. With fine-grained biological data points, Waber promises to show how top office performers behave—what happy, productive workers do.

Bank of America hired Humanyze to use sociometric badges to study activity at the bank’s call centers, which employ more than ten thousand souls in the United States alone. By scrutinizing how workers communicated with one another during breaks, analysts came to the conclusion that allowing people to break together, rather than in shifts, reduced stress. This was indicated by voice patterns picked up by the badge, processed by the technology, and reported on an analyst’s screen. Employees grew happier. Turnover decreased.

The executives at Humanyze emphasize that minute behavior monitoring keeps people content. So far, the company has focused on loaning the badges to clients for limited study periods, but as Humanyze scales up, corporate customers may soon be able to use their own in-house analysts and deploy the badges around the clock.

Workers of the world can be happy all the time.

The optimists’ claim: technologies that monitor every possible dimension of biological activity can create faster, safer, and more efficient workplaces, full of employees whose behavior can be altered in accordance with company goals.

Widespread implementation is already underway. Tesco employees stock shelves with greater speed when they wear armbands that register their rate of activity. Military squad leaders are able to drill soldiers toward peak performance with the use of skin patches that measure vital signs. On Wall Street, experiments are ongoing to monitor the hormones of stock traders, the better to encourage profitable trades. According to cloud-computing company Rackspace, which conducted a survey in 2013 of four thousand people in the United States and United Kingdom, 6 percent of businesses provide wearable devices for workers. A third of the respondents expressed readiness to wear such devices, which are most commonly wrist- or head-mounted, if requested to do so.

The life of spies is to know, not be known.
– George Herbert, 1621

Biological scrutiny is destined to expand far beyond on-the-job performance. Workers of the future may look forward to pre-employment genetic testing, allowing a business to sort potential employees based on disposition toward anything from post-traumatic stress disorder to altitude sickness. Wellness programs will give employers reams of information on exercise habits, tobacco use, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and body mass index. Even the monitoring of brain signals may become an office commonplace: at IBM, researchers bankrolled by the military are working on functional magnetic-resonance imaging, or fMRI, a technology that can render certain brain activities into composite images, turning thoughts into fuzzy external pictures. Such technology is already being used in business to divine customer preferences and detect lies. In 2006 a San Diego start-up called No Lie MRI expressed plans to begin marketing the brain-scanning technology to employers, highlighting its usefulness for employee screening. And in Japan, researchers at ATR Computational Neuro­science Laboratories have a dream-reading device in the pipeline that they claim can predict what a person visualizes during sleep. Ryan Hurd, who serves on the board of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, says such conditioning could be used to enhance performance. While unconscious, athletes could continue to practice; creative types could boost their imaginations.

The masterminds at Humanyze have grasped a fundamental truth about surveillance: a person watched is a person transformed. The man who invented the panopticon—a circular building with a central inspection tower that has a view of everything around itgleaned this, too. But contrary to most discussions of the “all-seeing place,” the idea was conceived not for the prison, but for the factory.

Jeremy Bentham is usually credited with the idea of the panopticon, but it was his younger brother, Samuel Bentham, who saw the promise of panoptical observation in the 1780s while in the service of Grigory Potemkin, a Russian officer and statesman. Potemkin, mostly remembered for creating fake villages to fool his lover, Catherine the Great, was in a quandary: his factories, which churned out everything from brandy to sailcloth, were a hot managerial mess. He turned to Samuel, a naval engineer whose inventions for Potemkin also  included the Imperial Vermicular, a wormlike, segmented 250-foot barge that could navigate sinuous rivers. Samuel summoned skilled craftsmen from Britain and set them to the hopeless task of overseeing a refractory mass of unskilled peasant laborers who cursed and fought in a babel of languages. Determined to win Potemkin’s favor, he hit on a plan for a workshop at a factory in Krichev that would allow a person, or persons, to view the entire operation from a central inspector’s lodge “in the twinkling of an eye,” as his brother Jeremy would later write in a letter. The inspector could at once evoke the omnipresence of God and the traditional Russian noble surrounded by his peasants. Laborers who felt themselves to be under the constant eye of the inspector would give up their drunken brawls and wife-swapping in favor of work.

War thwarted Samuel’s plans for the Krichev factory, eventually forcing him to return home to Britain, where, in 1797, he drew up a second panoptical scheme, a workhouse for paupers. Six years earlier, in 1791, Jeremy had borrowed Samuel’s idea to publish a work on the panoptical prison, built so that guards could see all of the inmates while the latter could only presume they were being watched, fostering “the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence” and “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” In America, the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons adopted panoptical elements for the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, adding solitary confinement with the idea of delivering the maximum opportunity for prisoner repentance and rehabilitation. Visiting the prison in 1842, Charles Dickens noted that its chief effect on inmates was to drive them insane.

