Into The Maelstrom

“I no longer hesitated what to do. I resolved to lash myself securely to the watercask  upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water.”

As with Poe’s protagonist, I have put this off for as long as possible. There will be a series of blog posts about politics and technology. As they are written, links will be added to this page. As I work out what the hell this is all about, I will rewrite this page. But each post will not be edited further.

Current product backlog below.

  1. Cyber Realism
  2. Blind Spots and High Winds
  3. Out Of Our Depth
  4. Life On Mars
  5. What If Artificial Intelligence Doesn’t Take Over The world?
  6. Falling Into Chaos
  7. Fear Of Politics (1) – Techno Techno Techno
  8. Fear of Politics (2) – We Had To Destroy The Polity To Save It
  9. Fear of Politics (3) – Woke In Fright
  10. Generation Games
  11. Family Feudal Firm
  12. Globaloney
  13. The Indignity Of Labour
  14. The Only Game In Town
  15. Broken Windows Theory
  16. Democracy As A Service
  17. Consent – Lessons in Sex and Government from Second Wave Feminists
  18. Jungle Fever – Political Ecology
  19. How To Survive A Robot Apocalypse
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What if Artificial Intelligence doesn’t take over the world?

There’s a lot of concern about Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking over the world from Silicon Valley types. In fact, for some of these people, the threat of imminent AI dominance makes global poverty look like a rounding error. It’ll be like The Terminator but if Apple are involved, the robots will be more elegantly designed (more Cate Blanchette than Arnold Schwarzenegger).

However most of these technologist also want AI to take over the world. Not in the sense of annihilating all humans – just in the sense of solving all our problems. At the moment, AI and Machine Learning (ML) are mostly helping Netflix to serve slightly more entertaining films to us or permitting us to ask Alexa to order a fidget spinner*. However in the future, AI will be driving our cars, doing our jobs, and probably drinking our tea when our backs are turned. AI will do everything. AI will solve everything. Conflict? There’s a bot for that. Death? Sure, we solve for that…

Now this is all awesome yeah? Well, not always. ML is dependent on this stuff called “training data” – basically data that allows the ML to identify patterns that it then models its decision-making on. A lot of that data comes from people. And people can be a**holes. Which means that algorithms can be a**holes too. Racist a**holes in fact. So we may be putting our fates in the hands of entities modeled on ourselves. Does that fill you with confidence?

On the other hand, we’ll get over that, right? There’s an app that fixes racism, isn’t there?

There is a default assumption among technologists that all problems can be solved and that this solution is generally a cool piece of technology. This is not necessarily true. Our challenge is that despite all the neat gadgets, we are basically apes. We have ape-ish desires (for food, sex, love, power, a tribe to be a part of) that we are able to channel into complex, baroque civilisational structures. But we are nevertheless still apes. We solve one problem and create another (we die of hunger much less than we used to but now many of us are obese). Now that we have wonderful communication technologies, we use them to argue with each other in ever more vociferous ways**.

So what if AI doesn’t take over the world? What if it only partially solves our problems but leaves us mired in the challenges of politics, economic inequality, and conflict that we apes have always had? What if it only makes us marginally more efficient a**holes? We will have to do what we’ve always done and sort this mess out ourselves…

*That reference is going to date so fast.

**If you want to see a compelling argument in favour of human extinction then simply visit Twitter.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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ISKO Singapore: Governance

This Friday. In Singapore. We are talking… Governance. Yeah. I know. Delegation. Responsibilities. Policies. Measurement. Risk Mitigation. The whole ball o’ wax.

Details of the event – with more video and content – available here.

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Review: Beyond Belief by Hugh Mackay

Beyond Belief by Hugh Mackay is about religion in Australia – or perhaps “the artist formerly known as religion”. Formal religious observance in Australia has been dropping since the 50s, a significant proportion of the population say they have “no religion” to census survey questions and many of those that call themselves Christian only attend church on Christmas and New Year.

To the devout, this is a problem to be remedied. However Mackay is both a self-described “Christian Agnostic” and social researcher / cultural commentator who has plied his trade for decades. He has interviewed many Australians over the years and takes their beliefs (or lack of them) seriously. The book is peppered with quotes from the interviews and these portray a complex, paradoxical state of affairs – with people sating their need for believing, behaving, belonging, meaning, identity, ecstatic experience, and comfort in a myriad of ways.

