Cultural critic David Rieff uses my new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmpolitans in the Age of Connection, as a jumping off point for a screed against “techno-utopians” – and, near as I can tell, the very idea of progress – in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. I’m a little surprised that Rieff has grouped me with thinkers like Ray Kurzweil, as I’m far more skeptical of technological potential than he. Then again, it would be very hard to recognize my positions from Rieff’s portrayal of my book.
It’s a bit frustrating that Foreign Policy is releasing this essay (they’ve made it clear that it’s not a book review) six weeks before my book is in print. Unfortunately, you can’t yet read my book and see the wide gap between what I actually say and Rieff’s portrayal of my positions. FP gave me a very brief window to respond to Rieff, and that response runs in their current issue.
If you’d like a better introduction to my work than Rieff offers, Publishers Weekly was kind enough to review my book here. I’m looking forward to other reviews and reactions in the coming weeks.
I spent last week in Senegal at a board meeting for Open Society Foundation, meeting organizations the foundation supports around the continent. Two projects in particular stuck in my mind. One is Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”), a Senegalese activist organization led by hiphop artists and journalists, who worked to register voters and oust long-time president Abdoulaye Wade. (I wrote about them last week here, and on Wikipedia.)
Documentary on OSIWA’s Situation Room project in Senegal, featuring Y’en a Marre
The other is a project run by Open Society Foundation West Africa – OSIWA – with support from partners in Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria and the UK. It’s an election “situation room”, a civil society election monitoring effort that focuses less on declaring elections “free and fair” than on reacting quickly to possible violence, mobilizing community leaders as peacemakers. OSIWA’s method has been used in Nigeria and Liberia, as well as in the Senegalese election where Y’en A Marre was such a powerful actor, as portrayed in the documentary above.
Elections are a moment where civil society often shines. Holding elections has become a major priority for governments, bilateral aid organizations and civil society organizations, and there’s been a good deal of creativity around monitoring elections using parallel vote tabulation and social media monitoring.
But elections don’t always equal development, or even a democratic process. Economist Paul Collier notes that elections in very poor nations often spark violence, and sees evidence that 41% of elections are marred by significant fraud. Elections work, Collier tells us, when governments are evaluated on their performance, not on their propensity for patronage. Citizens need to watch whether governments keep their promises, and oust those that don’t measure up. (See MorsiMeter, developed to monitor the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency of Egypt.)
Last week was a stressful, dreadful one, not just for people in Boston who lost friends in the marathon bombing and a colleague when Officer Sean Collier was shot and killed. It was a dreadful week in Iraq, a week that featured a massacre in Syria and an industrial explosion in West, Texas that killed at least 15 and raises difficult questions about the poor state of industrial regulation in the US.
During that miserable week, I got a piece of sad news: the untimely death of a man I’ve long admired, Scott Miller. As more than one music critic has pointed out in their elegies for him, Scott Miller is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. He led a band in the 1980s called Game Theory which produced four hooky, catchy and deeply strange power-pop/new wave albums, then formed Loud Family, which released seven albums between 1992 and 2006. The Loud Family albums cover an amazing stylistic range, from cheery pop songs to unpredictable sonic experiments, sometimes within the same track.
“Don’t Respond, She Can Tell”, by Loud Family
Miller often answered questions about his obscurity, noting that he’d never set out to make music that would be appreciated by critics and a small army of obsessed fans, and ignored by the wider world. I was deeply struck by a comment he made some years back, answering a fan’s inquiry: “I’m utterly serious about music, I just respect the buying public’s judgment that it’s not what I should do for a living.” One of the many hopes of an age of digital distribution was that artists who produce work adored by a small artist, instead of appreciated by a large one, will be able to make a living. Miller walked this narrow path well before the tools and support systems smoothed the way.
The first Game Theory albums got some college radio play, but by the end of that band, Miller had given up on the prospect of following arty-yet-accessible artists like REM into the mainstream, and stopped editing himself. The result was Lolita Nation, an unbelievably strange and wonderful album that also became legendarily unobtainable. (Amazon will sell you one of the few CD copies extant for about $100, but Scott’s friends are posting links to digital copies of the albums on the Loud Family site. You really should download these, particularly Real Nighttime – perhaps the most accessible – and Lolita Nation – the masterpiece.)
