Tuesday, 12 July 2016

41. Now you see me? Now you don't

Somehow this post will link obesity, free trade, drugs, migration, environment, truth finding and Facebook. Or at least that's the very vague plan my fingers seem to have. So let's see how it all works out.

Much is being said about the resistance to globalisation the world seems to be showing after Brexit and in this electoral period in the US.

When understanding major crisis, on top of all the detailed analysis, we should try to step back and look at how this chain is shaking at each level: 

land/food <-> culture/emotions <-> technology <-> economy <-> communication <-> politics <-> ideology, and how they were behaving just before the crisis. 
This is our food chain. Where food and energy comes from (below, above, the sides, inside?).

Now you see me? Feeding with food

NAFTA (or TLCAN in Spanish) gives us a good case study. Back in 2013, and due to the 20th anniversary of the NAFTA free trade agreement, the New York times published a series of articles discussing its impact. Laura Carsen in her articles "Under Nafta, Mexico suffered and the United States felt its pain" and "Nafta is starving Mexico" she makes very interesting points:

Food and Land

  • "As heavily subsidized U.S. corn and other staples poured into Mexico, producer prices dropped and small farmers found themselves unable to make a living. Some two million have been forced to leave their farms since Nafta. At the same time, consumer food prices rose, notably the cost of the omnipresent tortilla."
  • "As a result, 20 million Mexicans live in “food poverty”. Twenty-five percent of the population does not have access to basic food and one-fifth of Mexican children suffer from malnutrition." 
  • "Farmers lose when transnational corporations take over the land they supported their families on for generations."
  • "Government statistics report that 25 percent of the population does not have access to basic food."
  • "Since the 2008 food crisis, there has been a three percent rise in the population without adequate access to food. The number of children with malnutrition is 400,000 kids above the goal for this year. Newborns show the highest indices of malnutrition, indicating that the tragedy begins with maternal health."
  • "The dramatic change in Mexican eating habits since NAFTA is not only reflected in the millions who go to bed hungry. On the other side of the scale, Mexico has in just a decade and a half become second only to the United States worldwide in morbid obesity."
  • "And here’s another part of the history of NAFTA you won’t hear anything about: its role in unleashing the drug wars that have killed an estimated 80,000 Mexicans in the last six years and plunged large sections of their country into lawless violence."
  • "it became much easier and cheaper to move cocaine from Columbia, that had previously been delivered by sea, overland through Mexico."
Mark Weisbrot, for the Guardian's article "20 years of regret in Mexico" claims:


  • "For Mexico, NAFTA helped to consolidate the neo-liberal, anti-development economic policies that had already been implemented in the prior decade, enshrining them in an international treaty." 
  • [] "its growth has remained below 1%, less than half the regional average, since 2000. And not surprisingly, Mexico's national poverty rate was 52.3% in 2012, basically the same as it was in 1994 (52.4%). Without economic growth, it is difficult to reduce poverty in a developing country. "
  • "Interestingly, when economists who have promoted NAFTA from the beginning are called upon to defend the agreement, the best that they can offer is that it increased trade. But trade is not, to most humans, an end in itself. And neither are the blatantly mis-named "free trade agreements".

Both obesity and emigration seem to be raising the question to the world: Now you see me?
Before continuing, it is important to stop: we knew a lot about the Mexican immigration to the US. But did we really understand it? Do we understand TTP and TTIP?

Let's also remember the origin of the Syrian conflict, which I discussed in "Crazy, warming world", citing Timoty Snyder's article for the Guardian "Hitler's world may not be so far away":

  • "During the hot summer of 2008, fires in fields led major food suppliers to cease exports altogether, and food riots broke out in Bolivia, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. During the drought of 2010, the prices of agricultural commodities spiked again, leading to protests, revolution, ethnic cleansing and revolution in the Middle East. The civil war in Syria began after four consecutive years of drought drove farmers to overcrowded cities."
In both cases, rural areas become unsustainable and produced a disconnection of people from their land and unbridled mass migration.

Now you don't. Feeding emotions through information 

The role of the press in many political phenomena is under scrutiny. The press response tends to deny its influence, sometimes not even accepting a catalyst effect and describing its role as simply reflecting what the public is saying.

Emotions and technology

The Washington Post article Facebook’s News Feed and the tyranny of ‘positive’ content by Caitlin Dewey highlights the work of the blogger Max Woolf in analysing emotional reactions to content. One of the his findings is that Fox News content generates mainly angry responses. 