The two standout chapters are on the relationship that Australians have with organised Christianity – tl;dr version: it’s complicated – (“Anyone for Church?”) and what the heck Spiritual But Not Religious means (“SBNR”). Richly described and empathetic, they reach into underexplored facets of Australian life.

The later chapters in the book resonate less with me. In them, Mackay discussed the nature of god, evidence for the existence of a deity, and ends by laying out his moral and ethical vision for Australia (the spirit of loving kindness). The agnostic takes to the pulpit. It’s not that I disagree with his point of view. Rather, as he moves away from his field work, his observations become less distinctive and grounds and more Christmas Card. It seems that writers on religion and society are not tempted with the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Instead the serpent offers the Indigestible Chicken Nugget of Theology.

Nevertheless, a book well worth reading.

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Enterprise 2.0 – 2006 rewind

Last week, Jive – the enterprise collaboration software company – was finally acquired. This was announced on the at the annual JiveWorld event – which is a little bit like announcing to the family and friends who’ve come to your 40th birthday party that you’ve just got married to a total stranger in a Las Vegas chapel and they should totally be happy for the both of you.

I do not know much about ESW Capital or the portfolio of software companies that they own but I do know that Jive’s plans for the future pretty much consisted of being bought by someone. Time will tell if the match is a good one.

But that’s not why we’re here. In the wake of this news, James Dellow posed the following questions: “A few people have also suggested that it also flags the end of the Enterprise 2.0 era… If we accept that as true and we held a retrospective on E2.0, what would you say about it? … Or do you disagree – is the dream of E2.0 still alive and well?”

Always being up for a challenge, I went back to the original Andrew McAfee article on Enterprise 2.0. Here’s the opening sentences:

Do we finally have the right technologies for knowledge work? Wikis, blogs, group-messaging software and the like can make a corporate intranet into a constantly changing structure built by distributed, autonomous peers — a collaborative platform that reflects the way work really gets done.

Well the answer to that first question is pretty simple: No, we don’t. Or rather, the technologies that we had in 2006 did not satisfy end users and their needs for collaborative knowledge work. Nor do the technologies we have now in 2017 for that matter. This is partly about the technologies and partly about the users and their expectations but more of that later.

Lets begin by looking at the tech and going through the 6 technical capabilities that made up McAfee’s Enterprise 2.0:

  1. Search. Search on the web is awesome. Search inside organisations sucks. This is still the case. The thing here is that this is not really a technical problem. We have had the technology to dramatically improve the findability of information within organisations for years and the knowledge of how to do so – but we just haven’t bothered to actually do it. This is a problem of ineptitude rather than ignorance. Search continues to be underloved in corporate environments.
  2. Links. Google came to fame with the PageRank algorithm – which dealt with the problems of search by looking at the links between web pages rather than simply the words on them. McAfee’s point is that in an environment where lots of people author content that links to other content, links become better therefore search becomes better. Enterprise information environments are becoming more highly linked – but not through the methods that McAfee proposed. People don’t create documents with lots of links. However data that sits in multiple systems is being linked together – enabling not only better retrieval but deployment of that data in new forms and contexts.
  3. Authoring. If we give people in organisations blogs and wikis, verily they will write lots of stuff in these blogs and wikis. Nope. The vast majority of them won’t. Unless we pay them to.
  4. Tags. And then people will tag their stuff and other people’s stuff with lots of handy keywords. Nope. Most of them won’t do that either. Folksonomies get a reference. Ah the 2000s – such innocent days*!
  5. Extensions. Not hair extensions. Not exam extensions. Not exam extensions caused by hair extensions gone wrong. Instead – “automating some of the work of categorization and pattern matching” through recommendation engines and the like. A decade on, we are just starting to see this become a reality with search-based applications and AI.
  6. Signals. Letting people know what’s going on. With a funky, new technology like RSS. We do that but in different ways to the ones imagined in this article. Email is still… everywhere. Activity feeds became popular in the wake of Twitter and chat has come back in a big way in the last few years (hello Slack). I don’t think we have figured out how to make this work yet.