Loud Family took off where Lolita Nation left off, juxtaposing pop songwriting with sonic collage, remixing his back catalog into new songs, snippet by snippet. The six Loud Family albums, especially Days for Days and Interbabe Concern, are near the top of my most played list over the last decade, and often find myself caught between wondering why everyone isn’t as in love with this music as I am, and wondering how Miller persuaded a record label to ever bother releasing it, as it was clear his music was very much an acquired taste.
Not everyone who deserves an audience finds one. Miller turned to music criticism (appreciation, really) in recent years, and his book “Music: What Happened?” introduced me to other bands who’ve become favorites, like Thin White Rope, whose remarkable lead singer, Guy Kyser, now studies invasive plants at UC Davis. Kyser and Miller are two in a very special class of artists – visible enough that you might discover them and have their work change your life without knowing them personally, but invisible enough that they need day jobs. Finding an artist like this is a special gift, a treasure you share with friends you trust enough to believe they might “get it”, a secret handshake, not a badge.
Miller, like most professional musicians, didn’t make much money, and his friends have set up a scholarship fund for his two daughters, open to contributions from his fans. The Onion’s A/V Club has a particularly good remembrance of Scott Miller, including three music videos. Rest in peace, Scott, and thanks for the music.
This is a hard day to write about issues other than sudden, unexpected disasters – the bombing in Boston, the earthquake in Iran – and horrific ongoing disasters of continuing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But I’ve been trying to get my head around a complicated situation in Bangladesh that’s become very dangerous for bloggers and activists in that country: the aftermath of the Shahbagh protests and the arrest of Bangladeshi bloggers for alleged atheism.
Some background: When Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971, the Pakistani Army violently attempted to prevent “East Pakistan”‘s breakaway, killing anywhere between 300,000 and 3 million Bangladeshis, raping hundreds of thousands of women and targeting intellectual and potential political leaders. In 2009, under a secular government in Bangladesh, the country began an international crimes tribunal, prosecuting local collaborators with the Pakistani Army, who include leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the nation.
The court convicted Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary general of Jamaat, of war crimes in February 2013 and sentenced him to life in prison. Many Bangladeshis were dissatisfied with this sentence and demanded capital punishment. On February 6, demonstrators began occupying Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka to demand Molla’s execution.
Bloggers and online activists were prominent in urging people to take to the streets, where the protests expanded beyond demands for punishment and into a call to oppose political Islam. Supporters of Molla’s party reacted with counter-demonstrations. CLashes between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators killed at least four and injured over a thousand.
A Bangladeshi blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, who wrote under the pen name “Thaba Baba (Captain Claw)” had written about war crimes for years and was active in calling for the Shahbagh protests. The 26 year-old was brutally murdered near his home on February 15th. Bloggers speculate that he was killed by Islamists, as his laptop was left at the scene of the crime, implying he wasn’t a mugging victim.
As protests continued, Islamists groups argued that the bloggers helping instigate the protests were anti-Islamic, anti-social and atheistic and demanded their arrest and prosecution. The Bangladeshi government responded by founding a committee to track anti-Islamic activity on Facebook and other online media. On April 1st, the police arrested three bloggers for their alleged “derogatory content”.
Global Voices, Reporters Without Borders and others have condemned these arrests, but arrests continue, most recently targeting Asif Mohiuddin, whose blog has been banned, and who was stabbed by Islamists in January, before protests began – his arraignment was scheduled for yesterday. We understand that Bangladeshi bloggers are terrified of arrest or assault, and some have gone into hiding.
The invisibility of this story in international media is making the prosecution of bloggers and activists possible – with international attention, it is possible the Bangladeshi government would be less likely to cooperate with demands to prosecute activists for alleged atheism, which isn’t a crime under Bangladesh’s constitution. If you can help by calling attention to the story, particularly by pitching it to reporters who cover international news, Global Voices would appreciate your help.
I’m in Dakar, Senegal this week for a meeting of Open Society Foundation’s Global Board, along with the boards of our four African foundations (East Africa, West Africa, Southern Africa, South Africa). The formal meetings begin today, but for the past two days, we’ve been visiting grantees and projects in Senegal, including an ambitious election-monitoring project called “The Situation Room” and a set of projects underway across the country.
