Belmont Club

Lost in Face

Lost in Face
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

In the space of the week the dominant public narrative has been forced to endure two major paradigm shifts. The first was the collapse of the Trump as a Russian stooge theme.  The second was the surprise loss of confidence in the integrity of social media.

The Trump as Putin’s lapdog meme took two major body blows: China’s announcement that Pyongyang was pledged to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and the grudging admission the current US administration has taken a harder stance against Vladimir Putin than the previous administration ever dared.  As Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick of Reuters wrote:

America’s most sweeping expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War may have seemed like a dramatic escalation in Washington’s response to Moscow, but the groundwork for a more confrontational U.S. posture had been taking shape for months — in plain sight.While President Donald Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Moscow has dominated headlines, officials at the U.S. State Department, Pentagon and White House made a series of lower-profile decisions over the past year to counter Russia around the world – from Afghanistan to North Korea to Syria.

That was all before the United States said on Monday it would expel 60 Russian diplomats, joining governments across Europe in punishing the Kremlin for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain that they have blamed on Moscow.

These were developments are hard to reconcile with the idea of a Kremlin puppet in the White House.  If this is what Putin wants then the crazy man is in Moscow and not Pennsylvania Avenue.

The other big story was the transformation of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg from figures of myth to near hate objects almost overnight.  “The world’s biggest social network is at the center of an international scandal involving voter data, the 2016 US presidential election and Brexit,” wrote CNET. “No, Facebook, It’s Not OK to Track Users’ Calls and Texts for Years Because They Let You Share Contacts,” wrote Inc.

The social media giant seemed guilty of sins against both sides of the political aisle. “ICE Reportedly Uses Facebook Data to Track Suspected Illegal Immigrants,” said Fortune.   The Verge advised its readers on “how to stop Facebook from looking for you with face recognition.”  Perhaps the most worrisome blast of all was from the Prime Minister of the UK who told a Parliamentary Committee:

People do want to ensure their data is being used properly and that they can have confidence in the use being made of their data.

‘I would hope Facebook and Cambridge Analytica will cooperate fully with the Information Commissioner.

‘Mark Zuckerberg will decide for himself whether he wants to come before the committee.

‘I hope Facebook will recognise why this is so significant to people and ensure that the committee is able to get the answers they want.’

Facebook, arguably one of the staunchest allies of the Democratic Party lost $80 billion in share value overnight by its association with the Cambridge Analyica boogeyman, itself largely a byproduct of the Trump/Russia collusion story.  Meanwhile the the whole issue of user property rights and privacy has opened up via a the backdoor.

With the narrative the past is no guide to the present, especially when it bears no relationship to it.  Many of the news cycles staples will have to be rejigged, reused or just plain forgotten. To the extent this earthquake was a strategic surprise to the media it was the result of blinding itself to obvious developments by an slavish adherence to artificial talking points.  Lulled into believing that Trump could never confront Russia they were caught at unawares when a crisis with the Kremlin came.

The media was still right to say the public is facing major problems.  The catch is the problems that emerged were wholly different from the ones they had anticipated.  Perhaps the clearest example was Russia. After mocking Governor Romney’s fear that Russia could be a geopolitical enemy (because they had to go along with Obama) the media finds itself having to cover a new Cold War for which it is mostly unprepared. “We had a number of crisis management mechanisms that we could use, so the level of predictability during the Cold War was higher than it is now, both sides knew the rules of the game and I’m not sure it’s the case today.”

The public also finds itself unprepared for the shocking level at which the Silicon Valley giants and 3 letter government agencies are harvesting personal data.  Nobody actually knows what to do about it because prior to last week Facebook could do no wrong. Robert Kuttner at the Huffington Post now recommends new laws or imitating the European Union’s General Data protection regulation, enforcing anti trust regulations and simultaneously stopping it from “collaborating with the NSA, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to protect us from Russian troll farms ― and at the same time passing along data on us”.  That will be a good trick if they can manage it because government has become addicted to Big Silicon’s cooperation.

The AP described how the FBI was opted not to hack into the San Bernardino terrorist’s cellphone because they wanted Apple to do it. “Amy Hess, who then oversaw the FBI’s science and technology division, told the inspector general’s office she was concerned that other officials did not seem to want to find a technical solution, or perhaps even knew of one, but remained silent in order to beat Apple in court.”

The public debate is lost nor will it regain its bearings until it stops misleading itself with hyped up talking points of political device.  The problems of reality are hard enough as they are without augmenting them with invention.  The world has drifted out of the familiar old groove into an uncertain new period.  The struggle to understand it has only just begun. Forcing it into old 20th century paradigms probably won’t work.

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For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.

Open Curtains: What if Privacy were Property not only a Right, by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. This book is a proposal for bringing privacy to the internet by assigning monetary value to data. The image of “open curtains” is meant to suggest a system that allows different degrees of privacy, controlled by the owner. The “curtains” may be open, shut, or open to various degrees depending on which piece of data is being dealt with. Ultimately, what is at stake is governance. We are en route to control of society by and for the few rather than by and for the many, because currently the handful of mega tech companies are siphoning up everyone’s data, for nothing, and selling it. Under the open curtains proposal, government would also pay for its surveillance in the form of tax rebates, providing at least some incentive for government to minimize its intrusions … (from a review by E. Greenwood).

Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase “skin in the game” to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them,” he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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