What's interesting about this point, is that this is probably true for both its audience as much as its non-audience: to be angry in sympathy and angry in antipathy with what it is being said. No matter if we agree or disagree with Fox News, it is successfully feeding the public with anger.

In the Utopian world where everything is positive, like the old Facebook world with only the like button, content was skewed towards likeable stories and cat videos. This article ends up wondering how this new information will affect what we see in our feed, following Facebook understanding of what's relevant. This is of course important in the context that increasingly more people are using social media to get the news. The limits of this notion of what's relevant can also be analysed through Amazon's algorithm to build recommendations that are mainly based at our past behaviour or a matching profile, which is a very different experience to a book store when as it is not purposely custumised, we are more likely to end up buying something that was not planned, something outside our bubble.
In a different article "How technology disrupted the truth", Katharine Viner speaks about Eli Pariser's concept of Filter Bubble: 
  • "Algorithms such as the one that powers Facebook’s news feed are designed to give us more of what they think we want – which means that the version of the world we encounter every day in our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs. When Eli Pariser, the co-founder of Upworthy, coined the term “filter bubble” in 2011, he was talking about how the personalised web – and in particular Google’s personalised search function, which means that no two people’s Google searches are the same – means that we are less likely to be exposed to information that challenges us or broadens our worldview, and less likely to encounter facts that disprove false information that others have shared."
It continues to comment about the British internet activist and mySociety founder, Tom Steinberg's plea to Facebook: 

  • "I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory, but the filter bubble is SO strong, and extends SO far into things like Facebook’s custom search that I can’t find anyone who is happy *despite the fact that over half the country is clearly jubilant today* and despite the fact that I’m *actively* looking to hear what they are saying. This echo-chamber problem is now SO severe and SO chronic that I can only beg any friends I have who actually work for Facebook and other major social media and technology to urgently tell their leaders that to not act on this problem now is tantamount to actively supporting and funding the tearing apart of the fabric of our societies … We’re getting countries where one half just doesn’t know anything at all about the other."

What do you see? lies and angles of the truth

Communication and technology

The article continues with the tension within journalism: on the one hand its corruption, it's disconnection to its purpose for the sake of cheap clicks.

"The impact on journalism of the crisis in the business model is that, in chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity, news organisations undermine the very reason they exist: to find things out and tell readers the truth – to report, report, report." 

But on the other hand, highlighting how technology could be the wound that finds in itself the solution pointing out that what was sold as "The Truth" by the press and the authorities about the Hillsborough tragedy would've (probably) been challenged much faster. And this is one clear example of a very old and common practice. 

"It is hard to imagine that Hillsborough could happen now: if 96 people were crushed to death in front of 53,000 smartphones, with photographs and eyewitness accounts all posted to social media, would it have taken so long for the truth to come out? Today, the police – or Kelvin MacKenzie – would not have been able to lie so blatantly and for so long."

Communication and politics 

This article ends up commenting on Zeynep Tufekci argument of the positive and negative aspects of the weakening of the press gatekeepers

"As the academic Zeynep Tufekci argued in an essay earlier this year, the rise of Trump “is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say”. (A similar case could be made for the Brexit campaign.) “For decades, journalists at major media organisations acted as gatekeepers who passed judgment on what ideas could be publicly discussed, and what was considered too radical,” Tufekci wrote. The weakening of these gatekeepers is both positive and negative; there are opportunities and there are dangers.

As we can see from the past, the old gatekeepers were also capable of great harm, and they were often imperious in refusing space to arguments they deemed outside the mainstream political consensus. But without some form of consensus, it is hard for any truth to take hold. The decline of the gatekeepers has given Trump space to raise formerly taboo subjects, such as the cost of a global free-trade regime that benefits corporations rather than workers, an issue that American elites and much of the media had long dismissed – as well as, more obviously, allowing his outrageous lies to flourish."

The other aspect that we will need to discuss in the future is if it is possible at all that a government communicates anything without it being considered propaganda, how a media controlled by corporate power does not fall into a permanent corporate bias and how we avoid technology -that democratises content creation but it is driven by quick consumption of information- becoming a hindrance in truth seeking.

Now I see me and see you

How do we keep our right for critique, for dissent without seemingly "feeding" separation? How do we avoid the temptation of the comfort that the filter Bubble offers in these uncomfortable times? John Cleese argues for humour as a tool.