Yesterday, I visited a group called Y’en a Marre, a truly impressive collective of rappers and journalists who have turned their frustration with Senegal’s development and politics into mobilization of the nation’s youth. They claim responsibility for mobilizing 300,000 young voters, a massive number in a country of fewer than 13 million citizens. We heard from three of the group’s founders both about their work to register and turn out young voters, and their efforts to hold the new Senegalese government accountable to their campaign promises.
After their formal presentation, I got the chance to talk with Thiat, one of the most influential rappers on Senegal’s music scene. (I’d been told by fans of Senegalese hiphop to look for tracks by “Junior”. I asked Thiat and his friends about whether they recorded with this guy, Junior, and one of Thiat’s crew just pointed a finger towards him. “Thiat” means “Junior” in Wolof, and he explained – bluntly, if immodestly – that he would draw at least twice as many youth to a concert as Senegalese stars known in the west like Darra J.) I’d been impressed by Thiat’s passion about social issues, and I learned that his musical impact may be as impressive – Y’en a Marre is planning collaborations with M1 of Dead Prez, Talib Kweli and, possibly, Mos Def. Thiat hopes that Kweli and M1 will be willing to offer verses in Wolof, while Thiat and his crew will offer English verses.
There’s some information on Y’en a Marre’s musical and social impact online in English – a good story in the New York Times, and an excellent, in-depth piece in Africa is a Country. I was happy to see an article on the French-language Wikipedia, but sad that there wasn’t one in English. So I banged one out, and the text I posted last night follows below. Please feel free to fix it up if you have a chance.
“Y’en a Marre” (“Fed Up”) is a group of Senegalese rappers and journalists, created in January 2011, to protest ineffective government and register youth to vote. They are credited with helping to mobilize Senegal’s youth vote and oust incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, though the group claims no affiliation with Macky Sall, Senegal’s current president, or with any political party.
The group was founded by rappers Fou Malade (“Crazy Sick Guy”, real name: Malal Talla), Thiat (“Junior”, real name: Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré), Kilifeu (real name: Mbess Seck. Both Thiat and Kilifeu are from celebrated rap crew “Keur Gui of Kaolack”) and journalists Sheikh Fadel Barro, Aliou Sane and Denise Sow. The movement was originally started in reaction to Dakar’s frequent power cuts, but the group quickly concluded that they were “fed up” with an array of problems in Senegalese society.
Through recordings, rallies and a network of hundreds of regional affiliates, called “the spirit of Y’en a Marre”, the group advocates for youth to embrace a new type of thinking and living termed “The New Type of Senegalese” or NTS. In late 2011, the collective released a compilation titled “Y’en A Marre”, from which the single “Faux! Pas Forcé” emerged as a rallying cry for youth frustrated with President Wade and his son and presumed successor. They followed with a single, “Doggali” (“Let’s finish”), which advocated for cleansing the coutry of Wade and son.
The group and their members campaigned door to door to register young Senegalese to vote and claim that more than 300,000 voters were registered with Y’en a Marre’s assistance and urging. On February 16, 2012, three of the group’s founders were arrested for helping to organize a sit-in at Dakar’s Obelisk Square. Despite arrests, the group continued to organize protests up until the election that unseated Wade.
Despite reaching the goal of ousting Wade, Y’en a Marre remains active, hosting meetings and shows, urging the new government to implement promised reforms, including reforms of land ownership, a key issue for Senegal’s rural poor.
Y’en a Marre is particularly significant in Senegalese politics, because in his 2000 campaign, Abdoulaye Wade prominently featured the support of Senegalese rappers as a way of connecting with young voters. 12 years later, Y’en a Marre demonstrated that Senegal’s youth were not unquestioningly loyal to Wade and were searching for a leader who could credibly promise reform.
Bruce Schneier is one of the world’s leading cryptographers and theorists of security. Jonathan Zittrain is a celebrated law professor, theorist of digital technology and wonderfully performative lecturer. The two share a stage at Harvard Law School’s Langdell Hall. JZ introduces Bruce as the inventor of the phrase “security theatre”, author of a leading textbook on cryptography and subject of a wonderful internet meme.