Before the days of industrialization, employers had little use for surveillance schemes. The master craftsman lived in his workshop, and his five to ten apprentices, journeymen, and hirelings occupied the same building or adjacent cottages, taking their behavioral cues from his patriarchal authority. The blacksmith or master builder or shoemaker interacted with his underlings in a sociable and informal atmosphere, taking meals with them, playing cards, even tippling rum and cider. Large-scale manufacturing swept this all away. Workmen left the homes of their employers; by the early decades of the nineteenth century, the family-centered workplace—where employers provided models of behavior, food, and lodging—was becoming a thing of memory.

IMAGE:Sacks full of Stasi files in the former Ministry for State Security headquarters, Berlin, 1996. © SZ Photo / Joker / David Ausserhofer / Bridgeman Images. 

Proto-industrialists found that their new employees, an ever-shifting mass of migrants and dislocated farm boys, found ample opportunities for on-the-job drunkenness, inattention, and fractious behavior. In his classic work A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, historian Paul
E. Johnson observes that in America an answer to this problem was found in the Protestant temperance movement just then blowing righteous winds across the Northeast. Managers found that the revival and the Sunday school could foster strict internal values that made constant supervision less important. Workers, if properly evangelized, would turn willingly from the bottle to the grueling business of tending power-driven machines. God would do the monitoring as He does it best—from the inside.

Unfortunately, God’s providential eye tended to blink in the absence of regular churchgoing. So in the 1880s and 1890s, mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor displaced God with scientific management systems, devising precise methods of judging and measuring workers to ensure uniformity of behavior and enhanced efficiency. Taylor’s zeal to scrutinize every aspect of work in the factory led to such inventions as a keystroke monitor that could measure the speed of a typist’s fingers. His methods of identifying underperforming cogs in the industrial machine became so popular that Joseph Wharton, owner of Bethlehem Steel, incorporated Taylor’s theories into the bachelor’s degree program in business he had founded at the University of Pennsylvania. Harvard University soon created a new master’s degree in business administration, the MBA, that focused on studying Taylorism.

Workplace surveillance didn’t evolve much beyond Taylor’s ideas until closed-circuit television brought prying to heights unimagined by the brothers Bentham. In 1990 the Olivetti Research Laboratory, in partnership with the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, announced an exciting new workplace-spying project aptly named Pandora. The Pandora’s Box processor handled video streams and controlled real-time data paths that allowed supervisors to peek in on remote workstations. An improved system launched in 1995 was named Medusa, after the Greek monster who turned victims to stone with her gaze.

By the early twenty-first century, electronic monitoring in the workplace became de facto, with bosses peering into emails, computer files, and browser histories. From the lowest-rung laborers to the top of the ivory tower, no employee was safe. In 2013 Harvard University was found to have snooped in the email accounts of sixteen faculty deans for the source of a media leak during a cheating scandal. Global positioning systems using satellite technology, which came to maturity by 1994 and grew popular for tracking delivery trucks, opened new methods of watching. Dennis Gray, owner of Accurid Pest Solutions, could satisfy a hunch in 2013 that workers were straying from their tasks. He quietly installed GPS tracking software on the company-issued smartphones of five of its drivers; one indeed was found to be meeting up with a woman during work hours. In 2015 Myrna Arias, a sales executive for money-transfer service Intermex, objected to her employer monitoring her personal time and turned off the GPS device that tracked her around the clock. She was fired.

Secrecy lies at the very core of power.
– Elias Canetti, 1960

Surveillance technology stirs up profound questions as to who may observe whom, under what conditions, for how long, and for what purpose. The argument for monitoring the vital signs of an airline pilot, whose job routinely holds lives at stake, may seem compelling, but less so for a part-time grocery store clerk. In a 1986 executive order President Ronald Reagan, expressing concern about the “serious adverse effects” of drug use on the workforce, which resulted in “billions of dollars of lost productivity each year,” instituted mandatory drug testing for all safety-sensitive executive-level and civil-service federal employees. A noble mission, perhaps, but prone to expand like kudzu: by 2006 it entangled up to three out of four jobseekers, from would-be Walmart greeters to washroom attendants, who were forced to submit to such degradations as peeing in a plastic jar, sometimes under the watchful eye of a lab employee. Thirty-nine percent could expect random tests after they were hired, as well as dismissal for using substances on or off the job and regardless of whether their use impaired performance. Job applicants often accordingly changed their behavior; one scheme involved ordering dog urine through the mail to fool the bladder inspectors.

