Trading representation for equality

I would be unsurprised within my lifetime to see Facebook, Google, and other such organizations formalize their positions as pseudo-states, replete with diplomats and domestic and foreign policies. As I was meditating on this, the question of representation arose, or rather, it’s complete absence except to the extent that the organizations deign to give it lip service.

This is a structural feature (bug?) of social media that results from optimizing for equality of experience: Mark Zuckerberg does not see a radically different Facebook than I. Cloud services are technologies that are least amenable to having alternatives for the very rich that are both bespoke and best-of-class. The economies of scale are too large, and so even the billionaires submit to a user experience near-identical, in principle, to the hoi polloi.

Two questions come out of this. First, to what extent is the absence of real representation necessary? Is the uniformity of experience due to the centralization of control in the service of scalability inherently incompatible with the desires of groups and individuals to craft social mediations in line with own desires and values? And if this is a zero-sum game, what would a social media project that emphasized representation at the expense of equality produce?

I won’t attempt to answer either question yet. I will, however say, that the movement towards protocols over products is an improvement, in that, while the lingua franca protocols will prove to be more commonly utilized, they do not negate alternatives that supplement or supplant them. The world of semi-overlapping social currencies explored in Eclipse Phase gives expression to one vision of this dynamic.

Equilibria of Violence

Some have been expressing shock at how little coverage the recent Boko Haram massacre has received in the global media. Many are surprised that a national government which responded so decisively to ebola would present such a relatively tepid response to a violent insurrection situated within its own borders. I suspect  those people are underestimating the distances—geographical, political, and psychological—involved.

[Note that this will not be an analysis of the conflict itself, nor of possible solutions, but is rather a hypothesis that partially explains domestic and international inaction and the implications of that inaction. For something more conflict-specific, I recommend starting with this, this, or this.]

First, geographic. I grew up in Kuwait, and while not present for the first Gulf War, my family was there during the invasion of Iraq. Basra is a two-hour drive from Kuwait City, give or take. 30 minutes from the northern border. In traffic I couldn’t drive across Minneapolis, or Calgary, or Sydney in that time. Nevertheless, the running joke was that “first years and Americans got out”, and after the initial exodus, the remaining expats and locals settled back into their routines of school, work, and everyday life. Occasionally these routines would be interrupted by an unimpeded missile, but even then the pseudo-normality remained. Anthony Loyd describes a similar phenomena in My War Gone By, I Miss It So, about the daily living in Sarajevo during the Yugoslav conflict, and the need to dart across alleys and dodge snipers when going about everyday errands.

These are extreme examples, but when you look at a map of the affected areas in Nigeria, Google Maps has it pegged as a 20-hour drive. That’s equivalent to a north-south trip from Minnesota to Louisiana. For Americans living several states away from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, just how much did that shake up your everyday life? Whereas a potential ebola epidemic in the heart of Lagos? That’s a clear and present danger.

Political distance is about access to power, a group’s capacity to affect power relations. If you’re part of a small Republican minority in a “Democratic” state (or vice versa), it’s unlikely any national politicians, or even many state-level politicians, are soliciting your input; whereas a key demographic in a swing state? They hang on your every word. Why can Saudi Arabia and Bahrain effectively ignore their Shi’ia populations, or China, except in the breach, its Uyghur population? The exceptions prove the rule: until the groups can pose a meaningful threat to political stability, it is costly without benefit to respond to those populations. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith systematized this perspective in their recent book, The Dictator’s Handbook, which I highly recommend.

The combination often get mixed with a potent third, which is psychological distance. This is a completely independent variable, and the maps get redrawn often as the relative weights of kin, shared faith, politics, ethnicity or other dimensions shift in relation to one another. The term, the “Other” is a marker of this distance, an admission of the empathic chasm that lies between two people, or two populations.

Cumulatively, the effects of these three dimensions of removal means that, in the absence of the conflict in question burning itself out, the lack of priority and political will condemns the situation to that of an endemic infection. Wars don’t demand an end by themselves. Americans have talked in stunned terms about the longevity of the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, but consider the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka that maintained itself for decades before finally ending a few years ago; the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, which is no longer as prevalent in the north of Uganda as it had been, but has endured by ignoring the borders of its neighbours. The Naxalite resistance in India and Nepal has roots going back to the 70s, and is anything but resolved.

Bruno Latour, in his paper Turning Around Politics, touched on the heart of the issue when he wrote: “Here is a Copernican Revolution of radical proportions: to finally make publics turn around topics that generate a public around them instead of trying to define politics in the absence of any issue.” The dimensions of distance impede the formation of an effectual public, and what that means at least in the short term is that the system settles into an equilibria of violence. For comparison, you may consider how a state like Wisconsin fails to see any immediate cause for concern in the tens of thousands who have died as a result of clashes between cartels and government forces in Mexico in the last decade. That distance is geographical, political, and psychological, and unless some group arises that is capable of closing the gaps, and barring any significant systems disruption, there is no reason for the violence to disappear. Wole Soyinka, reflecting on the genocide in Rwanda, vows “never again”, but in the absence of a public those  words are mere aspiration, sentimentalist and ineffectual.