The last time the two met on stage, they were arguing different sides of an issue – threats of cyberwar are grossly exaggerated – in an Oxford-style debate. Schneier was baffled that, after the debate, his side lost. He found it hard to believe that more people thought that cyberwar was a real threat than an exaggeration, and realized that there is a definitional problem that makes discussing cyberwar challenging.
Schneier continues, “It used to be, in the real world, you judged the weaponry. If you saw a tank driving at you, you know it was a real war because only a government could buy a tank.” In cyberwar, everyone uses the same tools and tactics – DDoS, exploits. It’s hard to tell if attackers are governments, criminals or individuals. You could call almost anyone to defend you – the police, the government, the lawyers. You never know who you’re fighting against, which makes it extremely hard to know what to defend. “And that’s why I lost”, Schneier explains – if you use a very narrow definition of cyberwar, as Schneier did, cyberwar threats are almost always exaggerated.
Zittrain explains that we’re not debating tonight, but notes that Schneier appears already to be conceding some ground in using the word “weapon” to explore digital security issues. Schneier’s new book is not yet named, but Zittrain suggests it might be called “Be afraid, be very afraid,” as it focuses on asymmetric threats, where reasonably technically savvy people may not be able to defend themselves.
Schneier explains that we, as humans, accept a certain amount of bad action in society. We accept some bad behavior, like crime, in exchange for some flexibility in terms of law enforcement. If we worked for a zero murder rate, we’d have too many false arrests, too much intrusive security – we accept some harm in exchange for some freedom. But Bruce explains that in the digital world, it’s possible for bad actors to do asymmetric amounts of harm – one person can cause a whole lot of damage. As the amount of damage a bad actor can create, our tolerance for bad actors decreases. This, Bruce explains, is the weapon of mass destruction debate – if a terrorist can access a truly deadly bioweapon, perhaps we change our laws to radically ratchet up enforcement.
JZ offers a summary: we can face doom from terrorism or doom from a police state. Bruce riffs on this: if we reach a point where a single bad actor can destroy society – and Bruce believes this may be possible – what are the chances society can get past that moment. “We tend to run a pretty wide-tail bell curve around our species.”
Schneier considers the idea that attackers often have a first-mover advantage. While the police do a study of the potentials of the motorcar, the bank robbers are using them as getaway vehicles. There may be a temporal gap when the bad actors can outpace the cops, and we might imagine that gap being profoundly destructive at some point in the near future.
JZ wonders whether we’re attributing too much power to bad actors, implicitly believing they are as powerful as governments. But governments have the ability to bring massive multiplier effects into play. Bruce concedes that his is true in policing – radios have been the most powerful tool for policing, bringing more police into situations where the bad guys have the upper hand.
Bruce explains that he’s usually an optimist, so it’s odd to have this deeply pessimistic essay out in the world. JZ notes that there are other topics to consider: digital feudalism, the topic of Bruce’s last book, in which corporate actors have profound power over our digital lives, a subject JZ is also deeply interested in.
Expanding on the idea of digital feudalism, Bruce explains that if you pledge you allegiance to an internet giant like Apple, your life is easy, and they pledge to protect you. Many of us pledge allegiance to Facebook, Amazon, Google. These platforms control our data and our devices – Amazon controls what can be in your Kindle, and if they don’t like your copy of 1984, they can remove it. When these feudal lords fight, we all suffer – Google Maps disappear from the iPad. Feudalism ended as nation-states rose and the former peasants began to demand rights.
JZ suggests some of the objections libertarians usually offer to this set of concerns. Isn’t there a Chicken Little quality to this? Not being able to get Google Maps on your iPad seems like a “glass half empty” view given how much technological process we’ve recently experienced. Bruce offers his fear that sites like Google will likely be able to identify gun owners soon, based on search term history. Are we entering an age where the government doesn’t need to watch you because corporations are already watching so closely? What happens if the IRS can decide who to audit based on checking what they think you should make in a year and what credit agencies know you’ve made? We need to think this through before this becomes a reality.
JZ leads the audience through a set of hand-raising exercises: who’s on Facebook, who’s queasy about Facebook’s data policies, and who would pay $5 a month for a Facebook that doesn’t store your behavioral data? Bruce explains that the question is the wrong one; it should be “Who would pay $5 a month for a secure Facebook where all your friends are over on the insecure one – if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t hear about parties, you don’t see your friends, you don’t get laid.”