At the 2014 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, held in Toronto, participants noticed an unusual sign affixed to restroom doors: behavior at these toilets is being recorded for analysis. It had been placed there by Quantified Toilets (slogan:
every day. every time.), whose mission, posted on its website, states: “We analyze the biological waste process of buildings to make better spaces and happier people.” At the conference, Quantified Toilets was able to provide a real-time feed of analytical results. These piss prophets of the new millennium could tell if participants were pregnant, whether or not they had a sexually transmitted disease, or when they had drugs or alcohol in their system. (One man had showed up with a blood-alcohol level of 0.0072 percent and a case of gonorrhea.)

Quantified Toilets, it turned out, was not a real company, but a thought experiment for the conference, designed to provoke discussion about issues of privacy in a world where every facial expression, utterance, heartbeat, and trip to the bathroom can be captured to generate a biometric profile. Workplace surveillance, after all, is a regulatory Wild West; employees have few rights to privacy on the job. A court order may be necessary for police to track a criminal suspect, but no such niceties prevent an employer from exploring the boundaries of new technologies. History suggests that abuses will be irresistible: in 1988 the Washington, DC, police department admitted using urine tests to screen female employees for pregnancy without their knowledge.

Biosurveillance has strong allies, including its own Washington lobbying firm, the Secure Identity and Biometrics Association, committed to bringing new products to government, commercial, and consumer spheres. The VeriChip, a human-implantable microchip using radio frequency identification, allows scanners in range of the implant to access records and information about a person. It received FDA approval in 2004 (though the company later merged and became PositiveID). In Mexico, eighteen workers at the attorney
general’s office were required to have the rice-grain-sized chip injected under their skin to gain access to high-security areas. One anti-RFID crusader has called the technology the “mark of the beast,” as predicted in the Book of Revelation.

In the film Gattaca, set in the not-too-distant future, biometric surveillance is deployed to distinguish between genetically engineered superior humans and genetically natural inferior humans, who are forced to do menial jobs. We are quickly approaching such a world: employers who are able to identify—and create—workers with superior biological profiles are already turning the science fiction into reality.

Humanyze assures in corporate materials that privacy is a top priority. The names of employees are stored separately from behavioral information, and individual conversations aren’t recorded, just the metadata—a distinction familiar to those following the story of the widespread phone-tapping program of the NSA. Still, it requires little imagination to see how employers can use it for more extensive and rigorous surveillance of individual workers. A benign boss in the present may use data to decide the arrangements of break rooms and cubicles to enhance worker satisfaction and, in so doing, improve productivity. But in the future the same data may be retrieved and analyzed for unimagined possibilities. Observation is versatile in its application. In the face of capitalist demands for high performance and efficiency, abstract ideas like privacy and freedom can come to sound quaint and sentimental.

As optic and electronic watching give way to biosurveillance, the architecture of the Bentham brothers’ panopticon melts away and becomes internalized. The self-watching employee, under her own unwavering gaze, pre-adjusts
behavior according to a boss’ desire. Biosurveillance is sold as a tool for boosting happiness, but it also promotes a particular idea of what happiness is—which probably looks a lot more like workers who don’t make trouble than like squeaky wheels or even like the champions of disruption touted in Silicon Valley. The power to make you happy is also the power to define your happiness.

With his mantra “the medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan stressed that the changes wrought upon us by technology may be more significant than the information revealed by it. Devices that monitor our minds and movements become part of who we are. Back in the Cold War, the Western press routinely derided Communist-bloc news clips of happy workers toiling away, singing songs in the mills and fields. One anti-communist propaganda animation from 1949, Meet King Joe, depicts a Chinese peasant smiling only because he is unaware of the paltriness and restrictions of his conditions. Such promos, perhaps, were just ahead of their time. Modern capitalism is poised to do them one better.

Secrets are rarely betrayed or discovered according to any program our fear has sketched out.
– George Eliot, 1860

Despite its name, a company like Humanyze—which brings forth the next frontier of biometric, device-driven surveillance—can make us less ourselves, more like who we’re supposed to be according to objectives of those who track our metrics. When we can feel, even on a cellular level, the gaze of the inspector, the invisible hand becomes the invisible eye, guiding as it does best, from within. Perhaps we will find true what we once feared: that contented workers are all alike. But so long as we are happy, who cares?