The article is noteworthy for the lack of any reference to Facebook (founded 2004), Twitter (yet to be launched in April 2006), or even MySpace (founded 2003). It’s dealing with a an earlier set of technologies that emerged in the consumer space and then were used by some inside corporations. A harsh reading (overly harsh) is that it’s already out of date on publication. A more generous reading is that it is an honest attempt to tackle a messy, emergent environment at a point in time. And that’s an inherently risky activity.

McAfee also identified 2 “threats” to Enterprise 2.0.

The first is that busy knowledge workers won’t use the new technologies, despite training and prodding. Most people who use the Internet today aren’t bloggers, wikipedians or taggers. They don’t help produce the platform — they just use it. Will the situation be any different on company intranets? It’s simply too soon to tell. The second threat is that knowledge workers might use Enterprise 2.0 technologies exactly as intended, but this may lead to unintended outcomes. Intranets today reflect one viewpoint —that of management — and are not platforms for dissent or debate. After blogs, wikis and other voice-giving technologies appear, this will change. However, the question remains: Will the change be welcomed?

The first threat proved to be absolutely correct. Most employees just want to do their jobs and these platforms were often considered “extra work”. Where they were integrated into the flow of work, they were successful. The second threat played out slightly differently to how it was phrased here. There wasn’t that much change to be welcomed or rejected.

Some of the more florid rhetoric of Enterprise 2.0 (which in this article is hinted at but largely absent) claimed that these new technologies would tear down corporate hierarchies and reconfigure organisations as kinder places. I don’t think they did. Timing may have been a factor – a couple of years after this article, the US economy nearly collapsed, millions of people lost their jobs, and tangling with your boss wasn’t top of the priority list. But, in general, I think the forces that create and maintain hierarchy in organisations are too strong to be shifted with blogs. On this point, I largely agree with Jeffrey Pfeffer.

Enterprise collaboration has still not been “solved” (see the interest in Slack, Facebook Workplace, the million different ways of collaborating in Office365) and that story feels like it has a way to go. However  the cluster of user generated content technologies that came to the fore in Web 2.0 are no longer where its hot.

The wheel turns – like Gartner’s Hype Cycle, like time eating away at your balance sheet and your technical debt, like the “Settings” cog icon on every bit of software today.

*Apart from the mass terrorism. And the wars. And the global financial collapse.

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Unbelief 2016

Writing the previous post prompted me to consider what had changed since 2008 for belief and unbelief in Australia.

  • Public opinion of the honesty and ethics of ministers of religion has continued to decline to the lowest level in 20 years. The ongoing horror stories of child abuse within religious institutions has taken its toll on trust.
  • I will probably need to read this book.
  • The landscape of belief becomes more fractured – with young people especially less interested in institutional religions.

Overall, every day conflict between different belief groups seems to be low – we do not live in a society riven by sectarian conflict. But we do live in a country with a lot of public noise about an issue that seems to have become a focus for the conflict between identities – marriage equality. The level of vitriol and passion that this topic generates is immense – and confusing. I say confusing because it is not that big of a deal*. Some comments:

  • It seems to have become an identity marker. If you are a progressive individual then you support gay marriage. If you are a religious conservative then you oppose it.
  • Nevertheless, the public seem to have changed their opinion on it from “mainly against” to “mainly for” in the space of a decade.
  • This issue has become highly politicised with the internal wrangling and electoral manoeuvring of both parties pushing it out far longer than it need be.
  • Marriage has always been an important symbol. A symbol for the couple in front of their family and community. A symbol of the connection between the family and the state. It sits at the centre of many things.
  • The focus of religious conservatives in Australia on gay issues (especially any recognition by the state that homosexuality is an acceptable or normal activity) is bewildering to an outsider. The three headline issues for the Australian Christian Lobby (which seems to have emerged as the voice of conservative Christianity in the last few years) are 1. Ending the Safe Schools anti-LGBTI bulling education initiative 2. Preventing from ADF personnel from marching in the Mardi Gras parade in uniform and 3. ISIS persecuting Christians. This obsession is not shared by potential allies – as David Marr’s recent essay on Pauline Hanson makes clear, One Nation voters couldn’t give a stuff about this. To be honest, I just don’t get it. Yes, I get that Scripture condemns same sex acts but why this one above all the other many things that Scripture condemns?