Why would Schneier believe governments would regulate this space in a helpful way, JZ asks? Schneier quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. – the arc of history is long but bends towards justice. It will take a long time for governments to figure out how to act justly in this space, perhaps a generation or two, Schneier argues that we need some form of regulation to protect against these feudal barons. As JZ translates, you believe there needs to be a regulatory function that corrects market failures, like the failure to create a non-intrusive social network… but you don’t think our current screwed-up government can write these laws. So what do we do now?
Schneier has no easy answer, noting that it’s hard to trust a government that breaks its own laws, surveilling its own population without warrant or even clear reason. But he quotes a recent Glenn Greenwald piece on marriage equality, which notes that the struggle for marriage equality seemed impossible until about three months ago, and now seems almost inevitable. In other words, don’t lose hope.
JZ notes that Greenwald is one of the people who’s been identified as an ally/conspirator to Wikileaks, and one of the targets of a possible “dirty tricks” campaign by H.B. Gary, a “be afraid, be very afraid” security firm that got p0wned by Anonymous. Schneier is on record as being excited about leaking – JZ wonders how he feels about Anonymous.
Schneier notes how remarkable it is that a group of individuals started making threats against NATO. JZ finds it hard to believe that Schneier would take those threats seriously, noting that Anon has had civil wars where one group will apologize that their servers have been compromised and should be ignored as they’re being hacked by another faction – how can we take threats from a group like that seriously? Schneier notes that a non-state, decentralized actor is something we need to take very seriously.
The conversation shifts to civil disobedience in the internet age. JZ wonders whether Schneier believes that DDoS can be a form of protest, like a sit in or a picket line. Schneier explains that you used to be able to tell by the weaponry – if you were sitting in, it was a protest. But there’s DDoS extortion, there’s DDoS for damage, for protest, and because school’s out and we’re bored. Anonymous, he argues, was engaged in civil disobedience and intentions matter.
JZ notes that Anonymous, in their very name, wants civil disobedience without the threat of jail. But, to be fair, he notes that you don’t get sentenced to 40 years in jail for sitting at a lunch counter. Schneier notes that we tend to misclassify cyber protest cases so badly, he’d want to protest anonymously too. But he suggests that intentions are at the heart of understanding these actions. It makes little sense, he argues, that we prosecute murder and attempted murder with different penalties – if the intention was to kill, does it matter that you are a poor shot?
A questioner in the audience asks about user education: is the answer to security problems for users to learn a security skillset in full? Zittrain notes that some are starting to suggest internet driver’s licenses before letting users online. Schneier argues that user education is a cop-out. Security is interconnected – in a very real way, “my security is a function of my mother remembering to turn the firewall back on”. These security holes open because we design crap security. We can’t pop up incomprehensible warnings that people will click through. We need systems that are robust enough to deal with uneducated users.
Another questioner asks what metaphors we should use to understand internet security – War? Public health? Schneier argues against the war metaphor, because in wars we sacrifice anything in exchange to win. Police might be a better metaphor, as we put checks on their power and seek a balance between freedom and control of crime. Biological metaphors might be even stronger – we are starting to see thinking about computer viruses influencing what we know about biological viruses. Zittrain suggests that an appropriate metaphor is mutual aid: we need to look for ways we can help each other out under attack, which might mean building mobile phones that are two way radios which can route traffic independent of phone towers. Schneier notes that internet as infrastructure is another helpful metaphor – a vital service like power or water we try to keep accessible and always flowing.
A questioner wonders whether Schneier’s dissatisfaction with the “cyberwar” metaphor comes from the idea that groups like anonymous are roughly organized groups, not states. Schneier notes that individuals are capable of great damage – the assassination of a Texas prosecutor, possibly by the Aryan Brotherhood – but we treat these acts as crime. Wars, on the other hand, are nation versus nation. We responded to 9/11 by invading a country – it’s not what the FBI would have done if they were responding to it. Metaphors matter.
I had the pleasure of sitting with Willow Brugh, who did a lovely Prezi visualization of the talk – take a look!