Obama in Hiroshima

U.S. President Barack Obama stands after laying a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, western, Japan, Friday, May 27, 2016. Obama on Friday became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the world's first atomic bomb attack, bringing global attention both to survivors and to his unfulfilled vision of a world without nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

U.S. President Barack Obama stands after laying a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, western, Japan, Friday, May 27, 2016. Obama on Friday became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack, bringing global attention both to survivors and to his unfulfilled vision of a world without nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

28 May 2016

Taking a side trip from a G7 summit meeting in Tokyo that was dominated by US war preparations against China, Barack Obama played the advocate of world brotherhood and international morality at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Friday.

Overshadowing the visit was a muted public debate over whether, as the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, Obama should offer an apology for what was unquestionably one of history’s greatest war crimes. America’s Nobel Prize-winning president and his aides made it abundantly clear from the moment that the trip was first proposed that he would do no such thing.

It is not as if US officials have never acknowledged the criminal character of this closing act of the Second World War, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians, most of them women and children, in the back-to-back atom bomb attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As the historical record makes abundantly clear, these acts of mass murder were not, as the American public was incessantly told, designed to bring a speedy end to the war and “save lives.” Rather, they were carried out with the aim of intimidating the Soviet Union and preparing for a potential Third World War.

Dwight Eisenhower, the former World War II commander and president, acknowledged to Newsweek magazine in 1963, less than three years after leaving office, “…the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

Admiral William Leahy, who was chief of staff to Harry Truman, the US president who ordered the bombings, wrote in his memoir: “ It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons… My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

Obama could make no such candid admission. Instead, he engaged in flowery rhetoric about Hiroshima being a place where “death fell from the sky and the world was changed.” Fell from where? Changed by whom? Questions best left unasked. In a misanthropic address, he stressed that such barbarous acts are really only the product of human nature. “Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man,” he said.

The Second World War itself, he added, “grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes.”

The answer to this “base instinct”? According to Obama, “We must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.”

This deliberate obfuscation, grotesque hypocrisy and potted history of humanity on Obama’s part were not a matter merely of political expediency and cowardice.

If the US president is less capable of speaking one hard word of truth about Hiroshima and Nagasaki than top officials who were directly involved in the war that produced these atrocities 71 years ago, it is because he is engaged in preparing even worse horrors still to come.

Why should anyone have expected Obama to apologize for Hiroshima? If he was interested in contrition, he would have done better to start with the seven countries—Syria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia—where US interventions and proxy wars continue to claim civilian lives nearly eight years after the candidate of “hope” and “change” was swept into office on a wave of popular antiwar sentiment. During that time, his administration is unquestionably responsible for more civilian deaths than those inflicted by the twin atomic bomb blasts of 1945.

The most shamelessly hypocritical section of Obama’s speech at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial was his posturing as a champion of nuclear disarmament. “Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them,” he declared, quickly adding, “We may not realize this goal in my lifetime.”

Given a continuation of the policies pursued by his administration, at least the second part of this statement is indisputable. As for the first, it stands as one of Obama’s more nauseating exercises in his signature blend of moral invocation and bold-faced lying in the service of US imperialism.

As a newly declassified report issued by the Pentagon reveals, the Obama administration has done less to reduce Washington’s nuclear stockpile than any other post-Cold War US president, including both George H.W. and George W. Bush.

Aside from the absolute number of warheads, his administration has embarked on the most ambitious nuclear arms buildup in modern history. It has begun a $1 trillion modernization of US imperialism’s nuclear arsenal that is projected to unfold over the next 30 years. So much for the “courage to escape the logic of fear.” Spending on nuclear weapons is set to double under this plan, even as the government continuously proclaims that there is no money to confront the scourges of unemployment, poverty and misery that afflict ever-growing layers of American working people.

New nuclear-armed submarines and bombers as well as ICBMs and cruise missiles are what the Obama White House is in reality pursuing, along with newer, faster and more usable weapons that make the transition from a conventional to nuclear war not only easier but, indeed, inevitable.

The nuclear buildup is being prosecuted in the context of an ever-growing escalation of US military provocations on the borders of the world’s other two largest nuclear powers, with US troops and antimissile systems being deployed on Russia’s western flank and the US Navy conducting continuous “freedom of navigation” operations in territorial waters claimed by China.