*If gay people can marry then it has no impact on the marriages of those who disapprove. Their marriages are at far greater risk from financial difficulty, neglect and infidelity. Likewise, all states and territories recognise de facto unions – which offer many, if not all, of the benefits of marriage. And critiques of marriage equality don’t just come from conservatives.

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Unbelief – Silence in the Valley of Meh

“I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of ’em. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs. I just like believing them. I like that part. They’re my little believies; they make me feel good about who I am.”- Louis CK

Beliefs matter. Not all the time. And what we say doesn’t always match what we do but our beliefs about the nature of world and our place in shape our actions individually and collectively. Therefore understanding those beliefs – our own and those of others – matters. And those beliefs can be messy.

For reasons that will soon become apparent, I want to hold off explaining my own beliefs.

As far as I know there has only been one book written about unbelief in Australia and that is Losing My Religion by Tom Frame. Published in 2009, I read it over the weekend with a mix of fascination and frustration. The author is both an academic and a former Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force (some of these details matter). A significant amount of research and thought obviously went into this book and its mostly worth the effort. Lets work our way through the content.

Chapter 1 sets the scene. It introduces the concepts of “believing, behaving and belonging” as interrelated and also acknowledges that this stuff is… complicated. Working through exactly what other people belief is difficult business – answers on a survey do not necessarily reflect the spiritual life of the respondent. He’s not impressed with the beliefs of many Australians:

In my judgment, the culturally compliant strain of Christianity promoted in Australian does not compel people to grapple with ideas that will expand their horizons, nor does it oblige them to embrace lifestyle choices that might involve discomfort. Much of what purports to be Christianity in this country is a form of religious therapy whose aim is to make people feel better about themselves or help them gain more enjoyment out of life. The notion that religion is concerned with the reorientation of the world’s power structures, beginning with radical self-denial, would come as news to most Australians, both within and beyond the church. It is easy to be disinterested in the highly self indulgent religion often encountered here. A religion that disturbs individuals and disrupts society never evokes disinterest or indifference. (p. 15)

This chapter highlights the main structural problem with the book (we’ll come to the methodological problem later). The writer simultaneously pursues both social science and also theology. The book seeks to both understand and judge. These are activities that do not sit well together and too often the understanding is curtailed to get on with the judging. For instance, the questions that this passage evokes – How does therapeutic Christianity work? Why are people attracted to it? What value does it offer to people? Why might they see it as superior to more austere or disruptive forms of religion? – are lost. N.B. I often have sympathy with the author’s judgments but their swift enactment makes for a less engaging book.

Chapter 2 deals with definitions. Chapter 3 covers the role of religion and unbelief prior to federation including a lengthy discussion of debates around the role religion was to play in the Constitution. These debates matter because they are often resurrected in present-day arguments as to whether Australia is “Christian” or “secular” country. Chapter 4 continues the historical narrative to 2008, the subtitle being “The decline of religious belief”. The TL;DR version being:

From my own study of Australia’s religious history since 1788, I have come to share Patrick O’Farrell’s conclusion that ‘in Australia … what is most significant historically about religion is its weakness, its efforts to achieve some strength, its tenuous and intermittent hold on the minds and hearts of the Australian people, its peripheral or subordinate relation to their main concerns’. (pp.83-84)

Chapter 5 is an investigation in to the Census data and other data available around religious identity. It’s a thorough review of the data – and while care should be taken in interpreting it all, the overall trajectory is clear: Australians as getting less likely to identify with established religious institutions over time.

This first third of the book is excellent – perhaps because the social science receives more attention than the theology. The next three chapters – looking at the relationship between belief/unbelief and philosophy, science and theology respectively – lean more to the theological side of things. Their focus is ideas. Ideas are important. They matter. But they do not matter as much as historians of ideas think they do. Way back in chapter 1, Frame has cast doubt on the notion that non-belief (or much that passes for religious belief for that matter) is the product of theological reasoning or scientific research. So why expound at such length? One gets the impression of indulgence on the part of the author.

