Closing In on the Last Sacred Thing

According to Gallup the U.S. military enjoys the highest public confidence among American institutions.  The controversy arising from President Trump's handling of casualties returned from Africa may change that.  Coming on the heels of the discredit of other institutions, the impending dust-up depressingly recalls Ian Fleming's adage: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action”. But New Yorker's Masha Gessen's response to John Kelly's defense of President Trump is blithe and illustrates the tone the debate may take.

Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination—all you have to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like ...

Not only was he claiming that the President, communicating with a citizen in his official capacity, had a right to confidentiality—he was claiming that this right was “sacred.” Indeed, Kelly seemed to say, it was the last sacred thing in this country. He rattled off a litany of things that had lost their sanctity: women, life, religion, Gold Star families.

It will be as poisonous as everything else.  Discourse is now no-holds-barred. Some of this toxic atmosphere is allegedly the work of Vladimir Putin, whose trolls impersonated activists on both sides to stir up trouble. The left-wing Mother Jones describes troll factories that "spent about $2.3 million during the 2016 election cycle to meddle in US politics, paying the salaries of 90 'US desk' employees who helped wage disinformation campaigns via social media that reached millions of Americans. The operation also contacted US activists directly and offered them thousands of dollars to organize protests on divisive issues, including race relations."

Such piddling amounts would have been rounding errors without the giant amplifier created by Silicon Valley itself. The Kremlin was astonished by what could be achieved with their meager budgets. "In spring 2015 [they] held an experiment to see if they could successfully organize a live event in the US from behind their computer screens in St. Petersburg. They did this by targeting New Yorkers on Facebook and attempting to lure them to a specific event where they would receive a free hot dog. There were no actual hot dogs, but enough people showed up at the specified location to make the agency deem the experiment a success."

Fake hotdogs, deluded activists, big results. It was as if the impecunious Russians had found the secret thermal port that led to the reactor spaces of the media Death Star and sent a bomb down it. The mesh topology of social media connections allowed ideas to propagate very quickly.  Business Insider illustrated how trending ideas spread using tools like Google Ripple.  These moved with the speed of a runaway pandemic.  They'll move even faster in the future.  Silicon Valley is in the midst of building an even bigger monster machine.  Steve Kovach describes Google's project to create a herd of Trojan Horses to get inside every aspect of your life. "Google’s hardware division will be used to sneak the company’s AI technology into everything" you touch.

All of Google’s new products incorporate its AI technologies in one way or another. For example, Google Clips, its new camera, uses AI to monitor what’s happening around it to determine the best time to take short video clips. It then transfers those clips to Google Photos, the company’s photo storage service, which offers image recognition that’s constantly improving thanks to machine learning.

Google’s also stuffed its AI into its new Pixel Buds, its wireless earbuds that can translate languages in real time, like something you’d see on “Star Trek.” And it’s built Assistant into many of its other new products, including the Pixel 2 phones, its new Home speakers, and its Pixelbook laptop.

No one anticipated this all-powerful network could be potentially hijacked by actors like Putin or even spontaneously taken over by information storms such as toppled  Harvey Weinstein. Franklin Foer, author of A World Without a Mind, was one Cassandra and describes how Silicon Valley is only now belatedly realizing it may have created a Frankenstein monster.

Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter have been called to give sworn public testimony before a US congressional panel early next month about what happened on their platforms in the run-up to the presidential election, now almost a year ago. The companies have also been approached by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating alleged ties between Russia and the Donald Trump presidential campaign.

For all the repercussions of Trump’s presidency, among the most surprising may be the hostile scrutiny that has sprung up of America’s star-dusted tech companies, as awareness dawns of how Russia took advantage of the companies’ platforms – and their highly profitable obsessions with targeting individuals and content sharing, minus oversight – to elevate Trump and attack Hillary Clinton.

“They’re being rattled in a way in which they’ve never been rattled,” said Franklin Foer, whose new book, World Without Mind: the Existential Threat of Big Tech, can be read as an uncanny prophecy of big tech’s public reckoning. Speaking on the phone from Washington DC, Foer said it would be a mistake to think the federal government was hitting the companies yet “with its heaviest blows”.

Progressives are now trying to rein in their runaway train by advocating censorship, much to the amusement of  China. "In the United States, some of the world’s most powerful technology companies face a rising pressure to do more to fight false information and stop foreign infiltration. China, however, has watchdogs."  By destroying privacy, the masters have created a giant bomb that threatens to blow up in their face.  Putin may have already anticipated this and lit the fuse.

The conventional wisdom is that Putin's information ops were meant to benefit Trump. But the record shows the Kremlin backed both sides.  An even more devastating strategy was to destroy political discourse -- and freedom -- itself.  A network  flooded with spurious messages ("fake news") will tend to zero trust operating on the principle “never trust, always verify.” Eventually "micro-segmentation and granular perimeters" -- the echo chambers  and conspiracy circles so familiar today -- will emerge and paralyze action.  Foer writes how "the tide had turned so quickly. The biggest problem is that Facebook and Google are these giant feedback loops that give people what they want to hear. And when you use them in a world where your biases are being constantly confirmed, you become susceptible to fake news, propaganda, demagoguery."

In the Gold Star controversy, the social networks are embarked on the ruin of the last sacred thing. In the greatest of ironies, free speech may find its final resting place in the coffins of American soldiers and the cemetery paved over by a new facility dedicated to the fact-checkers, America's equivalent of China's envied watchdogs.

Perhaps it is the old familiar tale of hubris, of an arrogant elite outsmarting itself. They thought technology would make  them gods. But technology didn't get the word.

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The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel P. Huntington. The classic study of post-Cold War international relations, more relevant than ever in the post-9/11 world.

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