The world is today closer to a nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This insane preparation for mass slaughter is the result not, as Obama would have it, of the inherent violence of man, but of the insoluble crisis of the world capitalist system and, in the first instance, the drive by the United States to utilize military means to offset its relative economic decline and maintain its position as a global hegemonic power.

Preventing imperialism from plunging humanity as a whole into the horrors experienced at Hiroshima is the task of the international working class mobilized in a mass movement against war and its source, the capitalist system.

Bill Van Auken



Noam Chomsky and Joel Bakan on the Psychopathic Propaganda Machines That We Call Corporations

People need to become savvier about the systems we’re creating, more aware of how propaganda works and how public discourse gets polluted.
Photo Credit: photo story / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot by James Hoggan (New Society Publishers, 2016): 

Propaganda is a polluting and polarizing behavior that is arguably as vast and destructive as any other cultural or social forces. What’s more, in the case of modern corporations, deregulation has legitimized the use of unbridled propaganda and created a regulatory, legal and financial system that virtually demands it.

In his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, author, filmmaker and law professor Joel Bakan traced the corporation’s rise to dominance, right back to its origins centuries ago. Balkan illuminated how these juggernauts are required by law to elevate their own interests above those of others and pursue their goals with rampant self-interest, sometimes without regard for moral limits.

After seeing the film Balkan made from his book, I was keen to speak with him. I was interested in his views on the role some corporations play in corrupting public discourse, something I had occasionally seen up close during my career in PR. I asked Bakan what inspired him to write The Corporation, and he explained the project was driven by a passion to inform people about an institution that increasingly governs their lives and poisons public discourse.

The law professor sees the contemporary corporation as a “very strange, potentially dangerous and destructive institution.” Back in the late 1990s he started to observe the power of corporations as they exploded into public awareness, spearheading the development of globalization, deregulation and privatization. Governments began to abdicate much of their regulatory oversight and free corporations from legal constraints. As a result, corporations emerged as self-governing institutions with the single goal of serving their own interests and those of their shareholders.

Bakan’s work does not seek to vilify or analyze the people who run corporations or work for them. He critiques the institutional nature of the corporation as legally created, saying it is an invention that has been imbued with characteristics that, if observed in a human being, would swiftly be diagnosed as psychopathic.

This view initially seemed a little extreme to me, as I built my business around representing successful corporations and never saw anything remotely like this in the companies I worked with. But then Bakan outlined the characteristics of a psychopath: including callous unconcern for the feelings of others; incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; reckless disregard for the safety of others; deceitfulness, repeated lying and cheating people for profit; incapacity to experience guilt; failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior. Looking at this list in relation to the excesses on Wall Street, the guiles and machinations of big banks, the environmental record of oil and gas companies, the misinformation campaigns surrounding climate change and the lies and lack of guilt in the tobacco industry, I began to see Bakan’s point.

“Not only have we created an institution in the image of a psychopathic human being, but we’ve actually conferred personhood on it . . . and as a society we’ve given it immense power to govern every aspect of our lives,” Bakan said. Increasingly, corporations have limited legal obligation to be concerned about the environment but are compelled to do what’s best for their shareholders, whether that means investing to ensure a favorable scientific environment, favorable public opinion environment or favorable political environment so that they can lower production costs and increase profits.

That’s not a conspiracy, Bakan stressed. “That’s just the logical dynamic of a particular institution.”

Corporations do an excellent job of churning out masses of marketing materials that suggest they are doing the right things, but when you look at the actual record, they are not being responsible to social interest, nor can they be expected to be. “How can you expect a psychopath to be self-regulating? The concept doesn’t make any sense,” said Bakan, who calls corporate social responsibility an oxymoron.

I found Bakan’s analysis more believable than the evil CEO explanation or any conspiracy theory. The current system makes it incredibly difficult for a corporation to behave any differently. These companies run on shares, return of stock options, and their whole structure demands they do nothing to jeopardize profits. It’s an oversimplification to turn this fact into a good guy, bad guy narrative because corporations are required by law to act this way.

Bakan noted that some of his best friends work in corporations, and many excellent employees are genuinely committed to social values such as the environment. they want to see their companies doing good things in the world, not causing harm. But when they walk into their offices they are “metaphorically and practically” bound by the institutional demands of their corporations, and that means “social responsibility to stakeholders can only be strategic.” Their critical path must be to serve shareholder profits—that’s been the unique nature of the institution and its legal obligations since corporations were first formed.