Transgressing the taboos of the current consensus, both Trump (though taboo discriminatory and xenophobic language) and Sanders (through the taboo "socialist" platform), started to put words in that shadowy space that was unnamed by politics and Americans were silencing with drugs, opioid addictions, suicides and explosions of violence. 

But of course taboos are places of shame and shame is always protected by a layer of anger. It is not easy to touch taboo topics without triggering sometimes aggressive defence mechanisms.

Politics and ideology

With the neoliberal focus on the individual and some sort of faith to a (false) perfect meritocracy, we think if we are worth it, we will succeed, and if we don't succeed then it is because we are not worthy.  The pseudo-solutions come then as self-esteem and self-help books, because our struggle is purely individual disabling at the same time the political through the imposition of TINA (there is no alternative), demonising activism, accusing any collective action of mass, "robotic", manipulated, de-individualised, etc. However, it is ironic that this self-help format, with the appearance of being personalised is produced in mass, similarly to the IKEA furniture. The TINA tyranny, with a freedom narrative, is deeply de-individualising treating us all like a herd that should not think and simply trust technocracies.
Here, there is also a sort of inversion. Dagoberto Rodriguez, a Salvadorian thinker, claims that the poor vote for neoliberal policies, because they eat like poor, sleep like poor, live like poor, but think as if they were rich. In the same way, we can see the rich, eating, sleeping and living like the rich, but thinking as if they were poor. (Pity The Poor bankers, pity the poor rich, it is never enough, etc). I consciously take the following quote out of context: Steve Job's "stay hungry, stay foolish" because I believe in the power of words I have to point out that literally speaking is an unhappy quote that somehow perfectly reflects the sort of ideology that enabled Nafta in Mexico. Better options would've been "Don't feel ashamed of asking simple questions" and "follow your creative drive", probably in snappier forms like "No shame, just create" or "be smart, create".

But also, when there is an inversion when the people holding power speak as if they were in opposition or in the weaker position. It would not be the same to say a person should not hold power from an opposition or minority place as to say it from a position of power (for example David Cameron asking Jeremy Corbyn to resign, or even in the American police narrative when speaking about the tensions with the black community). The former would be freedom of expression, the latter would be overt repression. Early versions of this reversion were already present in John F. Kennedy famous quote "Don't ask what this country can do for you but what you can do for this country". Even if it was taken as an empowerment call, there is already a shift of focus towards the individual and the denial of the need of government action to negotiate, lubricate, organise, make possible what at individual level is not.

Back in the early 90s, Gloria Steinam tried to bridge the gap that the self-esteem approach left open, probably developing self-esteem into the main weapon against the individualist system (the wound that find in itself the solution). She speaks about self-esteem as the one being able to deal with this inner sense of shame but without denying that it is in the outside world where we can find a "chosen family" in which we see others and feel "seen" by others, be recognised and feel free and with whom we can engage in different sorts of collective action.  She tries to link individual and external change without falling into the trap of magical thinking, narcissism and conservatism but rather claiming that the personal is political and the political is personal. She explains that building and supporting the self authority of those with a different view (the one outside the consensus) is the way to truly become rebellious and change and affect the outside world. She argues that external and internal revolutions do not last without the other. You cannot have revolutions with people full of angst. 

In this sense, it is worth reflecting on how the Brexit vote came as a surprise to many brexiters who, submerged in the false security that their feeling of powerlessness gave them, almost unintentionally discovered that individual action counted and could account for a collective action. 

Rights only emerge in the connective tissue of the collective, negotiating these in-between spaces. Without seeing and recognising "the other" and this gap that may seem empty but it is not, willingly or not, we lose our rights and through our rights, our freedom.

In Revolution is in the hands of women and History got erased first at home, I argued however that if a good-enough level of this self-esteem is cherished by our mothers in our early childhood, no big external search of self-esteem will be needed. If actual family history is told and not presented to us as a curated sequence that leaves us feeling inadequate and disconnected from it, no big discomfort will be felt at hearing different versions of History. 

De-individualisation comes with the disconnection with our purpose of being who we are to become what I am supposed to be; the disconnection with our capacity to feed ourselves to become part of a hierarchical chain of hunger where entire countries or sectors in society accept to act like colonies to be extracted of their resources to feed someone else instead; and the disconnection with the other with whom we can jointly get closer to the truth where more than one alternative is always possible.


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