Divine Command Policy

I’ve never been partial to the Hegelian nation of nation-specific geist, or spirit, but two recent encounters have made me reconsider. The first was the completion of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, a remarkable book not only for its scope (starting with the Thirty Years War and moving towards the present at the time of writing, the early 90s), but particularly for it’s observation of the dialectic between Realpolitick presidents, as represented most clearly by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and presidents whose foreign policy was value-driven, exemplified by Woodrow Wilson and, at least rhetorically, by Ronald Reagan. The dominance of the latter approach was attributed to Wilson’s and Reagan’s recognition of a kind of moral Puritanism latent in the American population itself, and though the expressions differ (the ethic of isolationism and moral autonomy of foreign nations vs. the ethic of bringing democracy and human rights to the world), the orientation is the same.

This observation was seconded last night, at a panel discussion between retired Foreign Service officers Tom Hanson and Bill Davnie, where they bemoaned the lack of a “concept” around U.S. foreign relations, and the insistence of the U.S. to react rather act to events, and usually in principled terms. The compulsive bilaterism (Davnie’s term) of American engagement with other nations exacerbates the problem, and the overall regression to the mean of U.S. capacities, due more to the “rise of the rest” than any U.S. failings, leads to a world quite unlike that of Kennedy, who offered to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

The resulting policies, foreign and domestic, suffer from the dual failure patterns of selecting one value under which all other values are subsumed, in combination with the inconstancy of which value that happens to be from time to time or between separate policies. It’s the result of a pluralism of “divine command” policymakers.

Divine command morality is the response to Euthyphro’s dilemma (“are the gods good because they’re gods, or because they value the good?”) in affirmation of the first proposition: the gods (or God, in a Judeo-Christian context) are necessarily good; to speak of a separation of God and good, or to say that God represents or values the good, is incoherent and meaningless. It’s strongest expression is given in the story of Abraham, who is willing to obey God up to and including sacrificing his son; the value of human life is subservient to the value of obedience to God, faithfulness to God, as the good, being the only true good. Under American exceptionalism, divine command policy is an approach to policy making that refuses to distinguish “the good” from the political. This can be in actuality, with Bush’s reiteration of America as a “city on a hill” and its opposition to the “axis of evil”, or simply aspirational, as single-issue voters punish politicians who are insufficiently ideologically pure and support those who affirm the pro-life, environmental, free market, human rights or other value that is held as the highest.

The results are disturbing. With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them? America has been exceptional, historically, in that it has had both the geographical removal and the overwhelming geopolitical and economic superiority to allow it to consider collective security and human rights over its immediate political interests. This is the prerogative of a monopoly. European, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern nations, abutting their competitors and lacking overwhelming military superiority, did not have the same benefit, and their diplomatic traditions and political histories have reflected that. This is a general principle, not simply limited to nation-states. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel makes the same distinction amongst businesses:

Google’s motto—”Don’t be evil”—is in part a branding ploy, but it’s also characteristic of a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

However, as we begin to speculate as to the makeup of the world come the twenty-second century (#22C), the kind of guardian syndrome that America has made a core part of its national identity will need to cede somewhat to the trader morality that’s able to understand national interest and a mix of values. The ongoing air strikes against Islamic State means that the U.S. is effectively partnering with Assad and Hezbollah in the west and Iran in the east against a mutual enemy. American political discourse lacks a vocabulary to even talk about this, and as a result, they aren’t. Trader morality doesn’t have to be amoral, but it means knowing the price of one’s values. There’s a facetious dilemma that went around evangelical Christian circles when I was a kid, wrongly attributed to a popular figure at the time, in which the man asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, so then he asks if she would sleep with him for 50. The negative response is then shown as proof that she “lacks values”, but I don’t see that at all. The woman, as opposed to her interlocutor, understood her values and knew where she was willing to trade on them. In this case, she valued financial security more than abstinence; the man, on the other hand, by ascribing infinite value to obedience to God (in the form of sexual purity), was shown incapable of negotiation. America similarly shoots itself in the foot when, for instance, it values cooperation fighting terrorism in the Sahel over anything else; the resultant perceived complicity of America with perverse domestic policies can instead motivate terrorism.

The issue is not about simply changing the actions of leaders, but it’s really about changing national sentiment towards one that can recognize diverse values and the need to negotiate between them. This is also the entry fee for empathy, and a counter to dehumanization, for when you can recognize that values are plural, and have different weights, and that these weights can change, then your models of how they may behave in response to your own actions improve. Whether this can happen intentionally or whether it will take a new Thirty Years War remains to be seen.