Corporations were first conceived in the late 19th century as immensely powerful tools to attract large sums of capital; they created massive projects such as railroads and more recently airlines and the Internet. They were mighty, effective investment capital vehicles, and they were constrained so they would not cause more harm than good. Beginning in the 1930s “there began to develop a robust regulatory system and regulatory state,” Bakan observed, but in the 1980s we began to see a dismantling of regulation, which continues today.

“Now the notion is, Let’s let the powerful vehicle do its own thing and hope it constrains itself…Somehow everything will trickle down and play out, and the market will take care of it so everything will be fine. Well, everything isn’t fine,” said Bakan.

Today’s corporation, as an institution, lacks any intrinsic or internal ability to constrain itself morally or ethically, and Bakan sees this as very dangerous: “If you put blinders on a donkey, that donkey is going to do a much better job of going straight down the street and pulling the cart. But it will not see what’s happening at the sides, and it won’t have any responsibility for that.”

Over the past 30 years or so,“there has basically been a deal, and the deal is that government would become less involved in demanding that corporations be socially responsible, providing corporations would take on the task of regulating themselves and becoming more socially responsible.” It used to be that public laws demanded that corporations toe the line, but now we rely on the private choices of individual companies. Many corporations talk the talk of social and environmental responsibility, but Bakan sees a huge gap between words and action, and said the deal has not been a good one for the people, for the environment or for stakeholders.

Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. of the US State of Delaware has written that corporate sustainability misunderstands Delaware law and that it “is not only hollow but also injurious to social welfare to declare that directors can and should do the right thing by promoting interests other than stockholder interests.”

Corporations are invested in creating a scientific domain that is favorable to them and hostile to those who criticize them. For instance, a pharmaceutical company is legally bound to act in ways that serve its shareholders, and it will naturally seek to shape public perception about science,“to control science for its own ends.”

Bakan observed that public relations machines have worked hard to repress the true nature of corporations and convey the notion they “are just like you and me…warm and fuzzy, like a good neighbor. They are [the] Michelin Man and Ronald McDonald.” Massive amounts of money have been poured into efforts to paint a caring human public face on corporations, to present them as benevolent servants of humanity. “The extent to which this has been successful has been a disaster for democracy and for various values like the environment,” Bakan said flatly. A good example of how companies edit information to promote their point of view was an Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline’s campaign that showed a map that erased about 1,000 square kilometers of islands from the Douglas Channel, in an attempt to make the company’s proposed oil tanker route look less treacherous. This campaign also included the slogan, “It’s a path to world class safety standards and low environmental impact.” In another Enbridge ad, accompanying an emerald-green underwater scene, was a poem that included the lines: “A limitless pool of life/A playground for the tiny and giant things that live within it/And a gateway to the other side.” Bakan commented, while corporate social responsibility in some instances does some good, it is most often merely a token gesture that serves to mask the corporation’s true purpose.

Bakan stressed that because the corporation as an institution lacks any moral or ethical constraints, it is necessary to impose constraints externally through regulation “and find a balance between what it can do well and the harm it will inevitably cause if not constrained.”

I asked Bakan why the public has failed to demand more regulation. “That’s the $64,000 question,” he said, and it has to do with the manufacture of ideology, with the manufacture of public opinion, with the role that for-profit, advertising-driven media plays in forming public opinion, the lack of critical-thinking training in our education system—and all the various ways in which knowledge is constructed in our society. “We citizens have been asleep at the switch.”


Public awareness is seen as a danger by governments and ruling elites, said linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky, one of this continent’s leading political commentators and a professor emeritus at MIT. That’s because it can interfere with the primary concern of business, which is the enrichment of the very rich in the short term. Chomsky explained that an oil company executive, for instance, may be personally concerned about greenhouse gases or habitat loss, but in their institutional world they cannot express that worry or step out of their corporate role. “These are very deep problems; they are institutional, not individual.”

Chomsky wasted no time telling me exactly what he believes is at the root of the problem: “The government is not our government. It is not a government of the people. It’s a government of the overwhelmingly rich, of the corporations and the wealthy. . . . And so it does what they want.” He explained that big business is interested in short-term gain and cares little about what are called, in the economics literature, externalities (consequences that are not part of market transactions). In other words large corporations are self-interested and unconcerned with making a deal that’s good for everyone. For example, a company that manufactures or sells cars is not worried about pollution, traffic congestion, accidents and injuries, said Chomsky.

He noted the financial crisis of 2008 is a prime example of people ignoring externalities. “This [economic collapse] is what happened when Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays Bank and the rest of them made fraudulent or semi-fraudulent [transactions] in the housing market to try to maximize short term gain.”

