From NYR Daily, 13th September 2018
“This summer, the fifth anniversary of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance passed quietly, adrift on a tide of news that now daily sweeps the ground from under our feet. It has been a long five years, and not a period marked by increased understanding, transparency, or control of our personal data. In these years, we’ve learned much more about how Big Tech was not only sharing data with the NSA but collecting vast troves of information about us for its own purposes. And we’ve started to see the strategic ends to which Big Data can be put. In that sense, we’re only beginning to comprehend the full significance of Snowden’s disclosures.”
From nybooks.com, March 21st 2018
Apparently, the age of the old-fashioned spook is in decline. What is emerging instead is an obscure world of mysterious boutique companies specializing in data analysis and online influence that contract with government agencies. As they say about hedge funds, if the general public has heard their names that’s probably not a good sign. But there is now one data analysis company that anyone who pays attention to the US and UK press has heard of: Cambridge Analytica. Representatives have boasted that their list of past and current clients includes the British Ministry of Defense, the US Department of Defense, the US Department of State, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and NATO. Nevertheless, they became recognized for just one influence campaign: the one that helped Donald Trump get elected president of the United States. The kind of help the company offered has since been the subject of much unwelcome legal and journalistic scrutiny.
From The New York Review of Books. April 5th 2018
The big Silicon Valley technology companies have long been viewed by much of the American public as astonishingly successful capitalist enterprises operated by maverick geniuses. The largest among them—Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google (the so-called Big Five)—were founded by youthful and charismatic male visionaries with signature casual wardrobes: the open-necked blue shirt, the black polo-neck, the marled gray T-shirt and hoodie. These founders have won immense public trust in their emergent technologies, from home computing to social media to the new frontier, artificial intelligence. Their companies have seemed to grow organically within the flourishing ecology of the open Internet.
Transparency and accountability are essential virtues in a democracy, but they’re clearly not as viscerally appealing or as thrilling as their opposites, secrecy and impunity. The intelligence operative—especially the rogue spy flouting the law, from James Bond to Jason Bourne—is one of the most glamorized figures in the fiction and movies of postwar America. In Errol Morris’s new series, Wormwood, which blends documentary with dramatic reconstructions, he sets out to explore an episode in the history of US intelligence that is irresistibly sensational, the CIA’s cold war “mind control” program of the 1950s and 1960s. Code-named MK-ULTRA, the program involved agents experimenting with methods for gaining full control of a person’s thoughts and behavior using LSD, hypnosis, electric shocks, and other bizarre means—the films The Ipcress File (1965) and The Parallax View (1974) show cool, stylized versions. The thesis offered by Wormwood’s principal subjects is that, during the same period, the CIA ran an authorized, extrajudicial execution program of dissenting agents who were active in the agency’s secret operations.
From NYR Daily, May 12th 2017
“The sixteenth century boxwood miniatures currently exhibited at the Cloisters—thought to be in large part the work of a single individual in the Netherlands—are so breathtakingly intricate, the minuscule scenes in prayer beads and altarpieces rendered so exquisitely, that any viewer should be prepared to gasp, “How did they do it? The tiny little sheep! The tiny little angels! The tiny little spears no thicker than horse hairs! Elaborate gothic reliefs shrunk to the size of walnuts!” The exhibition plays to this sense of wonder but also reveals, after centuries, the secrets of their seemingly miraculous creation. Nonetheless, these diminutive objects have an impact for which the viewer who expects merely to marvel at technical virtuosity will be unprepared.”
Read more here
From New York Review of Books, April 20, 2017 issue
We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.
From NYRB December 14th 2016
The concept of evil has fallen out of favor in our disenchanted world. Its religious and superstitious connotations are permissible in horror movies, but otherwise often deemed embarrassing. Without some religious metaphysics it is hard to make sense of the idea that there are people who are intrinsically evil; it no longer seems plausible to many of us that people can be motivated by something that can be described as pure evil. Sustained cruelty is therefore often explained as sociopathy (the slick, psychopathic killers beloved of Hollywood), or a personality disorder stemming from some deep personal or social injury, or as some horribly warped conception of what is good. Even in the case of a mass murderer on the order of Joseph Stalin it has become part of his legend that he was emotionally scarred by having been a weak and sickly child with a brutally abusive father.