Chapter 9 kinda brings us back on track again. The first half of this chapter is an attempt to gauge what makes up objections to theistic belief by analysing the 500 online comments relating to three articles in the Australian about religion, atheism and agnosticism. The themes identified are unsurprising. Then the author briefly reviews two books (This I Believe and I Believe This) containing the beliefs of 200 prominent and not-so-prominent Australians. These get short shrift which is a missed opportunity. The online comments are likely to be from a minority of individuals motivated to comment on the topic (the small minority of passionate atheists and agnostics), at least the comments in the books emerge from a range of views. This chapter highlights the methodological problem hinted at earlier – the lack of primary, qualitative research. The book is extensive (nay, exhaustive) in its deployment of secondary sources but the voices of everyday non-believers (as opposed to public commentators) are absent. I agree with Frame that the majority of Australians are unengaged with religious institutions. They live in the Valley of Meh. What this book lacks are voices from that valley.

The judge-y thing arises again towards the end of the chapter (“Tolerance or laziness?”) however this is partly redeemed with a spray against ANZAC Day commemoration services (pity Frame if his heresy is uncovered by the NewsCorp inquisition). At the same time, I wonder why this consolatory religion is so very bad.

Chapters 10 & 11 see the return of theology. This time the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are wheeled out along with some local equivalents. I agree with Frame’s labelling of them as “anti-theism” and a discussion of them in a book about unbelief seems inevitable. As Frame has already noted, atheism is a niche activity in Australia so I’m not sure why they deserve 2 chapters.

This authorial choice echoes an ongoing issue with the public discussion of belief and unbelief in Australia. The For God’s Sake debate is an example of this (although any “religious” edition of Q&A will also fit this model):

  • First of all, it’s framed as a debate. We put fighte-, er, speakers in different corners.
  • We pick an atheist (probably a scientist) along with a Christian (a Protestant and a Catholic if you have room), then a Muslim, then maybe a Jew. Mostly Buddhists and Hindus don’t get a look in.
  • We let them have at it while we chow down some popcorn.

This adversarial model works well for the anti-theists (I suspect that Christopher Hitchens greatest fear was not death or disgrace but rather having no one to argue with). But it is also attractive for Christian public intellectuals. They loathe the tepid apathy of the Valley of Meh but debating its members is rather like wrestling jelly. One suspects that this situation is to the benefit of all concerned. Indeed, one reason why atheism seems a bigger deal than it actually is would be that Christians have given it that status. For example, the Centre for Public Christianity has 92 articles on “Atheism” compared to 19 on “Islam” and 8 on “Miracles”. What this conflict does not do is engage with the bulk of Australians beyond providing intellectual spectacle.

OK – back to the book. Chapters 12 and 13 run together and concerned with the role of organised religion in the public sphere and the extent to which that role is perceived as legitimate by other actors and by the public at large. Let me say that here I agree with Frame that religious groups should have the right to contribute to public debate. It is neither desirable nor possible to eliminate religious actors from politics. However politics is a bruising business. And if a religion becomes entangled with politicians then politicians will demand their due. The anodyne civic religion centred on national rituals that Frame excoriates elsewhere is a likely to be a demand of such entanglements.

The final chapter outlines both the trends the author expects to unfold and the actions that the Church needs to undertake in order to be successful. The proposed solutions do not necessarily align with the research in the rest of the book. Frame’s vision for the Church seems to be one after his own heart – committed, intellectual, somewhat austere. However the points where Australian engagement with Christianity have been strong (the late 19 century, the period immediately after WW2) have been marked by the public deciding that the Church gives them something that they want that they cannot get elsewhere (respectability in the first instance, stability and spiritual order in the second). Will the market for austerity be as strong enough to sustain the Church? A doctrinal rigidity appeals to the likes of George Christensen – but then can Frame’s Anglican tradition compete with the likes of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in that respect? Or are other options available?

Now to come clean to my own beliefs. I was raised in an evangelical branch of the Baptist Church in the UK in the 70s/80s/90s. Hence I know my way around a Bible (and I can speak in tongues at the the drop of a hat). I no longer participate in organised religion nor believe in a supernatural god but have many friends and family who do. I do not think Christians (or other participants in organised religion) are stupid. Neither do I think religion is likely to disappear any time soon. People want satisfying answers to where they come from, why they are here, what they should do, who they should be with and what happens to them when they die. Satisfaction with an answer is not related to its truth. I disagree with the anti-theists in that as religions are human creations, they reflect us – insightful, beautiful, confused, destructive. And also worthy of engagement.

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