An effect of this is what’s called systemic risk, meaning the danger that one company getting into trouble can spread and destroy the whole system. In the financial world, systemic risk is not lethal because the public can bail a company out. “So AIG didn’t go bust as it should have, and Goldman Sachs didn’t collapse as it should have,” Chomsky observed. In the case of Earth’s natural environment, however, the risk of destruction is high but an executive with Exxon Mobil or an official at the Chamber of Commerce is focused on short-term gains so externalities are ignored. “And there’s nobody to bail you out.”

“Market systems are designed to create lethal catastrophes,” Chomsky warned. These market systems and structures can be overcome with regulation, government control and popular pressure, in theory, but all of these require a political democracy, and one of the effects of a high concentration of capital inequality is that democracy is weakened.

Chomsky pointed out that the American public favors higher expenditures and efforts to deal with climate change, but that doesn’t matter. “What matters is what the rich and powerful think.” And they are quite transparent in their opposition to such expenditures.

“The American Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby, the petroleum lobbies have openly proclaimed they are carrying out efforts to undermine popular beliefs in anthropogenic climate change.” He referred to the organization called ALEC—American Legislative Exchange Council—that creates legislative programs for states in the US and recently rolled out a school program they call balanced teaching. The name may sound nice, but it means in practice that if a Grade 6 class is given “information” about climate change, that information has to be balanced by “information” about climate denial, which comes out of Exxon Mobil. “It’s like a totalitarian state,” said Chomsky, “It’s a way of ensuring that the public is as stupid and ignorant as possible, and it makes perfect sense from the business lobby point of view.”

I described the Canadian oil industry’s appeal to Americans to buy Canadian oil because it’s more ethical. I explained how this campaign surprised me because it is the message we are used to hearing from the American Petroleum Institute or the US Chamber of Commerce, not something we normally hear in Canada. Chomsky responded that in recent years Canada has abandoned many of its more decent characteristics. “Canada used to be a relatively tolerant, open society and less violent than the US. There’s plenty of crime, but was much more moderate and humane than in the South…. But that’s changed in recent years.”

He believes this change happened, in part, because of the North America Free Trade Agreement, which has brought Canadian and American societies closer at an economic level and increased the power of the corporate sector in both countries at the expense of the general population. “It’s also due to policies which are quite openly driving Canada to the right. Canada has changed in international affairs and many other things.”

When it comes to rancorous debate, Chomsky sees the same pollution of the public square on both sides of the border. “If you can’t answer an argument, shriek. That’s true in corporate relations, true in international relations. Just rant. Call people names. Slander them. Anything to undermine an argument you can’t respond to.” He said there are no magic keys, no simple ways out of such issues, whether it’s slavery, women’s rights or the environment. “It’s going to be a long, hard struggle.”


Despite the structural failings of corporations, Joel Bakan believes change is possible, but the solution ultimately has to come from us: “We need to feel we have the right and the obligation as citizens in the public domain of democracy to do something about this.”

This is critically important. People need to become savvier about the systems we’re creating, more aware of how propaganda works and how public discourse gets polluted.

It occurred to me how wrong-headed the demonization of corporate leaders is. We invented corporations for good reasons—to raise immense amounts of capital to build infrastructure such as bridges, railways and air transportation systems. But we also made them furiously focused on creating shareholder value, and in the wake of the anti-regulation movement that started with Thatcher and Reagan we removed many balancing mechanisms and constraining regulations. Corporate CEOs are required to make money for their shareholders, and if they fail to do so they can be in serious trouble, even legally.

No doubt there are some greedy psychopaths at the helm of a few large companies, but there is a much deeper, systemic problem here. Increasing deregulation and unchecked corporate independence, combined with legal constructs that encourage the pathological nature of these institutions, means they can and must act in the interest of shareholders, sometimes to the detriment of communities and the environment. When things go wrong with products—when it’s found that tobacco causes cancer, or oil and gas are changing the climate, when their license to operate is threatened—they are of course motivated to become skilled at propaganda.

The result is a more corrupted debate, more misleading PR and advertising being pumped into the public square. It can be relentless, not because corporate leaders are bad guys but because it’s systemic, and large companies have deep pockets. By allowing corporations to self-regulate we place them in a position where they may actually have a corporate responsibility to their shareholders to pollute the public sphere. Corporations are motivated to manipulate public opinion and perception because when things go wrong, if they don’t, shareholders may be outraged by poor stock prices or the companies might lose their licenses to operate.



A pittance for Zika, $600 billion for the Pentagon


20 May 2016

As the Zika virus threatens a worldwide epidemic, and large areas of the United States are poised to be hit, the US Congress has yet to pass a bill authorizing the large sums needed to fight the virus and the diseases caused by it.

As the virus continues to spread, however, the US House voted on Wednesday to approve a $602 billion defense policy bill for the fiscal year beginning October to fund the US military. The bill must be reconciled with a version the Senate is expected to consider by the end of May.

Several months ago, the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion to combat Zika, a figure far below what is needed. The House on Wednesday passed a bill to provide $622 million (about one one-thousandth of the military budget) to control Zika, and requires that the funds be fully offset by cuts to other spending, particularly the Affordable Care Act.

The Senate voted on Thursday to pass its $1.1 billion version and proposed to add the cost to the deficit. President Obama has pledged to veto the House bill and has yet to comment on the Senate version.

All of these funding proposals are woefully inadequate to fight the threat of Zika in the US. They express the opposition of the entire political establishment to any serious steps against a virus that overwhelmingly affects the poor and vulnerable. The priority of the ruling class and its political representatives is not the protection and wellbeing of the vast majority of Americans, but funding the gigantic US military apparatus that is deployed throughout the world to prop up dictatorships and to maim and kill civilians.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) confirmed in March that there was sufficient evidence to establish that the Zika virus causes microcephaly, a devastating defect in which infants are born with smaller than normal heads as their brains fail to properly develop. Zika is also thought to cause Guillain–Barré syndrome and other autoimmune conditions that are potentially fatal.

Contraction of Zika is more common in areas that lack sanitation and garbage collection, and have pools of standing water where the Aedes aegypti andAedes albopictus mosquito species that carry the virus can breed. Homes without window screens and bed netting are also at risk. The virus can also be sexually transmitted.

The Pan American Health Organization reported the first confirmed Zika virus infections in Brazil in 2015. About one million cases of Zika infection are now reported in Brazil, which is in the midst of a devastating economic crisis. The number of babies suspected and confirmed to have Zika-induced microcephaly is in the area of 5,000. The epicenter of the Zika crisis is in the country’s Northeast, where 35 million people have no running water and over 100 million lack access to sewage systems.

The CDC has reported mosquito-borne transmission of the Zika virus in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Puerto Rico is reporting about 100 confirmed cases per week, and 945 infections since the island’s outbreak began last year, 65 of them pregnant women. Last Friday, the US territory’s health department reported the first fetus to develop microcephaly, which was not carried to term.

Puerto Rico defaulted on $347 million of its debt payments on May 2. Last year, the government cut $250 million in appropriations for public health, resulting in the closure of hospitals and health care centers and job losses for thousands of public employees. The default will further curb efforts to fight the spread of Zika.

The virus will undoubtedly move north, beginning with the US South. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) looked at 50 US cities where the Aedes and related mosquito species are known to exist. NCAR assessed cities for Zika risk due to temperature, proximity to airports and overall socioeconomic conditions.

NCAR created a map showing potential areas for significant breeding of the Aedes mosquitos throughout the country. Five Florida cities have been identified as high-risk, and cities in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama also have high-risk cities. Many of these areas have low access to air conditioning and windows with effective screens and greater difficulty accessing clean water.

Moderate risk for Zika has been identified in cities as far north as New York City, and as far west as Oklahoma City.

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden told ABC News that that there is a “narrow window of opportunity” to tackle the growing Zika threat. “This is an unprecedented problem,” he warned. “We’ve never had a situation before where a single mosquito bite could lead to a devastating fetal malformation.”

Politicians in Washington, however, are unmoved by the potential social catastrophe. The Obama administration’s efforts related to Zika include incentives for the drug companies, offering them expedited approval of new drugs in return for ramping up their research to develop a vaccine to protect against the virus. The pharmaceuticals have previously balked at doing such research, as it is not likely to bring in big profits.

The Zika virus and its horrifying effects, particularly on infants, are born of poverty and social inequality. They can be fought only on the basis of an internationally coordinated campaign, providing the resources to not only rapidly develop and distribute vaccines to fight it, but to eradicate the conditions of poverty and oppression that cause them to spread.

There are more than enough resources to be used to combat Zika and other modern-day plagues, but their utilization is blocked by the capitalist system, which subordinates all such concerns to the profits of a tiny financial oligarchy and its agenda of war abroad and social counterrevolution at home.

Kate Randall